A critical appraisal of Operation Enduring Freedom and the Afghanistan war
In two short months Operation Enduring Freedom transformed the strategic landscape not only of Afghanistan, but also Central Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East. It did so in ways that were largely unforseen and unplanned at the outset of the war and that remain unsettled today. Seldom has the gap been so great between the clarity of battlefield victory and the uncertainty of what it has wrought. Even the net effect of the victory on the new terrorism is uncertain.
Summarizing the operation's outcomes in quantitative terms:
With regard to the immediate goals of Operation Enduring Freedom:
A more thorough debilitation of Al Qaeda might have been expected, given the expenditure of more than 12,000 bombs and the capture or killing of more than 10,000 enemy troops, but most of the US military effort was only indirectly related to Al Qaeda's global terrorist activities. The Taliban regime, which bore the brunt of the US operation, had only a contingent relationship to Al Qaeda's activities outside the region and most of the Al Qaeda facilities and the foreign troops under Al Qaeda control in Afghanistan had to do with the civil war there. Most of the organization's capabilities to conduct far reaching terrorist acts resides outside of Afghanistan, and thus fell beyond the scope of Operation Enduring Freedom.
Apart from immediately disrupting Al Qaeda operations, Enduring Freedom also sought to deter states more generally from supporting or tolerating terrorist activities. But the deterrent effect of the operation remains uncertain: while some states will likely become more careful about directly or indirectly supporting terror attacks on US assets, terrorist organizations themselves may become more motivated to conduct them. The deterrent effect may not extend at all to weak states or quasi-states (like Somalia). Moreover, the new transnational terrorist organizations, like Al Qaeda, are not be especially dependent on state support for their anti-US operations.
Operation Enduring Freedom was not intended or designed be a stability or humanitarian operation. The Taliban regime was removed in order to punish it and to expedite intense, large-scale action against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan -- not to stabilize the country or relieve its humanitarian crisis. Thus, it should be no surprise that the operation has imposed significant stability and humanitarian costs. The cost in lives lost was summarized above. In terms of stability effects:
The potential for instability in post-Taliban Afghanistan resides in three systemic features of the new strategic environment:
These features of post-Taliban Afghanistan imply a significant potential for internecine conflict, including terrorist activity. Two steps that might have mitigated this potential were (i) the pre-war formation of a well-balanced government of national unity and (ii) the early deployment of a large-contingent of peacekeepers to support it. Although the 2001 Bonn meeting produced both a new government and a peacekeeping force for Afghanistan, neither of these really fill the bill. The interim government formed in Bonn failed to integrate all the important players. And the peacekeeping force deployed to Afghanistan is too small and came too late.
The war had a contagion effect on the India-Pakistan and Israeli-Palestinian disputes: During the course of Enduring Freedom, India and Pakistan veered closer to war than they had at any time since their 1999 clashes in Kashmir. This already was true before the 12 December attack by Islamic militants on the Indian parliament. In the mideast, violence on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide increased during the course of OEF, perhaps extinguishing completely the hope for a return to peace talks. During the period 11 September-31 December 2001 the rate of conflict deaths in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rose to twice that of the preceding eight months.7
Finally, the operation -- especially the bombing campaign and the post-war treatment of prisoners -- has fed anti-American sentiments throughout the Arab and Muslim world. Even in moderate Turkey, popular opinion ran 69 percent to 13 percent against the war.8 For many observers in the Arab and Muslim world, the various effects of the campaign easily combine to give the impression that the war is precisely what the Bush administration says it is not: an assault on Arab and Muslim interests. A near-term response on the part of Arab and Muslim states might mix cooperation and resistance to US efforts. A longer-term response would be to work harder at balancing against US power -- not in support of terrorism, per se, but as a means of improving their strategic bargaining position.
Rather than stability, Enduring Freedom has produced new and residual management tasks of uncertain proportion. In important respects, the operation's inadvertent effects have overshadowed its intended ones. For a counter-terrorism operation, Enduring Freedom has left an enormous strategic wake.
