On September 24, 2009, at a Marine Corps conference on counterinsurgency, a participant asked David Petraeus about the similarities between the wars in Afghanistan and Vietnam.
“There are some similarities,” said Petraeus. “But I think the biggest lesson of Vietnam is to not be a prisoner of lessons you may have learned.”
How ironic. Perhaps the questioner would have done better to ask Petraeus about the similarities between the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And perhaps Petraeus should have applied his logic to those two wars.
We tried the same strategy in both wars – add an obviously insufficient number of troops to the war and hope things work out. In both cases, we called this strategy “the surge.” But the question is, why did the strategy appear to work in Iraq?
In Iraq, it appears to me that Europe backed the insurgents and so appeasing Europe was actually the key to winning that war. Of course, as part of that appeasement, we added an insignificant number of troops to the war to make it look like all we needed to do was to add some more troops to win the war. This is what Europe wanted, as Europe wants the American public to believe that military interventions work and are great and need to happen more often (e.g. consider Rwanda, Bosnia, Libya, etc.).
Assuming that Europe also backs the insurgents in Afghanistan, another surge there should work again, right? Well…there’s one problem with that idea. The fact is Europe must be appeased before it would allow the surge to succeed. It must get something first. During the surge in Iraq, the America made a decisive pivot away from East Asia and towards Europe and East Asia played along.
But would America get East Asia to play along again in the war in Afghanistan? It certainly doesn’t look like it. In fact, it looks like the “success” in Iraq set up America – and Europe – for an incredible failure in Afghanistan. Simply doing the same thing over and over again makes you predictable. Perhaps Petraeus should have said, “I think the biggest lesson of history is not to be a prisoner of lessons you may have learned.”