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Strategic Horizons: U.S. Must Learn the Real ‘Lessons’ of Afghanistan

Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013

Last week's meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai felt like a last desperate attempt to salvage a crumbling marriage: With the relationship clearly dying, the two sides quibbled over the pace of U.S. disengagement and the extent of future American aid and assistance.

But as U.S. involvement in Afghanistan winds down, Americans should already be thinking about what they can learn from their longest war. U.S. national security strategy, as I explained in my book “Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy,” is shaped by the lessons drawn, rightly or wrongly, from previous conflicts, wars and crises. Hence the U.S. reaction to future security challenges will reflect what it concludes about the Afghanistan conflict. It is imperative to get this right.

While the intellectual battle lines are still in flux, there are three emerging schools of thought on the lessons of Afghanistan. One is the "defeat snatched from the jaws of victory" idea. Much of the political right, particularly its "neoconservative" and Fox News elements, believes that American strategy in Afghanistan was sound but the Obama administration caved to its supporters on the left and abandoned the cause before the job was finished. If there is a lesson for this group, it is that Democrats can't be trusted with U.S. security.

A second school of thought is the "just say no" faction. Found on the political left and among libertarians and some traditional conservatives, this group holds that the United States consistently fails to undertake counterinsurgency in such a way that the benefits outweigh the costs. So, they contend, Afghanistan demonstrates what should have been learned in Vietnam -- namely, that the United States should avoid stepping onto the slippery slope of counterinsurgency altogether.

The third notion, which is found within the Obama administration and sections of the political middle, can be called the "fatalist" school. It assumes that even though the existing U.S. approach to counterinsurgency is generally sound, it cannot guarantee success. All the United States can do is provide another nation with an opportunity to defeat an insurgency. Some partners will seize it -- for instance, El Salvador in the 1980s and 1990s, Colombia more recently and perhaps Iraq. Others, like the Karzai government, will not. Thus the lesson of Afghanistan is that the United States will not always succeed at counterinsurgency despite its best efforts.

All of these explanations are probably wrong. The real lesson from Afghanistan is that the way that Americans, including the U.S. military, think about counterinsurgency is flawed. Since the United States first became involved with counterinsurgency in a big way during the 1960s, the assumption has been that insurgency takes root in places that do not conform to the Western notion of what a government should do: specifically, provide services such as security and rule by law to "the people." When a state is unwilling or unable to do this, some of the people may shift their support to insurgents with the hope that the rebels will do a better job than the government at fulfilling public needs. Given this, American counterinsurgents believed that the key to success was providing the partner state with guidance and resources.

However appealing, this never reflected the way most of the world functions. It overemphasizes the extent to which people are loyal to whatever organization provides the most services and underestimates the extent to which political loyalty reflects ethnicity, race, religion, sect, clan, family and personal patronage, among other factors. U.S. troops involved in counterinsurgency often found that people have more affinity with insurgents who talk and look like them than with Americans, even though the Americans provide more schools, roads and other goodies. And U.S. thinking on counterinsurgency underestimated the extent to which people are willing to tolerate rulers who provide fewer services, so long as the rulers are not governing for their own personal advantage or those of their close patrons. Fairness, in other words, is more important than the quantity of services provided.

In an even broader sense, the American conceptualization of counterinsurgency assumed that partner regimes shared the Western notion of what a state should be: an entity that reflected the beliefs of all the people of a country and dispersed goods and services based on formal procedures such as the rule of law and democratic elections. The reality is that in many parts of the world, the state is a mechanism by which the group that controls it extracts as many resources as possible, whether money, concessions, government jobs, natural resources or pure power. When a parasitic political system is threatened by insurgency, those who control it will only make the minimum concessions necessary to hold on to power. The last thing they want to do is fundamentally alter a system that deeply rewards them. Yet that is what American counterinsurgency thinking expects them to do.

Afghanistan is a perfect example. Over the past decade, the country developed a political system that generated huge benefits for Karzai's loyalists. It was not in this group's interest to do the things that the United States advocated, such as holding fair elections, practicing greater political inclusiveness, making political appointments based on professional competence rather than cronyism, ending corruption and controlling smuggling and drug production. The Afghan elite's goal was to protect the system that rewarded them so well and sustain U.S. assistance by keeping the insurgency weak enough that it could not seize power but strong enough that it held Washington's interest.

Unfortunately, the United States approached Afghanistan with a one-size-fits-all counterinsurgency mindset. The U.S. method worked in places like El Salvador and Colombia, where the elite generally shared the American notion of what the state is supposed to do and thus were willing to undertake the degree of political and economic reform needed to undercut the insurgency. The Afghan elite have very different priorities and goals, and the Afghan people have a very different notion of why they should support one organization over the other. Even if Afghans do not much like the Taliban, the group at least is not motivated by the sort of parasitism that seems to drive the national government. Plus, Afghans know the Taliban will remain among them even when the Americans and Washington’s Kabul-based clients are gone. When in power, the Taliban were less inclined to provide roads and schools than the Americans and Karzai government, but it was also more likely to kill if opposed.

The lesson of Afghanistan, then, is not that the United States will never again engage in counterinsurgency, as the time may come when such an option is the lesser evil. Nor is it that if Americans remain steadfast they will succeed. The lesson is that the conceptualization of counterinsurgency that has driven the United States for the past decade only works under a very specific set of circumstances. If these circumstances are not present, America needs a radically different approach.

Unfortunately, there are few signs so far that this has been learned. Within the U.S. military, the idea still dominates that with a bit of tweaking and refinement, the methods used in Iraq and Afghanistan can provide a model for the future. If this continues, disasters await.

Steven Metz is a defense analyst and the author of "Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy." His weekly WPR column, Strategic Horizons, appears every Wednesday

Photo: U.S. Army soldier from the 10th Mountain Division scans for suspicious activity, Kunar province, Afghanistan, June 2009 (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Matthew C. Moeller).