This Memorial Day, President Obama recognized veterans of all of the nation’s wars, but focused on two: the war in Iraq, which came to an end, for Americans, this past year, and the Vietnam War, which began, for Americans, 50 years ago.
Mr. Obama was quiet, however, about the war in Afghanistan, the one for which he will be remembered in military history. Perhaps that’s because things in Afghanistan are still muddled; will it end like Vietnam — an abject, helicopters-flying-out-of-Kabul, people-hanging-on-the-skids defeat — or in an unsatisfying and untidy sort-of victory, like Iraq?
From a traditional point of view, neither option seems particularly attractive. But Mr. Obama should welcome an Iraq-like end to Afghanistan: as contradictory as it may seem, messy and unsatisfying are the hallmarks of success in modern counterinsurgency wars.
America can live, for example, with the current Iraqi government and its policies, and Iraq’s increasing oil output will help the global economic recovery. This is an unsatisfying return on the blood and treasure we poured into Iraq, but it is not a complete loss — and it is far better than we could have imagined in 2006, when Iraq was descending into civil war and Al Qaeda had established an important foothold there.
It is not unlikely that 2015 will see a similarly reasonable Afghan government that will hold together with American money and advisers — an unsatisfying end, but not a failure, and not without promise of greater stability to come.
Unsatisfying wars are the stock in trade of counterinsurgency; rarely, if ever, will they end with a surrender ceremony and look like a conventional victory. And yet this is the sort of war we have fought, almost exclusively, for over 50 years. President John F. Kennedy warned those graduating from West Point in 1961 that they would struggle to defeat insurgent enemies: “Where there is a visible enemy to fight in open combat, the answer is not so difficult. Many serve, all applaud, and the tide of patriotism runs high. But when there is a long, slow struggle, with no immediately visible foe, your choice will seem hard indeed.”
The choices of that West Point class, and of those that would follow it into a counterinsurgency campaign in Southeast Asia, were more difficult than their young president could imagine. Although the Army made real progress in understanding and implementing counterinsurgency principles under Gen. Creighton W. Abrams Jr., the lesson of Vietnam was not to fight irregular wars in Asia.
The Army learned that lesson all too well, forgetting what it had learned in the jungle and focusing on a conventional war with the Soviet Union. The Army and Marines quickly destroyed Saddam Hussein’s military in 2003, only to find themselves facing an enemy they should have expected: insurgents, some inspired by radical Islam, but many more by simple nationalism.
Hard lessons in counterinsurgency had to be relearned before Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and Gen. David H. Petraeus implemented a strategy that combined fighting with negotiations. The 2007 surge, employing new counterinsurgency tactics, and the mindless brutality of the insurgent group Al Qaeda in Iraq persuaded the Sunni tribes to “flip” and start fighting the radicals rather than Americans.
The surge changed the war in Iraq dramatically, even as Barack Obama, then a candidate for president, was promising to swing resources away from Iraq and into the “good war” in Afghanistan. President Obama fulfilled his campaign promise and then some, tripling American forces in Afghanistan during his first year while also doubling down on drone strikes in Pakistan.
Again, the strategy, aided by the killing of Osama bin Laden by a Navy SEAL team, worked to a degree. With Al Qaeda effectively dismantled, a government that is good enough to run the country is likely to be sufficient to achieve core American national security objectives as well.
Like any successful counterinsurgency, Afghanistan is likely to end somewhat unsatisfyingly for Americans, with a corrupt but gradually improving government in Kabul, advisers helping Afghan security forces fight a weakening but still dangerous Taliban, and a schizophrenic Pakistan alternately helping Afghan and Taliban fighters.
It may also, in the odd logic of counterinsurgency, be more likely to succeed if we leave the project somewhat unfinished. T. E. Lawrence, no slouch as an insurgent himself, advised: “Do not try to do too much with your own hands ... It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them.”