Part of the series "Ten Lessons Since the 9/11 Attacks," in which CFR fellows identify the top threats and responses going forward. Read more in the series.
A decade after 9/11, the United States is still at war in Afghanistan and lurches from crisis to crisis with Pakistan. Osama bin Laden is dead and al-Qaeda is weakened, but America's decade in South Asia has been full of mistakes. Successes have been too few, tallied slowly, and at grave cost.
The initial U.S. invasion of Afghanistan was revolutionary in its combination of local militias and their warlord chiefs, U.S. Special Forces, and air power. In Pakistan, Washington demanded an end to Islamabad's relationship with the Taliban regime in Kabul, started a range of joint counterterror operations, and offered a generous package of assistance.
At first, apparent progress masked deeper problems. In Afghanistan, the Taliban were routed, schools were opened, and elections held. In Pakistan, the military-led government signed up to the Bush administration's war on terror, netting a number of senior al-Qaeda leaders and scores of lower-level operatives.
Yet many senior al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders evaded capture and used Pakistani safe havens to regroup and plot. The Afghan state and its security forces remained weak and corrupt. Pakistan failed to end its longstanding relationships with a range of dangerous militant groups.
Worse, the veneer of success was intoxicating; it encouraged an expansion of U.S. ambition and rhetorical commitments even as the war in Iraq preoccupied the Bush administration. The resulting mismatch of sweeping, noble American aims with meager resources was disastrous. Washington failed to destroy al-Qaeda, failed to stem the Taliban's resurgence, and failed to clarify its goals or commitment to allies and adversaries.
The Obama administration came into office in 2009 determined to reverse these losses with new leadership, attention, money, and troops. That effort has netted bin Laden and turned the tide on many Afghan battlefields. Still, Washington struggles to explain how military victories will translate into enduring security. Efforts to improve relations with Pakistan through aid and engagement have been overwhelmed by differences between Islamabad and Washington over whether and how to fight regional militants.
The past decade in Afghanistan has convinced many Americans of the folly of large-scale U.S. military intervention. The Pakistan experience shows that money often buys neither cooperation nor affection. The United States still needs to find a way to get troops out of Afghanistan and a means to deal with a wide range of enormous security challenges in Pakistan. Americans should not kid themselves. Enduring success in Afghanistan and Pakistan remains essential, but it is still a long ways off.