As a kind of footnote to James’s post, I wanted to draw some attention to a thought exercise that has been conducted at the blog Chicago Boyz. They have asked for and received a number of predictions of what Afghanistan might look like in forty years, all of which have been posted there. The posts vary from WAG to moderately informed opinion and are mostly but not exclusively written from a libertarian right point-of-view. The exercise is summarized here by my blog-friend, Lexington Green.
I’d like to draw special attention to one of the contributions since it encapsulates nicely my own view of Afghanistan:
In US history, almost all successful wars have been prosecuted to battlefield victory and followed by a prolonged (generally endless) occupation by US forces. That US strategic interests were at issue has made the follow-on occupations politically uncontroversial. Indeed, if a long-term occupation by US forces would be unacceptable to either the US populace or the occupied lands, it is unlikely that military action would advance US interests. Contrarily, in those instances in which US forces were withdrawn after battlefield victory, the battle-space they vacated was often occupied by the modern horsemen of the apocalypse – misgovernment, political oppression, and poverty. Successful wars followed by US occupation? The American Civil war, the Indian Wars, the Spanish American War, World War 2, and Korea are all good examples.
The understanding that strategic victory requires occupation helped prevent the US from becoming entangled in conflicts in which it had no enduring security concerns, notably in South America, Africa, and South Asia. It was only in the late 20th century that the fantastic, unproven notion that the limited use of arms over a short period of time could produce an important and enduring change in the status quo, and US political and military leaders began to make war plans predicated on this unproven theory. Afghanistan 2001-2010 and Iraq 2003 are examples of the folly of this thinking. With few exceptions, if it’s worth a war, there is no exit strategy.
And, conversely, at least in my opinion, if the campaign is not worth a major commitment of indefinite length, it’s not worth a war. The commitment and the war should be synonymous with no space whatever between them. Clearly, we were not prepared for a commitment of indefinite length in Afghanistan and are still trying to back away from such a commitment. Consequently, we should not have invaded.
but..but…but…but… I was told this was the good War!! And Obama would never lie to the American public so you must be wrong.
wow. the nut jobs are out in force.
The Afghanistan war was, of course, undertaken by President Bush, with the unanimous support of the US Senate and near unanimous support of the House. Thats excluding Barack Obama who was a State Senator at the time, although he agreed with nearly everyone else as well.
So no, the notion that Afghanistan was a “good war” was pretty much across the board. Even swiftboaters….
There are some serious problems with the quoted essay and a quite selective reading of history. Specifically:
– Most successful US wars were followed by prolonged occupation. First of all annexation is not the same thing as occupation. Secondly, there were plenty of successful wars that did not have an occupation as well as successful wars/occupations that ended with misgovernment, political oppression, and poverty. It’s particularly bad he includes the Spanish-American war as one of the good ones.
– Those wars that did end in occupation were politically uncontroversial. Simply not true; a completely unsupported assertion.
– The notion that strategic victory requires occupation and that is what kept the US from getting involved in conflicts. Another unsupported assertion with plenty of counter-examples. Again, there’s also a difference between annexation and occupation. Additionally, the US had plenty of victories without occupation. See the Mexican-American war, Barbary wars, First Gulf war, etc. I would also include the Spanish-American war. We decisively beat Spain, we did not occupy Spain.
– The notion that limited wars could make enduring change is confined to the late 20th century. Again, simply not true. See again the Philippine Insurrection, or the Civil War. Politicians and military leaders have long underestimated the costs and consequences of war and sold conflicts to the public based on rosy assumptions.
Dave, I’m kind of surprised you like this. First of all, successful war doesn’t require a commitment of indefinite length. Secondly, that we are still fighting in Afghanistan doesn’t mean that the initial invasion was wrong or a mistake. The mistake was in staying this long. Afghanistan should have been a punitive expedition of limited duration. The mistake was the arrogant attempt to turn Afghanistan into something it isn’t. This is a lesson the US has failed to learn many times before before. The whole premise that the US needs to be committed to stay for the US to be successful is wrong – occupation is what requires commitment, but occupation is a choice and it’s usually a bad one unless one.
The part that I liked was the recognition of the relationship between long-term commitment and the decision to invade. The problem in Afghanistan has always been what then? You’ve taken out the Taliban government, what then? You’ve routed Al Qaeda into Pakistan, what then? I think that limited wars with tidy exit strategies are fantasies.
Limited wars with tidy exit strategies are not fantasies – a tidy exit strategy is actually a necessary element to a successful limited war because that is what prevents a limited war from becoming a major, enduring war. Limited wars are for meeting limited objectives and that requires a kind of cynical realism to prevent mission creep – the problem for us in the US and West is we too often can’t leave well enough alone and heed the siren call to fix what we see as the world’s problems. We seem to believe that inside everyone is a little Thomas Jefferson just waiting for the firm hand of American power and influence to set if free. Afghanistan began as a limited war, but then the objectives changed to nation-building which is not a limited objective, hence the war was no longer limited.
To answer your “what then” questions, I would do in Pakistan essentially what we’re doing now – which is not-so-covert operations to find and kill AQ leadership. In Afghanistan we should have left a small force behind with a similarly limited mission while supporting locals willing to help us. Would that leave Afghanistan an awful mess? Yes, but Afghanistan was an awful mess before. The mistake, I think, was believing that our “invasion” (which wasn’t really an invasion anyway) meant we “owned” Afghanistan and were obligated to fix all it’s various problems.