The American Awakening

by Dexter Filkins | March 1, 2010

In The Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan
By Seth G. Jones
(W.W. Norton, 414 pp., $27.95)

I.

With the war in Afghanistan hanging in the balance, it is useful, if a little sad, to recall just how complete the American-led victory was in the autumn of 2001. By December, the Taliban had vanished from Kabul, Kandahar, and much of the countryside. Afghans celebrated by flinging their turbans and dancing in the streets. They dug up TV sets, wrapped in plastic, from hiding places in their gardens. In Mullah Omar’s hometown of Sangesar, the locals broke into his madrassa and tore out the door frames for firewood. Among ordinary Afghans, there was a genuine sense of deliverance. The world, which had abandoned them more than a decade before, was coming back. 

In The Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan
By Seth G. Jones
(W.W. Norton, 414 pp., $27.95)

I.

With the war in Afghanistan hanging in the balance, it is useful, if a little sad, to recall just how complete the American-led victory was in the autumn of 2001. By December, the Taliban had vanished from Kabul, Kandahar, and much of the countryside. Afghans celebrated by flinging their turbans and dancing in the streets. They dug up TV sets, wrapped in plastic, from hiding places in their gardens. In Mullah Omar’s hometown of Sangesar, the locals broke into his madrassa and tore out the door frames for firewood. Among ordinary Afghans, there was a genuine sense of deliverance. The world, which had abandoned them more than a decade before, was coming back. 

In The Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan
By Seth G. Jones
(W.W. Norton, 414 pp., $27.95)

I.

With the war in Afghanistan hanging in the balance, it is useful, if a little sad, to recall just how complete the American-led victory was in the autumn of 2001. By December, the Taliban had vanished from Kabul, Kandahar, and much of the countryside. Afghans celebrated by flinging their turbans and dancing in the streets. They dug up TV sets, wrapped in plastic, from hiding places in their gardens. In Mullah Omar’s hometown of Sangesar, the locals broke into his madrassa and tore out the door frames for firewood. Among ordinary Afghans, there was a genuine sense of deliverance. The world, which had abandoned them more than a decade before, was coming back. 

What a difference eight years makes. Today the Taliban are fighting more vigorously and in more places than at any point since they fled the capital. They are governing, too, with sharia courts and “shadow” administrators, in large parts of the Pashtun heartland in the south and the east. American soldiers are dying faster than ever: twice as many were killed in 2009 as in 2008. Perhaps most disturbing, the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai has revealed itself to be a hollow shell, incapable of doing much of anything save rigging elections. The center is giving way.

The catastrophic reversal in Afghanistan has many fathers, but all the many failures can be boiled down to two: a lack of resources, which might have been used to build enduring Afghan institutions; and a conviction, until recently, that time was on our side. In the crucial years from 2002 to 2006, as the fledgling Afghan government hobbled along, the Americans--by this I mean officials in the Bush administration in Washington, for the soldiers and the diplomats in the field were perfectly aware of the dangers--carried on without the slightest sense of urgency. In time, the thinking in Washington went, Afghan democracy and the Afghan state would take hold, and the Taliban would wither away.

Today, in the gloomy winter of 2010, American policy has been almost entirely reversed. For the first time since the war began, the White House is devoting its full attention--and the necessary men and matériel--to drive back the Taliban and create an effective Afghan army and state. The thirty thousand new troops being dispatched by President Obama will bring the American total to around 100,000. Obama has also ordered a crash effort to train and equip 400,000 Afghan soldiers and police, in addition to a novel plan to organize tens of thousands of local militiamen. The U.S. military, meanwhile, has learned from its disastrous early mistakes and reinvented itself. In the villages, American soldiers are carrying out a sophisticated strategy that relegates the killing of insurgents to the lowest tier.

