He is a professor of international relations and history at Boston University, a Vietnam veteran and the author of the 2008 book The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Sept. 21, 2009.
- The "baffling" counterinsurgency "fad"
- American hubris
- The burden of war and who's bearing it
- The U.S. track record on nation building
What is your understanding of President Obama's policy in Afghanistan?
The president tells us that this is a necessary war and it's a war that he is committed to winning. What winning means is not at all clear, but the means to achieve victory, however it is defined, is to be a protracted counterinsurgency campaign.
It's enormously ambitious.
I think it's spectacularly ambitious, and, unless winning is defined in exceedingly modest terms, the president is betting his presidency on a project that is quite likely to end in failure, and at a minimum, a project that will continue through his first term and probably through his second term, if there is one.
When he talks about counterinsurgency, how do you understand that term? What does that imply?
I think the best way to understand the term "counterinsurgency" is to understand what the U.S. Army and the Marine Corps today mean by that term. What they mean is an approach to warfare in which success is to be gained not by destroying the enemy but by securing the population.
The term "securing" here means not simply keeping the people safe, but providing for the people a series of services -- effective governance, economic development, education, the elimination of corruption, the protection of women's rights. That translates into an enormously ambitious project of nation building. ...
Are you surprised by the ascendance of counterinsurgency as a current term defining the debate?
I am baffled by the fad of counterinsurgency, and I'm especially baffled by the extent to which the American officer corps has embraced this fad. Now, I say that from the point of view of somebody who comes from a generation when counterinsurgency was anathema to the United States military.
In the era after Vietnam, the officer corps believed with something close to unanimity that long, protracted campaigns were very much at odds not only with the well-being of the military as an institution, but frankly at odds with the interests of the country.
Post-Vietnam, the officer corps was committed to the proposition that wars should be infrequent, that they should be fought only for the most vital interests, and that they should be fought in a way that would produce a quick and decisive outcome.
What we have today in my judgment is just the inverse of that. War has become a permanent condition. I mean, we've been at war now for eight years, and for all practical purposes, nobody can say with any accuracy when war will likely come to an end. In my judgment -- I know people that would disagree with this -- we are now engaged in wars where we do not have vital interests at stake.
And ... we've now abandoned the notion that we can win wars quickly or cheaply. Our approach to war is one in which we now accept the notion that war is an open-ended proposition and that if someday out there some outcome is reached, it's likely to be an ambiguous outcome that really doesn't resemble in any sense the traditional definition of military victory. ...
Just to flip it around, isn't there a case to be made that counterinsurgency ... is a smarter application of force; it's better than bombing people? You're skeptical?
It seems to me that there is a very strong argument to be made that the approach taken during the Bush years after the fall of Baghdad, during the tenure of Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, ... the approach that was taken at that time to suppress the Iraqi insurgency, ... called kinetic operations -- kick down the door, grab whoever looks like an insurgent, a lot of use of firepower -- that clearly was counterproductive. And it's clear that the heavy-handed approach to suppressing the insurgency in Iraq was having the effect of enflaming the insurgency. ...
I think you can make a reasonable argument that the application of counterinsurgency in Iraq had some positive effects in terms of reducing the level of violence in that particular circumstance. I would also want to emphasize that the surge, so-called, didn't make good on the political reconciliation in Iraq, which was supposed to be its ultimate objective.
But having said that, the experience in Iraq should not, at least in my judgment, persuade the officer corps or our political elites that counterinsurgency has now emerged as the new American way of war and that it offers sort of an all-purpose approach that can be applied in all theaters of the so-called long war. ... And we're seeing that happen in particular in Afghanistan with this strategic reassessment that [head of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan] Gen. [Stanley] McChrystal has conducted.
The other day, [counterinsurgency expert] John Nagl was in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and he's [saying that] 600,000 counterinsurgents are needed, 200,000 Americans. ...
John Nagl, who in many respects is a very smart guy and a very accomplished guy and clearly has a great career in front of him, John Nagl says that in effect we are engaged in a global counterinsurgency campaign. That's his description of the long war.