The Bush administration now proposes to handle the residual management tasks through a substantial additional investment of strategic capital -- notably, an expansion of overt military presence, assistance, and activism in central and south Asia.9 While US influence in Central Asia has been quietly growing for years, the post-OEF expansion of its military aspect will make it a more contentious issue for Russia and China -- not to mention for the region's Islamicist movements. There is an irony in this that will be lost on the bin Ladens of the world: their jihad against US military influence in Muslim areas has prompted an expansion of precisely the thing that aggravates them. But we should not expect this outcome to deter them from continuing as before. They are as immune to deterrence as they are to irony.
The deleterious stability and humanitarian effects of Operation Enduring Freedom had little to do with the real requirements of taking quick action against the Al Qaeda terrorist network, per se. Instead, they resulted from the methods of the operation and from the decision to (i) focus the operation on toppling the Taliban government as a first order of business while (ii) making insufficient provisions to lessen the war's impact on the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. At the level of method, the troublesome elements were the operation's heavy reliance on a broad campaign of aerial bombardment and its over dependence on proxy ground forces (local militias). In light of the operation's goals, what was missing was sufficient numbers of reliable ground troops in both combat and peacekeeping roles.
4.1 Overplaying air power
The deleterious effects of the bombing campaign could have been mitigated significantly by restricting bombing to purely military sites and battlefields. There would have been a price to pay, of course: some of the pressure on the Taliban would have been eased and somewhat fewer Taliban and Al Qaeda cadre would have been killed from the air. But the salutary effect on the civilian toll of the war would have been substantial. This effect would have resulted not only from greater selectively in targets but also from a reduced dependency on untested local intelligence sources, who played a key role in attacks on urban and emerging targets.
4.2 Peacekeepers: too little, too late
4.3 Over-dependence on local proxies
Correcting for over-dependence on local proxy ground forces would have required a larger and earlier deployment of US ground forces. In some roles these would have substituted for local militias; in other roles they might have advanced alongside the militias, seizing key objectives and establishing "bridge-heads" for follow-on peacekeepers. In general, a greater saturation of local militias by US advisors and supporting units could have served to give the United States greater effective control over these militias.
4.4 Boots on the ground
Considerable risk would have attended a larger deployment of ground troops, however. The occurrence of dozens (if not more) of US combat and friendly-fire fatalities would have been almost certain. In addition, this approach would have faced diplomatic and practical impediments. Some coalition partners both inside and outside of Afghanistan would have objected to a larger US or western ground presence. Mitigating these concerns within the context of a hastily mobilized coalition would have been difficult. And preparations to deploy and support larger numbers of US combat and multinational peacekeeping troops would have chafed against the chosen time frame for Operation Enduring Freedom, which already scheduled the operation uncomfortably close to the winter months.
The risks and difficulties associated with the option of deploying more ground troops earlier suggest that a more fundamental departure from Operation Enduring Freedom was needed -- if stability and humanitarian concerns were to be adequately and safely addressed. At any rate, some of the problems associated with Operation Enduring Freedom could not have been resolved simply by deploying more troops earlier -- the problem of Pakistani vacillation, for instance, and the problem of conflict contagion. To address these, a more fundamental alternative to Operation Enduring Freedom would have had to be pursued.
In bare outline, an alternative to Operation Enduring Freedom would have distinguished between (i) the immediate necessity of moving forcefully against al-Qaeda and (ii) a need to address the broader problem of Afghanistan, including the Taliban. Although related, these two requirements should have been pursued in different ways and time frames.
An immediate campaign against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan could have been limited to special and covert operations as well as selective air strikes, as many observers had predicted would be the case prior to the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom.11 At any rate, the most urgent anti-terrorist tasks in the aftermath of 11 September had to do with Al Qaeda cells outside of Afghanistan that might mount new strikes. Interdicting these was largely a mission of intelligence and law enforcement agencies.
Resolving the broader problems of Afghanistan might have required a large-scale military effort, but this should have taken the form of a stability operation -- and it should not have begun until an adequate political framework was in place. Pre-war preparations should have included:
Even 6 months of intensive diplomatic, intelligence, and military preparations would have made a significant difference in terms of the impact, effectiveness, and broader repercussions of a military operation aiming to bring stability to Afghanistan. Such preparations might have obviated war; they certainly would have allowed a reduction in its scale and intensity.
