Foreign Policy Blogs

Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria

Although far less known than Gen. David H. Petraeus, Lt. Col. John A. Nagl played a major role in developing the counterinsurgency strategy for Iraq. (Photo:

Although far less known than Gen. David H. Petraeus, Lt. Col. John A. Nagl played a major role in developing the counterinsurgency strategy for Iraq. (Photo:

Last week I asked, among other things, how people could expect outside intervention to bring peace and stability to Syria given the experience of Afghanistan and Iraq. That calls for some elaboration. There have been instances in which outside forces have brought stability to a postconflict situation. The successful instances tend not to attract fewer headlines than the failures. In many cases they involve combatants who are ready to end the fighting, even if some spoilers remain who try to undermine the peace settlement. The argument has been made, however, that the Afghan and Iraqi cases could have been handled better as well (keeping in mind, of course, that Iraq was not a postconflict situation, or even a conflict situation until we got there). Key elements in a better approach would have been: (a) greater effort to understand and tie into local culture, traditions, and power relationships rather than create an artificial administrative layer that is ignored by the locals, (b) a focus on establishing security for the population and reviving the economy (and don’t overdo; don’t try to impose a new fairer order on a foreign society that will resent it; don’t build fancy new industries when there are still landmines in farmers’ fields), and (c) timing.

The “surge” strategy introduced in Iraq by Gen. David Petraeus in 2007 and in Afghanistan by Gen. Stanley McChrystal in 2010 came much closer to these ideals than the preceding approaches in either country. The surge — never limited to a mere increase in the number of troops — focused in particular on establishing a permanent military presence in population centers, forging ties with local authorities and influentials, and protecting the local population from insurgents rather than previous approach of perpetually chasing insurgent bands, shooting places up, and then moving on and leaving the locals to their fate. One of the main problems with the surge was the timing. War had already been raging in Iraq for four years and in Afghanistan for nine years. In the very beginning, when the potential resistance was disrupted and confused, when a large part (although certainly not all) of the population was grateful for the removal of the old regime, that was the opportunity to establish a presence, impose order, revive economic opportunities, and encourage local representatives to build a new political order. After years of warfare, the local population was already jaded, frustrated, and resentful, and the U.S. population was ready to be rid of the problem as well.

My suspicion is that plenty of people in the U.S. government and military knew this — or at least suspected it — all along, but they also knew that a true, effective counterinsurgency operation would be laborious and time consuming. And the Pentagon does not really want an army adept at counterinsurgency operations. The generals understand, in terms of probabilities, that future wars are much more likely to be counterinsurgency situations than fast-paced, high-tech wars of national survival, but they must be concerned with the consequences as well as the probabilities. The consequences of being caught in a counterinsurgency situation in a distant nation with an army ill suited to counterinsurgency operations are far less dire than the consequences of being caught in a war of survival with an army that is suited only for counterinsurgency operations. Thus in Afghanistan and Iraq, the army’s first concern was getting out. The first years of the wars were spent trying to avoid a long-term commitment to the wars. That failed both in terms of finding a satisfactory solution for those countries and in terms of getting the U.S. military out of them. If we had to go in (which, of course, we did not), then we probably would have been better off going in big from the beginning, when the surge strategy might have had the greatest chance of success.

That brings us to Syria. Clearly, the United States is doing the opposite of going in big there. As I noted last week, the administration is arming one side apparently in the hope of producing a stalemate that would force both sides into negotiations. That could feasibly work, but it is likely to be a very long time, if ever, before both sides simultaneously believe that they are trapped in a mutually hurting stalemate with little chance of extracting themselves other than through negotiations. In the meantime, it is difficult to argue that it contributes to protecting the civilian population. Adding arms to the ongoing conflict will most likely prolong the fighting and add to the overall death toll. Recent research also suggests that providing the rebel opposition with abundant outside resources may separate them from their natural indigenous base of support, encourage the recruiting of essentially mercenary combatants, and lead to a more abusive treatment of civilians.

On the other hand, the United States is not about to go in big in Syria. It is simply not in the cards. Americans are fed up with wars, which President Obama certainly understands. It would also complicate U.S. relations in the Middle East and with important powers elsewhere, such as Russia; the many people and countries that seem to be demanding U.S. help today would soon change their minds. Confronted with a situation in which there are no—repeat, no—attractive options, Obama has chosen to create the appearance of helping, minimize the risks and costs to the United States, and hope for the best. It is not likely to improve the living situation for Syrian civilians in the foreseeable future.

Further reading:
Paris, Roland, “Afghanistan: What Went Wrong?” Perspectives on Politics 11:2 (June 2013): 538–48.

Stedman, Stephen J., “Spoiler Problems in Peace Processes,” International Security 22:2 (Fall 1997): 5–53.

Weinstein, Jeremy M., Inside Rebellion: The Politics of Insurgent Violence (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007).



Scott Monje
Scott Monje

Scott C. Monje, Ph.D., is senior editor of the Encyclopedia Americana (Grolier Online) and author of The Central Intelligence Agency: A Documentary History. He has taught classes on international, comparative, and U.S. politics at Rutgers University, New York University (SCPS), and Purchase College, SUNY.