Academic journal article Parameters

A War Examined: Afghanistan

Academic journal article Parameters

A War Examined: Afghanistan

Article excerpt

Abstract: After more than a decade of effort and cost in Afghanistan, the United States is withdrawing from combat without bringing the war to a decisive end. There are important strategic lessons of limited war to be relearned from the recurring problems of policy, strategy, and performance that the United States has experienced in the four largest and most protracted military interventions it has undertaken since World War II.


Comprehensive assessments of the US-led intervention in Afghanistan will necessarily have to wait until the undertaking ends. Later, when history passes judgment, things may well come to look different than they seem today. At this point, however, nearly a dozen years after the United States reacted to 9/11 by launching what would become its most protracted direct foreign military intervention, there is scope to outline some strategic lessons that can serve as guideposts in future contingencies.

Perhaps it is inevitable that current appraisals tend to emphasize errors of both policy and performance while predicting that the best we can expect in Afghanistan is to muddle through. (1) Still, critical analysis should not be an excuse to ignore important accomplishments. If the costly, long, and trying intervention in Afghanistan has achieved only a rough approximation of success, it cannot be called misfortune or defeat. Afghanistan has remained stable, and despite the sufferings the war has entailed, a majority of Afghans say the country is moving in the right direction. (2) The current drawdown is not withdrawal, and substantial US and international commitment to Afghanistan is almost certain to continue in some form. Even though the American appetite for overseas expeditions has dulled, the United States military has endured prolonged strain to remain proficient, cohesive, and preeminent. These are not inconsequential results.

And yet, the sum of these accomplishments has not yielded a decisive outcome. This circumstance suggests a first-order question:

   Why has more than a decade of enormous effort and cost in
   Afghanistan led to such inconclusive results?

A search for the answer at Carlisle or Newport would naturally involve consulting Thucydides, Sun Tzu, Clausewitz, and their fellow strategists for historical perspective. One way of applying the method to Afghanistan is to reframe the original question:

   Why has the United States failed to achieve decisive outcomes on
   its terms in Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam, and Korea, the four major
   and protracted wars it has fought since World War II?

True enough, major differences caution against risking facile comparisons and false analogies. In addition to contrasts in geography and geopolitics, Korea was essentially a conventional war; Afghanistan has been an irregular war; Vietnam and Iraq combined elements of both. Korea and Vietnam were conflicts over divided nations within the Cold War; Iraq and Afghanistan were post-9/11 "new wars." After dangerous escalation, Korea successfully restored a tense status quo; Vietnam became a quagmire that ended in disaster; and in Iraq and Afghanistan, regime change provoked virulent insurgencies that persist today.

Nevertheless, a fundamental pattern recurred in each of these US wars. Robert Osgood first pointed to the problems in his 1957 book about Korea, Limited War: The Challenge to American Strategy, which he updated in 1979 with Limited War Revisited about Vietnam. Others have reflected comparably on our recent limited wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. (3) In all four, US leaders found themselves responding by force of arms to what were perceived as urgent security challenges, and in the process transformed what had been countries of secondary or peripheral interest into centers of national mission. However, the more intractable these interventions became, the more they also became publically controversial. …

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