Lessons From Iraq and Afghanistan: Facing Future Defense Challenges

Lessons From Iraq and Afghanistan: Facing Future Defense Challenges

Lucas Jackson/Reuters
from Academic and Higher Education Webinars

More on:



Defense and Security

Janine Davidson, CFR's senior fellow for defense policy, discusses U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and offers recommendations for the future, as part of CFR's Academic Conference Call series.

Learn more about CFR's resources for the classroom at CFR Education.


Janine Davidson

Senior Fellow for Defense Policy, Council on Foreign Relations


Irina A. Faskianos

Vice President, National Program & Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

FASKIANOS: Good afternoon from New York. And welcome to CFR’s Academic Conference Call Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. Today’s call is on the record and the audio file and transcript will be available on our website, CFR.org, if you would like to share it with classmates or colleagues.

We’re delighted to have Janine Davidson with us to talk about lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan. Dr. Davidson is senior fellow for defense policy at CFR, and is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, a member of the Reserve Forces Policy Board, and a senior advisor to the Office of the Secretary of Defense and NATO. Before joining CFR, Dr. Davidson was an assistant professor in the School of Public Policy at George Mason University, and she served in the Obama administration as a deputy assistant secretary of defense for plans, where she led policy efforts for U.S. global defense posture, including the military rebalance to Asia and international agreements related to those forces stationed overseas. She began her career in the U.S. Airforce, where she was an aircraft commander and senior pilot for the C-130 and the C-17 cargo aircraft. She flew combat support and humanitarian aid mobility missions in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, and was an instructor pilot at the U.S. Air Force Academy. You can follow Dr. Davidson on Twitter at @JanineDavidson.

Janine, thank you very much for joining us today. You have been watching this for years as both an academic and as a—having worked in government and in the military. How do you see the lessons learned from use of force, intervention and what it means for American power?

DAVIDSON: Great. Well, thank you, Irina, for pulling this together. And thanks to everybody who’s on the line for taking the time. This is a very important topic and it’s certainly one that I hope that academics as well as policymakers continue to study in depth, know that the lessons on these things are never clear, and they’re never agreed upon, and they shift over time. Everybody sees the events from their own perspective, and I am no different. I’ve studied, as you said, this from a military adaptation perspective, also as a policymaker working on military war plans. Also, you know, I am a friend, colleague, and indeed wife of people who have served over there in Iraq and Afghanistan. So I have my own vantage point, and I’m sure you all do too.

So let me just start with sort of my takeaways. And I’m not even going to necessarily call them lessons yet, but some of them may be. You know, I content that violent conflict among people and states is a brutal fact of human history and it’s not likely to change in the near future, certainly not in my lifetime. As Eliot Cohen wrote in the introduction to the U.S. Government Counterinsurgency Guide for policymakers, he said: Whether the United States should engage in any particular counterinsurgency is a matter of political choice, but that it will engage in such conflicts during the decades to come is a near uncertainty—I mean, is a near certainty. I tend to agree with him about this. I think that—we can debate this in Q&A, but the temptation to, quote, “do something,” to influence outcomes or to otherwise alleviate human suffering in these conflicts, these types of conflicts, will not cease for the United States—especially not for the United States, given its power and its role and its interests in the world.

So given that as the starting point, I think we really need a better understanding of when and whether our engagement will make things better, or make things worse. And this is really not as easy as it sounds. I mean, because I think that there is a real risk of overcorrecting. It’s really tempting to assume that using military force just makes things worse. And indeed, looking at Iraq and Syria and lots of other places, this is quite an understandable position. But you know, the military instrument—using military force is not just an on/off switch. There are good and bad strategies. There are good and bad ways to do things. And it is understanding that nature of military force that is the imperative of policymakers and especially the president in the future.

So looking at the utility and the limitations of military force, you know, it’s neither as useful nor as useless as people on either side of these debates would like us to believe. Decision-makers, presidents in particular and those who advise them, really need to understand what the military, along with other tools in the toolkit—diplomatic, economic, and otherwise, intelligence—can and cannot accomplish, and, importantly, how it works. Necessarily—that doesn’t necessarily mean that engaging is not going to be worth the effort and the cost, but to make the determination whether to engage you must understand what is needed in terms of time, cost, resources.

I really think that the ignorance about how military force works in conjunction with other elements of power—ignorance about that can have grave consequences. It can lead us to committing errors of three types—engaging when it is futile to do so or futile given your resources and your will, engaging with an unrealistic strategy, or not engaging at all. So let’s look at Iraq and Afghanistan. What happened and what can we glean from this? The invasion of Iraq, in my humble opinion, I think turned out to be about the worst geostrategic foreign policy mistake in the history of U.S. foreign policy.

I mean, what the Bush administration wanted to do—oust Saddam Hussein, turn Iraq into a pro-Western, pro-U.S. democracy that would be an example to the region of a prosperous globally integrated modern state, that’s a laudable goal. In Afghanistan, wanted to eliminate a safe haven for al-Qaida. After that, it was a little fuzzier—oust the Taliban, rebuild, develop Afghanistan. It gets fuzzier, and I think because that’s also a bit of a lesson learned in the nature of conflict, you’re not quite sure what you’re getting yourself into and people may call it mission creep, but I think it is also the nature of modern conflict that things change over time. It’s sort of adage in military—in the military world that a strategy doesn’t survive first contact with the enemy. And I think that’s true at the political level as well.

