A Winning Strategy
How the Bush administration changed course and won the war in Afghanistan.
WITH THE TALIBAN DISLODGED and Osama bin Laden increasingly shorn of allies, the endgame seems to be in sight in Afghanistan. President Bush--along with the men and women of our armed forces--deserve the lion's share of the credit for the encouraging progress of our arms. The president deserves special credit for passing one of the key tests of any commander in chief: He knew when to drop a failing strategy and try something different.
The turning point in the Afghan war, it is clear in retrospect, came near the end of October. That is when the United States finally sent B-52 bombers to begin carpet-bombing Taliban front-line troops arrayed in the north against the Northern Alliance. The first of these B-52 strikes were launched on October 30. The following week the forces of the Northern Alliance began advancing against Mazar-i-Sharif. On November 9, a mere ten days after the start of the carpet-bombing, that vital northern city fell, and the rout of the Taliban had begun.
This winning strategy--pushed hard by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld--was implemented only after another, very different strategy had begun to fail. The original strategy, promoted especially by State Department officials under Secretary of State Colin Powell, in cooperation with the CIA, was unenthusiastic about too rapid a military advance by the Northern Alliance against Taliban positions in the north and around Kabul, and was therefore not designed to aid such an advance.
From the very outset, even before the bombing began on October 7, there was a fundamental disagreement between the Pentagon and the State Department over how to manage the situation in Afghanistan. On September 26, the Washington Post reported an "ongoing debate" between the State Department and the Pentagon over the objective. Pentagon officials wanted to "ensure that the campaign ends with the ouster of the Taliban." But State Department officials argued the administration should "be cautious and focus on bin Laden and his al Qaeda network." Secretary Powell was reluctant to make the overthrow of the Taliban the stated objective of the war.
The State Department's position reflected concern for the sensitivities of the Pakistani government and its nervous president, General Pervez Musharraf. Pakistan had long supported the Taliban, and the government wanted a guarantee that some Taliban elements would have a share in any postwar government. The Pakistanis were also acutely hostile to the Northern Alliance and wanted to make sure that it would be kept out of a new government or would have at most a minimal role.
The State Department apparently won the first round in shaping the strategy. For the first month after the September 11 attack, American policy aimed not at supporting a rapid advance by Northern Alliance forces against Mazar-i-Sharif, Herat, and Kabul, but at holding off any advances in the north while the State Department cobbled together an opposition coalition in Pashtun-dominated southern Afghanistan that was acceptable to Islamabad. The bombing that began on October 7, in addition to targeting Taliban air defense, air bases, and other military infrastructure, focused only on known or suspected al Qaeda bases and on Taliban headquarters. As Steven Mufson and Thomas Ricks have reported in the Post, in this first stage of the war, the administration "hoped for a rapid succession of events: pinprick airstrikes and a few raids by U.S. Special Forces might lead to substantial defections from the ruling Taliban, the rapid fall of major cities and, with a bit of luck, a final offensive that would 'smoke out' Osama bin Laden from Afghan caves."
Thus during the first weeks of the war the American airstrikes, for the most part, did not target Taliban troops. Administration officials told the New York Times that "attacks on the Taliban's front-line troops" were a "lower priority than efforts to strike at" the Taliban leadership and the al Qaeda network. In fact, as the Times's John F. Burns reported, the bombing was "carefully calibrated to exclude the Taliban's lines north of Kabul."
The military strategy conformed to Powell's political and diplomatic strategy. While airstrikes targeted the Taliban leadership structure, the State Department pursued what became known as the "southern strategy." State Department and CIA officials worked arduously to put together a Pashtun coalition acceptable to Pakistan. In the process, attempting to sweeten the pot, the State Department made a significant compromise regarding the future role of the Taliban. Secretary Powell, meeting with President Musharraf in the second week of October, agreed with the Pakistani president that "moderate" Taliban members might be able "to participate in developing a new Afghanistan." Despite this concession, however, no Pashtun coalition could be patched together. On October 15, the Times's Michael Gordon reported that "the behind-the-scenes effort to organize a leadership that would replace Taliban leaders had made no discernible progress." CIA officials were making no headway organizing Pashtun factions in southern Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the CIA was not even working closely with many key figures in the Northern Alliance.
At about that time, senior American officials, especially at the Pentagon and at the National Security Council, began to worry that the war was not going well. The bombing was not bringing the Taliban to its knees. The United States was no closer to finding bin Laden. And efforts to put together a post-Taliban coalition government acceptable to Pakistan were getting nowhere. On October 12, the National Security Council completed a review of the situation. The review, which called for an accelerated effort to overthrow the Taliban, appears to have been a partial victory for Rumsfeld. Within days, American airstrikes intensified, and they included some scattered strikes against front-line Taliban troops in the north. But, as Gordon reported on October 17, the Taliban front-line forces still remained "largely exempt from the barrage of airstrikes."
