Looking Back to See Ahead: The Lessons of El Salvador and Afghanistan

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Todd Greentree

President Biden’s decision to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan no later than September 11, the anniversary of the terrorist attacks that led to the intervention 20 years ago, has focused attention on the U.S. end game and its uncertain prognosis. It is too soon to judge the results of this exit, as Eliot Cohen recently wrote. What we can, and should, do now is look back at our recent past in order to understand how and why we arrived at this unfortunate outcome. Notwithstanding any reluctance to doing so, the first authoritative histories of the exceptionally documented war in Afghanistan have begun to appear, notably by Theo Farrell, Carter Malkesian, and Craig Whitlock. However, because America’s “longest war” is ending in imperial embarrassment, which lacks the narrative power of victory or defeat, it may well be that the lessons of strategic failure will succumb to the undertow of forgetting.

All the more reason, perhaps, to question the value of comparing what went wrong in Afghanistan, where I served between 2008 and 2012, with what went right in the long-ended war in El Salvador, where I served between 1980 and 1984. At first glance, the great and numerous differences – in time period, geography, and protagonists, in geopolitics and ideology – might seem to negate any attempt at coherent interpretation. True, a large gulf separates the successful U.S. endeavor to prevent tiny El Salvador from being taken over by Marxist-Leninist revolutionaries in its Central American backyard during the last decade of the Cold War from the ill-fated entanglement in Afghanistan that followed invasion to avenge the attacks on 9/11 and prevent terrorism from regaining a foothold on the other side of the globe. Yet, precisely these distinctions make comparison of policy, strategy, and performance all the more compelling, because what links the two, of course, are America’s protracted commitments to both of these bloody, messy wars.

The assertion that Afghanistan has been a strategic failure while El Salvador was a success requires clarification. Most important among the criteria for arriving at these contrasting assessments is the degree to which strategy achieved declared U.S. policy goals. Proponents of withdrawal from Afghanistan emphasize that counterterrorist operations have met the original U.S. aim of degrading Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations sufficiently and that any recrudescence can now be handled from offshore. They argue further that continued involvement in combatting the Taliban, with or without peace negotiations, is no longer worth the costs: 2,420 Americans killed in action and on the order of $1 trillion expended, excluding the price tags of NATO and other coalition members. Other miscarriages compound the incentives to exit: unclear, shifting, and open-ended war aims; sanctioned violence that resulted in the gross disproportionality of 160,000 Afghans who have died as a consequence of the 2,977 people killed on 9/11; feckless efforts to stem Pakistan’s duplicitous and persistent support for the Taliban; a dubiously ambitious “nation-building” [sic] state-building project; deeply flawed Afghan partners, fractious and corrupt, to bear the blame. It is no wonder that many have concluded in hindsight that war against the Taliban was from the beginning unwinnable, a “forever war” foretold.

If anything, labeling El Salvador a success may be even more contentious; it was at the time and the country remains troubled today. The principal counterargument is that over a decade of U.S. support to the Salvadoran Armed Forces was insufficient to defeat the guerrillas of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). Additional criticisms point to the persistence of human rights violations and low quality of Salvadoran democracy, even though the Peace Accords of 1992 definitively ended the war. True, intervention in El Salvador certainly was bloody, tendentious, and, initially, a close-run thing. The odious Death Squads, which pre-dated American involvement, nonetheless served the purposes of state terrorism by eliminating revolutionary leadership and sowing fear among the population. In January 1981, when the FMLN attempted to replicate the popular insurrection that had brought the Nicaraguan Sandinistas to power in 1979, the Salvadoran people did not rally. However, the war morphed into a protracted insurgency-counterinsurgency struggle that endured for over a decade and terminated only after the Cold War itself had ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Defining success in terms of policy aims declared at the time, military stalemate between the Salvadoran Armed Forces and Latin America’s toughest guerrilla army did prove sufficient: democratic government did take hold and Soviet/Cuban-backed communism was contained.

US troops landing for a military operation in Afghanistan

U.S. Troops landing for a military operation inside Afghanistan.

Radio Venceremos was a FMLN guerrilla radio station that operated during the Salvadoran Civil War.

