Joshua FoustBack to OpinionJoshua Foust

Five lessons we should have learned in Afghanistan

A man riding a bicycle passes next to an old destroyed Soviet tank used during the Russian occupation, south of Kabul, Afghanistan. The U.S.-led war in Afghanistan bears ominous similarities to the disastrous Soviet war there 20 years ago, when a modern army was humbled by small guerrilla bands and the invaders struggled to prop up an unpopular government in Kabul. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd, File)

As the war in Afghanistan reaches its 2014 transition, when the major combat mission ends and U.S. troops take on a more sedate training role, we should take the chance to look back on what lessons we’ve learned there. With the war shifting from outright combat to maintaining the Afghan government and security forces; can we apply lessons from the last 11 years of warfare to what comes next?

This week, my think tank, the American Security Project, is publishing a paper that discusses five of the most important lessons we need to learn from Afghanistan – but haven’t.

The lessons below don’t account for everything that we can learn from Afghanistan. They are, however, important lessons that simply aren’t being made publicly:

1. The danger of magical thinking.
Magical thinking is causal reasoning that assumes a correlation between acts or utterances and certain outcomes: think of a rain dance, or an athlete wearing her socks backwards for good luck. For the last ten years, military and civilian leaders have promised that if something was built, or a certain area of the country was “cleared” of militants, or if some other singular event like a presidential election took place, the war would be won. It was the political equivalent of a rain dance – rather than understanding the complex reasons why bad things happened in Afghanistan, policymakers chose to assume that simple fixes could produce victory.

2. The need to understand the environment.
Counterinsurgency advocates have insisted for years that knowing the enemy as well as the general population where conflict takes place is critical The war in Afghanistan has been fought largely outside a basic understanding of the country and its culture. As a result, many missteps have been made and billions of dollars wasted on schemes that had little chance of success: Afghan Sesame Street, week-long courses in beekeeping for infantry soldiers, and so on.

3. The war is a political conflict.
If one thing has been missing from US policy in Afghanistan, it is Afghan politics. The old cliché still holds: war is politics. Understanding why Afghanistan’s political leaders behave the way they do is critical to creating the policies and plans that will be most effective. But few Americans even know who the major Afghan political leaders are, much less what they do or how they think. As a result, political solutions to the conflict, such as initiating negotiations with the Taliban, are mired in internal dissent and domestic infighting.

4. The consequences of the failure to plan.
The US war in Afghanistan suffered from a failure to enact plans that make sense to regular Afghans. This failing took many forms: building schools, roads, and hospitals without providing a sustainable way to maintain them; creating a cash economy but not devising a system of accountability to limit corruption; sending outsiders to administer communities they did not understand. Planning for the future is not an impossible challenge but the many agencies of the U.S. government, simply chose not to do it.

5. Real success only matters over the long term.
If the US government had planned, in 2001, on staying in Afghanistan through 2014, it would have made very different plans. . The old cliché about Vietnam – it was not a ten-year war but a one-year war fought ten times – applies to Afghanistan as well. Planning cycles rarely accounted for events more than 12 months into the future, which means the long-term consequences of any given policy were largely ignored.

These lessons all overlap. Magical Thinking, the first and arguably most important lesson, underpins the subsequent four lessons. The botched reconstruction projects, the poorly planned militias, the inexplicable assumptions behind creating a children’s television show in a country where most people don’t have electricity – all of it is magical thinking.

There is hope, however. President Obama’s current plan, enshrined in the Strategic Partnership Agreement, actually describes a long term plan for Afghanistan. Only by starting to think about Afghanistan in this way – with decades as the measurement of time instead of years or months – can we even hope to make any realistic plans for the future.

