Our Latest Longest War: Losing Hearts and Minds in Afghanistan

Our Latest Longest War: Losing Hearts and Minds in Afghanistan

by Aaron B. O'Connell (Editor)


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Our Latest Longest War: Losing Hearts and Minds in Afghanistan by Aaron B. O'Connell

The first rule of warfare is to know one’s enemy. The second is to know thyself. More than fifteen years and three quarters of a trillion dollars after the US invasion of Afghanistan, it’s clear that the United States followed neither rule well.

America’s goals in Afghanistan were lofty to begin with: dismantle al Qaeda, remove the Taliban from power, remake the country into a democracy. But not only did the mission come completely unmoored from reality, the United States wasted billions of dollars, and thousands of lives were lost. Our Latest Longest War is a chronicle of how, why, and in what ways the war in Afghanistan failed. Edited by historian and Marine lieutenant colonel Aaron B. O’Connell, the essays collected here represent nine different perspectives on the war—all from veterans of the conflict, both American and Afghan. Together, they paint a picture of a war in which problems of culture and an unbridgeable rural-urban divide derailed nearly every field of endeavor. The authors also draw troubling parallels to the Vietnam War, arguing that deep-running ideological currents in American life explain why the US government has repeatedly used armed nation-building to try to transform failing states into modern, liberal democracies. In Afghanistan, as in Vietnam, this created a dramatic mismatch of means and ends that neither money, technology, nor the force of arms could overcome.

The war in Afghanistan has been the longest in US history, and in many ways, the most confounding.  Few who fought in it think it has been worthwhile.  These are difficult topics for any American or Afghan to consider, especially those who lost friends or family in it. This sobering history—written by the very people who have been fighting the war—is impossible to ignore.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226265650
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 04/04/2017
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 1,221,523
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Aaron B. O’Connell is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan and the author of Underdogs: The Making of the Modern Marine Corps. Previously, he was associate professor of history at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Most recently, he served in the Obama administration as Director of Defense Policy and Strategy on the National Security Council.

Read an Excerpt

Our Latest Longest War

Losing Hearts and Minds in Afghanistan

By Aaron B. O'Connell

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2017 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-26579-7


Washington Goes to War

Ambassador Ronald E. Neumann

We defined the necessary [policy actions in Vietnam] in terms totally counter to Diem's personality and the realities of the Vietnamese power structure and society.

— WILLIAM COLBY, director of Central Intelligence, 1973–1976

As a young infantry officer fighting in Vietnam in 1969, I saw Washington bureaucratic approaches that seemed to undermine our effectiveness on the battlefield. Junior military officers always think the politicians in Washington are disconnected from the ground truth, but over the years, I watched us endlessly fail to learn lessons that seemed clear to me. As Director Colby noted some years after the war, we regularly ignored the culture we encountered in Vietnam — a practice that helped explain failure in that war. The entire effort in Vietnam was also plagued by institutional constraints — poor institutional memory, myriad layers of bureaucracy, a total disconnect between policy and implementation, and a penchant for throwing money and resources at different problems.

Now, decades later, having served as a deputy assistant secretary of state in Washington, a senior official in Iraq, and the US ambassador to Afghanistan in Kabul, I see even more clearly that many of these problems were not specific to the Vietnam War. There is a political culture in Washington — a set of habits, tendencies, and bureaucratic limitations — that affects the art of the possible in matters both domestic and foreign. Some of those constraints make sense of course; it is good to have checks and balances, but many of the habits that affect business as usual in DC do not serve the nation well in armed conflict. When Washington goes to war, it takes its culture with it, and in the 13-year-long war in Afghanistan, that culture quite simply got in the way. Even more troubling, despite failures in both Vietnam and Afghanistan, I see no compelling evidence that Washington is willing to change.

Pinning down a specific Washington "way of war" is difficult, because the US government is actually a collection of organizations and individuals, all with their own assumptions and institutional cultures. Some ways of thinking discussed below may be broadly found throughout American society, such as the disregard for considering how to implement policy. (Anecdotally, this may be as much a function of academic approaches to international relations as of Washington decision making.) Others are part of Washington's own "inside the beltway" culture. Some may be attributed to particular subtribes such as the military, aid workers, or diplomats. Whatever the attribution, there is no denying that there are discernable habits of behavior and thinking that are recurrent and observable, that affect decisions and outcomes (usually badly), and that rarely seem to be brought forth for examination and challenge.

