Small Wars Journal

U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan: Five Lessons We Should Have Learned

U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan: Five Lessons We Should Have Learned by Joshua Foust, American Security Project.

The 5 Lessons:

  1. The danger of magical thinking
  2. Understand the environment
  3. The war is a political conflict 
  4. A failure to plan
  5. Real success only matters over the long term

H/T to Dave Maxwell.



Mon, 07/30/2012 - 4:10am

It seems to me that all of these lessons, except perhaps the first, have been well learned long ago and are repeated often in our doctrines and, indeed, in our OPLANs. I would guess that pretty much every officer in Afghanistan would agree with them and tell you that she or he is trying to do just that.

I would say that the problem is more that these things are easier to say than do. Its the difference between knowing what to do, and even how to do it in theory, and doing it well.

An analogy would be to marksmanship. Suppose I am a mediocre shot. And Mr. Foust tries to help me by explaining the principles of breathing, trigger control etc. That's good, except I have already been taught those things and really am trying to put them to use. But my execution is poor.
Its not that I do not know what to do, its that I am not very good at it.

The fact that the Afghan war is vastly more complex than marksmanship only exacerbates this. It becomes harder to analyse success and failure when there are more factors at play, and when success itself is multi-dimensional. So learning is harder. We have been fighting in Afghanistan for ten years and we still do things that are profitless in hindsight but seemed like a good idea at the time.

Personally, I think that the goals the western nations have set for themselves in Afghanistan are not realistic given the staggering problems in the country. I suspect that our war aims are an example of the magical thinking that Mr. Foust perceptively identifies as our first and most fundamental problem. If this is true, then whether or not the other four points are ever mastered is moot - No amount of tactical or operational virtuousity will matter if we are fighting a fantasy war.

Robert C. Jones

Sat, 07/28/2012 - 8:50am

Joshua is absolutely correct that we fail to learn strategic lessons. This is equally true of Vietnam and Iraq as it is of Afghanistan. Success is a poor teacher, and failure? Well it is easier to write failure off to poor tactics, bad generals, lack of political will, or some other convenient, and ultimately irrelevant, issue or factor. We are failing in Afghanistan and it is not because of poor tactics, bad generals or lack of political will (though all of those things certainly exist to some degree and will likely catch the blame when we ultimately walk away from that place).

I would argue, however, that Joshua's points, like those captured in the recently published "Decade of war," largely fail to rise to the strategic level and IMO miss the main points that will help us avoid or succeed in the next conflict of this nature.

We do indeed engage in "Magic Thinking" as we make cause and effect connections that appear valid based upon the immediate tactical effects, but that unravel rapidly once the sustaining energy is removed. This is true across the "3D" spectrum of Defense, Development and Diplomacy. But that is tactics, not strategy.

There are far too many tactical examples and strategic points to list here, but some to consider are:

We still have a confused understanding of the essence of insurgency and what truly contributes to a naturally stable condition between a populace and their government. Due to this we delude ourselves into believing that legitimate governments can be created by external powers and that artificially imposed conditions of stability as described in our military doctrine are adequate to sustain the same. History does not bear that out, and as information technology continues to connect and empower populaces, such artificial systems are increasingly difficult to create and equally decreasing in durability.

Resistance insurgency is well thought of as war, but revolutionary insurgency is completely different in nature and is not well addressed through the application of warfare theory as described by theorists such as Sun Tzu or Clausewitz, and certainly not as captured in modern doctrine. In Afghanistan there are both types of insurgency, and we do not recognize that fact nor do we tailor our operations to address the same. Yes, revolution is political as well, but not all politics is warfare. Similarly, all violence is not warfare as well.

I think we do a great deal of planning; it is simply that all of those plans share a common flawed foundation. We must fix the foundation before we can fix the plans.

The long-term indeed defines the ultimate success. It is well to remember that revolution exists primarily to challenge governance that is bad, and typically does not immediately offer or elevate governance that is good. We overly focus on what is being offered rather than upon what is being challenged. The former is moot, and the later is essential. We have a bias because too often the existing government we seek to protect is one we have either created out of whole cloth, or have adopted and protected for so long that it has come to draw its legitimacy more from us than from the people it professes to serve. We must overcome that bias. Successful revolution is the end of the beginning, not the beginning of the end. We must expect such places to struggle for generations to get to what works for them and not attempt to overly shape, co-opt or corrupt that process.



I think we have at least one more important lesson to be learned: some people are not ready or willing to be "saved", or brought into the 21st century. "Butcher and Bolt" is still a valid strategy.

Paul Kanninen

Fri, 07/20/2012 - 9:11am

I was an Agricultural Advisor in Afghanistan in 2010 and I found that while we did excellent work in areas like education, which we did through the Ministry of Education.

Much of our work was short term and failed to consider the five lessons!

I feel we did not see the political at all, but cast all oposition as insurgent rather than looking for the political answer.

Dave Maxwell

Fri, 07/20/2012 - 5:19am

"The danger of magical thinking" which is a nice turn of a phrase, and the other 4 fours lessons are really common sense that should be no brainers. And of course even magical thinking is really about getting the assumptions right (and being able to recognize and adjust when your assumptions prove wrong) which is key to any good strategic planning.

In sum: Read Clausewitz and Sun Tzu, study and practice good strategy, and deal with the world as it really is and not as you would wish it to be.