The results of these interventions were really nowhere near the objectives. Now, let’s just take stock. We have basically a nearly failed state in Iraq, Syria, and now Libya, where ISIS has spread and is digging in. We have an Iraqi government who may be doing a little better than Maliki, but still is not exactly working with us. We’ve invigorated sectarian conflict—Sunni, Shia, Kurd, Iranian, and the Gulf States. ISIS is continuing to grow in strength and spread throughout the region and beyond. The massive refugee flows, we have a much more powerful Iran, and increased tensions in the Gulf States.

In Afghanistan there have been some gains in terms of development, health, education, some on and off progress with the Afghan security forces. But we’re going on our 15th year. The coalition has all but dissolved and the Taliban are resurgent. The costs have also been staggering in terms of lives and money. We’ve lost almost 4,500 military in Iraq, almost 3,500 in Afghanistan, plus another 1,100 allies. Contractors, civilians on the Iraqi side, some 11,000 military and police, Iraqi civilians in the hundreds of thousands. And again, refugee flows in Iraq alone were close to 3 million. These are all from the Brookings index—indices for Iraq and Afghanistan.

Financial costs just straight up appropriated $758 billion for Iraq and $817 billion for Afghanistan. And you know, that doesn’t really take into account all the future medical and veterans’ benefits, recapitalization of military equipment, modernization. Those bills will continue to come in the hundreds of billions for years to come. So understanding what is doable with respect to the use of force has grave consequences and is incredible important. So if you believe that even the goal of turning Iraq around might have been a laudable objective, ignorance of the utility of military force, I believe, has led policymakers into a false sense of feasibility of their objectives.

So the question is might it have been doable with a different approach? And my answer is, probably, but perhaps not at a cost in time and resources that policymakers might have opted to commit. When you look at the lessons for both of these efforts—macro lesson is that you really cannot—I’ll unpack this a little bit—but you can’t wave a magic military wand and turn a bad state led by bad guys into a good state led by democratically elected good guys. It’s not that it’s not doable, but it takes a lot more than a magical military wand. So you cannot break into—it’s like breaking into somebody’s house, lighting the living room on fire, and handing out squirt guns, some of which have gasoline in them, and saying good luck. I mean, that’s the approach we’ve taken to our interventions and our interactions with the host nations.

So Iraq and Afghanistan teach us that these quick fixes—casualty-free, short-duration military ops—90 percent of time are a fantasy. I think we had convinced ourselves after the first Gulf War that that is what intervention is all about. And that warfare in the first Gulf War in 1991 was pretty much an anomaly, and we can talk about in the Q&A if you’re interested, you know, what the outcome of that was as well.

So just to sort of give an overview of the lessons that I take away for next time policymakers are tempted to engage in conflict or otherwise fix something, I don’t think that we should necessarily say that it’s impossible, but I think we need to understand the power and the limitations of military, economic, and political toolkits in order to determine whether our objectives are feasible given the resources at hand, or otherwise worth the effort given the dollars spent and potential lives that could be lost or ruined. I think also when you look back at the post-9/11 months and years, especially the first year, you really need to be careful of what I call the do-something syndrome. You need to be thoughtful about what exactly can be done and what exactly we’re trying to accomplish.

I think the biggest mistake—the biggest lesson that we need to remind ourselves of, and I already see hints that people are ignoring this lesson—is that we have to be careful of what I call the cheap coat of paint strategy. You know, we all know this, you go to paint your living room and you buy the cheap stuff and it doesn’t really work, and then you have go to back, and you have to do another can of paint. And it doesn’t really work, and you have to go back. And by the time you decide, you know what? I really should have bought that Benjamin Moore paint the first time around, now you’re out of cash, which is kind of what happened when you apply a cheap coat of paint strategy to something like this.

Everything that we know, people who study these kinds of civil wars or insurgencies or interventions and conflict contingencies—everything that we know about these things tell us that they take a long time and a lot of resources. And so when we present a one-year or a three-year strategy, we’re sort of lying to ourselves about the efficacy of that. And that kind of worries me. I mean, whether they’re a lie or whether they’re just misconceptions, in any event they’re reckless. So the uncomfortable truth, I think, is that in the best-case scenario if we do these things, we will be there for a long time. We didn’t leave Germany, Japan, or Korea anytime soon. The Baltics took many years.

And these are full-spectrum civil-military operations. We have to provide security. We have to provide governance until the host nation can take over. And it’s not clear that they’re going to be able to do that, or otherwise why would you have had to intervene in the first place? And then these missions taper off over a long period of time. If we use the cheap coat of paint, we’ll probably spend more resources and be there for a longer period of time or, worst case scenario, risk all-out failure.

I think also you need to have a clear understanding of the political dynamics of the country in which you’re headed. And we forget—we focus so much on the military pieces that we forget about the political pieces. If you read Emma Sky’s really good book called, “The Unwinding” (sic; “The Unraveling”), she really makes it clear about how you have to apply this political pressure alongside the military pressure. So the military’s part may be necessary, but not sufficient, but the political part is just as important. And it’s a high-pressure stakes game. And the other lesson on the political part is that you need civilians who know how to do this. And our civilian capacity is limited, but it is critical to these sorts of interventions. If you think the military’s going to do it on its own, it won’t. And I think this is a lesson people still are not learning.

