Andrew G. Bjelland: How America lost its focus in Afghanistan

We missed the chance to take out Osama bin Laden and then turned to ‘nation building’ and Iraq.

(Rahimullah Yousafzai | AP photo) In this Dec. 24, 1998, photo, al-Qaida leader Osama Bin Laden speaks to a selected group of reporters in mountains of Helmand province in southern Afghanistan.

A friend of mine was involved in the planning and execution of the 2001 defeat of the Taliban and in the Battle of Tora Bora. As the partisan blame game concerning the Afghanistan exit intensifies, I hope this summation of my friend’s recent comments, plus the results of my own research, will provide some much needed historical perspective.

The initial mission in Afghanistan, as stated by President George W. Bush, was limited in scope. He directly addressed the Taliban: “Deliver to United States authorities all the leaders of al Qaeda who hide in your land…[You] must act, and act immediately. [You] will hand over the terrorists, or [you] will share in their fate.”

When the Taliban refused to comply with Bush’s demands, American military action was inevitable. Virtually all of America’s Western and Middle Eastern allies supported this move. U.S. troops and their Afghan allies defeated the Taliban within two months. Kandahar, the the center of Taliban power, fell on Dec. 1, 2001.

American intelligence operatives, members of U.S. special forces and several hundred members of the Northern Alliance came close to capturing Osama bin Laden at the Battle of Torah Bora, Dec. 3 to Dec. 17, 2001. Americans and their allies were within a few hundred yards of bin Laden and his supporters as they were attempting to escape to Pakistan.

While bin Laden was fleeing, a request was made by those on the ground for additional support to finish the job. Presumably at the direction of Vice President Dick Cheney, this request was denied by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Gen. Tommy Franks.

Tora Bora might well have provided the American military with the opportunity to declare “mission accomplished” and go home.

The American mission in Afghanistan lost focus when Cheney and Rumsfeld turned to nation building. Once America initiated the Iraq War on Dec. 6, 2003, Afghanistan became of secondary concern. Many American allies were bewildered by the shift of focus to Iraq.

There are many lessons to be learned from America’s military misadventure in Afghanistan: Beware of mission creep. Engaging in asymmetrical warfare with an army of would-be martyrs — martyrs for whom freedom truly means “nothing left to lose” — is utter folly. Expending millions of dollars in attempts to bribe cunning “allied” leaders to bend to America’s will and do its bidding is fruitless.

Believing that tribal peoples — peoples with traditions far different from our own and with ingrained “corrupt” customs — will, within a decade or two, adopt democratic institutions is magical thinking. Wasting a guided missile with a tens-of-thousands-of-dollars price-tag to knock out a machine-gun mounted on an aged pickup is far from cost effective.

A less obvious lesson: All American’s should carefully read in its entirety and reflect on President Dwight David Eisenhower’s “Farewell Address.”

In 1961 Eisenhower spoke to a far more united Congress and citizenry. Eisenhower precisely articulated the common values that keep our nation from devolving into the Divided States of America.

He addressed a nation “proud of [its] pre-eminence,” but which realized its “leadership and prestige depend, not merely upon…unmatched material progress, riches and military strength, but on how we use our power in the interests of world peace and human betterment.”

Most important of all, he warned: “[The] conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience … Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications … In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

Andrew G. Bjelland

Andrew G. Bjelland, Ph.D., is a professor emeritus, philosophy department, Seattle University and resides in Salt Lake City.