Taking the challenge on the Afghan war: We failed to understand fear itself
A new entrant in the Best Defense debate over the Afghan war.
By Aaron Daviet
Best Defense entrant in the Afghan war debate
While the series of responses to the Gourley challenge, “Why we lost in Afghanistan” have been excellent, I feel there is an important element missing. I largely agree that Pakistan was a major problem, that we failed to come up with a good strategy, that we did not understand Afghanistan and that the government which followed the Taliban was flawed.
Yet none of these points answers the second part of the challenge — what can we will pull from our failure? I suggest a reason that does just this: our failure to understand and exploit the element of fear. This was a critical flaw not only in Afghanistan but also in every major U.S. conflict since WWII. Asking and answering the question, “What do they fear?”, for opponents, populations, and putative allies would help the U.S. formulate better strategies and make better operational decisions. Had we answered this question, we could have found a better strategy for our actions in Afghanistan.
Fear has been part of war since its beginnings. Thucydides famously attributed the drivers of war as fear, honor and interest. Yet U.S. strategy and planning remains focused almost entirely on interest. That leaves our strategy vulnerable to those opponents who utilize fear and honor, not so much against us as against vulnerable populations within and alongside the field of operations. And it leaves us vulnerable to allies who exploit us to protect them from not only enemies but also their populations.
Could the U.S. have leveraged fear in Afghanistan? I think the answer is “yes, we could have.” After the initial intervention, and before the resurgence of the Taliban, any successful government would have left the Taliban, as well as the Pakistani and Afghan governments fearing that a U.S. departure would reduce their power and influence, so they would want the U.S. to stay. Initially, at least, the government should have gotten less of what they wanted (with the U.S. always holding withdrawal out as a response to intransigence or bad behavior), serious efforts should have been made to reconcile with less radical Taliban in the regions dominated by Pashtuns, and Pakistan should have understood that any failure to reign in Taliban elements who were in sanctuary would lead directly to increased Indian presence in Afghanistan. Certainly not easy, and perhaps a bit too close to Machiavellian for our nature, but within the realm of the possible. And the centralized design of Afghan government certainly was a significant mistake in this aspect.
In fact, this design takes important elements from the two stories all Americans look to: the post-war development of both Japan and Germany. While most think American aid to Germany and Japan was the crucial element in their successful reconstruction and integration into the “Free World,” that leaves out a huge piece of the story. First, in postwar reconstruction we were gracious with the defeated, outside of a small layer of leaders. Second, and more important, was the presence of the Soviet Union on both their doorsteps. The fear of Soviet Communism and its effect on their societies played a big role in sealing the allegiance of Japan and Germany to the U.S.
Afghanistan has no enemy like the Soviet Union, and the parallel doesn’t work completely. Finding out what people fear is actually rather easy; structuring a balance between those fears is devilishly difficult. The consequences of failing to even consider this element, though, is even harder. In Afghanistan, Pakistan knew our fears, about the security of its nuclear weapons, and consistently exploited this fear to play both sides in Afghanistan. The Afghan government knew we feared failure, and utilized that to extort billions in aid which is now rattling around Dubai and Europe. The Taliban knew we feared getting stuck in another quagmire, and that the population feared both it and losing its control over its culture and systems. Only we were left operating on interests, without cajoling or coercing our enemies and our allies with knowledge of just what they feared and how we could either prevent it or stand aside and watch it happen.
By putting fear into the equation and leveraging it, the U.S. might just improve our operational design and performance and keep us off our back foot before, during and after the next war.
Aaron Daviet is currently a student at the U.S. Naval War College on detail from the Department of State, where he has served as a political and economic officer. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of State, the Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Naval War College, or the U.S. government.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images