Out of the darkness emerges a new narrative:
Between 2003 and 2005, the United States and its allies were on the right track in Afghanistan. Under the leadership of Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and Lt. Gen. David Barno, counterterrorism efforts were abandoned in favour of a population-centric counterinsurgency strategy. Everything was going fine. And then Rumsfeld pulled the plug.
This meme made its debut last week in a speech by John McCain at the American Enterprise Institute:
For a brief but critical window between late 2003 and early 2005, we were moving on the right path in Afghanistan. […] We increased the number of American forces in the country, expanded non-military assistance to the Afghan government and – most importantly – abandoned a counterterrorism-based strategy that emphasized seeking out and attacking the enemy, in favor of one that emphasized counterinsurgency and the protection of the population.
[…] The result was that, by late 2004, governance and reconstruction were improving and long-delayed projects, like the ring road that connects major Afghan cities, were at last getting off the ground. Entrenched warlords were being nudged out of power. Militias like the Northern Alliance were being peacefully disarmed of their heavy weapons, and national elections were conducted successfully and safely. The Taliban showed signs of internal dissention and splintering.
The storyline was duly picked up the next day by Condoleezza Rice’s former speechwriter Christian Brose:
The precedent for what we need to do in Afghanistan in 2009 and beyond is what we were doing in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005, under the country team leadership of Amb. Zalmay Khalilzad and Gen. Dave Barno. So this isn’t exactly unchartered waters.
It will be interesting to see how this thing evolves. My guess is it will become part of the larger story arc of “History Will Vindicate Us” currently being written by Bushian revisionists, who like to present the previous administration’s strategic blunders as ultimate victories.
None of this is to say McCain’s “Golden Years” meme is completely without merit. There was indeed a window of opportunity, from the toppling of the Taleban in 2001 until around 2004, when the Afghans’ hopes were high, attitudes towards foreign assistance were favourable, and the insurgency seemed almost irrelevant. But a troop increase? A strategic overhaul? Warlords being “nudged out of power”? Where are the facts to support this?
I have nothing against politically motivated narratives. They’re often entertaining and sometimes useful in understanding complex processes. But here’s the thing: they’re not necessarily true. McCain in particular has a history of getting his timelines backwards, as when he famously claimed that the surge preceded the Anbar Awakening in Iraq. Also, it’s obvious his new meme is meant to bolster the idea, already gaining strength within the American COIN community, that all was well in Afghanistan until NATO messed it up. Barno himself said as much last week in his testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee — interestingly, just one day after McCain’s speech.
Needless to say, not everyone shares this view. I for one think that if NATO failed in anything, it was in cleaning up the mess it inherited from the Americans.