The key lesson we must learn from our experience in Afghanistan

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Now that President Biden has ended our combat role in Afghanistan, the search for lessons to be learned from this long misadventure is topic No. 1. For those undertaking this search, there are three books I highly recommend reading. 

In 2014, Fred Kaplan wrote a history of Gen. David Petraeus’s attempt to write counterinsurgency doctrine for the U.S. Army. In “The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War,” Kaplan produced a primer on the principles of waging counterinsurgency warfare derived from the writings of T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), David Galula, the legendary French paratroop officer, and British field marshal Sir Gerald Templar, who defeated the Malayan insurgency. From these classic studies of insurgent warfare, Kaplan produced useful short summaries of the core principles and tactical guidelines that differentiate counterinsurgency warfare from the firepower-focused American way of war.

But Kaplan concluded that, despite the Herculean efforts of Petraeus and his team of military scholars, “In the end, they didn’t, they couldn’t, change — at least in the way they intended to change — the American way of war.” And most of Petraeus’s team came to doubt that U.S. military forces ever could counter an insurgency successfully.  

In 2018, Max Boot published a biography of Maj. Gen. Edward Lansdale, who was instrumental in defeating the Huk insurgency in the Philippines in the 1950s, but was unable to persuade the U.S. government to follow a similar strategy in Vietnam. In “The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the Tragedy of Vietnam,” Boot explains how Lansdale, with solid support from Washington, used soft power to erode popular support for the Huk insurgents. Lansdale consistently argued against the commitment of large numbers of U.S. forces to fight the insurgents, either in the Philippines or in Vietnam, because the inevitable civilian disruption and collateral damage creates more insurgents. 

Lansdale’s keys to success were that he had significant experience with the Philippine people and culture and knew many of the players in the government. Of critical importance, he befriended a respected Philippine leader, Ramon Magsaysay, who shared his vision of a national government dedicated to stamping out corruption, providing basic services to the people, and reforming the national army into a force to protect the people, instead of one instilling fear. First, Lansdale convinced the Philippine president to make Magsaysay his defense minister, and later guided Magsaysay to winning election as president of the Philippines.  

Key to combating an insurgency is winning over the people to support an indigenous government perceived as willing and able to provide them with the essentials of community life, physical and economic security, a government that is not corrupt and which projects a vision of a better future for its citizens. With few exceptions, the U.S. has proven inept at helping to create governments in other nations that could garner such popular support. Those looking for lessons to learn from our failed attempts at nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan should heed the wisdom expressed in a February 2011 speech by then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates at West Point. Gates bluntly told the cadets that it would be unwise for the United States ever to fight another war like those in Iraq or Afghanistan because the chances of carrying out a successful change of government in that fashion are slim.    

In “The Other Face of Battle” by Wayne E. Lee, David L. Preston, Anthony E. Carlson and David Silbey, the authors describe the 2010 Battle of Makuan in Afghanistan. The mission was to attack a small, isolated village fortified by the Taliban. Instead of the “cake walk” envisioned by higher command, the battle turned into a bloodbath for a company of U.S. soldiers.  Casualties got so bad that higher command decided to pull the company back and destroy the village by long-range fires. A question that must be asked is, “What was the strategic mission, one that might lead to settling the conflict, that required taking that small Afghan village?” The answer is simple: There was no strategic value. Bad guys were there and we had a lot of troops in the field, so let’s go get them. Similar thinking led to the Hamburger Hill debacle in Vietnam where casualties were so high and the outcome so useless that it drew congressional attention. This kind of thinking is not good leadership or strategy. 

More recently, Max Boot authored an article in Foreign Affairs, in which he argues that amid the pivot to preparing to fight “big wars” against Russia and China, the Army should not turn its back on training for counterinsurgency war. Yes, the Army should have a field manual on counterinsurgency warfare on the bookshelf given the need to be prepared to wage full-spectrum warfare. But required readings and a short block of instruction at the Command and General Staff College and the Army War College to sensitize future Army leaders to the complexities of counterinsurgency warfare would be sufficient.

And here is where future instructors at Army professional education institutions should stamp a foot for emphasis. The key lesson to be learned from Afghanistan is the same lesson we didn’t learn from Vietnam. If you are not supporting a national government that is dedicated to fighting corruption, is willing and able to provide basic services and security to its people, and one that projects a vision for the future that will garner majority support, it doesn’t matter how many troops you deploy or how many insurgents you kill. You will not be able to end an insurgency successfully.

John Fairlamb, Ph.D., is a retired U.S. Army colonel who served for 45 years as a commissioned officer and Department of the Army civilian in various Joint Service positions formulating and implementing national security strategies and policies. His doctorate is in comparative defense policy analysis.

Tags Counterinsurgency David Patraeus Edward Lansdale Joe Biden Military strategy Ramon Magsaysay Taliban Vietnam War War in Afghanistan

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