The Skeptics

How to Lose the War in Afghanistan

It is now official beyond question. The senior ranks of the U.S. military and foreign-policy leadership have now fully succumbed to the belief that all problems in the Middle East and South Asia must include, at their core, the application of lethal military power. No other alternative is considered. Worse, the military solutions they advocate have literally no chance of accomplishing the national objectives sought. The latest damning evidence: the commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan testified before the Senate last week that he believes thousands of additional U.S. troops should be sent back to Afghanistan.

It is difficult to overstate the utter bankruptcy of a strategy designed to bring peace to Afghanistan based on sending large numbers of U.S. service members back into harm’s way. The Washington Post reported in early February that Army Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr. said he “believes the new president may be open to a more robust military effort that is ‘objectives-based.’ Questioned by Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R.-S.C.), the general said he can definitely carry out his mission with less than 50,000 coalition troops, but hesitated a bit when asked if he could do so with less than 30,000.”

The results of sixteen years conducting counterinsurgency, foreign military training and counterterrorism operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan should argue persuasively against repeating such a strategy. The results have been utter and complete failures on the strategic level. Supporters of using COIN and CT cite the Iraq “surge” of 2007 as an example of how a properly run operation can succeed. Such endorsements expose a significant lack of understanding of what actually happened in 2007 and, of greater importance, that those individuals have a marked inability to see beyond tactical outcomes.

The fundamental point that must be understood is that the surge of U.S. troops into Baghdad was not the causal factor in the dramatic reduction of violence. It was a contributing factor and did play a positive role, but without question was not the decisive one. In late 2006 the Sunni insurgency was beginning to buckle under the cumulative weight of attacks by the United States, coalition forces, Shia militias and the Iraqi security forces. The pressure turned into an existential threat, however, when Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)—an organization that should have been a natural Sunni ally—turned against them.

As was documented in great detail in Gian Gentile’s Wrong Turn, Sunni sheikhs recognized that their only chance for survival was to join with U.S. forces against their common AQI enemy. Beginning even before the surge was authorized by President Bush, Sunni sheikh Abdul Sattar Abu Risha from Anbar Province approached U.S. soldiers and offered to join with them in ridding Ramadi of AQI. The resulting “Awakening” began a process that was well under way when Gen. David Petraeus arrived the next year.

To his credit, when Petraeus saw how effective the program was, he successfully expanded it to other areas of Iraq. But it cannot be overstated that Petraeus’s efforts were successful primarily because other Sunni leaders saw the effectiveness of Sheikh Sattar’s efforts and wanted to replicate them. This point cannot be missed: the Sunnis never cooperated with U.S. forces because they “believed their future lay with the Coalition,” as one general famously said in 2008. They rationally saw that without a tactical union with America, they would be annihilated.

Dr. Sterling Jensen, one of the world’s leading experts on the Iraq surge, and Iraqi Gen. Najim al-Jabouri (currently commanding Iraqi forces assaulting Mosul) wrote of this period that “in fact, U.S. troops in general were not seen as useful even before the surge. When announcing the Anbar Awakening, Sheikh Sattar told the Americans that as long as the U.S. brigade helped locals become card-carrying security forces and be permitted to work in their areas, the U.S. forces could stay on their bases while the Anbaris fought.” No such conditions exist in Afghanistan today, nor did they in 2010 when the United States surged thirty thousand troops—and that explains why the Afghan surge did not knock out the insurgency.

Second, there remains a troubling lack of understanding at the most senior levels of U.S. government of the interaction between tactical operations and strategic outcomes. At the time of the Iraq surge, the most oft-cited justification for the operation was that the reduced level of violence provided “breathing space” to the Iraqi authorities to affect political reconciliation that would ultimately bring stability. But once cleared of the existential threat the insurgency posed to the Shia government, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki took advantage of the breathing space to eliminate most of his Sunni opponents. These oppressive tactics, in fact, helped facilitate the rise of ISIS three years after U.S. withdrawal from the area. Much the same scenario played out during the Afghan surge of 2010.