Friday's devastating suicide bombing in Kabul, the sixty-fifth in Afghanistan since 2005, was a grim reminder that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, under fire for his role in Iraq, has been the architect of not one but two failing wars -- and of a dangerous vision for how to apply American power.
August 2002 was Afghanistan's "Mission Accomplished" moment. Rumsfeld declared the military effort "a breathtaking accomplishment" and "a successful model of what could happen to Iraq." America had routed the Taliban, disrupted al Qaeda, and set Afghanistan on a course for stability and democracy -- and it had done it Rumsfeld's way, at little cost and with minimal loss of life.
It was of course a mirage. The mission was never accomplished. Five years after September 11, America's efforts in Afghanistan, as in Iraq, are unraveling. The country remains on life support, its weak and corrupt government facing daunting obstacles: dismal development indicators, an entrenched opium industry, and a dangerously reinvigorated insurgency.
How did things go so wrong so quickly? Certainly Rumsfeld and his team made tactical errors, but it is hard not to trace the miscalculations to a more systemic problem: a dangerously na´ve notion of American power that was ascendant in Washington.
The Rumsfeld doctrine, in military terms, stresses reliance on high technology and air power and downplays large ground forces. Its corollaries are that America operates best when unencumbered by international institutions, that state-building is a distraction, and that force can accomplish political objectives with few long-term repercussions.
Afghanistan was the laboratory for this new notion of warfare and national power. Rumsfeld's Pentagon wanted to demonstrate that small groups of ground forces combined with overwhelming air power could win wars -- in theory, a useful approach because it limits American casualties and costs, permitting interventions on the cheap.
The doctrine's failures in Iraq are well documented. Its shortcomings in Afghanistan have received less attention because the unraveling has occurred in slow motion and with scant media attention.
The Taliban were routed by small teams of Special Forces, who directed devastating air strikes and guided their Afghan allies on the ground. But victory was never achieved. America's Afghan proxies allowed al Qaeda and Osama bin laden to slip away and reestablish their operations in Pakistan. The Taliban were driven out, but were never disbanded or politically reintegrated, and their reconstituted forces, drawing from the Iraq playbook, have made this the bloodiest year yet. Rumsfeld's minimalist strategy sent a clear message to both adversaries and allies: we are in this war no matter what -- unless it gets too costly or inconvenient.
Of course we will never know what would have happened if Afghanistan had been handled differently: if America had taken up NATO's Article 5 declaration ("an attack against one is an attack against all") in earnest and led a genuinely multinational force; if the coalition had deployed 200,000 troops (which a RAND study suggested as the requisite number) rather than 20,000 and stabilized the whole country rather than Kabul; if peacekeepers from Muslim nations had been enlisted; if ground troops were in place to cut off Bin Laden's escape; if the 5th Special Forces Group was permitted to continue its hunt for Osama bin Laden, rather than redeployed in 2002 to prepare for Iraq.
If security had been established, the new Afghan government would have had a major head start in building on its early popularity to consolidate authority and disarm warlords and spoilers. Development projects might have won the hearts and minds of Afghans, rather than being bottled up because of insecure conditions. The hard-core Taliban might have been shattered and their more moderate backers integrated into the political process. The drug lords, who thrive on lawlessness, could have been confronted and poppy farmers provided with genuine livelihoods.
We will never know because Donald Rumsfeld and the administration took a different tack. Washington marginalized international institutions and long insisted that the ad hoc peacekeeping force be limited to Kabul. It subcontracted security to mujahideen in the provinces. It fought a narrowly conceived war against the Taliban that combined air strikes and civilian detentions, neither sufficiently precise and each arousing deep resentment. It bypassed the United Nations to divide responsibility for rebuilding the Afghan state among a handful of Western countries, a messy and costly endeavor made more difficult by the absence of authoritative coordination.
The result has been a steady unraveling in Afghanistan, as in Iraq. These are, to be sure, the president's wars, but they were fought under Rumsfeld's strategy. Each was predicated on unrealistic notions of what could be achieved by force, and each dismissed the importance of international legitimacy. Afghanistan is not yet lost, but what once required several ounces of prevention now requires a pound of cure.
Carl Robichaud is a Program Officer at The Century Foundation.