The historiography of the war holds that the Bush administration demonstrated notable restraint in waiting 25 days before responding militarily to the 11 September attacks. This certainly would have been true if the response in question were a limited one. However, three-and-half weeks is not a long time, by historical standards, to pause before initiating a large-scale military campaign in a highly volatile region bordering Russia and China. The case of the Afghan war contrasts sharply with the experience of preparing for operations Desert Storm and Allied Force. (In these earlier cases, four-to-six months of diplomatic work preceded the onset of offensive action; these earlier operations also benefitted from simpler strategic circumstances and stronger pre-war alliance arrangements.)
6.1 The rush to war
The administration's response reflected the depth of the nation's trauma following the 11 September attacks. On the eve of the war a large majority of Americans favored a full-scale military response, including overthrow of the Taliban, who had become a more prominent target than even Al Qaeda. Indeed, a 30 September Washington Post opinion poll found 39 percent of respondents feeling that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein was also a "must"; another 33 percent thought it a "good idea". However, while US public opinion gave the administration a blank check, opinion in only two other countries -- India and Israel -- were comparably supportive of quick US military action.12
6.2 Realism redux
Consistent with the administration's policy framework is a reduced emphasis on "humanitarian interests," international legal mechanisms, stability issues and operations (including peacekeeping), and attempts at nation-building. Especially relevant to Operation Enduring Freedom, the administration has placed a renewed emphasis on the role of states in supporting terrorism and a new emphasis on "regime removal" as a sanction for rogue behavior.14
From the administration's security policy perspective the problem of terrorism admits a fairly straight-forward solution: one simply acts as quickly and decisively as one's military power allows to remove the offending actors and those governments that consort with or tolerate them. The broader aim is to "drain the swamp" (of bad actors) and deter future flooding (as if flooding were a deter-able phenomenon). Within this framework the possible negative and inadvertent repercussions of rapid, large-scale action -- collateral damage, destabilization, "blowback" -- are treated as entirely tractable.
The administration's policy framework induces a kind of tunnel vision that makes precipitous action and ambitious war objectives likely. With regard to the goals of Operation Enduring Freedom, it dictated targeting the Taliban for extinction and minimized the effects of pursuing this course. Midway through the war, it led the United States to minimize the risks of unleashing the Northern Alliance. Throughout the war it led the United States to depreciate the negative repercussions of the strategic bombing campaign, the problem of post-war chaos, and the importance of measures to stabilize and rehabilitate Afghan society.
The administration's focus on states and state actors comports well with the structure of American military power and with prevalent concepts about its proper use -- including the application of decisive force and traditional notions of deterrence. But the administration's paradigm reduces attention to subnational and transnational dynamics, where most of the answers regarding the new terrorism reside.
Terrorists are notoriously difficult to deter -- especially the suicidal variety; the same is true of social movements that are driven by visceral hatred or apocalyptic visions. States, however, are more amenable to deterrence -- at least in Realist orthodoxy, which treats them as unified, rational agents. Unfortunately, this axiom has limited application in the case of the fragile quasi-states in whose territory organizations like Al Qaeda often nest.
At any rate, the proposition that transnational terrorist organizations need states in order to survive and prosper is simply false. None of the terrorist capabilities demonstrated on 11 September require a large infrastructure and none require an intentionally cooperating state. Indeed, the 11 September terrorist cells were less dependent functionally on Al Qaeda bases in Afghanistan than on flight schools in Florida.
The events of 11 September made clear the necessity of attending to the stability of Afghanistan -- but not simply because Osama bin Laden and his cohort resided in that country, nor even because top Taliban leaders permitted them to do so. Both these facts were symptomatic of conditions that have made Afghanistan an incubator of terrorism for more than twenty years. The culprit was no one individual, organization, or government but, instead, a set of conditions: interminable civil war, a shattered civil society, and weak, non-responsive governance. Outside powers contributed generously to these conditions over the years -- grinding down Afghan society and seeking variously to subjugate the country, use it as a springboard for their strategic ambitions, or exploit its internal divisions and conflicts. This indicates the extent to which the Afghan prospect has been and is embedded in a wider web of interstate competition. For this reason, progress on Afghanistan requires attention to issues of regional stability as well.
