Shape, Clear, Hold, and Build

Acting on the Lessons of the Afghan & Iraq Wars

(Speech given at the Cosmos Club on September 24, 2009)

We face a crisis in two wars. The US is losing the war in Afghanistan and we risk losing the gains we have made in Iraq, largely as a result of our own mistakes.   After eight years of war the US is still seeking to learn how to address the problems of armed nation building.

The current debate over US strategy in Afghanistan is the most visible sign of the challenges the US faces. If we are to succeed, we must learn the full range of lessons from our past successes and failures in Afghanistan and Iraq  at both the civil and military levels. We must change our strategy in Afghanistan accordingly and as soon as possible, and we must reshape our role and presence in Iraq to help it move towards lasting security and stability.

The biggest challenge this administration faces in Afghanistan is to reverse the course of a war that The United States has let slide into a serious conflict and that it is now decisively losing. In the case of Iraq, the challenge is to build on military success that has not been matched by success at the civilian level, and to help Iraq make a successful transition to lasting security, political accommodation, and economic development.

We cannot meet these challenges by focusing on vague concepts like “smart power and” and “soft power,” or “hybrid warfare.” The US has to be able to deal with the realities of two ongoing wars, and shape new approaches that are based on detailed, executable plans. It has to create new capabilities to manage their implementation, and find the resources to make them work.

More generally the US must address basic challenges in reshaping its national security structure and armed forces to determine the degree to which it can fight complex insurgencies, aid failed or broken states threatened by Jihadist and terrorist movements, and restructure its systems of alliances.

The US must reshape its national security posture at both the civil and military levels to take account of the hard lessons of the last eight years. It will do no good to talk about “hybrid warfare” or different strategies for future counterinsurgency and nation building efforts if the US tries to act as it has in the past.

This means that the US must reshape its national security efforts to reflect the fact it its civilian capabilities lag far behind its military capabilities in dealing with insurgency and armed nation building; and it means that the US must reshape its military forces at every level to do a better job of fighting such wars in ways it can actually fund and sustain.

The US As Its Own Worst Enemy

The most important step we can take is to realize just how much we have been our own worst enemy, and how serious our mistakes have been. We must not underestimate very real threats, but at the same time we must not export our errors by blaming our allies and host countries, or crediting our enemies with a level of capability they do not possess.

We have made many of the same critical mistakes in both the Afghan and Iraq Wars. They are mistakes whose effect we need to correct as soon as possible, and which we must not repeat in the future:

  • The US failed to properly address many of the most critical grand strategic issues  in going to war in both Afghanistan and Iraq – the potential costs and risks involved, the need to address the risk of insurgency and civil conflict, and both the requirement for armed nation building and for more careful calculation of whether a major US military intervention was the proper solution to the national security problems  at hand. The most critical decision in going to war is whether war is a better option than deterrence, containment, the support of allies, and/or diplomacy. The US failed to make competent and objective analysis of the cost-benefits involved, and is now paying for the consequences.
  • The US went to war in both Afghanistan and Iraq seeking to avoid nation building, and was consequently unprepared for both nation building and counterinsurgency. It failed to assess the problems associated with trying to change foreign cultures, governments, economies, and security structures. It then failed to understand the nature of the insurgencies and developing levels of conflict it faced, the complexity of the actions needed to succeed, and the resources required. It mirror-imaged values and goals that Afghans and Iraqis did not broadly share, and never properly assessed its own ability to staff, resource, and manage the actions it did take – particularly at the civil level.
  • The US treated democracy like it was a toy, and failed to address the real world problems of governance. The US confused holding elections and creating new formal structures of central government with the need for effective governance and political accommodation and stability. Political legitimacy in counterinsurgency is the product of the quality of host country governance; how that government is chosen is only of secondary importance.
  • The US also focused on central governments , excluding any efforts to create provincial and local governments and structures that actually represented the people of given areas and regions. Its unrealistic approaches to instant democracy, the rule of law, and medium and long-term development laid much of the groundwork for failure in both countries and helped to empower both insurgencies. The legacy of these problems has reached the crisis point in Afghanistan and is still serious in Iraq.
  • The US denied the level of risks it faced in both wars, and downplayed the rise of an insurgency for two critical years in Iraq and eight critical years in Afghanistan. It failed to exploit the “golden hour” in both Afghanistan and Iraq when the insurgency was still beginning and when decisive action might well have halted it or sharply limited its impact.
  • In the case of Iraq, the US provided enough military resources to largely defeat the insurgency – aided by a Sunni uprising, a lack of simultaneous Shi’ite conflict in the south, and the fact the Shi’ites and Kurds in the north reached a temporary accommodation. It did not, however, begin to develop a coherent civilian approach to encouraging political accommodation, rule of law, and development until 2007, and that effort still has many failures.
  • In the case of Afghanistan, it failed to resource both its military and civilian efforts, never properly came to grips with the actions of Pakistan, did not confront the failures of UNAMA and the international aid effort, and allowed NATO/ISAF to become an uncoordinated mess incapable of executing effective and coordinated military efforts. It failed to react as the Taliban and other insurgents exploited a de facto power vacuum emerging out of the over-centralized and incapable Afghan central government that US actions had done much to create. From 2003 onwards, the US systematically underestimated the scale of insurgent success and growing control and influence over the Afghan population and countryside. From at least 2004 onwards, it focused resources and attention on Iraq as it nearly lost the war in Afghanistan.
  • The US took years to see the importance of creating large and effective host country forces, and then focused more on developing them as support for US operations than as true partners that could take the lead and replace US forces. It never properly addressed the real world problems police face in surviving and fighting an insurgency, or the reality that the mission priority was establishing paramilitary local security rather than enforcing a conventional rule of law.
  • The US gradually made improvements in training Iraqi security forces but only gathered full momentum in 2006, and those actions never actually produced a “year of the police.” Its efforts remained seriously flawed, and these past failures now compromise the chance of sustained security after US withdrawal.
  • In the case of Afghanistan, US action only began to have a major impact in developing Afghan forces more than half a decade after the start of the conflict.  The US failed to realistically address the problems associated with creating an Afghan police force through at least early 2008; and continued setting force goals roughly 50% short of what it needed in mid 2009.
  • The US military  proved to be far more effective and adaptable than US civilians. Even today, the presence of some extraordinary civilians in the US embassies and aid efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq cannot disguise the fact that the State Department as an institution is still unable to plan and execute an effective effort in both countries. 
  • While the US did develop far better military capabilities to deal with counterinsurgency, it never developed a matching operational capability in the US State Department and other civil Departments, and never developed effective, integrated civil-military efforts.
  • Talk of integrated civil-military plans and joint campaign plans cannot disguise their lack of reality, the lack of coordinated and well managed civil efforts, the stove piping and lack of basic accountability in most aid efforts, and the near chaos in managing the overall foreign aid effort within the State Department – an issue that Secretary Clinton has raised but so far done nothing to address.
  • In both wars the United States created alliances of the pressured rather than alliances of the willing. It maximized its number of allies and its political visibility, rather than its ability to take effective and coherent action. Rather than forge alliances of the effective, it forged alliances of the impossible, in part because it failed to properly estimate the risks of civil and insurgent conflict and emphasize peacekeeping and post conflict missions in nations that quickly became serious war zones.
  • The US solved its alliance problems in Iraq by having its allies leave, albeit at what may be a lasting cost to their future willingness to support the US both in general and in future wars, . In the case of Afghanistan, NATO/ISAF is close to an alliance of the impossible. It divides the military effort into national efforts by committed, standby, and peripheral forces – each of which adopts a different approach to both security and working with civilian aid workers like the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) that are critical to the hold and build phases of US and NATO/ISAF strategy.