Another lesson, if you break it you own it. You’ve heard this before, but what this means is that if you invade a country you are going to run it. You’re probably going to have to occupy it. It’s not just impose order and safety. Now, Americans don’t like to hear this because occupation sounds like a dirty word, but the truth is that order is not the norm. Peace and security will not magically arrive. It just does not happen that way. And under international law, even an invading force is required to provide law and order. So while the military ever thought they weren’t supposed to do that is still a mystery to me. All this means is that traditional military operations are not sufficient to achieve strategic success. Battle is not the same as war. And the weird thing is that this stuff is kind of in between.

Because it’s sort of in between all-out war and some sort of law enforcement operation in many cases, we have a hard time defining victory. We use words like win when really we need to be defining what success means in different ways. And I think that’s really, really difficult. And success may mean—and this is my last big takeaway—dealing with people you don’t want to talk to. I think it was General Petraeus who said you don’t, you know, make peace with your friends. You’re going to have to talk to messy people who have done messy things and you’re going to have to make a pretty messy political deal, because that’s how these things end in the end.

So there are other tactical and military lessons that the military has learned. We can talk about that in the Q&A. I mean, if you read General McChyrstal’s book about the JSOC teams and integrated intelligence, we got really, really good at killing bad guys in a tactical way. And we got really good at adapting our operations and learning lessons quickly from the field. We really honed our operations in a joint way—Army, Navy, Air Force, and also working in a coalition. All those things are good, but I think we need to be looking at it from the biggest—the higher level of what did these operations teach us about what is doable and what is not when it comes to using military force abroad. So with that, I’ll go ahead and take your questions or your comments on any of the things that we talked about.

FASKIANOS: Janine, thank you very much for that overview. And let’s open it up now, Terry (sp), to questions from students.

OPERATOR: At this time, we’ll open the floor for questions.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

And our first question will come from Penn State University.

Q: Hi. This is Jason Gibson, School of International Affairs, Penn State.

Given the thawing tensions between the United States and Iran, do you foresee Iran playing a greater role in the region, and in particular within Afghanistan, increasing its role there, maybe actually the United States working with Iran to reconstruct that country?

DAVIDSON: Jason, I—that’s a good question. I mean, I think that people who think that Iran is just going to go away or otherwise sit down on the sidelines are fooling themselves. And so I do think that Iran will want to play a role. I mean, they will want to continue to play a role. They have been playing an enormous role since the middle of our combat operations in Iraq. They were there, they’ve been supporting the Shia. They’ve been doing, you know, bad things. I think that the challenge going forward is to acknowledge that they’re an actor in the region and to work really hard to make their activities constructive rather than destructive. And I’m always an optimist, so I do think that there are ways to do that. You know, right after 9/11 the Iranians had the largest candlelight vigil of just about anywhere in Tehran in support of the United States. Something went really bad after that in terms of our relationship, but I do think that there is some raw material in Iran that we can work with.

FASKIANOS: Great, thank you. Next question.


OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Munk School of Global Affairs.

Q: Hi, there. Thank you. I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit more about U.S. capacities and limitations in terms of training foreign troops. Can we make our training efforts more effective? And is so, how?

DAVIDSON: Yeah, training foreign troops. You know, I think that the training, advising, and assisting of foreign troops in these sorts of conflicts and, indeed, prior to these sorts of conflicts in order to potentially prevent them is a very important thing. Once a country has, you know, gone into a chaotic mode and failed—or is near failure, it’s a lot harder, actually. So our capacity to do this is somewhat limited, but our capability, our expertise has been getting better. I think some of the rules of thumb here are, you know, we can’t just go into a country and try to train up military troops without also addressing the institutional side of the security equation.

And what I mean by that is in America we have civilian control over the military, we have a large administrative apparatus that organizes, trains, and equips our military—training being a big one. And so you can’t just go in and, as we say, teach a bunch of 18-year olds how to shoot straight and think that’s going to lead to security and stability. It may, in fact, have the opposite effect. So I think you have to really look at each of these cases in a holistic way, and make sure that the country—the administrative structures of the country are well-equipped to continue the training and to continue to professionalization of the military, which I think is incredibly, incredibly important.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Washington University.

Q: Thank you. Thank you. I’ve got two questions. Given the lessons learned from Iraq and Afghanistan, what do you think of the policy of the U.S. towards Syria? People talk about that Americans should have troops in Syria. Do you think Americans should send troops in Syria to finish what Obama administration want to do?

And my second question is about South China Sea. As you have—as you have point out, that it is about time, cost, and the benefit to involved military engagement. So how do you interpret the time, cost, and the benefits of America’s military engagement in South China Sea? As you know, that America has sent a destroyer to patrol the 12-mile radius of the reefs. And do you regard this as a kind of military engagement? And if it is a military engagement, how do you interpret the time and the cost? Thank you.

