MBI Newsletter

Newsletter #45 -- September 15, 2021



by Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess

September 9, 2021

As I (Heidi) began teaching my graduate course on Intractable Conflict at the Carter School of Peace and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University this fall, Alihan Kavak, one of my students, posed an interesting question on our discussion board. Reflecting on our chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan (which had happened just a few days earlier), and thinking back to a similar scene at the end of the Vietnam war, Alihan wrote 

I felt visceral pain and anger reading about the Marines who lost their lives in the Kabul bombing attack a few days ago. All of them young kids, ages 19 to 23. In my early 20s we were going through the same Iraq/Afghanistan war headlines, and some decade[s] later very little has changed. How is it that we are still making the same institutional and sociopolitical mistakes we made in and following the Vietnam War, which was now almost half a century ago? How many generations of politicians, conflict resolution practitioners, and military leaders are added to a list of individuals who have failed to shield the upcoming generation of early 20 somethings from the very same pitfalls that they went through? What is blinding us in our decision making as a society that we have become so short sighted with respect to our own past failures in these arenas of intractable conflict?

I thought that was an excellent question–one I had not thought to ask.  I raised it with Guy at dinner that night, and Guy was prompted to write an essay.  I agree with most, but not all, of what he had to say, so the following is presented as something of a dialogue between the two of us.  If anyone else would like to join this conversation, please send us your comments and we'll include them in a later blog post. 

Guy:  Similarities between United States' final ignominious withdrawal from Vietnam, and the recent and similarly ignominious withdrawal from Afghanistan could easily create the illusion that there wasn't much difference between the two wars and that we have really learned nothing in the interim. That, I think, would be a mistake. 

The truth is that we have learned a lot (but, still, nowhere near enough). U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan have, with a great many notable exceptions, behaved in ways that are more honorable, compassionate, and less deadly then their Vietnam-era predecessors. Without going into a detailed historical comparison, let me highlight a few things that stand out in my mind, as someone who came of age in the Vietnam era and has now spent a career doing peacebuilding and conflict resolution work.

First, the Vietnam war emerged through the slow escalation of global superpower tensions without any direct attack on U.S. vital interests. Even the Tonkin Gulf incident, which produced the closest thing we ever had to a formal declaration of war, turned out to have been based largely on a lie. Rather than a response to an unprovoked attack on U.S. vessels peaceably traversing international waters (as we were told occurred), the Vietnamese were simply shooting back at U.S. vessels that were attacking them. 

In contrast, 9/11 was a direct attack on the core military, economic, and political institutions of our society—an attack that was even more deadly than Pearl Harbor.  It came on the heels of a 1990 effort by Iraq to seize control of much of the world's oil supply—an attack that took a major military campaign to defeat.

Heidi: While Guy and I were against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq since the beginning, believing that there were better (less-violent) ways to handle both situations, it is clear that stopping the continued growth and activities of Al Qaeda was both justified and needed, much more so than was the need to stop the Communists in Vietnam. It should be noted, however, that while the initial attack on Afghanistan wasn't sold to Americans with a lie, the Iraq war was. We were told Saddam Hussein had or was developing weapons of mass destruction, and we were also led to believe that he had something to do with 9-11. Neither assertion, of course, was true. So I would argue that both Vietnam and Iraq were "sold" to the American people with lies.

Guy: Okay, that's true, but there are still many other important differences. First, Vietnam produced roughly eight times more casualties than did Iraq and Afghanistan. When all was said and done, the Vietnam war claimed almost 60,000 American men and women and over 3 million Vietnamese.  In contrast, fewer than 5,000 U.S. and allied troops died in Iraq as did about 6,500 in Afghanistan. The numbers of Iraqi and Afghani casualties are harder to pin down, but Iraqi casualties estimates range from 150,000 - 1,000,000, while in Afghanistan, about 50,000 Taliban and other opposition fighters died, 66,000 Afghan miliary and police died, as did another 50,000 civilians.  These numbers are tragic, of course, but they still are significantly lower than occurred in Vietnam, largely due to a fundamental change in military strategy.

