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Afghanistan and Korea: Lessons from History

November 3, 2014

Not long ago President Barack Obama announced his plan to leave a limited number of U.S. troops— fewer than 10,000—in Afghanistan after 2015. As we conclude both Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), it is time to ponder the enormous costs associated with these two wars and examine what has been achieved.

I recently served for one year in Afghanistan as an International Security Assistance Force for Afghanistan (ISAF) advisor to the Afghan Ministry of Defense. During this period I attempted to introduce the lessons from South Korea for application to Afghanistan because I felt there were a number of major similarities between the South Korea of the 1950s and 1960s (the country where I was born, raised and had a naval career of 27 years) and the Afghanistan of today.

America invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S. homeland (9/11). The stated goals of our military invasion of Afghanistan, in the words of then-President George W. Bush, were the destruction of terrorist infrastructure and training camps within Afghanistan, the capture of al Qaeda leaders and the cessation of terrorist activities in Afghanistan. Other nations took part in the war on terrorism and thus ISAF was formed. ISAF participant nations established a number of Provincial Reconstruction Teams as well as combat units in provinces to engage in combat operations against the Taliban and to help the Afghans rebuild their nation’s infrastructure. The U.S. forces were integrated into the ISAF command structure.

In May 2011 a U.S. Navy Sea Air Land (SEAL) team succeeded in killing Osama bin Laden. It is generally agreed that the operating bases of al Qaeda have been routed from Afghanistan, although their remnants are thought to operate out of Pakistan and they are spreading their operations to other third-world countries. Consequently, many believe that the three objectives of OEF as defined by President Bush in 2001 have been achieved. Although President Obama has mandated the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan in the near future, America has been spending billions of dollars and will continue to do so in the name of nation building and for sustaining the Afghan National Security Forces. In other words, after achieving our initial military objectives, U.S. troops, advisors and State Department personnel, including sizable Central Intelligence Agency and U.S. Agency for International Development teams, are still engaged in Afghanistan in the context of the secondary goals of helping the Afghans rebuild their nation and sustain their domestic security against the threat of the Taliban. 

Simply put, U.S. forces are still there based on the assumption that al Qaeda and the Taliban are closely linked and that U.S. support for the Afghan civil war effort against the Taliban contributes directly to the elimination of al Qaeda and other international terrorist groups from Afghanistan.