And that brings us to the question of time. The most startling line in Obama’s speech at West Point in December was its invocation of an eighteen-month timeline for the maximum deployment of American troops. After that, he said, they would begin to come home. The president announced an escalation and a de-escalation in the same speech. You have the resources now, he seemed to say, but your time is short. In the days that followed, his aides qualified the president’s pledge--it’s “not a cliff, it’s a ramp,” Jim Jones, the national security advisor, said. And so it probably would be. But the fact remains that with those crucial sentences, Obama bared his intentions, and even his soul. He does not want to be in Afghanistan. His heart is not in it. To be sure, he is proceeding with the escalation, and his heart may yet change, but it is difficult to imagine that the Taliban--and the Pakistanis--have not concluded that the Americans will soon be gone.

 

After eight years, some Americans may be forgiven for forgetting why the United States went to Afghanistan in the first place. It is important to begin the analysis at the beginning. We invaded Afghanistan following the attacks on September 11, so as to destroy the Taliban and the Al Qaeda leaders and cadres who had taken refuge there. And we succeeded, at least initially. Al Qaeda was all but decapitated. (In December 2001, I walked through several abandoned Al Qaeda safe houses in Kabul.) The Taliban were dead or dispersed. It was the follow-through that proved disastrous.

Seth G. Jones’s book provides a vivid sense of just how paltry and misguided the American effort has been. Jones--a scholar at the RAND Corporation and a consultant to the American command in Kabul--chronicles, year by year, the principal American and NATO failures over the course of the war. Reading In the Graveyard of Empires is an experience in dramatic irony: you know the glorious beginning, you know the dismal present; so you watch the American-led project in Afghanistan unravel with a tightened stomach and clenched teeth. But if we are ever to redeem the Afghan venture--and the consequences of failure seem catastrophic--In the Graveyard of Empires will help to show what might still be done to build something enduring in Afghanistan and finally allow the U.S. to go home.

What Jones demonstrates so persuasively--and what many of Obama’s homebound critics have often missed--is that for the past eight years, the trouble in Afghanistan has been less the presence of American and Western troops than their absence. This, and their utter failure to build any sort of institutions that might take their place. It was these two factors, more than any others, that made possible the return of the Taliban. Owing to the pathetic resources devoted to the endeavor, the Americans and NATO were never able to protect the Afghan people--not from crime, not from corrupt officials, not from insurgents. The government and the security forces they built and trained were never able to do it for them. The Taliban, which Jones acutely describes as “a complex adaptive system,” brought itself back to life and flowed into the breach.

From the beginning, the Bush administration justified the “light footprint” as a way of not stoking Afghan nationalism-despite the overwhelming evidence that ordinary Afghans thirsted for foreign help in the wake of the Taliban’s collapse. Their country, after all, was totally destroyed, with no means of repairing itself. As the Taliban regrouped, the Americans and NATO found themselves mounting operations to clear villages and towns of Taliban fighters, only to leave and watch them return. Then the American and NATO troops would go in again. “Mowing the grass,” Jones called it. The result was that ordinary Afghans typically encountered American or NATO troops only during military sweeps. And in the early years those American troops were every bit as heavy-handed as their countrymen in Iraq--and the air strikes they called in were even worse. The result was a deep mistrust of the American and NATO militaries, and a growing unwillingness to confront the Taliban.

But the more shocking sin--the inexcusable one--was the failure to build even the rudiments of an enduring Afghan state, one that could provide security for its people and deliver basic public services such as health care and roads. (It is also worth mentioning, to those hankering for an American withdrawal, that a viable Afghan army and police force would likely be the only thing that could prevent a repeat of the horrific civil war that engulfed the country in 1990s.) A functioning Afghan state, as Jones makes painfully clear, might well have gained the allegiance of the Afghan people, even the Pashtuns in the south. What the Afghans got instead was a pathetic principality in Kabul with virtually no capacity to deliver anything outside the city limits.

