Petraeus’s impossible mission in Afghanistan: armed nation-building

The US can’t build society at the barrel of a gun, but it can hunt Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

The problem in Afghanistan isn’t poor generalship, nor is it any uncertainty about the

basics of counterinsurgency doctrine by the US Army and the US Marines – they “get it.”

Better generals in Afghanistan will not solve the problem. The recently relieved commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, was put in place because he was the better general of counterinsurgency, sent there to rescue the failed mission. Now we’ve placed our hopes in an even better general, his successor, Gen. David Petraeus.

But no one, no matter how brilliant, can achieve the impossible. And the problem in Afghanistan is the impossibility of the mission. The United States is pursuing a nation-building strategy with counterinsurgency tactics – that is, building a nation at the barrel end of a gun.

Might armed nation-building work
in Afghanistan? Sure, but history shows that it would take a very, very long time for a foreign occupying power to succeed. Are we willing to commit to such a generational effort, not just for mere months or years?

The US military tried to do nation-building in Vietnam with major combat forces from 1965 to 1972. It failed because that mission was impossible, too. Muddled strategic thinking, however, caused Washington to commit to a major military effort in South Vietnam when its vital strategic interests did not demand such a maximalist effort. The war was simply not winnable based on a moral and material cost that the American people were willing to pay.

Yet once Washington committed itself to Vietnam, it failed to see in the closing years that the war was lost. Instead it doggedly pursued an irrelevant strategy that got thousands more US soldiers killed.

Afghanistan today eerily looks more and more like Vietnam.

Alternatives to nation-building

There are alternatives to nation-building in Afghanistan. Columbia University scholar Austin Long recently offered an operational method that would reduce significantly the size of the US military in Afghanistan by transforming its mission from building up Afghan society to destroying and disabling Al Qaeda, along with limited training and advising to the Afghan military. This smaller force would focus on the areas most likely to harbor potential links and alliances with Al Qaeda.

Unfortunately, Washington is caught in a cycle of thinking that sees each setback in the war in Afghanistan as a failure of the US military. Such thinking tends to exacerbate bad policy.

Petraeus often used the phrase “hard is not hopeless” when referring to the challenges he faced in Iraq during the troop surge in 2007. To be sure, at the tactical level the values of persistence, positivism, and strength of will are essential qualities for an army and its leaders.

But at the level of strategy, where military operations should be linked to achieving policy objectives, sometimes the qualities of subtleness, reflection, and flexibility are needed. A good strategist will recognize whether the military means are sufficient and proper to achieve the desired political ends.

President Obama has given the American military the mission of disrupting, dismantling, and defeating Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan so that it cannot carry out strikes against the US from those locations. Contrary to common belief, this is a limited policy objective. Yet US military leaders have embraced the president’s limited objective expansively by attempting to reconstruct governments and reshape entire societies.

Here is a serious mismatch between a limited political objective and the method employed to achieve it.

History offers examples of policy objectives being matched with good military strategy.

In one of the most brilliant and far-sighted acts of statesmanship in the 20th century, French President Charles de Gaulle decided in 1961 to withdraw French troops from Algeria and grant that country its independence from French colonial rule. De Gaulle’s decision was anything but easy. He faced stinging political and military criticism, doomsday predictions about the consequences of abandoning Algeria, and an attempted military coup. Nonetheless, he recognized that staying in Algeria was destroying the French Army and dividing French society. It had become an impossible mission for France.

Dangers of selective reflection

Afghanistan is to America in 2010 what Algeria was to the French in 1961. Yet instead of accepting the impossibility of nation-building in Afghanistan and adjusting accordingly, the US Army and the greater defense establishment continue to see the problem not in the impossibility of the mission but in its own inability to carry out the tactics of the mission on the ground. The answer, the solution, the key to victory rests with us and what we do or don’t do.

So the thinking goes: If things don’t progress accordingly, senior generals can be quickly removed for not applying correctly the proper principles of counterinsurgency and nation-building. Or the Army can be labeled a failure due to its so-called institutional resistance to fighting irregular wars of counterinsurgency.

Such selective reflection – the kind that fails to question the premise of the mission – sets the stage for a future round of “new and improved” (yet still futile) effort: The Army finds better methods for building schools and bridges in the flatlands of Kandahar or the mountains of the Hindu Kush, and with fresh generals supercharged with expert advice, it feels confident of success and even victory. And then if success doesn’t happen, the cycle kicks in again: Blame the US military and its generals but then offer the hope that future success rests with us.

But imagine the possibility that the US Army and its generals at this point after eight years and more of counterinsurgency warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan actually do understand the basics of counterinsurgency and nation-building and are reasonably proficient at it on the ground in Afghanistan. Then what? Where do analysts and experts and even military officers turn to place the blame for lack of progress in Afghanistan?

By focusing on the American military and the promise of better tactical methods and generals, we neglect the true nature of the impossibility of nation-building at the barrel of a gun in the graveyard of empires.

Gian P. Gentile is a serving Army officer and has a PhD in history from Stanford University. In 2006, he commanded a combat battalion in West Baghdad.

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