Now, think about it. If counterinsurgency, according to current doctrine, is all about securing the population, if securing the population implies not simply keeping them safe but providing people with good governance and economic development and education and so on, what then is the requirement of a global counterinsurgency campaign?
Are we called upon to keep ourselves safe? To prevent another 9/11? Are we called upon to secure the population of the entire globe? Given the success we've had thus far in securing the population in Iraq and in Afghanistan, does this idea make any sense whatsoever?
Can anybody possibly believe that the United States of America, ... facing a federal budget deficit of $1.8 trillion, ... has the resources necessary to conduct a global counterinsurgency campaign? Over what? The next 20, 50, 80 years? I think [there] is something so preposterous about such proposals. I just find it baffling that they are treated with seriousness by supposedly serious people.
It is baffling.
But that is the implication of it, isn't it? ... I was at that CNAS ... conference.
We were there.
... And that's when I heard him say that. I heard him utter that phrase. And I went back, and I found out he didn't utter it the first time that day. If you go back and look at when the University of Chicago Press published its own edition of FM 3-24 (PDF) [Counterinsurgency Field Manual] and they invited Nagl to write the preface or the [foreword] for it, ... it's remarkable, because that's what he writes. ...
He writes that this is the book which now provides the template for a global counterinsurgency campaign, and goes on to explain all the things that that implies. And it's a mind-boggling sort of proposition, and I just don't get it.
You said it's partly generational?
It's probably generational in that perhaps young people -- and this is not necessarily a bad thing -- have bigger dreams, have bigger ambitions. Older people tend to perhaps be more given to pessimism or cynicism. I mean, I would like to call it realism, but others might view it differently.
I hesitate to say that older people have a better understanding of the human consequences of unrealistic and naive projects, because I know that these younger fellows like Nagl and [CNAS fellow Andrew] Exum have lost friends. But at the same time, I puzzle over why their personal losses don't cause them to question the implications for the policy proposals that they support.
We've lost over 5,000 American soldiers over the past eight years between Iraq and Afghanistan. We think Iraq is now finally winding down. At the same time, we ratchet up Afghanistan. So if we do indeed have a full-court-press application of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, certainly at least several hundred more American soldiers are going to die.
And I think it's very, very important to be absolutely certain that no alternative exists that would enable us to achieve our interests in Afghanistan without all those soldiers being killed. And I think the people who insist that it has to be done through counterinsurgency have not seriously examined all the alternatives.
Isn't undermining Al Qaeda a worthy mission?
Absolutely. One of my problems here -- and it's again one of these things I just really don't get -- there seems to be some presumption that Afghanistan is jihad central, that if we can simply succeed in pacifying Afghanistan that the problem of violent Islamic radicalism goes away or is solved.
There's no reason to think that. Violent Islamic radicalism is a transnational phenomenon. Yes, ungoverned spaces would seem to provide a great sort of opportunity for organizations like Al Qaeda to find sanctuary. Afghanistan is not the only ungoverned space on the face of the earth. ... We know that Al Qaeda networks [and] cells can operate in ungoverned spaces like Hamburg, Germany, and London, England, and Brooklyn, N.Y. So one of the things that I just don't understand is why people think that fixing Afghanistan is going to fix the larger problem. It won't. ...
And here we are fighting a war to fix something?
Well, we think so. ... George W. Bush set out to fix the Islamic world. He began this project in Afghanistan. Before Afghanistan was fixed, he turned his attention to Iraq. It's crystal clear that the architects of the Iraq war expected the Iraq war to be easy, and they expected that after winning their quick victory in Iraq that all kinds of second-order consequences, positive consequences, were going to flow from that, enabling us to fix the greater Middle East. That was the ambition of the Bush administration. And indeed, [had] we been able to fix the greater Middle East, then yes, that might substantially have reduced the threat posed by violent Islamic radicalism.
On some level, are we caught in a cycle of American hubris that never quite resolves itself?