The central administration that existed in Kabul quickly evolved into a criminal enterprise, siphoning tens of millions of Western dollars and, later, enriching itself from the booming trade in opium. In the countryside, there was, in effect, no government at all: in the early years officials in the Bush administration were only too happy to turn back to the warlords--almost universally reviled by ordinary Afghans--to provide what governance there was. Faced with anarchy in their villages and corruption in their government, Afghans in the south and the east turned to the Taliban. “In short,” Jones remarks, “there was a supply of disgruntled locals because of the collapse of Afghan governance, and a demand for recruits by ideologically motivated insurgent leaders. This combination proved deadly.” By and large, ordinary Afghans embraced the Taliban not out of some visceral hatred of Westerners, but because they concluded that they had no other choice.

That last point is crucial, especially now. Measuring public opinion in Afghanistan is tricky, but every recent independent poll attempted there shows widespread support for Western troops. They are certainly more popular than the Taliban. By and large, Afghans reserve their fiercest contempt for their own government, which they regard as incompetent and crooked.

 

My own recent experience is anecdotal but instructive. Last summer, on a foot patrol with a group of American Marines in Helmand Province, we came to a village named Mian Poshteh, where the locals actually lined up to watch a Taliban ambush, which they knew was on the way. As the Marines worked their way down a trail, a huge homemade bomb, hidden in the sand, exploded. The bomb blew a hundred feet into the air and a dozen Marines disappeared inside the cloud. Miraculously, none of them died; the bomber had pulled his trigger a few seconds too soon. But when the marines ventured to the outskirts of Mian Poshteh and made their inquiries, not a single Afghan would tell them a thing. “Maybe they came at night,” a man named Assadullah said with a shrug.

Yet my experience that day in Mian Poshteh was exceptional. Over several days of walking the Helmand River Valley, my best sense was that the locals, more than anything, felt trapped--caught unhappily between the Taliban, whom they feared, and the Americans and the Afghans of Karzai’s government, whom they distrusted. And wherever the Americans demonstrated that they intended to stay--and that they intended to help build a government--the Afghans proved remarkably receptive.

A few days after the bomb attack, I sat with a group of Marines under the shade of a eucalyptus tree listening to Gul Jan, the elder in the village of Jan Mohammed Khel. For more than an hour we sat and drank tea while Jan explained his village’s predicament. Unlike Mian Poshteh, Jan Mohammed Khel fell within a six-mile-long area secured by the Americans, dubbed the “snake’s head” for its oblong shape. In two years, the Americans had raised up a local government, a small police force, and a small base with about three hundred Afghan soldiers. Most important, about three hundred American Marines had hunkered down and stayed there, and in an area small enough that they could control it. The Taliban were still active inside the “snake’s head,” but security inside the villages improved a lot.

Sitting under the eucalyptus tree, Jan seemed relaxed enough to speak his mind. The story he told was all too sadly believable. “All my life, I have seen destruction,” Jan said. The village’s single school was burned by the Taliban three years before, he said, and most of the canals had been damaged by fighting. What Jan and the rest of the villagers--about fifty young men sat with us--wanted was peace, and a government that could enforce it. The Taliban, he said, came and went by force, without much enthusiasm from the locals. “They are like shadows,” Jan said. “They come in the night, they do their things, and then they are gone.”

Jan was unambiguous about his preferences. “If we had security, we could get rid of them,” he said of the Taliban. “But how can we fight them? This kind of disease is hard to get rid of.” The only people strong enough to expel the Taliban, Jan said, were the Americans. “Our government is very weak. I am sorry to tell you this, but you can’t go now. First there must be security, and then you can go.” And he added: “You shouldn’t stay forever. You have your own country to go to.”

Were Jan and the other Afghans like him lying to the Americans to buy themselves a little peace? Maybe. Just two days before, not a mile from Jan’s village, an American patrol had been struck by a bomb. At the very least, Jan probably knows people in the Taliban, and maybe even allows them to use his village. Still, my strong impression was that Jan and other Afghans like him--not far away, on yet another foot patrol, an Afghan man had come out of his house to warn the Marines of a pending Taliban ambush--were speaking the truth. In the hour-long conversation with Jan, neither he nor any of the other Afghan men who gathered to speak with me exhibited the slightest trace of hostility or fear.

