SPIEGEL ONLINE - August 13, 2007, 02:08 PM
A DRASTIC DETERIORATION
How a 'Good War' in Afghanistan Went Bad
By David Rohde and David E. Sanger
The American-led coalition's lightning-fast route of the Taliban led many to believe that it was a "spent force" that would no longer pose a threat. Almost four years later, officials are wondering if these victorious feelings were premature, and asking themselves what can be done to improve a drastically deteriorated situation.
British artillerymen with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) fire against suspected Taliban positions in Helmand Province , Afghanistan, in July.
British artillerymen with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) fire against suspected Taliban positions in Helmand Province , Afghanistan, in July.
A year after the Taliban fell to an American-led coalition, a group of NATO ambassadors landed in Kabul, Afghanistan, to survey what appeared to be a triumph - a fresh start for a country ripped apart by years of war with the Soviets and brutal repression by religious extremists.
With a senior American diplomat, R. Nicholas Burns, leading the way, they thundered around the country in Black Hawk helicopters, with little fear for their safety. They strolled quiet streets in Kandahar and sipped tea with tribal leaders. At a briefing from the United States Central Command, they were told that the Taliban were now a "spent force."
"Some of us were saying, 'Not so fast,' " Mr. Burns, now the under secretary of state for political affairs, recalled. "A number of us assumed that the Taliban was too enmeshed in Afghan society to just disappear as a political and military force."
But that skepticism never took hold in Washington. Assessments by the Central Intelligence Agency circulating at the same time reported that the Taliban were so decimated they no longer posed a threat, according to two senior intelligence officials who reviewed the reports. The American sense of victory was so robust that the top C.I.A. specialists and elite Special Forces units who had helped liberate Afghanistan were packing their guns and preparing for the next war, in Iraq.
Those sweeping miscalculations were part of a pattern of assessments and decisions that helped send what many in the American military call "the good war" off course.
Like Osama bin Laden and his deputies, the Taliban had found refuge in Pakistan and regrouped as the American focus wavered. Taliban fighters seeped back over the border, driving up the suicide attacks and roadside bombings by as much as 25 percent this spring, and forcing NATO and American troops into battles to retake previously liberated villages in southern Afghanistan.
They have scored some successes recently, and since the 2001 invasion, there have been improvements in health care and education, as well as the quality of life in the cities. But Afghanistan's embattled president, Hamid Karzai, said in Washington last week that security in his country had "definitely deteriorated." One former national security official called that "a very diplomatic understatement."
President Bush's critics have long contended that the Iraq war has diminished America's effort in Afghanistan, which the administration has denied, but an examination of how the policy unfolded within the administration reveals a deep divide over how to proceed in Afghanistan and a series of decisions that at times seemed to relegate it to an afterthought as Iraq unraveled.
Statements from the White House, including from the president, in support of Afghanistan were resolute, but behind them was a halting, sometimes reluctant commitment to solving Afghanistan's myriad problems, according to dozens of interviews in the United States, at NATO headquarters in Brussels and in Kabul, the Afghan capital.
At critical moments in the fight for Afghanistan, the Bush administration diverted scarce intelligence and reconstruction resources to Iraq, including elite C.I.A. teams and Special Forces units involved in the search for terrorists. As sophisticated Predator drone spy planes rolled off assembly lines in the United States, they were shipped to Iraq, undercutting the search for Taliban and terrorist leaders, according to senior military and intelligence officials.
As defense secretary, Donald H. Rumsfeld claimed credit for toppling the Taliban with light, fast forces. But in a move that foreshadowed America's trouble in Iraq, he failed to anticipate the need for more forces after the old government was gone, and blocked an early proposal from Colin L. Powell, then the secretary of state, and Mr. Karzai, the administration's handpicked president, for a large international force. As the situation deteriorated, Mr. Rumsfeld and other administration officials reversed course and cajoled European allies into sending troops.
When it came to reconstruction, big goals were announced, big projects identified. Yet in the year Mr. Bush promised a "Marshall Plan" for Afghanistan, the country received less assistance per capita than did postconflict Bosnia and Kosovo, or even desperately poor Haiti, according to a RAND Corporation study.
By late last year, when the United States began increasing troop levels in Afghanistan to the current level of 23,500, a senior American military commander in the country said he was surprised to discover that "I could count on the fingers of one or two hands the number of U.S. government agricultural experts" in Afghanistan, where 80 percent of the economy is agricultural. A $300 million project approved by Congress for small businesses in Afghanistan was never financed by the administration.
