Roy Gutman, now foreign editor for McClatchy newspapers, has written a narrative history of U.S. policy toward Afghanistan from the Soviet withdrawal to the 9/11 attacks. It is a painstakingly researched book with a great many interviews and references to original documentation. And it has the virtue of keeping the narrative tightly focused on a central theme: how the U.S. failure to exert influence in Afghanistan allowed Osama bin Laden to turn it into a base of operations from which to plan his terrorist campaign against the United States. Gutman’s work deserves serious attention in the current debate over U.S. policy choices for Afghanistan.
The book opens with the retreat of Soviet troops from Afghanistan and two parties celebrating it. One was organized at the CIA by Director William Webster, with Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson, who had pushed for the arming of the jihadi struggle against the Soviets, as the guest of honor. The second was a gathering in Afghanistan at al-Farouk training camp, where Arab volunteers were invited to join a broader jihad under the leadership of Osama bin Laden. The juxtaposition dramatizes Gutman’s central thesis, stated in an epilogue: “Power vacuums may lead to civil war, and when an outside power can’t guarantee security, it is a short path to regional conflict. In this new world, the gravest threats to American security and international stability may come from places that were on the periphery of superpower competition.”
Gutman provides plenty of evidence to support his argument that the United States did not pay enough attention to Afghanistan during the Clinton and Bush administrations, and that this lack of concern contributed to the destabilization of the country and the emergence of the al Qaeda threat there. He cites the Clinton administration’s “strategic foreign-policy failure” in not having organized itself bureaucratically to respond to the threat from Bin Laden in Afghanistan. He also cites the administration’s wishy-washy policy toward the issue of Taliban rule, even after the administration knew bin Laden was responsible for the East African embassy bombings of 1998 and was pursuing a terrorist war against the United States.
Some particularly striking omissions signaled the lack of resolve in Clinton policy toward al Qaeda. In a speech on terrorism at the United Nations in fall 1998, for example, Clinton avoided mentioning either Afghanistan or bin Laden. Gutman also cites the persistent refusal of the State Department to side with the Northern Alliance foes of the Taliban regime throughout the period.
As for the George W. Bush administration, Gutman refers in a footnote to a neglected Wall Street Journal article in April 2001 reporting that “counterterrorism officials” were saying the United States had “inflated Mr. bin Laden’s power and prestige in recent years by portraying him as the ultimate terrorist mastermind and top threat to America’s security.” The clear implication was that the Bush administration would not worry so much about Bin Laden. Gutman fails to note the considerable evidence that this argument was coming from Bush’s key national security advisers, from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to Vice President Dick Cheney, who were supremely uninterested in Bin Laden and al-Qaeda, because they did not represent a state enemy.
This is the story that Gutman argues the media missed: that the Clinton administration failed to intervene forcefully in Afghanistan and thus allowed the country to fall into the hands of extremists, and that the Bush administration did nothing to change that policy before 9/11. Based on these premises, one might well conclude that the United States must remain the hegemonic power in Afghanistan, using military force as necessary to guarantee against any power vacuum and regional war.
But that is not the only story that has been missed by the press or the only policy lesson that can be drawn from the narrative history Gutman has assembled. An alternative story that emerges from Gutman’s narrative and from Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars is how U.S. policy continued its support for the war by Islamic extremists even after the Soviet military withdrawal in February 1989. Not until February 1992, three years after the Soviets had pulled out their troops, did Washington agree to halt arms shipments going to Afghanistan. In the meantime, the United States and Pakistan were providing the Islamic extremists — especially Pakistan’s main client, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar — with everything they needed to seize power. It was not as if an alternative to that policy was not available. Foreign Service Officer Ed McWilliams courageously called for a policy of supporting a political settlement rather than more fighting, but the U.S. embassy in Pakistan and the CIA were committed to continuing their war.
In explaining the policy of supporting continued war by Islamic extremists in Afghanistan, Gutman focuses on the U.S. strategic alliance with the Pakistani military, with which U.S. military and intelligence had longstanding ties. The rationale for the alliance was that Afghanistan was not important to the United States, but that Pakistan needed to have an Afghan government under its influence to achieve “strategic depth” vis-à-vis its geopolitical rival, India.
But there was also a bureaucratic interest driving this U.S. policy. The CIA was not about to give up its largest operation ever until it had brought its jihadist clients their ultimate victory: the overthrow of the government the Soviets had installed. Coll’s account of the bureaucratic politics of Afghanistan policy under President George H. W. Bush shows clearly that the CIA had a high degree of autonomy in carrying out its war in Afghanistan, because of indifference on the part of Bush himself and Secretary of State James Baker.
Gutman’s narrative is admirably clear about the consequences of the continuation of the CIA’s war. The Najibullah government had been holding together a tentative military coalition of Dari-speaking northerners and Pashtun-speaking southerners. Its final collapse under pressure from the clients of the CIA and ISI was inevitably followed by a civil war between the Pakistani-backed Hekmatyar and the anti-Pakistan commander Ahmad Shah Massoud. That civil war brought such complete chaos to Afghanistan that it led, in turn, to the triumph of the Taliban.
Gutman recounts the rise of the Taliban in the Pashtun zone as a response to the uncontrolled violence and disorder of the civil war. He quotes Hamid Karzai as telling U.S. consul general in Peshawar Richard Smyth in spring 1994 about a new group called the Taliban, which he said the United States “has to support…right away.” That turning point underlines the reality that Clinton administration support for the Taliban government after it took power in 1996 was in large part the result of the belief, shared widely among Afghans, that the only alternative was a return to anarchy. How strongly the memory of the anarchy of warlord misrule and civil war influenced the State Department’s reluctance to support some of those same commanders against the Taliban is not clear from Gutman’s account.
It can be argued, therefore, that the most important lesson from U.S. policy up to the emergence of Bin Laden’s terrorist haven in Afghanistan was this: pursuing a broad strategy without regard to the interests of the Afghan people themselves is likely to harm the interests of everyone but the extremists.
That lesson becomes even more compelling if historical analysis is extended backward in time. The entire CIA operation in Afghanistan, carried out in coordination with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, was directly responsible for building up the Islamic extremist armies that later wreaked such havoc and led to the Taliban regime’s relationship with al Qaeda.
Gutman presents a well-documented historical brief for the argument that the United States should have intervened more deeply in Afghan politics during the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. But the other lesson from history — that U.S. intervention in pursuit of American and Pakistani interests had terrible historical consequences — may be more significant in relation to the crisis over Afghanistan policy facing the Barack Obama administration.