TOPICS: Failings of the Rumsfeld doctrine

This month’s devastating wave of suicide attacks in Afghanistan (including three attacks last Monday, which brought the total number to 69 since 2005) is a grim reminder that Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, under fire for his role in Iraq, has been the architect of not one but two failing wars — and of a dangerous vision for how to apply American power.

August 2002 was Afghanistan’s “Mission Accomplished” moment. Rumsfeld declared the military effort “a breathtaking accomplishment” and “a successful model of what could happen to Iraq.” America had routed the Taliban, disrupted Al Qaeda, and set Afghanistan on a course for stability and democracy — and it had done it Rumsfeld’s way, at little cost and with minimal loss of life. But in reality, the mission was never accomplished. Five years after September 11, America’s efforts in Afghanistan, as in Iraq, are unravelling. The country’s government remains weak and corrupt, and it faces daunting obstacles: dismal development indicators, an entrenched opium industry, and a reinvigorated insurgency.

The doctrine’s shortcomings in Afghanistan have received little attention because the unravelling has occurred in slow motion and with scant media attention. The Taliban were routed by small teams of Special Forces, who directed devastating airstrikes and guided their Afghan allies on the ground. But victory was never achieved. Of course we will never know what would have happened if the war in Afghanistan had been handled differently: if America had taken up NATO’s Article 5 declaration (“an attack against one is an attack against all”) in earnest and led a genuinely multinational force; or if the expanded coalition had deployed 200,000 troops, rather than 20,000, and stabilised the whole country, rather than just Kabul;

if peacekeepers from Muslim nations had been enlisted; if ground troops were in place to cut off bin Laden’s escape; or if the 5th Special Forces Group had been permitted to continue its hunt for bin Laden, rather than being redeployed to prepare for Iraq.

Washington has marginalised international institutions and long insisted that the ad hoc peacekeeping force be limited to Kabul. It subcontracted security to mujahideen in the provinces. It fought a narrowly conceived war against the Taliban that combined airstrikes and civilian detentions. It bypassed the UN to divide responsibility for rebuilding the Afghan state among a handful of Western countries — a messy and costly endeavour made more difficult by the absence of authoritative coordination.

The result has been a steady unravelling in Afghanistan, as in Iraq. These are, to be sure, the president’s wars, but they were fought under Rumsfeld’s strategy. Each was predicated on unrealistic notions of what could be achieved by force, and each dismissed the importance of international legitimacy. Afghanistan is not yet lost, but what once required several ounces of prevention now requires a pound of cure. — The Christian Science Monitor