Apply what we learned from Iraq to Afghanistan

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Vice-Admiral Kevin Donegan Former Commander, U.S. 5th Fleet, 32-Nation Combined Maritime Forces and Director of PAHO at CENTCOM

Vice Admiral Kevin Donegan, USN (retired), served as the Commander of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet and the Commander of the Combined Maritime Forces of the 32 Nations in the Middle East. In these roles, he led teams that planned and executed joint and combined combat, counterterrorism and counter-piracy operations at sea and in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Yemen.

EXPERT POINT OF VIEW – In December 2011, I was in a small American compound near Baghdad discussing with the local leaders of one of our intelligence services options to mitigate the loss of technical and human intelligence as the American military forces were reduced to zero in Iraq. Late at night, after my full day meetings were over, I called my boss, General Jim Mattis, then Commander of US Central Command (CENTCOM). He had just attended another session with the leaders in Washington and his words still remain with me today: “Small, we gave our best military advice, but the president said very clearly “zero means zero. ‘ Simply put, General Mattis was saying that no matter what the intelligence services need, or what they want us to do or what we should be doing, our US military will go to zero in Iraq. The decision was made, “come back to Tampa.”

At the time, I was the director of operations for CENTCOM and our team was responsible for supporting the plan to reduce all US military forces from their peak of over 100,000 to zero at the end of December. On the orders of the President, General Lloyd Austin successfully carried out the complex operation of withdrawing American forces to zero before the end of the year, including withdrawing all our military equipment and systematically closing all our bases and before- posts.

As history has shown, this decision, while well executed, was wrong, but I am not going to blame it on a single presidential administration. This decision, like today’s in Afghanistan, was first negotiated by the previous administration and has been implemented by the current one. Having said that, there was a lot of criticism to be made, including for the Iraqi leadership who did not want to negotiate a status of forces agreement that was necessary to protect our soldiers. In the end, keeping American troops there would have been difficult, there would have been political fallout and we should have adjusted our schedule, but it shouldn’t have mattered. Our American leadership must always prioritize what is in our national interest, even when it is difficult; after all “we know how to do it hard”.

Now that we watch this debacle unfold in our exit from Afghanistan, what lessons learned from Iraq should we apply today and is there still time? There are lessons learned from Iraq that are applicable in Afghanistan because even though history does not repeat itself it certainly rhymes a lot and yes there is still time.

First, why is the American presence so important? This answer is simple, but it is not just a question of numbers, it is also a question of leadership and commitment of the United States. Media and military analysts often look at the number of troops or equipment because it’s an easy measure, but that number alone misses a key point: the influence of the United States. is much larger. Regardless of all the talk about growing competition from the great powers and the shift of the United States from a single world power to a more multipolar world, the leadership and influence of the United States will continue to be much broader. than the number of troops present. Our stated or implied commitment and presence continue to carry far greater weight than numbers and even greater impact if we do the hard work of leadership and build a grouping of other nations to join us. We don’t need to look any further than the past few weeks in Afghanistan to see this happen again.

The Taliban now control most of Afghanistan, including the capital; the only difference from a few months ago is that we pulled 3,500 American troops and the coalition of nations that supported what we were doing. These soldiers were not engaged in direct combat operations against the Taliban, they carried out a number of other missions, but they were also a symbol of the leadership and commitment of the United States. Despite the Afghan government’s history of corruption and the fact that over time our declared mission in Afghanistan has grown and wandered, ultimately our presence, these 3,500 troops, has helped keep the Taliban at bay. . This has allowed us to have a base from which to continue to gather intelligence and, most importantly, prevent the resurgence of al Qaeda or the rise of another global terrorist network.

What lesson should we learn from Iraq and apply to Afghanistan? In the vacuum of an Iraq without an American presence, the birth of the Islamic State was facilitated. We have all seen the results go to zero: the horrific acts of terrorism by ISIS, the killing of innocent people across Europe, their merciless killings and mutilations of those who do not agree with their beliefs, the induction of women into sexual slavery and the senseless destruction of artifacts. As a result, the United States, with the support of a coalition of over 60 nations, has had to return and spend a precious national treasure in lives and resources to hunt down and destroy ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Why? Lacking a small number of American forces on the ground. To put that into perspective, at the time in Iraq, we were proposing to keep about 5,000 troops in the field.

Where are we now in Afghanistan? We made some significant mistakes in our withdrawal, which I don’t need to go into in detail, and we had to send back troops before because we were working to hit numbers on a made-up timeline that had nothing to do with the conditions on. field.

What should we do now? We cannot go back and take Afghanistan back from the Taliban, but neither must we turn our backs on doing the right thing. The first step is obvious and ongoing: we must bring our citizens out wherever they are in the country, as well as those who have helped us in our mission. Doing less will not be forgotten in future conflicts when we need the help of local people or opposition groups.

We cannot wait until we have completed this mission to move on to the next steps. We also need to work now to find a way to have a presence in the Afghanistan / Pakistan region and we need to lead and influence in support of our national interests. It will also be very difficult – there are no alternative base options nearby and there is no ready-made coalition to lead – but we have options and they far outweigh the alternative. . If we do nothing, it will provide leeway for the next terrorist network to rise up, determined to attack the West. It is a certainty that will only be a matter of time.

What should our plan be? We have to work with other countries, starting with NATO countries and other allies. We did not involve them in this withdrawal decision or in this timeline, so it is time to admit our mistake and rebuild a coalition. We will have to start small because we have lost confidence, but it will grow once everyone sees that we are fully engaged.


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Understand that Pakistan will have to be part of the solution. Yes, it is difficult for the United States to work with Pakistan, but let us not forget that their nuclear weapons must remain controlled. It is in their interests and ours to prevent terrorist networks like al-Qaeda from reappearing in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

Other nations can and will help. At the height of the wave in Afghanistan, we sometimes lost our access to the main land and air supply line through Pakistan. We then used our American influence to build a northern supply distribution network from scratch using negotiated access to several other countries. A similar effort working with the same sense of urgency will now be needed to ensure that we have the presence we need in the Afghanistan / Pakistan region. Some of these adjacent countries are now under the influence of Russia, so that will also be hard work and will take time.

Continue to strengthen our alliances and partnerships in Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, so that these basic options remain or can be extended. We must also seek to work with Russia and China. There is common ground with each, but again, it will not be easy and will take time. The lesson we have learned is that the alternative of not taking these steps will be a much larger commitment of the national treasury and resources down the road.

In conclusion, the American presence counts and when combined with the leadership and commitment of the United States, it has a much greater strategic impact. This holds true even in the face of everything we see unfolding in the news today. We must now join our allies and other partners and guide them in applying the lessons we have learned from goal zero in Iraq; it is in our national interest to do so.

This article by Cipher Brief Expert Vice-Admiral Kevin Donegan (Retired) was first published by MEI


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