Moreover, it is fair to say that these habits of mind had specific effects on the conduct and outcome of the war. Assumptions about avoiding nation-building, derived in part from the Balkans, led to serious underfunding and wasted opportunities. (In fact, nation-building has come into such bad repute that the Obama administration has denied it has such a policy even as it funds exactly such endeavors.) Development theory clashed with Afghanistan's developmental realities, leading to more waste and disorganization. Military devotion to different patterns of warfare impeded success in some instances and became actively counterproductive in others. Washington's fiscal practices caused other troubles, both when it withheld funds and when it dispersed them. Finally, a conspicuous habit of not listening to locals led to years of political bickering and mistrust between the Americans and the Afghans.

Not every assumption or bureaucratic difference should be grouped under the term "culture." People have personalities and institutions have rules; both of these facts shape actions and limit choices in explicit ways. What this chapter focuses on are the less obvious constraints — the behaviors and ideals, recurring over time, that were neither stated explicitly nor examined for validity. Together, they represent implicit rules and intellectual frameworks — things that may reasonably be called a part of a larger culture: a Washington way of war.

This chapter groups examples roughly into four sections. The first section describes the perennial problems — the ones that blossomed in the earliest stages of the war and have continued ever since. These are perhaps the decisions that caused the most damage to successful policy outcomes and are where lessons most need to be actually learned rather than simply observed. The second section covers assumptions particular to the early phase of the war, 2001 to 2005, when the insurgency began to gather force. The third section discusses 2005–2008, when issues of funding the war had major consequences on the ability to wage it. The last section discusses the Obama administration's shift to a counterinsurgency strategy and the worsening relations with President Karzai that characterized the final years of the war.

None of these categories are perfect. Some habits, such as the resistance to nation-building, were present in the early phases of the war — and have remained present — but appear to have very different intellectual sources. Resistance to nation-building is intertwined with problems of governance that are fundamental to the war but not part of the discussion of culture. The last phase covers several years, and my descriptions may not sufficiently recognize changes in thinking within that period. Furthermore, the chapter does not deal with the strains occurring in Washington between the uniformed military and the White House and National Security Council staff of the Obama administration because they seem driven by personalities and differ from the type of civilian-military strains that have occurred in Afghanistan. Despite these limitations, the categories may yet help us understand the culture that Americans take to war.

The Perennials

From the earliest days of the Afghanistan War, a series of intellectual habits impeded success. The most important of these are inattention on the part of senior leaders to the details of implementing policy, a general ignorance or avoidance of how funding is managed, a penchant for short personnel tours, and an abiding inability to take into account the views and reactions of the foreigners with whom the US government had to cooperate. All of this was exacerbated by confused chains of command that made it hard to pin down exactly who had responsibility for key decisions.

One of the most prevalent characteristics among senior policymakers in Washington is a complete inattention to the details of implementing policy in Afghanistan. Even the most desirable policy goals are useless if they cannot be achieved; the hard work of governing requires matching goals to means — resources, influence, and sometimes military force. This is a core element of success in military operations and business alike, and yet it was sadly lacking in Washington throughout the war. Dov Zakheim, who served as the Defense Department's comptroller in the early years of the war, reflected that there "are many reasons why analysts, observers, and pundits of all kinds have paid less attention to these practicalities of implementation ... despite the fact that they were the keys to success or failure in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Practicalities involve details, and details are not sexy." The result is that practicalities are accorded very little status in senior policymaking.

This American habit of avoiding the details of policy is evident outside Afghanistan as well. In my time as an ambassador and as a deputy assistant secretary of state, I have never known implementation issues to be the focus of deputies or cabinet-level meetings. Nor do young diplomats-in-training seem to learn it in the classroom. When I taught a graduate class at George Washington University, I often asked students these questions: What policy choice do you seek? How will you implement it? How will you apply resources and mitigate or overcome opposition? Most students had strong ideas about the first question but had never dealt with the latter two. Obviously, not every professor or course ignores implementation, but this problem remains widespread nonetheless: when the American Academy of Diplomacy held a workshop on teaching diplomatic practice, nearly a dozen former ambassadors turned full-time professors cited policy execution issues as the ones students had the most difficulty with. At the Washington level, it could also be that the type of foreign policy issues many political leaders have experienced in their careers have been essentially about policy. As a result, there is little in the life experience of most political leaders to help them understand complex, detailed issues of implementation stretching over multiple years.

