Insiders debate America's misfires in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It is striking that, more than a decade after America’s 9/11 wars began, the U.S. military has not conducted a probing review of what it did wrong in handling the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and how to do better next time. Even as the Vietnam War wound down, the U.S. Army took a hard look at the problems of its officer corps. No such studies appear to be under way now.
Seeing that gap, the editors of Foreign Policy decided to take matters into their own hands. In mid-January, they convened a diverse group: a core of military officers complemented by others with firsthand experience running the wars — as policymakers at the Pentagon, on the staff of the National Security Council, in U.S. intelligence, at Central Command, and in the Iraqi military — and rounded off with two journalists who have lived in Iraq or Afghanistan and written books on these conflicts.
Given the variety among the group, it was a surprise to see in the initial round, when each participant was invited to pose a question to the group about the conduct of the wars, how much consensus there was on the core problem. Almost all the questions they brought to the table were about the failure of senior U.S. officials to formulate strategy well. All agreed that the policymaking apparatus of the U.S. government simply did not work for long periods of time and that if it had, the wars might have proceeded far differently. What follows are excerpts of this unique — and long overdue — conversation. —Thomas E. Ricks
Susan Glasser, editor in chief, Foreign Policy: In September 2001, if you had told us that in 2013 we are going to be in Afghanistan with 65,000 American troops and debating what we accomplished there and how quickly we can get out, how many more years and how many billions of dollars we’d have to pay to sustain this operation, my strong sense is that there would have been an overwhelming view in the U.S. military — and among the U.S. people more broadly — that that was an unacceptable outcome. So, if we can all agree that 13 years was not what we wanted when we went into Afghanistan, what did we miss along the way?
Thomas E. Ricks: Should we have, from the get-go, focused on indigenous forces rather than injecting large conventional forces? That is, should we have tried to do El Salvador, but we wound up doing Vietnam in both Iraq and Afghanistan, to a degree?
Philip Mudd: It seems to me there’s an interesting contrast here between target and space. That is: Do we hold space and do we help other people help us hold space, or do we simply focus on a target that’s not very space-specific?
Col. Julian Dale Alford: It’s also our natural tendency as an army to build an army that looks like us, which is the exact opposite of what we should do. They’re not used to our culture. One quick example, if I could: the Afghan border police. The border police, we tried to turn them into, essentially, like our border police and customs agents. Right across the border, the Pakistani Army uses frontier guardsmen. Why do they do that? They use their culture — a man with a gun that fights in the mountains is a warrior. He’s respected by his people. He’s manly. All those things matter, and it draws men to that organization. We always talk about how our borders on [the Afghan] side are so porous; it’s because we don’t have a manly force that wants to go up into the mountains and kill bad guys, because we didn’t use their culture.
Lt. Gen. James M. Dubik (ret.): In terms of why we held space, I think it’s how we defined the problem. We defined the problem not as al Qaeda — it was al Qaeda and those who give them sanctuary. And so we couldn’t conceive of a way to get at al Qaeda without taking the Taliban down, and because of the problem definition, we inherited a country.
Maj. Gen. David Fastabend (ret.): We thought we had in each case [of Afghanistan and Iraq] governments to support that would hold space, and that was a secondary thing that came on us when we got there: that actually the sovereign government wasn’t so sovereign.
Mudd: If you define threat as capability and intent to strike us, then I think there’s confusion early on with the Taliban, because I would say they had neither the capability nor intent to strike us, but they provide safe haven. If you look at areas where we have entities that have those twin capabilities or those twin strengths — Yemen and Somalia come to mind, maybe northern Mali — we’re able to eliminate threat without dealing with geography.
Alford: In ’04, I was [in Afghanistan] as a battalion commander. We never would let them fight unless we always led the way. It’s part of our culture, too, as soldiers and Marines. You send an infantry battalion into a fight, they’re going to fight. It takes a lot to step back and let the Afghans do it, and do it their way. Provide them the medevacs and fire support — that’s the advisory role for those missions we’re going to switch to this spring, and I’m all for it. We should have done this four years ago, but now we also need to see if this is going to work over the next almost two years. We need to be ruthless with young lieutenant colonels and colonels who want to get out there and fight, or generals who do, to support the Afghans and then see how they do against the Taliban. I’ll tell you how they’re gonna do: They’re gonna whoop ‘em. The Taliban does not have the capability to beat the Afghan army if we get out of their way.
David Crist: I agree on the notion of the tendency of the U.S. military. In Vietnam, they used to call it the “Little Brown Man Syndrome,” which is: The Americans come in and show you how to really fight your war. But I think with Afghanistan the fundamental problem is a lack of a long-term strategy. What do we want Afghanistan to do? And I see we sort of evolved into it without a lot of thinking. The initial force went in; we got enamored with the idea of [special operations] forces, light footprint, using the Northern Alliance — in fact we probably should have had more conventional forces. We missed a lot of opportunities as these guys skirted across Pakistan, and we, frankly, allowed them to do it because the Afghans wouldn’t go after them.
Najim Abed al-Jabouri: From my experience, I think American forces focus just on the enemy, on al Qaeda, and they forget about the people. I think if you want to win the war against al Qaeda, you should [protect] the people first.
Dubik: We just backed ourselves into the problem we faced, and had we thought that the solution was going to be a 10- or 15-year solution, we certainly would not have committed. We would have changed many of the decisions that we made, but we didn’t adopt the indigenous force because we thought we could solve it and leave.
Fastabend: No one in or out of the government ever said to themselves, “Let’s decide what we’re going to do. Are we going to target individuals regardless of space, or are we going to go in there and have space?” No, what we said is, “We need a stable government in Iraq, so therefore, you need a stable government in Iraq.” Deductive logic tells you [that] you need to control everywhere in Iraq. And then you have to worry about the security forces; you’ve got to make sure they’ve got border patrols. And we never went back to the fundamental choice about what do we really need to do. We hide choices. We never talk about choices because choices are hard and choices mean making a decision. Choices mean taking responsibility for who makes the choice and which choice they take.
Mudd: On Sept. 12, 2001, can you imagine asking the question: Is the Taliban really a threat? Today, 12 years later, I’d say, well clearly it’s not a threat! In fact, they’re going to be in the government! But we blew through the question, which led to space, because you have to have space because the Taliban’s a problem — in retrospect, they weren’t. So we made a choice, but we didn’t know we had a choice.
Michèle Flournoy: In Iraq, because the fundamental premise for the war was shown to be false, you know, that should have triggered exactly the kind of discussion that: “Uh-oh, here we are. We’ve discovered there are no WMD, so what are we trying to do here, and what is our strategy and what are the risks and what are the tradeoffs and how much in resources are we willing to put in?” And then, the perverse effect is that it also affected Afghanistan because once the focus was on Iraq, Afghanistan really did become an economy-of-force effort for the first many years, which also takes the oxygen out of the fundamental strategic discussion.
Shawn Brimley: We have a profound inability to make hard, clear strategic choices, but then I think that forces us to react, right? It forces us into a reactive posture. And for years I’ve heard the phrase, “Oh, Shawn, you know the enemy has a vote. The enemy has a vote.” But we have a veto, right? And as we think about the years ahead, as we think about a constrained fiscal environment, we’re going to have to make hard choices. And the enemy is going to try to lure us to do things that are not in our comparative advantage, so we’re going to have to face up to the notion that we can veto that. We have a choice, and that’s in how we prosecute these things. Those choices carry inherent levels of risk, but we should embrace that, not run from it.
Flournoy: You know, I think — I’m just guessing, I’m speculating — that part of why this initial fundamental strategic rethink didn’t happen in Iraq is that, in the middle of — you know, you’ve gone in and you’ve broken the china, and now you have to say, “Whoops. The fundamental premise was wrong. Now what are we going to do?” That’s a very politically fraught thing for an administration to do when it’s got tens of thousands of Americans in harm’s way on the ground for a mission that was very controversial from the beginning. I think it would have been an extraordinary act of leadership for, whether it was the president or the national security advisor, you know, the team, to sort of say, “Hey, wait a minute. This is not what we thought it was. What are our interests? How do we clearly define a new set of objectives and make some choices about how we’re going to prosecute this?”
Ricks: That explains Iraq, but does it explain Afghanistan?
Flournoy: In Afghanistan — again, I wasn’t there in the early days, but I think that we were very good at getting in, very poor at seeing the way out. And I think part of the reason why we migrated from the focus on al Qaeda to “What are we going to do about Afghanistan writ large?” is getting caught in the sense of: What is a sustainable outcome? If you take too narrow an approach, it’s like taking your hand out of the water. Once you leave, you’re right back in the exact same situation where you have a government that’s providing safe haven and you’re facing a threat again. And yet we never really resourced, fully resourced, a counterinsurgency strategy until very late in the game when Obama did the review. But that was like coming in the middle — the symphony had been playing for a number of years. You’re inheriting something and now trying to say, “Well, now, given the interests at stake, clearly define who is the enemy, who is not. What’s the limited outcome we’re going to try to achieve, and how do we go after that?” And I think that we probably would have defined it differently had we had that opportunity to shape it from the beginning, but given where we were and what we inherited, I think, you know, we did the best we could.
