Magazine article Foreign Policy

What Went Wrong? We Asked Everyone from an Ex-President of Pakistan to a Former Afghan Spy Chief to Weigh In

Magazine article Foreign Policy

What Went Wrong? We Asked Everyone from an Ex-President of Pakistan to a Former Afghan Spy Chief to Weigh In

Article excerpt


Trying to do the impossible

Many argue that the problem with the Afghanistan intervention is that it wasn't done right: If only we had tackled the right warlords, pursued the correct counterinsurgency strategy, fixed Pakistan, and surged earlier, we could have succeeded. But they are wrong. The problem is much more basic: The West was trying to do something it couldn't do, and it was trying to do something it didn't need to do. Its basic assumptions were wrong. Afghanistan did not pose an existential threat to international security; the problem was not that it was a "failed state." The West always lacked the knowledge, power, or legitimacy to transform Afghanistan fundamentally. But policymakers were too afraid, too hypnotized by fashionable theories, too isolated from Afghan reality, and too guilty about the past to notice that the more ambitious Afghanistan mission was impossible and unnecessary.


Marginalizing the Pashtuns

The United States made two historical blunders: abandoning its interests in Pakistan and Afghanistan after the 1989 Soviet withdrawal, and failing to recognize the Taliban once they came to power in 1996, which strengthened militancy in the region. Had the United States and European countries established relations with the Taliban, perhaps we could have jointly put pressure on them to give up Osama bin Laden, and the 9/11 attacks might not have taken place. After invading Afghanistan and defeating the Taliban and al Qaeda, the United States made its third mistake: It failed to convert its military victory over the Taliban into a political victory. Rather than bringing the Pashtuns, Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, into the government, the West installed a government in Kabul dominated by the Northern Alliance, and particularly the Panjshiris, who make up only a small percentage of Afghanistan's population. I coined a phrase at that time that could have been the basis of a smarter policy: "All Taliban are Pashtuns, but all Pashtuns are not Taliban." If we had taken more Pashtuns on board, they would have helped us defeat the Taliban.


Allowing a sanctuary in Pakistan

The failings of the Afghanistan mission are many, but the failure to address the insurgent sanctuary in Pakistan tops the list. As U.S. officials have pointed out to me, the Taliban and other insurgent groups use their safe haven in Pakistan to live, train, rearm, and conduct strategic and operational planning. And they do it with some government backing: Individuals from Pakistan's spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and the Pakistani military provide lethal and non-lethal support to Afghan insurgents. In fact, Pakistan is running one of the most successful covert-action programs today against a major power--and against the United States, no less. The U.S. failure to stop Pakistan is particularly egregious because the United States was involved in an almost identical program more than 30 years ago--with the ISI--against the Soviets in Afghanistan. In his book The Bear Trap, Mohammad Yousaf, who headed the ISI's covert war in Afghanistan against the Soviets, wrote that the insurgent sanctuary in Pakistan was essential to defeating the Soviets and winning the insurgency. Sadly, Yousaf's revelation remains just as true today.


Believing Pakistan could change

Afghans still aren't sure whether it was a mistake or a calculated foreign-policy gambit for the West to support a Pakistan that wants NATO and democracy to fail in Afghanistan and is only interested in a resettlement formula that will create significant space for its proxy force, the Taliban. Whatever the case, the United States has been slow to recognize that the Pakistani Army and intelligence establishment have a long history of shared goals and objectives with militant extremism, even as they sell those ties as a strategic asset to the West. …

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