The division between State and Defense appeared to be widening. According to the Times, Afghan opposition leaders reported hearing conflicting messages from the Americans. Defense officials were urging them to take "a free hand" in military action, but the State Department was "urging caution." Northern Alliance leaders also said that they were not receiving promised supplies and that coordination with the American military was limited. Rumsfeld publicly complained that the American relationship with the anti-Taliban forces was "still incomplete."
Rumsfeld's frustrations boiled over in public the next week. He complained about the limits of an air-only campaign. "There are things you can find from the air," he noted. "But you cannot really do sufficient damage" with air power alone. To be successful, Rumsfeld believed there had to be some land force to "crawl around on the ground and find people." And the Times reported that Rumsfeld was also privately expressing his "frustration" with the State Department and CIA's futile efforts to build a Pashtun resistance. Publicly, he complained, "We do not have the kinds of interaction with some elements in the south that I would have to have to see progress." That, he implied, was why it was so important to get some progress in the north.
The first important sign of a shift in strategy may have come on October 18, when President Bush, on the eve of his trip to Shanghai, declared that American bombing attacks in Afghanistan were intended to pave the way for "friendly troops on the ground" to overthrow the Taliban leadership. The president's statement reflected Rumsfeld's preferred strategy. In retrospect, this appears to have been the moment when President Bush sided with his secretary of defense.
Rumsfeld did his best to exploit the opening provided by the president. On October 19 he announced that the United States was prepared to give direct military assistance to Afghan opposition forces aiming to attack Kabul and overthrow the Taliban. In an obvious effort to seize the initiative in the internal administration dispute, Rumsfeld offered a remarkably detailed, public checklist of what the United States would provide the Northern Alliance: "They're going to have some help in food, they're going to have some help in ammunition, they're going to have some help in air support and assistance." By October 21, Northern Alliance leaders were reporting the arrival, for the first time, of American Special Forces to coordinate the opposition's military actions with American airstrikes. The American goal now, Rumsfeld declared, "would be to try to make [the Northern Alliance] successful, to do things that are helpful to them so that they have the opportunity to move forward...towards Mazar-i-Sharif...towards the northeast . . . [and] to move south towards Kabul."
Rumsfeld's endorsement of a Northern Alliance attack on Kabul represented a clean break with Powell's approach. But it was also in keeping with President Bush's declaration that airstrikes would clear the way for a ground offensive to overthrow the Taliban. Two days later, therefore, Powell tried to swing things back in his direction. On October 22, Powell declared that "The Northern Alliance [was] on the march in the north toward Mazar-i-Sharif" and its forces were "gathering their strength to at least invest Kabul." The key word was "invest," by which Powell meant surround but not enter. The State Department sent officials to extract a promise from the Northern Alliance that they would not enter Kabul, and according to the Times, the Northern Alliance agreed.
Rumsfeld's partial victory within the administration did not translate into quick results on the ground. Although the United States began carrying out airstrikes against some Taliban front-line forces around Mazar-i-Sharif, they were not as sustained or as devastating as the attacks that would come later. Pentagon officials told the Times they were eager to do more to help the alliance, but they expressed some frustration with the military brass for failing "to heavily bomb Taliban front-line positions north of Kabul and other key locations."
Top NSC officials were also frustrated. And with good reason. In the third week of October, the Taliban actually launched a successful counteroffensive against the Northern Alliance and drove Alliance forces back several miles. Northern Alliance leaders now complained they were stalled four miles from Mazar-i-Sharif, waiting for the United States to start dropping heavy munitions on a sustained basis. For alliance forces to break through Taliban lines around the cities of Mazar-i-Sharif and Taliqan in northern Afghanistan, Afghan opposition leaders told the Times, several days of unyielding strikes would have to be carried out in one place. "Bomb it day and night for four days in a row," a senior Alliance official advised. "Don't let them sleep. Then we will be able to break the lines."
As Mufson and Ricks have reported, it was at about this time that administration officials began to acknowledge that the old strategy--the rapid fall of the Taliban after an initial phase of limited bombing, and the "smoking out" of bin Laden--was not working. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Richard Myers, was now warning, "This is going to be a very, very long campaign. It may take till next spring. It may take till next summer. It may take longer than that in Afghanistan." Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, a spokesman for the chiefs, did not hide the military's sense of miscalculation: "I am a bit surprised at how doggedly [the Taliban is] hanging on to their--to power."