Underlying many of the decisions, officials say, was a misapprehension about what Americans would find on the ground in Afghanistan. "The perception was that Afghans hated foreigners and that the Iraqis would welcome us," said James Dobbins, the administration's former special envoy for Afghanistan. "The reverse turned out to be the case."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice defended the administration's policy, saying, "I don't buy the argument that Afghanistan was starved of resources." Yet she said: "I don't think the U.S. government had what it needed for reconstructing a country. We did it ad hoc in the Balkans, and then in Afghanistan, and then in Iraq."
In interviews, three former American ambassadors to Afghanistan were more critical of Washington's record.
"I said from the get-go that we didn't have enough money and we didn't have enough soldiers," said Robert P. Finn, who was the ambassador in 2002 and 2003. "I'm saying the same thing six years later."
Zalmay Khalilzad, who was the next ambassador and is now the United Nations ambassador, said, "I do think that state-building and nation-building, we came to that reluctantly," adding that "I think more could have been done earlier on these issues."
And Ronald E. Neumann, who replaced Mr. Khalilzad in Kabul, said, "The idea that we could just hunt terrorists and we didn't have to do nation- building, and we could just leave it alone, that was a large mistake."
A Big Promise, Unfulfilled
After months of arguing unsuccessfully for a far larger effort in Afghanistan, Mr. Dobbins received an unexpected call in April 2002. Mr. Bush, he was told, was planning to proclaim America's commitment to rebuild Afghanistan.
"I got a call from the White House speech writers saying they were writing a speech and did I see any reason not to cite the Marshall Plan," Mr. Dobbins recalled, referring to the American rebuilding of postwar Europe. "I said, 'No, I saw no objections', so they put it in the speech."
On April 17, Mr. Bush traveled to the Virginia Military Institute, where Gen. George C. Marshall trained a century ago. "Marshall knew that our military victory against enemies in World War II had to be followed by a moral victory that resulted in better lives for individual human beings," Mr. Bush said, calling Marshall's work "a beacon to light the path that we, too, must follow."
Mr. Bush had belittled "nation building" while campaigning for president 18 months earlier. But aware that Afghans had felt abandoned before, including by his father's administration after the Soviets left in 1989, he vowed to avoid the syndrome of "initial success, followed by long years of floundering and ultimate failure."
"We're not going to repeat that mistake," he said. "We're tough, we're determined, we're relentless. We will stay until the mission is done."
The speech, which received faint notice in the United States, fueled expectations in Afghanistan and bolstered Mr. Karzai's stature before an Afghan grand council meeting in June 2002 at which Mr. Karzai was formally chosen to lead the government.
Yet privately, some senior officials, including Mr. Rumsfeld, were concerned that Afghanistan was a morass where the United States could achieve little, according to administration officials involved in the debate.
Within hours of the president's speech, Mr. Rumsfeld announced his own tough-love approach at a Pentagon news conference.
"The last thing you're going to hear from this podium is someone thinking they know how Afghanistan ought to organize itself," he said. "They're going to have to figure it out. They're going to have to grab ahold of that thing and do something. And we're there to help."
But the help was slow in coming. Despite the president's promise in Virginia, in the months that followed his April speech, no detailed reconstruction plan emerged from the Bush administration.
Former officials now say the stagnation reflected tension within the administration over how large a role the United States should play in stabilizing a country after toppling a hostile government.
After the fall of the Taliban in December 2001, Mr. Powell and Ms. Rice, then the national security adviser, argued in confidential sessions that if the United States now lost Afghanistan, it would damage America's image, officials said. In a February 2002 meeting in the White House Situation Room, Mr. Powell proposed that American troops join the small international peacekeeping force patrolling Kabul and help Mr. Karzai extend his influence beyond the capital.
Mr. Powell said in an interview that his model was the 1989 invasion of Panama, where American troops spread out across the country after ousting the Noriega government. "The strategy has to be to take charge of the whole country by military force, police or other means," he said.
Richard N. Haass, the former director of policy planning at the State Department, said informal conversations with European officials had led him to believe that the United States could recruit a force of 20,000 to 40,000 peacekeepers, half from Europe, half from the United States.
But Mr. Rumsfeld contended that European countries were unwilling to contribute additional troops, according to Douglas J. Feith, then the Pentagon's under secretary for policy. He said Mr. Rumsfeld felt that sending American troops would reduce pressure on Europeans to contribute, and could provoke Afghans' historic resistance to invaders and divert American forces from hunting terrorists. Mr. Rumsfeld declined to comment.