... It seems quite clear that, in one sense, the Obama administration is quite consciously trying to demonstrate that they learned the lessons of the Bush era. They will not be guilty of arrogance and hubris and anti-Americanism. They will not promise to eliminate tyranny from the face of the earth or to eliminate evil, as President Bush did. ...
On the other hand, the president, Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton, Ambassador Susan Rice at the United Nations, others, continue to make statements that clearly indicate their belief that the United States is called upon and has the capability to bring history to its intended destination.
I mean, in his Grant Park speech the night he was elected, President Obama talked about America bending the arc of history. In a speech not long ago, Hillary Clinton quoted [revolutionary Thomas] Paine. I think the quote goes, "We have it within our ability to start the world all over again." I don't think she realized that was one of Ronald Reagan's favorite quotes. But she went on to say, "Yes, we need to exercise that power now."
So on the one hand, they seemed to be less hubristic. On the other hand, I think hubris continues to be an abiding theme in our policies and helps, I think, to buoy these convictions that yes, we'll just send U.S. troops to Afghanistan, and if we give them the right doctrine, they'll succeed in fixing the place. Ain't going to happen.
Let's talk about the soldiers for a minute, what they're up against. ... We're asking them to wear many different hats in this counterinsurgency campaign. Can you talk about that, even in general terms, what as a young soldier you're up against?
... When we're talking soldiers, we're talking kids who are the PFCs that are 19 or 20, and the lieutenants and the captains are 23 and 25. These young people, they are remarkable. I mean, we have young soldiers going back for a third and a fourth and a fifth combat tour.
By this time in the Vietnam War, the American Army basically had disintegrated. Today's Army hasn't disintegrated. And so the durability of the force has proven to be quite remarkable.
I guess the piece that bothers me is, as a people, having accepted the proposition of open-ended war. I mean, the so-called long war, now eight years old, has become the longest war in our history, and there's no end in sight.
So as a people who have accepted the proposition of open-ended war, we've also accepted the proposition that the burden of waging this open-ended war should fall on the backs of roughly one-half of 1 percent of the population. And the other 99.5 percent of the population carries on as if there were no war.
Not only do the soldiers, this very small cohort, bear the burden of the sacrifice of waging war in the field, we don't even bear the burden of paying for the war. There's no change in our domestic priorities. There's no sacrifice. There's no increase in taxes.
And I think that there's something fundamentally wrong with a democracy that subscribes to that sort of division of labor. I think it's deeply, deeply immoral that so few should have to pay so much while the vast majority of us basically pay nothing. ...
Let's talk about the role of [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] Adm. [Mike] Mullen and Secretary [of Defense Robert] Gates.
The president has got a difficult political problem with regard to Afghanistan that he himself has made more difficult by declaring it a necessary war and by creating expectations about Gen. McChrystal's strategic review (PDF) and how that was going to be an important marker in thinking about policy.
So it's going be very difficult for the president if he wants to reject the McChrystal recommendation, if he wants to take a course other than counterinsurgency. ... I think the two key players who can give him some political cover are Secretary of Defense Gates and Adm. Mullen.
Now, where do they stand on this matter? My reading of their public statements during the summer was that they were both wary of getting deeper into Afghanistan, that they were skeptics. More recently, however, they both seem to be indicating that they're going to throw their support behind Gen. McChrystal or, more to the point, throw their support behind the notion of this open-ended war that's going to go on for another five or 10 years. If that is an accurate reading of where they're going to come down, then it will be very, very difficult indeed for the president to take a different course.
He's boxed in?
I think so. ... I don't think the president has to worry too much about being criticized from the right. I mean, he's going to be criticized from the right on, if not on the war in Afghanistan, on any number of other issues. By staying the course in Afghanistan, he's not going to get more Republican votes for health care or anything like that.
But if the president alienates the core of his support, plunging more deeply into this war when many on the left or people like myself, ... wary of an overly militarized foreign policy, then I think he could find the enormous public support that he had during much of the first year of his term in office collapsing pretty quickly. ...
There are many glib comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam. And maybe we're beyond making glib comparisons. But I do think that's one of the areas where the Vietnam comparison still has merit.