Radio Venceremos was a FMLN guerrilla radio station that operated during the Salvadoran Civil War. Hernán Vera “Maravilla” (right) was one of the leading voices of the underground station and it was so effective the El Salvadoran military hunted for their location. Photo courtesy of MUPI via elfaro.net

Origins, More than Meaningful Coincidence

More than meaningful coincidence links these two wars, and explanation of their contrasting outcomes requires answering the question of origins. El Salvador lies within the traditional U.S. sphere of interest, whereas Afghanistan does not, but both are geopolitically peripheral and bereft of intrinsic value to the United States. In the late-1970s, as the two countries spiraled into violent instability and became unsought cauldrons of the Cold War, the Soviet regime believed “the world was going our way,” while a post-Vietnam and Watergate cycle of decline gripped the United States. The critical year was 1979.

In Central America, U.S. appointees pursuing President Jimmy Carter’s new human rights policy targeted Nicaraguan client-dictator Anastasio Somoza. By failing to anticipate that there would be consequences, they inadvertently eroded his legitimacy and fueled an insurrection that produced the Cuban-backed Sandinista victory in July 1979. The next target was El Salvador, already seething with leftist protest, rightist counter-violence, and on the verge of a bloodbath. Having failed to contain communism in Latin America for the first time since the 1959 Cuban revolution, the Carter administration intervened politically throughout the remainder of 1979 and 1980. To get ahead of the curve in El Salvador, State Department officials worked largely behind the scenes, backing reformists within the Armed Forces and the Christian Democrat Party to build a democratic center where none had survived before, while struggling with searing human rights violations, which included the rapes and murders of four American churchwomen and the assassination of the saintly Archbishop Óscar Romero.

In one of his last decisions before leaving office, Carter reluctantly opted to provide arms in extremis to the Salvadoran government. When Ronald Reagan succeeded him in January 1981, El Salvador was the new president’s first foreign policy crisis. Domestic opposition relaxed as the political-military strategy he embraced there took hold. The counterpart to counterinsurgency in El Salvador was U.S. support for Nicaraguan insurgents, the contras, which also had roots in the Carter administration.  Even while the CIA covert action program suffered crippling political opposition, the rebels imposed costs on the Sandinista regime, and combined with increased regional U.S. military presence, complicated sanctuary and support for Salvadoran guerrillas and trimmed Cuban and Soviet ambitions.

Simultaneously in Central Asia on the Soviet rimland, the first phase of Afghanistan’s descent into chaos was unfolding. As radical Afghan communists, who had seized power in 1978, degenerated into fratricide while an Islamic counter-revolution burgeoned, Moscow tumbled into creeping intervention to salvage them. A faction of optimistic hawks in the Politburo overrode serious objections and secured ailing General Secretary Brezhnev’s signature on a secret order for military invasion that launched on Christmas eve 1979. After installing a new government in a bloody Spetsnaz-commanded coup, the Soviets planned to have the situation stabilized in a matter of months. Instead, they entered counterinsurgency quagmire, unaware that their global power had peaked and the world was no longer going their way.

Covert U.S. support for the Afghan mujahedin had begun opportunistically in 1978 as a small political action program run by and through Pakistan. Now, serious financing and arms began to flow, allowing the “Freedom Fighters” to impose ever-greater costs on Soviet and Afghan forces. Although Reagan and many in his administration remained enthralled with Central America throughout the 1980s, controversy and the Iran-Contra scandal thwarted funding for the Nicaraguan rebels, and instead unrestricted and increasingly generous U.S. aid to the mujahedin became Charlie Wilson’s War. Saudi Arabia (and others) matched the CIA program dollar-for-dollar, in parallel sponsoring the “Afghan Arabs” who went to fight against infidel communists in Afghanistan, thus keeping Islamic jihad away from Mecca. Osama bin Laden was among them.

