Paul Pillar

Two Separate and Different Wars

Thomas Ricks offered an observation this week about the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, stating that he expects the former to be a greater long-term mess than the latter. I expect he’s correct, but his comparison led me to think about how much these two wars get linked together and discussed as a tandem in American debate and discourse. Much of this linkage, unlike Ricks’s comparison, has not been helpful in thinking about these two wars and the lessons that ought to be drawn from them.

The unhelpful linkage began in a tendentious and propagandistic way when the Bush administration put both of them under the label of “War on Terror.” It did so as a way of promoting the war in Iraq. It did so even though Iraq had nothing to do with the 9/11 terrorist attack, whereas military intervention in Afghanistan in late 2001 was a direct and understandable response to 9/11, aimed at the group that perpetrated the attack and at the regime that at the time was hosting the group. Unfortunately, much of the news media and those engaging in policy debate came to use the “War on Terror” terminology in terms similar to those in which the Bush administration used it.

The two wars do genuinely share other attributes. They both became major drains on U.S. resources. They both involve the use of force to try to shape events in divided societies plagued by complex conflicts. Even the roles that the two wars play in current American politics have similarities. Opponents of President Obama criticize him in each instance for not prosecuting a big enough military campaign for long enough. But the parallels quickly break down. Mr. Obama himself was opposed to the Iraq War from the beginning but has presided over an extension of, and even a surge in, the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan. Indeed, his view of Afghanistan as a good war in contrast to the bad war in Iraq probably has been a major influence on his policies.

Iraq and Afghanistan get bracketed as twin test cases in discussions of counterinsurgency, or COIN. As has been true for decades—since U.S. military officers as well as the American public turned away from the bad experience of the Vietnam War—COIN has had ups and downs in interest and acceptance that actually have had less to do with COIN itself than with the particular tasks to which the United States has tried to apply it. It is worth noting that the U.S. military expeditions in neither Iraq nor Afghanistan started out as counterinsurgency missions.

The major lessons that should be drawn from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan do not concern COIN, and the lessons are very different between the two wars. Reflection about the Iraq War should center on how a project that was the dream of a small number of willful people could become public policy with astonishingly little regard for the consequences. The most important specific lesson is never again to let anything as substantial as an offensive war occur without any policy process to examine whether it is a good idea. On Afghanistan, reflection should concern the inability to find an off-ramp after a justified and quickly successful intervention, thereby turning the expedition into a costly, long-term nation-building enterprise. The exit process needs to be shaped in a way that the expedition is not just what Stephen Walt calls “drive-by interventionism.” Probably more doctrine of some sort needs to be developed on this subject. COIN doctrine doesn't do it, nor does theory on the ending of wars, nor does literature on the rationales and criteria for intervention.

I hope whenever the efforts and sacrifices of those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan are memorialized, we will see two separate memorials for two separate wars.  Each is deserving of one. 

Image: broken thoughts