Learning the wrong lessons
Published in Gulf News, 7 October 2009
By Gordon Robison, Special to Gulf News
Over the last few months, references to Lyndon Johnson have become increasingly common among American pundits and on TV news shows. Does US President Barack Obama, they ask, now stand roughly where LBJ stood in 1965?
That was the year Johnson went all-in on Vietnam, turning what had been an unusually large training-and-advisory mission into a full-scale war. This was, we are constantly reminded, the decision that came to define Johnson's presidency. The question today is whether Obama finds himself at a similar moment of decision concerning Afghanistan.
Yet, while Vietnam may obsess America's political class, Iraq is the lens through which the military itself most often views the Afghan war. The problem is that many in the military, and among the media and policy types who move around the edges of the military's world, appear to have learned the wrong lesson from our recent history in Iraq.
Conventional wisdom now holds that the US made a lot of mistakes during its first four years in Iraq. Then George W. Bush approved the 'surge', in the wake which the wrongs of past years have (mostly) been righted.
The story line that has taken root goes like this: despite some serious doubts among feint-hearted politicians and other civilians the surge succeeded. It did so because we put a lot more people on the ground in Iraq, because the soldiers became more sensitive to the needs and fears of the Iraqis themselves and because, in so doing, they showed Iraqis that the US was willing and able to protect them from Al Qaida. All of this won a sceptical populace over to our side.
Like most powerful myths this one contains elements of truth. For example, the less heavy-handed approach the American military began taking towards Iraqi civilians as part of the surge surely had some beneficial effects.
Still, the main reason why Sunni leaders in Iraq's sprawling Anbar province came over to the US side had less to do with America's attitude than with changing power equations at both the local and national levels.
Locally, this involved Anbar's tribal leaders concluding that Al Qaida in Iraq had become a threat to their traditional power bases. Allying with the Americans offered them money and guns, as well as practical help in fighting their local, Al Qaida linked, rivals.
Nationally, it grew from a fear that without American protection Iraq's Sunni community would be at the mercy of the Shiites who control the country's military and its interior ministry. From a Sunni perspective, the Americans provided a near-term buffer against rising Shiite power emanating from Baghdad and, longer term, a chance to build up their own resources ahead of the sectarian battle many Sunnis still fear (and a few relish) once the Americans are no longer around to keep the two sides apart.
Viewed another way, the surge, on a military level, was fairly successful (its partisans conveniently forget that the policy's political dimension has been an almost unmitigated failure). That success, however, is less the result of US military and diplomatic prowess than of the local elites deciding it was worth hooking up with America because doing so served their short-to-medium term interests.
The disquieting thing is the degree to which this surge-as-brilliant-success narrative has been accepted across the board by politicians and soldiers alike. As a result, talk in the US is mainly about how easy or hard it will be to recreate the surge rather than whether the policy actually worked and, if it did, whether Afghanistan really offers fertile ground for a repeat performance.
Historical analogies are comfortable precisely because they offer an easily understandable (if not necessarily accurate) way to frame complex issues. Politicians, and we in the media, often warn against them, even as we deploy them to suit our own needs.
Learning from the past is a useful exercise. But if we plan to build future policy, in part, on a base of lessons-learned it is crucial that we learn the actual lessons history offers, not just the ones we enjoy hearing.
Here is the one we need to be keeping in mind when applying Iraq's lessons to Afghanistan: the surge worked only on a military level. Even this limited success, however, was mostly a triumph of evolving Iraqi attitudes, not new and innovative American thinking. It is also worth remembering that Iraq's own future remains unresolved, and that the true lessons (whatever they may be) of one incomplete war are difficult to apply to another.
Gordon Robison, a writer and commentator who has lived in and reported on the Middle East for two decades, teaches political science at the University of Vermont.