In 1986, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev ruefully described the Afghan war as “a bleeding wound;” within three years, as the Soviet dead surpassed 15,000, the mujahedin compelled them into exit negotiations and a humiliating military withdrawal. Moscow’s puppet regime defied predictions by surviving until 1992, following the collapse of its Soviet backers. The seven mujahedin factions that had enjoyed ample military support and Pakistan’s favor were utterly unprepared to govern and fell into a vicious civil war for control of Kabul. The first Bush administration engaged in a belated and ultimately futile effort to broker a stable arrangement, but with the Cold War definitively ended, the United States eventually turned its energies elsewhere. When the Taliban, consisting of the most devout among the former mujahedin and aided by Pakistan, seized Kabul and Afghanistan’s second city Kandahar in 1996 after a two-year campaign, they declared themselves an Islamic Emirate and launched a harsh sharia-based rule. They also welcomed the return of the Afghan Arab Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda co-Islamists.

Unwinnable – The Way It Was Fought

U.S. troops evacuating one of their wounded soldiers from the battlefield in Afghanistan.

U.S. troops evacuating one of their wounded soldiers from the battlefield in Afghanistan.

No one possessed the clairvoyance to foresee how these seeds, planted in 1979 at the height of the global Cold War, would, as Bruce Hoffman reminded us in his recent commentary, bear the poison fruit of terrorism and realize bin Laden’s visionary stratagem when he attacked the “Far Enemy” on 9/11. It was equally inconceivable in 2001 that the second U.S. intervention in Afghanistan would flounder, drag dozens of coalition members along with it, and perpetuate another 20 years of the Afghan tragedy. This sum of unimagined contingencies, so clear looking backward, should not obscure the central problem: we – especially those among us in positions of authority – should have known better. This is where comparison with El Salvador lends weight, suggesting that our retrospective notions of forever war and predetermined strategic failure need a modification: Afghanistan was unwinnable – the way it was fought.

It started out well enough. Operation Enduring Freedom and the invasion of Afghanistan began on October 7, 2001, with a just cause and clear aims: destroy Al Qaeda, which had attacked the United States on 9/11, and overthrow the Islamic Emirate, which had hosted them. The strategy was innovative and coherent: small numbers of CIA paramilitary operatives, along with U.S. and allied Special Operations Forces, directing air power armed with precision-guided munitions, supported Afghan allies in the North and South who by early December routed Al Qaeda and the Taliban. As Stephen Biddle first detailed, these unconventional means achieved conventional ends quickly and at relatively low cost.

To achieve full strategic success, military defeat of the Taliban required complementary political-diplomatic action. As operations proceeded on the ground, representatives of regional states and other members of the international community led by the United States convened with a multi-ethnic and multi-factional array of Afghans under UN auspices in Bonn, Germany. The State Department’s premier troubleshooter Jim Dobbins recounted how, in at times dramatic negotiations, they drew up a road map to reconstitute Afghanistan as an Islamic republic and endorsed Hamid Karzai as its interim president.

After this the way was lost. The campaign against the Islamic Emirate was culminating in early December when U.S. SOF and Afghan militia pursued Al Qaeda and Taliban forces holed up in the Tora Bora mountains near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The battle wound down in mid-December, but significant evidence emerged that reluctance to concentrate U.S. forces at Tora Bora had allowed Osama bin Laden to escape across the border and thereby failed achieve what would have been a symbolically defining objective. In March 2002, around 2,000 coalition troops led by the U.S. 10th Mountain Division conducted Operation Anaconda, the first major battle of the war, in the remote, cold, and high altitude Shah-i-Khot Valley of eastern Afghanistan. Although the operation destroyed the final resisting concentrations of Al Qaeda and Taliban, what had been planned as a lightning raid supported by high-tech munitions and drones turned into a difficult, protracted battle that foreshadowed the challenges and frustrations of fighting an elusive and determined enemy in the extremely difficult conditions of Afghanistan.

On the political side, consensus achieved through traditional loya jirga consultations, a legitimate institution in Afghanistan’s tribal and multi-ethnic society, paired poorly with the new form of government, which combined democratic elections, for which there was no historical basis, with a hyper-centralized state under a quasi-monarchical president. This mash-up would remain the forum for intractable friction as relations between President Karzai, competing Afghan political clans, and his American patrons frayed.