In important respects, the terrorism problem that confronts the world today is related to several other problems: the post-cold war proliferation of failed states, inter-communal and ethnic conflict, and associated regional rivalries. These related problems have substantially determined the character, extent, and magnitude of the new terrorism, making it a unique phenomenon. Together these problems form a set -- a "problem cluster" -- that has been augmented further by several residual effects of the cold war: the broad availability of light military weapons and the large number of demobilized military personnel and insurgency veterans. But these issues and concerns fall largely outside the scope of Realist tunnel vision.
Effective action against terrorism depends on a unique synergy of military and non-military measures -- the latter including diplomatic, humanitarian, development, peace-building, and law-enforcement efforts. The optimal synergy of the military and non-military aspects of response would be for the latter to keep threat generation down to a level that military efforts can manage. In turn, military efforts should serve to guarantee non-military measures and help maintain the conditions in which they might hope to succeed. The ultimate aim and measure of success is the establishment of a self-sustaining (ie. non-repressive) stability -- one that does not leak terrorism.
Peacekeeping and nation-building are solutions that the Bush administration intends to assiduously avoid, however. As Richard Haass, the director of Policy Planning for the State Department, has testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: "We don't want to get involved in the intrusive nation-building which would be resented by Afghans or resisted by them ultimately."15 But Haass' concern is misplaced. In fact what has bred resentment among many Afghanis, including some commanders allied with the United States, is the US emphasis on aerial bombardment as an agent of change. In many cases this resentment has taken the form of a palpable and intense anti-Americanism.16 This should be counted among the costs of the bombing campaign. But in the logic of state-centric Realism such sentiments are presumed to be sealed within a black box called the nation-state, which can be disciplined by traditional deterrence or decisive force. The events of 11 September should have ended forever the influence of this reassuring vignette. The attacking entity was subnational in origin and transnational in character. It was driven by visceral hatred, not state power. And what distinguished it, if anything, was its capacity to live and breed in the interstices of the nation-state and the international system.
8. The path charted by Enduring Freedom: chaotic outcomes, strategic over-extension, and conflict induction
Defense Secretary Rumsfeld has signaled a willingness to deploy to another 15 countries in pursuit of terrorists.17 But the method defined by Enduring Freedom will lead the United States into a thicket of civil, ethnic, and interstate conflicts involving much more than the issue of terrorism -- as is already the case in Afghanistan, Kashmir, and Israel. In such complex circumstances, the single-minded or "blinkered" exercise of US military power is bound to produce inadvertent and chaotic results, including increased conflict potentials. As in the case of Afghanistan, the result will be significant new and residual management tasks. Through this process the United States will become implicated as a partisan in local disputes in ways not originally intended.
The United States will not likely meet a foe that it cannot beat in war for some time. But other nations will seek increasingly to modernize and balance against a more activist and omni-present US military -- if for no other reason, simply to retain their own regional influence. In the meantime, the Enduring Freedom model will pose a problem of strategic over-extension for the United States. The rudiments of this problem are already evident in plans to substantially boost defense spending despite two years of projected budget deficits and a sharp decline in expected future budget surpluses. The 2003 defense budget has been set at $379 billion. This sum represents a 30 percent inflation-corrected increase over the 1998 budget and it is 93 percent as high as average spending during the cold war decade of the 1980s. Additional real increases in defense spending are likely during the decade. However, the projected budget surplus for the next ten years has declined 71 percent since last year, according to the Congressional Budget Office. 18
Operations Desert Storm, Allied Force, and Enduring Freedom suggest a greater US ability to transcend the problems associated with Vietnam-type "quagmires". But there is more to be concerned about down this road. The experience of the First World War is suggestive. The interlocking military pacts, minor wars, colonial competitions, multiple interventions, and arms races that preceded the First World War constituted a different type of quagmire: a self-constituting or emergent one. It developed almost imperceptibly before reaching a catastrophe point and suddenly engulfing its participants. The precipitating incident was an act of state-supported terrorism involving Serbia and Austria-Hungary that drew 15 more nations into war. The resulting disaster, which claimed 15 million lives, had been forty years in the making. And every step of the journey, except the last ones, seemed manageable to the nations that were taking them. Although they walked confidently, they could have no real appreciation of the cumulative interactive effects of their military initiatives.
