Biden got to refine these ideas with real ground truth earlier than any other elected official. On January 10, 2002, just a few weeks after the Taliban fled Kabul, he arrived for a four-day fact-finding visit. (Senator John McCain had been permitted a visit just prior, but only for a few hours, and it was confined largely to Bagram Air Base). We bunked with the Marines in the bombed-out U.S. embassy and spent our days driving around a city devastated by a two-decade civil war. On a wall of the embassy, in dust-coated frames with glass cracked, hung official portraits of Ronald Reagan and George Shultz—the president and the secretary of state when the building was last in use.
The approach advocated by Biden was forward-leaning but not unrealistically ambitious: Enough troops to crush al-Qaeda and prevent the Taliban from moving back into power before a successor could be established; enough development aid to help a ravaged people get back on their feet after far too much suffering; and all of this as part of a genuinely multinational effort. Could such an approach have worked?
Yes—and it did. For about two years after the ousting of the Taliban, that’s the path the nation was on. In August 2002, I traveled to the corners of the country, without my boss. I went to Kandahar, Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif, and Kabul, hosted by NGOs and eschewing U.S. military protection. I made many visits in subsequent years, but I was never able to travel that freely again. The same was true for Afghans and foreigners alike: It certainly wasn’t a golden age—but it seemed to be laying the foundations for one.
What changed after 2002? In a word, Iraq. The Bush administration’s focus started shifting within weeks of the Taliban’s ouster, and plans for the Iraq invasion soon became all-consuming. Too light a troop presence in Afghanistan meant that security was never truly established; too little money actually delivered meant that the fledgling government was never able to prove its credibility to its own people; too little focus from U.S. policy makers meant that a highly centralized governing structure, imposed on a never-before-centralized nation, could not be prevented from degenerating into nepotism, ineffectiveness, and rampant corruption. Failure to provide enough troops, money, and focus on the front end resulted in exponentially more troops, money, and focus down the line.
By the time U.S. troops crossed into Iraq in 2003, Afghanistan was already an afterthought for the administration. The Taliban regrouped across the border in Pakistan and was soon back on the offensive. Osama bin Laden and the rest of al-Qaeda’s leadership, after escaping the U.S. dragnet at Tora Bora, was comfortably ensconced nearby. Without effective support from the U.S. during this key period (the first few years were when the commitment was make-or-break), the fragile experiment in Afghanistan had little chance to succeed.