Can we win in Afghanistan? It’s an odd question, considering that we’ve already won, by historical standards. Yet unrealistic metrics of success continue to pile up, fabricated in ignorance — often willful and even spiteful — of Afghan reality. Political partisans intent on scoring points and media figures desperate for headlines demand the impossible (and not only in Afghanistan.) Increasingly, the greatest obstacle to success in trouble spots where our troops are engaged is our own unwillingness to accept that wars never yield perfect results and rarely yield permanent change.
Unaware of historical precedent and dismissing practical limitations, we increasingly insist on ideal transformations of broken states and regions where reasonable progress is the only fair measure of success. Staying with the Afghan example, a sensible assessment of the possible begins with the recognition that no such country exists or ever has in the sense of statehood familiar to us. The vast clots of miserable territory we label “Afghanistan” (maps, like nature, abhor a vacuum) really consist of the city-state of Kabul, tributary cities along timeless caravan routes and tribal areas that Alexander, the Mongols or any other conqueror, shah or king never fully controlled.
Some Kabul courts were more powerful than others, but the perennial security model consisted of punitive expeditions (not always successful) against those tribes that began to steal too much for commerce to bear. And, now and then, various tribes got that old jihad itch, after which things stayed nasty for a while. No one ever mastered every last valley, whether the Mughals, the British, an indigenous king or the bumbling Soviets. Much is made by Western historians of the local refusal to accept foreign occupation, but, in fact, the tribes also chafed under native attempts to subdue them; whether we speak of resistance to an Afghan king or to the Taliban, peaceful coexistence was the anomaly.
Today, NATO forces and the American military enjoy a level of welcome without historical precedent. We read no end of stories of Taliban resistance in rural areas, but there’s little recognition that, for the first time in history, most of the population either welcomes or at least tolerates the presence of foreign troops. This is an utterly new situation in those mountains and deserts. It’s equally true, of course, that there will always be some level of resistance to foreign troops (as well as to any central authority). There will always be a Taliban or something like it, since Pashtun Islamist extremists represent an enduring constituency. Success means reducing the size and influence of that faction to the nuisance level. Expectations that it can be fully eliminated are ill-conceived.
The operative question isn’t “how soon can we transform Afghanistan into Kansas?” That’s never going to happen. The right query is “can we make Afghanistan a better, safer place for its people, the world and ourselves than it was on Sept. 10, 2001?” The answer is that we already have done so. The loathsome Taliban no longer rules in Kabul, but struggles for its existence in the remote countryside. Al-Qaida no longer enjoys a safe haven the size of the American Southwest. The quality of everyday life has improved for many Afghans, while worsening for none except the fanatics driven from power and their occasional victims. This is success, and an unprecedented success at that.
“But it isn’t permanent. The government’s fragile. Our troops are still there ...” Such are the objections of those who have no sense of history, no grasp of warfare and no understanding of the region. Troop commitments to such environments always must be long-term, unless we mean to content ourselves with punitive expeditions.
Even where we succeed, we’ve conditioned ourselves to see failure.
This problem of inflated expectations, of a get-it-done-fast-and-perfectly model for military endeavors, has multiple roots. First, ever fewer American citizens, their elected representatives or media cadres have military experience. Without exaggeration, one can assert that the closest exposure many millions of Americans have had to warfare has been watching the mini-series “Band of Brothers” or some lesser war films. And even “Band of Brothers,” for all its integrity, wraps up a story neatly in each episode, while the most appealing characters suffer nothing fiercer than a hangover. Fewer Americans even know anyone in the military. As for members of the media, fewer appear to want to understand the realities of warfare (after five years in Iraq, the resolute ignorance of “veteran” reporters remains a source of bewilderment). As for our political class, it’s increasingly dominated by careerists in a hurry, each of whom considers himself far too important to waste three or four years in uniform.
And nothing in the human experience is as complex as warfare.
