Where Did We Go Wrong in Afghanistan?

The New York Times

BY ALL MEANS AVAILABLE: Memoirs of a Life in Intelligence, Special Operations, and Strategy, by Michael G. Vickers
Michael Vickers, wearing a suit jacket and a golden tie, stands in front of a wall of rifles and speaks to a soldier wearing fatigues and a navy blue beret.

Michael G. Vickers speaks with a member of the Yemeni special forces in Sana.Credit…via Michael G. Vickers

An implicit question haunts this illuminating and richly detailed memoir by Michael G. Vickers, the senior intelligence official at the center of America’s long war for the greater Middle East. It’s a question that has acquired greater immediacy since it was posed in 1998 by Jimmy Carter’s former national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski: “What is more important in the history of the world?” he said. “Some stirred-up Islamists or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?”

That comment appeared in an interview with the French weekly Le Nouvel Observateur. Asked whether he regretted sending covert U.S. aid to Afghanistan in 1979, all but ensuring the Soviet invasion and the subsequent rise of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, Brzezinski demurred. “Drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap,” he replied, had been “an excellent idea.”

In 1983, a few years into the Russian invasion, a 30-year-old Vickers left an early career as a Green Beret to join the C.I.A. The Cold War of the 1980s was mostly quite cold; covert operations promised action. At the agency, Vickers rose fast. Before the end of the decade, the young operative had become an architect of the Russian defeat in Afghanistan. This was, he writes, the “decisive battle” in the struggle that brought “an end to the Soviet Empire.”

After a stretch of graduate education and a turn at a Washington think tank, Vickers earned a new job, this time at the Pentagon. For eight years, he oversaw operations in various far-flung theaters of the global war on terror. Yet it was Afghanistan, occupied by U.S. forces beginning in 2001, that once more became the focal point of his attention.

In America’s very long confrontation with stirred-up Islamists, Vickers became the nation’s pre-eminent silent warrior. He brought to the science of war the same qualities that Ted Williams brought to the science of hitting a baseball: preternatural aptitude coupled with a relentless determination to master his craft.

The combination can cause myopia. In Vickers’s case, it manifested as a lack of appreciation for war’s political dimensions. His military strategy reduces to a single imperative: the pursuit of “escalation dominance.” When embarking upon war, “go in on the offense and with what it takes to win.” Don’t pussyfoot. Don’t worry about costs. A well-endowed nation like the United States always has another log to throw on the fire.

Vickers writes that Afghanistan in the ’80s was “my great war of liberation.” Other members of the U.S.-led anti-Soviet coalition — Pakistan, China, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Britain — entertained their own disparate notions about the war’s purpose. Few of them were seeking to advance the cause of human freedom. Vickers suggests he was also heeding a more basic impulse: “I wanted to follow the sound of guns.”

His keys to victory were a plentiful supply of advanced arms — especially U.S.-manufactured Stinger antiaircraft missiles — plus “the indomitable fighting spirit, toughness and resilience of the Afghan people” along with the “wildly unrealistic” Soviet expectations of creating in Kabul a “foreign-dominated, centrally directed, secular, cohesive” state.

Vickers’s C.I.A. training included disguise work and not-quite-simulated torture survival tests. But he was not into spycraft. “Charlie Wilson’s War,” the Aaron Sorkin-scripted 2007 film about covert ops in Afghanistan, presents Vickers as a wiry, hyperconfident wunderkind with a deep knowledge of military weaponry.

The portrait is largely accurate. In addition to providing munitions, he orchestrated a comprehensive suite of logistical support for the Afghan resistance fighters known as the mujahedeen. The insurgents got sophisticated “frequency-hopping” tactical radios, and new training camps offered courses in command. By the end of 1987, Vickers writes, the mujahedeen “had become equipped with more technologically advanced weapons than any insurgent force had been in history.” (They also got 20,000 mules shipped in from China for battlefield transport.)

