Shape, Clear, Hold, and Build: "The Uncertain Lessons of the Afghan & Iraq 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 Burke Chair has developed a three part series of briefings that focuses on these lessons and the actions the US must now take.  The briefings can be found here:

Part One: Counterinsurgency Lessons

Part Two: Afghanistan

Part Three: Iraq

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

In the case of Afghanistan, the challenge is to reverse a war that US incompetence has let slide into becoming a serious conflict 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” 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, new capabilities to manage their implementation, and finding 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 now 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 past.

Part One: The General Lessons of the Wars

Part One deals with the general lessons of the last eight years that have emerged in both Afghanistan and Iraq. It is entitled "Shape, Clear, Hold, and Build:” The Uncertain Lessons of the Afghan & Iraq Wars”  and it is available on the CSIS web site at

This part of the briefing focuses on the fact that the United States made many of the same critical mistakes in both wars. These are mistakes it now needs to correct and must not repeat in the future. It suggests that:

  • The US failed to properly address many of the most critical grand strategic issues it faced 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 far more careful calculation of whether a major US military intervention was the proper solution to the national security problems involved. In many ways, 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 unprepared for both nation building and counterinsurgency. It failed to assess the problems in trying to change foreign cultures, governments, economies, and security structures. It then failed to understand the nature of the insurgencies and 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 confused holding elections and creating new formal structures of central government with actual effective governance and political accommodation and stability. Its approach to instant democracy and unrealistic approaches to the rule of law and development rather than meeting popular needs 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 created alliances that maximized the numbers of allies and political visibility, instead of 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 emphasized peacekeeping and post conflict missions in nations that quickly became serious war zones.
  • The US 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 years that followed, the US did evolve far better military capabilities to deal with counterinsurgency than it had in 2001. It never, however, developed a matching operational capability in the US State Department and other civil Departments, and never developed either effective, integrated civil-military efforts or the civilian capability to plan, manage and execute, and work towards validated goals with adequate measures of effectiveness.
  • In the case of Iraq, it 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 civil 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 while it systematically ignored and lost the war in Afghanistan.
  • The US took years to see the importance of creating large and effective host country security forces, and then focused more on developing them as support for US operations than as true partners that could take the lead and replace the US. It never properly addressed the real world problems police face in surviving and fighting an insurgency, or the reality that the mission priority was paramilitary local security rather than conventional rule of law.
  • The US gradually made improvements in training Iraqi security forces that only gathered major momentum in 2006, and that never actually produced a “year of the police.” Its efforts remained seriously flawed, and these past failures now seriously 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, failed to realistically address the problems in creating a police force through at least early 2008, and still set force goals roughly 50% short of the need in mid 2009.
  • The military, however, proved to be far more effective and adaptable than the 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 civil effort in both countries. 
  • 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 stovepiping 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.
  • The US solved its alliance problems in Iraq by having its allies leave, albeit at what may be a lasting cost to both their future willingness to support the US and governments that will directly support the US 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 briefing suggests that each of these problems – along with other problems that have affected both Afghanistan and Iraq – also describe 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.

The challenge the US faces in its current wars, and in reshaping its national security structure, is as much to stop making mistakes as it is to defeat the enemy. Above all, it is to build an effective and integrated civil-military effort that can choose its wars more carefully, carry out armed nation building, and plan and actually execute the necessary programs. At the same time, the Jihadist insurgent threat is so extreme, and still so limited in the strength of its core cadres and military capability, that even limited US success in Iraq has shown it can be defeated and it is clear that proper resourcing of the war in Afghanistan might well produce the same results.

Part Two: The Afghan Conflict

Part Two of the brief is available on the CSIS web site at This part of the briefing is largely diagnostic. 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 shown in Part One – that the US ceded the initiative to the enemy over a nearly eight year period. During all this time, the US reacted far too slowly to Taliban and insurgent gains in providing 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. 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 as reported in NATO/ISAF, UN, US, and NGO estimates that were 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 the briefing shows why NATO/ISAF has to some extent been an “alliance of the impossible,” and why 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.

The casualty data in the brief are hard to directly relate to the lessons of the conflict as are the polling data to date – many of which are crippled by a lack of proper explanation of how and where the sampling took place. A careful look at other reporting, however, 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.

Afghans are angry over 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.  They are angry because there have been too few Afghan forces to show that Afghans are taking a lead, are a real partner, and 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 a focus on tactical battles rather than protecting the population. It has also been the failure to provide lasting security for the people, and to “hold” given areas and provide any form of security. The operations of the grossly overcentralized structure of the Afghan government the US did so much to create, and the fact so much of the aid effort has never gone to ordinary Afghans or into areas with a significant threat, has meant that there was no real governance, functioning justice system, aid or economic security. No effort was made to “build” and cope with acute poverty and unemployment.

The brief can only partially document the even more serious problems that exist in the international aid effort; its focus on mid and long-term aid rather than urgent Afghan needs, and its illusion that the task is post conflict reconstruction in spite of a rising tide of war. It cannot address the lack of validated requirements, effective plans, basic accountability, and measures of effectiveness – or show the level of waste, diversion, and corruption that affects the UN, US, allied, GIRoA, and NGO aid efforts at every level.

The report cannot show just how narrow and limited most of the PRT effort has been to date in reaching out to all of the Afghan population in conflict and high threat efforts and how decoupled it sometimes is from NATO/ISAF priorities and protection. It does, however, provide summary trend analyses of the US aid effort that show just how erratic the US funding profiles have been for both the military and civil aid efforts and how little money has actually gone to supporting the “build” phase of the war.

Once these factors are taken into account, this portion of the brief does much to validate the new strategy – and focus on the Afghan people and “shape, clear, hold and build” -- that General Stanley McChrystal, and the new leadership of NATO/ISAF, have suggested. It also supports the emphasis that Ambassador Eikenberry has put on a far stronger civil effort, creating provincial and local governance to compensate for the weakness and corruption of the central government, and forcing an integrated civil-military approach on at least the US effort in Afghanistan.

It should be noted, however, that such efforts 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 also is impossible to provide metrics of just how serious that lack of capacity and the corruption of the Afghan central government are, or even to provide the roughest picture of the extent it that provides meaningful governance, aid, services, and security in given population areas in the country. This makes it critical to see just how the new strategy is transformed into “hold” and “build” plans that show that US and allied efforts can lead to the improvements in the central, provincial, and local government efforts necessary to win the support of the Afghan people and give the government real legitimacy.

Part Three: The Iraq Conflict

Part Three of the brief focuses on Iraq. It available at the web at Like Part Two, it is largely diagnostic. In the Iraqi case, however, the US did provide enough forces and resources to succeed, and now faces far fewer problems with the host country. US military action and the fact that it coincided with a Sunni uprising against Al Qa’ida and then 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, Part Three shows that 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. At the same time, the US must take responsibility for its failures since the invasion, and help Iraq develop fully effective security forces, move towards full reconstruction and economic development, and reach political accommodation.

There is still a serious risk that Iraq could see a new round of ethnic or sectarian conflict. The 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 that the US needs to transition to a State Department led effort.

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 continues to lack coordination, focus, management, and proper accountability and measures of effectiveness.

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy