The Magazine

A Winning Strategy

How the Bush administration changed course and won the war in Afghanistan.

Nov 26, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 11 • By ROBERT KAGAN and WILLIAM KRISTOL
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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."