DAVIDSON: Well, with respect to Syria, I think it’s an incredibly, incredibly difficult problem. I think that you academics will be studying how we got here for years to come, as will a lot of the policymakers. But I think there are a couple things that are pretty obvious, especially given what I – my opening remarks. And that is, there’s clearly no quick fix to what’s happening in Syria, because it’s not just about Syria. It’s a regional problem that spans the Gulf region and the—and Iraq. There is no purely military solution to what’s happening in Syria. That said, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a military element. However, people who—people who get impatient and people who want to just bomb more targets and that’s not going to achieve a strategic effect.

I mean, back to my original opening comments, there are deep political fissures in the area—in the region that need to be addressed. So there is no purely military solution and there is no quick-fix solution to Syria. There’s no, also, purely American solution to what’s happening in Syria. These are all very problematic and frustrating realities when it comes to policy makers. There is a role, I believe, for outside actors to broker the peace agreements that could potentially come from that, but it will take a long time and it’s incredibly, incredibly messy.

The biggest problem in the short term I see, with respect to Syria, is the grave humanitarian disaster that we see. The refugees flowing out of the region, I don’t see them coming back anytime soon. This is a huge problem for Europe, a huge problem for the United States—Europe is a huge ally. And it’s a massive human tragedy that I think the international community can and will do more to alleviate. That may require—it may require military assistance in order to protect and provide security. And so we could potentially see something like that happen.

Oh, and on your South China Sea. You know, the United States military has been in Asia since the end of World War II, or even before that. And for the time and cost that it has required, it has been a pretty good return on investment. It’s a counterfactual, you can’t completely prove it. But when you go to Asia you sort of know in your bones that—well, you don’t even have to know it in your bones. I mean, countries like Japan have said outright that if the United States were not there, were not providing a security guarantee, that they would be more likely to have to expand their nuclear arsenal. And that would be incredibly destabilizing.

So I think America’s presence in Asia is a stabilizing force. When it comes to freedom of navigation operations, those are very, very routine. And they should—they should and can be done all the time. And they used to be. There was a bit of a pause for a little while, which is why I think people think it’s more provocative than it is. But I think it’s a little bit much ado about nothing. I think it’s important that the United States conducts freedom of navigation operations and that they continue to do that and that they continue to make it known that these are free seas and that the free movement of commerce is incredibly important. And so I support those missions and I think it’s very important. I think the United States has a big role there.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question will come from Georgia State University.

Q: Yes. I have two quick questions. First of all, do you think that the U.S. decision not to bomb the Assad regime in the aftermath of the Ghouta attack sort of represents a lesson learned from Iraq and Afghanistan—(inaudible)? And as a follow-up question, you sort of alluded to a potential military solution in Syria to protect—simply from a responsibility to protect, you know, angle. So how do we reconcile that with lessons having been learned in Iraq and Afghanistan? And what role do you think the Syrian government could potentially play in bringing about a conclusion to the Syrian civil war?

DAVIDSON: I’m sorry, I did not understand the last part of that. But I think you’re asking—go ahead.

Q: What role do you believe the Syrian government, and by extension Iran, could play in bringing about an end to the Syrian civil war?

DAVIDSON: OK, I’m still not quite sure I’m getting that, but let me just get what you’re asking about the original U.S. decision not to bomb Assad and the responsibility to protect piece. Yeah, I think you’re getting at the heart of what makes Syria such an incredibly difficult and complex problem set. I can’t speak for the administration. I don’t know what their debates were internal. I know that, you know, that there is—it’s likely that there was a realization that just bombing something wasn’t going to solve the entire problem. And there’s a debate out there about whether there’s small things that could be done to make a bit of a difference, even though we weren’t going to solve the entire problem. And I think that that is the heart of the debate.

With respect to responsibility to protect, I think that that’s kind of what I’m getting at in terms of the humanitarian crisis. The United States and a lot of other countries—but the United States has done a lot on the humanitarian side, non-military, kind of under the radar. But it seems to be helping where it’s helping, but not, again, getting to the root problems. So you’re going to continue to see the refugees. So I think you’ve really hit the nail on the head, like, understanding that something needs to be done, but not having good options in order to do something to fix the problem is exactly where I think a lot of people think we are in Syria.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question will come from the University of California San Francisco.

Q: Hello, Janine. Firstly, most impressive talk. Agree with everything you said. One minor point is that the billions of dollars that you cite might be more compelling if we understood them in terms of opportunity costs or at least a denominator.

But also beyond, and to my own experience, is twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan, not with the military but with the Global Fund to fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria. And influenced me very much in the sense that health and development programs appear to have the capacity to achieve military and strategic goals. Also, thinking about those ideas in the context of the recent successes of the military in West Africa in terms of humanitarianism and Ebola, is there any possibility that the role of the military in the 21st century might continue to evolve towards these humanitarian but also security combined initiatives in order to achieve strategic tactical goals?

DAVIDSON: Sure. Yeah, I had done a lot of work on humanitarian use of the military force. I pretty much wrote my dissertation on a lot of that. That’s where I think the intersection and counterinsurgency theory is all about, where they say, you know, intervening in an insurgency is about protecting the population. It’s about making people feel safe. Those are some of the adages you heard during the surge, and I think it’s true. But it goes well beyond that, as you have pointed out.

