In 1998 I read a book by James Kitfield called Prodigal Soldiers. It is a group biography of young military officers who survived the Vietnam War and vowed not to repeat its mistakes. At the time, it seemed those officers had kept their word, since they went on to build the military juggernaut that expelled Iraqi forces from Kuwait in a matter of days in 1991.
In 2004 I stood outside Saddam Hussein’s former palace, now the seat of the American-led interim government of Iraq. One of Kitfield’s protagonists, retired General Colin Powell, the U.S. Secretary of State, commended us on our efforts to bring security and democracy to the country we had violently overthrown. We hustled inside after his remarks due to the constant threat of mortar attacks from across the Tigris River in the poor Shia suburb renamed Sadr City.
In 2009 I was assigned to the Headquarters of the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul, Afghanistan, where I facilitated a fact-finding mission by another of Kitfield’s subjects, retired General Barry McCaffrey. His report was dire but only by way of going all in. “This is an attempt to create a state, not a battle to save one,” McCaffrey said, calling for massive programs to grow the Afghan police and army, build roads, and fix the agricultural system.
Presumably there are veterans of the ruinous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who have promised themselves “Never again!” Can they keep that promise better than Powell and McCaffrey did, not just in the next war but whenever the lessons of those conflicts apply? There are many practical and structural obstacles to this kind of strategic learning, so the odds are not favorable. Examining the ways learning fails in these cases, however, suggests the perspectives and reforms that can improve U.S. policymaking moving forward.
The major practical problem with avoiding another Iraq or Afghanistan lies in determining the specific lessons to learn. The U.S. Army’s official history of its operations in Iraq from 2003 to 2011 runs to 1,400 pages. A 2007 review essay in Middle East Quarterly identified 33 books on the Iraq war that “will make lasting contributions,” all written before the troop surge that provided a veneer of stability for the U.S. withdrawal. This massive stack of reading and the countless articles and primary sources behind them just scratch the surface of content on Iraq, and none of it touches on the war in Afghanistan.
Never againers therefore risk drowning in information, and they lack the historical distance that might bring greater consensus on the meaning of these unfinished wars. Mastering the relevant details mitigates the risks inherent in historical analogies, which in many cases favor similarities even when policymakers set out to define differences. Paradoxically, learning the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan requires future planners to start with the assumption that future conflicts are not Iraq or Afghanistan, at least in their particulars.
Preparation for future security challenges therefore must proceed along dual tracks: developing bare-bones strategic lessons from recent conflicts that depend only weakly on specific context and maintaining academic and intelligence networks that are broad and flexible enough to flesh out those lessons with new context when another threat arises.
For the reasons discussed above, there is no definitive bare-bones analysis of the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan, but the slow disaster of the past two decades has provided long-time observers with some useful perspective. Two years ago, Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies produced a relatively concise list of high-level lessons that are fairly common:
The need to set clear strategic objectives
The need for a more effective civil-military approach to failed states
The need for decisive rather than incremental action
The need to invest more time and resources in developing partner forces
The need to triage security threats and make hard choices on U.S. involvement.
With regards to the details needed to apply these lessons in a specific situation, I have already noted how foreign policy academics can cloud consensus with a profusion of literature in which each study seeks to differentiate itself from others. The politicization of foreign policy advice further complicates the challenge of knowing what we should know by making the political pedigree of ideas a measure of their worth.
Ostensibly neutral government intelligence involves similar problems of volume and selective attention. The counterinsurgency field manual produced by General David Petraeus and a wide range of experts establishes no fewer than 30 major subsets of “sociocultural factors” that intelligence agencies must consider in wartime. The comprehensiveness of such a project when multiplied across possible conflict scenarios is astounding, as is the assumption that analysts or senior officials can tease out the salient points. Because much intelligence remains hidden from experts outside government, there also are fewer chances that independent assessments of all this data will help leaders make the right choices.
The ability to approach big strategic questions in sufficiently deep context requires government organizations capable of extraordinary research, thought, and judgment. The American military is arguably the institution that is best preparing its future leaders to deal with this level of complexity. A 2012 study showed the Department of Defense invested between $57,000 and $166,000 per student at its war colleges, which are just one of several educational opportunities open to officers over the course of their careers. The culture of improvement that produces doctrine like the counterinsurgency field manual and studies like The U.S. Army in Iraq is an enviable asset.
Even with these advantages, though, military education falls short of preparing most officers to learn and apply the lessons of previous wars. Curriculum developers ping-pong between the desire to prepare officers for staff positions, the desire to approximate graduate-level studies, and the desire to use school assignments to give officers a break from the pace of relentless operations. The end result is often engagements with complex ideas at the level of bullet-point white papers.
The assumptions of U.S. military studies grounded in the principle of civilian control are another barrier to learning, especially when approaching questions about national objectives, strategic priorities and choices, or civil-military cooperation. To the military mind, politicians call the shots and take responsibility for integrating national power to resource the fights they pick. Generals just do the best they can with what they are given. Thus, the Iraq war study can conclude that “the failure of the United States to attain its strategic objectives in Iraq was not inevitable.” This conclusion ignores the fundamental question of whether regime change in Iraq was a good idea to begin with.
While the U.S. military is challenged to learn the lessons of recent wars, the outlook across the rest of the government is bleaker. Veteran diplomat William J. Burns recently challenged the State Department to improve its ability to adapt “by taking a cue from the U.S. military’s introspective bent.” Rather than improvisation, career diplomats need to pay “systematic attention to lessons learned and long-term thinking.”
As for the executive and legislative branches, Stephen M. Walt noted earlier this year that “deep polarization … makes it harder for the country to learn the right lessons from the past,” because each camp “will simply believe its own self-serving narrative.” Walt specifically called out divisions over the lessons of the Iraq war. “Democrats blame the administration of former President George W. Bush for leading the country to war under false pretenses and then bungling the occupation,” Walt observes. “Republicans now insist the United States was on the path to victory after the 2007 ‘surge’ and blame former President Barack Obama for pulling the country out too early.”
What will it take, then, for the United States overcome these institutional weaknesses and learn the lessons of two disastrous wars? There are two leading theories about the sources of military adaptation. Barry Posen argues that organizational imperatives favor the status quo unless there is a threat powerful enough to drive disruptive executive action. The United States therefore was unprepared for Afghanistan and Iraq—and it may be unprepared for future wars like them—because such conflicts pose a limited threat to American security.
A competing theory, offered by Stephen Peter Rosen, holds that new security challenges and technologies provide opportunities for innovators to advance new ideas. In the current moment, this theory favors lessons relevant to renewed focus on China and Russia or newer technical fields like cyberspace or artificial intelligence.
To learn the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. officials must understand that the most urgent threat they face is death by a thousand cuts, including self-inflicted wounds. Though China’s military build-up is concerning, the smartest adversary strategy is to keep America off balance: overinvested in its military, bankrupt and exhausted by unwinnable wars, alienated from its allies, and paralyzed by politics with no objective beyond placing blame. Until America’s civilian and military leaders unite to break this cycle, the young officer who vows “Never again!” may one day look around and ask, “This again?”