On April 17 , Mr. Bush traveled to the Virginia Military Institute, where Gen. George C. Marshall trained a century ago. “Marshall knew that our military victory against enemies in World War II had to be followed by a moral victory that resulted in better lives for individual human beings,” Mr. Bush said, calling Marshall’s work “a beacon to light the path that we, too, must follow.”
Mr. Bush had belittled “nation building” while campaigning for president 18 months earlier. But aware that Afghans had felt abandoned before, including by his father’s administration after the Soviets left in 1989, he vowed to avoid the syndrome of “initial success, followed by long years of floundering and ultimate failure.”
“We’re not going to repeat that mistake,” he said. “We’re tough, we’re determined, we’re relentless. We will stay until the mission is done.”
If, of course, by “done” we mean this:
Sixteen months after the president’s 2002 speech, the United States Agency for International Development, the government’s main foreign development arm, had seven full-time staffers and 35 full-time contract staff members in Afghanistan, most of them Afghans, according to a government audit. Sixty-one agency positions were vacant.
“It was state building on the cheap, it was a duct tape approach,” recalled Said T. Jawad, Mr. Karzai’s chief of staff at the time and Afghanistan’s current ambassador to Washington. “It was fixing things that were broken, not a strategic approach.”
None of this, obviously, should be news to anyone; it was evident by early 2003 — when the Bush administration neglected to request any funds for reconstruction — that Afghanistan was no longer a priority. And by the time Rumsfeld staged his own (less elaborate) “mission accomplished” moment, that stance became more or less official. As I’ve written before, historians are going to have an excruciating time placing a coherent frame around these various conflicts, and not simply because Iraq has turned into such an enduring and monumental absurdity. Though neoconservatives are fond of the idea that the “war against terror” is comparable to the cold war, I really can’t imagine that comparison will ever hold up in any serious way. Whatever else we might have to say about the various encounters (real or imagined) between the US and the red menace, there was at least some measure of predictability to it. When successive administrations prioritized certain regions or countries as vital to the overall contest with the Soviet Union, massive resource commitments necessarily followed. True, these efforts were too often counterproductive (e.g., Iran), immoral (e.g., Central America), or universally ruinous (e.g., Southeast Asia), and they were rarely presented to the American public in any kind of transparent way. That said, it would nevertheless be difficult to claim that, say, Eisenhower or Johnson or Reagan — or the assorted Congresses that funded their programs — didn’t believe their own rhetoric.
Not so with this administration.