Rajiv Chandrasekaran: The military does a great job of looking at troop-to-task calculations. We don’t do that on the diplomatic side of things. There was this assumption building on, all right, Sept. 12: Was the Taliban really our enemy? We then — fast-forward a couple months — think that we can have a reasonably strong central government, civilian government, in a country with zero institutions, with no human capacity. There just, from the very beginning, weren’t the necessary questions asked about what this would take, not from a military point of view, but from a whole-of-government point of view. All these assumptions get baked in that wind up being completely contradictory and counterproductive to any efforts to build a stable government, and at no point do we step up and say, “Wait. This doesn’t make sense.” Part of it’s a bandwidth issue. Part of it is, I think, civilian sides of our government aren’t doing the necessary sorts of calculations about: Is this in our best interests? Is this doable? What would it take to do it?
Flournoy: I remember one of the most difficult moments of the Iraqi government formation, sitting in the embassy in Baghdad saying, “Well, what’re we going to do? What’s our strategy to help them cohere?” Not that the U.S. was going to dictate the outcome, but how are we going to help get over this hump and move forward? Having the senior political officer at the time tell me, “Well, that’s not my job. My job, as the political officer, is to observe and report.” And I said, “I’m sorry. We invaded a country. We are occupying this country. Your job is thinking about the political strategy that’s going to help put it back together again on sustainable terms.” But that’s not what we train people to do; it’s not what we resource them to do. And I do think it’s connected to this fundamental imbalance of resources and that we didn’t put enough time, attention, thought, focus, resources into the whole civilian side of what we were doing.
Chandrasekaran: I spent a lot of time in places where we surged troops over the last several years. There is discrete impact. I’ve seen districts where security has improved. It’s incontrovertible. When you send in additional numbers of U.S. troops, good things generally follow — but for a discrete period of time. We didn’t achieve the sort of aggregate impact that we saw in Iraq. And we all know the reasons why. Ultimately, I step back and say it was not a wise expenditure of resources. Stepping back even further, we fundamentally failed to grasp the politics of that country [Afghanistan]. Our solutions were simply not tailored to the environment. And ultimately I think in many parts of the country — it’s already happening — things will essentially revert back to their natural order. And a natural order that may well in many parts of the country be simply good enough for us. But could we have gotten to that natural order without having spent as many hundreds of billions of dollars and as many years as it has taken us to get there?
Alford: If we had had the courage to make the shift four or five years ago? Absolutely. We took some of the most decentralized people in the entire world and imposed one of the most centralized constitutions on them. It’s ludicrous that President Karzai appoints a district governor and a district police chief. I’m telling you, the people where I come from — Rome, Georgia — would rise up if the president appointed the county commissioner. It’s crazy.
Dubik: Either we do everything or we do nothing. And I fear that we are throwing out counterinsurgency because we are never doing that again. But we already did that once: It was post-Vietnam. Counterinsurgency is not a strategy; it’s a way to deal with an insurgency, and if you face it again, it gives you a relatively decent structure to think through these things. It certainly shouldn’t be a national strategy. It was never designed to do that.
Mudd: We went in to do counterterrorism, and now all we talk about is counterinsurgency. So success on Sept. 12 would have been, “Is there going to be an attack against the United States?” and by 2003 that answer was no. And now we say success is: Should we have a third election? And my view would be, if the Taliban wins, I don’t care as long as we have a residual capability to eliminate the target we went in to get.
Flournoy: I think that there probably will be some point in the future where we decide to help a government deal with its problem of insurgency, and that’s the thing: It’s not our insurgency. The question is: Can we come to some consensus on what’s the right model? Is there a single right model for that, or is it really entirely case by case? To me, after the experience of the last decade or more, the El Salvador model looks a lot more attractive than the conventional occupation model of Iraq and Afghanistan, but is that just being falsely [wedded] to something? Can we generalize from these different experiences to say there is one approach that either is generally more effective or, from our own political culture, generally more acceptable and sustainable to the American people?