The irony is that simply recognizing these problems also virtually describes the solution. The US does face a serious Jihadist insurgent threat that is well-led, adaptive, and able to focus on the gaps and weaknesses in host country, US, and allied capabilities. This threat is so extreme yet at the same time it is limited in the strength of its core cadres and military capability that even limited US success in Iraq has shown it can be defeated. Proper strategy and resourcing of the war in Afghanistan might well produce the same results

The challenge the US faces in both its current wars, and in reshaping its national security structure, is as much to stop making these mistakes as it is to defeat the enemy. Above all, we must chose our wars more carefully, and plan for the risks they create. We must develop the full range of capabilities for armed nation building when it is a necessary option. We must build an effective and integrated civil-military force that can actually carry out armed nation building, and effectively execute the necessary programs.

Part Two: The Afghan Conflict

The Cosmos Club does not have facilities for PowerPoint, and it is all too easy to become impatient with maps and graphs. Much of what I have just said, however, is all too quantifiable and is contained in data you can access from the CSIS web site.

A review of the data on the Afghan War is particularly revealing. It shows that the US went to war making many of the same basic grand strategic mistakes that it later made in Iraq. It shows how steadily the threat grew in the areas where the Afghan government left a de facto power vacuum, and the US/NATO/ISAF failed to provide lasting security and aid.

It shows how badly resourced the US effort in Afghanistan was, and how slowly the US reacted to the growth of the insurgent threat. It is clear – particularly in light of the data comparing US spending and troop levels in both countries – that the US ceded the initiative to the enemy over an eight year period. During all this time, the US reacted far too slowly to Taliban and insurgent gains and failed to provide either the level of US troops needed to win or the effort necessary to develop effective Afghan forces.

It is brutally clear from the steady expansion of insurgent influence and control shown in unclassified data and maps that the US had years of warning that it was fighting the wrong war. It is clear that the Afghan government was steadily losing control of the people and the countryside while the US and NATO/ISAF focused on defeating the more visible tactical elements of the insurgency.

The diagnosis of a crisis in the war in the McChrystal strategic review in no sense describes some new or exaggerated view of the threat. It instead reflects the impact of the growth of the threat from 2004 to the present that was repeatedly reported in NATO/ISAF, UN, US, and NGO estimates and was largely ignored in previous US policy.

There are no similar detailed, public descriptions of the national caveats and restrictions that deprive NATO/ISAF of unity of effort, but even a casual exposure to media reporting on the war makes it clear that NATO/ISAF has to some extent been an “alliance of the impossible.” A limited number of key countries – including the US – shape its real world success. At the same time, the brief shows how slow the development of Afghan national security forces (ANSF) has been, and how much potential they have to reverse the situation if they are given the proper force goals, resources, and time to develop.

We also need to understand why Afghans have increasingly resented the way we fight and come to distrust our willingness to stay.  The rise in civilian casualties, and the steadily diminishing popularity of the Afghan government and NATO/ISAF, are all too clear from a range of polls and on-the-scene media reports. A careful look at the reasons suggests that the growing Afghan resentment of US and NATO/ISAF military action is not a result of any anger against a foreign presence per se, but rather anger against forces that focus on tactical battles, do not “shape” battles to have a major impact, and do not “clear” them of insurgents who rapidly return and take revenge against any Afghans who support the central government and NATO/ISAF.

As in Vietnam, we can win every tactical encounter and still decisively lose the war if we lose the people. In this war, Afghan anger has been caused by the use of air strikes and excessive ground force to compensate for the fact NATO/ISAF lacked adequate forces to both win and show proper restraint; and it has been caused by creating too few Afghan forces to show that Afghans are taking a lead, are a real partner, and can provide the human intelligence necessary for accurate targeting.

The problem has not been too many NATO/ISAF forces, it has been too few – coupled to too few ANSF, and by the US and NATO/ISAF focus on tactical battles rather than protecting the population. It has been the result of the failure to provide lasting security for the people, and to “hold” given areas and provide any form of security.

Mover, NATO/ISAF’s failures have been compounded by the grossly over-centralized structure of the Afghan government the US did so much to create, and by its corruption and incapacity. It has been caused by the fact that so much of the international aid effort has never gone to ordinary Afghans or to areas with a significant threat.  In these areas there has been no real governance, functioning justice system, aid or economic security. No effort was made to “build” and cope with acute poverty and unemployment.

