I recently finished Steve Coll's Directorate S: The CIA and Americas's Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, how the attack on Afghanistan to defeat Al Qaeda proved catastrophic to almost all involved. The interesting part is how the various players worked against each other and seemingly had not a clue what went wrong--except it was someone else's fault. It took 700 pages to tell this tale of frustration, leading to thousands of deaths (mostly not Americans), a trillions dollars and counting, and close to total failure. It more or less started in complete victory as the Northern Alliance and CIA routed the Taliban, took over and then installed Hamid Karzai as president in a seemingly democratic vote. Then it went downhill.
The CIA has amazingly talented people. Unfortunately, Afghan culture is complex and probably incomprehensible to the CIA and other American groups. Pakistan also is intertwined with multiple allies/enemies, interests and motivations. Most Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders and followers fled to Pakistan and had at least some protections there. Three major American institutions were involved: CIA, military and State Department, all with talented people but each with different agendas, goals and motivations--and they did not get along with each other. Part of this was arrogance, believing the others were incompetent and moving to inevitable defeat. American leadership seemed especially unhelpful (incompetence comes to mind). Under Bush the war was funded on the cheap and soon ignored for the Iran invasion (a possibly larger debacle). They believed in torture and had other unfortunate attitudes. The Obama administration seemed no better, providing limited guidance and never came up with a viable plan with all institutions working on common strategies and goals.
The Afghan culture was corrupt (unbelievably corrupt by our standards) beginning with Karzai and his family. The Kabul government was incompetent and corrupt and had limited control outside the city. Little progress was made in basic infrastructure like roads and schools as money seemed to disappear quickly. The culture was tribal, making a national perspective difficult, especially for forming police and military. The Taliban returned making territories stay under central control virtually impossible. The concept of political order did not happen.
Directorate S was part of Pakistani intelligence, something of a counterpart to the CIA. Which side they were on (Pakistan was nominally a US ally, in part based on billions in US aid) was hard to know--Pakistani positions seemed to switch from decision to decision and they had the ability to pass the buck of responsibility to others when multiple ethnic groups and interests existed across the country. As with the US, Pakistan's military, intelligence and central government had different interests and motivations. Support by, say, the central government did not mean a decision was carried out as expected. Coll was the most vague about Pakistan's role in decades of catastrophes, probably as expected. He could talk to dozens of US officials, and had contact with Afghans, but much less with Pakistanis.
I also watched as much of The Looming Tower as I could stomach (the US versus Al Qaeda up to 9/11), then The Post on the publication of the Pentagon Papers. We got into these wars with some regularity and proceeded to make asinine decisions for decades. These were run by thousands of dedicated, experienced professionals, after substantial history and analysis. How was this possible? I assume that arrogance and single-minded focus on limited short-term institutional goals were major factors, plus amazingly bad leadership were explanations. Can we blame Truman and Eisenhower for Vietnam or should McNamara and Johnson bare the brunt of the blame? The Pentagon Papers showed that McNamara determined that the war was unwinnable, proceeded to expand it and lie about the results. Why?
Is the answer in psychology and behavioral economics (focusing on judgment biases and how incredibly flawed people can be)? Political science (such as flawed motivations because of future reelections; political leaders can lack empathy especially for people on the other side of the world)? Sociology (countries have different cultures, as do institutions and any number of ways to compare groups; a key factor seems the inability of individuals from one culture to understand those of another). Strange quirks of circumstances that produced a Hitler, Stalin, LBJ or a McNamara? Does it take a thorough analysis of history across countries, cultures, and changing incentives? Don't expect answers here, but I will be contemplating at least some of these factors in future posts.