Why Do We Fight in Afghanistan?

More people have been asking that question lately. For years Americans have been told that despite setbacks we are making progress there. Making progress toward what, people wonder. What is the mission of the United States in Afghanistan? After more than a decade since the launch of Operation Enduring Freedom, it is worth revisiting what American leaders said they sought to accomplish in the first place. The memoirs of President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld provide answers even as they also, in the tradition of memoirs, defend their actions and settle scores. They describe the shock following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the conviction that a strong response was necessary. These leaders believed that the expansion of American military power would make the United States more secure and that Afghanistan would become a dependable ally.

Strategic Vision

“This conflict was begun on the timing and terms of others,” declared President Bush on September 14, 2001. “It will end in a way, and at an hour, of our choosing.” The United States, he asserted, was taking control. He pressed the U.S. military to come up with a plan for invading Afghanistan, which was governed by the Taliban and where the terrorist organization Al Qaeda was known to be based. In his memoir Decision Points, President Bush defined the strategic vision: “removing the Taliban, denying sanctuary to Al Qaeda, and helping a democratic government emerge.”[1]

To Condoleezza Rice, the invasion of Afghanistan represented an opportunity. “A successful campaign in Afghanistan could help redraw the map of the region,” she thought. “An American military presence in Afghanistan and surrounding states—necessitated by the events of 9/11—could ultimately contribute to stability in South-Central Asia.” According to her memoir No Higher Honor, she concluded that U.S. geostrategic influence would be enhanced by the emergence of a “friendly Afghan government” and stronger relations with the neighboring “stans.”[2]

“Afghanistan would be the opening salvo,” writes Donald Rumsfeld in Known and Unknown, “—our nation’s first major foray into a global, unconventional war aimed at preventing terrorists from launching future attacks against Americans.” When he and General Tommy Franks decided to share the fighting with Afghans, in particular the Northern Alliance, rather than send large numbers of U.S. troops, Rumsfeld announced a list of objectives. They were: “to make it increasingly difficult for the terrorists to use Afghanistan freely as a base of operation,” “to alter the military balance over time by denying to the Taliban the offensive systems that hamper the progress of the various oppositional forces,” acquire intelligence, deliver humanitarian aid, and develop “useful relationships with groups in Afghanistan that oppose the Taliban and al-Qaida.”[3] These qualified objectives did not make it clear how and when Operation Enduring Freedom would be considered a mission accomplished.

“To U.S. specifications”

The pursuit of U.S. security interests, explained policymakers, would benefit the people of Afghanistan. “We felt an obligation to leave them better off than when we had come,” recalls Rice. “Thus freeing Afghan women emerged early as a policy goal.” In a memo to the president, Rumsfeld wrote, “The U.S. strategic theme should be aiding local peoples to rid themselves of terrorists and to free themselves of regimes that support terrorism.”  Themes of liberation and humanitarianism accompanied the aerial bombardment of the Taliban’s air defense system and Al Qaeda training camps and the arrival of CIA operatives and Special Forces units in Afghanistan. President Bush recalled asking his team, “So who’s going to run the country?” Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld all mention that Hamid Karzai rode a motorcycle into Afghanistan from Pakistan, but they are vague about the U.S. role in selecting him as a leader. Rumsfeld, who was not as interested in establishing democracy as Bush and Rice, suggested that Karzai should model himself after Mayor Richard Daley of 1960s Chicago.[4]

When Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden got away in December 2001, Rumsfeld said that it did not matter. As the Bush administration shifted its focus to Iraq, it announced that the U.S. military was moving to “stability operations” in Afghanistan. The Americans, their NATO allies, and NGOs launched development projects to rebuild one of the poorest countries in the world. For example, in 2002 the U.S. Agency for International Development awarded the American firm, the Louis Berger Group (LBG), a five million dollar contract to assess Afghanistan’s infrastructure. Later that year the firm was contracted to build a highway from Kabul to Kandahar, a project estimated to cost $155 million; it was finished a year late for $730 billion. When Afghan officials requested more control over the project, arguing that they could complete it for less money, their request was denied. An engineer from LBG explained why. The Afghans “want to do the work,” he said, “but the truth is they just don’t have the wherewithal to complete it to U.S. specifications.” The expectation that the Afghans should meet U.S. specifications, from the liberation of women to road building to carrying out the war on terror, would lead from one frustration to another on all sides.[5]

Quagmire or Swamp?

From the beginning, critics questioned whether U.S. involvement in Afghanistan would turn into a quagmire, a term that recalled the long, unsuccessful, nation-building effort in Vietnam.  For instance, R. W. Apple, writing in the New York Times on October 31, 2001, headlined an article: “A Military Quagmire Remembered: Afghanistan as Vietnam.” President Bush recalls that he was amazed by this comparison because the two conflicts were so different.  For one thing, he noted, with regard to Afghanistan, “America was unified behind our troops and their mission.” One month into Operation Enduring Freedom, Rumsfeld travelled to visit Afghanistan’s neighbors. On the way home, he called the optimistic president to share his misgivings. “Afghanistan risks becoming a swamp for the United States,” he warned. “Everyone in Afghanistan has an agenda or two. We’re not going to find a lot of straight shooters.” He pointed out that the Americans may not be able to count on the Afghans and their neighbors who have their own goals. A “straight shooter,” apparently, referred to someone in Afghanistan who would carry out the U.S. agenda.[6]

When the people of Afghanistan failed to meet U.S. specifications, they were viewed by the Americans as unreliable and incapable. Accounts of the corruption within the Karzai government and killings by the Taliban convinced policymakers that the Americans would have to increase their civilian and military involvement. “We cannot lose in Afghanistan,” said Bush. In his memoir In My Time, Vice President Dick Cheney declared, “Our mission will not be complete until the Afghan government and armed forces can, on their own, prevent their nation from once again becoming a safe haven for terrorists.”[7] As revealed in their memoirs, American leaders based their policy on the expectation that they could transform Afghanistan into a nation that would fulfill the strategic imperative of the United States. That fundamental and flawed assumption helps to explain why Americans are still fighting in Afghanistan.

Susan A. Brewer

University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point

[1] George W. Bush, Decision Points (New York: Crown Publishers, 2010), 146, 194.

[2] Condoleezza Rice, No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington (New York: Crown Publishers, 2011), 84.

[3] Donald Rumsfeld, Known and Unknown: A Memoir (New York: Sentinel, 2011), 367-8; Donald Rumsfeld, “War is not about … 24-hour news cycles,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, November 4, 2001, 2J.

[4] Rice, No Higher Honor, 91; Rumsfeld, Known and Unknown, 373, 407; Bush, Decision Points, 197.

[5] Marc Kaufman, “Embracing Nation-Building,” Washington Post National Weekly Edition, April 21-27, 2003, 16; Ken Silverstein, “Developmentally Disabled,” Harper’s Magazine, September 2009, 68-69.

[6] Bush, Decision Points, 199-200; Rumsfeld, Known and Unknown, 398.

[7] Bush, Decision Points, 211; Dick Cheney, In My Time: A Personal and Political Memoir (New York: Threshold Editions, 2011), 347.