The Lessons of Afghanistan: War Fighting, Intelligence, and Force Transformation. By Anthony A. Cordesman. (Washington, D. C.: The Center for Strategic and International Studies Press, 2002. Pp. viii, 168. $21.95 paper.)
In this era of reality-based television shows, it seems that even wars have to compete for the public's attention. Surveying national news networks or newspapers, one would be hard pressed to find any in-depth analysis on the progress of post-conflict efforts in Afghanistan. Despite the fact that our global war on terrorism has not yet concluded, that war in South Asia has lost our attention as Iraq and national politics have taken center stage.
With no end in sight in the war on terror, our military and diplomatic leaders would be well served to read Anthony Cordesman's initial appraisal of "the forgotten war." Cordesman, who holds the Arleigh Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and serves as a national security analyst for ABC News, has written extensively on asymmetrical warfare, terrorism, and southwest Asian military forces. In Lessons, this highly regarded military expert rightly cautions the reader that deriving lessons from a war still in progress can be risky business. But as World War II historian Michael Doubler has demonstrated, integrating lessons learned during a conflict--while a complex undertaking--can also be highly advantageous, as evinced by the U. S. Army in the European Theater of Operations.
Central to Cordesman's argument is that the Pentagon should not focus solely on technological "fixes" to perceived problems. He points out that asymmetrical warfare is highly adaptive. "There have been many times in the past," he notes, "when states using advanced technology and conventional forces announced victory over guerrilla and terrorist forces, only to see these forces adapt or reemerge as a different kind of threat." His counsel notwithstanding, the second chapter of Lessons is predominantly a litany of statistics on aircraft and munitions usage data. Readers lacking a firm grasp of U. S. Air Force aircraft capabilities and mission requirements will be hard pressed to garner much useful information from this chapter. This same format continues into chapter 3, oftentimes limiting the author's depth of analysis.
Relying heavily on defense periodicals and newspapers that contain little historical perspective and content, the author could have better developed his assertion that the war in Afghanistan was unique. According to Cordesman, these unique aspects of Afghanistan included distinctive challenges that were "greatly increased by distance, a lack of prewar forward bases, major political sensitivities, weather and by dealing with a dispersed enemy located in a country the size of Texas." These conditions appear more to be the norm than the exception in today's contemporary operating environment.
The true strength of this work lies in the chapter entitled, "Lessons from a Partial Victory in an Ongoing Conflict." While Cordesman asserts that the war in Afghanistan was unique, he convincingly demonstrates that there are lessons to be recognized and studied if we are to succeed in our war on terrorism. He gives credit to an enemy capable of adapting its own tactics to combat American military strengths and effectively using "distributed warfare" to "disperse and hide in unstable states." At a time when the U. S. Army is placing increased emphasis on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and technological sensors to provide "situational awareness" to its commanders, Cordesman rightly warns of the limitations of such intelligence gathering efforts. As he notes, "in asymmetric warfare pilots and UAVs cannot firmly differentiate enemy forces and facilities from civilians, either in built-up areas or the field."
Interestingly, Cordesman argues that the military's focus on concepts of technologically supported decisive battle has harmful consequences when defining strategic goals in terms of global terrorism. The United States has historically grappled with problems in planning for and implementing nonmilitary instruments of national power when it involves conflict termination and successful nation building. Cordesman advises that "it is time that U. S. war planners begin to plan for true victory, not simply defeat of enemy forces."
Relying on technological solutions to solve military problems--while important--cannot be the centerpiece of effectual strategy. Cordesman expends a good deal of effort driving home the point that coalitions are important even for superpowers. Indeed, he devotes eighteen pages to detailing "allied" contributions during the war in Afghanistan and while lengthy, proves that this is a global war on terrorism requiring effective diplomatic efforts. Cordesman accurately points out that coalition operations provide flexibility of both political and military value. Over-reliance on the military as the primary instrument of power will not sustain America for the long haul.
The significance of this book is its utility in recognizing that Washington is in for a protracted war against terrorism and even in Afghanistan the work is not yet finished. Issues of financial aid, attacks from the Taliban, women's rights, drugs, warlordism, and surges in fundamentalism still prove that Afghanistan remains a complicated challenge for the United States. If we fail to learn from our experiences in one campaign during the global war on terrorism, future conflicts will only prove increasingly more difficult and perhaps even unmanageable as the war progresses.