Afghanistan and Iraq: Learning the Lessons of Worst Case Wars

The US needs to learn hard lessons from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan even if it does intend to fight such wars in the future. The Burke Chair is issuing a summary analysis of these lessons that focuses on what the US needs to learn as it shifts towards a strategy centered on strategic partnerships, and where irregular and unconventional war will be a critical element in US security efforts.
The Burke Chair is issuing a summary presentation of these lessons called Afghanistan and Pakistan: Learning the Lessons of Worst Case Wars, which is available on the CSIS web site here.

Some key takeaways from this study include:
•    Grand strategic values must dominate at all times.
•    Must be ruthless, objective and ongoing.
•    Never embrace or fall in love with the mission.
•    Never let the moment dominate longer-term interests.
•    All wars that do not involve truly vital, if not existential, US strategic interest are optional and can be lost, avoided, or terminated on less than favorable terms.
•    Cost-benefit and risk analysis must be ongoing.
•    The rationale for, and progress of, the war effort must be public and transparent or the US government will start lying to itself at every level.
•    Never bet on the come.
•    Never “sell” or “spin” progress at the tactical, civil, strategic, or grand strategic level.
•    Where possible, make US commitments explicitly conditional.

Another critical conclusion that the US must learn from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is that it cannot focus simply on the enemy, but must also see the threat environment as five key concerns, rather than one:
1.    The Enemy.
2.    Our allies, particularly the host country and its internal divisions.
3.    US illusions, mistakes, limitations, and lack of core competence.
4.    Time.
5.    Cost.

Other recent Burke chair studies which also address these issues include:

•    The FY2015 Defense Budget and the QDR: Key Trends and Data Points, found here
May 11, 2014: A summary overview of the strengths and weaknesses, and key trends, in the 2014 QDR and President Obama’s FY2015 defense budget request.
•    Changing US Security Strategy, found here.
September, 24, 2013: More than a decade into the “war on terrorism,” much of the political debate in the United States is still fixated on the legacy of 9/11. US politics has a partisan fixation on Benghazi, the Boston Marathon bombing, intelligence intercepts, and Guantanamo. Far too much attention still focuses on “terrorism” at a time the United States faces a much broader range of threats from the instability in the Middle East, North Africa, and the Islamic world.
•    Iraq in Crisis, found here.
May 30, 2014: This draft of a CSIS E-book addresses the history of Iraq after US withdrawal through early 2014. It described the problems and challenges Iraq faces from its failures to form an effective national government, Malik’s increase authoritarianism and focus on Shi’ite interests, broader sectarian and ethnic divisions, problems in the Iraqi security forces, growing social and demographic pressures, economic issues, and energy problems.
•    The Post-Election Challenges to Afghan Transition: 2014-2015, found here.
May 19, 2014: Some 17 months after the time that the US, NATO/ISAF, and aid donors should have had in place realistic plans for Transition, the US and its allies still lack a clearly laid out strategic case, and the costs for continued aid in Afghanistan. The Obama administration seems committed to an almost endless cycle of reviews and requests for new options, but has failed to put forth any credible plans, costs, and conditions or make a meaningful strategic and political case for its position and the role the US should play in Afghanistan after 2014.