The Vietnam War destroyed the Johnson presidency, and it destroyed the Johnson domestic reform agenda. And to the extent that Obama's war becomes this costly, open-ended proposition with no end in sight, then one possible consequence that he has to consider is that his own very ambitious and important domestic reform agenda could be placed in jeopardy. ...
What is the impact of the recent election [in Afghanistan] and what that means for our campaign?
... We have an enormous stake in President [Hamid] Karzai. And I think in many respects, ... the hopes that we had invested in Afghanistan were hopes based on an expectation that Karzai would emerge as the George Washington of the new Afghanistan -- you know, a figure of irreproachable integrity who would rise above politics, unite disparate factions. Instead what we've got is the Afghan version of South Vietnam's President [Nguyen Van] Thieu. He appears to be ineffective; he appears to be deeply partisan; and whether or not he personally is corrupt, ... there is a culture of corruption surrounding his government. So the guy we were counting on turns out not to be the guy. ...
I wouldn't want to come and try to advertise myself as a great expert in Afghan history, but what little I know seems to suggest that unity has not been a hallmark of Afghan history; that the political culture tends to be one that's decentralized, where [clout] gets exercised by local chieftains and warlords.
And of course the nation-building project, it seems to me, tends to assume that that political culture can be changed; that we can create institutions -- and people typically talk specifically about the Afghan army and the Afghan National Police -- that will be controlled from the center but will have the capacity to exercise authority throughout the entire territory of this country. ...
The impact of corruption feels hard to overstate if part of our goal is to create a government that will win over the people. That's one of the essences of counterinsurgency. If we have a government that feels deeply illegitimate, where are we left?
I think Washington still suffers from too great an emphasis on 1945 and its consequences and, frankly, a vast misinterpretation of what happened after 1945. But the myth of 1945 is that having won World War II, ... we then endowed the Germans and the Japanese with democratic institutions which then enabled those two countries to live in peace and flourish ever since.
First of all, I think that the Germans and the Japanese probably had as much to do with the creation of their own democracies as we did. Secondly, the circumstances that existed in 1945 -- unconditional surrender in the wake of total war -- were fairly unique. And third, the historical circumstances were different. Germany and Japan are not comparable to Afghanistan.
So when you widen the lens a little bit and ask yourself what's been the American batting average in the nation-building arena when we have sought to create effective institutions in places where we have either exercised imperial control or significant influence, how well have we done?
And the answer is we've not done very well at all, whether you're talking the Philippines and Cuba, going back more than 100 years to the wake of the Spanish-American War; whether you're talking the various countries in and around the Caribbean that we occupied during the teens and '20s -- Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Haiti; whether you're talking about South Vietnam.
We've not shown any particular knack at creating legitimate institutions in foreign countries, especially when there's a culture significantly different from our own. Why all that history is not especially relevant to Afghanistan, you have to wonder. ...
I want to go back to the ground a little bit as far as we're doing a counterinsurgency. We saw soldiers on the ground doing patrols, doing all the things they're supposed to do -- meeting elders, shaking hands, drinking tea. These guys are then rotated out after their tours.
And I think the Marine tours are seven months. ...
There's two things. First of all, it seems to me in order to have the cultural feel, the sensitivity to effectively relate to a different people, it's going to take more than 15 hours of classroom instruction and introduction to the local language. If you're really serious about nation building in a place like Afghanistan, you need to build a cadre of thousands of people who have a deep understanding of that place. And you don't create a cadre like that just by snapping your fingers. It's a matter that will take years.
The second thing is that cadre is going to have to be there for years. I mean, one can certainly understand why our soldiers serve relatively short tours in Afghanistan, because the burden that we have imposed [on] them is enormous. And they deserve a chance to get out of the combat zone, spend time with their families. But one of the consequences of those short tours is that you constantly have a new unit with different people that's trying to get its bearings.
We had the same problem in the Vietnam War. It wasn't identical because in the Vietnam War, we relied on individual replacements rather than moving whole units in and out of the theater of operations. But the consequence was one of constant turnover, of new people trying to figure out what they were supposed to do. ...
