America's 7 mistakes in Afghanistan
August 2nd, 2012
01:11 PM ET

America's 7 mistakes in Afghanistan

By Michael Rubin, Special to CNN

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School. He also teaches Afghan history to deploying U.S. Army units. The views expressed are solely those of the author.

More than a decade into the conflict, the Afghan war isn’t going well. Politically, Afghanistan is a mess. While some analysts still say the American counterinsurgency strategy works, Afghans beg to differ. Their country was safer ten years ago than it is today.  The problem wasn’t the invasion itself, but rather than aftermath. The mission to deny terrorists a vacuum was essential, so where did the United States go wrong?

Here are the seven key mistakes the United States and its allies have made:

Rapidity of Reform. Cynics may say Afghanistan never changes, but that is nonsense. Afghanistan today is far different than it was 30 years ago, let alone a century ago. The fact is, Afghanistan changes: Just very slowly. The experience of Amanullah Khan in the first decades of the twentieth century and the Saur Revolution in 1978 demonstrate the correlation between rapidity of reform and insurgent backlash. Zahir Shah (r. 1933-1973), on the other hand, moved slower but presided over some of Afghanistan’s most successful reforms. It’s possible to bring good, representative governance to Afghanistan and perhaps even democracy. Just not on a Washington political timeline.

Centralization. To reconstruct Afghanistan, diplomats pushed for a republican rather than parliamentary system. A strong president could co-opt warlords by offering them plum positions as not only ministers, but also as governors and regional appointees. Most Afghans care little for Kabul, however, and even less so for the men Kabul sends to lead their local governance. They want local officials who look like them, speak like them, and whom they know. The lack of coordination between top down government and bottom up democracy only adds to dysfunction.

Karzai. After the Taliban captured and executed Mujahedeen figure Abdul Haq in October 2001, the CIA seemed to embrace Hamid Karzai as their man in Kabul. Karzai had, according to U.S. State Department documents, acted as a Taliban-designated U.N. representative, and also had relations with Iran and Pakistan; he could talk to everyone. Being all things to all people isn’t enough, however. That the Karzai administration turned out to be corrupt and its leader ineffective and apparently without a moral backbone provides yet one more example why Langley should be out of the business of promoting informants to higher office.

Setting a Time Line. In Iraq, the surge wasn’t only a military strategy, but a psychological one. When George W. Bush declared his goal to be victory and committed the resources to achieve it, the fence-sitters decided their best hope for survival was cutting a deal with the strong horse. President Obama took the opposite tack: He informed Afghans that America’s commitment had an expiration date. Immediately, our NATO partners started charting their own departure, not necessarily on a coherent coalition timeline. Any Afghan official who cared about his own survival took the hint that they should begin to make their accommodation to Pakistan, Iran, or the Taliban.

Talking to the Taliban. If a timeline was one nail in the coffin of the U.S. mission, sitting down with the Taliban was the second. Afghans have never lost a war; they just defect to the winning side. By offering the Taliban a seat at the table, Obama couldn’t have done more to convince ordinary Afghans that the Taliban was on the verge of complete victory. After all, the Taliban’s 1995 capture of Herat and its 1996 capture of Kabul both followed ceasefire and peace talks, not to mention that 9/11 occurred after five years of Clinton administration engagement with the group.

Too Much Aid. According to the Christian Science Monitor, “Presently 90 percent of the Afghan government’s budget depends on foreign aid and money from the international donor community and military spending makes up about 97 percent of the country’s GDP.” Aid agencies, it seems, have descended on Afghanistan as much to prove their own worth and relevance as to help the Afghan people. Afghanistan can’t absorb so much money however, so all it did was spark corruption. Terrorism may impact a few hundred people, but millions suffer from the result of corruption. Not only Afghanistan, but also the U.S. Treasury would be in a much better place today had the donor community only given it one-tenth the assistance we dispatched.

