The United States has made similar mistakes in Afghanistan, where much effort has been expended to produce visible, short-term results without the support needed to sustain them. According to Oxfam, which operates in 20 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces and has vocally criticized NATO's short-term outlook in Afghanistan, "Far too much aid has focused on 'quick fixes' and band-aid approaches rather than on what will produce positive and lasting results for Afghans over the long term." While short-term gains are important, the last stages of the war should take into account developmental and economic issues, including food and water insecurity, the drug trade, and the Afghan economy's limited ability to generate revenue.
Making these investments will certainly be difficult, particularly at a time when many other needs at home and abroad command America's ongoing attention and resources. But withdrawing from Afghanistan without continuing commitment to its critical civilian tasks would be shortsighted at best.
Finally, Iraq highlighted the flaws of a U.S.-centric reconstruction approach that pays too little attention to local needs. American planners in Iraq frequently pushed for sweeping reforms that were poorly coordinated with what Iraqis needed, wanted, and could sustain without American support.
The Nassiriya Water Treatment Plant, for example, was a U.S.-backed project that cost $277 million. In a follow-up visit in 2010, American inspectors found that Iraqis had disconnected the plant because they did not know how to operate or maintain it. An eerily similar example can be found in Afghanistan's national power utility, which was built without considering whether local operators could manage the equipment. Now, without any trained Afghans to operate the utility, millions of dollars of equipment is sitting idle in storage.
It is said that the United States always "fights the last battle" or that it fails to learn from the mistakes of previous wars when it comes to creating a stable post-conflict environment. With the Afghanistan war at a crucial crossroads, Obama, Congress, and the military have an important chance to foster a stable Afghanistan after 2014. This won't be easy, but by rebalancing the military and civilian missions, focusing on long-term sustainability, and working to meet genuine Afghan needs, we can learn from our mistakes and avoid fighting our last battle over again.