With our military resources, spending, and the rest of U.S. government involvement, we shifted our main effort to Iraq in late 2002, and we didn’t come back to Afghanistan until well into 2009. “It’s just a fact,” McKiernan notes. “I won’t comment on whether it was right or wrong, and, indeed, it is probably too soon to say. There were tactical successes in Afghanistan during those years, but our strategies and implementing policies certainly had some shortcomings.”
McKiernan doesn’t “like to criticize political and military leaders,” he emphasizes. “You do what you think is right at the time, and I find some of the sniping we do in this country very distasteful. I don’t find it helpful in [establishing] what America stands for and what we’re trying to achieve.”
But he identifies plenty of mistakes and issues that have beleaguered the American mission. The aforementioned shift in emphasis to Iraq might be most important, and this had a number of corollary effects as well. The general suggests, for instance, that “the United States looked at [NATO] as a way of bringing in other Western assets while the focus of the United States was on Iraq.” The caveats and operational-capability limitations of NATO forces, however, made them inadequate substitutes for American forces.
Further, McKiernan argues that the U.S. never fully reconsidered its objectives and mission once al-Qaeda had been pushed out of Afghanistan. The U.S. had to help restore order, and he suggests that “we never really shifted to a whole-of-government approach,” which the country needed. “Nation building, counterinsurgency, government support, or whatever you want to call it” are all buzzwords McKiernan doesn’t like to sling about. “But this doesn’t diminish the fact that a stronger commitment to rebuilding political order and security in Afghanistan would have required a commitment the U.S. did not and still has not made.”
McKiernan sees another problem: “We haven’t been particularly successful in explaining what we’re doing in Afghanistan,” he says. “Sometimes we try to explain our presence in terms that mean certain things to our own population: democratic government, equal rights, universal education, women’s rights, rule of law, justice systems. These don’t resonate in the same way with the peoples of Afghanistan, especially in the rural areas where the insurgency is strongest.” This disconnect both diminishes American support for our mission and produces a narrative that’s intended to appeal to Western supporters rather than meeting the needs or desires of Afghans. McKiernan sees potential for stability in Afghanistan, but “in our lifetime,” that will not mean the Western-style democracy we might desire (or even anything like the fragile sectarian democratic order in Iraq).
Another strategic failure McKiernan notes is that none of America’s leaders recognized the full complexity of the region’s security problems: “It is much more complicated than the Taliban and their linkages to al-Qaeda. There’s a nexus of threats in that region motivated by different interests, whether they are religious, criminal, or political. Most of the time, I think, they boil down to seeking power — but it is much more complicated than a monolithic Taliban allied with al-Qaeda.” Early defeat of the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan obviously hasn’t made Afghanistan peaceful, but McKiernan suggests that in the early years of the conflict, the West didn’t adequately understand the wide range of security issues.