Politics & Policy

The Dog Days of War Drag On

General David McKiernan maps out our path forward.

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.

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.

“The full range of militant groupings, criminality, the drug trade, corruption, and external influencers combine with a historical resistance to any foreign presence in the country to create instability, insecurity, resistance, and a culture of violence.” He points out that these vicious power struggles are amplified by the desperate culture of Afghanistan (and Pakistan): “Afghanistan is a hard place — historically, culturally, geographically, poverty-wise, in almost every metric. There is a history of violence in a very hard place.”

In particular, our regional challenge has meant that “we haven’t had a successful approach to the sanctuary regions across the border in Pakistan.” American troops cannot operate in Pakistan, but many of Afghanistan’s militant groups as well as al-Qaeda use Pakistan’s tribal areas as safe havens (as Osama bin Laden did for so long). “We can blame the Pakistanis all we want,” the general laments, but they’re fighting their own war: “They’ve lost more than 10,000 soldiers and policemen fighting what they also perceive as an insurgency.” A more detailed grasp of Pakistani interests would have tempered expectations for where and how the U.S. could manage something of a strategic victory.

Finally, one other weakness in our Afghan strategy has been our partner, President Hamid Karzai, “with whom we have been disappointed at times, and rightfully so.” McKiernan believes that “he is basically a good and decent man,” but particularly ill-suited to appeasing “the natural hostilities toward any Western presence in Afghanistan.” The United States, in the general’s opinion, hasn’t supported an irredeemably corrupt or bad leader, but Karzai clearly lacks the “war-time leader competencies” to build and lead an effective Afghan government that would unify the mosaic of Afghan peoples — although one wonders if such a man exists.

McKiernan presents several future scenarios: For one, the Afghan government and security forces may prove capable of tackling the large tasks at hand. The leaders might manage to “slog on and counter all these different militant groups that don’t want a central government to survive.” McKiernan suggests that this is “probably the best outcome imaginable,” which still won’t achieve political unity, let alone harmony. But in the next few years, the proper emphasis on training Afghan military, intelligence, and police forces could create a force strong enough to hold the nation together tenuously, McKiernan thinks. The Taliban’s recent “spring offensive” attacks on Kabul are disturbing, but Afghan forces have demonstrated real ability to beat them back tactically.

The general ruefully describes two other possible outcomes. One is a resumption of the north-south civil war that existed prior to 2001, with the Taliban-centric militant groups from the south against a resurgent Northern Alliance, and regional actors like Pakistan and Iran closely involved. The other possibility, which McKiernan calls “remote,” would be “a de facto partition, a Pashtun-dominated south divided from other parts of Afghanistan.” He adds, “I don’t think that would be likely because it would just revert back into civil war.” Either of these scenarios, the general argues, would allow Pakistan to continue meddling in the border regions, thereby wielding significant influence over the Taliban-controlled militant groups. McKiernan reminds us that some 2 million displaced Afghans continue to live in camps along the border on the Pakistani side. And even though al-Qaeda in the region is reeling, there is no reason why a return to civil war wouldn’t facilitate its return to Afghanistan.

McKiernan emphasizes that our best chance for a successful denouement in Afghanistan requires training and equipping competent Afghan security forces, especially by developing effective, loyal, and trustworthy leadership. He lauds the work so far but hopes for a stronger focus, saying, “We’ve had the right policies to develop a creditable Afghan national security force, but it was under-resourced for many years.” In particular, he worries, “sometimes we begin to believe that size and quantity are more important than quality” — especially when Western efforts in this regard, and our deadlines, are measured in gross numbers of Afghan forces, not their effectiveness. Further, many commentators don’t understand the crucial importance of training Afghans — Tom Friedman once quipped, “Is there anything funnier? Afghan men need to be trained to fight? They defeated the British and the Soviets!

The key element of any security force, is “the leadership,” McKiernan stresses. “You have to develop the leaders, whether they are local police chiefs, first sergeants, company commanders, battalion commanders, and so on. You can’t just turn on a faucet of money and recruitment.” An American military officer is expected to need almost two decades of training and experience to command a battalion. Given that, he asks, “why [do] we think we’re going to be successful in developing Afghan leaders in a shorter time, in a much harder place, where there is no history of a multi-ethnic army?” But this challenge makes U.S. efforts more important, not less.

As our Afghan efforts shift from direct combat to training and advisory, the general hopes that the military will revamp and reinforce its non-combat programs. Too many resources have been administered exclusively via top-down structures, through the government in Kabul, ministries, and centrally controlled programs, he says. “More balance with local, bottom-up approaches” would have been helpful from the beginning. Today, they would allow for the development of effective local and national leadership that’s able to provide security across the country. This balanced approach to countering local corruption and criminality would “better fit Afghan historical norms,” McKiernan adds.

The general believes that the central government will indeed welcome a U.S. military presence in the future. Unlike their Iraqi equivalents, Karzai and others depend on American support in order to retain any semblance of central control. They will therefore be willing to accept ongoing American involvement, on some terms — as the signing of a strategic partnership indicates.

The American struggle in Afghanistan offers many lessons, in McKiernan’s opinion, for U.S. military and political leadership. First of all, the U.S. will engage a broader range of threats, in more nuanced and involved ways, than ever before. As McKiernan puts it: “It’s a wider, more complex and ambiguous world, and we need to understand it better.” Furthermore, he notes that the American military will also need to be better prepared to train and cooperate with other nations’ militaries and their leadership. In the event of further defense cuts, when our tactical capacity is decreased, American advantages in training and quality of leadership at all levels, sergeant to general, will become essential strategic weapons. McKiernan doesn’t believe, however, that a greater emphasis on military advisory and training will require any particular restructuring of American forces — because, in his opinion, “the best military trainer in the world is a fully qualified American infantryman.”

In 1843, Sir Charles Napier, as commander of the British army in India, conquered the present-day Pakistani province of Sindh, one of the last remaining areas of colonial India the British had not managed to control. It was a series of battles that contradict the much-touted idea that even the British Empire could not manage a strategic victory in the “graveyard of empires.” An apocryphal story holds that, upon subjugating Sindh, Napier sent his superiors a telegraph reading “Peccavi” — Latin for “I have sinned.”

He may have only been enjoying a pun, but such a sentiment might apply here. The U.S. was right to invade Afghanistan in order to exact revenge against al-Qaeda and eliminate the region’s terrorist havens. But McKiernan has seen the catastrophic side effects of that invasion, and they represent something of a geopolitical sin. With a more targeted, locally nuanced, and efficient strategy as penance, the United States can help the Afghan government construct and enforce some degree of order, General McKiernan believes. If we do not do so, we abandon our moral commitment to repair Afghanistan, and we will leave a gapingly insecure region that would remain fertile ground for international terrorism. 

—  Patrick Brennan is a 2011 William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.

Patrick Brennan was a senior communications official at the Department of Health and Human Services during the Trump administration and is former opinion editor of National Review Online.


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