The U.S. military, or militaries in general, have a lot of resources, you know, that we have paid for, right? We, the United States taxpayer have paid for. And so when you see these problems happening around the world, and you know that the military can do something and do something quickly and make a big difference, then it seems obvious that they should do them. But I will apply your opportunity cost to that as well. So it does not come without controversy, right?

So, yes, Ebola is a great—is a great case, because, you know, we all saw that in sort of a slow boil getting worse, getting worse, getting worse. And then all of a sudden you get to this point where the humanitarian aid workers are pulling out, the medical workers can’t get into the areas anymore, some airlines didn’t want to fly in anymore. So now you get the point where it’s like, you know what? The only people that can keep a runway open and that can bring in those kinds of supplies might be the military. And then you—that’s when you actually have humanitarian organizations like Doctors without Borders actually asking the military for help.

Now, those organizations don’t always reach out to the military because, especially in conflict zones, they don’t always want to be associated with the military. So it sometimes can get tricky, but I think that the U.S. military, especially, has a role to play in humanitarian operations. The U.S. military knows this. Read their strategies and their doctrines, it’s in there a lot. I mean, in the 2012 strategy and the Quadrennial Defense Review, and the military strategy, and the maritime strategy—all the pro documents that are out there—professional documents that are out there clearly indicate humanitarian operations as a core function of the military.

What ends up happening is opportunity—the question about opportunity costs. If you are also tasked, as the military, to protect existential—against existential threats, and you only have so many helicopters or so many airplanes, you will always have to make those tradeoffs. But you know, I applaud you for going abroad and helping with the Global Fund for, was it, AIDS, TB. That’s incredibly important work and takes a lot of courage. So I think that working with the military, people from your perspective, understanding what they bring to the operations is really important.

Q: Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Brigham Young University.

Q: Thanks so much for coming. I really appreciate your time. I teach international development and also have a rule of law and legal background. My question for you is, you mentioned that once a country invades it had a duty to remain, establish order, peace, and security. However, the skillsets are very different. Can you talk about who really are the best organizations or people within the U.S. government and perhaps in the international community to move beyond the peace and order phase, but to rewrite constitutions, to high-level prosecutions, bring in elections, do all of that transitional justice and rule of law evolution to bring about the long-term peace and security?

DAVIDSON: Sure. So, yeah, there are so many tasks that need to be accomplished in these complex crises. And there’s all kinds of debate, right? People say, oh, well, you know, in Iraq you heard everybody saying—well, you didn’t hear—but you hear people debating, General Chiarelli saying, listen, you know, you need to get—we need to get these people off the streets and we need to give them jobs so they’ll stop shooting at us. And then you heard the civilians saying, no, you need to provide security so that we can get in there and do our development work. So it becomes this big chicken and egg problem set, especially in the immediate aftermath of warfighting, and when a society has very much broken down in terms of being able to provide its own security, services, and administration.

And so in the short term I believe the military has those skills. They don’t like to do it, but they’ve done it for almost 250 years, OK? They did it on the American frontier. They did in the American South. They did it after World War II. They did it in Vietnam. You know, they do it a lot. They don’t like it. We like to believe that there are other people out there that do this stuff, especially on the security part of it, but if they’re there they have other jobs, right? So you could say, hey, the New York City Police would be really good at this. Potentially irrelevant, because they are in New York City, right? So you know, do you want to build an entirely new—these are the debates that go in Washington ad nauseam—do you want to build an entirely other structure? Maybe, but to go back to my answer to the previous question, we as taxpayers have already paid for a capability. We have it.

And so, again, in the—in the U.S. Defense Department’s policy, they say they won’t vie for these kinds of operations, but they will—but they make it a matter of policy that the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines maintains its capabilities and expertise to conduct these kinds of missions. Now, the other part that you mentioned however, transitional justice, building institutions, a lot of those things, those are not necessarily inherent in the military. Unfortunately, we don’t have a standing expeditionary corps in the State Department, or in USAID, or any of these other places that are optimized for that.

There are people in those organizations and there are some agencies that have some experience that could also do it, but there’s been an ongoing debate for at least 10 or 15, almost 20 years, about whether or not the State Department should have an expeditionary corps that’s sort of, like—some people have called it governance in a box. You know, like people, like you just described, can go over there and help. And while there are a lot of people that have been gaining that expertise, it’s not an institutionalized part of the American government. And it comes straight on down to resources. There are more lawyers in the Department of Defense than there are Foreign Service officers at the State Department.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from the University of Bristol.

Q: Hi. How do you think American citizens would react if Obama went back on his promise to withdraw troops from Afghanistan by 2016?

DAVIDSON: You know, I believe that the American people are—the American people don’t like failure, right? I mean, so—I mean, there’s a difference between, I think—well, I mean, going back on our promise and responding to current events I think are very different things. I think—I think the American people are, I guess, smart enough to see that, you know, if we’re going to remain there to finish a job that’s not the same as just, you know, lying or breaking a promise. You know, and actually, I think Peter Feaver has done a lot of interesting research on the civil-military dynamic about this kind of thing.

