The South Asia Channel

War and Peace in Afghanistan

As far as the U.S. track record is concerned, attempts to counter insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq have proved costly — in both blood and treasure — with seemingly little return on the investment — a case of commitment without gratification. After a while, many "experts" grew to consider Afghanistan as the "good war" while ...

John Cantlie/Getty Images
John Cantlie/Getty Images

As far as the U.S. track record is concerned, attempts to counter insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq have proved costly — in both blood and treasure — with seemingly little return on the investment — a case of commitment without gratification. After a while, many "experts" grew to consider Afghanistan as the "good war" while Iraq is often considered the "bad war."

Some argue that the premature U.S. withdrawal in 2011 damaged Iraq’s ability to deal with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and reflects a broader U.S. strategic failure in the region. With most U.S. forces withdrawing from Afghanistan by the end of this year, with only a token force remaining until the end of 2015, and a deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, many analysts agree that Afghanistan is at a fork in the road in its history. But whether the Afghan state experiment will survive the insurgency and the political growing pains of a nascent democracy — with adequate financial and material support from donors — or fail, giving way to full-blown civil war will be an outcome shaped mostly by Afghans not Westerners.

Jack Fairweather’s new book The Good War: Why We Couldn’t Win the War or the Peace in Afghanistan, offers a fresh and needed analysis of the political miscalculations and lack of strategic vision in Washington, D.C., and other Western capitals regarding their grand experiment in Afghanistan. Fairweather, a reporter who covered Afghanistan for the Washington Post, synthesizes earlier writing with his original investigative work and private interviews to offer a unique and important chronicle of America’s longest war in its history.

As his title suggests, Fairweather examines the many reasons why the West failed to win the war and peace in Afghanistan. Arguing that the country’s fate has always been in Afghan hands, Fairweather concludes that, not only was the way that the West fought in Afghanistan ineffective and inefficient, but their strategic premise that they could "win" in the first place was faulty as well.

Fairweather’s assessment that President Obama found himself trapped in expanding the war in Afghanistan is accurate. By the time the West woke up to the fact that the war in Afghanistan was one of necessity rather than choice, it had already set a politically acceptable but unrealistic timetable in Western capitals that placed impractical expectations on commanders in Afghanistan. The mismatch between timelines and expectations occurred because Obama cornered himself into supporting the good war through well-intended campaign promises and early presidential speeches. Later, when he realized that U.S. counterinsurgency efforts required a tremendous investment with little chance of near term results, Obama’s appetite for the good war waned. The result of this adjustment is a "commitment without gratification" Afghan war strategy.

Taking the road less traveled, Fairweather offers a convincing argument about how the lack of an enduring grand strategy, an incoherent military plan void of a basic understanding of the Afghan people and environment, as well as half-hearted U.S. support of capacity development of Afghan governmental institutions contributed much more to the ultimate failure of our approach in Afghanistan than the decision to invade Iraq and the quagmire that followed. Fairweather explains that the "the West’s grand experiment in the Good War was effectively lost in 2011 when Obama stuck to his deadline for ending the surge."

Fairweather’s book is by no means the definitive narrative history of the conflict in Afghanistan as the cover of his book claims. But to expect that from anyone while the conflict still rages would be unrealistic. And still, his book offers an excellent chronicle of the most significant challenges, and his greatest gift to future strategists and to those with interest in national security matters is a valuable reflection on the most important lessons learned.

Also, Fairweather offers a convincing argument of how the lack of an enduring grand strategy and an incoherent military plan that lacked a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan and its people contributed to many Western failures in Afghanistan. Fairweather concludes his book with the most damning indictment of the Western intervention that "progress" cannot be imposed and that "the currents that change society move at a considerable pace of their own making." From its inception in the days following the 9/11 attacks on the United States to the hurried international withdrawal in 2014, U.S. political and military leaders preferred looking for ill-considered "game changing" short cuts to winning in Afghanistan — with little-to-no coordination with Afghan partners — rather than focus on a comprehensive long-term campaign strategy, with genuine Afghan buy-in and investment, that could have achieved sustainable results.

As Fairweather suggests, Western leaders can still help Afghanistan develop its own sustainable national strategy that coincides with Western interests but is not based on Western-prescribed solutions ignorant of Afghan realities. This is precisely why the U.S.-led coalition could not cajole a tribally based, complex society, with various ethnic groups represented, to sustainably support a weak government in the past thirteen years. Also, the West must avoid arbitrary timelines — such as the one imposed on the 2009 surge and subsequent withdrawal — and arbitrary progress milestones that can create unattainable goals and expectations.

Although Fairweather’s assessment that the Western experiment failed to bring about a decisive end to the conflict in Afghanistan may be accurate, ultimately, the notion that the Western "grand experiment" in Afghanistan has failed in total is premature. Even if abrupt in timing, clumsy in execution, and naïve in the strategic messaging Obama’s decision to withdraw most troops by the end of this year should not be considered the final nail on the Afghan coffin. Afghans need to take the lead in the fight for their survival now. But the Afghans still need western help.

For starters, the United States must continue to fund the Afghan enterprise, albeit, with a wiser, more informed spending policy. After all, the communist Afghan government survived the withdrawal of the Soviet troops in 1989, but it collapsed almost immediately after the Soviets stopped funding the country in 1992. Also, Obama needs to leave some forces in Afghanistan long after 2014 — the footprint should be light, the mission should be nuanced support of the ANSF, and the presence must be enduring. With a wiser donor funding strategy and limited military specialty Western support in critical deficiency areas such airlift, fire support, and logistics, the "Afghan experiment" still has a good chance of success.

Although the Western intervention has failed to deliver decisive results to date, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah have a chance to achieve the success that eluded the American-led enterprise for the past 13 years. The Ghani and Abdullah team has made it clear that they want to develop sustainable Afghan solutions to Afghan problems and wean the country off international donor support. But this process will take time. While corruption and money-grubbing remain major issues in Afghanistan, security and progress are still within Afghan grasp and, now, up to the Afghans to achieve. Afghanistan still needs a limited but long-term Western commitment to succeed and, in that sense, the Western experiment may turn out a positive endeavor despite of the clumsy approach over the past 13 years.

In his Ithaka poem, Constantine Kavafi, an Egyptian of Greek descent, uses Homer’s Odyssey, the mythical 10 year journey that Odysseus took to get from Troy back to his island of Ithaka, to highlight the need of embracing the journey rather than the destination:

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.

Without her you wouldn’t have set out.

She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.

Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,

you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

Ultimately, "winning the war and peace" is Ithaka — the destination that has eluded the West since 2001 and the Afghans since the late 1970s. Fairweather’s book offers a good chronicle of the Western troubled journey towards Ithaka since 2001. Afghanistan may be on the right course in its journey towards winning the war and peace. For it to stay on course, the new Afghan national unity government must deliver on its reform promises, the Afghan army must prove itself capable of quenching the insurgency, and the West must continue limited but long-term support to Afghanistan.

Ioannis Koskinas is a senior fellow with the International Security Program at New America, and a retired military officer who focuses on risk mitigation and economic development projects in South Asia. He is a Ph.D, candidate at King’s College, London.

Ioannis Koskinas served as a special operations officer for over 20 years. Currently, he is a Senior Fellow at New America and runs a bespoke consultancy firm that focuses on political risk mitigation strategies in frontier markets.

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