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Does Afghanistan Offer Lessons?

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KnowledgeWe do not have to wait for the final resolution of the American military presence in Afghanistan to begin to see what, if anything, we have learned from our checkered experience there.

Very soon President Obama will announce a new strategy.  Very likely it will include the following features: a troop increase of some 15-20,000; troop presence focused on population centers; an increased training mission for new Afghan military and police forces; and intensified cooperation with Pakistan to root out radical Taliban and al Qaeda elements on that frontier.

This will represent an altered, but not a fundamentally changed, mission.  Presumably we will still have as our ultimate goal a stable, democratic, and increasingly Westernized Afghanistan.  If so, unless we strike some grand bargain with less radical Taliban elements (as we did with some Sunnis in Iraq) this is still the work of decades, not to say also tens of billions of dollars.

However this turns out, there are lessons to be learned in the meantime for future Afghanistans.  The first is: Do not interrupt a surgical counter-terrorism operation until it is completed.  With the possible exception of George W. Bush and Richard Cheney, virtually everyone agrees that the 2002 pull-out of Tora Bora, where bin Laden & Co. had their backs to the wall, was a mistake of epic proportions.  Don’t suspend a fixed military objective midway.

The second lesson is: Know the history of the country you are invading.  As we did not study the French experience in Vietnam, we did not study the British or Russian experiences in Afghanistan.  It is one thing to invade a country to find and exterminate a villain.  It is quite another to launch a long-term occupation.  Almost nine years later we are still trying to figure out who our friends and enemies are there.  And the Afghans, given our flighty on-again, off-again operations there, are justly skeptical about our long-term reliability.

The third lesson is: Do not expect to defeat an enemy militarily which has the advantage of cross-border sanctuary.  This lesson is as old as Sun Tzu.  Anyone who can hide across a nearby border cannot be defeated in any literal sense of the word.  Drones are no substitute for combat forces.  Pakistan is a sovereign nation that will not forever tolerate the death of its citizens at our hands.

The fourth lesson is: Do not try to occupy or pacify a nation whose men are not ready and willing to fight and die to protect their wives and families.  Too many Afghan men are willing to let U.S. troops try to provide their security and, if we don’t achieve it quickly and permanently, strike their bargains with Taliban thugs.  To create the Afghan army and police force of 400-425,000 that experts believe necessary to achieve internal security is the work of another decade or two and, even then, not financially sustainable by the Afghan government.

There are many other lessons as well.  Nation building in an economy dependent on narcotics is virtually impossible.  Democratization of a corrupt political culture is almost equally impossible.  And so forth and so on.

President Obama is going to deliver a policy for his administration’s near term.  Whether it will have time limits remains to be seen.  Still, years from now, however this adventure turns out, the question will be: What did we learn.  Because history does repeat itself.

Posted from Senator Hart's new blog at Matters of Principle.