Interviews by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, as well as the documents and summaries recently published by The Washington Post, present a lot of information about the nearly two-decade Afghanistan War. Little of it is new, however, to anyone who has paid attention. Too many congressional testimonies, books, articles, op-eds, TV and radio interviews, and multi-sponsored conferences defy the notion that the contents of the Special Inspector General’s files are shocking revelations. In short, these are not the Pentagon Papers.
Further, the Post’s articles do not tell us which of the lessons learned from the Special Inspector General, known as SIGAR, had been acted upon over the years. After all, the interviews were conducted and the information gathered by DoD for that purpose. Perhaps too few lessons were acted upon, fair enough, but any full report should at least acknowledge the adjustments that each administration had made or attempted.
The information that SIGAR compiled is indeed jarring, but details obscure the important. The real lessons that America should learn are buried in the mountain of information. The important lessons are two: first, that in our post-9/11 wars, we have been only partially successful in using force to attain out national strategic aims because, second, our war-waging capacity has atrophied.
Learn the Important Lessons
We have fought well in Afghanistan but believed, falsely, that an aggregation of tactical successes would somehow result in strategic success. The U.S faces an ambiguous and dangerous global strategic environment—serious competition with China, an aggressive Russia, unresolved wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a continuing war against the global threat of al-Qaida and the Islamic State group, rising tensions with Iran, a bellicose North Korea, and receding trust in American leadership. So, learning the important lessons matters.
The mountain of SIGAR information is best viewed as evidence that senior American political and military leaders, as well as U.S. national security systems designed to support them, have not served the nation well. Our senior leaders have three core responsibilities when it comes to waging war or using force.
Core responsibility No. 1: Coherence and alignment. Identify coherent aims or purposes, then align military and nonmilitary strategies, policies and campaigns that increase the probability of achieving those aims.
This responsibility represents the strategic start point. A significant error at this point magnifies geometrically. Retired Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute’s comment, reported in the Dec. 9 edition of The Washington Post, is revealing: “We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.” His comment may be overstated, but President George W. Bush himself introduced ambiguity from the beginning. In his memoir, Decision Points, and in multiple speeches, he called America’s justified response to the unprovoked attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, both war and a law enforcement action to bring the terrorists to justice.
Apparent in this articulation of war aims is the implicit requirement to make sure military, law enforcement, and judiciary strategies, policies and campaigns—U.S. and multinational—are closely coordinated. At the time of the initial invasion of Afghanistan, they were not. Bush also said in his Sept. 20, 2001, speech to a joint session of Congress that the war is against “a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them. … Our war on terror … will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.” This was an overly broad and largely unachievable war aim. Further, at the time of announcement and initial execution, almost none of the military and nonmilitary strategies, policies and campaigns that would be needed to achieve such an aim were even begun.
The Taliban in Afghanistan harbored al-Qaida, so when the Taliban refused to eject Osama bin Laden and his troops, as retired Gen. Tommy Franks makes clear in his book, American Soldier, the U.S. invasion aimed to remove the Taliban regime and destroy al-Qaida, which included killing or capturing bin Laden and preventing Afghanistan from being a base from which terrorists could attack the U.S. This set of theater-strategic objectives committed the U.S. to removing a regime, which would trigger obligations of de facto occupation under international law.
These obligations, in turn, would demand an integrated set of governance, diplomatic, economic, humanitarian, logistical and reconstruction strategies, policies and campaigns—almost none of which were satisfactorily drafted or coordinated before the invasion. America was playing strategic catch-up from day one. Nor was there an adequate strategy or set of policies to pay for the war, as Dov Zakheim makes clear in A Vulcan’s Tale: How the Bush Administration Mismanaged the Reconstruction of Afghanistan. The Obama and Trump administrations’ attempts to align aims with military and nonmilitary strategies, policies and campaigns proved equally inadequate. Our current position in Afghanistan is at least partially the result of U.S. inability to identify achievable political aims, then write and execute a sufficiently coherent set of plans aligned with them.
Core responsibility No. 2: Organizational capacity. Translate decisions concerning strategies, policies and campaigns into action, then adapt as the war unfolds to achieve aims and bring the war or use of force to a successful conclusion.
Using force is a dynamic phenomenon. Holding onto an initial plan too long invites disaster. There is a constant gap between realities—on the ground or in the capitals of those involved—and the outcomes one desires. So plans must adapt, and some organization must emerge as the agent of that adaptation. Organizations must be able to sense the gap between reality and desired outcomes, adapt and promulgate the appropriate military and nonmilitary plans, and coordinate multidepartment execution. Then keep up this cycle until the war is brought to a successful conclusion by achieving one’s aims.
