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When a Senate Hearing on Afghanistan Falls in the Woods
Originally published November 17, 2021
Did you know that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing today titled “Afghanistan 2001-2021: U.S. Policy Lessons Learned”? Probably not. It didn’t even get live coverage on CSPAN.
And what does it say that half the committee members didn’t show up for a hearing about why 20 years of blood and treasure invested in Afghanistan came to naught? Apparently, senators have decided there aren’t enough political points to score in discussing Afghanistan.
Congress invested more time, energy, and money into investigating the events of one day in Benghazi, tragic as that day was, than it will likely spend examining 20 years of failed policy in Afghanistan. That would be a dereliction of duty.
Given the passing of Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell, it is critical for Congress to act now and record the testimony of the architects of U.S. policy in Afghanistan: Bush, Cheney, Rice, Wolfowitz, Armitage, and others who played key roles in launching the war in Afghanistan and perpetuating it over the years. While few are likely to testify willingly, let alone offer candid, introspective, and non-defensive testimony, Congress must demand that they appear and answer questions.
While I have no illusions that anyone will ever be held accountable, and no testimony can undo the past, the American people deserve an accounting of what happened from the people who made the decisions. Furthermore, this is one of the primary roles of Congress—to provide oversight.
The Lead Inspector General (my former office) and the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction have produced important reports that have chronicled many of the failures in Afghanistan. However, both entities have limited mandates and authorities. While they can evaluate discrete programs such as training Afghan pilots or educating Afghan women, they are not able to reach up to the level of the National Security Council and the White House where the strategic and policy decisions have been made. As IG Sopko has often said, IGs don’t do policy. In other words, it isn’t the purview of IGs to opine or make findings about strategy and policy.
The latest Lead IG report includes important discussion about the collapse of the Afghan security forces and some of the failures of policy that contributed to the collapse. I also know that discussion was watered down by officials in the Pentagon and State Department, which was a constant challenge when I managed the Lead IG reports and will continue to be a challenge for future reports.
The IG reports capture pieces of the puzzle, but only Congress can put the whole picture together by convening a select committee to perform an exhaustive investigation. As I mentioned previously, that must include gathering testimony from the key players. Again, I know that no one will be held accountable, and that is a major flaw of American governance that there is no accountability for things like bungling a war or invading a country (Iraq) under false pretenses. Still, Congress owes it to the American people to investigate.
There were two witnesses at today’s hearing: Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who served in a number of capacities in Afghanistan, and Laurel Miller, who served as deputy and acting Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2013-2017.
Laurel Miller, with whom I have long shared many views about Afghanistan, was detailed, pragmatic, realistic, and sanguine. She came out of the gates with five specific lessons learned.
Be very, very wary of regime change.
If your strategy’s success depends on particular conditions, be sure you can create or control those conditions.
Recognize how much you do not know, but also embrace what you do know and change your policy accordingly.
Aid conditionality does not work if your strategy depends on the recipient’s success.
Recognize the limits of U.S. ability to impose its will where doing so is not existentially vital.
She unpacked each point in profound and sober detail. I highly recommend reading her written statement—it’s thorough, analytically sound, and well footnoted. As she has stated for years, the United States expanded the mission in Afghanistan well beyond what it could achieve based on what there was to work with in Afghanistan and the region and the limits of American power to socially reengineer (my words) a foreign country.
I felt she was a little charitable in stating that given the dynamics and real-time information available that it probably wasn’t possible for the U.S. government to do things much differently in the first years of the conflict (even though it should have). I will go to my grave arguing that had the Bush administration not adopted a scorched-earth approach to the Taliban in December 2001 and included them in some way in the political process in Afghanistan then the whole insurgency could have been avoided.
Crocker said that it was not feasible to deal with the Taliban in December 2001, but it sounded to me more like rationalization and justification. I mean, is it reasonable to hope that a senior official involved in a failed policy would admit that he or the administration made a mistake?
In my assessment, Ambassador Crocker’s testimony was facile and defensive. In his opening statement, he initially offered two lessons learned: “be careful what you get into,” and “be careful what you get out of.” He then added a third point, “strategic patience.”
Throughout the hearing, he pointed to strategic patience as the key failure in Afghanistan. He essentially posited that the United States, and the American people, should have been willing to engage in an endless presence in Afghanistan. He supported that with the trope that the United States has been in Germany, Japan, and South Korea for decades and therefore there was no reason the United States could not have an enduring presence in Afghanistan. He completely ignored the detail that those three examples were post-conflict presences in developed countries where U.S. forces were not in combat.
From what I heard, Crocker did not believe anything could have or should have been done differently in the first decade of the war in Afghanistan. He argued that the firm, and publicly announced, timeline for the drawdown of the surge was a mistake. Crocker also said that the Trump surrender agreement in 2020 and the Biden execution of the withdrawal were mistakes.
He returned to the notion of strategic patience several times and maintained that the United States interest in Afghanistan was ensuring there was not another 9/11 and therefore that required an ongoing military presence. That is the “mowing the grass” argument that concedes that terrorist groups are never eliminated and must be under constant pressure. Ideally, local forces take up the mantle and U.S. forces can leave, but the success rate of standing up local forces in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Yemen, etc. that can keep terrorists in check without constant U.S. enabling is dismal—though, that is a long and complicated discussion for another time.
Bottom line, I was unmoved by Crocker’s testimony and his insistence that nothing should have been done differently in the early years (and that the invasion of Iraq did not divert resources and attention from Afghanistan, which pretty much every serious policy maker or analyst argues was the case). If anything, his testimony was all the more reason that Congress needs to dig deep. Will it happen? Probably not. Why? Because as this hearing showed, people don’t seem to care enough to pay attention to Afghanistan anymore.