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Lessons of two wars: We will lose in Iraq and Afghanistan

One of the things that gets in the way of conducting good national security policy is a reluctance to call things by their right names and state plainly what is really happening. If you keep describing difficult situations in misleading or inaccurate ways, plenty of people will draw the wrong conclusions about them and will continue to support policies that don't make a lot of sense.

Two cases in point: the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We are constantly told that that "the surge worked" in Iraq, and President Obama has to pretend the situation there is tolerable so that he can finally bring the rest of the troops there home. Yet it is increasingly clear that the surge failed to produce meaningful political reconciliation and did not even end the insurgency, and keeping U.S. troops there for the past three years may have accomplished relatively little.

Similarly, we keep getting told that we are going to achieve some sort of "peace with honor" in Afghanistan, even though sending more troops there has not made the Afghan government more effective, has not eliminated the Taliban's ability to conduct violence, and has not increased our leverage in Pakistan. In the end, what happens in Central Asia is going to be determined by Central Asians -- for good or ill -- and not by us.

The truth is that the United States and its allies lost the war in Iraq and are going to lose the war in Afghanistan. There: I said it. By "lose," I mean we will eventually withdraw our military forces without having achieved our core political objectives, and with our overall strategic position weakened. We did get Osama bin Laden -- finally -- but that was the result of more energetic intelligence and counter-terrorism work in Pakistan itself and had nothing to do with the counterinsurgency we are fighting next door. U.S. troops have fought courageously and with dedication, and the American people have supported the effort for many years. But we will still have failed because our objectives were ill-chosen from the start, and because the national leadership (and especially the Bush administration) made some horrendous strategic judgments along the way.

Specifically: invading Iraq was never necessary, because Saddam Hussein had no genuine links to al Qaeda and no WMD, and because he could not have used any WMD that he might one day have produced without facing devastating retaliation. It was a blunder because destroying the Ba'athist state left us in charge of a deeply divided country that we had no idea how to govern. It also destroyed the balance of power in the Gulf and enhanced Iran's regional position, which was not exactly a brilliant idea from the American point of view.  Invading Iraq also diverted resources and attention from Afghanistan, which helped the Taliban to regain lost ground and derailed our early efforts to aid the Karzai government.  

President Obama inherited both of these costly wars, and his main error was not to recognize that they were not winnable at an acceptable cost. He's wisely stuck (more-or-less) to the withdrawal plan for Iraq, but he foolishly decided to escalate in Afghanistan, in the hope of creating enough stability to allow us to leave. This move might have been politically adroit, but it just meant squandering more resources in ways that won't affect the final outcome.

More broadly, these wars were lost because there is an enormous difference between defeating a third-rate conventional army (which is what Saddam had) and governing a restive, deeply-divided, and well-armed population with a long-standing aversion to all forms of foreign interference. There was no way to "win" either war without creating effective local institutions that could actually run the place (so that we could leave), but that was the one thing we did not know how to do. Not only did we not know who to put in charge, but once we backed anybody, their legitimacy automatically declined. And so did our leverage over them, as people like President Karzai understood that our prestige was now on the line and we could not afford to let him fail.

The good news, however, is the defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and make no mistake, that is what it is -- tells us relatively little about America's overall power position or its ability to shape events that matter elsewhere in the world. Remember that the United States lost the Vietnam War too, but getting out facilitated the 1970s rapprochement with China and ultimatley strengthened our overall position in Asia.  Fourteen years later, the USSR had collapsed and the United States had won the Cold War. Nor should anyone draw dubious lessons about U.S. resolve; to the contrary, both of these wars show that the United States is actually willing to fight for a long time under difficult conditions. Thus, the mere fact that we failed in Iraq and Afghanistan does not by itself herald further U.S. decline, provided we make better decisions going forward.

The real lesson one should draw from these defeats is that the United States doesn't know how to build democratic societies in large and distant Muslim countries that are divided by sectarian, ethnic, or tribal splits, and especially if these countries have a history of instability or internal violence. Nobody else does either. But that's not a mission we should be seeking out in the future, because it will only generate greater hatred of the United States and further sap our strength.

The United States rose to world power by staying out of costly fights or by getting into them relatively late and then winning the peace. It won the Cold War by maintaining an economy that was far stronger than the Soviet Union's, by assembling a coalition of allies that was more reliable, stable, and prosperous than the Communist bloc, and by remaining reasonably true to a set of political ideals that inspired others. Its major missteps occurred when it exaggerated the stakes in peripheral conflicts -- such as Indochina. Fortunately, the Soviet Union made more blunders than we did, and from a weaker base.

Since 1992, the United States has squandered some of its margin of superiority by mismanaging its own economy, by allowing 9/11 to cloud its strategic judgment, and by indulging in precisely the sort of hubris that the ancient Greeks warned against. The main question is whether we will learn from these mistakes, and start basing national security policy on hard-headed realism rather than either neo-conservative fantasies or overly enthusiastic liberal interventionism. Unfortunately, the first shots in the 2012 presidential campaign do not exactly fill me with confidence. 

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