The United States’ eleven-year involvement in Afghanistan has been a tumultuous experience, and recent months have been a microcosm of that: Afghan soldiers turned violently on Americans, and vice versa; the Taliban launched a spring offensive on Kabul; the Afghan army ably beat them back; and now, Afghanistan and the U.S. have finally signed a strategic-partnership agreement, defining their respective roles. Although the details of this agreement are still not available, it is a proper promise of long-term American security and support, and a development that one former commander is pleased to observe.
From 2008 to 2009, General David D. McKiernan commanded NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, which comprises the entire Western military force in Afghanistan. His work there (which preceded General Stanley McChrystal’s tenure) and his understanding of America’s military give him a perspective on the successes and failures of ISAF so far, and some insight into what the future might hold.
In my conversation with him in his Boston office, General McKiernan demonstrates a vast knowledge of the problems of Afghanistan, as well as a keen concern for the fate of the country and NATO’s mission there. “In my experience with many different operations in the military over the years, when you intervene on the ground in a country, ‘breaking the china’ in that country and changing the regional status quo, you then own the problem,” he says. The U.S. is therefore obligated, at the very least, to live up to the commitments it has made to Afghanistan’s civil and military leaders, including fulfilling the new strategic partnership by allocating sufficient funds, which will become a year-to-year concern. A military intervention such as the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 inevitably means the obliteration of a country’s existing political order, as chaotic or oppressive as that might be. Without a continuing commitment to restore some semblance of order and stability to Afghanistan, McKiernan argues, we will fail in our moral duty and abandon our strategic interests.
McKiernan isn’t overly sanguine about Afghanistan’s future or the idea of “nation building.” He is quick to note that, back in 2001, the United States’ sole objective was “gaining revenge on al-Qaeda.” In pursuing that, “we may have mistaken some rapid, early tactical successes for more permanent operational ones, without realizing the second- and third-order effects, and, most important, history,” he observes. “Afghanistan’s history of violence, instability, and chaos reflects many more threads than just the Taliban and al-Qaeda.” And recent individual, fatal events between American and Afghan forces, which have caused some commentators to turn completely on the mission, don’t alter his understanding of the place: He believes that the improvements made in the Afghan security forces far outweigh these isolated incidents of violence.
General McKiernan acknowledges that the United States didn’t shatter a pristine political order in 2001. In fact, he notes, we entered a country suffering civil-war conditions. This history only adds to our already monumental task of restoring some semblance of peace. “While Afghanistan is a country, it has never in its history been a nation-state,” he says. “It’s a mistake when people talk about the Afghan people,” he notes. “They should really be talking about the ‘peoples’ of Afghanistan, with a complex mix of family, clan, tribal, and ethnic equities exacerbated by over three decades of constant war.” But given the situation after a decade of war, McKiernan believes the United States can hardly afford to cut our losses and leave.