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Congressman John Campbell

Lessons Learned from Afghanistan

The world is an unstable place. If this seemed at doubt even a few years ago, it certainly is no longer. Some instability is a result of violence fueled by radical religious views or by aggression born of extremist ideology. Some of it is caused by long-standing ethnic conflicts or, as we are seeing in Ukraine, by the centuries-old desire of some to conquer neighboring countries simply because they are more powerful and want to expand their territorial footprint for any number of reasons.

In Washington, it seems as though there are only two reactions to all of this. One choice is to intervene everywhere. The other is to intervene nowhere. I think both of these strategic frameworks are equally flawed. To intervene everywhere will overwhelm both our military and financial resources, not to mention potentially lead to unrest at home as a result of the inabilty to accomplish our desired goals. To intervene nowhere assumes that the conflict and violence across the globe will never reach a point where it directly threatens us, which the lessons of history belie.

The great question, of course, is when do we intervene and when don’t we? And, how far should we go when we do choose to get involved in a theater somewhere?

I attach below excerpts from a letter I received from a U.S. Army officer presently serving in Afghanistan. I have been personally acquainted with this officer for some time now. I cannot reveal his identity due to military rules about soldiers serving in combat zones. He sent me this letter unsolicited. I think it very articulately lays out some guidance as to the sorts of things we can do overseas and the sorts of things we can’t. Given that this is from someone currently serving on the front lines of a U.S. engagement overseas, it should be thoughtfully considered.

I’m not offering my own conclusions here. But, hopefully providing some fodder to get us all thinking about how we best defend this nation’s interests in the future.

The excerpts that appear below were taken from an August 2014 personal letter sent to me by a U.S. Army officer serving in Afghanistan – rank and name intentionally withheld. I have taken the liberty of emphasizing certain lines by placing them in bold text.

“Today marks the 200th day since my arrival in Afghanistan.  The experience has been fascinating, sometimes exhilarating, other times sobering, always hard-hitting.  I’ve had cause to travel out to outlying Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) by Blackhawk a few times now and each time I have been impressed by the fascinating variance in the landscape here – ice-etched mountain ranges, arid plateaus, rolling sand dunes, and fertile valleys fed by broad rivers all find dramatic representation in this relatively small corner of the globe.   The sights of human habitation are just as striking.  It all appears as if from Biblical times – villages comprised of densely clustered mud qalats are nestled into isolated valleys, sheepherders graze flocks on vast plains, and simple tents of vagrant hunters dot ridgelines deep in the mountains.  From above, the area looks almost inviting – almost.  Action is still pretty kinetic, and the historical trouble spots remain so.  The workday is long and weekends just do not exist; but, I am blessed with wonderful colleagues.  The stories about friendships formed in wartime have proven true.

If you’ll permit me, I’d like to share a few thoughts about the American mission in Afghanistan.  The Greeks had a word – phronesis – to describe the special kind of practical wisdom one can acquire only through experience, and I like to think the seven plus months I have now been here have afforded me some phronetic understanding of this place and our nation’s mission within it. I have also been reading just about anything I can get my hands on about the conflict and the long history of western adventures here.  The effect of these readings coupled with my time in theatre has led me to recognize a simple yet important truth, and I hope it is a truth we bear in mind in future foreign endeavors.  I have come to recognize that there is a very real difference between what we can fight for and what we must accept.  One of the books I’ve read, written by a former Rhodes Scholar turned Navy Seal entitled The Heart and the Fist, touches on this topic quite perceptively.  He writes that we can (and should) fight for focused military objectives (i.e. denying al Qaeda the ability to orchestrate attacks again against our nation), but we must also accept that anything beyond a focused military objective (i.e. building a modern functioning republic among a people with no experience or education in the craft) is beyond our reach.  There is a profound difference between change that we can catalyze through the application of force and change that must be organically developed over time.

Several times now, I have sat through meticulously prepared briefings put on by well-intentioned officers and State Department officials with PowerPoint slides neatly strategizing our way to “build a strong Afghan civil society.”  Phronesis, however, recognizes there are simply some things – like societal values, like the rule of law, like individual character – that cannot be achieved through this kind of planning.  The virtues of a civil society, as identified by de Tocqueville, are “habits of the heart.”  They are like a delicate plant, slow to take root and even slower to mature once firmly in the ground.  No manner of strategy or leadership – however exceptional – can defy the truth that virtue is a matter of the heart and can only come about through the fulcrum of time.  Little by little, we can hope for the notions of modern civil society to spread in Afghanistan, for minds to be awakened, but that is decades if not centuries away for this rugged and brutal place.  The amount of troops, diplomats, scholars, and contractors needed to educate the people here while simultaneously battling the strong resistance to change would be of a magnitude greater anything we have even come close to conceiving.  We would have to blanket this country with soldiers and aid workers, integrate ourselves into every little village, form close knit relationships with all, and work hand in hand for years, decades, perhaps longer to realize any sustainable gainsThe sober reality is that Afghanistan, with or without us, will be a place of harshness for the foreseeable future.

I heard a story before arriving here of an American patrol in the early years of our fight that encapsulates this theme quite succinctly.  The American patrol had captured a Taliban fighter after a bitter engagement near the nebulous eastern border with Pakistan.  In an attempt to garner some intelligence, the platoon leader began to question the fighter, but he defiantly ignored all questions, choosing instead to sit stoically with his head down, not making any eye contact.  When the platoon leader demanded he look up, the fighter slowly complied connecting his eyes with the officers.  The platoon leader again asked him for information.  Never breaking eye contact, the fighter stared before replying with a singular statement.  In his native Dari, the fighter said, “You may be able to defeat us militarily, but you will never defeat our poverty.”  A lot of wisdom is packed into that terse reply, and I say we take that Taliban fighter at his word.

Let us defeat [the enemy] where we can and steer clear of the unobtainable.  Let us ensure al Qaeda is never able to orchestrate an attack against our nation again. Let us remain committed to having well-trained commando forces with well-placed intelligence sources and on-going surveillance seek out and hunt any other militants bent on bringing harm upon our nation.  We need not have a cumbersome conventional military force, tens of thousands of contractors nor have to call upon the assistance of our NATO allies to accomplish that definable and achievable aim.  Our original and essential purpose for coming to Afghanistan will be met: Our nation will be protected from any future al Qaeda-led attacks.”

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