What does such an encounter mean for the United States and its NATO allies? It means, for one thing, that many Afghans, even in the worst places, are still receptive to their presence. It means that the Afghans’ ultimate allegiance is probably still up for grabs. It means that the U.S. and NATO forces are not, in most places, regarded as an occupying army. And it means that if the Americans and NATO practice their counterinsurgency strategy as well as they preach it--that is, if they make protecting the Afghan people their overriding objective--then they have a chance to begin isolating the Taliban from the villages where they operate.

 

II. That is the good news. The bad news is that isolating the Taliban and wooing ordinary Afghans may be the easiest task that confronts the United States and its allies. The rest is immeasurably harder.

In the villages along the Helmand River, the principal challenge that awaits the Americans is as clear as the empty winter sky. There are no Afghan institutions--not the army, not the police, not the government--that could take over if the United States and its allies decided to leave. In Mian Poshteh, a scattering of mud huts and cornfields, there were no schools, no paved roads, no police, no electricity, no running water, and only a handful of Afghan soldiers. In this regard, Mian Poshteh is not exceptional in any way.

There is, of course, a central government in Kabul. And what a government it is! Its reach extends outside the capital in only the most notional way. In some of the contested provinces, there is little more than a skeletal administration: a governor, whose life and livelihood is guarded by NATO or Afghan troops, and a handful of terrified Afghans around him. That is pretty much it. In the districts, there is, at least in theory, a local administrator--appointed by the provincial governor, who is appointed by Karzai--but in contested areas such as the provinces of Helmand and Kandahar and Khost, there is often not even that.

And then there is the army and police. There are currently about ninety thousand of each. This is a woefully inadequate number. (Iraq, with a smaller population, has security forces that number about 600,000.) When you consider that an Afghan army and police force are the only things that would ultimately allow the United States to leave here in a good way, it makes you wonder what on earth the Bush administration was doing for the past eight years. President Obama has promised to expand their numbers to at least 400,000, but the more worrisome issue is not their number but their quality.

For the Afghan security forces really are in a sorry state. Eight years into the war, the Afghan army and police have shown themselves willing to fight, but incapable of much more than that: maintaining themselves in the field, mounting operations at night, operating weapons more complicated than a rifle. Even after years of training, the skills and the literacy levels necessary to administer forces in the field have failed to materialize. When it comes to paying, feeding, and supplying soldiers, and tracking who is on leave and who is injured, most Afghan units perform miserably. These tasks are almost always performed by American or NATO soldiers.

Last year, Major General Richard Formica, who was then overseeing the training of the Afghan security forces, spoke to me about the difficulties of creating an army in a country where only one in four adults is literate. “What percentage of police recruits can read?” Formica asked when we met at his headquarters in Kabul. “When I was down in Helmand, where the Brits were training police officers, they said not only could none of them read but they didn’t understand what a classroom was. How can you train officers if they can’t write arrest reports?”

And then there is Karzai’s government in Kabul. On most days, it shows itself to be a spectacularly corrupt institution, existing for little more than its own enrichment. The evidence of its corruption is everywhere. Provincial police chief jobs cost as much as $50,000, with the idea being that the investment will more than pay for itself. The bloated mansions in the Kabul neighborhood called Sherpur, with their dozen-plus bedrooms, sell for millions of dollars each--this in one of the world’s poorest countries--and some of them are occupied by current and former officials in Karzai’s government.

There appear to be few transactions in public life that have not been overwhelmed by graft. Stand outside the municipal courthouse in Kabul, as I did, and you can talk to any number of people who will tell you about their recent purchases: hearings, judges, verdicts, settlements. At the checkpoints that mark virtually every traffic intersection in the capital, the police regularly demand bribes to let drivers through. It is not uncommon for drivers taking their trucks through the city to fork over money at two dozen posts. I paid a bribe just to walk inside Kabul International Airport.

