It is striking that, more than a decade after America's 9/11 wars began, the U.S. military has not conducted a probing review of what it did wrong in handling the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and how to do better next time. Even as the Vietnam War wound down, the U.S. Army took a hard look at the problems of its officer corps. No such studies appear to be under way now.
Seeing that gap, the editors of Foreign Policy decided to take matters into their own hands. In mid-January, they convened a diverse group: a core of military officers complemented by others with firsthand experience running the wars -- as policymakers at the Pentagon, on the staff of the National Security Council, in U.S. intelligence, at Central Command, and in the Iraqi military -- and rounded off with two journalists who have lived in Iraq or Afghanistan and written books on these conflicts.
Given the variety among the group, it was a surprise to see in the initial round, when each participant was invited to pose a question to the group about the conduct of the wars, how much consensus there was on the core problem. Almost all the questions they brought to the table were about the failure of senior U.S. officials to formulate strategy well. All agreed that the policymaking apparatus of the U.S. government simply did not work for long periods of time and that if it had, the wars might have proceeded far differently. What follows are excerpts of this unique -- and long overdue -- conversation. —Thomas E. Ricks
Susan Glasser, editor in chief, Foreign Policy: In September 2001, if you had told us that in 2013 we are going to be in Afghanistan with 65,000 American troops and debating what we accomplished there and how quickly we can get out, how many more years and how many billions of dollars we'd have to pay to sustain this operation, my strong sense is that there would have been an overwhelming view in the U.S. military -- and among the U.S. people more broadly -- that that was an unacceptable outcome. So, if we can all agree that 13 years was not what we wanted when we went into Afghanistan, what did we miss along the way?
Thomas E. Ricks: Should we have, from the get-go, focused on indigenous forces rather than injecting large conventional forces? That is, should we have tried to do El Salvador, but we wound up doing Vietnam in both Iraq and Afghanistan, to a degree?
Philip Mudd: It seems to me there's an interesting contrast here between target and space. That is: Do we hold space and do we help other people help us hold space, or do we simply focus on a target that's not very space-specific?
Col. Julian Dale Alford: It's also our natural tendency as an army to build an army that looks like us, which is the exact opposite of what we should do. They're not used to our culture. One quick example, if I could: the Afghan border police. The border police, we tried to turn them into, essentially, like our border police and customs agents. Right across the border, the Pakistani Army uses frontier guardsmen. Why do they do that? They use their culture -- a man with a gun that fights in the mountains is a warrior. He's respected by his people. He's manly. All those things matter, and it draws men to that organization. We always talk about how our borders on [the Afghan] side are so porous; it's because we don't have a manly force that wants to go up into the mountains and kill bad guys, because we didn't use their culture.
Lt. Gen. James M. Dubik (ret.): In terms of why we held space, I think it's how we defined the problem. We defined the problem not as al Qaeda -- it was al Qaeda and those who give them sanctuary. And so we couldn't conceive of a way to get at al Qaeda without taking the Taliban down, and because of the problem definition, we inherited a country.
Maj. Gen. David Fastabend (ret.): We thought we had in each case [of Afghanistan and Iraq] governments to support that would hold space, and that was a secondary thing that came on us when we got there: that actually the sovereign government wasn't so sovereign.
Mudd: If you define threat as capability and intent to strike us, then I think there's confusion early on with the Taliban, because I would say they had neither the capability nor intent to strike us, but they provide safe haven. If you look at areas where we have entities that have those twin capabilities or those twin strengths -- Yemen and Somalia come to mind, maybe northern Mali -- we're able to eliminate threat without dealing with geography.
Alford: In '04, I was [in Afghanistan] as a battalion commander. We never would let them fight unless we always led the way. It's part of our culture, too, as soldiers and Marines. You send an infantry battalion into a fight, they're going to fight. It takes a lot to step back and let the Afghans do it, and do it their way. Provide them the medevacs and fire support -- that's the advisory role for those missions we're going to switch to this spring, and I'm all for it. We should have done this four years ago, but now we also need to see if this is going to work over the next almost two years. We need to be ruthless with young lieutenant colonels and colonels who want to get out there and fight, or generals who do, to support the Afghans and then see how they do against the Taliban. I'll tell you how they're gonna do: They're gonna whoop 'em. The Taliban does not have the capability to beat the Afghan army if we get out of their way.