Some officials said they feared confusion if European forces viewed the task as peacekeeping while the American military saw their job as fighting terrorists. Ms. Rice, despite having argued for fully backing the new Karzai government, took a middle position, leaving the issue unresolved. "I felt that we needed more forces, but there was a real problem, which you continue to see to this day, with the dual role," she said.
Ultimately, Mr. Powell's proposal died. "The president, the vice president, the secretary of defense, the national security staff, all of them were skeptical of an ambitious project in Afghanistan," Mr. Haass said. "I didn't see support."
Mr. Dobbins, the former special envoy, said Mr. Powell "seemed resigned."
"I said this wasn't going to be fully satisfactory," Mr. Dobbins recalled. "And he said, 'Well, it's the best we could do.' "In the end, the United States deployed 8,000 troops to Afghanistan in 2002, with orders to hunt Taliban and Qaeda members, and not to engage in peacekeeping or reconstruction. The 4,000-member international peacekeeping force did not venture beyond Kabul.
As an alternative, officials hatched a loosely organized plan for Afghans to secure the country themselves. The United States would train a 70,000-member army. Japan would disarm some 100,000 militia fighters. Britain would mount an antinarcotics program. Italy would carry out changes in the judiciary. And Germany would train a 62,000-member police force.
But that meant no one was in overall command, officials now say. Many holes emerged in the American effort.
There were so few State Department or Pentagon civil affairs officials that 13 teams of C.I.A. operatives, whose main job was to hunt terrorists and the Taliban, were asked to stay in remote corners of Afghanistan to coordinate political efforts, said John E. McLaughlin, who was deputy director and then acting director of the agency. "It took us quite awhile to get them regrouped in the southeast for counterterrorism," he said of the C.I.A. teams.
Sixteen months after the president's 2002 speech, the United States Agency for International Development, the government's main foreign development arm, had seven full-time staffers and 35 full-time contract staff members in Afghanistan, most of them Afghans, according to a government audit. Sixty-one agency positions were vacant.
"It was state building on the cheap, it was a duct tape approach," recalled Said T. Jawad, Mr. Karzai's chief of staff at the time and Afghanistan's current ambassador to Washington. "It was fixing things that were broken, not a strategic approach."
A Shift of Resources to Iraq
In October 2002, Robert Grenier, a former director of the C.I.A.'s counterintelligence center, visited the new Kuwait City headquarters of Lt. Gen David McKiernan, who was already planning the Iraq invasion. Meeting in a sheet metal warehouse, Mr. Grenier asked General McKiernan what his intelligence needs would be in Iraq.
The answer was simple. "They wanted as much as they could get," Mr. Grenier said.
Throughout late 2002 and early 2003, Mr. Grenier said in an interview, "the best experienced, most qualified people who we had been using in Afghanistan shifted over to Iraq," including the agency's most skilled counterterrorism specialists and Middle East and paramilitary operatives.
That reduced the United States' influence over powerful Afghan warlords who were refusing to turn over to the central government tens of millions of dollars they had collected as customs payments at border crossings.
While the C.I.A. replaced officers shifted to Iraq, Mr. Grenier said, it did so with younger agents, who lacked the knowledge and influence of the veterans. "I think we could have done a lot more on the Afghan side if we had more experienced folks," he said.
A former senior official of the Pentagon's Central Command, which was running both wars, said that as the Iraq planning sped up, the military's covert Special Mission Units, like Delta Force and Navy Seals Team Six, shifted to Iraq from Afghanistan.
So did aerial surveillance "platforms" like the Predator, a remotely piloted drone armed with Hellfire missiles that had been effective at identifying targets in the sparsely populated mountains of Afghanistan. Predators were not shifted directly from Afghanistan to Iraq, according to the former official, but as new Predators were produced, they went to Iraq.
"We were economizing in Afghanistan," said the former official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly. "The marginal return for one more platform in Afghanistan is so much greater than for one more in Iraq."
The shift in priorities became apparent to Dov Zakheim, the Pentagon's former comptroller, when Mr. Rumsfeld called him into his office in the fall of 2002, as planning for the Iraq war was in high gear, and asked him to serve as the Pentagon's reconstruction coordinator in Afghanistan. It was an odd role for the comptroller, whose primary task is managing the Defense Department's $400 billion a year budget.