And then, of course, there was August’s presidential election. By the cautious estimates of international observers, Karzai’s supporters--that is, his government and the election workers under his command--falsified nearly a million ballots on his behalf. The vote-stealing was astonishingly brazen. In the Shorabak region of Kandahar Province, Karzai loyalists detained the district governor (whom I interviewed) and effectively cancelled the election. Inside Shorabak’s local government office, Karzai supporters--otherwise known as election workers--falsified 23,900 ballots and sent them to Kabul. Every one of them was a vote for Karzai.

Much of the vote-stealing appears to have been orchestrated by Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president’s brother, who wields power over southern Afghanistan like one of Coppola’s godfathers. (It was on his orders that the district governor of Shorabak was detained, I was told.) American officials believe that Ahmed Wali Karzai is deeply involved in the opium trade, which is one of the economic engines of the Taliban. American diplomats and generals have pushed President Karzai to remove him, but so far Karzai has refused.

As the corruption in the Karzai government has grown more blatant, a popular hypothesis has emerged to explain it: that officials in Karzai’s government orchestrated the fraud in order to preserve their hold on the moneymaking apparatus that the government has become. “It’s a moneymaking machine,” one senior American official told me. How do you reform something like this?

Since 2001, President Karzai and his cohorts have known only too well that they have the Americans over a barrel. No matter how hard the Americans pushed him, Karzai could figure, they were not going to leave. In any event, they were never going to do anything that would substantially weaken Karzai himself. And so, in fact, they have not. The Americans have threatened Karzai and cajoled him, and Karzai has laughed behind their backs. Just after the election, the American ambassador, Karl Eikenberry, reportedly went to Karzai and demanded that his brother be sent away from Kandahar. Even this request Karzai refused.

This brings us to President Obama’s eighteen-month deadline for U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan. The president obviously was thinking politically: he intended to reassure American voters that his commitment to Afghanistan was not foolishly open-ended. But Obama was also conveying a message to Karzai. With that rather short deadline, Obama seemed to be calling Karzai’s bluff. You don’t think we’ll leave? Just watch. The trouble with Obama’s deadline is that, in crucial ways, it appears to be at war with itself. If the intent of the president’s message was to convey to the American people that the end was in sight, then it was almost certainly untrue. In all likelihood, the end of America’s involvement in Afghanistan is not in sight. Constructing an Afghan state that can stand on its own--an army and a police force, at the very least--will take many years. It will certainly take longer than eighteen months. Obama no doubt recognizes this. But the real trouble with Obama’s speech was not its message to the American people, but its message to the Taliban. Can the insurgents really be turned that quickly?

 

III. Around the U.S. military’s headquarters in downtown Kabul, it is commonplace to hear that Afghanistan, whatever else it is, is not Iraq. Everything here, it is said over and over, is different: the people, the terrain, the language, the insurgency. So it is. And yet at the same time you can sense a yearning among many officers here that, if we are lucky, Afghanistan may turn out to be like Iraq after all.

It may seem odd to place your hopes for winning in Afghanistan on what transpired over the past seven years in Iraq. The latter, of course, was a bloody catastrophe, at least in the first four years. By late 2006, the American invasion had midwifed the implosion of an entire society, a civil war, and a seemingly hopeless military quagmire. But the incontrovertible fact is that then the war turned. To anyone who spent time in Iraq during the nightmare years, the idea that Iraq was headed for anything other than a total disintegration--and the region for a wider war--would have been regarded as fanciful. But for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was luck, the Americans reeled Iraq back in. The bloody streets went pretty still. And despite predictions to the contrary, the relative calm that took hold in late 2007 has largely held. The worst has been avoided.

There is no question that the military’s best officers feel humbled by the calamities of Iraq. It is also true that those same officers learned from their mistakes--and that their learning curve helped to pull Iraq back from the abyss. There are not many institutions left in American life that seem capable of such growth, or of such character. And whatever the senior officers are saying, they appear to be banking that a similar set of dynamics will rescue them in Afghanistan. The biggest lesson, as General McChrystal himself told me, was never to give up: “One of the big takeaways from Iraq was that you have to not lose confidence in what you are doing. We were able to go to the edge of the abyss without losing hope.”