By the end of the third week of October, then, American officials were growing increasingly nervous that the war would, indeed, drag on interminably. In Europe, support for what was starting to look like an inconclusive air campaign seemed to be waning. At the same time, the Times's Burns reported, American officials were growing impatient with the Pakistani government. The Pakistanis were still having no luck putting together a Pashtun coalition, and the Americans began to suspect the pro-Taliban Pakistani intelligence services "of manipulating the talks to ensure that Taliban elements retain a decisive hand." The Americans became infuriated when the Pakistanis tried to present as a "moderate" a known anti-American Islamic hardliner.
The Bush administration thus began to shift more decisively toward what Michael Gordon called "the new strategy" of supporting Northern Alliance ground offensives by massive air attacks on front-line Taliban troops. Mufson and Ricks described the new "Pentagon strategy" as "fiercer, broader and far more reliant on Afghan rebels than planners originally envisioned." Having "first focused on winning over southern leaders of the Pashtuns . . . the U.S. approach now [was] to use Special Forces on the ground and bombers in the air to bolster rebel forces attacking Taliban strongholds." The "relatively restrained attacks by fighter jets off Navy carriers that characterized the first three weeks of the campaign [had] given way to body blows by heavy B-52 long-range bombers."
On October 26, American warplanes began pounding Taliban front-line forces, and for the first time dropped cluster bombs designed to obliterate troop and armor concentrations. The overall thrust of American airstrikes shifted dramatically at about this time, too. Previously, the majority of missions had been flown against Taliban strongholds in the south. But on October 26 Myers announced that the vast majority of strike missions were now being flown against the Taliban's front-line troops. Pentagon officials also told reporters they planned to increase significantly the number of Special Forces helping the Northern Alliance.
The biggest air offensive against Taliban front lines in the North began on October 30. Carrier aircraft were joined by B-1 and B-52 bombers in what Pentagon officials described as the largest strike on Taliban positions since the start of the war. The B-52s began carpet-bombing the Taliban forces that day. The bombing continued steadily into the first week of November. By November 7, the Northern Alliance was on the outskirts of Mazar-i-Sharif. On November 8, according to the Times, two additional Special Forces teams were inserted into the area where the Northern Alliance was fighting. They played a key part in the final advance. By November 9, the Taliban was announcing that its troops had abandoned that key northern city, blaming the American air onslaught for their defeat. "For seven days continuously they have been bombing Taliban positions," the head of the Taliban news agency noted. "They used very large bombs." Northern Alliance leaders agreed: "The American bombardment was instrumental."
The bombardment continued to be instrumental as the Northern Alliance advanced on Herat and Kabul. Powell nonetheless stuck to his anti-Northern Alliance strategy right to the end, getting President Bush to say on Nov. 10 that the Northern Alliance should not advance "into the city of Kabul itself." As it turned out, the United States had no capacity to stop--and Rumsfeld had no intention of stopping--the Northern Alliance. Rumsfeld calmly averred that the Alliance would "attack and take Kabul when they feel like it...and when they think that they're capable of defeating the Taliban and getting them out of there." And when the Northern Alliance did just that, the American war on terrorism scored its first substantial victory.
Can we draw the proper lessons from that victory? Surely one is that an aggressive strategy aiming at rapid victory is almost always preferable to a dilatory strategy that delays victory. The State Department's efforts to achieve the perfect political solution in Afghanistan, to minimize all conceivable friction with the Pakistanis, and to employ the minimal amount of American force, were well intentioned, but they were dead wrong. Successful diplomacy follows success on the battlefield, not vice versa. Winning the war is key to winning hearts and minds. Had the president not changed course, there would be no celebrations in the streets of Kabul today.
Perhaps the president will keep his own success in mind as we move forward now. Perhaps he will learn to trust the instincts of his secretary of defense a little more than those of his secretary of state. For even as this magazine goes to print, the secretary of state seems bent on repeating his recent errors, this time in the Middle East. At a time when the United States should be exploiting its victory and pressing hard, both in Afghanistan and against other terrorist threats, Powell has decided the time is right to appease the Arab world by leaning on Israel. Talk about choosing to slow your own momentum, or snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory. It's not too late for the president to consider a change of course here, as well.
The administration's shift of strategy at the end of October has been vindicated by the events of the last two weeks. Like every successful war commander before him, the president understands that altering strategy when circumstances so dictate is no vice. Indeed, flexibility in pursuit of victory is a virtue. President Bush may turn out to be better at running a war than some of the old pros around him.
Robert Kagan is a contributing editor and William Kristol is editor of The Weekly Standard.
November 26, 2001 - Volume 7, Number 11