What America Needs to Learn from the Afghanistan Papers

by Amitai Etzioni

The National Interest

December 29, 2019

Washington must find ways to institutionalize the wise lessons that Colin Powell drew from the war in Vietnam. Namely, that the country shall engage in war only if it has clear goals, can use overwhelming force, and command wide public support.

Arguably the most shocking takeaway from the Afghanistan Papers, which were recently published by The Washington Post, cannot be found in the volumes written in 2014—because it concerns events that occurred after the papers were written. Namely, that despite the very strong, well-documented, detailed account—by the military—that the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan was failing, no basic change in strategy followed. In the years following 2014, there were some changes in troop levels. Still, the United States continued to claim it could win the war against the Taliban or at least force the terror group to come to the negotiating table under favorable terms; for example, if the military continued the same failing raids, the same failing effort to build up the Afghan military so it could take over, and the same failing nation-building, then such negotiations could begin.

America needs a new study on how it can disengage from bad national security investments. It seems that whenever the United States becomes involved in a military operation, it defines operational success in terms of win or lose. Hence, when the U.S. military is unable to defeat a foe, then it is left only with the option of declaring defeat, disclosing all the casualties it endured and caused, and the billions invested, were wasted. Because this is politically damaging to the United States, administration after administration has chosen to kick the can of defeat down the road while continuing to cover up failure with declarations of success.

This is a prime example of a rare success story: In 1991, the United States pushed the Iraqi forces out of Kuwait, an intervention that served as a major contribution to international order, enforcing the Westphalian norm that no nation should use its armed forces to intervene in another nation. The United States resisted the temptation to march into Baghdad and to engage in regime change. How was this achieved and how can the United States replicate these conditions in the future if it must fight again?

America needs to find ways to institutionalize the wise lessons that Colin Powell drew from the war in Vietnam. Namely, that the country shall engage in war only if it has clear goals, can use overwhelming force, and command wide public support. This requires that Congress recapture its right to authorize wars, denying funds to unauthorized operations. All such authorizations should include sunset limits, so the default will be to stop fighting, and those who seek to continue fighting will have to make their case before more funds are appropriated. And contracts to private corporations, which play a growing role in warfare and profit from it, will be equally term-limited. These measures may be insufficient. Still, if the United States doesn’t make some changes to the ways that it conducts war, then it is most likely to remain an untutored nation—one that makes major costly mistakes when it engages in war and does not learn from them.

The Afghanistan Papers speak volumes about America’s inability to learn from experience and its failure to adapt its strategy. They are less clear about the major way the U.S. military drew the wrong lessons from, out of all places, the anti-guerilla warfare in Malaysia.

The U.S. military has sought a strategy for dealing with insurgencies ever since it experienced a devastating defeat in Vietnam. A group of military strategists and generals held that to defeat an insurgency, a nation cannot rely solely on brute force, which is the essence of a counterterrorism campaign, but must also win the hearts and minds of the affected population. Those strategists pointed to the lessons of the British military’s counterinsurgency campaign in Malaysia between 1948 and 1960, as outlined in John Nagl’s Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife. But those lessons hinge on circumstances that were radically different from those in Afghanistan.

The Malayan Communist Party insurgency that rose up against the British was conducted by a minority of the population; it consisted almost entirely of the Chinese part of the population, whose physical appearance made it easy to distinguish them from the majority of the Malaysian population. Moreover, far from winning their hearts and minds, the British forced approximately five hundred thousand Chinese to move in order to isolate them from the rest of the population and to control them. Opposition to the British rose in the wake of these forced relocations.

In Afghanistan, the U.S. military first moved to defeat the Taliban in some parts and then moved on to go after them in other places. However, the Taliban kept popping up again in the areas that had been cleared. Hence, the new strategy, based presumably on Malaysia, called for “destroy and hold.” However, because it was not possible to keep U.S. troops in every hamlet, village, and town, and the Afghan army was basically useless, the idea was to win over the villagers, and for them to deny the area to the Taliban. The villages were given cash (often mainly to warlords), wells, roads, and soccer balls and candy for the kids. Most villagers took these goodies but continued to not resist the Taliban, either because they feared them or because they are their family members, with whom they share religious and cultural values and bonds of affinity. In short, it may be incorrect to conclude that the United States had no strategy in Afghanistan, or learned no lessons from the battlefield; instead, it seems that it derived the wrong ones and stuck to them, afraid to admit failure.

Collateral Damage

The Afghanistan Papers provide no guidance on one of the most difficult moral and strategic issues faced by democratic nations fighting insurgencies, an issue that America still faces in Syria, as well as in every place we use drones to fight terrorists, including Libya, Mali, and Niger. The issue concerns how much collateral damage America should tolerate in order to kill, capture, or disable its targets. Killing civilians, often including children, raises both major moral and legal concerns and has an effect on America’s ability to win campaigns, as killing civilians antagonizes the people whose hearts and minds it seeks to win over.