And what he says is that the American—we have this sort of bumper sticker that—in our minds here in Washington that the American public won’t support this or won’t support that, and that they get war weary. What he really says is what Americans don’t like is failure. And when they are presented with a problem that they feel is worth the effort, and that they think—this is a very important part of his research—if they think that they—that they have a plan to succeed, then they are willing to allow that to happen.

You also have to realize that less than 1 percent of the American population serves in the military. It doesn’t really affect a lot of people. And you know, it affects in terms of costs, but it’s all very—it’s very sort of intangible to a lot of people. I think the other question you need to ask is how would the American people respond if and when—you know, if we were—if the United States were to completely, immediately, and quickly withdraw from Afghanistan and see Afghanistan spiral into chaos, like we’ve seen in Syria? I think that would be hard to swallow as well. These are hard problems.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from NYU’s Center for Global Affairs.

Q: Hi. From the larger geopolitical perspective, what role do China and Russia play in Afghanistan’s future? China is currently one of the leading investors in Afghanistan, especially in their copper sector. And Russia remains one of the main U.S. supply routes into the country. President Obama recently mentioned that global powers should share global security burdens together. Do you see this as being realistic in Afghanistan? Or are we seeing new of a great game in contestation for influence in Afghanistan?

DAVIDSON: Well, I think you sort of answered your own question. I mean, China and Russia both see that they have interests in Afghanistan. And I’m not deeply up on those exactly the latest of what they’ve each been doing in the region. But I think, just like our question about Iran, that China and Russia, they have – they have interests in the region. And you know, whether it becomes a great game competition in Afghanistan or whether it becomes, you know, a burden-sharing arrangement in Afghanistan, I think is really—is really the right question to ask because, you know, if your policy is to have rising powers take on some of the responsibilities then you can’t really be upset when they are taking on responsibilities. The challenge I think is—and I think that the charge is to try to do this in a coordinated way.

And I’m not so sure that that’s happening. I’m not sure that it’s not, though, because I don’t—I’m not privy to exactly what’s happening behind the scenes diplomatically with respect to Afghanistan. But you know, everybody that has an interest in Afghanistan, you know, there are forums to be talking about these things and discussing these things. And you know, it’s not—it’s not an easy environment to operate in if you’re China and trying to run a copper mine. And so coordinating with the people that are working on security is also really important. So, I mean, I think you could see this going either way. And I think it’s a really important area to continue to watch.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from the University of Nebraska.

Q: Hi. Thank you very much for your contributions today. Your key takeaways were spot on. Just to kind of expand on that, so assuming that we do a thorough feasibility check, we allocate the right resources, we have the right organizational structure, and we fix the void in civilian-required personnel to execute these missions, finally to my question is, do you think outside of global interstate war that the United States population has the political will to sustain a military intervention to do it the right way, and devote the time, resources, and personnel available?

DAVIDSON: The short answer to that question is yes, because I do think—when I look at what we’ve spent in Iraq and Afghanistan, you know, it goes to my cheap coat of paint, you know, theory. I really believe if we had done it, you know, a realistically right way in the beginning, which would have required more, it wouldn’t—up front. It might have required less in all. I think the American people, again, you know, they are willing to give the president of the United States a lot of leeway. And as long as they think that it’s working, they’re going to be OK with that. And so it’s when things start to look like they’re falling apart, or when things are falling apart, that the American people start to ask what the heck are we doing over there? Again, the American people, they hate losing.

I always think about my own brother who used to ask me, you know, I don’t really understand, you know, what’s going on in Iraq. But I was willing to give, you know, the president points for audacity. But it looks like they’re really screwing it up over there. And that, to me, sort of encapsulates the way a lot of people who have better things to do than watch this closely day-to-day think about these operations. As long as they think that America’s doing good work, changing people’s lives for the better, and succeeding, then they’ll probably let it happen for a long period. You know, we’ve had people in the Balkans for a long time. You know, it’s tapered off slowly and it’s gradually transitioned. But you know, we didn’t make a big deal out of it. It wasn’t going so horribly after we finally got it under control. So I think that that’s something that presidents can and should sort of take into account when they’re thinking about what is or is not doable from a domestic politics point of view.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question will come from Washington and Lee University.

Q: Hi. Thank you for being with us. My question is, given the emergence of the Islamic State, do you think it’s too soon to start talking about lessons from Syria, and whether maybe we’re trying to apply an even cheaper coat of paint in Syria, so to speak? And to follow up on that, what specific diplomatic steps can be taken to ensure that a potential transitional government in Syria would respect the rights of minority sects like Christians, the Druze, and the Alawite sect to at least the extent that the Assad regime has?

DAVIDSON: I don’t know. I mean, it may be too soon. I mean, that’s a great question for your thesis that you’re probably going to write there at Washington and Lee about whether or not—you know, to try to apply a counterfactual lens to the approach to Syria and the Islamic State, and whether or not this is a cheap coat of paint. There are also a lot of sort of political elements that have—like I said before about Syria—that have hampered the way in which the United States and the international community has engaged there.

Your point, I think, about trying to find the right people in Syria that can lead a transitional government and then, you know, transition to a better normal that will respect human rights and the rule of law, that is the fundamental challenge there. And this is—you know, whether or not there was, I think, a debate about Syria, is was there a better coat of paint even available on the shelf. That’s a different question, right, because if you read the—this is online. You can find the U.S. Government Counterinsurgency Guide for policymakers. State Department wrote this in conjunction with—State Department, and the Department of Defense, and a couple other agencies got together and wrote this in 2008 and it got published right before the presidential transition.

