A lengthy, but thorough investigative story from the New York Times explaining how and why the Bush administration all but abandoned the war against the Taliban in early 2002, pulling out special forces and intelligence operatives to focus on the coming War On Iraq.
The US Military and intelligence services were aghast at leaving the battlefield before the true war had even begun. While the US was focused on Iraq, Al Qaeda and the Taliban re-armed, re-trained and formed new ties, sharing intelligence and fighters in the borderlands of Pakistan.
By the time American attention turned back to Afghanistan, the Taliban and Al Qaeda were close to retaking the capital, Kabul, and held control of vast stretches of the barren wasteland and mountainous regions that make up so much of the country.
The New York Times story also looks at how the US 'War on Terror', under Bush and Rumsfeld, finally turned its attention back to Afghanistan, in 2004 :
A year after the Taliban fell to an American-led coalition, a group of NATO ambassadors landed in Kabul, Afghanistan, to survey what appeared to be a triumph — a fresh start for a country ripped apart by years of war with the Soviets and brutal repression by religious extremists.
With a senior American diplomat, R. Nicholas Burns, leading the way, they thundered around the country in Black Hawk helicopters, with little fear for their safety. They strolled quiet streets in Kandahar and sipped tea with tribal leaders. At a briefing from the United States Central Command, they were told that the Taliban were now a “spent force.”
“Some of us were saying, ‘Not so fast,’ ” Mr. Burns, now the under secretary of state for political affairs, recalled. “A number of us assumed that the Taliban was too enmeshed in Afghan society to just disappear as a political and military force.”
But that skepticism never took hold in Washington. Assessments by the Central Intelligence Agency circulating at the same time reported that the Taliban were so decimated they no longer posed a threat, according to two senior intelligence officials who reviewed the reports. The American sense of victory was so robust that the top C.I.A. specialists and elite Special Forces units who had helped liberate Afghanistan were packing their guns and preparing for the next war, in Iraq.
Those sweeping miscalculations were part of a pattern of assessments and decisions that helped send what many in the American military call “the good war” off course.
Like Osama bin Laden and his deputies, the Taliban had found refuge in Pakistan and regrouped as the American focus wavered. Taliban fighters seeped back over the border, driving up the suicide attacks and roadside bombings by as much as 25 percent this spring, and forcing NATO and American troops into battles to retake previously liberated villages in southern Afghanistan.
They have scored some successes recently, and since the 2001 invasion, there have been improvements in health care and education, as well as the quality of life in the cities. But Afghanistan’s embattled president, Hamid Karzai, said in Washington last week that security in his country had “definitely deteriorated.” One former national security official called that “a very diplomatic understatement.”At critical moments in the fight for Afghanistan, the Bush administration diverted scarce intelligence and reconstruction resources to Iraq, including elite C.I.A. teams and Special Forces units involved in the search for terrorists. As sophisticated Predator drone spy planes rolled off assembly lines in the United States, they were shipped to Iraq, undercutting the search for Taliban and terrorist leaders, according to senior military and intelligence officials.
As defense secretary, Donald H. Rumsfeld claimed credit for toppling the Taliban with light, fast forces. But in a move that foreshadowed America’s trouble in Iraq, he failed to anticipate the need for more forces after the old government was gone, and blocked an early proposal from Colin L. Powell, then the secretary of state, and Mr. Karzai, the administration’s handpicked president, for a large international force. As the situation deteriorated, Mr. Rumsfeld and other administration officials reversed course and cajoled European allies into sending troops.
When it came to reconstruction, big goals were announced, big projects identified. Yet in the year Mr. Bush promised a “Marshall Plan” for Afghanistan, the country received less assistance per capita than did postconflict Bosnia and Kosovo, or even desperately poor Haiti, according to a RAND Corporation study.
By late last year, when the United States began increasing troop levels in Afghanistan to the current level of 23,500, a senior American military commander in the country said he was surprised to discover that “I could count on the fingers of one or two hands the number of U.S. government agricultural experts” in Afghanistan, where 80 percent of the economy is agricultural. A $300 million project approved by Congress for small businesses in Afghanistan was never financed by the administration.
Underlying many of the decisions, officials say, was a misapprehension about what Americans would find on the ground in Afghanistan. “The perception was that Afghans hated foreigners and that the Iraqis would welcome us,” said James Dobbins, the administration’s former special envoy for Afghanistan. “The reverse turned out to be the case.”
In October 2002, Robert Grenier, a former director of the C.I.A.’s counterintelligence center, visited the new Kuwait City headquarters of Lt. Gen David McKiernan, who was already planning the Iraq invasion. Meeting in a sheet metal warehouse, Mr. Grenier asked General McKiernan what his intelligence needs would be in Iraq.
The answer was simple. “They wanted as much as they could get,” Mr. Grenier said.
Throughout late 2002 and early 2003, Mr. Grenier said in an interview, “the best experienced, most qualified people who we had been using in Afghanistan shifted over to Iraq,” including the agency’s most skilled counterterrorism specialists and Middle East and paramilitary operatives.
That reduced the United States’ influence over powerful Afghan warlords who were refusing to turn over to the central government tens of millions of dollars they had collected as customs payments at border crossings.
While the C.I.A. replaced officers shifted to Iraq, Mr. Grenier said, it did so with younger agents, who lacked the knowledge and influence of the veterans. “I think we could have done a lot more on the Afghan side if we had more experienced folks,” he said.
A former senior official of the Pentagon’s Central Command, which was running both wars, said that as the Iraq planning sped up, the military’s covert Special Mission Units, like Delta Force and Navy Seals Team Six, shifted to Iraq from Afghanistan.
So did aerial surveillance “platforms” like the Predator, a remotely piloted drone armed with Hellfire missiles that had been effective at identifying targets in the sparsely populated mountains of Afghanistan. Predators were not shifted directly from Afghanistan to Iraq, according to the former official, but as new Predators were produced, they went to Iraq.
“We were economizing in Afghanistan,” said the former official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly. “The marginal return for one more platform in Afghanistan is so much greater than for one more in Iraq.”
The shift in priorities became apparent to Dov Zakheim, the Pentagon’s former comptroller, when Mr. Rumsfeld called him into his office in the fall of 2002, as planning for the Iraq war was in high gear, and asked him to serve as the Pentagon’s reconstruction coordinator in Afghanistan. It was an odd role for the comptroller, whose primary task is managing the Defense Department’s $400 billion a year budget.
Pakistani had backed the Taliban throughout the 1990s as a counterweight to an alliance of northern Afghan commanders backed by India, Pakistan’s bitter rival. Pakistani officials also distrusted Mr. Karzai.
Deciding that the Pakistanis would not act on the Taliban, Mr. Grenier said he urged them to concentrate on arresting Qaeda members, who he said were far more of a threat.“From our perspective at the time, the Taliban was a spent force,” he said, adding that “we were very much focused on Al Qaeda and didn’t want to distract the Pakistanis from that.”
But Mr. Khalilzad, American military officials and others in the administration argued that the Taliban were crossing from Pakistan into Afghanistan and killing American troops and aid workers. “Colleagues in Washington at various levels did not recognize that there was the problem of sanctuary and that this was important,” Mr. Khalilzad said.
But it was not until 2006, after ordering a study on Afghanistan’s future, that Mr. Bush pressed General Musharraf on the Taliban. Later, Mr. Bush told his aides he worried that “old school ties” between Pakistani intelligence and the Taliban had not been broken, despite General Musharraf’s assurances.
The Pakistanis, said one senior American commander, were “hedging their bets.”
“They’re not sure that we are staying,” he added. “And if we are gone, the Taliban is their next best option” to remain influential in Afghanistan.
As 2005 ended, the Taliban leaders remained in hiding in Pakistan, waiting for an opportunity to cross the border. Soon, they would find one.
In September 2005, NATO defense ministers gathered in Berlin to complete plans for NATO troops to take over security in Afghanistan’s volatile south. It was the most ambitious “out of area” operations in NATO history, and across Europe, leaders worried about getting support from their countries. Then, American military officials dropped a bombshell.
The Pentagon, they said, was considering withdrawing up to 3,000 troops from Afghanistan, roughly 20 percent of total American forces.
NATO’s secretary general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, said he protested to Mr. Rumsfeld that a partial American withdrawal would discourage others from sending troops.
By February 2006, Mr. Neumann had come to the conclusion that the Taliban were planning a spring offensive, and he sent a cable to his superiors.
“I had a feeling that the view was too rosy in Washington,” recalled Mr. Neumann, who retired from the State Department in June. “I was concerned.”
Mr. Neumann’s cable proved prophetic. In the spring of 2006, the Taliban carried out their largest offensive since 2001, attacking British, Canadian and Dutch troops in southern Afghanistan.
Hundreds of Taliban swarmed into the south, setting up checkpoints, assassinating officials and burning schools. Suicide bombings quintupled to 136. Roadside bombings doubled. All told, 191 American and NATO troops died in 2006, a 20 percent increase over 2005. For the first time, it became nearly as dangerous, statistically, to serve as an American in Afghanistan as in Iraq.
Mr. Neumann said that while suicide bombers came from Pakistan, most Taliban fighters in southern Afghanistan were Afghans. Captured insurgents said they took up arms because a local governor favored a rival tribe, corrupt officials provided no services or their families needed money.
In July 2006, NATO formally took responsibility for security throughout Afghanistan. To Americans and Europeans, NATO is the vaunted alliance that won the cold war. To Afghans it is little more than a strange, new acronym. And NATO and the Americans are divided over strategy.
In Washington, officials lament that NATO nations are unwilling to take the kinds of risks and casualties necessary to confront the Taliban. Across Europe, officials complain the United States never focused on reconstruction, and they blame American forces for mounting air attacks on the Taliban that cause large civilian casualties, turning Afghans against the West.
“Destroying the Al Qaeda sanctuary in Afghanistan was an extraordinary strategic accomplishment,” said Robert D. Blackwill, who was in charge of both Afghanistan and Iraq policy at the National Security Council, “but where we find ourselves now may have been close to inevitable, whether the U.S. went into Iraq or not. We were going to face this long war in Afghanistan as long as we and the Afghan government couldn’t bring serious economic reconstruction to the countryside, and eliminate the Taliban’s safe havens in Pakistan.”
Read The Full Story Here
In Pockets Of Afghanistan, US Losing Ground
World Food Program Convoy Ambushed By Taliban On Motorbikes, 13 Militants Killed
Taliban Unrest Shuts Some 400 Schools Across Afghanistan
Most Taliban, Al Qaeda Suicide Bombers Trained In Pakistan
50 Taliban Killed In 48 Hours Of Fighting Across Southern Afghanistan
Rate Of Suicide Attacks Increased Seven Fold In 12 Months, Still Climbing
Britain Says They Are Winning Afghan Battles, But Not The War