Lessons from Afghanistan

AS THE U.S. prepares to officially (but not completely) pull out its military from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, some wonder whether it all was a waste. More than a decade of war has cost tens of thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars. But the balance sheet of “lessons learned” shows some less-depressing calculations.

In the last several years, U.S. generals have repeatedly told Congress and the U.S. public that “there is no military solution” to the war in Afghanistan. This marks a significant shift in military thinking. In the early 2000s, the boastful, overconfident views that wars in Afghanistan and Iraq would be quick and easy outnumbered more cautious and skeptical military voices. If nothing else, more military leaders today are forthrightly speaking out against the fantasy of firepower solutions to complex political problems.

The U.S. and its Western allies are also learning a related lesson: The lack of legitimate governance is a fundamental cause of much of the world’s violence. Afghanistan’s political leaders who opposed the Taliban became de facto Western allies, even though many had ruled by force and racked up their own long list of human rights abuses. In the rush to set up a new government to replace the Taliban, the West propped up corrupt and tyrannical warlords as provincial governors, dooming hopes for an Afghan democracy and authentic leaders with popular support.

Counterinsurgency projects attempted to pull support from the Taliban and other insurgents by winning Afghan hearts and minds so they would trust their government. But Western military forces learned that free handouts of Western aid money could not fundamentally change the corrupt nature of the Afghan government or its public image.

Adding further injury to the insult of this strategy was the West’s counterterrorism approach, with drone bombs that killed civilians and brutal night raids humiliating Afghan families in their homes. Perhaps Western forces also learned that their counterterrorism strategy to “hunt down and kill the terrorists” lost hearts and minds at a rate faster than their counterinsurgency effort could win them.

Evidence that these lessons were learned is seen in the U.S. military’s new ways of training soldiers to identify civilians and new protocols calling for them to take greater risks themselves to reduce unintentional harm to civilians. Instead of referring to these deaths as “collateral damage,” the military started using the more honest term “civilian casualties.” While there were tens of thousands of Afghan civilian casualties during the initial U.S. bombing in 2001, Western troops greatly reduced their impact on civilians in the last five years. They learned that more civilian deaths meant more support for the Taliban.

Further evidence is seen in military leaders who are more skeptical of quick military solutions to Syria’s complex problems. This time, generals spoke out against war quicker than peace activists did. And the U.S. and European publics flooded Congress with pleas not to get their countries stuck in another quagmire.

But for all the mistakes made by the West in Afghanistan, the men, women, and children in Afghanistan and now Syria deserve even more than a united opposition to war. A renewed isolationism that turns our backs on their suffering is neither just nor peaceful.

If we learn anything from Afghanistan, it should be that Westerners failed to support peacebuilding—a more strategic approach to diplomacy and development that recognizes complex political and economic factors fueling war. The West overlooked and even undermined Afghan civil society, with its decades of experience working to resolve tribal disputes. Rather than working with the international community to support a comprehensive peace process including civil society, a small and doomed group of underfunded U.S. diplomats attempted to address a mountain of problems. Saying no to war is not yet saying yes to peacebuilding. 

Lisa Schirch is the director of human security at the Alliance for Peacebuilding and professor at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding in Virginia.

Image: hand with chalk writing 'end' on the chalkboard, Humannet / Shutterstock.com

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