Republican National Committee Chairmen Michael Steele made headlines earlier this month when he declared that Afghanistan was "Obama's war." Speaking to candidates at a party fundraiser in Connecticut, Steele said of the war in Afghanistan: "This is not something the United States had actively prosecuted or wanted to engage in."
The implication of Steele's remarks was obvious: The naive liberals in the Obama administration want to nation-build in Afghanistan, while the flinty-eyed Bush administration knew better. Steele's soliloquy on Afghanistan drew attention, but it was not an isolated thought in conservative circles.
Former Bush speechwriter David Frum argued in the National Post that President Bush had "opted against nation-building" in Afghanistan after weighing the costs carefully, whereas Obama continues to plunge ahead blindly. Columnist Ann Coulter voiced a similar sentiment in a column addressing Steele's comments. "Having some vague concept of America's national interest - unlike liberals - the Bush administration could see," argued Coulter, "that a country of illiterate peasants living in caves ruled by ‘warlords' was not a primo target for ‘nation-building.'"
To be sure, this is not the mainstream conservative view of the Afghan war. Hours after Steele's comments had circulated the Web, he was immediately denounced by one of the stewards of conservative foreign policy orthodoxy, the Weekly Standard's William Kristol.
Yet as the causalities mount, NATO partners slip out and American patience wears thin, we may yet see some version of the Steele/Frum narrative gain ground. And Kristol is right in one respect - it's quite important to nip this incipient revisionism in the bud, because it's blatantly false. The Bush administration did indeed try nation-building in Afghanistan - they just did a bad job of it (to be fair, it's impossible to do a good job, as the Obama administration is seemingly hell-bent on demonstrating).
In 2001, the United States launched an unconventional campaign against an unconventional enemy - and it succeeded. Marrying Afghan Northern Alliance fighters with American CIA, Special Forces and precision airpower, the U.S. (with help from the British) was able to intervene decisively in the country's civil war to propel its favored side to victory. The U.S. was able to kill hundreds of al-Qaeda fighters and run them, and their Taliban hosts, out of Kabul in the process. It did so in a matter of weeks at a cost of 12 American casualties through 2001.
As it was becoming clear that America had accomplished the goal of driving al-Qaeda and the Taliban out of Afghanistan, the Bush administration was at work establishing a prolonged American commitment to Afghanistan. As a result, they set America on its present, perilous course. Rather than packing up our bags and wishing the Northern Alliance good luck in Kabul, and instead focusing CIA and military assets on where al-Qaeda went (Pakistan), we endeavored to create and defend new Afghan political institutions.
With the help of the United Nations, the administration oversaw a Loya Jirga - or assembly - that installed Hamid Karzai as the country's leader. In an April 2002 speech, President Bush invoked America's most famous nation-builder to frame the nation's commitment to Afghanistan: "By helping to build an Afghanistan that is free from this evil and is a better place in which to live, we are working in the best traditions of George Marshall. Marshall knew that our military victory in World War II had to be followed by a moral victory that resulted in better lives for individual human beings." Reconstruction funds flowed into the country, as did more U.S. troops.
By the time President Bush left office, the U.S. had spent over $167 billion in Afghanistan. That's more, in inflation adjusted terms, than the $121 billion the U.S. spent on the Marshall Plan. Nearly every year since military operations began in Afghanistan, the American commitment of troops increased. All the while, the principal threat to the U.S. homeland, al-Qaeda, was regrouping across the border in Pakistan, unmolested by the tens of thousands of U.S. troops on the other side of the Durand Line.
To hear the revisionists tell it, making soaring pledges, spending billions of dollars and adding more and more troops each year isn't nation-building, but clever statecraft. But that won't wash. It's true that the Bush administration under-resourced the effort (as it did in Iraq), but it nevertheless made the crucial decision to yoke itself and the prestige of the United States to creating and defending new civic institutions in Afghanistan. It was the Bush administration that chose to stay in the country after the initial military victory, however ambiguous, had been won.
To imagine what the Bush administration could have done following its initial military victory, it's worth looking at U.S. policy toward present-day Somalia or Yemen. Both countries are failing or failed states with violent insurgencies. Both play host to al-Qaeda cells and militant networks. In both cases, the U.S. is battling al-Qaeda with a mix of covert action and assistance to local forces. It's an imperfect strategy, of course, but consider what the alternative approach has delivered us in Afghanistan.
The Bush administration's decision to commit to political institution building in the country has enabled a monumental theft of American taxpayer dollars that is egregious even by Washington's poor accounting standards. Some $3 billion, according to government estimates, have been spirited out of Afghanistan by the corrupt elite. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda - the very reason we invaded in the first place - consists of 50-100 men (according to CIA Director Leon Panetta).
Whenever the U.S. eventually pulls back from Afghanistan, the country will likely be as we found it - poor and at war with itself. We will leave with an al-Qaeda that is still a sporadic global menace, and still capable of plotting attacks from its Pakistan sanctuary. Even if the current counter-insurgency strategy bears fruit it won't make Afghanistan a peaceful place, just as "post-Surge" Iraq remains violent. Instead, it will transfer the onus for the fight back to the Afghans themselves - where it should have been all along. Indeed, perhaps the only difference between the American departure in 2011 (or beyond) and 2001 is that America will leave an exhausted power, when it could have left a triumphant one.
The Republican Party would do well to reclaim its realist roots and cast a skeptical eye at counter-insurgency and nation-building operations. But if they wish to hang the Afghan albatross around President Obama's neck, they must first ask themselves how their own president, who supposedly staffed his administration with seasoned "realists" and vowed during his first presidential campaign not to engage in nation-building, wound up leveraging American and NATO lives, money and prestige on just such an endeavor.