All the Wrong Lessons
Posted by Patrick Barry
As long as we're focused on useful historical analogies, I though I'd bring up something that's been on my mind since the debate. For someone who pretty frequently uses history as a truncheon to bludgeon his opponents, you sometime have to wonder whether John McCain understands his own lessons. A perfect example is what he did last night - pointing to U.S. involvement in Afghanistan at the end of the Cold War in an attempt to make himself look like the seasoned professional and Obama, like the inexperienced green horn:
"We drove the Russians out with -- the Afghan freedom fighters drove the Russians out of Afghanistan, and then we made a most serious mistake. We washed our hands of Afghanistan. The Taliban came back in, Al Qaeda, we then had the situation that required us to conduct the Afghan war."
Now for me, the central lesson of American involvement in Afghanistan during the 1980s is pretty clear - don't turn away from a country with poor governance, a non-existent infrastructure, and thousands of well-armed, well-trained militants. But that is precisely what John McCain and George W. Bush did after the U.S. invaded the country in 2001. They turned away. So for McCain to cite this case-study to show how knowledgeable he is on national security is pretty ironic, since it actually has the opposite affect.
It's easy to view McCain's choice - made way back in 2001 - in the abstract, especially in the context of the current crisis. But if you look at the different dynamics that were in play in Afghanistan immediately following the 9-11 attacks, you can't help but get the sense that the decision to abandon that mission to invade Iraq cost us an incredible opportunity. Almost everything was set up in our favor.
First, there was broad international support for the U.S. mission to stabilize the country. Not only had NATO invoked Article 5 for the first time in its history, but in a remarkable step, it authorized military action outside of Europe. International backing for the U.S. didn't end with NATO though. The agreement signed at Bonn in December, which outlined the framework for the new Afghan state, contained a stipulation that the U.N. Security Council would issue a mandate to deploy an international assistance force - the NATO-ISAF - to stablize Afghanistan. This force was envisaged as playing a role similar to that played by U.S. peacekeepers deployed to Bosnia following the Dayton agreement - to help advance prospects for peace after years of turmoil.
Additionally, countries like Pakistan and Iran, which had once been a thorn in the side of the U.S., both in the surrounding region, and around the world, had been so cowled by decisive U.S. action to eliminate the Taliban and al-Qaeda, that they were poised to act cooperatively. According to Jim Dobbins, who was special envoy to Afghanistan at the time, no country contributed more to the negotiations that brought the Bonn process to a successful conclusion than Iran. This behavior was historically unprecedented, and has not been seen since.
Countless tribes, and multiple ethnic groups populate Afghanistan, but they too shared the U.S. vision for a stable Afghan state. Jim Dobbins labored for months to craft an agreement that was amenable to Pashtuns and Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras. For the document to contain the signatures of "representatives of Afghanistan's different ethnic groups, expatriate Afghans, and representatives of the exiled monarch,' was remarkable.
And finally - and this is probably the most important point - U.S. military action had left the Taliban and al-Qaeda in disarray. With their camps destroyed, their numbers depleted, their capabilities dramatically curtailed, all that was left was to work cooperatively, but firmly, with the surrounding countries to ensure that extremists could not return to Afghanistan, or set up operations elsewhere. A crippling blow could have been struck.
What all these points demonstrate, and what Max just pointed out by discussing the lessons from peacekeeping and stability operations in the 1990s, is that even when the stars align, even when you get every actor on the same page, and even when you have reduced the destructive influece of spoilers to virtually nil, no comprehensive agreement can sustain itself without a complimentary infusion of resources and attenion. It's incredibly fortunate that you get to 'yes' in instances like these, and when you do, that's just the beginning. Taking advantage of such an opportunity requires a forceful committment from all the actors involved, something which did not occur when the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan at the end of the Cold War, but which could have happened had John McCain and George W. Bush not turned so suddenly to Iraq ten years later. Unfortunately, John McCain didn't heed his own advice, and the "most serious mistake" of the 1990s replayed itself in 2001.