One of the most profound rules of all armed conflicts, the rule of distinction, holds that combatants should make special efforts to spare civilians when engaging in armed confrontations. It is for this reason that the majority of U.S. military aircraft involved in the fight against ISIS have returned to their bases without dropping bombs or are dropping them on low-value targets. The U.S. military entered the war in Afghanistan with a five-page, single-spaced list of targets that may not be hit or may be hit only after consultations with high-ranking officials, or even the White House. At various points, American commanders have denied artillery or close air support to beleaguered American troops over concerns that civilians may be hit. Additionally, they have ordered American soldiers not to fire until they are hit first.

When Gen. Stanley McChrystal took command in Afghanistan in June 2009, he further tightened the rules of engagement, limiting the use of indirect fires and air-to-ground munitions against residential compounds containing enemy personnel and requiring that entry into Afghan homes be accomplished by Afghan National Security Forces. Given that the rules significantly increase the risks to our troops, General McChrystal framed them as “courageous restraint.”  Such restraint was urged even if it came at the expense of the military’s ability to operate. General McChrystal testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that “[o]ur willingness to operate in ways that minimize casualties or damage [in Afghanistan], even when doing so makes our task more difficult, is essential to our credibility. I cannot overstate my commitment to the importance of this concept.” These rules made it very difficult for the United States to fight. Insurgents pose as civilians; use unmarked vehicles; and fire from civilian homes, mosques, and schools. According to the New York Times, the stricter rules came “with costs, including a perception now frequently heard among troops that the effort to limit risks to civilians has swung too far, and endangers the lives of Afghan and Western soldiers caught in firefights with insurgents who need not observe any rules.” Jeff Addicott, a former senior legal adviser to the U.S. Army Special Forces, observed, “We have hamstrung our military with unrealistic ROEs. . . . In many ways our military is frozen in fear of violating absurd self-imposed rules on the battlefield. How can you tell if it’s a teenager or a man, a farmer or an enemy when you’re fighting an insurgency?” A Marine infantry lieutenant confessed that he had all but stopped requesting air support during firefights because he wound up wasting too much time on the radio trying to justify his request, and pilots either never arrived, arrived too late, or were hesitant about dropping their ordnance.

In the years that followed, slowly, without a clear change in rules, the rules of engagement were relaxed and diluted. In recent years, there has been much greater tolerance for collateral damage. When it came to fighting the remains of ISIS in Raqqa, the United States and its allies in effect pulverized the city, causing many civilian deaths.

Now, America is left with a dilemma that needs addressing. If it abides by the moral and legal doctrine that it subscribes to, then observing the rule of distinction, the insurgents gain an intolerable advantage. If it does not, then it loses the moral high ground and is subject to accusations of war crimes, it will have alienated the local population, and it will face condemnation from the public across the world and at home. All of this seems to suggest that America would do best to avoid such engagements if at all possible, but if fight it must, then its citizens should call for a change in moral norms and the Geneva Conventions. Namely, if the insurgents do not abide by the rule of distinction and mix in with the civilian population, then they are the main ones to be blamed for collateral damage.

Some pages of the Afghanistan Papers seem to imply that if only the United States was more culturally sensitive, understood better the unique mentality of the Afghans, nation-building could have been successful. However, most of the text appears to support the thesis that the United States cannot turn nations like Afghanistan into liberal democracies no matter how large the effort and how well it is carried out. The United States has tried to engage in nation-building in many countries and has only experienced two successes, in a post–World War II Germany and Japan. A study of the conditions that were available there shows that none of these conditions have been available in Afghanistan. The conditions include complete cessation of hostilities before starting nation-building, a modern economy, a sizeable middle class, and a strong sense of national unity.

The American public is strongly opposed to more land wars in Asia because of a widely held perception that America lost the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The truth is that in both nations, the United States quickly won the wars with few casualties. Most of the casualties and costs incurred when it engaged in nation-building. Thus, if the United States is to intervene again, say in Iran, then it should seek to end its nuclear and missile programs and Tehran’s support of terrorists, but leave it to the people of Iran to decide what kind of government and society they are willing to fight for.

Missing from the Afghanistan Papers is a discussion of the way the United States should deal with a local partner when that partner engages in particularly heinous moral crimes. Much was made of the fact that the United States has gained schooling for millions of Afghan girls. However, it has failed the country’s boys. The military and political elites in Afghanistan, in particular, the Pashtun, dress up young boys like girls and use them as sex slaves, in a practice called bacha bazi. U.S. officers, who shared quarters with these generals and officers, were under orders to ignore the pained cries of these boys. A major lesson of the Afghanistan War is that being culturally sensitive should not entail tolerating abuses of the most basic rights.

The military deserves great credit for conducting a thorough and candid investigation of its failures and The Washington Post deserves credit for sharing the lessons with the public. However, readers who follow the responsible American press will find very little news in the Afghanistan Papers. There are numerous details, statistics, and quotes from experts that have not been previously published; however, the main points and sub-points have been reported in hundreds of articles, TV and radio news, documentaries, and books, for over a decade. The reports included the facts that military authorities knew better than they were letting on. This means that, for the last eighteen years, the press—often criticized these days—has been doing a hell of a job.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and professor of international affairs at The George Washington University.

What America Needs to Learn from the Afghanistan Papers