The Proper Measure of the Place: Reflections on the Afghan Mission

Drawing from two tours, a decade apart, a veteran diplomat explores the competing visions for Afghanistan.


A USAID-funded midwife graduation ceremony in Sheberghan, a city in Jawzjan province of Afghanistan, in December 2012.
Keith Mines

In his account of travels in Afghanistan in 1984 during the civil war against the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul, British travel writer and novelist Jason Elliot describes being “captive of an unexpected light,” entering a world “in some way enchanted, for which we lacked the proper measure.”

“Enchanted” is not a word one often associates with Afghanistan, but most would agree we have never taken the proper measure of the place. It is a land that has captured the heart of many diplomats and soldiers, smitten by the stunning landscapes and fierce determination of a people who have for centuries watched foreigners arrive to great fanfare with their “national interest,” only to leave sooner or later in frustration.

The United States went through this cycle in 1989, when it turned its attention away from Afghanistan after building up the mujahideen resistance to Soviet occupation. As a new cycle of abandonment and self-doubt is upon us, a flood of questions descends, starting with “How did it come to this?”

Kanishka and Arif: A Clash of Visions

The 2002 Loya Jirga brought together 1,700 Afghans from all parts of the country for 10 days of deliberation to choose a new government.
Getty Images / Natalie Behring

Within a month of my arrival in Kabul in the spring of 2002 as interim economic counselor, I met a Pashtun from Paktika province in the Loya Jirga (general assembly). Mohammed Arif was in his early 40s, tall and slender, with hands that evinced a life of farming, fighting and prayer. He still had a crumpled ID card from the fight against the Soviets that described him as a “model jihadi fighter.”

Arif was open to a relationship with foreigners, but at one point stated clearly that there were limits to what his people would accept, especially if the foreigners sided with the “Panjshiris”—his name for the Northern Alliance. Fighting was clearly always an early option to preserve his vision of a traditionalist Afghanistan.

One evening after the Jirga deliberations, I invited Arif to an embassy photo exhibit on the 9/11 attacks at the National Gallery in Kabul, a way to raise awareness of what brought America to Afghanistan in the first place. My translator at the time provided a stark contrast in the range of Afghan society. Kanishka Bakhshi, a Tajik, spoke fluent English and had been a translator for CNN before coming to work for the embassy.

Kanishka sought an Afghanistan in which his very spirited wife and young daughter would have opportunities for education and a profession. He was comfortable with foreigners and hopeful and bold about the future, and just as willing as Arif to take risks for his vision; several years later he was almost killed in a terrorist attack.

As we encountered the exhibit together, I realized we Americans had inserted ourselves between two worlds: one seeking a progressive modern existence for the country and one determined to impose a narrow version of tradition. And it was a complex struggle, not one that could be comfortably divided between regions or tribes; in many cases it was a raw fight for power. The Taliban would give military expression to the traditionalists, but they were hardly the only ones involved. As the struggle ground on for decades, it came to encompass technocrats vs. warlords, youth vs. elders, the periphery vs. the center, insular Islamist vs. pluralistic multiculturalists, militias vs. the army—and, significantly, the Taliban vs. the flawed democratic state.

The contest played out initially in the Loya Jirga itself. For the first time in decades, the Afghan nation, represented by 1,700 delegates from every part of the country and every slice of society, came together with vital international support for 10 days to accuse, hope, rant, plan, commiserate and select their new government. With the immediate humanitarian crisis over, Afghans were streaming home from exile. Everyone, it seemed, had something to sell or harvest or build.

Looming over these successes, though, were the seeds of the unraveling. The Taliban was not allowed representation in the Loya Jirga; the Pashtuns were frustrated with their relative lack of power; the periphery of the country continued to function with near total autonomy; unstructured aid flows led to corruption and distortions in the economy; and the larger conflict between a modern vision and a traditional one was not resolved.

Nation-Builders and Sheriffs: Afghanistan as Partner or Platform?

