The forgotten war

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When Americans talk of “the war” these days, they mean the one being fought in Iraq, a war that has been percolating for three and a half years. But Americans – and a broad multinational coalition — have been fighting another war, in Afghanistan, even longer than in Iraq. As of last month, NATO assumed the control of operations in Afghanistan.

For most of the American public, the Afghan conflict was almost forgotten for a while as the violence unfolding in Iraq grabbed most of the headlines, and, to be sure, the priority of the Pentagon.

But more recently, the Taliban has been making a not-so-discreet comeback (along with the resurgence of opium), waging attacks against Afghan government troops and coalition forces. The almost-forgotten conflict is once again making headlines.

The Bush administration decided to wage war in Afghanistan shortly after the September 11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, in order to oust the Taliban who ruled the country and offered unlimited support to Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda terrorist organization. So what happened? What went wrong? Why did the United States get it so wrong in Afghanistan? Why was there such a misjudgment in the war planning? The answers to all the above questions may be found in looking at who the primary architects of the war were. Indeed, they are the very same ones who planned the Iraq campaign: Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld, his deputy Paul Wolfowitz, Vice President Dick Cheney and a handful of carefully selected close and trusted subordinates. The president himself was not interested in the small details. Bush was more of a “show me the big picture” type of leader. As was the case in Iraq. Do we not find a similar modus operandi in the two conflicts? Go in light, go in quick, cause the maximum damage to the enemy in a Rumsfeldian blitzkrieg, but then completely fail in post combat planning. Although different in its execution, in many ways the Iraqi campaign was a mirror of the Afghani one. Granted, the terrain is very different; Afghanistan is made up of sharp mountain ridges, littered with deep caves where al-Qaeda and the Taliban could hide from heavy US aerial bombing and artillery. On the other hand Iraq is mostly flat and American tanks were able to race from the Kuwaiti border to Baghdad in record time. In studying both conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan – as undoubtedly military historians will do in the years to come, hoping to extract lessons of what went right and what went wrong — what is already emerging is that Rumsfeld wanted quick victories to be obtained through the use of special forces, light, rapid moving units, skip the details. Full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes. In years to come, historians will scrutinize every document, every minutes of war preparation meetings, every inter-departmental memo and pre-war document as they become declassified. What they will most likely conclude is that while the initial planning for the war-– the actual battle plans for the invasion of both Afghanistan and Iraq were brilliantly executed — the post-war administration of both countries –- now under US tutelage and therefore the legal and moral responsibility of the United States, was utterly disastrous.

And the reasons? Lack of attention to what happens the first day after combat operations are over. James Fallows, a noted Atlantic Monthly national affairs correspondent, notes in his book Blind into Baghdad that the Bush administration messed up in Iraq by failing to give attention to details: “It will be years before we fully understand how intelligent people convinced themselves of this. My guess is that three factors will be important parts of the explanation.

“One is the panache of Donald Rumsfeld. He was near the zenith of his influence as the war was planned. His emphasis on the vagaries of life was all the more appealing within his circle because of his jauntiness and verve. Fallows goes on to say: “The third factor is the nature of the president himself. Leadership is always a balance making the large choices and being aware of details. George W. Bush has an obvious preference for large choices. This gave him his chance for greatness after the September 11, attacks. But his lack of all curiosity about significant details may be his fatal weakness. When the decisions made during this time are assessed and judged, the administration will be found wanting for its carelessness. Because of warnings it chose to ignore, it squandered American prestige, fortune, and lives.”

While it is important to point out that Fallows was writing about Iraq, the same can be said of Afghanistan. In both instances, the US did not go in with enough manpower to guarantee that life in Kabul as in Baghdad could return to normal once the actual fighting phase ended. In his research, Fallows found that, “According to the standard military model, warfare unfolds through four phases: ‘deterrence and engagement,’ ‘seize the initiative,’ ‘decisive operations,’ and ‘post conflict.’ War College directives clearly state that planning for Phase IV (post combat) ‘had to start as soon as possible,’ well before Phase III (‘decisive operations’).”

This means that planning for the post-combat phase should begin far ahead of the start of the war. This did not happen in Afghanistan and it did not happen in Iraq. In both cases, the signature on the architect’s blueprints are the same.