Ten Years in Afghanistan

October 2011


I had just turned twelve years old. When I saw the planes hit the towers, I never thought I might one day deploy to the country harboring those terrorists. Now, ten years later, we are still fighting in Afghanistan.

The war has now been overseen by two Presidents, three Secretaries of Defense, four Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and five CENTCOM commanders, and yet only one civilian leader of Afghanistan. We fought a relatively traditional war our first two years in Afghanistan, with one Taliban-controlled city after another falling to coalition forces. Like a football team up by four touchdowns at halftime who lets their opponent tie the game, we gave up our momentum in Afghanistan and are still trying to gain it back.

To regain the momentum, the “Counterinsurgency Field Manual” instructs military personnel to win over hearts and minds. To win hearts and minds, you have to understand the Afghan’s perspective- but the perspective of an Afghan Pashtun is very different from that of a Hazara, which is very different from that of a Tajik, which is very different…

Considering the complex tribal relationship and its importance to the war-effort, I expected the Naval Academy midshipmen to study the war in depth. Thus, when I entered the Academy in 2008, I was surprised at the lack of emphasis placed on learning about counterinsurgency doctrine in Afghanistan. We have mandatory, year-long courses in English, history, and physics, but not a single required course about the current war. Only recently did USNA start an Afghan Studies club and Arabic language courses; a handful of political science electives specifically study Afghanistan. Studying about the current war in-depth is possible, as the Academy regularly brings experienced officers and civilian leaders to discuss the war. But with the other time commitments, this optional learning takes a back seat to the paper due tomorrow.

I think the reason the Naval Academy failed to prepare for the long-term in Afghanistan is that the U.S. as a whole did not prepare for the long-term. This initial optimistic outlook is a recent trend. In 2003, General Shinseki, Chief of Staff of the Army, said that winning in Iraq would require “several hundred thousand soldiers” to rebuild Iraq and prevent sectarian violence. Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz responded that General Shinseki’s number was “wildly off the mark” as Iraq had no history of sectarian violence. We will debate whether we should have sent sending troops to Afghanistan and Iraq for the next fifty years. However, one fact is certain: our strategy cannot resemble the midshipman so concerned with the assignment due tomorrow that he fails to study the country he may deploy to next year.

According to the Center for New American Security’s latest report on Afghanistan, “The United States has vital national interests in South and Central Asia that will endure far beyond 2014.” Future officers should take note.

Posted by jjames in Foreign Policy, Strategy, Tactics

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