Our Failure in Afghanistan

The 9/11 Hearings are again focusing attention on the events that led up to the terrorist attacks. Equal attention needs to be focused on the Administrationís handling of the war on terrorism after 9/11, and particularly the invasion of Afghanistan. With the passage of time, it is increasingly apparent that the U.S. did not achieve a victory in Afghanistan, but instead missed what was probably a one-time chance to largely destroy Al Qaeda. Arguably, the Administrationís decision to limit U.S. troop deployment to 5,000 troops was a critical tactical mistake, and has caused a significant setback in the war against terrorism.

The first battle in the war against terrorism was the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11. Afghanistan offered the U.S. a unique opportunity. Concentrated in this one country were as many as several thousand hard-core Al Qaeda-trained terrorists, as well as Osama bin Laden and most of Al Qaedaís senior leadership and operational infrastructure. The United States had an opportunity to possibly strike a decisive blow against Al Qaeda, Ė we could have almost entirely destroyed its leadership and organization. And striking that blow, destroying Al Qaeda and killing bin Laden, would have been an unmistakable message to terrorists the world over Ė state or non-state, if you attack the United States you will be destroyed. This would have been a clear victory in the first and most important battle in the war against terrorism. We had one chance to possibly destroy Pandoraís box.

Unfortunately this wasnít the outcome. We disrupted their operational base in Afghanistan and certainly caused casualties, but we didnít capture or kill bin Laden and we came nowhere near destroying Al Qaeda. As CIA Director George Tenetís recent testimony to Congress noted, Al Qaeda has regenerated and evolved, becoming more decentralized and widespread. When we do finally capture or kill bin Laden, it will have a significantly smaller impact on the war against terror; bin Laden and his followers have spent the last two years building an organization that will live beyond him. By any definition, letting bin Laden and Al Qaeda get away were terrible setbacks in the war against terrorism. We allowed the terrorists to attack our country and largely get away with it. We didnít destroy Pandoraís box; we kicked it open, and scattered its contents around the world.

What is frustrating, and reflects poorly on the Administration, is how the U.S. lost this critical first battle. Sometimes things donít always work out as planned. Sometimes you can take very precaution, try to allow for every possibility, and sometimes it just doesnít work out. But this isnít why we failed in Afghanistan - we didnít take every precaution, or for that matter hardly any precautions. Instead, we failed because the Administration, for some reason, refused to deploy the massive, overwhelming force of our U.S. Military. Killing or capturing bin Laden and destroying Al Qaeda was primarily left to the Afghani fighters of the Northern Alliance, the very same force that had been defeated by the Taliban. Only 5,000 U.S. troops were used in Afghanistan, inserted at the very end of the campaign. U.S. troops were outnumbered by the Taliban, and barely surpassed the force level of Al Qaeda. We deployed about 1% of our available military resources for what was arguably the most important task our military has undertaken in fifty years, and kept 99% sitting on the sidelines.

To my knowledge, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld hasnít directly answered the question of why he limited the deployment of U.S. troops to 5,000. I think there is a strong argument to be made that he was trying to use the Afghanistan campaign to prove-out Neo Conservative theories; achieving a victory in Afghanistan with U.S. technology and airpower instead of U.S troops would prove our ability to fight inexpensive wars with few casualties, and so allow us to fight more wars. Perhaps, even after 9/11, the Administration still believed Iraq to be a larger threat than Al Qaeda, and so limited the resources committed to Afghanistan to make sure the 150,000 troops needing for the eventual invasion of Iraq would be available. Maybe Rumsfeld just miscalculated, and really did think 5,000 U.S. troops in conjunction with the Northern Alliance would be more than enough to insure we killed or captured bin Laden and destroyed Al Qaeda.

Regardless of why the decision was made, it didnít work Ė we didnít kill bin Laden or by any means destroy Al Qaeda. There was a time when Republican Presidents were known for their prudence and caution, particularly when it came to the security of the United States; they recognized that particularly with national security, you only get one chance to get it right, and if you get it wrong our country could be at risk for years. Only deploying 5,000 troops to try to kill or capture the man that had just killed 3,000 Americans wasnít prudence or caution Ė it was madness, a huge gamble which failed. This Administrationís handling of the invasion of Afghanistan will go down in U.S. military history as one of the greatest and most damaging tactical calculations of all times. Understanding this failure surely deserves a commission of its own.

Posted by at March 23, 2004 4:12 PM