Is America Winning to Lose in Afghanistan?
The United States has experienced a troubled history with a variety of foreign interventions since achieving definitive victory in the Second World War. While the 1991 Persian Gulf War stands as a notable exception, the global power has intermittently found itself mired in long, bloody, and inconclusive engagements across the Asian continent. America’s ill-fated military involvements in Vietnam from 1962 to 1975 and in Iraq from 2003 to 201l, in particular, emerged as largely successful tactical efforts that later devolved into strategic catastrophes. While stark contrasts in landscape, political contexts, generational separation, and cultural meaning differentiate the conflicts, each reflected large military efforts where the client state proved fractious and weak following American withdraw. These failures may hold insights for the seemingly interminable—and troublingly similar—NATO campaign in Afghanistan.
Despite their occurrence in distinct international settings, the United States’ counterinsurgency wars in Indochina and Mesopotamia reflected key commonalities that challenged its tactics and strategies. First, each conflict required coalition ground, air and maritime forces to divide focus between high-intensity combat, stability operations, and security force assistance as they countered hybrid enemies and supported nation-building. Second, both host nations proved too internally divided and systemically corrupt to resist enemy incursions following an American withdrawal. While each engagement began differently—with gradual “mission creep” in Vietnam and sudden “shock and awe” in Iraq—both campaigns relied on a theory of victory that employs foreign military assistance to provide time and space for the host nation to achieve political and social stability.
The tactical commonalities seen in Vietnam, Iraq, and currently in Afghanistan centered on the difficulty of conducting expeditionary operations in complex and confusing environments. In Southeast Asia, American forces under Military Assistance Command-Vietnam used combined arms maneuver to overmatch the conventional Army of (North) Vietnam and guerilla Viet Cong forces while simultaneously advising and equipping the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam (ARVN). As stated by historian Graham A. Cosmas, this framework combined “attacks by regular forces against the enemy’s organized military units and logistical bases” with “other efforts to protect the villages, to uproot the Communist underground, and to reestablish the peasants’ allegiance to the Saigon government.”
This dichotomy of military choices—spanning a variety of high and low-intensity combat operations—occurred with similar complexity in Iraq. Beginning with a high-tempo, corps-sized invasion with armored forces in 2003, Operation Iraqi Freedom subsequently emphasized counter-insurgency tactics, political and economic development, and security force assistance programs while requiring intermittent offensives to clear entrenched insurgents from cities like Fallujah, Sadr City, and Mosul. This vacillation between “offense, defense, stability, and support operations,” as described by the U.S. Army Combat Studies Institute, created challenges reminiscent of those encountered in Vietnam several decades prior. The resulting dissonance catalyzed a tumultuous environment for American forces as they prosecuted a panoply of difficult, and sometimes self-defeating, military tasks.
A second commonality between the American wars in Indochina and Mesopotamia was the dismal nature of the outcomes for both the sponsor and client states. In Vietnam, the United States suffered almost 60,000 soldiers killed while the North and South Vietnamese peoples endured massive combatant and civilian casualties. However, though the Communists absorbed punishing allied attacks by ground, air, and sea forces throughout the war, they relied on a convincing anti-imperialism narrative to expand popular support and ultimately conquer South Vietnam with a rapid ground invasion in 1975. Just two years after American troops withdrew, the North achieved exactly what the U.S. intervention had aimed to prevent: a hostile Vietnam under an authoritarian regime diametrically opposed to United States’ interests.
If the American war in Southeast Asia resulted in unqualified strategic failure, the 2003 intervention in Iraq yielded a lesser, though equally dramatic, setback to U.S. strategic objectives in the Middle East. After eight years of military operations, during which over 4,500 American soldiers and over 100,000 Iraqis lost their lives, the United States withdrew its combat forces and left behind an ethnically fractured country and dramatically destabilized region. As explained by former U.S. Army general Daniel Bolger in Why We Lost, the effort ended with “a suspicious authoritarian regime running Baghdad under strong Iranian influence.” Then, echoing the Communist invasion and capture of Saigon in 1975, a terror faction called the Islamic State brazenly conquered vast swaths of northern and western Iraq in 2014—including the hard-won cities of Mosul and Ramadi—while erasing coalition gains and nullifying American sacrifice.
Despite differences in ideological rationales and scales of military investment, the ill-fated American campaigns in Indochina and Mesopotamia revealed that expensive counterinsurgency efforts, thought by advocates to be largely successful at the time, had failed to create cohesive and strong democratic nations. A combination of illegitimate governance, fractured cultures, economic retardation, and destabilizing interference by external powers—similar to problems now undermining Afghanistan—eventually crippled the fragile client states. The Vietnam and Iraq Wars, beginning and ending under controversial circumstances, now stand among the greatest foreign policy failures in American history.