Conditions Worsened, The System Worked

Conditions subsequently worsened. That intervening in Afghanistan meant wrestling with intractable problems was a given, but primary fault lay with the strategic behavior of the United States. Under a guise of national interest and rational calculus, fear and passion drove the Global War on Terrorism, misconceived as an existential fight of good versus evil. In this early phase, with Americans rallying to avenge 9/11, the George W. Bush administration funneled national purpose into a grand strategy of counterterrorism and led the international community creeping into not only one but two quagmires, overconfident, inconsistent, and unaware. Even before the Afghan war had finished its first phase, Vice President Cheney and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, with Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz as intellectual architect, were setting a grander stage with the plan to invade Iraq, overthrow Saddam Hussein, and bring democracy to the Middle East. The decision reduced Afghanistan, the job only half-completed, to a secondary theater and compounded the folly.

The system worked, or at least it appeared to. In Afghanistan, the Bush administration was fixed on killing and capturing terrorists, and initially disdained so-called nation-building as a job for lesser powers. British Prime Minister Tony Blair aspired to lead with larger purpose, and attempted in his way to merge military and political strategies. He convinced NATO allies to invoke the Chapter 5 collective defense clause for the first time ever, oddly as far from the vital European center as imaginable. NATO countries and other nations signed up to take charge of territory and tasks, launching Provincial Reconstruction Teams to conduct armed development. Dragged reluctantly into it, the Bush White House acquiesced to investing in these wider undertakings.

Afghan women voting for the first time in the history of their country.

Afghan women voting for the first time in the history of their country.

True to its orientation, as the U.S. military went to war and led its partners into action, warfighting took precedence. Individual coalition members, each with their own “caveats,” put troops on ground-hog-day rotation schedules. There were two parallel command structure, Operation Enduring Freedom to fight the Global War on Terror, and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to conduct the remaining missions. This institutional dimension of strategy added disconnects that multiplied the complexities of Afghanistan.

There was another problem. Al Qaeda was defeated, with its remnants on the run from Afghanistan. The aftermath of overthrowing the Taliban Emirate now demanded war termination and stabilization. But bringing order to Afghanistan conflicted with hunting terrorists. That left foreign forces searching for combat. Taliban became the residual target. At the Bonn conference in December 2001, when Afghans proposed to include Taliban representatives vetted for their willingness to reconcile, the Bush administration summarily vetoed the idea. Seasoned UN negotiator Lakhdar Brahimi would later call this hasty decision, “the original sin.”

Accidental Guerrillas, Accidental Counterinsurgents

Instead, U.S. and other international troops turned to manhunting Taliban, supported by ample air power and assisted with mixed enthusiasm and motives by Afghan security forces, warlords, and militias. When captured instead of killed, alleged Taliban went to prison in Kandahar, Bagram Air Base, and Guantanamo. While rooting out fighters in the corners of Pashtun tribal lands, the first civilian casualty incidents occurred. They included serial bombings of wedding parties and government delegations, and were the source of tens of thousands of collateral deaths. Even though the Taliban and its associates, particularly the Haqqani Group based in Pakistan’s North Waziristan, intentionally caused even more mayhem, popular outrage and grievance grew, and so did the insurgency. David Kilcullen coined a fitting aphorism: Afghans were accidental guerrillas, fighting foreign troops because they happened to be in their space. The same was true in reverse: the United States and its coalition partners became accidental counterinsurgents, fighting the Taliban because they had supported Al Qaeda that got into our space when they attacked the U.S. on 9/11. Viewed in this mirror, war against the Taliban literally was an accident.

What, exactly, was fighting the Taliban expected to achieve? One reason the war became so open-ended was because the aims were fuzzy, intended somehow to build a stable and democratic Afghanistan by defeating the insurgents, even though they presented no direct threat to the United States and its partners. Neither was it clear how ends nor means matched. From these origins in the early years, what passed for strategy throughout the rest of the Afghan war was essentially reactive. Despite its preponderance of military power, ISAF held the initiative only temporarily and was never poised to “win,” whatever that may have meant.

