In early winter of 2001, an invading force of fewer than 10,000 American soldiers, Marines, Special Forces, and CIA operatives stampeded the Taliban and al-Qaeda forces across Afghanistan. A punitive campaign of historic brevity and one-sided casualties was about to end. Then our most senior officials made two disastrous decisions. First, General Tommy Franks, the commander of the invasion, refused to employ American forces to seal off the al-Qaeda remnants, including Osama bin Laden, hiding in the Tora Bora mountains. Instead, General Franks handed the fight over to unreliable Afghan warlords, who let bin Laden and al-Qaeda escape into Afghanistan.
Second, a shattered and bewildered Taliban tried to negotiate with the rump Afghan “government” officials hastily inserted and protected by U.S. forces. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, however, decided peremptorily to prevent any intra-Afghan negotiations. The Taliban leadership decamped into Pakistan, while the rank and file cached their weapons and dispersed back into their villages in southern Afghanistan.
Our top leadership, military and civilian alike, then decided that we were obliged to transform a 17th-century conglomeration of warring Muslim tribes into an economically-vibrant Western democracy. The U.S. Army and Marine Corps changed their doctrine, enthusiastically issuing a directive that “Soldiers and Marines are expected to be nation-builders as well as warriors.” The result was 17 years of fruitless skirmishing at a cost of more than 4,000 American military and contractor fatalities and the expenditure of more than a trillion dollars.
The two critical decisions in 2001—allowing al-Qaeda to escape and refusing to negotiate from a position of overwhelming strength with the Taliban—were impulsive. Four-star General Franks made the first decision and civilian Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld made the second. Both acted in a decisive, instinctive, and peremptory manner, with no consultation of others. Neither top decision-maker reached out to discuss alternative courses of action with experts who were easily available.
So where are we today? According to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, “The [Trump] strategy sent a clear message to the Taliban: they cannot wait us out…. We are prepared to help the Afghan people resolve their differences.” Our current commander in Afghanistan, General Austin Scott Miller, recently said, “This is not going to be won militarily.” We cannot win, but the Taliban cannot wait us out. That defines a paradox.
The roles of the Taliban and America have reversed. In 2001, the Taliban wanted to negotiate and we refused because they were terrorists and we seemed to be winning. In 2018, we seek to negotiate with the Taliban and they refuse. The Taliban are terrorists who want to rule Afghanistan and shut out the world. They’re a cancer inside the Afghan tribal society, not a virus that can spread into a global plague. Our war aim has devolved from creating a stable democracy to exiting without suffering an ignominious defeat on the scale of our 1975 escape from Saigon by helicopters from the roof of our embassy.