Trusting Pakistan. Pakistani leaders may say the right thing, but they have never been onboard with U.S. goals in Afghanistan. A strong, independent, nationalist Afghanistan is anathema to Pakistanis, who have so little self-confidence about their own identity. Trusting Pakistani generals to do the right thing is about as wise as putting American national security in the hands of Pyongyang or Tehran. Even before bin Laden’s death, that was obvious. That so many diplomats and, frankly, generals in Afghanistan allowed themselves to be so duped should have led to retirements, not promotions.


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Topics: Afghanistan • NATO • Taliban • United States

soundoff (48 Responses)
  1. sifelumusa

    In Iraq,Afganistan and now Syria people are dying because of U.S's wish to control the world.

    August 2, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
    • Lyndsie Graham

      Thank you, sifelumusa. You said it all! We have no more business in Afghanistan now than the Russians did 30 years ago!

      August 2, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
      • j. von hettlingen

        Yet, it's all about saving one's skin and to minimise damages.

        August 4, 2012 at 8:26 am |
      • j. von hettlingen

        pse read: MINIMISING

        Indeed, the West has completely ignored Afghanistan's history and culture.
        Life in urban and rural areas is just like day and night. A centralised government – especially under a crook like Karzai – has done the tribes a disfavour. The US had been dazzled by Karzai's smooth and winning smile, not knowing the Afghans themselves reject him.

        August 4, 2012 at 8:55 am |
    • Marvin

      Iraq invasion was a mistake, I admit. However, the US invasion of Afghanistan and drone strikes in Pakistan are the primary reasons why there has not been a repeat of 9/11 in more than a decade. Numerous innocent lives have been saved around the world from those murderous Islamic Jihadi thugs due to the courageous actions by the US in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Trusting Pakistan was an even bigger mistake than invading Iraq.

      August 2, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
      • Quigley

        Wrong, Marvin. Without any outside help, it's extremely dubious that Al Qaeda with it's assets frozen and lack of sophistication, could ever have pulled off 9/11 on it's own. We did, however, succeed in lowering the living standards in both Afghanistan and Pakistan by imposing these needless wars upon these two countries!

        August 2, 2012 at 7:17 pm |
      • Marvin

        Quigley, Did you not watch the videos of Osama bin Laden claiming credit for 9/11? So, no doubt, Al Qaeda did it. It is certainly possible that Al Qaeda got help and resources from Pakistan who sheltered Al Qaeda to carry out the 9/11 attacks. So, you may have a point there that Pakistan may have partnered with Al Qaeda and helped out with resources to carry out the 9/11 attack on the US. As Michael Rubin points out, trusting Pakistan was a serious mistake.

        August 2, 2012 at 7:38 pm |
      • Marvin

        Quigley, It is not possible for anybody to lower the living standards in Pakistan and Afghanistan when they have their own Taliban. Did you see how they treat their women. Recently, Taliban executed a helpless, unarmed young woman while Pakistanis and Afghanis crowd watched with glee and cheered. It is not possible to go any lower than that – they do not have any respect for 50% of their population – i.e. women. Furthermore, they do not even let their kids get vaccinated against polio when the rest of the world has eradicated polio. Western presence there will hopefully teach them some values which they completely lack.

        August 2, 2012 at 7:48 pm |
      • Quigley

        Remember one thing Marvin, they don't call the C.I.A. operatives Masters of Deceit for nothing. Moreover, 9/11 proved to be a gigantic boon for the Bush Administration for two reasons. First, it gave this country the perfect pretext to invade Afghanistan and secondly, Bush had absolutely no trouble getting the Patriot Act passed through Congress! Figure it out yourself!

        August 2, 2012 at 11:22 pm |
      • Marvin

        Quigley, You are not alone in criticizing the Bush admin. Well, I would never characterize 9/11 as a "boon" to the US - 9/11 was certainly the biggest boon to Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda was relatively unknown then and was seeking fame and attention - 9/11 gave them that (and a whole lot more than they bargained for). While so many mistakes were made as the article points out, Obama's focus on drone strikes in Pakistan has been very effective and has produced excellent results. Credit goes to Obama who got Osama and has prevented another 9/11 successfully.

