The Lessons of Humility from Forever Wars

Hubris means excessive pride or self-confidence. Arrogance is a more pointed synonym.

The year 2023 will mark 50 years since American combat troops departed Vietnam. March 20th marked 20 years the U.S. spent trying to reshape the Iraqi government and society. We pursued similar goals in Afghanistan beginning immediately after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and this longest war in U.S. history ended only last year. All are examples of a good dose of hubris and arrogance.

These efforts in nation building depended heavily on U.S. military forces that were not suited for or able to accomplish the political goals set by the administrations that committed them.

President George W. Bush and his senior advisors, against advice from numerous officials and scholars who knew better, sought to make Iraq and Afghanistan pillars of democracy to serve as models for the Middle East and Southwest Asia. We veterans of the Vietnam War scoffed at the idea.

It is the height of arrogance to think the U.S. has a mandate to tell other societies how they should be organized and governed. American arrogance and hubris led us to pursue policies in three wars that never had a chance of success.

In all three cases, U.S. administrations believed they could establish democratically elected governments in failing nations that would be able to stabilize the fractious, local political forces, and deployed large military forces to make it happen.

Fundamentally misreading history

In Vietnam, a struggle for national liberation had been ongoing since at least the 1920s, first against French colonialism, then Japanese occupation after the fall of France in WW II, followed again by another period of French colonialism. In all cases, the foreign occupiers couldn’t stamp out the desire for national liberation. Despite experts on Southeast Asia and French Indochina advising strongly against it, hubris caused the Kennedy Administration to believe they could succeed where the French had failed.

Afghanistan is a tribal society that has always been ruled by regionally based tribal leaders and warlords, with a relatively weak central government. As long as the authorities in Kabul didn’t interfere too much with the regional leaders, they were tolerated. First the Taliban — a group espousing 13th century social policies, then the Russians, who ran off the Taliban and spent 10 years trying to establish a government that could govern the country — failed at nation building. Again, hubris caused a U.S. administration to think it could succeed where others had failed.

Sending in military forces to install a cobbled-together government in the national capital of a failing country is the easy part. Unless that government is soon perceived as free of major corruption and willing and able to provide the population with the essentials of community life, basic services, physical and economic security, unless it projects a vision of a better future for its citizens, inevitably an insurgency will arise by some group trying to unseat the government installed by a foreign power.  With very few exceptions, the U.S. has proven inept at creating governments in other nations that could garner sufficient popular support.

The Bush administration did not set out to wage counterinsurgency warfare in Iraq. The initial goal was to remove Saddam Hussein and his murderous government through a conventional heavy force invasion which the U.S. Army executed in splendid fashion. Unfortunately, as a result of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s refusal to plan for what would happen after the Army ran off Saddam, the defeat created a vacuum in government control. This lack of host country control rapidly spawned an insurgency against what was soon perceived as a U.S. occupying force.

Crash course in counterinsurgency doctrine didn’t work

The Army turned its back on counterinsurgency warfare after Vietnam. But as the insurgencies worsened in both Iraq and Afghanistan, Fred Kaplan tells the story of how Gen. David Petraeus brought together a group of hand-picked officers and civilians to write new counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine for the Army. As Kaplan records in The Insurgents:  David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War, Petraeus’ team wrote new COIN doctrine in record time. But in the final analysis, many of the authors doubted the U.S. Army could implement the doctrine effectively.

Those of us who paid attention during our service in Vietnam know that COIN didn’t work there and revising a failed doctrine to try to salvage something in Iraq and Afghanistan was doomed to failure. Once again, we were a foreign power trying to prop up corrupt, quasi-legitimate regimes that couldn’t gain the support of a majority of their people.

Those looking for lessons from our failed attempts at nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan should heed the wisdom expressed in a February 2011 speech by then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates at West Point.

Gates bluntly told the cadets that it would be unwise for the United States ever to fight another war like those in Iraq or Afghanistan because the chances of carrying out a successful change of government in that fashion are slim.

As a nation, we need to be more humble about what we can and cannot achieve in our dealings with other nations.

(A version of this commentary appeared in The Huntsville Lede.)



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