The tactics used in Vietnam were brutal to the extreme, and unlike anything that we ever saw in Iraq or Afghanistan. Carpet bombing was routine. Large areas were declared free-fire zones and were bombed and shelled with the goal of pretty much killing anybody and everybody who happened to be there. The defoliant, "agent orange" (dioxin) was sprayed on roughly 5 million acres (and the people who live there) in an attempt to kill crops and camouflaging vegetation. Napalm and cluster munitions were widely used. And, a promising peace agreement was sabotaged by the Watergate scandal's Richard Nixon as a cynical and quite possibly decisive effort to win the 1968 election. 

At the same time, The Vietnam War was fought by draftees who were understandably opposed to a war that was being fought for reasons they never understood. So they believed they were being forced to risk their lives for nothing. In contrast, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were fought with volunteers who chose to serve their country to help protect the nation from the new terrorist threat which we all recognized.

It is, of course, also true that the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were badly mismanaged (especially in the early stages of the Iraq war) in ways that deserve another chapter in Barbara Tuchman's book The March of Folly— a book that includes a notable chapter on Vietnam. (Tom Rick's book, Fiasco, on the early days in Iraq tells a similar story.) 

Still, the thing that was different about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is that we fairly quickly came to understand that we weren't just trying to defeat a military force. Rather, we understood that we needed to replace two brutal, tyrannical regimes with something better. What that was and how to achieve such ends, however, wasn't clear. 

Heidi:  I remember being astounded early on in the Iraq war when we (who were teaching grad school at the time) got an email looking for grad students who wanted to help write the Iraqi constitution. Huh-what?!  What do U.S. grad students know about Iraq? About writing constitutions? Who's crazy idea was that?

Guy: Other ideas were very misguided too. And corruption was rampant, as is explained in heartbreaking detail in articles by Sarah Chayes and Farah Stockman.

But thing that I found hopeful about Iraq and Afghanistan was the large number of people in military, civilian, and the peacebuilding sectors who, unlike Vietnam, tried hard to work together to build peace. Though there certainly were many corrupt people who were just trying to make as much money off the war as possible, there were many more who put their heart and soul into trying to "do the right thing."  In the Vietnam-era, military planners thought of winning the support of the people in terms of overwhelming military force. The phrase, "if you've got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow," pretty much sums up the era's approach to nation building.

Compared to that approach, the attempts at peacebuilding in both Iraq and Afghanistan were a remarkable development. Military forces were asked to engage in something called a "three block war" in which they were responsible for simultaneously conducting military operations against hostile forces, serving as peacekeepers between contending factions, and providing humanitarian assistance. Under General Petreaus, the goal of U.S. forces was to build local support by genuinely serving a population in a particular area. Civil-military collaboration programs were established to help bridge the cultural gap between the military, civilian, and peacebuilding communities in ways that would enable them to more effectively work together.  This didn't work obviously, undone quite possibly by the corruption that was rampant in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  But it still reflects learning from Vietnam and trying to do better than that.

Richard Rubenstein, in an article in Transcend, raises a cluster of critically important questions that emerge from this partnership between the peacebuilding community and the military. On the one hand, this partnership has built deep connections between US and Afghan peacebuilders that reflect a genuine commitment to building something positive out of this tragedy.  It is the United States' abandonment of these partners (and the people that they serve) that so many in the peacebuilding community find deeply troubling.  On the other hand, these developments have also done much to integrate peacebuilders into the "military-industrial complex" where they have become financially dependent upon the continuing flow of peacebuilding contracts. In this, in turn, raises legitimate questions that ought to be carefully considered about whether or not the field is complicit in the corrupt, neo-imperialistic side of these wars.  

