The Taliban Are Back. What Now?
The long road to fixing Afghanistan winds through Pakistan.
What is going on in Afghanistan?
In the past week, Taliban fighters staged a prison raid and freed at least 1,000 of their brethren. Soon after, they mounted offensives on seven villages and are moving in on the southern stronghold of Kandahar. One of the fiercest Taliban leaders, Maulavi Jalaluddin Haqqani, a major U.S. ally during the days of resistance to Soviet occupiers, is bringing in foreign jihadists from all over the region to help his cause.
Meanwhile, Taliban attacks are up considerably from last year despite increases in NATO and Afghan troop levels. Gen. Dan McNeill, who recently finished a 16-month tour as NATO commander in Afghanistan, said last week that we need 400,000 troops to control the country. There are now just 110,000 (including 58,000 from the still-green Afghan National Army) and few prospects for recruiting many more—none for remotely approaching McNeill's desired head count.
Finally, troop numbers mean little as long as Pakistan continues to give the Taliban fighters sanctuary in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, just across Afghanistan's eastern border. And the Bush administration has failed to convince the Pakistani authorities to crack down.
How did this disaster happen, and what is to be done about it now?
The disaster happened for a simple reason: The U.S. government—and this goes well beyond the Bush administration—has never given a whit about Afghanistan per se.
President Ronald Reagan and his CIA chief, William Casey, gave massive military assistance to the mujahedeen who were fighting off the Soviet occupiers. But once Mikhail Gorbachev withdrew his troops in 1989, Americans lost interest. The rest is dreadful history: The Taliban moved in, and so did Osama Bin Laden; the attacks of Sept. 11 followed.
In a sense, Reagan's indifference was understandable. The battle of the 1980s, as he (and, let's face it, nearly all of us) saw it, was a Cold War campaign. Afghanistan by itself was regarded as a backwater. The ultimate aims of our Islamist collaborators, and what they might do to the country afterward, were shrugged off.
One would think that subsequent presidents might have learned a lesson from the experience, but George W. Bush did not. CIA Director George Tenet and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld mounted a brilliant campaign, along with Northern Alliance rebels, to oust the Taliban from Kabul and other Afghan cities. The regime fell in mid-November 2001, and Hamid Karzai's new government, backed by an international coalition, took office a month later. Remarkably, we once again moved on. Some U.S. troops stayed behind, but most of them—and nearly all intelligence assets—were transferred north to prepare for the invasion of Iraq.
The move was the product of an apolitical view of warfare—just as, 17 months later, President Bush would declare "mission accomplished" in Iraq on the grounds that Saddam Hussein had been ousted *, ignoring the strategic goal of stabilizing a new, more democratic regime.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan by Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images.