        August 3, 2012 at 11:22 am |
      • Marc

        It is not about trusting Pakistan or anyone else. I do not know why twits like Rubin keep saying we should not trust Pakistan. It is about being able to read a map. If you marvin could read maps then you would realize US could only physically reach Kabul via Pakistan Or Iran. There was no termez crossing then and Salang was blocked. To get Pakistan to play a narrative of trust was coined. That the Paks did not buy it and saw it for what it was- Pay to Play- is not their fault. Washington types just do not get it. Once Paks got their own nukes, they did not need US for protection against India. So now it is about things like, "You Americans want to come? How much you got? Let me check with Chinese, Iranians, Saudis if they can pay more."
        Now you understand why they closed the Khyber pass and why they opened it 7 months later??? If you still persist in your rant then you are beyond help. Similarly sometime after 2014, the Paks are going to order Drones stopped for real. If Obama pretends otherwise they will start taking 'em down with chinese tech. unless US gives them what they want-$$$$$$$$.

        August 5, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
    • Both Sides Now

      Why? Why control the world or part of it? Because I suppose you will do a better job of it.

      We really want to know.

      August 3, 2012 at 5:39 am |
    • Both Sides Now

      Well said. America controls the world like Assad does Syria right now. A step down in badly needed, and not for Assad.

      August 3, 2012 at 5:41 am |
  2. Johnny

    In Syria people are dying because Russia wants to keep selling weapons to Syria for $5billion+ per year

    August 2, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
    • Quigley

      Don't forget Johnny, that the U.S. and it's cronie allies are supplying arms and ammunition to these so-called "rebels" bigtime! Obama admited as much just today!

      August 2, 2012 at 7:19 pm |
      • Nina

        Gee Marine 5484 wanted the US to get involved!

        August 4, 2012 at 10:17 pm |
    • Musa

      Dear Johnny the conflict in Syris started in march of '11 and so far according to ind observers the death toll is around approx 18000 give or take a few, whereas on the other hand in Burma in one month alone 25000 muslims were slaughtered, I havent heard any condemnation of that or the support of upto $76million for them like for the rebels in Syria. Is it because Syria has oil and burma doesnt? Isnt it hypocracy sir?

      August 2, 2012 at 7:22 pm |
      • nana

        syria has no oil.

        August 2, 2012 at 10:56 pm |
  3. Raymon Horsley

    This is just a continuation of the disastrous position the former administration put us in. Our economy is ruined and now the GOP candidate wants to support a war between Israel and and Iran.

    August 2, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
  4. Fayyaz

    wish you had also mentioned Pakistan's dirty work for America in driving the Russians out and then being totally abandoning by the later. you also forgot to mentioned how the corrupt Pakistani Government was installed to become the recycle bin for all the garbage of the world, how for a few bucks back door deals were made to allow the Al Qaida to take refuge in Pakistan tribal areas so they can be droned for decades so as to scare the world into paying for this so called eternal war on terror. Wake up Al Jazeera this was not your style.

    August 2, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
  5. Fayyaz

    sorry I meant wake up CNN....

    August 2, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
  6. Yasir

    Trusting Pakistan, What could you have done without Pakistan, America has lost because of its ill intention and over confidence.

    Americans were never honest in their intention to develop Afghanistan or any neighboring country, it was all drama.

    August 2, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
  7. OurDogPakistan

    it was the single biggest mistake Bush admin committed trusting Dogs to kill dogs.

    August 2, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
  8. Ghassan Khan

    Now matter how much you try to rationalize it, this war was blood for oil.

    August 2, 2012 at 9:27 pm |
    • nana

      afghanistan has oil? you mean iraq? then why china has most of its minerals contracts and iraqi oil contracts?
      i also see no evil in foreign investments. china and any country should buy their minerals to give money to their revenues. much better than aids. much much better than nothing.