Heidi: I remember back in 2006, we were meeting with a number of peacebuilders from the Alliance for Peacebuilding, along with a number of more "progressive" military and former military officers.  The "talk of the day" was Department of Defense Directive 3000.05. which said that:

"stability operations are a core U.S. military mission.  They should be given priority comparable to combat operations and be explicitly addressed and integrated across all DoD activities, (emphasis mine) including doctrine, organizations, training, education, exercises, material, leadership, personnel, facilities, and planning. 

We were amazed (and very pleased) at the time; and it still is a remarkable statement. It wasn't carried out as much or as well as we had hoped, but it did lead to a dramatic reprogramming of DoD thinking and activities from what we saw during Vietnam. Plus, the DoD directive was soon followed by Presidential Security Directive 44, which did essentially the same thing on the civilian side of government.  That is not as much of a surprise—you'd expect the Department of State, USAID, and other such agencies to do that kind of work.  But it did create the Department of State's Office for Stabilization and Reconstruction (now the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations) which formalized such activities in the Department of State.  It also integrated into the war effort contributions from other government departments such as Agriculture and Commerce as part of a "whole of government" response.

Guy: Unfortunately, there were lots of other factors that combined to undermine the success of these efforts. In the critical, initial phase of the war in Iraq, for example, the U.S. did a great many things to antagonize the population, including, most notably, torture at the Abu Ghraib prison and the decision to fire and leave without any viable means of financial support anyone who worked in a military or civilian military capacity in Saddam Hussein's government. In Afghanistan, there was the United States' partnership with the notorious Northern Alliance—a group that Afghans saw so extreme that they had supported the Taliban's efforts to drive them from power. 

Added to this were widespread corruption and profiteering, both on the part of U.S. and foreign workers and Afghanis who profited greatly from U.S. funds.  Plus, neither the mission in Iraq nor the mission in Afghanistan were allocated anywhere near enough resources to actually give peacebuilding a chance to succeed. We tried to fight both wars "on the cheap," and as things started deteriorating in Afghanistan, especially, the war was just given enough personnel and resources to create a stalemate, and avoid an embarrassing defeat.  Obviously, $2.4 trillion is hardly cheap. Still, compared to the task at hand (and the often wasteful use of those resources) it was nowhere near enough.

Heidi: This reality was echoed by another one of my students who was a veteran of the Afghanistan war. When I asked him what he thought of our recent withdrawal, he replied that everyone on the ground knew that the Afghan forces would fall quickly if the Americans were to leave. He said it was disappointing but it was no surprise. He followed up his statement with thee articles which he thinks very well sums up his experience of and views on Afghanistan. 

One was the Farah Stockman article I referenced before on corruption. Another was a blog post by Laura Jedeed, also a veteran of Afghanistan, whose article is entitled "Afghanistan Meant Nothing." It's filled with far more cursing than I would generally consider acceptable for an article that I would link to here, but it shows the depths of despair felt by one (and likely many more than one) of our troops who feel/felt that they were on a completely hopeless, senseless mission that was never going to do any good and was killing a lot of people needlessly.  That does sound rather like Vietnam, doesn't it?

The third article my student shared was one written by Tom Nichols in the Atlantic entitled Afghanistan Is Your Fault. It points out that Americans enthusiastically backed the Afghanistan war when it began, but then lost interested and payed very little attention to what was happening for most of the following years.  But we did give our political leaders a "no win political test," Nichols asserts:

If they chose to leave, they would be cowards who abandoned Afghanistan. If they chose to stay, they were warmongers intent on pursuing “forever war.” And so here we are, in the place we were destined to be: resting on 20 years of safety from another 9/11, but with Afghanistan again in the hands of the Taliban. 

A serious people—the kind of people we once were—would have made serious choices, long before this current debacle was upon them.

Guy:  These articles make it very clear why, despite all our efforts, our nation building efforts in both Afghanistan and Iraq were unsuccessful. There was also a failure to understand the language, work within the region's socio-cultural traditions, and give Iraqis and Afghanis adequate control over their own destiny (such as letting them write their own constitution, Heidi adds!)  All this produced understandable resentment and opposition to what was, essentially, an effort to impose Western values on their society.

