In November 2008, Barack Obama was elected president. He had opposed the Iraq War and had denounced at the time the strategic error of opening a second front—all the more that this was an unnecessary war. In addition, he had announced that priority would be placed on the war in Afghanistan and after a lengthy consultation period, he chose a new approach. On the suggestion of Generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, he decided to adopt a counterinsurgency strategy and to reinforce military presence on the ground with thirty thousand additional men. To reassure his public opinion, Obama announced withdrawal from Iraq—under certain conditions—starting in 2011.
But to restore a situation so badly started more than a half-dozen years earlier and from which the adversary had largely benefitted during last years (2004-2008) was no easy task. What were the necessary (but nonsufficient) criteria? First, time was needed. But from the start, an unalterable commitment had to be made to be out in three years. Then troops were needed: thirty thousand men were therefore the bare minimum, not even to improve the correlation of forces but simply so it would not deteriorate. Above all, a government was needed, one that would try to improve the economic situation of a considerable part of the population. The one that had been placed in power was characterized by the corruption of a clique that made it a habit of co-opting potential opponents by paying them off. In such conditions, how would it be possible to win over the rural population, that is, the country’s majority?
In addition, the situation had been made even worse by two serious disadvantages. The war had been mainly waged by foreign troops, whose rejection by the local population, grown stronger, had been skillfully exploited by the Taliban. How long can foreign armies claim to be fighting for the liberation of a people? Above all, the Taliban had found assistance and refuge in Pakistan; a state receiving US financial aid was backing its donors’ very adversaries. This dilemma was never solved, nor even approached (except during the secret operation carried out in Pakistani territory to eliminate Osama bin Laden).
This was the lame Catch-22 situation of US troops in Afghanistan. (It is true that Pakistan’s nuclear status constituted an obstacle to applying pressure on the country.)
One last element can be added to this picture shedding light on the US failure in Afghanistan. The Afghan army, which was getting classic training (unsuited to hunting down the Taliban), was made up, according to US estimates, of thirty thousand operational soldiers out of a total of one hundred thirty-four thousand (2008), that is, no more than twenty-five percent. The soldiers’ wages were one hundred sixty-five dollars a month, which could explain the attractiveness of the military function but did not contribute to their willingness to fight. For years, the police force had been a plague for its behavior and corruption. Its recruits were much worse than the army’s. According to US sources, forty-seven percent of them had not completed their training period.
Something that is remarkable about US democracy is related to its capacity in times of crisis to take rigorous stock and to act. This was the case regarding Iraq in 2006 with the Baker-Hamilton report, and regarding Afghanistan, with General McChrystal’s lucid report. By comparison, in France we are a very long way off. For having given a rigorous account of the Afghan situation in a French daily, General Vincent Desportes, at the time director of the École de Guerre, the official body in charge of setting military doctrine, was upbraided by the Army Chief of Staff and lost his post. This type of attitude is a recipe for failure.
In his report (published on September 21, 2009 by the Washington Post), General McChrystal established, in substance:
- Wanting above all to protect US troops for fear of suffering casualties is partially the cause of collateral damage and has distanced the troops from the Afghan population, both psychologically and physically.
- The weakness of the state, the corruption, and the errors of the coalition has dissuaded the Afghans from supporting a government that has done so little for the population. The crisis of confidence with regard to a state that has guaranteed security, justice, and basic services so poorly, together with the absence of an economic outlook has facilitated the adversaries’ propaganda.
- In many areas, the existence of a Taliban shadow government has been found, which has the populations under its control. The Taliban are taking the lead, and are seeking to exercise even greater control over the population, breaking the coalition’s determination.
These were his proposals to improve the situation:
- To gain the initiative, put troops on the ground, protect the populations, and improve their living conditions.
- The coalition has an advantage over the Taliban: financial means to improve the situation in the rural areas.
- Success will depend, in the long run, on an effective administration perceived as being at the service of the population, and on reliable security forces.