And one of the things that gets pointed out over and over sort of in that document is that the raw material of the host nation that you are trying to engage with is what’s really important. So if—I think one of the primary sort of rules of thumb in that document is, if the host nation isn’t willing to do the kinds of transformations that are required politically and make the deals that are required politically in their country, then intervening and trying to assist that government is folly, is actually the word that they used. And so I think that’s part of what we’re dealing with—well, it’s what we’re dealing with in a large part in Syria, where it’s hard to find—it’s hard to find the right side to join, the right actors to support.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question will come from the Naval Postgrad School.

Q: Hi, Janine. Tom Johnson, NPS.

My question’s on ANSF sustainability. We spent 13 years and $68 billion on the Afghan National Security Forces. And I think Kunduz is quite instructive on this possible sustainability question. I mean, my sources suggest that as soon as the Taliban—which had about 600 people in the city initially—as soon as they entered Kunduz and started to fight, the ANP, Afghan National Police, abandoned their posts. So I think the ANP have basically shown themselves to be worse than useless as far as security has been concerned over the years. And you had 600 Taliban fighting between 5(,000) and 7,000 ANSF troops for 12 hours before the ANA withdrew to the airport.

And when you put this all in the context that we have—that Afghanistan presently has 40 percent unemployment, you know, fiscal crises left and right, third lowest revenue base of any country in the world, why should we think that there’s any sustainability possible with the ANSF?

DAVIDSON: Well, Tom, you’re a better expert on this than I am, I have to note. You know, I don’t know if it’s sustainable. I mean, I don’t know what kind of choice the Afghan government has but to continue to try to build up the Afghan security forces. I think what you’re putting your finger on is kind of what we were talking about earlier, is how hard it is for an outside actor to build up the security sector of a country that is in such a failed status as Afghanistan is and was. And so I don’t think it’s—my personal opinion, again, you are a better expert on this than I am—but my personal opinion is that it’s not completely hopeless, but that it will take sustained effort.

And you know, it is troubling that, you know, the ISAF coalition has dwindled and people have gone home. And I think, correct me if I’m wrong, but the Kunduz area wasn’t an American area. And so there was a little bit of that problem. You know, as we try to pull out of Afghanistan, it’s a bit of a Jenga game. You know, you pull a little piece out and you watch to see if the tower will shake. And this is an area where what happened in Kunduz indicates a very weak part of the system’s still there.

So I mean, I don’t know what the alternative is. I mean, I think that—again, back to my point about if you have a host nation government that’s willing to make the changes and is willing to work with you—if you don’t have that it’s folly, but if you do have that then it’s worth supporting. And I think that’s kind of what we have maybe for the first time in a long time in Afghanistan. And so it’s with Ashraf Ghani, who understands all these economic pieces that you talked about, is willing to make the tradeoffs, actually willing to negotiate with the Taliban. And so probably worth giving him a longer chance. He’s only been in office for, like, what, less than a year? So I’m not wholly optimistic, but I’m not wholly pessimistic either.

Q: Thanks, Janine.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question will come from Norwich University.

Q: Hi. My name is Angela (sp).

And I just want to say that I love the fact that you’re sort of getting everything out in the open, but I’m trying to get to the crux of this and to get your opinion. Everyone is assuming that the war against ISIS will end as a positive diplomatically. And as time sort of ticks on, you know, I start to think, well, maybe they could be planning something bigger—you know, like a 9/11—to really sort of show their stuff. And I’m curious to know your opinion. I mean, how do you see the conflict in Syria ending? I mean, we’ve got this sort of cheap coat of paint sort of premise that’s out there. The airstrikes don’t really seem to be hitting targets that matter. New supporters join ISIS every day. And I’m just, you know, kind of wondering, could this be sort of a 20 to 30 year crisis that just is an economic drain and we don’t really get anywhere and make any headway as far as taking this—taking ISIS down and all the other political factions that are there?

DAVIDSON: Yeah. I mean, I think that the—what’s happening in Syria and with ISIS is a huge, huge complex problem. I don’t see any short-term solution. And this is why people get so upset because they’re like, we’re bombing stuff. Why isn’t it fixing it? Of course bombing stuff isn’t going to fix it. I don’t know of many people there talking about trying to find a diplomatic solution with ISIS. People I think are talking about trying to find a diplomatic solution with Assad.

I think, you know, that there’s a sense that if you could get the Assad politics right in Syria, and if you could get—you could then get some of the Sunni-Shia politics right. And if you get some of the Sunni-Shia politics right, then you may take some of the heat—some of the fuel away from ISIS, because that’s where they get most of their recruits, is from all the disaffected Sunnis, especially that’s where they get a lot of their expertise is from the former Iraqi military. And so these are all short-term issues that people grapple with every single day.