It is now very clear that, despite the hard-work and good intentions of so many people, we are a very long way from knowing how to affordably transform failed states into successful societies that are genuinely able to meet the needs of their citizens. 

Heidi: I agree. We clearly did better in Iraq and Afghanistan than we did in Vietnam, but we didn't do well enough, and it isn't clear whether we will learn from our mistakes or not.  And, sadly, it isn't even clear what we should learn. It would be easy to conclude that the U.S. should turn to isolationism, putting "America first," as Donald Trump always said and tried to do (although his efforts to do so often actually undermined American interests). It would be easy to conclude that "peacebuilding" and "nation building" don't work, and we shouldn't try it again.

Both conclusions, I think, would be a mistake, although I do agree that we can't build nations with military force, and we can't (and shouldn't) build nations in our own image.  If we are going to try this again, we need to help people build nations that meet their own interests, needs, and values. But for now, we need to objectively (such that objectivity is possible) assess what worked well and what failed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and why.  And before we do that, we need to decide what "worked well" means. What is success? Is it just the absence of violence? Or is it more than that?  Is it a government that looks like and runs like the one in the U.S.? As I said above, I don't think so! 

We also need to spend a great deal of time and effort talking to people in all roles who were trying to "do the right thing," and find out from them what they saw as their goals, how they tried to achieve those goals, the impediments to their success and what might be done differently should such situations present themselves in the future. (This, of course, shouldn't just be limited to U.S. personnel, but involve anyone touched by the conflicts including, especially, Afghans and Iraqis.) We should integrate that knowledge with the knowledge of scholars and conflict resolution practitioners (diplomats and NGO representatives) to upgrade everyone's understanding of what worked well, what didn't, and how to do better in the future. Part of the story, of course, is that politicians' hands were tied, because the public, most likely, would have rebelled at spending what it might have really cost to do nation building in either country right. So we need to assess whether doing it on the cheap was worse than not doing it at all, or if we could have still done better had we not made so many mistakes other than lack of adequate funds. 

But there is also a question of what we should do now, over the short term. Do we have any continuing responsibility to the people of Afghanistan?  If we do, can we act on that, or are we helpless to intervene, having lost all credibility and power in the region? And beyond that, have we lost all credibility in the world at large?  We used to like to think that we were a beacon of light—the shining example of democracy that people around the world sought to emulate. We have certainly lost considerable credibility, at least over the short term, as a source of hope and help, as the images of our chaotic withdrawal spread around the globe.  But we have also been losing credibility for quite some time as our own democracy has been visibly crumbling. So we need to do a lot of work at home, to help improve our credibility elsewhere.

Guy: I agree here too. There is now good reason to ask whether, on balance, our efforts have made things better or worse in Iraq and Afghanistan (and for U.S. and global security, more generally).  At the moment, it seems pretty clear that things are tipping in a negative direction and the articles shared by Heidi's student make it clear that things were so tipping for a very long time. Over the longer term, however, one can hope that cultural cross-fertilization between Afghans and the international community will ultimately help craft a society that all Afghans (or at least the vast majority, including women) would like to live in and that they can avoid another civil war.  It's also possible that this whole tragedy will lead people to conclude that terrorist acts, such as those perpetrated on 9/11, advance nobody's interests.

Over the short term, however, it is clear that there are now very large numbers of people who have literally bet their lives on U.S. assurances that we would somehow be able to transform their society. To our shame, their efforts to help us do that have now placed them in great jeopardy. We must use the whatever powers we still possess to protect them.

And as Heidi said, it is also ironic and deeply troubling that, over the years in which we have been fighting to bring a prosperous, pluralistic democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan, we have seen a precipitous decline in our own democratic institutions. In many ways, we are falling victim to the same failed-state dynamics that we were trying to save Iraqis and Afghans from suffering. Given our inability to protect our own democracy, it is pretty hypocritical to try to impose our form of government on others. 