The pain inflicted on Russian forces proved to be more than the sclerotic Soviet regime was willing to endure. In the winter of 1989, the Russian military withdrew. Three years later, the Kremlin-installed government in Kabul collapsed. Washington lost interest in Afghanistan and Vickers retreated into studies of Thucydides and Sun Tzu. The Afghans, meanwhile, claimed the fruits of their victory: anarchy and civil war leading to draconian rule by the Taliban.

The events of 9/11 prompted senior members of the George W. Bush administration to rediscover Afghanistan and to embark upon their own wildly unrealistic state-building project there. In 2007, the Pentagon called up Vickers to be its point man in this ill-fated enterprise. This time, he trained his strategy of “escalation dominance” against the indigenous resistance, now backed by elements of Al Qaeda.

The book loses its swagger as it moves closer to the present, reading less like an action-packed memoir and more like an official history. There is much to account for. Afghanistan was only one front in what Vickers characterizes as the “Battle for the Middle East.” His fight against Qaeda franchises and offshoots unfolded in Libya, Yemen, Syria and the Indian subcontinent, with Marxist insurgents and drug cartels in Colombia and Mexico thrown in for good measure.

Vickers addressed this hydra-headed threat with a buildup of Predator drones, the tool that would become part of Barack Obama’s legacy in the region. Critics have charged that this reliance on drones resulted in many needless civilian deaths. Drone warfare is not “collateral-free,” Vickers writes. But Predator strikes, he insists, “are what has kept America safe.”

Michael Vickers sits at a table with three others, briefing President Obama in the White House Situation Room.
A signed photograph from President Barack Obama. Vickers, center, was a significant proponent of the American drone program.Credit…via Michael G. Vickers
Still, winning meant above all prevailing in Afghanistan, the site of his great victory in the 1980s. Vickers labors mightily to demonstrate that his strategy there, centered on President Obama’s 30,000 troop “surge,” was a viable one. Few readers will find the argument convincing. And, when U.S. forces finally departed in 2021, the Afghan state created at a cost of $2.3 trillion over a period of 20 years fell apart in a matter of days, rendering a definitive judgment on the entire enterprise.

Vickers holds Donald Trump and Joe Biden jointly responsible. By initiating and then committing to U.S. withdrawal, the two presidents had turned a useful “stalemate” into a “self-inflicted defeat.” This “major and completely unnecessary strategic blunder,” according to Vickers, has “greatly emboldened the global jihadist movement.”

In fact, by the time Vickers left government, in 2015, the U.S. effort to achieve escalation dominance in Afghanistan had devolved into an open-ended campaign of attrition. “Though beaten down by the surge,” he admits, the Taliban “never left.” The enemy’s persistence obliged Washington “to accept the fact that Afghanistan would be a much longer war.” How much longer he does not say. America’s wars in Afghanistan consumed Vickers for most of his adult life. In his memoir, he almost seems sad to see them go.

Today, Vickers concedes, “the underlying conditions that gave rise to global jihadist terrorism remain largely intact.” If true, then the methods devised to deal with Brzezinski’s stirred-up Islamists have been inherently defective, with further efforts to achieve escalation dominance — even with whole fleets of missile-laden Predators — unlikely to yield anything like definitive success.

The final minutes of “Charlie Wilson’s War” suggest that terrorism took root in Afghanistan and blossomed on 9/11 because the United States did not invest in nation building after the Soviets left. In his memoir, Vickers instead focuses his regrets on military strategy: if only they had gotten the mujahedeen bigger guns earlier; if only they had kept a closer eye on foreign insurgents, like Osama bin Laden, who were spurred by the fighting.

He does, however, gesture at something more than perpetual war. “Operationally dismantling” terrorist networks “is necessary but not sufficient,” he writes. “You also have to defeat their ideology and prevent their reconstitution.”

Defeat their ideology? On that issue, no one in the U.S. national security apparatus has a clue about where even to begin.

BY ALL MEANS AVAILABLE: Memoirs of a Life in Intelligence, Special Operations, and Strategy | By Michael G. Vickers | Illustrated | 599 pp. | Alfred A. Knopf | $35

Andrew J. Bacevich is chairman and co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He is at work on a novel.

Where Did We Go Wrong in Afghanistan?