Chris Alexander is a former diplomat and politician
The moments of dread and despair return quickly. Over my six years in Afghanistan, two as Canada’s ambassador, four as deputy head of the United Nations mission, we mostly saw good things happening – schools opened, wells drilled. But many of us also knew our strategy was wrong.
In retrospect, I feel as if I spent all those years and many afterward in Afghanistan trying to get this strategy changed – without success. At several points, there was hope for a new approach – when U.S. president George W. Bush finally accepted that suicide bombers and Taliban combat units were coming from Pakistan’s “tribal areas”; when French President Nicolas Sarkozy called out Pakistani duplicity at the Paris conference; when Barack Obama surged, then found Osama bin Laden a stone’s throw away from Pakistan’s West Point; when Donald Trump tweeted about Pakistan’s “lies & deceit … They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan.” Then, each time, the stone rolled, Sisyphus-style, back to the bottom of the hill.
The reality was that our mandates in Afghanistan – as UN, as NATO, as national representatives – never extended further. No political leader has been willing to invest in a regional strategy robust enough to end the conflict.
So doom seemed to lie just over the horizon. After a few months in the country, I started to see it was literally across the border, in the safe houses and training grounds used to prepare Taliban, Haqqani and other terrorists in neighbouring Pakistan. If only we could keep them there.
Glancing through the Afghanistan Papers brought back some draining emotions. By releasing 611 documents summarizing as many interviews with key U.S. and British players in the 18-year-old war, The Washington Post opened a big window on an unfinished drama. There’s only one major conclusion to draw from this kaleidoscope of views – some defensive, others facile, a very few clear-eyed: bad strategy can have nine lives.
Inside Washington’s Beltway, at NATO, in Whitehall and in many other capitals, a policy approach that failed to bring peace – failed even to name the war’s causes – has lingered.
Obviously, there is a deliberate echo here of the Pentagon Papers – the official history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967, which The New York Times began to publish on June 13, 1971. On one level, the Afghanistan Papers tap into deep-seated American wariness about what office-holders might be doing behind their backs, especially in wartime.
But there is a massive difference. The Pentagon Papers exposed a bombing campaign in Laos and Cambodia, as well as coastal raids on North Vietnam, that had not previously come to broad public attention. The Afghanistan Papers, by contrast, confirm what Afghans, Americans and citizens of most NATO countries have known for some time: This campaign has been marked by incoherent strategy and deflection of responsibility.
The incoherence started early. Illegal detention and torture stained U.S. credibility. Thousands of civilian casualties caused by U.S. air strikes cost the mission support. U.S. failure to support disarmament, while simultaneously allowing U.S. commanders to grease the palms of local power-brokers, put new, well-armed wildcards onto the landscape and benefited the Taliban.
The deflection of responsibility has also been well-documented.
As the Bush administration cynically segued, almost without missing a beat, from short-lived success in Afghanistan to invading Iraq, they drew U.S. talent and attention away from the region where 9/11 had been planned to a country where Salafist terrorism had been virtually unknown.
In retrospect, Mr. Bush’s foolish claim on May 1, 2003, that major combat operations in Iraq were at an end (under a “Mission Accomplished” banner, no less) – a few hours after U.S. defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld had made a similar boast in Kabul – were a red flag for all those in the Gulf, Iran, Pakistan and elsewhere aching for a chance to punish the U.S. for invading Iraq.
More than 16 years later, it is still difficult to understate the toxic impact the war in Iraq had, almost overnight, on prospects for peace in Afghanistan. The 2003 Iraq war divided NATO. It threw up a wall of suspicion and distrust at the UN little more than one year after the Security Council had unanimously backed US-led military action in Afghanistan. By pivoting to Iraq, the U.S. deflected responsibility for institution-building, peace, reconstruction and stability in Afghanistan to the UN and NATO. But it was responsibility without authority. After the 9/11 attacks, as the Afghanistan Papers remind us, it was Canadian ambassador David Wright who first suggested Article 5 of the NATO Charter be invoked.
When NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) began to assume responsibility for security in every region of Afghanistan, a Canadian general, Rick Hillier, was in command. But there was no high-level definitive strategy session, with leaders present, on war aims or how to bring al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders, who had mostly scuttled across the border into Pakistan, to justice. Instead, in the fields of Afghanistan, the strategic initiative was deflected back to its default setting, with Pakistan’s military calling the shots. They lost no time in re-launching their proxy war over the 2004-05 fighting season.
For most of this, the U.S. bears principal, but not sole, responsibility. The Afghanistan Papers for all the countries involved would show a cacophony of clashing views and self-serving policies.
So what should have happened?
The Afghanistan Papers are rife with what-ifs and might-have-beens. Barnett Rubin, an Obama-era adviser, rightly notes it was a mistake to exclude the Taliban from the late 2001 Bonn conference, which gave then Afghan President Hamid Karzai his initial mandate.
American diplomat Richard Haass is right to say that a U.S. military force of 20,000 to 25,000 in Afghanistan in 2003 – as the invasion of Iraq unfolded – might have deterred or delayed a Taliban comeback. Counter-narcotics policy was a whiplash of contradictions. U.S. spending often went in the wrong directions. Yet none of these failures or mistakes – including many more made by Canada, other allies, the UN and Afghans themselves – was fatal. But even if these shortcomings had been corrected, Afghanistan would still be at war.
As the Special Inspector-General for Afghanistan Reconstruction’s (SIGAR) seven Lessons Learned reports show, enduring progress on most fronts will not happen without a peace settlement. In 2008, the U.S. and the international community embraced “talking to the Taliban” as a worthwhile objective – on the mistaken assumption, fed initially by Britain, that the Taliban’s leadership, military council and associated groups were autonomous decision-makers, like the Provisional IRA before 2007, and capable of deciding and delivering a ceasefire.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani sought to engineer a ceasefire at Eid al-Fitr in 2018. It didn’t last long. Since then, the U.S. has led several rounds of peace talks with Taliban representatives which, absurdly, have excluded the Afghan government.
After a brief lull in the first half of 2019, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA, of which I was deputy head from 2005 to 2009) in July recorded the “highest number of civilian casualties that the Mission has recorded in a single month.”
So why haven’t peace talks to date yielded fruit? Afghanistan certainly doesn’t need more empty talk with powerless Taliban placeholders, let alone another decade of drift back toward civil war on the scale it endured in 1992-96 and Syria has suffered in recent years.
Afghanistan needs one thing: a peace settlement with Pakistan.
Since 2001, nearly 2,400 U.S. soldiers have died in Afghanistan – almost 1,900 in hostile action. More than 1,000 from other NATO countries have been killed, including 158 Canadians. Yet, we still refuse to hold the principal belligerent, the Taliban’s puppet-masters in neighbouring Pakistan, accountable for their two-decade-long proxy war, which is now escalating.
When Vladimir Putin’s Russia invaded Ukraine – first Crimea, later Donbass – the United States, Canada, the European Union and other allies slapped far-reaching sanctions on those in the Kremlin, in other Russian state institutions and in some Russian companies who had perpetrated this outrage, which increasingly harks back to the crimes of Hitler and Stalin.
Many countries have sanctioned Iran and Syria as state sponsors of terror. The EU has just opened the door to a Magnitsky-type regime, just as the U.S. Congress moves to sanction those in Beijing now trifling with the fates of Hong Kong and millions of Uyghurs.
Yet there has been no corresponding move to go to the root of Afghanistan’s conflict. When Richard Nixon decided to bring an end to the Vietnam War, he didn’t talk to the Viet Cong; he negotiated with Hanoi.
The Korean War Armistice Agreement was signed by a U.S. general and North Korean General Nam II, a Russian-born officer who represented both the Korean People’s Army and the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army, expatriate forces deployed by Beijing.
When Nazi Germany and later the Soviet Union invaded Poland in September 1939, Britain and Canada – joined later by the U.S., Free France and many others – went to war against the Nazi regime and its allies in Italy and Japan.
To get Russia out of Ukraine, we need to embarrass, pressure and ultimately weaken Mr. Putin, not gab with his thugs in Donetsk or his theatrical envoy to the Normandy Format.
A peace settlement requires all belligerent parties to be at the table.