This tragic story reinforces our belief that the single most important challenge facing human society is figuring out how today's deeply-divided societies can meet the needs of their citizens while also avoiding authoritarianism, destructive conflict, and war. Despite our many considerable setbacks, human society is slowly learning how to do this. What we desperately need now is a much more vigorous effort to better utilize what we now know and to develop innovative new strategies for better dealing with the tough challenges that continue to make democratic governance so difficult. That includes, for example, figuring out how to defend against  the large numbers of people who are now actively trying to profit by tearing societies apart. 

Heidi: Indeed!  If we go back to Alihan's original question--"why haven't we learned?  How is it that we are making the same mistakes over and over again?"  I'd answer that we aren't making the same mistakes, we are making different ones.  But the results look much the same.  What we really need to do to avoid such miserable outcomes is to learn is how to do a much better job at analyzing the complex systems that comprise these very intractable conflicts, see what is driving them (it is much more than simply "bad guys who need to be defeated") and designing complex responses that are equal to the complexity of the problems. This is where our notion of "Massively Parallel Peacebuilding" comes in, and we'll be working on a number of new materials this fall that elaborate on this idea.  Beyond that, we need a much expanded effort to find better ways of addressing the tough conflict problems that plague modern society. Our Constructive Conflict Initiative offers an initial proposal for organizing such an effort.

Photo Credits for Photos Used in the Metagraphics:

Recent and Related Posts:

Note: We at MBI took a good part of the summer off from new writing, working instead on other projects and family activities. However, we have been posting many Context and Colleague Activity Blog Posts over the summer.  Here are some of those; all of the ones posted since the last newsletter (in mid-June) are found here: All CC-MOOS Posts

From the Conflict Fundamentals Seminar and BI Knowledge Base: 

From the Constructive Conflict Initiative Blog: 

From the Colleague Activities Blog:

  • A Milestone for Indigenous Rights and Reconciliation -- How Canada is addressing injustice, prejudice, violence, and discrimination against its indigenous peoples through legislation. #mbi_colleague -- Sep 07
  • Paths Forward for Online Mediation Final Report of the Mediate.com Online Mediation Training Task Force -- A report on a task force examining the advantages, disadvantages, and future of online mediation with recommendations for future ODR practice. #mbi_colleague -- Sep 06
  • SharedCode -- SharedCode aims at promoting social cohesion through narratives that can help reflect on the theme of shared values ​​for a shared future.  #mbi_colleague -- Aug 17
  • The Biosophical Institute -- BI's mission is to cultivate a community and culture of peace encompassing life wisdom and deep relationships through character and peace education. #mbi_colleague -- Aug 14
  • Civic Voice and Side Environmental Events -- A digital way for stakeholders and individuals to provide data and evidence to Congress to build local civic input on environmental issues. #mbi_colleague -- Aug 11
  • Wise Interventions -- A video explaining the notion of wise interventions and the searchable Wise Intervention database that can be used to design processes that work with people's psychology. #mbi_colleague -- Aug 10
  • USIP's Free Online Courses -- 12 free courses on conflict and peacebuilding topics offered online by the U.S. Institute of Peace. #mbi_colleague -- Jul 13
  • Our goal: to understand the veracity, quality and credibility of online information -- A research community fostering collaborative approaches to understanding the veracity, quality & credibility of online information that is a foundation of civil society. #mbi_colleague -- Jul 12
  • Digital Social Innovation to Empower Democracy  -- A TED-talk by the Digital Minister of Taiwan about using AI and tech to promote social innovation and to empower democracy to better represent citizens. #mbi_colleague -- Jul 11
  • How to upgrade democracy for the Internet era -- A TED-talk on a mobile platform to bring citizens inside the legislative process, and run candidates who will listen to citizens' hopes and needs. #mbi_colleague -- Jul 10
  • The Center for Election Science -- A non-partisan organization focused on voting reform, seeking to establish voting methods that truly reflect voters' choices and strengthen democracy. #mbi_colleague -- Jul 07

From the Beyond Intractability in Context Blog

All CC-MOOS Posts


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