Sometimes, There Is a Military Solution

Image: DVIDSHUB/Flickr

Miltary means alone aren't sufficient to stabilize the Middle East, but sometimes they're necessary.

Since 9/11, the United States has undertaken two major and one significant but much smaller military interventions that resulted in regime change: Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. In each case, postwar planning and execution proved inadequate. The high costs and outcomes that fell short of our aspirations have produced a backlash against state- and nation-building, and, more generally, against the entanglement of U.S. military forces in local and regional conflicts particularly for protracted periods of time.

The notion, however, that there is “no military solution” to the civil conflicts raging around the world cannot form the basis of policy or strategic planning. The enduring problems of regional rivalry, sectarian conflict, and state collapse—and the associated threat of extremism and terror—pose some of the most difficult and immediate challenges facing the United States. Solutions cannot be achieved solely by military means, but they also cannot be addressed through diplomacy alone.

The key is to find ways of carrying out effective political and military strategies—and this will often require state and nation-building in order to solve an underlying strategic problem. No doubt we will strive to avoid state- and nation-building of the magnitude of Iraq and Afghanistan—particularly doing two large ones nearly simultaneously. Therefore, it is important to learn lessons from recent interventions to avoid or minimize the mistakes made and to address the shortcomings. Also, these lessons should be taken into account in decisions about the military and diplomatic capabilities and skills that should be retained. Because of the risks that are incurred in state and nation-building, we will throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The discussion of our problems in Afghanistan and Iraq emphasize two explanations. The first emphasizes that our plans were not appropriate for the strategic environments at hand and thus could not fully succeed. In Afghanistan, the State Department was put in charge and the United States pursued state and nation-building reluctantly and haphazardly. In Iraq, with the Defense Department taking the lead, we embarked on an ill-fated occupation of the country before handing sovereignty over to the Iraqis. Later, state and nation-building was divided between the Defense and the State Departments. In Libya, the United States engaged without any plan to manage the post-Qaddafi order, assuming that the Europeans and other coalition partners would assume the burden.

The second explanation is more fatalistic. It argues that even the best-laid plans cannot produce satisfactory outcomes and that there is ultimately “no military solution” to the world’s civil conflicts. As reported by Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic, this appears to be the conclusion that President Obama reached in the aftermath of the Libya operation.

My own view is that these sentiments, while understandable, are too simplistic. The outcomes in Afghanistan and Iraq surely did not meet our aspirations, but it is not obvious that the alternative—U.S. abdication of the lead role (as pursued in Syria and Libya)—produces better outcomes. At a minimum, a realistic threat of resort to force if necessary would buttress diplomatic efforts that could ultimately avoid the use of force. At the same time, I do not share the view that competent presidential command alone could have turned the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq into quick, efficient victories that did not require a sustained American presence.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were a test of our ability to integrate political and military capabilities. They revealed that this is precisely where they are at their weakest. Those who do not believe that we should engage in large exertions of American power—like in Afghanistan and Iraq—may be indifferent to this reality, but my own view is that even smaller-scale conflicts on the horizon will require strong, integrated U.S. capabilities. Although it is highly unlikely that we would undertake two simultaneous large-scale state- and nation-building projects similar to Iraq and Afghanistan any time soon, we will face smaller conflicts where the outcome would be of strategic importance to the United States. In such conflict states, there is no substitute for U.S.-led state- and nation-building efforts to strengthen moderate political forces, foster local political settlements, and build institutions that can create order.

The good news is that U.S. interventions over the past two decades offer useful lessons for how the U.S. can improve its integration of diplomatic, military and other instruments in conflict zones. Based on my experiences as the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq, I believe that the costs of potential future smaller interventions would be more manageable if we integrated U.S. diplomatic and military efforts and preserved capabilities acquired through our experiences in those countries.

The period between 2003 and 2005 in Afghanistan is one of the most instructive phases of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. In 2003, President Bush and Congressional leaders agreed that the United States would not be able to prevent the reemergence of terrorist safe havens in Afghanistan without rebuilding the country’s institutions and creating a functioning Afghan state. The effort to help Afghans rebuild their own institutions required a deeper American presence. In 2003, Congress approved a plan—called Accelerating Success—to build on the military progress our troops were making with an invigorated program of political and economic reconstruction. President Bush appointed me as U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan to implement the plan.