"The fact that they went to the comptroller to do something like that was in part a function of their growing preoccupation with Iraq," said Mr. Zakheim, who left the administration in 2004. "They needed somebody, given that the top tier was covering Iraq."
In an interview, President Bush's national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, insisted that there was no diversion of resources from Afghanistan, and he cited recently declassified statistics to show that troop levels in Afghanistan rose at crucial moments - like the 2004 Afghan election - even after the Iraq war began.
But the former Central Command official said: "If we were not in Iraq, we would have double or triple the number of Predators across Afghanistan, looking for Taliban and peering into the tribal areas. We'd have the 'black' Special Forces you most need to conduct precision operations. We'd have more C.I.A."
"We're simply in a world of limited resources, and those resources are in Iraq," the former official added. "Anyone who tells you differently is blowing smoke."
As White House officials put together plans in the spring of 2003 for President Bush to land on the deck of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln and declare the end of major combat operations in Iraq, the Pentagon decided to make a similar, if less dramatic, announcement for Afghanistan.
On May 1, hours before Mr. Bush stood beneath a "Mission Accomplished" banner, Mr. Rumsfeld appeared at a news conference with Mr. Karzai in Kabul's threadbare 19th-century presidential palace. "We clearly have moved from major combat activity to a period of stability and stabilization and reconstruction activities," he said. "The bulk of the country today is permissive, it's secure."
The Afghanistan announcement was largely lost in the spectacle of Mr. Bush's speech. But it proved no less detached from events on the ground.
Three weeks later, Afghan government workers who had not been paid for months held street demonstrations in Kabul. An exasperated Mr. Karzai publicly threatened to resign and announced that his government had run out of money because warlords were hording the customs revenues. "There is no money in the government treasury," Mr. Karzai said.
At the same time, the American-led training of a new Afghan Army was proving far more difficult than officials in Washington had expected. The new force, plagued by high desertion rates, had only 2,000 soldiers. The Germans' effort to train police officers was off to an even slower start, and the British-led counternarcotics effort was dwarfed by an explosion in the poppy crop. Already small groups of Taliban fighters had slipped back over the border from Pakistan and killed aid workers, stalling reconstruction in the south.
A senior White House official said in a recent interview that in retrospect, putting different countries in charge of different operations was a mistake. "We piecemealed it," he said. "One of the problems is when everybody has a piece, everybody's piece is made third and fourth priority. Nobody's piece is first priority. Stuff didn't get done."
A month after his announcement in Kabul, Mr. Rumsfeld presented a new strategy to the White House aimed at weakening warlords and engaging in "state building" in Afghanistan. In some ways, it was the approach Mr. Rumsfeld had rejected right after the invasion.
Defense Department officials said that Mr. Rumsfeld's views began to shift after a December 2002 briefing by Marin Strmecki, an Afghanistan expert at the Smith Richardson Foundation, who argued that Afghanistan was not ungovernable and that the United States could turn it into a moderate, Muslim force in the region.
He said that the United States needed to help Afghans create credible national institutions and that Pashtuns, Afghanistan's largest ethnic group and historically the Taliban's base of support, needed a more prominent role in the government. Mr. Rumsfeld, according to aides, was impressed by Mr. Strmecki's emphasis on training Afghans to run their own government and hired him.
Then another personnel change helped alter Afghanistan policy. Mr. Khalilzad, an Afghan-American who was a senior National Security Council official and a special envoy to Iraq exiles, was appointed ambassador to Afghanistan.
Mr. Khalilzad said he accepted the job after Mr. Bush promised that the effort in Afghanistan would be vastly expanded. "We had gotten the president to a significant increase," Mr. Khalilzad recalled in an interview.
A leading neo-conservative, Mr. Khalilzad could get Ms. Rice or - if need be - Mr. Bush on the phone. He had been a counselor to Mr. Rumsfeld and had worked for Dick Cheney when Mr. Cheney was the first President Bush's defense secretary. "Zal could get things done," said Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, a former American military commander in Afghanistan.
When Mr. Khalilzad arrived in Kabul on Thanksgiving 2003, he was carrying nearly $2 billion - twice the amount of the previous year - as well as a new military strategy and private experts to intensifying rebuilding.
They started a reconstruction plan dubbed "accelerating success" that involved the kind of nation-building once dismissed by the administration. General Barno expanded the military's "Provincial Reconstruction Teams" to build schools, roads and wells and to win the "hearts and minds" of Afghans. The teams amounted to a smaller version of the force Mr. Powell had proposed 18 months earlier.
