Donald Rumsfeld made his first visit to Afghanistan in mid-December of 2001, shortly after the fall of the Taliban government. It was, perhaps, the last moment of unalloyed triumph in the decade-long conflict that was to become known as the “war on terror.” Scarcely eight weeks had passed since 9/11. The U.S. bombing campaign had begun on Oct. 7, 2001 -- 10 years ago this week -- and now the United States was in total control of Afghan cities. Using almost no ground troops, the U.S. military and its small proxy forces, the Northern Alliance, had crushed the Taliban by deploying GPS navigators and laser-targeting equipment to "paint" enemy locations for an armada of Stealth jets, gunships, and B-52 bombers ranging overhead. The surviving Taliban forces -- primitive fighters who often rode around in Toyota pickups -- had fled into the mountains.
Jim Dobbins, then the Bush administration’s special envoy to Afghanistan, met the Defense secretary at the airport to prep Rumsfeld for his meeting with newly installed Afghan leader Hamid Karzai and others. “He said, ‘What are they going to ask for?’ I said, ‘They’re going to ask for peacekeeping that’s not limited to Kabul,’” Dobbins recalled in an interview this week. “‘He said, ‘What do you think that would take?’ I said, ‘If it takes about 5,000 troops to stabilize Kabul, then I’d think 25,000 would be adequate to cover the other major cities.’ He sort of grimaced and went on to the next topic.’”
It was the beginning of a decade of policy failure in Afghanistan -- one that could yet culminate in a return to full-blown civil war after U.S. troops pull out in 2014, almost as if the past decade had never happened. Unharassed by foreign forces, free to roam the cities and cut deals with tribes and warlords, the defeated Taliban eventually came back in force. And despite a ratcheting up of the U.S. presence since Barack Obama took office, every indication now is that Taliban leaders are unwilling to talk peace—a refusal brutally punctuated by the recent assassination of Karzai’s envoy, former President Burhanuddin Rabbani—and are mainly waiting out America’s patience.
Rumsfeld had made clear that he opposed the whole idea of “nation-building” and peacekeeping. He believed it was too expensive and time-consuming for U.S. troops to be involved in that—or as his colleague, then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, famously put it, America doesn’t want to “have the 82nd Airborne escorting kids to kindergarten.”
Ten years later, the conclusion seems obvious: It turned out to be vastly more expensive not to do this.
Like most of the Bush team, the Defense chief's focus was on a fast handover to Afghan self-government and a turn toward other terror-generating states, especially Iraq. "When foreigners come in with international solutions to local problems, it can create a dependency," Rumsfeld explained in a February 2003 speech titled "Beyond Nation-Building." His remarks were scornful of previous United Nations efforts in Bosnia, Kosovo, and East Timor. “A long-term foreign presence in a country can be unnatural,” he said. “It is much like a broken bone. If it is not set properly at the outset, eventually, the muscles and tendons will grow around the break, and the body will adjust to the abnormal condition. This is what has happened in a number of places with a large foreign presence. Economies remain unreformed, distorted, and dependent. Educated young people make more money as drivers for foreign workers than as doctors or civil servants.”
Rumsfeld was also trying to spare President Bush the embarrassment of taking back much of what he said when he ran for president: that "nation-building" doesn't work, and that the world's only superpower should focus on big strategic tasks, like taking on the rogues' gallery of nations Bush had dubbed the "axis of evil," and leave the scut work of peacekeeping to smaller nations.
But even there Rumsfeld was resistant to the idea of expanding a security presence beyond Kabul at this critical moment. He didn’t have much time for NATO, having spurned the alliance’s unprecedented offer to invoke its Article 5 -- defining an attack on the U.S. as an attack on all members. Rumsfeld dispatched his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, to “old Europe” to say thanks but no thanks.
“There was a debate in the [White House] Situation Room a few weeks after Rumsfeld’s visit," Dobbins said. "[Then-Secretary of State] Colin Powell argued not to put in U.S. troops but simply to stop preventing others [NATO] from doing it. What Karzai was asking for was an international force to be deployed in Kabul. We were insisting it could not leave city limits. And fact that [Rumsfeld] was so adamantly opposed meant no volunteers from other nations.” For several years, a 4,500-strong, European-led international peacekeeping force was confined to the capital city.
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