Following the withdrawal of US troops from Iraqi cities in June of 2009, Afghanistan, once relegated to the back burner of foreign policy, was suddenly thrust back into the spotlight. Subjected to rigorous strategic analysis for the first time in years (save for a handful of notable, prescient exceptions), it quickly became the focus for defense policy websites and blogs.
Andrew Exum, of the Center for a New American Security, took part in a comprehensive Afghanistan strategy review at the request of General Stanley McChrystal. Exum would publish many of his findings and proposals in June, in “Triage: The Next Twelve Months in Afghanistan”.
Yet, few could have imagined what the next twelve months would really bring: the fraudulent re-election of Hamid Karzai; the abysmal “government-in-a-box”, which was promptly re-dubbed a “bleeding ulcer”; the relief of Canada’s top military officer over allegations of an affair with an enlisted female; General McChrystal’s demise as a result of an interview in Rolling Stone; and most shocking of all, the disclosure of the names of dozens of Afghans who had risked their lives to assist Coalition Forces—the prime suspect being a nineteen-year-old specialist who transmitted the data to Wikileaks while lip-synching to Lady Gaga. With the strategic value of Afghanistan increasingly in question, the West is looking to quickly extricate itself from the region; Hamid Karzai’s proposal of a withdrawal by 2014 is particularly tempting.
Some are calling the latest developments a failure of counterinsurgency doctrine, though these criticisms are off-mark. Counterinsurgency arose as a tactical and operational response to deteriorating conditions in Iraq; conditions which many planners chose to ignore. It’s a useful tool, but only in the context of well-designed strategic objectives. In Iraq, the strategic objectives were, despite the rhetoric, to salvage the situation which existed in 2003-2006. In Afghanistan, the original strategic objectives—to destroy al Qaeda and capture key leaders of that organization—became obsolete following the 2001 Battle of Tora Bora, where Osama bin Laden narrowly escaped across the border into Pakistan. Over time, Afghanistan fell victim to “mission creep”, with the original counter-terrorism mission ballooning into a massive nation-building campaign, currently involving some 100,000 US troops.
As David Ucko notes, there is considerable fear that the projected path in Afghanistan will, once again, cause America to abandon its newfound counterinsurgency doctrine. Indeed, one of the most frustrating aspects of a counterinsurgency campaign is that a perfect counterinsurgency campaign at the tactical and operational level is still subject to greater influences at the strategic level, often well beyond the control of the counterinsurgent: for example, a nuclear-armed Pakistan’s tacit support for insurgents, while simultaneously courting favor (and billions of dollars in aid) from the United States.
So I ask, as much of the last decade of war appears to be winding to a close, what have been the true lessons—tactical, operational, and strategic—we’ve learned in Iraq and Afghanistan? What can we pass on to future generations?