In truth, for the better part of two decades, Afghanistan was an economy of force operation, configured to manage the war at the lowest possible cost, yet on the assumption that superior coalition combat power would be sufficient for success. Realization that there were limits to the utility of force in “war among the people” sunk in, but, with exception of Special Forces, it came slowly and very late. In 2006, the Taliban, operating on their home ground in Kandahar Province, mauled troops under Canadian command in the largest combat operation Canada had experienced since the Korean War. It was evident that the insurgency had revived, with Pakistan’s complicity, but it took another three years, with an intervening presidential election and nearly a further year of deliberation, before the United States fully reassessed its strategy.

As the level of effort began to ramp up in 2009, General Stanley McChrystal issued his ISAF Commander’s Counterinsurgency Guidance. The core message, based on “McChrystal’s math,” which his fellow SOF terrorist fighters already understood, was that attrition does not work, because killing and capturing merely creates more insurgents. When General David Petraeus replaced him in 2010 after presiding over the successful surge in Iraq and publication of the much-commented new counterinsurgency doctrine in Field Manual 3-24 , the mission priority in Afghanistan shifted to “protecting the population.” President Obama had announced in December 2009, to no surprise, that the U.S. would go really big.  The surge would bring 150,000 combined U.S. and coalition troops to Afghanistan, along with unprecedented assistance and declared intent of increasing Afghan security forces to 400,000. Not only was this escalation patently unsustainable, but Obama also deferred to domestic politics and contradicted strategic logic by declaring in advance the surge would end in 18 months. The Taliban knew they would suffer, but merely had to wait for the preordained drawdown to follow, which they did.

Just as critically, sheer complexity proved well beyond U.S. capability. Myriad contradictions lingered unmanaged. At the core of the state-building project, Afghan politics never consolidated and required frequent U.S. crisis brokering. Lavish foreign economic aid left the country a rentier state and fed rampant corruption. Counternarcotics and counterinsurgency operations proceeded at cross-purposes, while illegal opium production remained the country’s second largest source of revenue, a portion of it filling Taliban coffers. The U.S. never did find a way to rein in the support and sanctuary its putative ally Pakistan provided for the Taliban. Despite the doctrinal dictates of FM 3-24, military predominance persisted, for example, in an approach to armed economic aid that regarded “money as a weapons system,” relegation of political considerations to secondary status in planning and operations, and most critically, an insurmountable lack of civilian capacity and authority. In the absence of unity of command, unity effort hinged on personal relations between ISAF commanders and U.S. Ambassadors, while integrated civil-military planning and organization remained elusive. For much of this time and for many who served, it was clear that the U.S.-led effort had come to resemble the intractable complexities of Afghanistan itself. As White House Afghanistan czar Lieutenant General Doug Lute admitted to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), “We didn’t have the foggiest notion what we were undertaking.”

The United States in Afghanistan never did overcome the course initially set under the George W. Bush administration. Three presidents in a row – Bush, Obama, and Trump – suppressed their reluctance and chose to persevere. When it came to the long flirtation with negotiations, the U.S. never acknowledged it was losing, or at least fatigued with not winning. The agreement with the Taliban that Trump approved established an alibi for exit, and having excluded the Afghan government, made no pretense that peace was at hand. It is no wonder that President Biden, who had been skeptical and outspoken as Obama’s Vice President, opted to get the troops out.

Afghanistan, El Salvador, and Vietnam

The Afghanistan Green Movement’s National Day for Anti-Corruption Protest.

The Afghanistan Green Movement’s National Day for Anti-Corruption Protest.

Although the catalogue of parallels between El Salvador and Afghanistan is intriguing, there are two crucial distinctions that distinguish between success and failure:

The first difference is the presence of U.S. combat forces on the ground in Afghanistan, where there were none in El Salvador. This key to success kept means sustainably aligned to ends. In El Salvador, three U.S. administrations – Carter, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush – pursued a policy and strategy that adhered to the consistency of containment throughout the Cold War. Here, the impact of strategic failure in another war must be taken into account. The last U.S. combat troops left Vietnam with the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1973. El Salvador became a front burner crisis less than five years after the fall of Saigon in 1975, and the American tragedy in Vietnam cast a dark shadow. The U.S. military had turned its attention away from counterinsurgency in the Third World to refocus on major war in Europe, while aversion to U.S. casualties made the notion of sending combat troops into another quagmire anathema. Despite the Cold War justification, helping to defend a government implicated in horrendous human rights violations added great moral distaste to intervention in El Salvador. It was a political imperative that military assistance remain indirect and at the lowest possible level of cost and risk. To secure congressional support, in 1981 the Reagan administration agreed to a 55-man limit on Special Forces trainers and to prohibit them from serving as combat advisors. Many feared that Ronald Reagan, in his heart, wanted to send in the Marines. So sensitive was the issue that in Reagan’s first television interview as president on March 3, 1981, Walter Cronkite’s first question was whether there was a parallel between El Salvador and Vietnam. In a lengthy exchange, Reagan carefully reassured the American people that he saw “no likelihood us going in with fighting forces.”

The second important contrast between Afghanistan and El Salvador was a clear-eyed political-military plan of action that did not shy away from state-building.  Small COIN (counterinsurgency) was more than a matter of keeping U.S. boots off the ground. As an explicit strategy, economy of force minimized risk, was sustainable, and relied on comparative advantages – the fact that the United States was the predominant great power in its Central American sphere of interest and that the deeply anti-communist Salvadoran majority had rejected Marxist-Leninist revolution. The strategy combined “reform with repression.” Its main elements combined building a viable counterinsurgency force, improving respect for human rights, and securing withdrawal of the Armed Forces from politics, with transition to democracy and economic liberalization. Organizationally, while bureaucratic politics in Washington remained characteristically divisive,  cooperation between strong U.S. chiefs of mission on the ground in El Salvador and regional military commanders at Southern Command in Panama ensured effective civil-military integration.

The relationship between the United States and El Salvador was effectively a joint venture. The U.S. found reliable partners, initially in Christian Democrat President Napoleon Duarte, and later in ARENA, a rightist party, whose mercurial leader, Roberto D’Aubiusson, was a former military officer associated with anti-communist Death Squads, but who ultimately conformed to democratic practices. Successive elections attracted strong popular turnouts, even in areas contested by guerrillas. Within several years, democracy had roughly consolidated. U.S. and Salvadoran partners retained distinct identities and were not always aligned; friction frequently hampered the project. The United States intervened more than once to derail rightist coup- plotting, infighting and corruption scandals ruined the PDC, and massacres and assassinations by the Salvadoran security forces put U.S. support in jeopardy. Nevertheless, the larger imperative of opposing Soviet and Cuban influence held the two together.

The war had become entrenched in stalemate when negotiations got underway in 1987, after several false starts. They took place directly between the FMLN insurgents and the Salvadoran government, with Mexico as host, the U.S. and regional states in support, and UN participation. It took nearly five years to reach an agreement that definitively ended the war. After signing the Peace Accords in 1992, the former revolutionaries of the FMLN filled a political void and alternated government with ARENA in succeeding elections. From its origins in 1979, the joint venture is now over four decades old, although current President Bukele appears to be putting democracy in jeopardy. Still, judged not only by its outcome but its endurance, El Salvador was a success.

Afghanistan, What If?

Could Afghanistan have been a success as well? Naturally, a purely speculative counterfactual report would court skepticism and be of little value. In the case of Afghanistan, however, a strong body of evidence encompasses actions that did take place along with options considered for decision but rejected.

Here, we return to the origins and aftermath of overthrowing the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in December 2001. The U.S.-led offensive defeated the Taliban quickly and decisively. But beyond signaling the fall of the Emirate when they abandoned Kabul, there was no precise culminating point of victory. Mullah Omar, Emir al-Mu’minin, the Taliban’s commander of the faithful, did not surrender on the battlefield, but rather fled from Kandahar to Pakistan on the back of a motorcycle, or perhaps took refuge in the desert vastness in his native Zabul Province. Osama bin Laden escaped, and it took two battles, Tora Bora and Operation Anaconda, to rout Taliban and Al Qaeda stalwarts who had continued to resist.

