Failure is an Orphan

It's easy to point the finger of blame for the mistakes made in Afghanistan says Steve Saideman.
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August 8, 2012

Many folks are upset by criticisms of the Canadian effort in Afghanistan. Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s new book, Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan, has renewed the debate about the role Canada has played. The book contains a few key assertions about the Canadian effort, which I will address next week. The point today is this: We are shifting from the “smooth everything over” phase of the war to the “point the finger of blame” phase. As John F. Kennedy (among others) said, “Victory has a hundred fathers, but defeat is an orphan.” In the years ahead, expect many books and articles dedicated to pointing the finger of blame everywhere except at the authors.

Last spring, the CIC had a discussion focused on explaining the failure in Afghanistan. In that effort, I pointed my finger at the U.S. for being distracted by Iraq (Chandrasekaran does a more thorough job detailing this), Pakistan, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Today, to illustrate how easy the finger-pointing is, let me run through some other key actors in Afghanistan over the past 10 years (if we went back further, we could blame the Soviet Union for much of this).

Let’s start with the British, since Brits seeking to point fingers are responsible for some of the new books we have seen of late. How did Helmand work out when the British had the lead? Not well. Funny that there is now buyer’s remorse – a sense that they should have had Kandahar instead – as it is not clear that the British had a great track record of building up governance under fire. They made deals with the opposition in Basra in Iraq and Musa Qala in Helmand, but found out that the opponents in both places did not respect the agreements.

Of course, many folks would start with the Germans, who had one of the largest contingents in Afghanistan for most of the mission. Limited by restrictions imposed by the Bundestag and the minister of defence, the Germans simply could not do much, especially before the rules of engagement were tweaked in 2009. This was especially problematic since the Germans were at first given the lead for training the Afghan National Police. This essential part of the “security pillar” lagged far behind the rest, as the Germans could not leave the North in significant numbers, and their police were not allowed to interact with their army, making off-base mentoring close to impossible.

Italy must be thrilled that Canada and Germany seem to get the most attention. Italy apparently paid off the opposition in a sector near Kabul, which meant that when the French moved in to replace them, they based their assessments on false information. This led to one of the worst days in France’s Afghanistan experience. Italy was also given responsibility for judicial reform as a key part of the rule-of-law effort. How has that worked out?

Under then-president Jacques Chirac, France was reluctant to help the Americans too much, so its forces stuck to Kabul. So, one of the more capable militaries with the fewest legislative restrictions (caveats) had little impact until Nicolas Sarkozy became president. 

Turkey had one of the largest contingents and some of the best relations with the Afghans, given shared religious and historical ties. But Turkey largely refrained from operating beyond Kabul and did not engage in offensive operations. Perhaps Turkey could have been a difference-maker in Kandahar or elsewhere, but that was not to be.

The U.S. not only became committed late in the game, but also kept changing its commanders. Its military is so big that its units varied quite widely in how much they played by the General David Petraeus counterinsurgency playbook.

I can go on and on. No country performed perfectly, and many made major mistakes. NATO struggled to develop a coherent strategy, and, when it tried, many contingents resisted since they saw Afghanistan almost entirely through the province or districts for which they had responsibility.

Most importantly, pointing fingers at the various military efforts in this way largely misses the point. Winning in Afghanistan required more than military competence – it required building up the Afghan government to be competent enough to deliver services and attract the support of enough of the populace to turn the insurgents into criminals. This is an incredibly difficult task, and one that is very, very hard for outsiders to impose, especially those with limited patience. That the partner for such efforts, the Karzai government, was only somewhat interested in such efforts perhaps doomed the entire enterprise.

While it is easy to place blame on the militaries of the various countries (and there is some legitimate blame to be distributed), the biggest mistake – one of ambition that bordered on arrogance – was shared by all: The task at hand was underestimated. This is not just about intelligence failure in Southern Afghanistan. The difficulties of state-building in any context are extensive, but even more so in a place like Afghanistan, a landlocked country neighbouring hostile Pakistan and Iran that is governed by a rather unsupportive government, and that has seen a series of conflicts going back to 1978. In light of all this, it was perhaps an impossible mission. 

Of course, this is easy to say now – it is all much clearer in retrospect. For much of the mission, I was an advocate for continued effort. During the debate about a potential surge in 2009, I thought it made sense for the U.S. to invest a bit further. I thought a real effort to do counterinsurgency with more adequate resources was worth trying, given the costs of failure for the Afghan people and the uncertain effects on the region. I also thought Canada should stick around in Kandahar as long as the rest of the alliance was still in Afghanistan. 

Now, I am much more ambivalent about what to do next in Afghanistan and also whether to use force elsewhere, like Syria.  These situations are “wicked problems,” where we face very lousy alternatives. It is easy to point fingers, and it is necessary to learn lessons.  The challenge is that not only is failure an orphan, but hindsight, as they say, is 20/20.

Photo courtesy of Reuters