These competing visions of Afghanistan, we soon learned, would be caught up in an equally fraught contest between two tribes in the United States. On the one side were the nationbuilders, who concluded after diverse experiences, most recently in the Balkans, that the only way to guarantee American security interests in a country as shattered as Afghanistan was by reestablishing all the functions of the state while facilitating a process for the Afghan people to cohere around a vision for their nation.

Ambassadors James Dobbins and Ryan Crocker were reflective of this tribe, arguing for a robust peacekeeping mission, a rapid buildup of the security forces and a reset of the moribund economy. The nation-builders were a minority tribe that had no vote and little voice.

The tribe in power was the sheriffs. Their vision was that when America is threatened, the sheriff will put on his badge, pick up his six-shooter and round up a posse. The posse will seek and find the outlaws, kill some, jail others and return home. The late Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was a sheriff by disposition, as was then–Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. This tribe was bolstered politically by campaign rhetoric about not “using the military to escort little girls to school” and by eschewing any cooperation with the United Nations or even other allies.

We Americans had inserted ourselves between two worlds: one seeking a progressive modern existence for the country and one determined to impose a narrow version of tradition.

The embassy was at this time building up to receive the dozens of new staff needed to manage U.S. interests. But already our attention was drifting. Like many of my colleagues, I would be in Iraq nine months later.

For a decade the sheriffs and nation-builders vied for primacy in U.S. policy, with Afghanistan at times treated like a partner and at others used as a platform. After the willful neglect of the post-2002 period led to whole swaths of the country falling to Taliban control, the U.S. and NATO adopted more of a nation-building model starting in 2006, with a surge in forces that by 2009 totaled 100,000. Diplomats, agricultural advisers and aid workers conducted their own surge, increasing from 340 in 2008 to more than 1,300 in 2012, many working on provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) across the country with their military and NATO colleagues. PRTs were led by a military contingent providing security and mentoring local security forces while their civilian counterparts carried out development and agricultural assistance, institution building and local engagement, and political and economic reporting.

The Afghans could do little more than hold on to the roller coaster we had strapped them to, realizing that the seat belt did not unbuckle until the end of the ride.

Warlords and Youth: A Decade of Progress

I returned to Afghanistan as consul general in Mazar-e Sharif in the spring of 2012, the peak of “expeditionary diplomacy,” to manage U.S. efforts across the nine provinces of northern Afghanistan. Ambassador Crocker had returned, as well, structuring our presence around four regional consulates in Herat, Mazar, Kandahar and Jalalabad.

Frustrated by the persistent complaint that we had not done enough, we produced a fact sheet on the country’s progress over the last decade: four democratic elections; Afghanistan’s first two appearances in the Olympics in 20 years, with its first two medals ever; telephone use from 1 million to 12 million; a tripling of access to electricity; education from a million boys and zero girls to 5.4 million boys and 3 million girls; and a wheat harvest that went from 2 million to 3.8 million metric tons a year.

It was, by any measure of human progress, extraordinary. And yet it was all very tenuous, and it was matched on the negative side by persistently high levels of violence, a grinding political instability born in large measure of corruption that included high levels of drug trafficking, and structural dependence on outside funding and support. Significantly, the struggle for political primacy between the Pashtuns and Panjshiris, and for cultural primacy between traditionalists and moderns, remained unresolved.

During my travels to each of the nine provinces, I always visited the local university and met with youth, who as part of the Afghan university network came from all over the country, a natural mixing pot of ethnic groups and social classes. The students were bright, hopeful and determined, often traveling at great personal and family cost to attend school. In one encounter we tried to explain the U.S. electoral system, which they found both baffling and encouraging; certainly their much simpler system, they thought, would one day yield a good outcome. Afghans’ determination to pursue an education was not new, but it was something that finally found expression.

We also spent a good deal of time with the power brokers and warlords who had controlled the country for the past decades, generally with ruinous results. In one engagement I spent a day at the compound of General Abdul Rashid Dostum, the Uzbek commander who had led the key forces that collapsed the Taliban in 2001. Dostum retained a brutal but effective control in parts of the north but was convincing in his assertion that the “new AK” (or Kalashnikov) for the Afghan family was the voting card, promising that going forward he would put his efforts into developing an effective electoral strategy, not marshalling fighters.