Once again, even a casual reader of reporting on Afghanistan must be aware that organizations like Oxfam have documented serious problems that exist in the international aid effort, particularly with its focus on mid and long-term aid rather than urgent Afghan needs, and its illusion that the situation they face is one of post conflict reconstruction rather than a rising tide of war. SIGAR, World Bank and other agencies have reported on the lack of validated requirements, effective plans, basic accountability, and measures of effectiveness, and they have exposed  the level of waste, diversion, and corruption that affects the UN, US, allied, GIRoA, and NGO aid efforts at every level.

Anyone who has traveled to the various regions and national headquarters in Afghanistan has become aware of just how narrow and limited most of the PRT efforts have been to date in reaching out to all of the Afghan population in conflict and high threat efforts and how decoupled the PRT efforts sometimes are from NATO/ISAF priorities.  Both the CSIS briefs I have mentions and the SIGAR reports also provide summary trend analyses of the US aid effort that show just how erratic the US funding profiles have been for both military and civil aid efforts, and show how little money has actually gone to supporting the “build” phase of the war.

The realities on the ground both explain and validate the new strategy – the focus on the Afghan people and “shape, clear, hold and build” -- that General Stanley McChrystal, and the new leadership of NATO/ISAF, have suggested. They also support the emphasis that Ambassador Eikenberry has put on a far stronger civil effort, on creating provincial and local governance to compensate for the weakness and corruption of the central government, and on forcing an integrated civil-military approach on at least the US effort in Afghanistan.

It should be noted, however, that such recommendations can only be fully judged when they can be tied to clearly defined requests for military resources; a matching plan for civil-military action from Ambassador Eikenberry; a clear picture of the role allied forces and aid will play as part of action to create unity of effort; and a realistic net assessment of how they can affect the outcome of the war. It is a sick joke, and a devastating indictment of the US interagency process in Washington, that we are still debating concepts and not resources and actions. We have to list metrics, not report on the actual status of the war, eight years after it began.

We also need to see how the US and its allies plan to address the lack of capacity and the corruption of the Afghan central government, and past failures to develop even the roughest picture of how it will provide meaningful governance, aid, services, and security in given population areas in the country. It is critical to show just how the new strategy will transition into the “hold” and “build” phases that to show US and allied efforts can lead to improvements in the central, provincial, and local governments. These efforts are essential to winning the support of the Afghan people and giving the government real legitimacy.

Part Three: The Iraq Conflict

In the case of Iraq the US did provide enough military forces and resources to succeed in largely defeating the insurgency and sharply reducing  levels of violence. In spite of its past mistakes, the US now faces far fewer problems with the host country. US military action from 2007 on -- and the fact it coincided with a Sunni uprising against Al Qa’ida and then with effective Iraqi government action against the Shi’ite militias in the south, --has brought a significant degree of security to Iraq.

At the same time, the current levels of violence in Iraq still often exceed the monthly level of violence in Afghanistan. The Iraq War is anything but won, and the US still needs to act on the lessons of the last eight years. The Iraqi government and Iraqi people must now take the lead in shaping Iraq’s destiny.

There is still a serious risk that Iraq could see a new round of ethnic or sectarian conflict. Iraqi security forces still need advice and aid. The Iraqi economy is still far too weak and Iraq still needs help in economic reform. The withdrawal of US combat forces is now virtually inevitable, but it is clear that the US needs to shape a military advisory effort that will do as much to aid Iraq as possible, and this must transition to a State Department led effort.

The US must take responsibility for its failures since the invasion while taking account of its own strategic interests. It must help Iraq develop fully effective security forces, move towards full reconstruction and economic development, and reach political accommodation. This requires the same kind of integrated US civil-military plan that is needed in Afghanistan. For all the progress in Iraq to date, the report of the Special Inspector General for Iraqi Reconstruction makes it all too clear that the State Department and civil side of the US effort has continued to lack coordination, focus, management, and proper accountability and measures of effectiveness.

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy