Best Defense

The Gourley Challenge, Round 2: Here is what I think he misses on the Afghan war

Thomas Donnelly: I write again mostly to point out the near-contradictions in Jim Gourley’s thought.


By Thomas Donnelly
Best Defense re-respondent, Afghan debate

I write again mostly to point out the near-contradictions in Jim Gourley’s thought, which are also perhaps a measure of how confusing the Afghanistan experience has been for soldiers and strategy-makers alike.

Gourley didn’t like my blame-Pakistan answer to what went wrong in Afghanistan. I admit any one-cause answer would be simplistic, but the underlying argument was that we conceived the war too narrowly. Which was exactly the critique he then leveled at “Kriegsakademie,” who argued that we should have been content to settle for “Afghan-good-enough.”

Now, there might logically be a porridge-just-right mean that could produce a more durable result in Afghanistan without having to strap on the whole matter of the balance of power in South Asia. I would agree with Gourley’s observation that we needed to do more clearing and holding — and, yes, some more killing — before getting to the building, but it’s hard to see a result that would have made a strategic difference.

And so, as Gourley reframes the question not as what went wrong but how to do it right next time — and it does look as though the next 15 years could well be a replay of the last 15 — we might want to turn the telescope around and look at the region as a whole before zooming in on Afghanistan. From that perspective, India is the most important power in South Asia, Pakistan the biggest problem, and Afghanistan, like Jammu and Kashmir, a place where India and Pakistan are likely to come into conflict. That’s already the case, and as we withdraw, the likelihood will increase.

So, if we decide at the last to stay in Afghanistan or decide in future that we have to return in a substantial way, we need to think about this larger regional framework, what our security interests are, what kind of a strategy would serve those interests and what kind of military force and concept of operations would be appropriate. Whatever the answer to the last question might be — and it might indeed involve counterinsurgency tactics of some kind — it shouldn’t be the first question.

Speaking personally, I would argue that building a global partnership with India ought to be close to the top of the priority list for American strategy-makers over the coming decades, followed very closely by the imperative to get Pakistan to rethink its concept of itself as a great, independent, and “Islamic” power. As time goes on, the geopolitical and indeed human consequences of India’s rise and Pakistan’s slow-motion collapse are likely to increase. Thus, I would settle for a narrower Afghan-good-enough in return for a broader wisdom in regard to Pakistan and India. And better tactics next time wouldn’t solve the problems set by strategic confusion.

Thomas Donnelly still directs the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Ed Darack

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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