The first panel of this tryptic was attempted but did not modify the situation for lack of both follow-up and men. The third panel was unrealistic from the start. The country’s administration was non-reformable.
Given these conditions, there has been very limited leeway. In fact, counterinsurgency was abandoned just one year after being attempted. Instead, the proven “ink blot” technique was applied, which consisted in cleaning up an area, then moving on to another. The southernmost province of Helmand was selected to be the theater of the new strategy. The “ink blot” method consists in spreading out from a center and pushing the adversary to the periphery. This of course requires that the adversary is not evasive. The Taliban, however, did not try to hold their ground. They preferred to withdraw and take the combat elsewhere, in particular to the province of Kandahar.
To occupy the ground lastingly and to change the populations’ living conditions while continuing to hunt the Taliban in the neighboring provinces, more troops would have been needed. Tactical victories were possible. But to take over administrative power on the ground at the scale of the country, at least half of which was controlled by the adversary, was hardly possible without more time and men, both of which were out of the question.
The differences openly expressed by General McChrystal and published in the Washington Post led to his resignation in 2010. By 2011, in my view (one unofficially shared by top-level officers on the ground), the war had been lost politically. Thereafter, it was no longer possible to foray outside of Kabul without taking considerable risks. The north of the country was invested as far as the Badakhshan province. As for the Taliban operations, by 2011 they were being carried out by several hundred men.
US objectives for 2014 were the following: to restore security, to improve the country’s administration, to create jobs, to develop the economy, and to fight against drug trafficking. None of these was reached. Meanwhile, Hamid Karzai, re-elected in 2009 under more than dubious conditions, would finally withdraw officially to make room for a fairly unpopular leader who would not be able to change anything fundamentally. The military situation remained just as poor.
Pakistan had shown its capacity to cause trouble in the fall of 2010 by preventing trucks essential to the coalition’s logistics from going through its territory. Not to mention the presence of Osama bin Laden, who had taken refuge there for a dozen years…
In 2015, when the death of Mullah Omar was announced (he had been dead for about two years), minor dissensions arose but not a serious crisis. Power was assumed by Mullah Akhtar Mansour. In November of the same year, a group of dissenting Taliban took as their leader Mullah Mohammad Rasoul. A month earlier, the Taliban had managed to seize for a brief moment the town of Kunduz, in the north of the country, showing their capacity to make trouble, even in the state’s urban strongholds. Kunduz was taken back thanks to US intervention, but this also meant that departure of US troops by the end of 2016 as promised by Barack Obama was no longer on the table. The generals demanded to have ten thousand men after this deadline, and the president authorized a few more than five-and-a-half thousand.
The war in Afghanistan was at a point of non-victory from the military point of view and of political failure, which could have easily changed into a military defeat if US troops were withdrawn. The Afghanistan problem, collateral damage of the Iraq War, had appeared to be solved in 2002.1 Nearly fifteen years later, it had turned out to be one more fiasco, after that of Iraq. Although it had been costly financially, it had not been so in terms of men, neither for the United States nor for the coalition allies. Nonetheless, like in Iraq, due to pressure from public opinion, some contingents were withdrawn (Spain’s, among others) showing the strong misgivings of public opinion experiencing the permanent anxiety diffused by the media, television in particular.
The last year of US presence will undoubtedly be remembered for its spectacular growth in urban attacks. What the United States called “Afpak” will have been, from 2001 to 2016, a complicated game of duplicity, with Pakistan, thanks to its atomic weapons, playing both sides to get substantial economic aid from Washington. Pakistan is a state in serious difficulty, which lost its competition with India a long time ago. While its army was fighting against its own Taliban, it never stopped supporting, and monitoring, with its intelligence services (ISI), the Afghan Taliban who were fighting the United States and their allies. A second constituent contradiction can be added to this one, namely, how, with foreign troops knowing nothing about the cultural context, could a war intended to consolidate an unpopular and corrupt power possibly be won?