The example of World War I suggests that it is not enough that nations be careful where they walk in the world. It is also necessary that nations take care how they walk in the world. This poses a daunting challenge to national leaders, who must practice restraint even when the field of action appears clear. And meeting this challenge will never be more difficult than when a nation finds itself in hot pursuit of the devil.
1. See Endnotes 4, 5, and 6 in main report.
2. Deborah Hastings, associated press writer, "7,000 Taliban, al-Qaida Being Held," Washington Post, 21 December 2001; Jelinek, "U.S. Keeps Lists for Afghan War," AP Online, 30 November 2001; Matt Kelley, "Twenty more suspected al-Qaida fighters sent to U.S. Marine base in Afghanistan," Associated Press, 27 December 2001; John Moore, "International Red Cross visits Taliban prisoners held by Marines at Kandahar base," Associated Press, 29 December 2001;
James Risen, "Taliban Chiefs Prove Elusive, Americans Say," New York Times, 20 December 2001, p. 1; and, Rowan Scarborough, "Probers told of Taliban deaths," Washington Times, 12 January 2002.
3. Carl Conetta, Operation Enduring Freedom: why a higher rate of civilian casualties?, PDA Briefing Report 11, 15 January 2002; and, Conetta, "Appendix 1. The war's impact on the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan," in Strange Victory: a critical appraisal of Operation Enduring Freedom and the Afghanistan War, PDA Research Monograph #6 (Cambridge: Commonwealth Institute, 2002), pp. 35-42.
4. Steve Kosiak, Estimated Cost of Operation Enduring Freedom: The First Two Months, CSBA Backgrounder (Washington DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 7 December 2001), available at <csbaonline.org>.
5. Walter Pincus, "Al Qaeda to survive bin Laden, Panel told," Washington Post, 19 December 2001.
6. Military Assistance to the Afghan Opposition, Human Rights Watch Backgrounder, October 2001, available at <hrw.org/backgrounder/asia/afghan-bck1005.htm>; Robert Fisk, "Our Friends Are Killers, Crooks and Torturers," Independent (UK), 7 October 2001; and, Thomas Walkom, "Unholy alliance - West's new allies include vitriolic anti-Americans, human-rights violators, former allies of Osama bin Laden and more," Toronto Star, 7 October 2001.
7. Between 11 September and 31 December 2001 the death toll for Palestinians was 279; for Israelis, 85. Since the beginning of the recent Intifada in September 2000 as many as 912 Palestinians and 250 Israelis have been killed. Brian Kates, "Bush to Arafat: Make Arrests," Daily News (New York), 2 December 2001, p. 4; "Palestinian Deaths Double Since 911," Agence France Presse, 13 November 2001; and, Palestine Red Crescent web site, mortality statistics; available at <palestinercs.org>.
8. A survey of attitudes about the war conducted in November and December by Gallup International found 82 percent of Pakistanis opposing the US effort versus 8 percent in support. In two other Muslim countries polled the balance of opinion was less extreme, but still notable: In Turkey opponents outnumbered supporters 69 to 16 percent; in Malaysia, 67 to 13 percent. A leadership survey conducted between 12 November and 13 December by the International Herald Tribune and the Pew Research Center found that six in ten of the leaders surveyed in Egypt, Pakistan, Turkey, and Uzbekistan thought the US attack on Afghanistan was an over-reaction. A year-end pan-Arab poll by the Saudi Arabic-language newspaper Okaz chose President George W. Bush as the second "worst personality of 2001". Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was given first place; Bin Laden, a distant third -- with a disapproval rating one-third that of President Bush. Brian Knowlton, "How the world sees the US and Sept. 11," IHT, 20 December 2001; "Sharon, Bush, Bin Laden Most Hated men of Year in Saudi Poll," Tehran Times, 1 January 2002; "US-Arab relations 'in crisis'", BBC Online News, 10 November 2001; Gallup International poll on terrorism, Gallup International, 9 January 2002, available at <gallup-international.com>.
