The rise of the isolationist right in the last decade has been motivated by the protracted counterinsurgency wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their overwrought reaction – that America must retreat to Fortress America - has got me thinking about the strategic lessons that can be learned from those two military misadventures - the real lessons.
I think the first and most important lesson of those two wars is that advanced militaries do much better in conventional engagements against third-world powers than in counterinsurgency operations. The Saddam Hussein regime and the Taliban were rolled up quickly; this in spite of the fact that conventional war is usually much more intense and bloody than guerilla war. The difference is that the West’s qualitative edge over the third-world means that almost all the bloodshed occurs on the other side, and that the campaigns end quickly and successfully.
As a result, our grand strategy going forward should be to ensure that any conflict between the US and a third-world adversary be conventional rather than unconventional. Guerilla wars should be avoided, and if they can’t be, local proxies should be used as much as possible for the low-tech, in-your-face grunt work that takes decades to show results.
Of course, this lesson does not apply to Russia and China. They have second-rate not fourth-rate armies. As a result, the qualitative edge between us and them is not lop-sided enough to prevent a conventional clash from being bloody and costly on our side as well.
The second lesson is that if our grand strategy fails and we do end up in a guerilla war, we need to account for the nature of the local inhabitants much better. The US’s biggest mistake in Iraq and Afghanistan was to assume that these countries were homogenous nation-states like West Germany and Japan. They are not. The borders of Iraq were decided by French and British diplomats after the First World War, with the result that Iraq is really three nations in one: Sunni, Shiite, and Kurd. Afghanistan is even more chaotic, with Tajik, Uzbek, and Pashtun being the principal tribes, but with many others in the mix. It was created by the British and Russian Empires in the 19th century as a buffer zone composed of the ungovernable wasteland in between.
The lack of homogeneity in the population is important because an integral part of a western-style civil society is individual rights and equal treatment under the law. Therefore, a country with multiple, antagonistic tribes is likely to fail. For instance, imagine building an ‘Irish Army’ in Northern Ireland in the 1970’s by recruiting in equal measure from local Protestant and Catholic populations. Why would we expect a Protestant Irishman to be loyal to the Catholic standing beside him in the ranks when that man has been his lifelong enemy? The answer is we wouldn’t, but only because Irish culture is more accessible to Western eyes than Iraq or Afghanistan.
Nation-building worked in Germany and Japan because both countries had homogenous populations, each with with strong law-and-order tradition. Civic society was not an alien concept to them. The Germans and Japanese just fit right into the power structure constructed for them by the Americans.
How can one tell beforehand if a country is suitable for post-World War II-style reconstruction? There is an easy answer to this question. Just look at who drew its borders. If a foreign empire or colonial power did it, then the answer is no. If its borders came into being organically, then the answer is a qualified maybe.
So, in spite of this, could the US have nevertheless done better in Iraq and Afghanistan?
I think the nation-building in Iraq would have been more successful if Iraq had been first divided into three smaller countries - Sunni Iraq, Shiite Iraq, and Kurdistan – with separate nation-building programs in each. Of course, the intermingled population along the border regions would have ensured significant messiness, but these troubles would have been smaller and more localized. Evidence supporting the validity of this approach can be found in Kurdistan, which enjoyed regional autonomy and relative tranquility in from 2003 to 2011, while the rest of the country was consumed in flames.
Doubtlessly, I am missing a lot of important details here, but this is why military commanders should be given the flexibility to adapt the overall strategy to the local conditions they confront. Remember, in counterinsurgency, the Little Picture is more important than the Big Picture.
In Afghanistan, the tactics should have been completely different. Being a much more primitive place, nation-building shouldn’t have ever been contemplated at all. As I have argued before, the basic building block in Afghanistan is the tribe. All pacification work should have been conducted on a tribal basis. As I have also said, the key concept for success in Afghanistan is suzerainty. What is a suzerain? A suzerain is a hegemon who controls the foreign policy and the higher-level power structure of a region but leaves the details to the local satraps or rulers.
In fact, this was how the US defeated the Taliban in the first place. The Northern Alliance was never more than a loose coalition of Uzbek and Tajik tribes. The US only lost its way after it abandoned this organic, pre-existing power structure in order to pursue the creation of a western-style state, complete with rule-of-law and equality – concepts completely alien to Afghan tribesmen who had been feuding with each other since time immemorial.
Instead, the US should have installed a loose central government, one that would effectively rule Kabul only, and exercised suzerainty elsewhere. This is how the old King of Afghanistan operated before the Soviets came in. In-country, each tribe should have been dealt with on a case-by-case basis, with friendly tribes given basic military aid and ‘suitcase handshakes’, and unfriendly tribes left to the tender mercies of their traditional enemies, now empowered by American aid. In this way, tribes loyal to us would be incentivized to bring the ‘outside’ tribes into line. A western military presence would likely have been required in larger centres like Kabul and Kandahar, but these would only serve as a kind of super-SWAT team.
What qualifies a tribe as friendly? One, it does not consort with foreign terrorist groups, and two, it allows our special forces free access through their territories in order to confirm this fact. If both conditions are met, they get the guns and the bribes. If not, their neighbours gang up on them. Remember, we don’t really care how they live. Our purpose there is only to deny international terrorists a home base.
Instead, the US pursued a hearts-and-minds strategy. This meant concentrating aid (schools, roads, and hospitals) in troubled areas. This had the effect of showering hostile tribes with gifts while friendly allies were neglected. But the US government didn’t see it that way because they didn’t understand that the basic building block in Afghanistan was the tribe, not the individual or the nation-state.
One last lesson specific to Afghanistan: you can have a War on Terror or you can have a Drug War, but you can’t have both. A friend of mine served in the Helmand River valley, home of Afghanistan’s poppy fields. At first the Americans tried eradicating the crop. When that proved too disruptive (the poppy is Afghanistan’s biggest cash crop), they turned a blind eye to the drug trade. Instead, the US should have used the poppy fields as a thumb-screw on the drug lords: “Shame if something were to happen to that poppy field of yours.” Get the drug lords on your side, and then leave them be. A grand opportunity wasted because too many contradictory goals were pursued concurrently.
I believe these are the real lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan, not the Fortress America isolationism currently being peddled by Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul. If these methods had been applied to Iraq and Afghanistan right away, a lot of trouble could have been avoided. Better still, Iraq and Afghanistan should have been viewed as a high-intensity, short-term punitive expedition from the start: 2 years max, then out.