Iraq, Afghanistan, and Self-Inflicted Wounds
October 16, 2007
There has been a great deal of debate about the lessons that should be drawn from Iraq and Afghanistan regarding counterterrorism and counterinsurgency. The attached briefing suggests that the real lessons are far more complex. It suggests that many of the failures in the US approach to both wars came from the fact that the US and its allies approached them as exercises in counterterrorism or defeating a conventional enemy, and failed to properly assess the costs and risks of what were really exercises in armed nation building.
The US not only was unprepared for the aftermath of its initial military intervention, it lacked the tools and skill sets to understand the sheer scale of the effort required, how long a successful intervention would take, and the level of resources that would be required. The Bush Administration mixed an ideological fantasy about the ease with which democratic states could be created with denial of the problems and complexities that emerged once it intervened. The US military not only were unprepared for counterinsurgency, they lacked the civil-military capabilities to support the kind of nation-building efforts required to give victories in counterinsurgency meaning. The State Department and civil agencies that should have been partners to the military were totally unprepared to support nation building of the scale required and to do so in a conflict environment.
The result has been a set of self-inflicted wounds where the US and its allies have been far too slow to understand the level of effort needed to achieve any meaningful degree of security and stability, have been slow to adapt its military tactics to the level of civil conflicts in both nations, have been unprepared to deal with the realities of creating effective governance, and have squandered much of the money they provided in economic aid.
One key lesson of these self-inflicted wounds is that there is a fundamental difference between counterterrorism and counterinsurgency and the realities of armed nation building. One key difference is the sheer scale of the effort required to simultaneously reshape a political and economic system while fighting a conflict. Another is the fact that the US and its allies will often be perceived as invaders and outsiders, not liberators, and be unable to deal with the ideological issues and local politics involved. Success or failure will ultimately depend on local partners for governance, for security forces, and for any form of political or ideological victory. It will also depend on the degree to which the US and its allies realize the Western values are not universal, that progress will be slow and limited, and the outcome will have little to do with how democratic the host government will be and depend largely on the quality of governance and services in the field, and particularly in high-risk, high conflict areas.
This raises serious questions about US ability to engage in large-scale armed nation building. The US needs to make far more careful strategic choices between invasion and/or active support of a host government, and efforts to contain a security problem by strengthening neighboring states and the threat within a nation involved.
The US may have to act in some contingencies, and may well have to engage in armed nation building in the future. This briefing suggests that if this is the case, it must never again repeat the massive grand strategic and strategic failures of the Bush Administration, which has repeated many of the mistakes of the Johnson Administration, and which already seems to rival it as the worst wartime presidency in American history. Any future intervention must recognize from the start the scale of the challenges and risks involved in armed nation building. It must admit the level of resources and time that will probably be required, and it must build on local values and capabilities.
The US will also have to build a level of competence it simply does not have today. Good intentions have never been a substitute for competence, and half-measures have never been a substitute for adequate resources in terms of men, money, and time. The US military will not only have to adapt fully to the challenges of counterinsurgency, it will have to create the capability to carry out active security missions for aid and governance efforts, create the capability to support embedded aid efforts, and provide soldiers as a substitute for the near certain continued failure of the State Department and civil agencies to develop the skill sets required for many aspects of armed nation building.
The State Department and civil agencies must also at least try to develop the capabilities they now lack and to become better partners to the military and the host country involved. Like Vietnam and Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan show that the US cannot choose between “hard” and “soft” power when a conflict escalates to the level of armed nation building, or delay the civil effort until some form of military victory is won. It also cannot talk vacuously about “smart” power when the experience and operational capabilities required do not exist, and the State Department and civil agencies lack the operational experience and organizational capabilities to act efficiently.
Nothing about the US aid effort in either Iraq or Afghanistan to date shows that the State Department and civil agencies have adapted to the realities of armed nation building or can actually exercise anything approaching “smart” power. Far too many activities ignored the nature of the fighting and internal struggles and civil tensions. Far too much of the aid effort is still conducted on the basis of peacetime priorities rather than the need to bring stability and security in the midst of war.
A bureaucratic “edifice” complex wastes vast amounts of money on major projects or super-embassies. There are far too few meaningful public measures of effectiveness, no efforts to relate civil efforts to military progress in the field, and a focus on national elections and US concepts of the rule of law as the expense of trying to create effective governance and services at the local level on anything like the scale required. While it is easy to talk about “transforming” this structure, the real world probabilities of being able to add the required level of “smart” to power within the State Department and civil agencies are probably vanishingly low.
This means success in politics, governance, and economics will depend -- for good or bad --largely on host country leaders at the national, regional, and local level. This means, in turn, that progress will driven and limited by the same mix of sectarian, ethnic, tribal, and religious tensions and pressures that help create the insurgencies, civil conflicts, and nation building problems the US seeks to solve.
Understanding these realities should be critical to both the initial decision to engage in armed nation building, and to the way the US proceeds in actually carrying out armed nation building if it takes that decision. The self-inflicted wounds of Iraq and Afghanistan are a warning that future US plans for stability, security, and nation building operation must be suitably limited and grimly realistic.
The limits to US capabilities will continue to be so severe that the US must plan from the start to rely on host country and local elements, rather than US dominated efforts. US goals must accept the fact that the end result will often fall far short of what the US would like to achieve. US risk assessments and operational plans must also be based on the reality that US military may not continue to improve its capabilities once the current pressure from Iraq and Afghanistan is eased, and that the State Department and civil agencies will probably only be able to do their present “thing” with limited improvements in capability.