      August 2, 2012 at 11:00 pm |
  9. Irfan

    Trusting Pakistani generals to do the right thing is about as wise as putting American national security in the hands of Pyongyang or Tehran.
    Just shut it down….. you nutcase…..have you all filth forgotten how you came with your stinky tongues lapping like dogs when you needed Pakistan to defeat the USSR, and how you back stabbed Pakistan when the Pakistanis did the job for you, whose ISI provided you the first lead which led CIA to reach at Bin Laden hide out??. With a strategic ally like India, it truly deserved just lip service ally and outsourcing worth of billions $$.

    August 3, 2012 at 2:39 am |
    • Asadullah

      nicely said man

      August 4, 2012 at 3:27 am |
    • deep blue

      Yes, we forgot that. Our history teachers in the United States are football coaches. They don't remember either, and wouldn't teach us something like that that might reflect poorly on the US even if they knew better. A few history and political science buffs like me remember, as well as a few Ron Paul supporters. Most living in America are in "America is a city on a hill for the world that does no wrong" lala land. That being said, US/ Pakistani relations aren't good right now. That may not be Pakistan's fault, but it is true.

      August 5, 2012 at 12:15 am |
      • Nina

        You forget dimbulb that America is not a muslim country and there is this thing called "accountability".

        August 5, 2012 at 10:27 am |
  10. deep blue

    In Iraq, the surge was accompanied by two key factors, neither were a "show of force" that somehow terrified our enemies and inspired our friends. The two factors were, the brokering of a power sharing agreement between the Shiite and Sunni Muslims, and the clear, hold build strategy that built partnerships with local communities by providing security and building up communities. It was the clear, hold, build strategy that required the extra forces, and it worked.
    The Taliban hold key areas of Afghanistan. There will be no "total victory." The Taliban will likely still hold those areas, no matter how long we stay. Thus, just like in Iraq where we had to bring the Sunni's to the table, we need to bring the Taliban to the table here. Shock and awe military strategy doesn't work. We tried that in Iraq. Diplomacy is the name of the game.

    August 3, 2012 at 7:11 am |
  11. deep blue

    The problems of centralization, government corruption (including Karzai), and the dependency of Afghanistan are fair points, as well as the difficulties with Pakistan, but I'm not sure how avoidable they were. A weak central government militarily likely would not be able to fight well against the Taliban, so there would be a tradeoff of political and military strength of the government. We could not really handpick the Afghanistan government, and corruption is common among governments held up by foreign support, unfortunately (see China before communism, Vietnam, excetera).

    August 3, 2012 at 7:22 am |
  12. Ansis Vallens

    Forgot the biggest mistake: Rumsfeld and Franks. Had the job been done right, we would have been long gone.

    August 3, 2012 at 8:30 am |
  13. Justroger

    The mistake was Iraq . Spending on Afghanistan a small part of what was squandered on Iraq could have changed hearts and minds forever.

    August 3, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
  14. 100 Million Girls

    This article is completely misleading! Talk to the women! Talk to many of the men, they fear the return of the Talban! I don't who your sources are but they must be Taliban.

    August 3, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
  15. FA

    Good Morning America!!!

    August 17, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
  16. Joseph McCarthy/Quigley/LyndsieGraham/krm1007 ©™/Joe Collins/J. Foster Dulles/Marine5484

    I am a useless piece of camel dung. I post anti American, anti GB, anti semite, anti India, anti modern anything because I am a good moooooslem. I steal people's monikers because I am so ashamed of myself and post the most stupid comment. When people get angry with me, I claim insanity. I am the same guy.

    August 18, 2012 at 9:11 am |
  17. imohsin

    a naive article followed by, generally, poor comments.
    As US is looking for an exit, nobody wants to term it as a 'lost war'. Unfortunately, people in Asia see it that way. One hopes that the foreign forces will be able to pull out through negotiation, wherein their Afghan 'vichy' can't help. History of the area emphasizes that to be the only option. After killing more than half a million local people, including the civilians killed as 'co-lateral damage' in 12 years, US has to retreat with confusing lingo to sell it to the Good-guys at home. One wonders what George w would be thinking, if at all!

    January 12, 2013 at 2:56 am |
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