War termination was messy and incomplete. In the confusion, compounded by the fierce heat of avenging 9/11, something else was happening. Thousands of Taliban, ranging from government ministers to young village recruits, had ceased fighting. Pashtun commanders and tribal councils began approaching Afghans associated with the government not to surrender, but to negotiate and swear fealty to the newly legitimate authorities. Like tribal warfare elsewhere and timeless, this was in accordance with the Afghan way of war. With Hamid Karzai’s approval, after an oath-taking ceremony, they would be welcome to resettle in their home communities, keep their AK-47s for protection, enjoy a stipend, and, if necessary, receive help getting their families back from Pakistan. Afghan officials were fully aware of Pakistan’s support for the Taliban and believed that once dispersed to their communities across Southern and Eastern Afghanistan, it would be difficult for them to reconstitute, even if some of the hardcore leaders remained on the other side of the border and would enjoy continuing sponsorship from the ISI intelligence service. More formally, at the conference in Bonn, some Afghans had thought it entirely prudent to admit acceptable Taliban representatives to the table. After all, newly appointed Afghan leader Hamid Karzai was himself a Southern Pashtun aristocrat who possessed traditional legitimacy as a Popalzai tribal leader, and had even served the Emirate as deputy UN representative, even though Taliban members had assassinated his father in 1999.

But these efforts did not prosper. U.S. leaders were simply unprepared to listen and to comprehend that these Afghans knew that reconciliation after victory was the way to terminate the war and held the best chance of bringing order to Afghanistan. Instead, CIA and SOF teams, along with willing Afghan partners, hunted erstwhile Taliban, killing or capturing many who were prepared to negotiate. Many such accounts are well substantiated, for example, in the mordantly titled Punishment of Virtue by Sarah Chayes and No Good Men Among the Living by Anand Gopal. (I received versions while based in Kandahar.)

The upshot is that had this course of action been adopted at the outset, keeping foreign troops out of combat, an entirely different set of strategic circumstances may very well have evolved. As reprehensible as the Taliban were, they had been defeated, and a large majority of the Afghan people would mobilize to prevent them from returning to power. They were not the enemy, Al Qaeda was. Even while counterterrorist operations continued, the U.S. and its allies could have served as an anchor focused on restoring order, training and assisting Afghan security forces at a much smaller level, say a sustainable level of 50,000, and standing in the way of interference from Pakistan. Instead, it was the worst of both worlds. Just as Clausewitz observed, “in war too small an effort can result not just in failure, but in positive harm,” the same is true of excessive force improperly applied.

Responsibility lies with key U.S. decision-makers who believed they were masters of a revolution in military affairs endowed with unlimited power that allowed them to ignore the dictates of strategy and pursue unbounded ambition. The panic of 9/11 and cognitive blindness, combined with opening a new theater in Iraq before the job in Afghanistan was finished, explains but does not excuse this folly. They should have known better. Unconstrained by the political imperative that ruled in El Salvador, and like U.S. leaders who blithely led the nation to war into Vietnam, as David Halberstam famously wrote, “They were brilliant, and they were fools.”

Where parallels between the strategic failures in Afghanistan and Vietnam are conspicuous and telling, the differences between Afghanistan and El Salvador, the counterinsurgency war that followed Vietnam, are less obvious but uniquely compelling. In Afghanistan, war against the Taliban was unnecessary, notwithstanding the urgency of combatting terrorism. Small COIN on the El Salvador model, which embraced state-building while keeping U.S. troops out of combat, should have been worth a try. Now we are going back to the future of war and great power competition, but the wars we have actually fought, Afghanistan and El Salvador among them, still hold many hard lessons. One above all may prove most worth learning: If you find yourself fighting Big COIN, it is too late.

TODD GREENTREE is a former U.S. Foreign Service Officer, where he served as a political-military officer in five conflicts, including El Salvador and Afghanistan. He is a member of the Changing Character of War Centre at Oxford University and teaches in the Global and National Security Policy Institute at the University of New Mexico. He was previously professor of Strategy and Policy at the U.S. Naval War College and a Visiting Scholar in the Merrill Center for Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. His publications include Crossroads of Intervention: Insurgency and Counterinsurgency Lessons from Central America, as well as numerous articles on Afghanistan in The Journal of Strategic Studies, War on The Rocks, and elsewhere.

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