As Afghan Conflict Escalates, What Went Wrong?

The White House likes to present its strategy for Afghanistan as a new beginning, akin to hitting the reset button. But nine years after the U.S. first invaded the country, there's a lack of hope and trust among many Afghans that this new approach to the conflict will produce any better results. It's no wonder there's little faith. Over the years, the U.S. has lacked a coherent policy, and the Taliban has increased in size and power. There's a widespread belief that the U.S. lost focus when it invaded Iraq, despite the pleas of some American commanders and ambassadors for more resources and support. The new strategy — which calls for both a civilian and a military surge — may finally represent a full U.S. commitment, but the challenges are that much greater.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

GUY RAZ, host:

And I'm Guy Raz.

This week, we've been exploring the history of Afghanistan and how it informs current U.S. efforts there.

In the wake of the September 11th attacks, the U.S. had little trouble ousting the Taliban from power. Within weeks, many Taliban and al-Qaida militants had fled the country. But nine years later, the Taliban are back and making gains.

Today, NPR's Jackie Northam examines what went wrong with earlier U.S. efforts and why many Afghans doubt the current strategy.

JACKIE NORTHAM: When U.S. warplanes, Special Forces and their Afghan allies routed the Taliban, Afghanistan was a much different place than it is today. The country had been devastated by decades of war, and the U.S. presence was virtually non-existent. Not anymore.

I'm standing here at probably at one of the busiest traffic circles in all of Kabul. This marks the entrance to the U.S. Embassy area. You have to go through many checkpoints to get actually to the front doors of the embassy, and throughout the day and night, you see convoys of armored cars coming in and out of the embassy itself.

Across the road, a large construction project is underway, as the embassy expands.

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NORTHAM: Retired General Karl Eikenberry served two tours in Afghanistan. Now as the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, he's overseeing the American civilian surge.

Ambassador KARL EIKENBERRY (Afghanistan): Late 2008, the United States Embassy, our mission here in Afghanistan comprised of about 320 civilians, and a majority of those were in Kabul. Now about two years later, we have 1,100 civilians, still increasing.

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NORTHAM: Now, the military side of the equation is in the hands of General David Petraeus, who formally took command of all U.S. and NATO troops at a ceremony in Kabul last July.

General DAVID PETRAEUS (U.S. and NATO Commander, Afghanistan): This is a tough mission. There is nothing easy about it. But working together, we can achieve progress, and we can achieve our mutual objectives.

NORTHAM: The Obama administration's decision to send in more troops and civilian advisors was like hitting a reset button. But many Afghans see it as just more of the same.

Masood Farivar, the general manager of Salam Watandar, a national radio network, has been tracking how Afghans view the civilian and military efforts here.

Mr. MASOOD FARIVAR (General Manager, Salam Watandar): I think of it as a desperate measure by the West, as a final desperate measure to win the war. I don't think a lot of people have faith in this strategy, but the jury is out.

NORTHAM: Farivar says Afghans base their opinions on the performance of the U.S. since 2001. He believes the U.S. made a fundamental mistake early on by getting its priorities wrong.

Mr. FARIVAR: The West came into Afghanistan under the mantra of freedom is on the march and elections are the cure-all for all the problems, without realizing that the last thing Afghans needed at the time was elections. And the first thing Afghans needed at the time was security.

NORTHAM: There have been four elections in Afghanistan since 2001, each one marred by widespread allegations of fraud. Analysts say the flawed votes have eroded Afghans faith in democracy. There were also missteps on the military front as well, says General Zahir Azimy, the Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman. He says one of those came early on, when the U.S. believed it had already achieved victory.

General ZAHIR AZIMY (Spokesman, Afghan Defense Military): (Speaking foreign language).

NORTHAM: There was a perception that the Taliban fighters were defeated but they weren't, says Azimy. They just hid their weapons and fled across the border to Pakistan. And the Pakistani government supported them, he says, even though it had become a strategic ally of America.

Azimy says when the Taliban began to come back and launch guerrilla attacks using bases on Pakistani soil, the U.S. was ill-prepared because it had shifted its attention elsewhere.

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President GEORGE W. BUSH: My fellow citizens, at this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger.

NORTHAM: In March 2003, the U.S. invaded Iraq. Ashraf Ghani, now an advisor to President Hamid Karzai, says the war in Iraq soaked up most of the resources, focus and support, leaving little for Afghanistan.

Mr. ASHRAF GHANI (Advisor to President Hamid Karzai): They went to Iraq and wanted to not hear a word about Afghanistan. There was structural deafness from 2003 to end of 2008 in Washington about the war in Afghanistan. Things looked so good in comparison to Iraq that nobody was really looking at how fundamentally it was becoming destabilized.

NORTHAM: Afghanistan became known as the forgotten war. U.S. operations there continued but with no clear or coherent strategy, says Azimy, the defense ministry spokesman. It was also underfunded, he says, which had long-term consequences.

Mr. AZIMY (Through translator) If 25 percent of the money which was spent in 2009, if this money was spent between 2001 and 2004, we would not see the current situation.

NORTHAM: Azimy says the shift in focus had other serious consequences.

Mr. AZIMY: (Through translator) The resistance against American forces in Iraq, it gave a kind of morale to the Afghan insurgents that they thought it's possible to fight the American forces.

NORTHAM: As security continued to deteriorate, there were appeals for more resources from American diplomats and military commanders in Kabul. But for the most part, these went unheeded.

Ambassador Eikenberry says it's tempting to wonder how it could have been different if there had been more support back then.

Amb. EIKENBERRY: Having served in this country for so long, yeah, I do look back at times and ask the question: Had we done things differently, had we put more on the ground, would we be where we are right now? And maybe I can write about that one day. But for now, it's time to take the rear-view mirror off.

NORTHAM: Eikenberry says now there are plenty of U.S. and NATO resources, and Afghanistan is no longer the forgotten war.

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On any given night, the few restaurants in Kabul are crammed with Western aid workers, contractors and others involved in the effort to help rebuild and develop Afghanistan. And at the highest level of the Obama administration, there is constant focus on Afghanistan.

Politician Abdullah Abdullah says this can sometimes make it difficult to know who is in charge.

Dr. ABDULLAH ABDULLAH (Afghan Politician): The engagement is so large, and the players are too many, when you speak clearly and candidly, you don't know, you're not sure how it will end up in different hands.

NORTHAM: Amrullah Saleh, the former Afghan intelligence chief, says U.S. goals remain the same as they were nine years ago.

Mr. AMRULLAH SALEH (Former Afghan Intelligence Chief): Defeat al-Qaida, make the Taliban irrelevant so they are not able to undermine the state, help the Afghan government build a viable state, which can stand on its own feet.

NORTHAM: Saleh say those objectives still seem a long way away. Jackie Northam, NPR News.

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