 

Comments

  • Anonymous

    Would like to add another one, Joshua, if you don’t mind:  You cannot force a type of government on people, no matter how noble your intentions may be. 
    We were right to invade Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11.  The country was under the rule of the Taliban, and they had provided both support and sanctuary for Al Qaeda.  And Pakistan was never really our ally, even though Musharaff pretended to be.  Pakistan was the only country that had granted official recognition to the Taliban government in Afghanistan, so we should have known that Musharaff’s support was only lip-service. 
    But our invastion plans should have had begun with the insertion of 35,000 or so troops along the Afghan-Pakistani border.  Then…when our main thrust came from the west…the fleeing Al Qaeda troops would have been KILLED, instead of just being chased into the Pakistani mountains, from which they have returned again and again to attack the troops that remained.  We should have killed as many Al Qaeda as we could, then left.  Make it known that Afghanistan could have whatever kind of government they wanted, even if the Muslim brotherhood swept in and took over.  But just know that…if you attack us again, or support those who do…we will come back again and kill as many of you as we can.
    I feel for the Afghan people, especially the women who have been so abused for so long.  But trying to instill democracy in a country that is obviously not ready to support it is not worth the life of a single American soldier, or a single dollar of taxpayer money. 

  • Anonymous

    Would like to add another one, Joshua, if you don’t mind:  You cannot force a type of government on people, no matter how noble your intentions may be. 
    We were right to invade Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11.  The country was under the rule of the Taliban, and they had provided both support and sanctuary for Al Qaeda.  And Pakistan was never really our ally, even though Musharaff pretended to be.  Pakistan was the only country that had granted official recognition to the Taliban government in Afghanistan, so we should have known that Musharaff’s support was only lip-service. 
    But our invastion plans should have had begun with the insertion of 35,000 or so troops along the Afghan-Pakistani border.  Then…when our main thrust came from the west…the fleeing Al Qaeda troops would have been KILLED, instead of just being chased into the Pakistani mountains, from which they have returned again and again to attack the troops that remained.  We should have killed as many Al Qaeda as we could, then left.  Make it known that Afghanistan could have whatever kind of government they wanted, even if the Muslim brotherhood swept in and took over.  But just know that…if you attack us again, or support those who do…we will come back again and kill as many of you as we can.
    I feel for the Afghan people, especially the women who have been so abused for so long.  But trying to instill democracy in a country that is obviously not ready to support it is not worth the life of a single American soldier, or a single dollar of taxpayer money. 

  • Unkerjay

    Whatever “lessons” we’ve “learned”, they’ll make exactly ZERO difference anymore than the lessons of Iraq, Viet-Nam, Korea, WWI, WWII, the Korean War, the civil war.  They’ll go right out the window NEXT time.  

    The likelihood there will be a NEXT time?

    100%The one lesson we seem never to learn is how not to wind up in this situation in the first place.

  • Gustavo Corral

    Good overview, Joshua. Well balanced between “no silver bullet” and criticism of shotgun approach. Let’s try to double down on what we know works :

    1) UAVs / surveillance / intelligence. 
    2) The value of an accountant. Earliest clay tablets, written in Sanscit, were about accounting. 
    3) Our “allies” are not blood-brothers; more like fair-weather friends. Pay them as such. 

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/SirWinstoneChurchill Winston Blake

    1. moderate muslim = out of bullets

    2. Islamic birth control is a bomb strapped to a ten year old child.

    3. Liberals ‘spread the other cheek’ for their new Islamic masters.

    4. Anderson Cooper is too gay to go to the Middle East again.

    5. The heroine is very good.

  • RF

    Why did we go into Afghanistan like we did in the first place and continue to do so with massive amounts of ground troops. We are fighting a guerrilla war there. Isn’t the best way to fight that with special forces which IDs the guerrillas and goes after them specifically. This is a kind job the regular army cannot do effectively and means that thousands of troops will die needlessly. 

  • Parveen Sadiq

    Getting involved in this war was a huge mistake on our part.You cannot change the local conditions.Afghans are brutal people, the history is full of that.They are ungrateful,and will not appreciate what USA has done for them.They will still side with the drug lords who control the country.The Taliban are the same people.Most of them are Afghans,not Pakistanis.Talibans have have made a home in Pakistan because of the US presence.They have made Pakistan also unstable.2 million Afghans living in Pakistan have brought arms,drugs and destroyed the peace in that country.Just leave Afghanistan as soon as we can,and learn a bad lesson.