Experts: Self-Critical Pentagon Report Demonstrates Limits of Military Action

Soldier with Troop B, 1st Squadron, 113th Cavalry Regiment, Task Force Redhorse scans a nearby hilltop during a search of the Qual-e Jala village, Afghanistan. (The U.S. Army/Flickr)

On June 7, Inside the Pentagon published a draft version (accessible only with trial or regular subscription) of a critical review by the Pentagon of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq in the past decade. The 40-page draft report, Decade of War: Enduring Lessons from the Past Decade of Operations, is the first part of a multi-volume study by the Joint and Coalition Operational Analysis (JCOA) office that lays out 11 overarching lessons for the Joint Staff based on a review of 46 studies the JCOA office conducted between 2003 and 2012.

The self-critical report admits that a "failure to recognize, acknowledge, and accurately define the operational environment led to a mismatch between forces, capabilities, missions, and goals." Asia Blog posed questions about the report to Asia Society Associate Fellow Thomas Gouttierre, Director of the University of Nebraska at Omaha's Center for Afghanistan Studies and Asia, and Asia Society Senior Advisor Hassan Abbas, Professor of International Security Studies at National Defense University's College of International Security Affairs.

What are the implications of this Pentagon report for the future of Afghanistan as international forces begin to withdraw?

Abbas: "Acceptance of mistakes is a courageous act, but the critical question here for the U.S. is how to plan the withdrawal in a way that prospects of [a] Taliban resurgence and civil war are defeated."

Gouttierre: "I think the implications are substantial, because it means going forward we need to be mindful of the information that will be available in more open and publicly visible means.

"As the report said, the situation truly did lead to a mismatch between forces, capabilities, missions and goals, which was something in my constant trips back and forth that was glaringly obvious. We were top-heavy in our presence there in terms of the so-called 'support services.' We had too many people who were there on short-term lucrative contracts that weren't really able to deliver much of substance. The only individuals who were really profiting by these efforts were the contractors — the companies, which were American — and it wasn't really the bedrock foundation we needed to make our military presence effective."

Do you believe that a lesson could be applied not just in fighting future wars but also in avoiding conflicts with other countries in the region such as Iran and Pakistan?

Abbas: "I think the most important lesson in this context is the need for better coordination of U.S. military and civilian efforts. Military action can defeat militants and terrorists but it is only through education and rule-of-law programs that nations can stabilize. Afghan capacity-building efforts will require continued support from the U.S. civilian side for a long duration.

"An important indirect lesson here is that large-scale military action should always be the very last option and it deserves recognition that a 'nation-building' and 'democracy promotion' agenda cannot be successfully pursued through military means."

Gouttierre: "A lesson should be applied in fighting similar future wars and also avoiding conflicts. I was so concerned with the way it appeared we were moving down the trail with Iran, and fortunately that seems to have been derailed.

"In terms of Pakistan, it's a very difficult situation. Nobody will say this, but we are in a sense at war with Pakistan. We went into Afghanistan because the Taliban refused to give up those who attacked us on 9/11. Pakistan is refusing to give up those same people, and so we are using drones and other kinds of tactics. Pakistan is unable to set aside its schizophrenia in dealing with Afghanistan in terms of its defense and foreign policy. It says one thing and does another, and tends to pass the buck. The U.S. is to some extent responsible for that because of our fickle approach to foreign policy in that region — we've never been consistent... But Pakistan is going to have to make a decision some day about whether it's going to join the rest of the world and take advantage of its considerable personnel and other resources to go through the same kind of economic and political development that its neighbor, India, enjoys.

"Whether or not we're going to be able to use this report to avoid conflicts I don’t know. I just hope we’re going to learn to better use our resources. I'm not sanguine about that because it is very difficult to reform a military-industrial-intelligence complex as inter-tangled and as massive as we have now."

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Nadia Rasul is an Asia Blog Contributor. She is a human rights activist, and a media, technology and global politics enthusiast.