The U.S. military presence in Afghanistan as part of the global war on terror has been a long, complicated and controversial campaign, but two of the top commanders of the operation said its odds for overall long-term success are positive, with the experience presenting many lessons for our nation going forward.
Top among those lessons is the importance of coalition support coupled with the reality that American unilateral military action is no longer a smart move.
“I hadn’t had to confront the fact that the United States as a super power, and in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union the ultimate mega power if you will, we never had the opportunity to -- I think -- confront the reality of limitations of American power,” said retired Marine Gen. John Allen, former commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.
He and retired Navy Adm. James Stavridis, former supreme commander of NATO’s allied forces, said the 50-nation coalition in Afghanistan, the largest such international effort since the Peloponnesian Wars of ancient Greece, was a key component to the conflict’s successes thus far, and will remain necessary in future campaigns.
“How we held together the cohesion of that coalition, so would go the campaign,” Allen said at the WEST 2014 Expo at the Convention Center Tuesday. “And that’s going to have to be a lesson learned for all of us in the future -- American military power might be applied unilaterally, but the reality is it’s most judiciously applied, or most effectively applied, in a larger context of coalitions. And not just military coalitions -- whole governments.”
Another lesson learned in Afghanistan with future implications, particularly considering the state of the Northern African and Levant area, is the need to keep forces in conflict areas for the long haul, and not pull out with either the first sign of victory or of trouble.
“I think the worst lesson we could draw from Afghanistan is that of isolationism,” Stavridis said. “And let’s be blunt: There’s enormous fatigue in our country for this kind of operation, stemming from Iraq and Afghanistan and I think the public tends to conflate it all.
“We have to stay engaged; it is frustrating, it’s hard, we have to pick our battles … But the worst thing we could do, in my opinion, is to walk away from this turbulent part of the world or take the lesson that we should come home to our shores -- that would be an enormous mistake.”
Moderator Hon. Richard Danzig, vice chair of the Board of Trustees for RAND Corp. and the former secretary of the Navy, played devil’s advocate and questioned whether critics of American involvement in the conflict were correct in doubting the ability to succeed in Afghanistan, given the corrupt government, narcotic problems and strong tribal ties as opposed to a national affiliation. Allen and Stavridis agreed that these are valid concerns, but pointed to past examples of success and said they have hope in Afghanistan’s future.
“I would look back at Columbia 10 years ago, I’d look at the Balkans 15 years ago, if you want to really go back, look back at Europe and Japan coming out of the second World War -- all of the things we’re talking about were applied in those societies, and in all of those cases we heard many of these same deep-rooted and legitimate concerns as in Afghanistan,” Stavridis said. “When I roll all that together, I come out that we have a better than even chance of success in Afghanistan -- maybe 2 in 3. Now that’s far from a slam-dunk, but I think that’s a realistic calculus when you put it all together.”
Allen also cited a better than 50 percent success prediction, but noted all of the accomplishments that have already been achieved, particularly in terms of the mission’s overall goal of turning over power to Afghani troops.
“They are much better than they have been over the last decade, they are gaining the strength and cohesion of leadership capacity every single day, they moved into the lead for their first full operational fighting season in 2013, and by all accounts, while they did take casualties, they did in fact do quite well,” Allen said. “And I am confident that if we remain over the long term in Afghanistan we can continue the process of advising and supporting them and ultimately provide the security platform necessary.”
While the United States and its allies have committed to an ongoing presence in the rebuilding nation, the final numbers for troops committed haven’t yet come out. Stavridis said he thinks about 10,000 U.S. troops and 5,000 to 6,000 coalition troops are necessary to continue the campaign -- a level he said is easily attainable and sustainable.
Both leaders stressed that while the military has certainly played a large role in Afghanistan, the interagency coalition and work of non-governmental organizations has made a huge difference in successes to date, of which there are many. In addition to a jump from 500,000 boys receiving education under the Taliban 10 years ago to 9 million children, both boys and girls, in school now, Stavridis cited an increase in health care coverage from 10 percent of the population 10 years ago to 65 percent today, and an unprecedented increase in life expectancy from 42 years at the start of the conflict to 62 today.
“In the end I think this will be central to how the narrative of Afghanistan comes out,” Stavridis said. “And I think, like John, I’m cautiously optimistic because of all that.”
Allen and Stavridis graduated together from the Naval Academy in 1976, and said the lessons they learned in Annapolis served them well throughout their careers, including providing perspective in Afghanistan.
“I will tell you that of the selfless sacrifice I saw every single day in the Anbar province in Iraq when I served there, among the Marines and soldiers in Iraq, and then the selfless sacrifice I saw every single day from our magnificent -- I mean magnificent -- troops in Afghanistan, I had a context where I could appreciate it,” Allen said. “I loved those kids -- it was a year ago yesterday I gave up command of Afghanistan after 19 months, and while we studied the acts of the Greatest Generation from World War II at the Naval Academy, I had the chance to serve with the new greatest generation on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan.”