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The Washington Post Rewrites the History of Afghanistan Policy

Oh, Washington Post editorial board. When Steve Coll left the paper, did he take all his voluminous historical memory about U.S. policy to Afghanistan between the Soviet invasion and 9/11 with him? Because in your editorial today about Afghanistan, arguing against restricting the mission, you write:

But the problem with the critics’ argument is that, while the strategy they oppose has yet to be tried, the alternatives they suggest already have been — and they led to failure in both Afghanistan and Iraq. For years, U.S. commanders in both countries focused on killing insurgents and minimizing the numbers and exposure of U.S. troops rather than pacifying the country. The result was that violence in both countries steadily grew, until a counterinsurgency strategy was applied to Iraq in 2007. As for limiting U.S. intervention in Afghanistan to attacks by drones and Special Forces units, that was the strategy of the 1990s, which, as chronicled by the Sept. 11 commission, paved the way for al-Qaeda’s attacks on New York and Washington.

Cede the “killing insurgents/minimizing exposure” point. But the 9/11 Commission most certainly did not document “attacks by drones and Special Forces units” in Afghanistan in the 1990s. For one thing, no one could figure out how to equip a Hellfire missile on a Predator drone in the 1990s, and discussion of even whether to send a Hellfire-equipped Predator could not proceed until the fateful spring of 2001. You can check this all out on pages 210 to 214 of the 9/11 Commission report. (Page 211: “[T]he Hellfire warhead carried by the Predator needed work. It had been built to hit tanks, not people. I tneeded to be designed to explode in a different way, and even then had to be targeted with extreme precision. In the configuration planned by the Air Force through mid-2001, the Predator’s missile would not be able to hit a moving vehicle.”

Your Special Forces line — I don’t know where you got that from either, but it sure didn’t come from the 9/11 Commission report, which documented in painstaking detail that ground troops of any kind were not a seriously-considered option. Page 349:

Officials in both the Clinton and Bush administrations regarded a full U.S. invasion of Afghanistan as practically inconceivable before 9/11. It was never the subject of formal interagency deliberations.

Lesser forms of intervention could also have been considered. One would have been the deployment of U.S. military or intelligence personnel, or special strike forces, to Afghanistan itself or nearby – openly, clandestinely (secretly), or covertly (with their connection to the United States hidden). Then the United States would no longer have been dependent on proxies to gather actionable intelligence. However, it would have needed to secure basing and overflight support from neighboring countries. A significant political, military, and intelligence effort would have been required, extending over months and perhaps years, with associated costs and risks. Given how hard it has proved to locate Bin Ladin even today when there are substantial ground forces in Afghanistan, its odds of success are hard to calculate. We have found no indication that President Clinton was offered such an intermediate choice, or that this option was given any more consideration than the idea of invasion.

Argue all you like about the untenability of the Afghanistan critics’ proposals, as that’s right and good and healthy. But don’t rewrite the 9/11 Commission report, and history, to say that all the alternatives have been tried and already failed.

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