As direct experience of military culture dwindled, we removed serious history-teaching from our schools, introducing agendas in place of facts. Teaching children about America’s wars, their purposes, costs and achievements, has been all but outlawed. As for war heroes, they simply do not exist for the teaching class. War is bad, and there’s an end to it. There’s no sense that an American defeat might be a consequential matter. As a result, we now have at least two generations of history-illiterates tuning in to history-as-it-happens.
The next insidious problem is the desperation of a 24/7 news culture for shocking headlines. As we saw in the course of 2008 in Iraq, progress isn’t newsworthy. The better the Iraqis and our troops performed, the fewer reports made the front pages, the broadcast headlines or the weekend opinion reviews. At present, we have a media culture in which journalists ignorant of military affairs (but often with an anti-military bias) interpret battlefield events as luridly as possible for an uneducated public. When things are going right, an ambitious reporter will “uncover” something wrong, however irrelevant. It is not a formula for enlightened political discourse.
A fourth aspect of the problem is that our political class either makes promises impossible to keep (the creation of an ideal model democracy in Iraq, for example) or, if in opposition, continues to add new, ever-higher metrics for success. One has the sense that, no matter how much the local people achieve with our support, some factions within our political system will insist that each military engagement has been a failure.
What’s the historical record by which we should judge contemporary efforts?
Arguably our most successful war, the American Revolution would have been declared over and failed at Valley Forge (at the latest) by today’s metrics. Still deprived of the 24/7 news cycle, we endured in ignorance of our inevitable defeat and won. Yet, for all of that struggle’s glorious and enduring results, it involved the brutal treatment and, often, the expulsion of Loyalists (our Revolution was also a civil war). Nor was the outcome good news for the Indian tribes allied with the British or for black slaves (slave owners, however, got a reprieve). And yet, our Revolution was a vital milestone in the human struggle for freedom, a war that ultimately gave hope to the world.
The point is that no war — not one in the annals of history — has yielded unblemished results. Anyone who expects perfection after the shooting starts is bound to be disappointed.
Our war with Mexico was a stunning strategic success, adding vast territories to our country. It also left behind resentments that linger to this day, as well as expanding the domain of slavery (which had been illegal in territories ruled by Mexico) and accelerating our descent into the Civil War.
Only die-hard Southern romantics could claim that our Civil War was neither just nor good. It preserved the Union and ended slavery, that monstrous stain on our past. Yet, with more than half a million dead of combat and camp diseases, justice for dark-skinned Americans remained a distant goal, and the march toward equality froze for a hundred years. Does that mean that our Civil War — the only war ever waged over the rights of a third party, a never-before-enfranchised minority — was a failure? Or not worth fighting?
Our Indian Wars opened the West and made the U.S. as we know it possible. The results were not, however, entirely beneficial for Native Americans. Emotionally fraught, these wars are nowadays hard to present as the wars of necessity many actually were. The Spanish-American War brought improvements in everything from judicial systems to sanitation to the empire we took from Madrid, yet this was unquestionably a war of conquest on our part.
In World War I, we fought for democracy and to “end all wars,” only to see European diplomats horse-trade the imperial possessions of the defeated powers, while denying promised rights of self-determination to anyone whose skin was not as pale as their own — and lighting the slow fuses for myriad conflicts to come.
In World War II, a genuine and necessary struggle for survival, we defeated a true axis of evil, yet the cessation of hostilities left much of Central and all of Eastern Europe under Communist tyranny. Despite the flawed results, what rational person would deny that World War II was a just and worthy struggle on our part?
That the war began in the European theater to assert Polish territorial integrity and independence raises the second critical point that today’s pundits refuse to grasp about warfare: Goals evolve or even disappear in the course of a conflict, and unintended consequences appear to surprise every participant. Our Civil War began, from the northern perspective, as a war to preserve the Union. Yet, by 1864, the troops Sherman led from Atlanta to the sea had become an embittered, crusading army determined to destroy the institution of slavery. By the end of World War II, it had become apparent to astute observers that Soviet Russia would replace the Axis Powers as the primary threat to the West and its values; within a decade of Berlin’s fall, we had placed West Germany on the path to rearmament. Our involvement in the Korean War began with the no-compromise goal of defeating communism on the entire Korean Peninsula, but ended in a stalemate and an armistice ultimately acceptable to all parties.
