Best Defense

The ‘Foreign Policy’ roundtable (II): What we should have done in Iraq and A’stan

Ricks: What I hear from around this table is a remarkable, surprising consensus to me. I’m not hearing any tactical problems, any issues about training, about the quality of our forces. Instead, again and again what I’m hearing is problems at the strategic level, especially problems of the strategic process. To sum up the questions, ...


Ricks: What I hear from around this table is a remarkable, surprising consensus to me. I’m not hearing any tactical problems, any issues about training, about the quality of our forces.

Instead, again and again what I’m hearing is problems at the strategic level, especially problems of the strategic process. To sum up the questions, they are asking: Do our military and civilian leaders know what they are doing? And that goes to the process issues and to general strategic thinking. That’s one bundle of questions. The second emphasis I’m hearing, and this also kind of surprised me, is, should we have, from the get-go, focused on indigenous forces rather than injecting large conventional forces? That is, in Iraq and Afghanistan, have we tried to do El Salvador, but wound up instead doing Vietnam in both, to a degree?

Mudd: Just one quick comment on that as a non-military person: 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? And I think at some point fairly early on we transitioned there [from target to space], which is why I asked my initial question. A lot of the comments I hear are about the problem of holding space, and should we have had someone else do it for us? And I wonder why we ever got into that game.

Ricks: Into which game?

Mudd: Into the game of holding space as opposed to eliminating a target that doesn’t really itself hold space.

Alford: It’s our natural tendency as an army to do that. To answer another question, 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.

Ricks: So we’re already breaking new ground here. We’re holding up the Pakistanis as a model!

Alford: On that piece. It’s a cultural thing.

Dubik: I agree with the second comment. On the first point, 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.

Ricks: So what you’re saying is actually that these two problems I laid out come together in the initial strategic decision framing of the problem.

Fastabend: I don’t think there was such framing.

Ricks: The initial lack of framing…

Fastabend: Getting back to Ms. Cash, we didn’t really decide what the questions were. We thought we knew the question. You know, 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.

Ricks: I just want to throw in the question that [British] Lt. Gen. Sir Graeme Lamb sent. He couldn’t be here today. General Lamb said, “My question is, given the direction I had -‘remove the Taliban, mortally wound al Qaeda, and bring its leadership to account’ — who came up with the neat idea of rebuilding Afghanistan?”

Mudd: It’s interesting. 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. So there are examples where you can say, “Well, we faced a fundamental — I mean, not as big a problem as Afghanistan.” But you look at how threat has changed in just the past two years, and I don’t think anyone would say that the threat, in terms of capability and intent, of Shabab or al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, is anywhere near where it was a few years ago. That’s because we focused on target, not geography.

Glasser: Just to go back to this question, was the original sin, if you will, focusing on U.S. and NATO presence in Afghanistan, versus working from the beginning to create or shore up local forces? I want to probe into that a little bit. How much did people at the time understand that as a challenge? I remember being in Kabul for the graduation of the first U.S.-trained contingent of Afghan army forces, and they were Afghan army forces. These guys worked for warlords that had come together, Northern Alliance warlords who made up the fabric of the Defense Ministry. They had nothing to do with an Afghan force, and that’s why we’re still training them now.

Ricks: But Colonel Alford’s point is that, those are the guys you want to work with, though. But don’t work with them on your terms; work with them on their terms.

Glasser: But that’s what we did. That’s what we do. We worked with the warlords in Afghanistan. That’s who our partners were in toppling the Taliban.

Alford: But we never turned it over to them, though. 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.


Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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