Carter Malkasian is the chair of the Defense Analysis Department at the Naval Postgraduate School and the author of The American War in Afghanistan: A History, which is shortlisted for the 2022 Lionel Gelber Prize presented by the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy and Foreign Policy Magazine. The views presented are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Navy or the Naval Postgraduate School.
In August, 2021, the 20-year war in Afghanistan came to a shattering end. Eight months later that war is fast receding into memory. New concerns about nuclear-armed great powers and the war in Ukraine have pushed Afghanistan aside. It feels that we are entering a new strategic paradigm. Yet before we forget Afghanistan entirely, we should consider what that experience tells us about strategy at the moment.
Afghanistan, too, was part of a new strategic paradigm. The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, showed that terrorism constituted a real threat to the international community. The day after the attacks, The New York Times editorial page said: “Every routine, every habit … was fractured yesterday. If a flight full of commuters can be turned into a missile of war, everything is dangerous. … It was, in fact, one of those moments in which history splits, and we define the world as ‘before’ and ‘after.’”
At the same time, the threat was exaggerated, as was the response. After the initial toppling of the Taliban, fear compelled U.S. leaders to stay in Afghanistan, a place of low geostrategic interest, and spurred the invasion of Iraq and an increase in military spending. So a first lesson from Afghanistan for today is to not exaggerate the threat. Vladimir Putin’s invasion may signal a new strategic paradigm, but that does not demand risking escalation or a long-term containment strategy with high levels of military spending. For Ukraine is also a place of low geostrategic interest.
The second lesson Afghanistan has for us today is to beware of how success breeds overconfidence. The rapid toppling of the Taliban regime in 2001 led to overconfidence among U.S. political and civilian leaders. They discounted the probability of a Taliban revival and in the process turned away opportunities to include the Taliban in the political process and build a capable Afghan military. Such actions might have reduced the cost and violence of the ensuing years of war.
The same happened after the Iraq surge. Success misled General David Petraeus, General Stanley McChrystal and many others into believing that the same approach could succeed in Afghanistan. Over the past month, we have witnessed success in Ukraine. Western officials often comment that Russian military strength has been overrated. Afghanistan counsels us not to be complacent and presume victory. The Russian bear could well turn out to be stronger than it appears to be. The United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization would be unwise to reject opportunities for a negotiated compromise, even if that entails moderate concessions.
A third lesson is the difficulty of getting out. The U.S. and its allies and partners fought in Afghanistan for 20 years, largely because the perceived threat persisted, and partly because many civilian and military leaders did not want to lose. Losing was seen as damaging to national reputation, alliances (such as NATO), credibility vis-à-vis adversaries and the morale of military forces. Leaders also worried about the effects on civil, human and women’s rights in Afghanistan – meaningful issues that had not warranted going to war in the first place.
In Ukraine, the same could occur. Continued or increased military support could be difficult to resist as Russia appears as more and more of an enemy and greater sympathy develops for the Ukrainian people. A way to mitigate this tendency is for presidents and prime ministers to keep in perspective all the interests at play – health, climate, economic – so that the costs of losing do not dominate dialogue. As Barack Obama told Gen. Petraeus, it is “the job of the president to think broadly, not narrowly, and to weigh the costs and benefits of military action against everything else that went into making the country strong.”
A final lesson from Afghanistan is the value of forethought – consideration of multiple different possibilities and options. Too often, U.S. and allied leaders neglected to consider a wide number of strategic options. The best example is the 2009 surge debate when the Obama administration and its military leaders focused on reinforcing Afghanistan and neglected viable options such as opening negotiations with the Taliban or planning to manage the problem through deploying a smaller number of forces over several years. Every administration clung too long to its own preconceived notions of how the war would play out and neglected options that did not fit their biases. When the war proceeded contrary to expectations, strategy came up short.
Today, leaders looking at Ukraine should consider different options. A robust dialogue between civilians and military leaders, and with allies, can help reveal options that singular viewpoints miss. Military leaders especially should take care to provide a range of options that are all realistic to civilian policy makers and abstain from preferring any single option so as not to bias the decision-making process.
The danger of comparing Afghanistan with Ukraine is that the two are very different. U.S. and Canadian troops are not on the ground in Ukraine and support is largely in the form of supplies. Ukraine bears a risk of nuclear escalation that was almost non-existent in Afghanistan. That danger already appears to have constrained the U.S. and allied response, seen in President Joe Biden’s repeated statements that military forces will not intervene in the war. Still, a Ukraine strategy that is circumspect on the Russian threat, wary of overconfidence, mindful of the importance of larger non-military interests and inclusive of forethought may evade the errors of our Afghan war.
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