“Lessons learned” is an overused and useless phrase.
It is batted around in educated American military circles and indicates an assumption that we made a mistake once and won’t make the same mistake again. Foreign Policy published an article last month titled “The Top 10 Mistakes Made in the Afghan War.”
The line that really got me was:
It is therefore important that we draw the right lessons from the experience, if only to partly redeem the sacrifices made by the soldiers who fought there.
While the author, Stephen Walt, correctly identifies several mistakes, the idea that we might actually learn anything this time around is a pipedream. I have little faith that we are drawing the right lessons from the past 12 years.
To avoid falling into the same quagmire again, we will have to change our matrix for choosing to go to war altogether, and paying mere homage to “learning a lesson” is not enough. To borrow from Ronald Moore: “All this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.” Vietnam presented us with most of the same lessons, and if we got the answers wrong twice in the space of 30-40 years, either the wrong people learned the lesson the first time or we were focused on the wrong lessons.
The parallels between Vietnam and Afghanistan are not one-for-one, but there are a lot of similar mistakes and “lessons learned.” American war-mobilization should be revamped, because our war-making is not evolving. Here are the mistakes, as Walt sees it:
1. Trying to go it alone
2. Blowing it at Tora Bora
3. The Afghan Constitution
4. The Detour into Iraq
5. The 2009 Surge
6. Setting a Time Limit
7. Downgrading Diplomacy
8. Losing Public Support
9. Failure to Manage Unruly Allies
10. Strategic Contradictions
This list is mostly strategic, and doesn’t even cover the U.S. Army’s operational/tactical problem of perennially re-learning how to fight against insurgents. That discussion can get way down into the weeds really fast.
But let’s get back to the strategic issue. Walt finally identifies the main problem in his last paragraph:
One at least hopes that some larger lessons have been learned, and that U.S. presidents will be a lot warier of this sort of quagmire in the future.
Don’t get into a quagmire.
This is the lesson we must focus on, rather than the tunnel-vision lessons which only put bandaids on a gut-wound. If you find yourself learning the same lessons over and over, you have not correctly identified the root problem yet.
Photo credit: Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Stephen J. Otero