In its complexity and diversity, the Afghan experience is rich with lessons for the American military and its civilian interagency counterparts. In the years ahead, U.S. forces may again be called upon to assist or intervene in weak states experiencing protracted instability or rebuilding after years of violence. Like the conflict in Afghanistan, these interventions may involve a combination of counterinsurgency, stabilization, or counterterrorism operations, along with security force assistance, counter-narcotics, and counter-organized crime missions. Drawing upon the many lessons of the Afghan conflict, maneuver commanders must be prepared to:
Enable and conduct mutually supporting operations involving a wide range of U.S., coalition, and host-nation military, civilian, and law enforcement stakeholders pursuing complementary security and governance objectives.
Facilitate and contribute to the integration of military and law enforcement operations against convergent networks of threats that frequently emerge in fragile, post-conflict states (including insurgents, weapons/IED-facilitators, and traffickers of narcotics and other illicit goods).
Sustain operational partnerships with host nation forces that are in the early stages of development, while establishing mechanisms to encourage transparency and cooperation on the part of host nation leaders at the local and national levels (many of whom may be inclined to advance their parochial interests at the expense of the success of the joint mission).
Finally, although U.S. force levels in Afghanistan are declining, it is likely that American units will remain deployed in the country long after 2014. Afghanistan will remain a vital front in the war to defeat al-Qaeda and allied insurgent and terrorist groups, which retain safe-havens in the tribal areas of Pakistan, and which are intent on returning to and restoring safe-haven in Afghanistan. Maneuver leaders will continue to engage the problem of Afghanistan, and must understand the conflict not only as a case study, but as one in which they may well be personally engaged.
The U.S. experience in Afghanistan over the past decade offers myriad lessons for the U.S. Army as it continues military operations in support of the Afghan government and prepares for future conflicts of similar complexity.
The American campaign in Afghanistan was launched in response to al-Qaeda's use of Afghan territory, granted by the Taliban government, to plan and launch the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. At the outset, the objectives of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan therefore included the defeat of al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and affiliated groups in Afghanistan, as well as the development of a stable and legitimate Afghan government that would serve as a U.S. partner in denying the use of Afghan territory to terrorist networks. A principal strategic rationale underlying the efforts of the United States and its NATO partners in Afghanistan was the notion that fragile states with weak institutions, particularly those dangerous and volatile regions, have the potential to serve as safe havens for transnational terrorist groups.
Even as American objectives and the rationale for U.S. engagement in Afghanistan have remained broadly consistent over the last decade, the character of the Afghan conflict and the strategies the U.S. has pursued to achieve its aims have evolved repeatedly between 2001 and the present. In 2001, U.S. forces, in tandem with the Northern Alliance, overthrew the Taliban regime in two months with only several hundred deployed troops. This early and decisive victory was followed by a period of optimism from 2002 to 2004, marked by what initially appeared to be a successful exercise in post-war reconstruction and state-building. In 2005, however, having reconsolidated in safe havens across the border in neighboring Pakistan, the Taliban mounted a significant resurgence, enabled in part by the population's resentment the Afghan government's apparent corruption and ineffectiveness. The size of the American force deployed in the country at the time was judged insufficient to contend with the Taliban's reemergence across the country.
A surge of American troops into Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010 marked a new evolution in the conflict and enabled the pursuit of better resourced counterinsurgency operations. The current stage of the conflict, as the U.S. and NATO transition security responsibilities to Afghan forces in 2013 and 2014, presents different and equally complex challenges for the U.S. military. In the coming years, U.S. forces will be expected to enable their Afghan counterparts to contend with an ongoing insurgency, while preparing for and supporting an orderly Afghan presidential election in 2014, and at the same time guarding against the continued threat of transnational terrorism emanating from the tribal regions of Pakistan.
The Afghan conflict has been one of the most complex and challenging in the history of the U.S. military. Not only is Afghanistan's physical terrain intensely inhospitable; the country is also characterized by deep cultural and social divides between regions, and across ethnic and tribal groups. The tumultuousness of the last thirty years in Afghanistan and the volatility of the surrounding region have likewise presented deep challenges for U.S. forces. The anti-Soviet jihad, the subsequent Afghan civil war, and the following years of Taliban rule resulted in the erosion of Afghan governing institutions and the rule of law, while leaving deep divisions within Afghanistan's society and political space. In addition, even as the causes of conflict in Afghanistan since 2001 have at times appeared intensely local—manifested through tribal infighting and family vendettas—violence in the country has in fact been consistently fueled and manipulated by Afghanistan's neighbors, particularly Iran and Pakistan, whose interests in the outcome of the Afghan conflict are shaped by broader geopolitical considerations (namely their competitions with the United States and India, respectively).
Maneuver leaders should first understand the strategic context of the war in Afghanistan, asking how and why U.S. strategy in Afghanistan evolved from 2001 to the present. As they study Afghanistan, leaders should consider the connection between the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of the conflict. They should ask how the actions of American units on the ground fit into U.S. strategy, and whether tactical and operational successes genuinely furthered strategic objectives and contributed to the long-term viability of the Afghanistan state. They should be attentive to cases in which short-term expedients were pursued by military and civilian actors at the cost of long-term stability.
Leaders must also understand how Afghanistan's (and Pakistan's) history and culture determined the conditions under which U.S. forces have operated. Failed and fragmented states are products of their history, and cannot be stabilized without attention to the patterns of political stability and the fault lines determined by a society's past, and the success of U.S. units restoring stability and countering the insurgency in Afghanistan frequently depended on knowledge of local culture and history.
Given its complexities, Afghanistan offers valuable case studies for how commanders and staffs adapted or failed to adapt to unexpected and unprecedented challenges, both kinetic and political (i.e. Afghan partners whose corruption or abuse of power antagonized the population.) Leaders should also consider how U.S. and NATO staffs calibrated the scope and ambition of their operations to limited resources and shifting strategic guidance. Leaders should consider the role of Pakistan in the resilience of the insurgency in Afghanistan, as well as the complexities of the U.S.-Pakistan alliance. In thinking about Pakistan, they should ask how military leaders should respond to the intervention of outside powers in a theater of operations.
Leaders should also understand Afghanistan's lessons on the integration of civilian and military efforts to establish security, enable host-nation military and law enforcement organizations, and promote the rule of law. They should ask how military and civilian leaders at all levels could have avoided the interagency conflicts that have at times undermined the execution of U.S. strategy, while also identifying instances of successful civil-military integration.