(Editor’s note: This article is part of a Just Security series: Reflections on Afghanistan on the Eve of Withdrawal.)
“Dave, why do so many Americans get divorced?”
This question was posed to me late one evening in 2012, in the office of the Afghan Government Media and Information Center, by its director, Dr. Hakim Asher, who asked me the question playfully.
We both burst out laughing as I clumsily tried to explain how marriages in America all too often end with one bad argument, or the first brush of tension between partners.
But the question spoke to a constant fear among Afghans. They knew that at some point, the marriage between the United States and Afghanistan would come to an abrupt halt, whereupon they feared that Afghanistan itself – like so many discarded partners in the American movies they watched – would be kicked to the proverbial curb.
The specter of this divorce dragged on for two decades. Through it, a myriad (or maybe, mishmash) of political policy shifts, strategic inertia, and downright fatigue in Washington complicated and, perhaps, made impossible any credible “narrative” of what the United States was still doing in Afghanistan. The constant about-faces led Gen. David Petraeus, in late 2010, to crisply remark in his morning briefing in Kabul that, “We haven’t had a ten-year war. We’ve had ten, one-year wars.”
Since Alexander the Great, Afghanistan has been considered the “graveyard of empires.” Before the arrival of U.S. troops in 2001, the most recent military foray had been by the Soviets in the 1980s. After 10 years, the great bear picked up its tattered toys and retreated, leaving in its wake civil war and, finally, the Taliban for the Afghans. After Sept. 11, 2001, the United States decided to invade Afghanistan to destroy al-Qaeda and deny it a safe haven in the country, which required removing the Taliban from power. In so doing, the United States wanted to prove history wrong, and to do that, its military and diplomacy had to be buttressed by a story to tell, one that resonated with the American public, the international community, and maybe chiefly, Afghans themselves.
The problem was, at no given time, could the U.S. military, diplomats, politicians, and national leaders ever really pinpoint an objective or an end goal to the United States’ presence in Afghanistan. In short, what was the definition of “victory” and was there any plan to achieve it?
In my four uninterrupted years in Kabul, I served in various roles that, when stitched together, centered on nothing more than trying to tell the “good story” to the world about the U.S. and international coalition’s raison d’être for this massive, expensive, and enormously tragic undertaking. And, like so many bad Hollywood scripts, the constant re-writes on this one mangled any coherent, believable, and, ultimately, credible message that reinforced the joint military and diplomatic strategy in Afghanistan.
Communicating the story became as much trial-and-error as the military strategy itself, which Petraeus likened to the arcade game, “whack-a-mole”: Hit the Taliban hard here, and they would pop up there. On issues ranging from whether the United States would seek permanent military bases in the country, the size of its diplomatic footprint across the country, or even on small cultural issues — like the amount of financial support we would provide to Afghan’s talented, but struggling sports teams — influencing audiences about the U.S. mission became like a dog chasing its tail.
The incoherence of this exercise was not the result of a shortage of human or financial resources. When I arrived in Afghanistan in 2010, the Obama administration, Congress, and the international coalition had committed gigantic resources to the task of communicating as part of the “surge” to rescue the quickly deteriorating “story.”
I was only one of hundreds of “communicators” scrambled to Afghanistan to work across the military, diplomatic, and non-governmental domains in what was to be a well-orchestrated opus, a carefully composed narrative that all of the U.S. effort being made was not only succeeding, but nurturing a new Afghanistan that would be stable, secure, and resilient — a safer world for everyone.
That effort brought top communicators like David Ensor to the country. The well-respected former ABC News correspondent was recruited by the peripatetic diplomat Richard Holbrooke to lead the massive public affairs programs approved by the Obama administration and Congress.