Given the heavy costs of these conflicts, the United States should apply relevant insights to the protracted campaign in Afghanistan. While certainly unique to South Asia, the NATO “train, advise and assist” mission continues to grapple with familiar issues that include perceived regime illegitimacy, divisive tribal and ethnic politics, unsustainable security costs, and persistent corruption. The resilient and externally enabled Taliban insurgency simultaneously prevents the Afghan government from capitalizing on the massive NATO investment—now costing more than the Marshal Plan by some estimates—by revealing its inability to protect citizens. Similar to the factionalism that plagued Saigon and Baghdad, the divisiveness in Kabul persistently undermines progress towards crucial political reform.
The American theory of victory designed to remedy these issues centers on providing military assistance to allow the time and space necessary for Afghans to enact lasting political, security, economic, and social reforms. However, as demonstrated in Vietnam, Iraq, as well as in previous Russian experiences in Afghanistan, translating external security assistance into lasting societal transformation is problematic—and sometimes impossible. Given the United States’ dismal record in applying this transference in Southeast and Southwest Asia, the Afghan campaign should be assessed according to strategies informed by historical trends and realistic viability, as opposed to attractive but improbable outcomes. As argued by G. Stephen Lauer, a professor at the U.S. Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies, the unintended result is “wars that have no fundamental or achievable political aim—with the only option a continuing and bleeding military application for which no end appears.”
This means that any military approach, in concert with diplomatic engagement, must project political gains that are not superficial or transient. The critical transference of military success into political and social stability must be articulated with plausible, probable, and achievable options that bridge gaps between military operations and more expansive and complex social transformation. While it is relatively simple to identify attractive concepts like national reconciliation, successful elections, economic modernization, security force sustainability, and blocking of malign external influences as requisites for lasting Afghan stability, it is more challenging—both morally and intellectually—to accept realistic viability. The answers to these hard questions, especially when they run counter to command narratives and organizational cultures, must balance the cost of American investment against the likelihood of long-term strategic success.
Looking towards future interventions this century, America should learn from its disastrous setbacks in Vietnam and Iraq to formulate realistic strategies that balance compelling interests, moral and fiscal cost, and the probability of success. This includes not only applying a pragmatic theory of military, and political, victory in Afghanistan, but in other troubled regions where the United States may have vital reasons for investing taxpayer resources. While the U.S. military’s tactical achievements remain exemplary, its record of strategic failure with large-scale intervention suggests that no amount of firepower or gifted cash can offset regime illegitimacy and internal disunity. Campaigns that assume societal progress, in the absence of actual improvement, risk winning every tactical fight only to lose the larger contest.
Nathan Jennings is a NATO planner in Afghanistan. He is a U.S. Army Strategist who led armored forces in Iraq and taught history at the United States Military Academy at West Point. Jennings holds an MA in American History from the University of Texas at Austin, an MMAS from the School of Advanced Military Studies, and is the author of Riding for the Lone Star: Frontier Cavalry and the Texas Way of War, 1822-1865.
 Matthew Meuhlbauer and David Ulbrich, Ways of War: American Military History from the Colonial Era to the Twenty-First Century (New York: Routledge, 2014), 468-472, 506-513.
 Dale Andrade and James H. Willbanks,"CORDS/Phoenix: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Vietnam for the Future," Military Review (March-April 2006): 9-11.
 Graham Cosmas, The U.S. Army in Vietnam: MACV: The Joint Command in the Years of Escalation, 1962-1967 (Washington, DC: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 2006), 177.
 Donald Wright and Timothy Reece, ON POINT II: Transition to the New Campaign: The United States Army in Operation IRAQI FREEDOM, May 2003—January 2005 (Fort Leavenworth, KS: Combat Studies Institute Press, 2008), 3-4.
 James Willbanks, In Turning Victory Into Success: Military Operations After the Campaign, edited by Brian M. De Toy (Fort Leavenworth, KS: Combat Studies Institute Press, 2004), 163-164; Meuhlbauer, Ways of War, 479.
 Daniel Bolger, Why We Lost: A General's Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014), 435; Meuhlbauer, Ways of War, 514.
 Bolger, Why We Lost, 276.
 Peter Coy, “Afghanistan Has Cost the U.S. More Than the Marshall Plan,” Bloomberg Businessweek, July 31 2014.
 G. Stephen Lauer, “Blue Whales and Tiger Sharks: Politics, Policy, and the Military Operational Artist,” The Strategy Bridge, February 20, 2018.