9. "Uzbekistan Gets US Military Pledge," Associated Press, 24 January 2002; Sally Buzbee, "US Expands Military Ties, Joint Exercises Worldwide," Associated Press, 15 January 2002; Ron Martz, "US Allies: Initiative Laid Foundation for Central Asian Cooperation," Atlanta Journal and Constitution, 12 January 2002, p. 9; Eric Schmitt and James Dao, "US Is Building up its Military Bases in Afghan Region," New York Times, 9 January 2002, p.1; and, Jean-Michel Stoullig, "US Consolidates its Military Presence in Central Asia," Agence France Presse, 19 January 2002.
10. Richard Norton-Taylor, "The fall of Kabul: Next phase: British ground forces on short notice: Soldiers may be used in frontline operations," The Guardian (London), 15 November 2001, p. 2.
11. David Corn, "Unlikely Doves: Counter-terrorism Experts," AlterNet, 28 September 2001; Bob Deans, "Quick, targeted raids may be U.S. Strategy," Atlanta Journal and Constitution, 30 September 2001, p. A13; John Donnelly and Anne E. Kornblut, "A US Plan Eyes Commando Raid on Bin Laden," Boston Globe, 15 September 2001, p. A8; Tyler Marshall, "Limited, Low Profile Strategy Called Key; Afghanistan: Neither a massive U.S. attack nor token reprisals can achieve America's objectives, experts say," Los Angeles Times, 25 September 2001, p. 5; Doyle Mcmanus and Esther Schrader, "Emphasis on Small, Covert Operations," Los Angeles Times, 6 October 2001, p. 1; and, Bill Nichols and Dave Moniz, "American ready to sacrifice; Experts predict U.S. will fight 1st extended commando war," USA Today, 17 September 2001, p. 1A.
12. International Gallup Association, Poll on International Terrorism in the United States (London, IGA, September 2001), available at <gallup-international.com>.
13. Stan Crock, "A Tough-guy Approach to an 'Untidy World'," Business Week, 29 January 2001; and, Condoleezza Rice, "Promoting the National Interest," Foreign Affairs, January/February 2000.
14. Elisabeth Bumiller and Jane Perlez, "Bush and Top Aides Proclaim Policy of 'Ending' States That Back Terror," New York Times, 14 September 14 2001, p. 1; and, Quadrennial Defense Review Report (Washington DC: Department of Defense, September 2001), p. 13 and p. 17.
15. Jonathan Wright, "US outlines limited role in rebuilding," Houston Chronicle (from Reuters), 7 December 2001, p. 28.
16. Tasgola Karla Bruner, "Wounded civilians bitter toward U.S.; Woman says she'll pray Bush dies,"Atlanta Journal and Constitution, 8 December 2001, p.11A; Justin Huggler, "Campaign Against Terrorism: Legacy of Civilian Casualties in Ruins of Shattered Town," The Independent (London), 27 November 2001, p. 5; and, Tim Weiner, "Afghans Say Civilians Are Imperiled by US," New York Times, 3 December 2001, p. B3.
17. Bryan Bender, "Terror War Remaps US Troop Deployments," Boston Globe, 17 January 2002, p 1.
18. Mike Allen and Amy Goldstein, "Security Funding Tops New Budget; Bush's Plan Marks Return to Deficits," Washington Post, 20 January 2002; Richard W. Stevenson and Elisabeth Bumiller, "President To Seek $48 Billion More For The Military," New York Times, 24 January 2002; and, Emily Woodward, "CBO Defense Spending Projections Likely Too Low, Says Director," DefenseNews.com, 23 January 2002.
Citation: Carl Conetta, Strange Victory: A critical appraisal of Operation Enduring Freedom and the Afghanistan war (Executive Summary), Project on Defense Alternatives. Cambridge, MA: Commonwealth Institute, 12 February 2002.
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