The Real Lesson from the Afghanistan Papers: Pull the U.S. Military Out of the Statebuilding Business

The Washington Post released documents Monday detailing the extent to which the public was “deliberately” misled about the failure to make progress in Afghanistan. The documents — dubbed the “Afghanistan Papers” — make clear that what officials stated in private were vastly different from the optimistic picture presented to the public. Either officials misled the public about a losing war merely to save face, or they genuinely believed that success was possible as long as public support was on their side, both are failures of their positions of public trust. For those of us that have studied or deployed to Afghanistan, the revelations are not surprising. They confirm what we’ve long known, and what these officials should have known had they fulfilled their duty, that transforming Afghanistan into a western-style liberal democracy at the barrel of a gun was never possible. Over 6,000 U.S. soldiers and contractors and over 38,000 Afghan civilians lost their lives for a cause officials should have known was never possible.

The failings in Afghanistan are inherent to forever wars

The failings laid bare by the released documents are specific to Afghanistan, but the problems, shortcomings, and impossibility of success are inherent to this type of conflict more generally. The military is a very specialized tool, and is very good at that specialized task. Militaries are very good at conquering territory and fighting other militaries. However, once we completed these missions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Syria and elsewhere, we then asked the military to achieve objectives it will never be good at, building democratic institutions, building foreign militaries, and adjudicating local conflicts between civilians.

The documents released were interviews conducted as part of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction’s project on “lessons learned.” The intent was to find mistakes and problems during the Afghanistan reconstruction effort to prevent similar mistakes in future similar operations. This effort, while admirable, will likely never produce positive outcomes. The military is not good at statebuilding (sometimes referred to as nation-building) and it shouldn’t be, this isn’t the purpose of military organizations. Furthermore, outcomes in these statebuilding operations are primarily driven by preexisting conditions that cannot be changed by military strategy. Rough terrain, outside support for insurgencies, heterogeneity of the society, and socioeconomic development are just a few factors that determine outcomes that cannot be controlled.

Instead, we should be asking ourselves why we get into these unwinnable conflicts in the first place. Going to war itself is not an inherently poor decision, some very specific circumstances will mandate military responses. However, we should revise what we think can be accomplished through military means and adjust our objectives accordingly. The first Gulf War liberated Kuwait, reinstalled the preexisting government, destroyed the Iraqi military’s ability to fight, and then disengaged. The U.S. military did not proceed to Baghdad to overthrow the regime even though there was very little resistance standing in its way. This is the proper use of the military, overwhelming force to achieve limited objectives as quickly and decisively as possible and then disengaging before it takes on missions it can’t accomplish.

Avoiding future mistakes 

We shouldn’t be trying to figure out how to do military statebuilding better in the future. Advocates like to cite Germany and Japan as successful cases of military statebuilding, but these success were determined by factors far beyond the control of the U.S. military. Essentially every case since has been a failure, and yes this includes Afghanistan. If you cannot win after 18 years $2 trillion, 20,000 soldiers wounded, and 2,300 soldiers killed, you cannot win. The “lesson learned,” therefore, is not how to state-build better, it’s don’t use the military for statebuilding.

Instead, the U.S. military should be used only as a last resort and only for those tasks which it is specialized to conduct. The U.S. military is not a Swiss Army Knife to be used for every conceivable task. Diplomatic, economic, and cultural engagement all have the means to affect change in the international area, and (most importantly) have strengths in areas that military force has weaknesses. The Afghan war today is the result of a poorly conceived expansion of the military mission in that country in 2002, and the continued presence of the U.S. military only serves to perpetuate this mistake.

A key to avoiding unnecessary loss of human life in the future is that policy makers need to accept that the United States cannot control all international events at all times. The right decision in many cases may be to actually do nothing. There is a cult of action within the halls of power, the belief that any circumstance demands a U.S. response (invariably a military response). Taking action, regardless of what form that takes, will frequently cause more harm to U.S. national security interests than good.