By January 2004, Afghanistan had reached a compromise on a new Afghan Constitution. With American backing, Mr. Karzai weakened several warlords. In October 2004, Mr. Karzai, who had been appointed president, was elected. At the same time, NATO countries steadily sent more troops to Afghanistan, and soon Mr. Rumsfeld - pressed for troops for Iraq - proposed that NATO take over security for all of Afghanistan. By the spring of 2005, Afghanistan appeared to be moving toward the success Mr. Bush had promised. But then, fearing that Iraq was spinning out of control, the White House asked Mr. Khalilzad to become ambassador to Baghdad.
Before departing Afghanistan, Mr. Khalilzad fought a final battle within the administration. It was a fight that revealed divisions within the American government over Pakistan's role in aiding the Taliban, a delicate subject as the Bush administration tried to coax cooperation out of Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
In an interview with on Afghan television, Mr. Khalilzad noted that Pakistani journalists had recently interviewed a senior Taliban commander in Pakistan. He questioned Pakistan's claim that it did not know the whereabouts of senior Taliban commanders - a form of skepticism discouraged in Washington, where the administration's line had always been that General Musharraf was doing everything he could.
"If a TV station can get in touch with them, how can the intelligence service of a country, which has nuclear bombs, and a lot of security and military forces, not find them?" Mr. Khalilzad asked.
Pakistani officials publicly denounced Mr. Khalilzad's comments and denied that they were harboring Taliban leaders. But Mr. Khalilzad had also exposed the growing rift between American officials in Kabul and those in Islamabad.
Mr. Grenier said that when he was the C.I.A. station chief in Islamabad the issue of fugitive Taliban leaders was repeatedly raised with senior Pakistani intelligence officials in 2002. "The results were just not there," Mr. Grenier recalled. "And it was quite clear to me that it wasn't just bad luck."
Pakistani had backed the Taliban throughout the 1990s as a counterweight to an alliance of northern Afghan commanders backed by India, Pakistan's bitter rival. Pakistani officials also distrusted Mr. Karzai.
Deciding that the Pakistanis would not act on the Taliban, Mr. Grenier said he urged them to concentrate on arresting Qaeda members, who he said were far more of a threat.
"From our perspective at the time, the Taliban was a spent force," he said, adding that "we were very much focused on Al Qaeda and didn't want to distract the Pakistanis from that."
But Mr. Khalilzad, American military officials and others in the administration argued that the Taliban were crossing from Pakistan into Afghanistan and killing American troops and aid workers. "Colleagues in Washington at various levels did not recognize that there was the problem of sanctuary and that this was important," Mr. Khalilzad said.
But it was not until 2006, after ordering a study on Afghanistan's future, that Mr. Bush pressed General Musharraf on the Taliban. Later, Mr. Bush told his aides he worried that "old school ties" between Pakistani intelligence and the Taliban had not been broken, despite General Musharraf's assurances.
The Pakistanis, said one senior American commander, were "hedging their bets."
"They're not sure that we are staying," he added. "And if we are gone, the Taliban is their next best option" to remain influential in Afghanistan.
As 2005 ended, the Taliban leaders remained in hiding in Pakistan, waiting for an opportunity to cross the border. Soon, they would find one.
In September 2005, NATO defense ministers gathered in Berlin to complete plans for NATO troops to take over security in Afghanistan's volatile south. It was the most ambitious "out of area" operations in NATO history, and across Europe, leaders worried about getting support from their countries. Then, American military officials dropped a bombshell.
The Pentagon, they said, was considering withdrawing up to 3,000 troops from Afghanistan, roughly 20 percent of total American forces.
NATO's secretary general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, said he protested to Mr. Rumsfeld that a partial American withdrawal would discourage others from sending troops.
In the end the planned troop reduction was abandoned, but chiefly because the American ground commander at the time, Gen. Karl W. Eikenberry, concluded that the Taliban were returning and that he needed to shift troops to the east to try to stop them. But the announcement had sent a signal of a wavering American commitment.
"The Afghan people still doubt our staying power," General Eikenberry said. "They have seen the world walk away from them before."
To sell their new missions at home, British, Dutch and Canadian officials portrayed deployments to Afghanistan as safe, and better than sending troops to Iraq. Germany and Italy prevented their forces from being sent on combat missions in volatile areas. Those regions were to be left to the Americans, Canadians, British and Dutch.