Other pros like Caitlin Hayden, who went on to be the spokesperson for the National Security Council, former CNN Moscow Bureau Chief Eileen O’Connor, and respected AP correspondent and novelist Masha Hamilton, worked alongside dozens of foreign service and military officers to piece together a narrative that would prove to the world that the United States was not only succeeding in Afghanistan, but that the country was being catapulted into the 21st century, leaving behind its harsh and extremist ways — including, most importantly, the repression of women.
“As the point of the spear,” as Ensor recalls, he had a boatload of funding to carry out “public diplomacy” in 2010 and 2011. According to the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) in a letter to then-Secretary of State John Kerry, U.S. Embassy Kabul managed $111 million dollars in special programs and grants to build resiliency in Afghanistan and thereby paint a success story of our progress “on the ground.”
With the gargantuan State Department effort supplemented by the substantial public affairs work being conducted by the U.S. military and international coalition, Afghanistan started witnessing significant progress in several areas that, in the whole, should have contributed to a narrative of success.
For instance, the Embassy’s public diplomacy budget through 2014 included millions of dollars to build a free, open, and transparent media in Afghanistan, of which the Government Media and Information Center was a small part. Across the country, the United States launched and propped up dozens of media outlets, educated hundreds of journalists, and built a vast (and enviable) telecommunications mobile network.
Today, despite harsh reprisals and assassinations of journalists by the Taliban and other extremists, Afghanistan is considered to have a robust and open media. This has contributed greatly to the United States being able to work toward a narrative of success that includes respected progress in numerous sectors: healthcare, education, and justice reform. Most importantly, the powerful impact of supporting women for leadership roles and engagement in civil society cannot be underestimated.
But despite measurable progress in these and other areas, the United States never seemed to be able to define what success meant, or even, what was “good enough.” The lack of a consistent, long-term strategy complicated being able to weave together an overall narrative that would both inform the American public as to the strategic interests of the United States, but also build confidence in Afghans that one day they would no longer need U.S. financial and security support.
By late 2012, by default, I was the spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. In general, only masochists agree to take the job. I knew from my time on Capitol Hill that the spokesperson was the one person everyone likes to blame when policy goes wrong, and I instinctively felt the Afghan story would be a hard sell on multiple fronts, especially as U.S. troops continued to die, civilian casualties mounted, and the Taliban reclaimed large swaths of territory.
To counter these startling and grim headlines, U.S. communicators led by the Obama White House stepped through a series of tortuous meetings in 2013 to refine our story-telling. By that time, we had almost dismissed any hope of convincing Americans back home of the need to create a stable and secure Afghanistan and, instead, focused much of the effort on building Afghan confidence in their own government and institutions, both by attempting to bolster their self-sufficiency and by assuring partners that they would continue to receive the support needed to preserve institutional gains.
Through public diplomacy programming and active media engagement, the U.S. Embassy, its military partners, and Afghan institutions coordinated messaging and attempted to build on the theme of shona ba shona, the Dari language equivalent of “shoulder to shoulder,” which was widely used to demonstrate partnership with Afghanistan.
In short, we devised an overriding narrative that communicated in essence, “We will not abandon you.”
Such words have been spoken in many marriages that later fail. Likewise, this was a promise that Afghans instinctively knew was not true.
In early July 2013, despite years of reiterating our “commitment,” Matt Rosenberg, a reporter at the New York Times called to get my reaction to a story he was writing on the Obama White House floating the so-called “zero option.” I hadn’t heard this was being considered, but I also never knew Matt to be wrong and, like the Afghans I worked with, knew in my gut that the great divorce, no matter how long it took, had been set in motion.
In the intervening years since my time in Kabul, I have watched with anguish and sadness at what could be considered “the great lie” being repeatedly told. As my colleague Jack Guy, a retired Army Special Operations colonel with years of experience in Afghanistan, reflects on his years conducting influence operations in the country, he remarked to me that, without a clear and consistent policy, the United States could never create a coherent communications strategy that would achieve its goals. Sadly, without a defined end state, the story of the United States in Afghanistan turned out just as both countries feared.