Whatever the cause, implementation is not a focus of Washington policymakers in general, and this regularly inhibited success in Afghanistan. Below the level of the president, no agency, department, or institution could even agree on who was in charge of the war. Just within the Pentagon and the Joint Staff, a plethora of offices under different generals and assistant secretaries competed for direction of the war. The commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) ran operations in Afghanistan, but had to answer at various times to the NATO leadership, the commander of US Central Command, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and members of the National Security Staff — not to mention the secretary of defense and the president. In the State Department, this problem of overlapping bureaucracies was similarly debilitating. The creation of the office of the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP), first held by Richard Holbrooke, was an effort to circumvent bureaucratic layers and streamline the effort, but it failed. Holbrooke wasfrequently excluded from White House policy deliberations, and the power of his office faded dramatically when he died in 2010.

Other senior leaders noticed this as well. DOD comptroller Zakheim fumed that the federal government's multiple committees with overlapping jurisdictions created an interagency culture that was antithetical to doing anything quickly. Former secretary of defense Gates spends significant portions of his book about his time in office excoriating the military and civilian defense bureaucracy for slowness in providing sufficient drones and proper armored vehicles. Perhaps Gates is extreme in saying that "effectively waging war on our enemies ... would also require successfully waging war on the Pentagon itself." Yet while Gates was able to combine pressure and ad hoc procedures to solve immediate problems, neither he nor Holbrooke nor Zakheim were able to change the bureaucratic culture that caused the difficulties.

A key element of implementing a policy is funding it, and here, too, Washington's efforts were disjointed and at times counterproductive. Funding an American war involves two broad issues, one political and the other organizational. The political issue involves how much cost the public will be asked to bear, how those funds will be raised, whether by increasing taxes, issuing war bonds, or, in earlier days, asking ladies for their jewelry. Separate from those issues are the organizational ones: Who will control the funds? How will they be dispersed? And what limitations will be applied on how each entity can use its resources? These issues of implementation were badly mismanaged in Afghanistan, and bureaucratic turf wars were again part of the reason why. Even though State and DOD had the job of implementing the president's policies in the war, the two departments rarely coordinated efforts on funding. In fact, as DOD comptroller Zakheim notes, while he was designated as the single senior Pentagon person for funding the Afghan war, he did not learn until after he retired that the State Department had designated Richard Haass for a similar role for the State Department. Making things worse was the fact that until 2008 the White House's Office of Management and Budget (OMB) played a detailed and frequently micromanagerial role in the allocation of funds and the timing of their disbursement. Time and again, OMB chose to slow the utilization of funds already approved for the war. This added a separate and additional layer of bureaucracy to how Defense fought the war and how State managed diplomacy. These basic disagreements over who had authority over funding exacerbated the already-existing breakdown between policy choices and their implementation.

Three additional perennial problems with implementation illustrate how immutable American habits are even when they continually impede success. One is personnel policies — and the short-tour policy in particular. A second lies in how the US military adjusted to a war for which it had not prepared, while a third concerns command arrangements.

In her study of successful UN operations, Lise Moraj Howard emphasizes the importance of building a "learning organization" that can draw on past experience to adapt to new challenges across multiple operations. Unfortunately, US military and civilian assignment policies are directly antithetical to building such an organization. Initially, personnel in the American embassy in Kabul were rotated in for periods as short as 30 days. The assumption seemed to be that tour length and continuity didn't matter. Even as tours lengthened to a year, many agencies continued to fill positions with short-tour rotating personnel. The loss in institutional knowledge and operational continuity is atrocious. In a country where effectiveness depends heavily on personal relationships and knowledge of multiple power bases outside formal government structures, the constant personnel churn is operationally costly and confusing to Afghans. As one example of many, within two months of my arrival in Afghanistan virtually all my section and agency heads were new. It is the same problem that led John Paul Vann to remark caustically of Vietnam, "We don't have twelve years' experience. We have one year's experience twelve times over."

