A joust between two schools of American military theory
One aspect of the Afghanistan War is an improvement over the Iraq War: while in its early states in terms of the build-up (although not by time, since we’re in the 9th year of fighting there) there is debate about the nature and goals of the war. This shows that America is not totally brain-dead.
Here three experts discuss the war. I recommend reading these in full. Personally, I consider the comments by Bacevich and Lang to be incisive — and Nagl’s reply to be little more than asserting “Must Do and Can Do!” On the other hand, these interviews are a difficult forum in which to discuss such complex matters.
- Transcript of discussion by Andrew Bacevich and John Nagl
- Comment by Pat Lang (Colonel, US Army, retired)
- Archives of links to works by Bacevich and Nagl
- Afterword and sources for more information
(1) Andrew Bacevich and John Nagel discuss the Afghanistan War
Excerpt from the transcript of “White House Hones its Strategy in Two-Front War“, PBS Online Newshour, 6 May 2009. The presentations of each have been consolidated for brevity.
JEFFREY BROWN: Two countries, one war, and the U.S. strategy. Joining us are two retired Army colonels, now scholars, Boston University history Professor Andrew Bacevich. His latest book is The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. And John Nagl, president of the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think-tank, and author of Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam.
I think the big question is, what’s the appropriate role for the United States to be playing? In the wake of 9/11, the idea somehow got planted that we’re called upon to determine the fate of nations in the greater Middle East. I think, based on the evidence of the past seven-and-a-half years, that’s not a good idea. We lack the capacity, the power, the wisdom to do so, and so it baffles me why this new president at the beginning of his term persists in thinking that we can determine the fate of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
… My problem is that the Obama administration seems to think that further militarizing U.S. policy in Afghanistan is going to produce results that are much different from the results achieved by the Bush administration, and those results were not very impressive.
… At the end of the day, the people of Pakistan are going to decide their own fate. There are some problems that the United States of America is incapable of solving. And, you know, it ought not necessarily to be unpatriotic to acknowledge that.
Pam Constable said that the people of Pakistan, seeing what the Taliban actually have on offer, are becoming more serious about addressing that problem. It seems to me that’s the good news.
The question is whether or not our actions in Pakistan actually impede or encourage that recognition of the Taliban threat. And I’d argue that the program of targeted assassinations that we have been conducting in Pakistan with our UAV attacks probably actually encourages anti-Americanism and plays into the hands of the Taliban, so our policy — the principle number one with regard to the U.S. and Pakistan — is do no harm. And I would argue that much of what we have been doing in Pakistan over the past couple of years is simply doing harm.
The place where we’re conducting counterinsurgency directly vise Pakistan, where we have to conduct counterinsurgency very indirectly. We have to rely on the Pakistanis to do that.
I would agree with Professor Bacevich that the Bush administration’s campaign in Afghanistan was not particularly successful. After early successes, when the Taliban was toppled, when al-Qaida was ejected from Afghanistan, settling across the Durand Line in Pakistan, President Karzai was installed, and we had an awful lot of momentum.
But we then, quite frankly, took our eye off the ball. We decided to fight another war in Iraq, and we didn’t mobilize the United States for war. We didn’t have enough resources to fight two wars at once, and so we stopped focusing on Afghanistan and put all of our resources into Iraq.
And while we were focused on Iraq, the Taliban regained its strength across the border in Pakistan, Pakistan ignored the threat, and the Taliban came back across the border and gained strength in Afghanistan, and threatened the government of President Karzai, who I’ll agree with Professor Bacevich is not a particularly impressive leader.
That doesn’t mean the fact that we have neglected Afghanistan for the past eight years, that we have not put the resources into that counterinsurgency campaign that would be required to win does not mean that, if we do put those resources in, that we can’t succeed.
… The threat to Pakistan’s government is very real. The Taliban, allied in some ways with al-Qaida, has the potential to do real damage to the government of Pakistan, conceivably to seize control of at least some of the nuclear weapons inside Pakistan, and that is really the $64 million question. That is what keeps strategists up at night.
So the Taliban gaining strength inside Afghanistan, inside Pakistan, al-Qaida regenerating itself, maintaining a base inside Pakistan, a very weak government in Pakistan, as in Afghanistan, and nuclear weapons, this is the most dangerous brew in the world today for the United States and its interests.
So it is very strongly in America’s national interest to do all that it can to stabilize Pakistan and Afghanistan. I agree with Professor Bacevich that some of the drone strikes may be counterproductive, but overall our efforts should be dedicated to stability inside Pakistan to keep the American people safe.
(3) Comment by Pat Lang (Colonel, US Army, retired)
“AfPak and the Neoconization of Obama“, Sic Semper Tyrannis, 7 May 2009 — Excerpt:
Could the United States re-formulate Afghanistan and Pakistan into something other than what they are and thereby “drain the swamp” of violent jihadism? Certainly. This kind of thing has been dome before, always more or less imperfectly. The neocons argued explicitly and implicitly before March, 2003 that this is exactly what we were going to do in Iraq and that once we accomplished that task the forces of repressed cultural globalization would sweep the Greater Middle East bringing on an earthly paradise somewhat akin to present day Europe. That did not work very well. The local “backward” culture proved to be a stubborn thing willing to defend its familiar “backward” ways. Iraq is a better place now than it was in 2005 but how much different is it, really?
Now we are told that it is American policy to act as a sort of cosmic neighborhood organizer for the “uplift” of these Afghan and Pakistani folks wandering in the wilderness of their own peculiar “backwardnesses.”
Bacevich is right. It is beyond our capacity to do that at any price that we can or should want to pay. I would have thought that would be intuitively obvious.
(3) Archives of links to works by Bacevich and Nagel
These also contain detailed biographies.
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To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar. Of esp interest these days:
- About America’s national defence strategy and machinery
- About Iraq & Sub-continent Wars – my articles
- About Iraq & Sub-continent Wars – studies & reports
Posts about our wars in Afghanistan:
- Scorecard #2: How well are we doing in Iraq? Afghanistan?, 31 October 2003
- Quote of the day: this is America’s geopolitical strategy in action, 26 February 2008 — George Friedman of Statfor on the Afghanistan War.
- Another perspective on Afghanistan, a reply to George Friedman, 27 February 2008
- How long will all American Presidents be War Presidents?, 21 March 2008
- Why are we are fighting in Afghanistan?, 9 April 2008 — A debate with Joshua Foust.
- We are withdrawing from Afghanistan, too (eventually), 21 April 2008
- Roads in Afghanistan, a new weapon to win 4GW’s?, 26 April 2008
- A powerful weapon, at the sight of which we should tremble and our enemies rejoice, 2 June 2008
- Brilliant, insightful articles about the Afghanistan War, 8 June 2008
- The good news about COIN in Afghanistan is really bad news, 20 August 2008
- Stratfor says that our war in Pakistan grows hotter; Palin seems OK with that, 12 September 2008
- Pakistan warns America about their borders, and their sovereignty, 14 September 2008
- Weekend reading about … foreign affairs, 19 October 2008
- “Strategic Divergence: The War Against the Taliban and the War Against Al Qaeda” by George Friedman, 31 January 2009
- America sends forth its privateers to pillage, bold corsairs stealing from you and I, 9 February 2009