I mused in a cable about a “post-warlord” society. But, like the Taliban and other ethnic leaders, Dostum had a very difficult time giving up the raw expression of power he had been accustomed to and continued to hold an absolute lock on the Uzbek voting bloc. The youth would have to wait until his generation faded from the scene.

The Noh Gumbad Mosque restoration project, shown in April 2013, in Balkh province was funded by the U.S. embassy.
Keith Mines

The Kabul Museum and Noh Gumbad

At the 2002 Loya Jirga, Hamid Karzai, at right, was chosen president.
U.S. Department of State

During my first tour, Kanishka and I visited the Kabul Museum, which had suffered the depredations of the Taliban against anything that smacked of religious pluralism or celebrated the country’s multiethnic heritage. The curator had heroically tried to preserve as many of the objects as possible, with boxes full of the crushed pieces of statues and a showcase full of the shredded canvas of paintings. He had built a false wall to hide the films from Afghanistan’s once-active movie industry.

A decade later, one of our quiet projects in the north was the restoration of the Noh Gumbad Mosque, Afghanistan’s oldest religious building, dating to the 9th century CE. It was a beautiful structure, laced with wonderful stonework and a graceful architecture, but what remained was in danger of collapse and it was deteriorating quickly. Our funding, along with other donations, allowed the Aga Khan Foundation to save the mosque and recover this piece of Afghanistan’s heritage.

The contrast between these two experiences hit hard on a soul-crushing day in April 2013, when we received word that Foreign Service Officer Anne Smedinghoff (my former intern) had been killed in Zabul province along with six others while traveling to a school for a book donation. By then cynicism had set in, many expressing doubt that the Afghanistan mission could have ever been worth the life of a young diplomat or soldier. Even our measure of time was affected by pessimism; a decade had somehow become “forever.”

But to many of us on the ground, it was the continuation of the struggle that had been going on for decades, a struggle, as I wrote home at the time, “between two competing models for civilization—one violent, ignorant, depraved; the other enlightened, hopeful, just. Where one kills educators and those who support them, there one will also kill the future; where one destroys millennia-old cultural monuments, there one will also destroy cities.”

By the time I left, five of our PRTs were closed and “transition” was the order of the day. Policymakers had never been honest about the length of time required for political consolidation in a broken state, so the mission—even at a time when casualties were extremely low—was to withdraw, a long process that has now reached its natural conclusion.

I wrote in a 2013 cable of the ambivalence many of us felt: “It is debatable whether Afghanistan will ever be a fully functional, inclusive country; it is simply hard work to pull a medieval country into the modern age. But it is nearly guaranteed to fail without our continued focus and resources.”

The Afghan mission was always cursed with a blinding self-doubt and persistent impatience. As the late Ambassador Lawrence Pezullo told The New York Times in 1981: “We’re a developed nation that is accustomed to quick answers because we produce quick answers in almost every other area. But when you throw yourselves into a revolution, there are no quick answers.”

Several thousand diplomats have now served in Afghanistan. For most, the experience will turn bittersweet as it is increasingly difficult to see the future portending anything other than yet another civil war. Few could have done more than they did. But with or without us, the struggle between Afghanistan’s competing visions will go on, and the Afghan people, tenacious to a fault, will continue to fight for the future they believe in. As in so many other parts of the world, on a tightly globalized planet there is no guarantee that we won’t once again be drawn in. If you still have your Dari-language CDs, you might want to hold on to them.

Keith W. Mines retired from the State Department Foreign Service in 2019 after a career including tours in Latin America, Europe and the Middle East. He was interim economic counselor in Kabul in 2002 and consul general in Mazar-e Sharif from 2012 to 2013. His book Why Nation-Building Matters (University of Nebraska Press, 2020; discount code 6AS20) recounts these experiences, along with seven other conflicts in Colombia, Grenada, El Salvador, Haiti, Somalia, Iraq and Darfur.