Victory came quickly to the CIA and special forces in October 2001. Then the mission changed to a self-defeating invasion.
The tragedy of the U.S. retreat from Afghanistan is that days after 9/11, President George W. Bush had settled on a plan based on principles that could have ensured enduring success.
Remarkably, the Pentagon had no contingency for Afghanistan in 2001. The Central Intelligence Agency filled the void. Its plan was for small teams of CIA officers, along with Green Berets and U.S. air power, to assist the indigenous Afghan resistance—the Northern Alliance. On Oct. 17, 2001, eight members of the CIA’s Team Alpha became the first Americans behind enemy lines in Afghanistan. They linked up with the ethnic Uzbek fighters of Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, along with Tajik and Hazara forces.
This wasn’t an invasion. The Afghans did most of the fighting. The “foreigners” weren’t the Americans, but the mainly Arab fighters of al Qaeda. The role of Team Alpha and the 10 or so other CIA teams in Afghanistan was clear: to hunt down the perpetrators of 9/11. The Taliban regime had to be toppled because it was providing sanctuary for Osama bin Laden, but America’s enemy was al Qaeda.
No one personified this mission more than Team Alpha’s courageous Johnny Micheal Spann, a CIA paramilitary and former Marine Corps officer from Winfield, Ala. He became America’s first combat death when he was shot in a prison uprising outside Mazar-e-Sharif on Nov. 25, 2001. But Team Alpha also included Afghan specialists. Its chief was J.R. Seeger, a Dari-speaking case officer who had worked with the mujahedeen in the 1980s. David Tyson was an Uzbek linguist and former academic who’d spent years living in Central Asia. He managed miraculously to survive after Spann was killed, shooting his way out as al Qaeda prisoners swarmed him.
Messrs. Seeger and Tyson knew that imposing American solutions on Afghanistan wouldn’t work. They managed tribal rivalries but didn’t seek to turn Afghan leaders into paragons of virtue. The U.S. role wasn’t to defeat the Taliban for the Afghans. It was their fight and their country.
Victory came quickly. So did warnings of the pitfalls of deeper American involvement in Afghanistan—ethnic rivalries, false surrenders, mistreatment of prisoners and errant bombs. In December 2001, Hamid Karzai, the U.S.-backed new president of Afghanistan, sought to strike a deal with the remnants of the Taliban, a practice consistent with Afghan tradition. The Bush administration blocked the deal, branding the entire Taliban as terrorists no different from al Qaeda.
At that juncture, the U.S. could have negotiated from a position of strength. Instead, 20 years later, the Biden administration is rushing for the exits, desperate to secure a deal that amounts to surrender.
While Mr. Karzai’s overtures to the defeated Taliban were being rebuffed by the U.S. in late 2001, the Pentagon began staging an invasion after the fact. Conventional forces poured into Afghanistan and huge bases were built. Victory had been achieved in 2001 with only hundreds of Americans on the ground; by 2010, the number had mushroomed to 100,000.
The Afghans came to see American forces not as advisers and allies, but as invaders and occupiers. Rather than working with established tribal networks and ethic leaders—including the so-called warlords—the U.S. sought to marginalize them and create a centralized democracy. Mission creep was rampant. Afghanistan became, variously, a fight to secure women’s rights, to extend education, to stop drugs destined for the West—to fix everything.
The CIA had dealt with Afghans as they were. The hands of every one of their leaders were, like Gen. Dostum’s, stained with blood. After that initial victory, however, the State Department wanted to work only with those Afghans it deemed worthy.
When I met with Gen. Dostum last November in his stronghold of Sheberghan—already surrounded by Taliban forces—he was mystified by how he had gone almost overnight from being a hero lauded by his CIA comrades to an American pariah. He was overcome by the futility of it all. “We have been killing each other for no reason,” he told me plaintively.
In 1898, Winston Churchill summarized British options on the North-West Frontier: complete withdrawal, urged by “bad and nervous sailors”; “full steam ahead,” preferred by generals; and a middle course “of gradual advance, of political intrigue among the tribes, of subsidies and small expeditions.” After the failure of “full steam ahead,” President Biden has now chosen complete withdrawal. America is lurching from all to nothing.
Rather than abandoning Afghanistan and those who fought with the U.S. in 2001, the Biden administration should recommit to the principles that delivered initial victory—essentially, Churchill’s middle course. A small residual force of CIA officers and special forces, using U.S. air power when needed, while letting the Afghans fight would prevent a Taliban rout. Such an approach could prevent Afghanistan returning to what it was before 9/11—an ungoverned space where terrorists can plot with impunity.
Mr. Harnden is author of “First Casualty: The Untold Story of the CIA Mission to Avenge 9/11,” forthcoming Sept. 7.
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Appeared in the August 4, 2021, print edition.