The situation was essentially the same for the military. Most tours in Afghanistan were nine months to one year, although there was a period beginning in 2007 when they were lengthened to 15 months. However, this change was due to a troop shortage for rotations and not a deliberate effort to improve the learning culture of the force. Allied forces often had shorter tours, some as little as six months. One exception was in Special Forces units where the same teams rotated back and forth to the same area so that they were able to build up a great deal of local knowledge.

Training and turnover processes also limited the continuity of knowledge and expertise. With its deeper personnel resources, the military has generally been able to do more advance training than the State Department, and in some cases arriving units took the time to learn about the area and people they would work with. This helped but did not solve the problem. For one thing, the turnover briefings rarely extend any further back in time past one predecessor's deployment. Anything before that was unknown, except, of course, to all the Afghans who had to live through it. Secondly, as General George Casey, former chief of staff of the Army, put it, there was an attitude prevalent throughout the ranks that "the war began when I got here." As Casey said, "Every time this happened, something big fell apart, and it happened on every major rotation of troops." What's worse, these flawed policies are deeply ingrained in bureaucratic systems that are highly resistant to change despite direct and damaging effects on the conduct of the war.

One military effort to deal with the continuity problem was the Afghan Hands program, which gave officers and some civilians specialized language and culture training and then required them to serve two tours in Afghanistan with an Afghan-related job in the United States in between. The program, largely a concept of General Stanley McChrystal, had some limited success but was never well supported by the individual services. The institutional antipathy to letting war interrupt established personnel practices remained disturbingly high. As Secretary of Defense Gates noted ironically, the military services seem to regard wars as "unwelcome military aberrations."

The tour-length issue is a complex one, but the failure to get it right had deeply negative effects on the conduct of the war. Clearly, not everyone should stay forever in a difficult and dangerous environment, and personnel policies must take account of matters other than the conditions on the battlefield. But surely there should be room to adjust policies when a country is losing a war, and this never occurred in Afghanistan. Essential senior leaders needed to stay long enough to establish trust with their counterparts, to understand political power dynamics, and to learn from mistakes, but with only a few exceptions, this did not happen. In 37 years of diplomatic service in countries less complex than Afghanistan, I found that my effectiveness always went up in the second year of an assignment and that I was really hitting maximum effectiveness in the third year. Even among those in the most important positions, almost no one ever stayed in Afghanistan long enough for this to happen. The State Department has a strong resistance to forced personnel assignments, so it tackled the problem with increased incentives that attracted some volunteers and convinced others to extend their tours for a second year. Nonetheless, these were mere Band-Aids to a personnel system that needed major surgery. I have followed Afghanistan's politics with interest since 2005, and I remain continually struck (if not appalled) by the basic lack of political knowledge of the many civilian and military officers in positions of authority. Individuals are well aware of the problems, but as an institution, the US government seems unable to change. Toward the end of the war, ambassadors and commanding generals began staying longer but short tours remained the norm for almost everyone else.


Excerpted from Our Latest Longest War by Aaron B. O'Connell. Copyright © 2017 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Introduction    Moving Mountains: Cultural Friction in the Afghanistan War
Lieutenant Colonel Aaron B. O’Connell, USMC

Chapter One    Washington Goes to War
Ambassador Ronald E. Neumann

Chapter Two   US Strategy in Afghanistan: A Tragedy in Five Acts           
Lieutenant Colonel Colin Jackson, USA

Chapter Three In Our Own Image: Training the Afghan National Security Forces
Dr. Martin Loicano and Captain Craig C. Felker, USN

Chapter Four   The Impact of Culture on Policing in Afghanistan
Captain Pashtoon Atif, ANP

Chapter Five   Building and Undermining Legitimacy: Reconstruction and Development in Afghanistan
Lieutenant Commander Jamie Lynn De Coster, USN

Chapter Six     Rule of Law and Governance in Afghanistan, 2001-2014   
Colonel Abigail T. Linnington, USA, and Lieutenant Colonel Rebecca D. Patterson, USA

Chapter Seven Liberalism Does Its Thing      
Captain Aaron MacLean, USMC

Chapter Eight  Organizing like the Enemy: Special Operations Forces, Afghan Culture, and Village Stability Operations
Lieutenant Commander Daniel R. Green, USN

Chapter Nine   Leaving Afghanistan 
Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin F. Jones, USAF

Conclusion      Our Latest Longest War        
Lieutenant Colonel Aaron B. O’Connell, USMC

List of Abbreviations
About the Contributors

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