In Iraq a whole array of things turned, and at the just the right time. Al Qaeda overreached, finally pushing ordinary Sunnis--even insurgents--to open revolt. The training of the Iraqi army and police finally started to jell. The widespread ethnic cleansing of Iraq’s cities, principally Baghdad, made the Sunnis fearful of a genocide and easier, in their enclaves, to defend. Iraq’s Shia majority recognized that unchallenged power was within its grasp if the Americans could be persuaded to leave. And of course there was the surge.

Two of these phenomena are particularly relevant to the Afghan war: the surge and the Awakening. The Afghan version of the surge was announced by Obama last December. And for all the talk of counterinsurgency, the real hope, clearly, is that the fresh infusion of troops will be able to bleed the Taliban enough to force them to consider some sort of political settlement. This is really the heart of the matter. But how likely is it? Over the course of the past several months, there have been intensifying efforts to reach out to Taliban senior leaders like Mullah Omar. These talks, so far as I can tell, do not appear to have gotten much traction. The Americans insist that Omar disavow Al Qaeda, while the Taliban insist that the Americans leave, or at least set a timetable to leave. Theoretically, at least, it is possible to imagine the basis of a deal based on those positions, particularly if Obama is already intending some sort of drawdown.

But there is the time paradox again. With an eighteen-month deadline looming, what incentive does the Taliban have to make a deal? If you read the movement’s regular Internet communiqués, you will see that their morale is not that of an army on the brink of defeat. “With their own hands the Americans made the people of Helmand stand with the holy warriors, and all of them have entered the trenches of resistance to seek vengeance and jihad,” a recent Taliban missive proclaimed. “This will bear no fruit except the enemy’s defeat, Allah willing.” It appears the Taliban wholly expect the Americans to run out of will.

 

It is here, perhaps, that the experience in Iraq merges with the hope in Afghanistan. In a slightly different way, the Americans are attempting to replicate not just the surge but also the Awakening, the Sunni tribal revolt against Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. They intend to make deals not with the top of the insurgency, but with the bottom. Beginning in late 2006, American officers and intelligence agents, by cutting deals with tribal leaders, effectively removed thousands of insurgents from the battlefield. Many of them--thirty thousand in all--were put on the American payroll. All of them turned on Al Qaeda.

No one in Kabul really believes that they will be able to produce results as dramatic as those that unfolded in the Awakening in Iraq. In Afghanistan, the old tribal hierarchies are nowhere near as coherent as they are in Iraq. Thirty years of war and Taliban cooptation (in some cases subtle, in some cases brutal) has made it far less likely that the insurgents can be separated from the rest of Afghan society. Afghanistan is a deeply atomized place. It is this fragmentation, more than any other factor, that makes any sort of broad-based settlement difficult to imagine.

Where does that leave the Americans? As one senior American official told me recently, “We are trying everything--and its opposite.” But in fact things are not that desperate. Basically, the Americans are hoping they can begin peeling off individual Taliban commanders at the bottom of the food chain, offering them jobs and security if they come along. And they are hoping to hire tens of thousands of local militiamen to defend their own communities. (Ideally, these two initiatives will complement each other.) Over time, the thinking goes, these initiatives could amount to a political settlement, if informal and piecemeal. And things might even go further. It is not inconceivable that the Afghan government could strike deals with Taliban “shadow governors” who are now in effective control of several areas in the south and the east. That would begin to look very much like the Awakening.

But all this is not very likely, at least not yet. The Taliban would have to be substantially weakened, and the government in Kabul substantially strengthened, for anything like this to take hold in more than a few areas. The Iraq analogy is useful again. There the military hung in, and got it right, and also got lucky. In some ways, really, they got a miracle. But strategies and policies generally do not deliver miracles. Can we expect a miracle in Afghanistan? Of course not. But it may take a miracle for us, and Afghanistan, to win.

Dexter Filkins, a foreign correspondent for The New York Times, is the author of The Forever War (Vintage).

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