Three months after announcing the proposed troop withdrawal, the White House Office of Management and Budget cut aid to Afghanistan by a third.
A senior administration official said all of the money allocated to Afghanistan the previous year had not been spent. "There was an absorption problem," Ms. Rice said.
Mr. Neumann, then the ambassador, said he argued against the decision.
But even so, American assistance to Afghanistan dropped by 38 percent, from $4.3 billion in fiscal 2005 to $3.1 billion in fiscal 2006, according to a study by the Congressional Research Service.
By February 2006, Mr. Neumann had come to the conclusion that the Taliban were planning a spring offensive, and he sent a cable to his superiors.
"I had a feeling that the view was too rosy in Washington," recalled Mr. Neumann, who retired from the State Department in June. "I was concerned."
Mr. Neumann's cable proved prophetic. In the spring of 2006, the Taliban carried out their largest offensive since 2001, attacking British, Canadian and Dutch troops in southern Afghanistan.
Hundreds of Taliban swarmed into the south, setting up checkpoints, assassinating officials and burning schools. Suicide bombings quintupled to 136. Roadside bombings doubled. All told, 191 American and NATO troops died in 2006, a 20 percent increase over 2005. For the first time, it became nearly as dangerous, statistically, to serve as an American in Afghanistan as in Iraq.
Mr. Neumann said that while suicide bombers came from Pakistan, most Taliban fighters in southern Afghanistan were Afghans. Captured insurgents said they took up arms because a local governor favored a rival tribe, corrupt officials provided no services or their families needed money.
After cutting assistance in 2006, the United States plans to provide $9 billion in aid to Afghanistan in 2007, twice the amount of any year since 2001.
Despite warnings about the Taliban's resurgence from Mr. Neumann, Mr. Khalilzad and military officials, Ms. Rice said, "there was no doubt that people were surprised that the Taliban was able to regroup and come back in a large, well-organized force."
In July 2006, NATO formally took responsibility for security throughout Afghanistan. To Americans and Europeans, NATO is the vaunted alliance that won the cold war. To Afghans it is little more than a strange, new acronym. And NATO and the Americans are divided over strategy.
The disagreement is evident on the wall of the office of Gen. Dan K. McNeill, the commander of the 35,000 NATO forces in Afghanistan, where he keeps a chart that is a sea of yellow and red blocks. Each block shows the restrictions that national governments have placed on their forces under his command. Red blocks represent tasks a country will not do, like hunting Taliban or Qaeda leaders. Yellow blocks indicate missions they are willing to consider after asking their capitals for approval.
In Washington, officials lament that NATO nations are unwilling to take the kinds of risks and casualties necessary to confront the Taliban. Across Europe, officials complain the United States never focused on reconstruction, and they blame American forces for mounting air attacks on the Taliban that cause large civilian casualties, turning Afghans against the West.
The debate over how the 2001 victory in Afghanistan turned into the current struggle is well under way.
"Destroying the Al Qaeda sanctuary in Afghanistan was an extraordinary strategic accomplishment," said Robert D. Blackwill, who was in charge of both Afghanistan and Iraq policy at the National Security Council, "but where we find ourselves now may have been close to inevitable, whether the U.S. went into Iraq or not. We were going to face this long war in Afghanistan as long as we and the Afghan government couldn't bring serious economic reconstruction to the countryside, and eliminate the Taliban's safe havens in Pakistan."
But Henry A. Crumpton, a former C.I.A. officer who played a key role in ousting the Taliban and became the State Department's counterterrorism chief, said winning a war like the one in Afghanistan required American personnel to "get in at a local level and respond to people's needs so that enemy forces cannot come in and take advantage."
"These are the fundamentals of counterinsurgency, and somehow we forgot them or never learned them," he added. He noted that "the United States has 11 carrier battle groups, but we still don't have expeditionary nonmilitary forces of the kind you need to win this sort of war."
"We're living in the past," he said.
Among many current and former officials, a consensus is emerging that a more consistent commitment by the United States may have improved the situation in Afghanistan.
Gen. James L. Jones, a retired American officer and a former NATO supreme commander, said Iraq caused the United States to "take its eye off the ball" in Afghanistan. He warned that the consequences of failure "are just as serious in Afghanistan as they are in Iraq."
"Symbolically, it's more the epicenter of terrorism than Iraq," he said. "If we don't succeed in Afghanistan, you're sending a very clear message to the terrorist organizations that the U.S., the U.N. and the 37 countries with troops on the ground can be defeated."
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