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Fighting the Last War?

Author: Noah Feldman
November 30, 2008
The New York Times Magazine

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Change is so much in the air these days that it is easy to miss intimations of continuity. Even as the Obama administration forms its foreign-policy team, a new approach to the war in Afghanistan is emerging: more troops, stepped-up counterinsurgency tactics and negotiation with groups until now considered enemies. If this policy sounds familiar, it should. The Bush administration has been pursuing it in Iraq for the last 18 months. Implementing it in Afghanistan will be the final legacy of the outgoing administration's shifting policies in the war on terror.

Exporting the Iraq model to Afghanistan has a certain logic. In both places, the long-term U.S. goal is to leave behind a stable, functioning state that is accepted as legitimate by its citizens and is capable of preventing terrorist groups from operating domestically or abroad. In both, a diverse range of ethnic, linguistic and denominational groups need to be reconciled into a durable balance of power. The Iraq surge has worked better than what was tried before in that country; so for the U.S. military, which is always fighting the last war, the temptation to rely on ‘‘lessons learned'' is overwhelming-even if in this case the last war still isn't over, and we are still far from having won it.

Yet despite the surface similarities between Iraq and Afghanistan, the differences run deep, as Gen. David McKiernan, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, has acknowledged. The very words policymakers use when discussing Iraq-''nation,'' ‘‘tribe,'' ‘‘radical,'' ‘‘Islamist,'' even ‘‘Al Qaeda''-mean different things in the Afghan context. In the complex world of counterinsurgency, getting these subtleties of anthropology and sociology right determines success or failure.

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