KnowledgeWe do not have to wait for the final resolution of the American military presence in Afghanistan to begin to see what, if anything, we have learned from our checkered experience there.

Very soon President Obama will announce a new strategy.  Very likely it will include the following features: a troop increase of some 15-20,000; troop presence focused on population centers; an increased training mission for new Afghan military and police forces; and intensified cooperation with Pakistan to root out radical Taliban and al Qaeda elements on that frontier.

This will represent an altered, but not a fundamentally changed, mission.  Presumably we will still have as our ultimate goal a stable, democratic, and increasingly Westernized Afghanistan.  If so, unless we strike some grand bargain with less radical Taliban elements (as we did with some Sunnis in Iraq) this is still the work of decades, not to say also tens of billions of dollars.

However this turns out, there are lessons to be learned in the meantime for future Afghanistans.  The first is: Do not interrupt a surgical counter-terrorism operation until it is completed.  With the possible exception of George W. Bush and Richard Cheney, virtually everyone agrees that the 2002 pull-out of Tora Bora, where bin Laden & Co. had their backs to the wall, was a mistake of epic proportions.  Don’t suspend a fixed military objective midway.

The second lesson is: Know the history of the country you are invading.  As we did not study the French experience in Vietnam, we did not study the British or Russian experiences in Afghanistan.  It is one thing to invade a country to find and exterminate a villain.  It is quite another to launch a long-term occupation.  Almost nine years later we are still trying to figure out who our friends and enemies are there.  And the Afghans, given our flighty on-again, off-again operations there, are justly skeptical about our long-term reliability.

The third lesson is: Do not expect to defeat an enemy militarily which has the advantage of cross-border sanctuary.  This lesson is as old as Sun Tzu.  Anyone who can hide across a nearby border cannot be defeated in any literal sense of the word.  Drones are no substitute for combat forces.  Pakistan is a sovereign nation that will not forever tolerate the death of its citizens at our hands.

The fourth lesson is: Do not try to occupy or pacify a nation whose men are not ready and willing to fight and die to protect their wives and families.  Too many Afghan men are willing to let U.S. troops try to provide their security and, if we don’t achieve it quickly and permanently, strike their bargains with Taliban thugs.  To create the Afghan army and police force of 400-425,000 that experts believe necessary to achieve internal security is the work of another decade or two and, even then, not financially sustainable by the Afghan government.

There are many other lessons as well.  Nation building in an economy dependent on narcotics is virtually impossible.  Democratization of a corrupt political culture is almost equally impossible.  And so forth and so on.

President Obama is going to deliver a policy for his administration’s near term.  Whether it will have time limits remains to be seen.  Still, years from now, however this adventure turns out, the question will be: What did we learn.  Because history does repeat itself.

9 Responses to “Does Afghanistan Offer Lessons?”

  1. C. Simpson Says:

    The memory of man and the arrogance of the U.S. are limiting factors for your proposition. Despite denials to the contrary, this country conducts nation building. Americanization, seems to be the litmus test for allies.

  2. Michael Says:

    I was in Uzbekistan in 1988 and saw Soviet troops returning home, filthy, demoralized and utterly defeated. Americans shouldn’t expect to leave Afghanistan any differently, and the longer we stay there the worst the outcome will be. US policy makers never care to learn from the past. Military commanders will inevitably talk of “light at the end of the tunnel” and the victory that can be had with just more time and more troops. Their sycophants in the political class will inevitably demand they be listened to. Americans should know better than most that democratization of a corrupt political culture is almost impossible. They need only look as far as Obama appointing those responsible for the world economic crisis as those who would remedy it as proof.

  3. CJ Wausau Says:

    There is absolutely no doubt that Washington lies to the American public on a continuous basis. But the bottom line in Afghanistan is the same two things that were true during the American revolution, and were ignored in Viet Nam are just as relevant again.
    1. You cannot defeat those that are willing to die for their cause.
    2. The ‘Freedom Fighters’ must carry the burden themselves.

    We need not say anymore. I do NOT believe that the people of Afghanistan are ready nor are they truly willing to carry the load and they will never be ready as long as American forces are there to do the heavy lifting for them any more than were the people of South Viet Nam.

    Viet Nam combat zone veteran

  4. Terry Johnson Says:

    There is wisdom here. Afghanistan is no longer ‘The Good War’ – draining the swamp where the 9/11 attacks were spawned. That opportunity was lost long ago. Now, is this the place where we should expend America’s precious blood and limited treasure to counter the challenge of Radical Islam? Or is it where national Pride goeth before a Fall?

    “…The first, the supreme, most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and the commander have to make is to establish the kind of war on which they are embarking, neither mistaking it for, not trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its true nature. This is the first of all strategic questions and the most comprehensive.”

    – Carl von Clausewitz, ‘On War’ (1832)

    Excerpted from ‘Bounding the Global War on Terrorism’ by Jeffrey Record, Strategic Studies Institute/U.S. Army War College, 12/03.

  5. Gary Hart Says:

    The Clausiwitz quote from Terry Johnson does say it all. My difference with many others is that I blame the political leadership for mistakenly defining the mission many times. President Obama is trying to decide whether to provide more troops for the Bush mission. He should change the mission. I agree with CJWausau about those wishing freedom having to fight for it. My real question is less about what to do now in Afghanistan and more about whether we avoid more Afghanistans in the future.

  6. C. Kasey Kitterman Says:

    Would you care to elaborate on how that mission might be defined? I’m not so sure we have any wriggle room there. The vulnerability of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, trumps every hand we might play in Afghanistan. I get the impression, mine is the minority opinion. Do we have a bargaining position there? I thought the fanatics wanted to erase us from the face of the earth. Have I missed overtures of co-existence?

  7. Gary Hart Says:

    A new mission statement: We are resuming our principal purpose in entering Afghanistan–to find and irradicate al Qaeda. We will also assist the Afghan government in training its army and police force. When Afghanistan is sufficiently secure, we will cooperate with other nations of the world in helping rebuild its infrastructure and civil society.

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  9. Son H Wamboldt Says:

    Really enlightening – always spread the word. Looking forward to an update. For too long now have I had the need to begin my own blog. Guess if I wait around any longer I’ll never ever take action. I’ll make sure to include you in my Blogroll. Many thanks!!

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