In a classic example of how to get wartime goals wrong, our 2003 invasion of Iraq began as an attempt to be all things to all people: a campaign against weapons of mass destruction; an anti-terrorism effort; the removal of a malignant dictator in the interest of human rights; a commitment to unleash the yearning for democracy supposedly simmering in the Middle East; a move to guarantee oil supplies; and, for some, a proactive move in defense of Israel. It was inevitable that not all of these extremely ambitious goals could be achieved.
Part of Iraq’s tragedy is that, when the administration promised so much to so many different factions to get its war, it set itself up for a perception of failure, no matter how well things went (and, thanks to the administration’s own folly, things went far worse than necessary for almost four years). Had the administration set realistic goals, the perception of the results in Iraq — as well as our behavior once we reached Baghdad — might have been very different. Of course, the administration might not have gotten its war at all, had it failed to promise all things to all credulous people (among whom I must include myself.)
In fact, some of the administration’s professed goals were achieved: A murderous dictator and aggressor was toppled, and then, in a classic example of how the situation evolves unpredictably in wartime, al-Qaida, which had not had a presence in Iraq under Saddam, foolishly chose to declare Iraq the “central front” in its anti-Western jihad. At that point, the stakes changed profoundly, and an unintended, but certainly welcome, result of Operation Iraqi Freedom has been a catastrophic strategic defeat for al-Qaida — near-annihilation on the battlefield and, even more vitally, the rejection of the terrorist organization’s vision by millions of Sunni Arabs who experienced its savagery first-hand.
The point is that the ultimate results in Iraq are not going to look much like those merrily proposed by administration supporters in early 2003. As a result, even tangible, critical successes on the ground encounter skepticism or outright dismissal. By promising far too much, the Bush administration gave its enemies, foreign and domestic, a gift that keeps on giving.
We need to let go of lingering fantasy measures of success and examine the current situation objectively. We may find that — thanks to al-Qaida’s blundering — our engagement in Iraq was a turning point against Islamist terrorism, after all. And while the Arab genius for failure guarantees that Iraqi governance will not live up to our rosier projections, we may see a hybrid form of democracy emerge that treats most of Iraq’s citizens with reasonable decency most of the time — which would be a triumph by regional standards.
Of course, much can still go terribly wrong in Iraq. An artificial construct, the country itself may one day cease to exist. But the purpose of this essay is to stress that, by insisting on impossibly high standards for success, we only increase the likelihood of failure as perception becomes reality. Of course, in this election year, some factions would welcome failure and have no intention of accepting reasonable standards of progress. But that doesn’t excuse the rest of us. And it certainly doesn’t let our military leaders off the hook.
In speaking to military audiences over the decade since I took off my own uniform, I’ve stressed the critical new mission senior officers have inherited: They now have to educate a well-disposed, but unknowing, American public and its leaders as to what the military instrument can and cannot do. This educative function has expanded to include the need for senior generals and admirals to respectfully, but clearly, make the case for realistic expectations in wartime or in response to a crisis. (This doesn’t mean declaring, as the Army sought to do in the mid-1990s, that it can’t do anything, ever, that involves leaving Fort Hood.)
It’s no longer enough for our flag officers to grumble among themselves, salute and ride off to Little Big Horn or Mogadishu. We cannot afford another adventure that assumes that, once we arrive in the next Baghdad, everything will just work out. A crucial part of military success is defining success realistically before the first shot is fired. Even allowing that goals will shift during a conflict, as new obstacles or fresh possibilities arise, we must take to heart the lesson that promising vastly more than we can deliver raises (already high) expectations among local populations, sets up the American people for a perception of failure and leaves our troops in a quagmire while the political appointees who made the mess make millions off their memoirs.
If our military leaders decline to educate Americans about warfare — what it means, what it costs and what it can or can’t achieve — who will? Allowing those who are ignorant of military and strategic reality to dominate the narrative in wartime ensures that, no matter how well we fight, our detractors will be able to declare defeat.