10 Security Lessons the United States Should Have Learned In Iraq and Afghanistan


Within libertarianism, we hear common tropes about wars abroad that are obvious and sometimes unfounded; these claims include “Wow, war is expensive!,” “Look how state security infringes on my liberty!,” and “[xxx] (like preemptive strikes or humanitarian intervention) should NEVER happen!” While I tend to agree with many of these claims, there are arguably more important lessons for the United States to learn from Iraq and Afghanistan as we encroach war with Syria. Here are just ten of them.

Lesson 1: Hubris Blurs Limitations.

There is little question that the United States has the most advanced and well-funded military in the world. Inflated confidence in relative power and new technology blurred the taxing realities of instituting regime change and deterring terrorists. David Rothkopf writes, “The [United States] faces financial constraints. There are limits to what its allies are willing to support. There are cultural, historical, geographical, and demographic obstacles that the United States can never surmount.” Economic and military power does not simply lead to victory, and neither does “staying the course.”

Lesson 2: Have Well-Defined Primary Objectives.

Military goals and priorities changed frequently in the past ten years. The United States hunted wanted terrorists, instilled dysfunctional democracies, toppled dictators, searched for weapons of mass destruction, and defended the rights of women abroad. The objectives in Iraq and Afghanistan were so fluid that they obscured primary goals. Chuck Hagel notes, “One of the reasons we’re in trouble in Afghanistan is because we went well beyond our mission. We accomplished the mission then we took our eye off the ball and intervened, invaded Iraq, and occupied Iraq… And now, 12 years later, we’re not sure what our mission is. Is our mission to eliminate the Taliban? … Is it nation building? Is it sending children to school?” The far-reaching and ever-evolving goals left the United States floundering and without a strong purpose.

Lesson 3: Place Priority On Quality Intelligence.

Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction. Pakistan proved to be more of an enemy than an ally in its support for America’s terrorist adversaries. The US proved to have a poor history of not sharing intelligence with its allies, leading to mistakes. In an assessment on Afghanistan from the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, they write that there was a “failure to recognize, acknowledge and accurately define” the environment in which the conflicts occurred, leading to a “mismatch between forces, capabilities, missions, and goals.” Many of these errors were intelligence failures that could have been fixed.

Lesson 4: Political Objectives Must Be In Sync With Military Realities.

The United States had a plethora of goals in invading Afghanistan and Iraq, the primary of which was combatting terrorism. With a total active military of 1.4 million troops, obtaining this objective in two countries while state building was hardly feasible. Politicians should be careful to make foreign policy goals reflective of military realities.

Lesson 5: Know Thine Enemy.

Forces in Afghanistan have suffered from a deficiency in understanding basic Afghani culture and terrain, which has led to “many missteps… and billions of dollars wasted on schemes that had little chance of success.” For example, the US embassy in Kabul tried to spearhead a Sesame Street project that would promote child education. This decision was made with little adherence to the fact that only 497,000 of Afghanistan’s 4.8 million households have access to electricity, and powering a television would be prohibitively costly to most families. A basic understanding of Afghani infrastructure would have demonstrated that importing a US children’s show would not be successful as most people would not have the opportunity to watch it.

Lesson 6: Place Faith In The Marketplace Of Ideas.

In his 2004 article “Threat Inflation and the Failure of the Marketplace of Ideas,” Kauffmann highlights how easy it was for the Bush administration to manipulate the American public into a war with Iraq. There was remarkably little debate about the decision to invade Iraq or Afghanistan either in Congress or in the media. This proved to be to a detriment to United States foreign policymaking. Stephen Walt writes, “As a result, not only did the United States make a bone-headed decision, but the Bush administration went into Iraq unprepared for the subsequent occupation.” Major foreign policy decisions should not be excluded from public debate.

Lesson 7: America Is Good At Collapsing States. It Is Not Good At Rebuilding Them.

During the first months of the occupation, the US disbanded Iraq’s military, “sanctioned a process of ‘deBaathification’ – the firing of anyone from a government position who was a member of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party – and shut down Iraq’s state-owned enterprises.” Disbanding the government created massive communal unrest, particularly between Shiite and Sunni factions. Setting up elections also did not lead to compliance in Afghanistan, nor did it establish legitimacy in Iraq.

Lesson 8: Intervention Will Always Have Unintended and Unforeseen Consequences.

Promises of a quick war blurred the realities of intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. Few expected the difficult realities of Iraqi civil war. Billions of taxpayer dollars fueled new states without much return. These wars were costly both domestically and to the United States’ international reputation. Before launching new intervention, say in Syria, the United States should acknowledge that it knows so little about its enemy’s resolve or consequences of its own actions. Interventions may be long, costly, and result in unfavorable actors in power.

Lesson 9: Allies Provide Few Combat Forces.

Since becoming the leading superpower following World War II, the United States has put emphasis on cohesion with its allies. While the United States enjoyed support for “the good war,” the Coalition of the Willing turned out to be Coalition of the Few. Ted Carpenter from Cato writes, “At the peak level of support, the coalition (not counting the British) consisted of 37 nations and a paltry 30,000 troops,” whereas, in Afghanistan, “America’s NATO allies agonized for months before sending a small peacekeeping force… As in Iraq, the allied presence in Afghanistan seems focused more on political symbolism than on providing a meaningful military contribution.” The United States provides security to many of its allies. It cannot always count on them for reciprocal military force.

Lesson 10: The United States Still Doesn’t Understand Guerilla Warfare.

The type of military that the United States has is still best suited for traditional interstate warfare. This lesson should have been learned in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive, but still applies today.

George Little, the Pentagon’s top spokesman, noted in 2012, “We are looking at suicide bombers, RPG, mortar fire, etc.” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta added, “There were no tactical gains.” This demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of guerilla war. Haqqani are disinterested in taking territory that they could not keep; instead, they are interested in highlighting American helplessness to guerilla attacks. All of America’s tactical gains and captured territory have brought the United States nowhere closer to definitive victory, and, like in Vietnam, the insurgents have a better chance of winning a war of attrition than the weary United States. As public opinion polls nosedive and America prepares to withdraw in 2014, the US still has not learned how to address this tactic, and should avoid it in the future.