What I—I mean, you asked my personal opinion—I mean, I see this as an incredibly long term problem. I don’t—and I said before, there’s no short-term solution. There’s no military—purely military solution. And there’s no American solution. So when I talk about cheap coats of paint, I mean, I’m not even really—I mean, Syria’s no different. The Syria-ISIS problem is in a different category in my mind in many ways. The ISIS problem, I think, in the short maybe even to medium term is not, I don’t think, an existential threat to the United States. I think that they’re more concerned with building a state in the region. And they may motivate people to do homegrown terrorist acts in the short term.

I think in the longer-term, though, that they are a bigger threat. They are digging in across the region, building mission plans even. I mean, they’re very well-funded. I mean, they are a threat and they need to be—they need to be addressed. And I don’t see it happening purely militarily. I think that we need to cut off their recruits. We need to cut off their funding. And there are other things that can be done as well. But I mean, I share your sort of dismay at the—

Q: Yeah.

DAVIDSON: —at the problems in Syria. And you know, some people compared it to the 30 Year’s War. And I think you kind of sort of mentioned that. You know, when you—

Q: Exactly. Exactly—that’s exactly what I was getting at.

DAVIDSON: When you look at the 30 Years’ War and how it ended, it didn’t just, boom, end with, like, the Peace of Westphalia. It took five years of a number of little deals being cut across the region that sort of culminated in that. And so that’s the kind of thing that is going to have to happen politically in that region because all the actors—from Syria, to the Gulf States, to Iraq, to Iran, to Turkey, the Kurds, you know, non-state actors, as well as state actors—they all have their own—they all have their own sets of interests and they conflict, right?

So even if you pull a coalition together, you have kind of – you know, people are still operating in their own sphere and in their own ways. And you can’t just focus on ISIS or just focus on Syria. I mean, so I think that, at a political level, some of the things we talk about here is, you know, you’ll have long-term rounds of negotiations before anything changes. And I think in the end, if there is an end, you’ll see a very different—probably see a very different Middle East.

Q: Right. Right. Thank you so much.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Let’s sneak in one last question, and then we’ll have to close.

OPERATOR: Our last question will come from Colorado Technical University.

Q: Yes. Hello, Dr. Davidson.


Q: This is Professor Ben Stancati from Colorado Tech. Thanks for doing this. Very informative.

The question is, if we’re going to engage in a certain area or region, say whatever, in the future, is there a cultural and historical dimension that comes into play? In other words, before we go there, should we educate ourselves in those two areas—both in, say, the history and the culture of a particular region?

DAVIDSON: Absolutely. I mean, that’s one of the huge takeaways from the Iraq-Afghanistan problem set. I mean, to go in militarily to Afghanistan and to not understand, you know, the core structure and support base of the Taliban, for instance, to—you know, you have all these kinds of just sort of painful stories you hear about the beginning couple years in Iraq where you had, you know, tribal sheikhs, you know, coming to the U.S. military and asking them, you know, for assistance and just sort of being turned away because they weren’t taken seriously, when really that—those were the people that you needed to talk to, right? Not understanding who needs to be—who you need to reach out to and who you need to talk to, and how, is a huge problem.

Again, I commend Emma Sky’s book on this, where, you know, you see this woman who, you know, for years is in Iraq trying to help the military support the political—she’s helping the military, but the military’s also helping her do the political work that needs to be done. And you see this slow learning happening over time, where the people that are there getting more and more knowledgeable about who the power players are and how it works.

You know, the last thing I’ll say about this as an example is the surge—the so-called surge in Iraq. I forget the—somebody on the line I’m sure what the Iraqi word was that they—that the tribes used for the surge, the awakening they called it, but it was, like, this is the fifth time that—for four times, the Sunni tribes had tried to shake off al-Qaida and had—it wasn’t until the fifth time, when, you know, the United States also kind of realized what was going on and tried to help, that it was successful, at least at that phase, of ousting al-Qaida.

And then seeing—following that, seeing being sort of blind or ignorant to the political dynamics that were happening between and among Maliki and the tribes was also a grave error, of just sort of not paying attention to the cultural, historical, and political elements in the region. So, yes, keep teaching culture and history at tech—Colorado Tech.

FASKIANOS: Wonderful. Well, Janine, we are out of time, but we appreciate your spending this hour with us, and for everybody’s great questions. It was a really terrific call. And I wanted to congratulate you on your nomination for undersecretary of the Navy, and wish you well in those hearings. And we look forward to watching you as you progress in your career. So thank you very much.

DAVIDSON: Thank you. Thanks so much.

FASKIANOS: Our next call will be on Thursday, November 19th, from 2:00 to 3:00 p.m. Lawson Brigham, distinguished professor of geography and Arctic policy at the University of Alaska Fairbanks will discuss the future of the Arctic. So in the meantime, please follow us on Twitter at @CFR_Academic for information on new CFR resources and upcoming events. And we look forward to your participation in the next call. So thank you all and thank you, Janine Davidson.

DAVIDSON: Thank you.


This is an uncorrected transcript.

Top Stories on CFR

United States

How an EU-style “Single Market Project” could spur U.S. Services Sector

Terrorism and Counterterrorism

Targeted operations by U.S. forces have eliminated notorious leaders of armed extremist groups, al-Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri the latest among them. But how much they disrupt these terrorist organizations is questionable.


Kenya’s next president will have to win more than just votes to gain legitimacy.