I’ve just finished reading “Ghost Wars” by Stephen Coll, and just prior to that, Bob Woodward’s “Obama’s Wars”. Both deal with Afghanistan. They have given me new insights into how government works, in particular the executive branch. Both books were meticulously and thoroughly researched, and it left me an understanding of the limits of analysis and decision making at top government levels.
Coll’s book covers the events in Afghanistan from the Soviet invasion until the day before the World Trade Center towers were destroyed, roughly a 6-year period. It documents how the Taliban, al Qaeda, and Osama bin Laden developed in Afghanistan in spite the many warnings about terrorism that were raised within our government throughout the period.
Woodward’s book describes the difficult process that was used to come up with the Afghanistan troop surge decision much later in December 2009.
The surge decision was made in a much simpler environment than existed prior to 9-11. It was clear who the enemy was, and what the basic strategy had to be with respect to the Taliban. The military and Hilary Clinton had asked for a 40,000 troop surge, and Obama was insisting being presented with some other options to consider. The only options offered were a 30,000 troop surge and an even smaller surge. Abandoning Afghanistan was not given much consideration. Time and time again Obama sent his advisers back to the drawing board to come up with something different. It never came. The essential player organizations were the CIA, the State Department, the Military, and Obama’s own advisers. The arguments, counter-arguments, and debates are detailed in a way that makes you feel as if you had been there. Finally, given no other options, Obama had to more or less split the difference, and we had a 30,000 troop surge in Afghanistan.
Earlier, when the Russians left Afghanistan in 1989, there was a huge power vacuum. The Taliban soon came to realize they, with the support of Pakistan, particularly the Pakistani intelligence service, ISI, could fill that vacuum. From our point of view, though, the development of an Afghan-based political organization would have been clearly more advantageous to both Afghanistan and the US. There was no shortage of political and military groups, although not well-developed, that we could have supported to fill that role. We did nothing that was sufficiently effective. Then al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden arrived on the scene, having been driven out of Sudan. His leadership and financial resources gave new strength to the Taliban, and soon most of the Afghan-based organizations were defeated. Eventually the Northern Alliance, headed by Ahmed Shah Massoud became the only game in town, except for covert operations, to defeat the Taliban. Repeatedly Massoud explained the situation, pleaded for support, and predicted exactly what would happen (and did happen) if he were not given the resources needed to confront the Taliban.
Two days before 9-ll Massoud was assassinated by al Qaeda operatives, and there the chronology of Coll’s book ends. It was a new game.
During this period there were many opportunities for our government to make a real difference and both Bill Clinton and G. W. Bush failed to take decisive action. There were many warning from Afghans and our own people about the threat of terrorism, but the issue languished at the bottom of the government’s priorities until only a few weeks or months before 9-ll. Another problem was that we were so intimidated by the presumed need to avoid offending both Pakistan and the Saudi family that we failed to take decisive action. With regard to Osama bin Laden, we had several opportunities to execute ground operations to kill or capture him, but so many technical, legal, and political objections were raised that we never acted. No one could guarantee the complete success of any operation so none was chosen. The same was true of both manned and the newly-developing unmanned strikes from the air. We were afraid of killing members of the Saudi family who were often with bin Laden.
We kept asking the Taliban, through their sponsor Pakistan, as a condition of cooperation to establish a new government, to hand over bin Laden. Why would they do that to one of their biggest providers of financial support? It is hard to imagine how we could have been so naive.
Also, we had many opportunities to provide critical support, mainly financial, to other organizations within Afghanistan, and for similar reasons, we never acted decisively. Eventually the last “man” standing, the Northern Alliance, was pushed up into northeast Afghanistan, and was stuck there until 9-ll changed the ground rules.
We’ve all heard that we provide “bags of money” to those whom we wish to support, but I never realized how critical and routine such support was, at least in Afghanistan. Typical amounts ranged from $50,000 to $200,000 a month, and lump sum payments of half a million dollars. What we received in return for such support was highly variable.
I have naively assumed that our executive branch had enough resources to deal effectively with essentially any number of problems. I figured that whatever the issue was at that level of government, all the resources needed were applied to the problem, and conclusions and/or options were developed, ready for a decision. The truth is that it is really messy, and resource limited. The State Department, our intelligence services, the military, and others, all have their axes to grind, and it is rare that alternatives get effectively weighed against one another. In neither book did I ever read about a “decision matrix” being used, in which the players agree on the evaluation factors to be used, and the weights to be assigned to those factors, and the factor scores for each of the options being considered. While you can never simply choose the “winner”, it certainly helps provide clarity to the issues and alternatives. I suppose the process works best if the players have a common goal, too, which was never the case with the various government departments’ interests being so different.
My conclusion is that we need to be more open about our decision making, worry less about who we offend, and take decisive action in our own best interests, explaining why we are doing what we are doing. Our own best interests can include the best interests of countries whose stability will be advantageous to us. Another lesson is that we need to figure out how to break down preconceptions, and learn how to evaluate and assimilate new information into the decision making process.