A serious imperial country is a country that is willing to send its young men, and now young women, to these far-off places and leave them there indefinitely. That's not what I would hope we would do. But if indeed you're serious about fixing a place like Afghanistan, that's the level of commitment that probably would be required.
We're a reluctant empire?
... We're not a reluctant empire. We're an unserious empire.
As sort of an extension of the issue of rotating out, the other thing you hear over and over again ... in the field is: "This time we have to persuade them that we're going to stay. We're going to build the trust with the population by showing our staying power." At the same time, on the other side of the mouth, everyone is talking about 12 months to show results. ...
I've heard this notion that, "By golly, we need to show them that we're here for the long haul." And I say to myself, why would anybody believe that? I mean, do we think these people are stupid?
The record of U.S. involvement in places is one that demonstrates a clear pattern, and the pattern is, as long as we think you're important, as long as there's something going on in El Salvador or Vietnam or Panama -- you name the country -- as long as there's something going on there that we think relates to our direct and immediate interests, we are your friends. But as soon as that immediate interest is satisfied, we go on to other things. And were I an Afghan, I would be absolutely certain that that pattern would repeat itself.
I mean, I'm sure if some young colonel, some American colonel told me that the United States of America was the everlasting friend of the Afghan people, I would nod and say: "Thank you very much. I appreciate those sentiments." But I wouldn't take it seriously. And I daresay they don't take it seriously. Why would they?
Well, they're making a calculation: "The Americans are here now. The Taliban is waiting." They're making a rational choice.
I think so. And it would be irrational to expect that the United States of America was going to commit the kind of resources needed to transform Afghanistan into a modern functioning nation-state over the decades that it would be required to achieve that goal. We're not going to do it.
McChrystal told us that it's ambitious, it's going to be difficult, but there's no alternative.
I reject that notion that there is no alternative. And I certainly hope that as President Obama gets to the point where he's going to have to make a decision, I hope that if he's told there is no alternative, he looks back at his commanding general or his JCS [Joint Chiefs of Staff] chairman or his secretary of defense and says: "Don't tell me that. Get back to work. Give me some alternatives; give me some choices."
In essence, to argue that there is no alternative is to take from the president the authority to make a decision. You're telling the president, "The only thing you can't do, Mr. President, is to ratify the idea that we ourselves have concocted." And that ought to be unacceptable in the Oval Office.
And there are alternatives -- not alternatives that I can sit here and guarantee will work, but alternatives that I think are worthy of serious examination. And one of those alternatives is to recognize that our interests in Afghanistan are far more limited than people seem to assume and that, frankly, all we care about is that Al Qaeda not use the place as a sanctuary and that you don't have to occupy the country in order to prevent that from happening; that through a program of intensive surveillance, supplemented with some kind of regime of precision strikes, we can succeed at the very least in keeping Al Qaeda on the run or hidden in caves.
And we probably can succeed in confronting Al Qaeda with a constant series of leadership succession crises by killing leaders at various levels of the organization. Again, I can't tell you that I know for a fact that's a plausible, feasible alternative, but I would insist that it's worthy of examination and that it can be executed far more cheaply than the counterinsurgency project that Gen. McChrystal has proposed.
Is this unquestionably at this point Obama's war?
I think so. And the question is whether or not [it is] going to be Obama's war in the same sense that Iraq became Bush's war, that Vietnam became Johnson's war; that it's going to be the one issue that consumes his presidency; the one thing that, ... for the rest of his time in office, reporters [are] going to be asking: "When is it going end? When will light become visible at the end of the tunnel? How many more soldiers are going to have to die? How many more hundreds of billions of dollars are going to be spent?"
That's what I fear he is inviting if he allows himself to be sold this counterinsurgency program. But the president is a smart guy, and the president, I believe, is a very shrewd man in the best sense of the word. And so I retain at least a smidgen of hope that he will understand the trap that he's being led into here and therefore avoid it.