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.
It was an early example of a notorious pattern that would later show up in Iraq: an administration that seemed unwilling to allow facts to alter its ideology, and in which Rumsfeld often appeared to follow his own drummer whether the president knew or not. In the lead-up to the Iraq invasion, Rumsfeld halved the number of troops his brass had wanted, and then denied the existence of the insurgency for months after it had started.
On Oct. 11, 2001, only four days after the start of the U.S. Afghan campaign Operation Enduring Freedom, Bush held a news conference in which he had implicitly criticized his revered father, George H.W. Bush, whose administration had discarded Afghanistan after the Soviet collapse. America, the younger Bush said, “should learn a lesson from the previous engagement in the Afghan area: that we should not just simply leave after a military objective has been achieved.” But that is mainly what his administration did.
Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida fighters, cornered in the Tora Bora region by U.S. troops in December 2001, were able to flee the fighting and escape into Pakistan. Rumsfeld went ahead with his pre-9-11 plans to disband the Army War College's Peacekeeping Institute, and held up needed backup including several thousand foreign Italian carabinieri. Mitch Daniels, then Bush’s budget director, quietly slashed a congressional proposal for agricultural and educational assistance to Afghanistan from $150 million to $40 million. In its 2003 budget proposal, the administration included no money for Afghanistan at all.
The administration had already moved onto other fronts. Though he was at most a neocon fellow traveler, Rumsfeld was eager to reassert American power around the world and leave the cloud of Vietnam behind, as he made clear during his confirmation hearings in early 2001. "We want to be so powerful and so forward-looking that it is clear to others that they ought not to be damaging their neighbors when it affects our interests, and they ought not to be doing things that are imposing threats and dangers to us," he said. As Newt Gingrich, then a member of Rumsfeld’s defense policy board, said to me in the fall of 2001, explaining the eagerness to take on Saddam: "How do you send the message of strength as Ronald Reagan sent it, that we don't allow these things? You inflict damage." The “shock and awe” campaign in Iraq was just around the corner.
Meanwhile, through the mid-2000s, even as the Taliban were quietly creeping back, Rumsfeld would extol the virtues of "self-reliance" for Kabul, how quickly Afghanistan was recovering under America's "modest footprint." In October of 2006, after my colleagues at Newsweek and I authored a feature story about the return of the Taliban called “The Rise of Jihadistan,” Rumsfeld asked his aide, Matt Latimer, to issue a strong rebuttal to it.
In his recent memoir, Known and Unknown, Rumsfeld does not mention the meeting with Dobbins and glosses over his thinking on nation-building. “If some later contended that we never had a plan for full-fledged nation building or that we under-resourced such a plan, they were certainly correct,” he wrote. “We did not go there to try to bring prosperity to every corner of Afghanistan.”
What the Bush team never seemed to appreciate is how unfinished the fight in Afghanistan really was in those critical months at the end of 2001 and early 2002. In many respects, Afghanistan’s destiny was war, and it would require a full-on effort to wrest the country from that destiny. Afghanistan's soaring mountains and ungodly, arrow- like ridges explained why war had been so enduring and successful, why Afghanistan could not just lie down to a conqueror as other lands have, and why warlords continued to control separate regions.
Bush had relied on warlords as his proxies in Afghanistan—and, for a brief period, when the Taliban were being ousted—they were America’s principal allies. But well after the war ended, the administration continued to undercut the legitimacy of the government it sought to shore up by persisting in its support of the warlords. “The warlords have been in fact doing their business as usual: the persecution of minorities, the usual patterns of looting humanitarian resources,” an aid worker told me when I visited in early 2002. As U.S. Col. Wayland Parker, who led the tiny U.S. observer contingent in Kabul—just 36 strong—conceded to me, they were really just “thugs.”
“You fundamentally don’t have militias. You have gangs. That’s what we’re dealing with,” Parker said. Without physical security, fear continued to paralyze an economy already ground into the earth. Even then, in the early months after the Taliban were decimated, longtime observers feared a repeat of the country’s descent into civil war in the early ‘90s. “I’m quite stunned by how you can step 10 minutes out of Kabul and the international presence is invisible,” Michael Semple of the U.N. told me then. The Afghans, he said, “have to be able to eat the peace, to be clothed by the peace, to be given shelter by the peace.”
They never could—and now it may be too late. Dobbins, among others, believes the problem was not just the “under-resourcing” of the postwar effort there, but the failure to keep pressure on Pakistan, which has turned into a giant safe haven, over its historical support for the Taliban. “The CIA wasn’t worried about the Taliban. They were worried about al-Qaida,” Dobbins said. “So their exclusive focus was on tracking down remaining Arab extremists. … The Pakistanis never abandoned, from our standpoint, the illusion that they could draw a line between good terrorists and bad terrorists.”
And what of the future? It remains unlikely there will be a full Taliban takeover. There may not even be a full-blown civil war. But there could be a drawn-out fight in which America will remain marginally involved for many years. This standoff could go on for 40 or 50 years, a retired U.S. general who served in Afghanistan told me in 2006. He said there wouldn't be a Taliban takeover as long as NATO is there. Instead this is going to be like the tri-border region of South America, or like Kashmir -- a long, drawn-out stalemate where everyone carves out spheres of influence. Today, that still remains perhaps the likeliest prospect.