U.S. failure to confront Pakistan over its proxy war in Afghanistan has arguably been the greatest blow to U.S. strategic prestige so far in the 21st century, a sin of omission and an act of self-harm on a par with the post-2003 Iraq war.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. Bush said, “We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbour them.” Within weeks of that statement Osama bin Laden, most key al-Qaeda leaders and the surviving Taliban command structure were back on Pakistani soil.
Yet, in 2004, Mr. Bush named Pakistan a “major non-NATO ally.” Both Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama delivered billions in aid to Pakistan, often with few strings attached. The U.S. military relied on Pakistan as its principal overland resupply route, giving the Taliban’s backers massive leverage over Washington.
After Mr. Obama ordered the raid in which bin Laden was killed on May 2, 2011, those who had sheltered him for a decade in Pakistan, including generals Pervez Musharraf and Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, were again given a free pass. Even after Pakistan jailed a key U.S. intelligence source, Washington moved to normalize relations, as it is doing again today.
To outsiders this strategic incoherence is as incomprehensible as it is to Afghans, to many who served in uniform in Afghanistan, and, increasingly, to the U.S. public. Why has Washington cut Islamabad so much slack – over and over again? For one, the prospect of losing Pakistan – a nuclear power that helped defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s – has caused paralysis. For another, they have refused to see, in that charming, hopeful way U.S. generals and diplomats have, that a putative friend has become a duplicitous blackguard.
Today, the greatest gift U.S. leaders could give their country would be to subject Pakistan’s military to the same sanctions Russia now faces for far lesser crimes.
For now, a peace settlement with Pakistan seems a long way off.
Prime Minister Imran Khan has in the past been one of the Taliban’s most vociferous backers. He is now sitting back while the army chief who won him political power extinguishes media freedoms, while orchestrating the Taliban’s new push for power. As a result, massive protests led by the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) against, among other grievances, forced disappearances of Pakistani citizens have been muffled by media blackout.
The PTM’s mottos are “the ones responsible for terror are the ones in uniform” and “what kind of freedom is this?” We should all take them to heart.
Instead of letting Pakistan’s military leaders run down the clock, we should hold them to account with sanctions. Again and again, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence and other power brokers have underestimated the determination of Afghans not to be a colony.
They have failed to grasp the extent of their self-isolation and growing domestic outrage over decades of misguided regional policies. They have also been blind to the trends now moving against them, two decades later, as democracies wake up to the threat of proxy wars and surveillance state dictators.
Now, Pakistan’s proxy warriors – the Taliban’s real bosses – deserve to face the same accountability for their atrocities in Afghanistan that Mr. Putin’s Russia faces for illegal occupation of parts of Ukraine; Bashar al-Assad’s Syria faces for genocide against its own people; and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s Iran increasingly faces for its proxy wars in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Gaza and elsewhere.
The current U.S. administration and Congress, NATO allies and partners must galvanize a peace settlement in Afghanistan by imposing tough sanctions on those who continue to sponsor the military machine that killed tens of thousands of Afghans and 3,500 NATO soldiers.
The context is right, as China, Iran and Russia all face increasingly robust sanctions for external proxy wars and ruthless internal repression. The consequences of not taking this step would be unacceptable.
The Afghanistan Papers include this passage from Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to (at different times) Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, where he quotes Gen. Kayani, saying, “You know, I know you think we’re hedging our bets. You’re right, we are, because one day you’ll be gone again, it’ll be like Afghanistan the first time, you’ll be done with us, but we’re still going to be here because we can’t actually move the country.”
Every one of us who engaged deeply with senior Pakistani military and intelligence leaders over the past two decades can recount a similar story of troubled officers essentially seeking permission to continue unleashing terrible violence in Afghanistan, while reserving chaos, extrajudicial killings and dysfunctional government for the home front in Pakistan.
We have to cancel that permission. Pakistan has to be held to the same standards we expect of other countries, especially after all that the world has invested in Afghanistan’s future.
The time for incoherence and deflection is rapidly running out.
If the UN and its members were today serious about peace in Afghanistan, their next Security Council resolution would be: “On the Situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan” – and it would give the existing Taliban sanctions regime the bite it needs.
It’s never too late to do the right thing.