The Post’s articles make clear that America’s strategic leaders and decision-making systems had difficulty adapting properly, coordinating sets of plans, executing them and bringing the war to a conclusion. And Bush would agree. In Decision Points, he acknowledged that in 2006 “the multilateral approach” that his administration initially took in Afghanistan “was failing.” In his words, “There was little coordination between countries. … The German initiative to build the national police force had fallen short. The Italian mission to reform the justice system had failed. The British-led counter-narcotics campaign” produced a boom in production in the southern provinces. And “the Afghan National Army that America trained [was] too small.” As for the multilateral military mission, Bush’s assessment was equally stark: “a disorganized and ineffective force.” Of course there were failures in the Afghan government as well. In Bush’s words, “there was too much corruption. … Afghans lost faith in their government.”
With respect to the second core responsibility, this presidential assessment is interesting. For it verifies that whatever organization the Bush administration used from 2001–06 was not working well enough. The next administrations were equally unsuccessful. For example, the Post’s Dec. 11 article reports that since 2001, America has allocated “$133 billion for reconstruction, aid programs and the Afghan security forces. Adjusted for inflation, that is more than the United States spent in Western Europe … after World War II. … Instead of bringing stability and peace … the United States inadvertently built a corrupt, dysfunctional Afghan government that remains dependent on U.S. military power for its survival.” Such spending crossed three administrations.
Waging war and using force is easier said than done, which is the main reason victory usually goes to the side that makes fewer mistakes.
But hard does not mean impossible. Organizational capacity matters. For over 18 years, whatever set of U.S. civil and military institutions, organizations and processes that are supposed to be capable of translating decisions concerning strategies, policies and campaigns into actionable plans, executing those plans, then adapting as the war unfolds to achieve aims and bring the war or the use of force to a successful conclusion have not performed well enough. In fact, the processes of each administration were so deficient that each announced the end of a war before it actually ended.
Core responsibility No. 3: Legitimacy. Go to war or use force only for legitimate reasons, and observe international law in execution, ensure proper integration of military and civil leadership, and sustain public support.
In a 2006 essay using Iraq as its example, entitled “Success Matters: Casualty Sensitivity and the War in Iraq” from Harvard University’s academic journal International Security, several political scientists argue that when Americans see a war or a use of force as just, its aims achievable and progress is being made toward those aims, they judge that casualties are worth the cost and the war legitimate. The righteousness of America’s cause in going to war in Afghanistan was never an issue. And in general, American forces followed the laws of war. Where individuals or specific units appeared to be or were in violation, America conducted investigations and took appropriate actions.
Rather, the recurring concern in Afghanistan revolves around whether we had an achievable goal there and were making progress toward that goal. The Post articles focus on showing progress at several points, especially in its Dec. 9 edition, when investigative reporter Craig Whitlock concludes, “Senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.” The problem with such broad statements like this is that counterexamples tend to diminish them. In a Dec. 12 online Washington Post article, for example, former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker said of himself, “I don’t think I gilded many lilies in talking about Afghanistan, whether in public comments or during my interviews with SIGAR.”
Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s 2009 assessment of Afghanistan, documented in former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ book, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, is another ungilded read, as is former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Ronald Neumann’s book, The Other War: Winning and Losing in Afghanistan, Sean Naylor’s Not a Good Day to Die: The Untold Story of Operation Anaconda and Bob Woodward’s Bush at War. Keeping up with this reading and watching the numerous congressional testimonies of the past 18-plus years, a more accurate conclusion may be that senior civil and military officials struggled to describe the successes and failures that co-existed at every point in the Afghanistan War. This conclusion should not in any way whitewash the times where officials did hide the truth. Rather, this conclusion reminds all that in war many truths co-exist and not all form a consistent set.
The important lesson to be learned is how to create and sustain legitimacy when conducting a war or using force on behalf of a democracy. In this regard, the political scientists have it mostly right: ensure you go to war or use force for the right reasons, set clear and achievable aims, and make progress toward achieving those aims. Attempts to hide the truth from a democratic population with access to as much information as the American people have is a sure way to delegitimize your action.
True legitimacy for a democracy like ours is a product of a healthy set of civil and military dialogues conducted within similarly healthy national security institutions and processes and amid public scrutiny. Where dialogues and institutions are cut short, information kept from senior decision-makers, or those involved bully other participants as a form of power grab rather than seek the most prudent course of action for the nation, legitimacy erodes, for the result of such processes are likely to end in decisions and actions with low probabilities of success. One need only read H.R. McMaster’s Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam to confirm this analysis of legitimacy.
The SIGAR files contain so much information that the country may focus on pointing fingers or solving individual problems. What we should do is look more holistically at the systems that created the problems. Individual problems are symptoms. After more than 18 years of war, we should look for root causes. Insufficient war-waging capacity and weak execution of each of the three core wartime responsibilities seem like a good place to look.