Iraq, Afghanistan, and fighting the 'last war'

President Obama and Vice President Biden with Afghan President Karzai and Pakistani President Zardari in May 2009 at the White House (Lawrene Jackson/White House)

President Obama and Vice President Biden with Afghan President Karzai and Pakistani President Zardari in May 2009 at the White House (Lawrene Jackson/White House)

There’s that old saw: the military always fights ‘the last war.’  We have the prime example of France’s Maginot Line in WWII, built with the lessons learned from the trench warfare of the first war. The Germans easily rolled by the legendarily static defense with their mechanized forces. Gulf War One informed our thinking of Afghanistan and Iraq–that we could have neat, clean, shock and awe like victories.

So, with the debate still bubbling about what to do in Afghanistan, it’s unavoidable that the U.S. military’s experience is going to be largely informed by the ‘last war.’ In this case, the last war is Iraq–more specifically Iraq from 2006-2008. Thus, as we know, General McChrystal is pushing for those 100,000 servicemen, so he can try to work some Surge-like, COIN, magic.

My question: is this a mistake? Are we, in essence, relying too much on the Iraq model to shape our view Af/Pak? (Despite McChrytsal and Petraeus and everyone else’s protest that it’s a “different fight.”)

With Team Obama announcing that it would be “reckless to make a decision on troop levels” until the Afghan election is resolved, it seems like the White House is in some way weary of adopting “the last war” strategy, particularly from a political point of view. For instance, President Bush gave Prime Minister Maliki a blank check and unconditional support in Iraq. It wouldn’t have mattered who the leader was–Bush was going to give him backing, 110 percent, by God, damn the torpedoes. Any government was a good government–problematic because by doing so we actually gave up our leverage.

This White House’s tack in Afghanistan seems surprisingly different–rather than shoring up the government unconditionally, Obama is putting all sorts of conditions on it. You don’t get troops unless your election is legitimate. You don’t get troops until you’ve become “credible.” (And credible is certainly a relative term.) The risk of this strategy, however, is to create a power vacuum, which could cause even more instability.

(Note to readers: As long as my wireless access holds up, I’m back on my regular blogging schedule. Next up–what’s the deal with Ramadi?)

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About michaelhastings

Journalist
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