The Ongoing Lessons of Armed Nation Building In Afghanistan and Iraq
July 11, 2008
The attached briefing was given at the Center for National Progress on June 10th, and attempts to summarize the strategic and tactical lessons we should have learned from our operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. It raises key issues about the challenges posed by armed nation building, and the differences between the scale and nature of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and what is normally called counterinsurgency or stability operations.
It should also be stressed that much of this material draws heavily on command briefings, material provided by the US embassy teams in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and visits to various US units in the field, as well as PRTs and EPRTs. This point is critical because there is a broad recognition in the USG at every operational level that the present wars put a major strain on US resources and expose the limits of the US as a "superpower," that such wars require extensive time and strategic patience to succeed, and that nation building at every level is as important as counterinsurgency and counterterrorist operations.
There also is a broad understanding that we are far better prepared for the military dimensions of such operations -- challenging as they are -- than for the political, ideological, governance, economic, and non-military security dimensions. The US has learned much since it began such wars after 9/11, and relearned many of the painful lessons of Vietnam. It is clear to virtually everyone, however, that the US does not have an effective civil-military partnership in the field, that we remain badly short of the civilian experts that are needed, and that major changes are needed in our national security structure from the National Security Council on down if we are to fight such wars with success.
The Bush Administration has failed to make such reforms at anything like the scale required, and has never made public any clear or meaningful plans for the future. Regardless of who is elected in November, and regardless of how the new President chooses to deal with each war, making such reforms must be a critical priority. The next Administration will also have to deal with several realities that US policymakers have so far failed to address:
• The US needs far better interagency tools for assessing the challenges and resources involved in armed nation building, the cost benefits of any such actions, and the risks of dealing with complex and uncertain operations. In the process, it needs better tools for examining alternatives to this kind of large scale operation such as containment, use of allied and friendly states, more reliance on host country forces, more limited and "surgical" operations, and collective efforts at diplomacy.
• It is easy to talk about "soft" or "smart" power. It is far harder to show how it can actually work in such cases, or where and how the US can actually develop or obtain the range of expertise involved. The fact is that the US does not have cadres capable of dealing with the complex challenges of nation building in different cultures and with different values, and the proper bureaucratic tools for recruiting qualified personnel, supporting them in the field, and giving them proper career incentives -- particularly to operate in threat areas for the time required to be effective. Concepts like "soft" or "smart" power are cheap and easy. Real world execution is far more difficult.
• Success or failure will be heavily dependent on creating integrated teams that can operate in the field in combat or high risk zones. This partnership cannot come if the military and civilian teams are separate, if civilians must rely on contractors for security, or if the military are pressed into roles in aid on governance and development for which they are not properly trained or supported.
• US failures have been heavily driven by the inability to recognize the fact that proper plans, resources, and personnel must be deployed from the start. The US still has not demonstrated it has effective plans for either the Afghan or Iraqi conflicts. It continues to react rather than shape the process of armed nation building, it provides added resources only after conditions deteriorate and challenges turn into problems. It cannot manage to formulate effective budget requests -- and relies on supplementals when it needs conditions-based plans and budgets for years of effort. It cannot spend and execute quickly and effectively, demonstrate that it has the right mix of measures of effectiveness, and find the right balance between the immediate need to "win, hold, build," and move towards longer term development.
• Winning such wars in any form requires years, and sometimes more than a decade, of strategic patience. As in Vietnam, there is little point in winning tactical victories unless the US is prepared for the cost and sacrifices of such patience. This requires broad support from Congress and the American people, and such support can only be generated and sustained through honesty and transparency about the time required, levels of cost in dollars and blood, and the risk of setbacks and failure. Future Presidents and Administrations must recognize this fact. Fighting enemies whose basic strategy relies on winning wars of attrition, where the attrition of US domestic political support is as critical as the struggle in the field, requires a new level of honesty, transparency, and bipartisan consensus building.
This briefing is being distributed after several requests for the material, but I should note that it is a set of briefing slides and not a full analysis. There also is substantial additional material in three much more detailed briefings available on the CSIS web site:
“The Ongoing Lessons of the Afghan and Iraq Wars” can be found at:
“The Iraq War: Key Trends and Developments” can be found at:
“The Afghan-Pakistan War: A Status Report” can be found at: