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Rand study tries to focus on lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan, but what have we learned?

What lessons should we have learned from Iraq and Afghanistan?

Put in current terms: Who wants to forecast the ultimate result of U.S. commitments to increasing military and economic support for selected insurgents in Syria and the new government of President Petro Poroshenko in Ukraine?

Walter Pincus reports on intelligence, defense and foreign policy for The Washington Post. He first came to the paper in 1966 and has covered numerous subjects, including nuclear weapons and arms control, politics and congressional investigations. He was among Post reporters awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. View Archive

President Obama, backed by Congress, is making these critical moves.

My questions about it all arose while I was reading a Rand Corp. paper released Thursday: “Initial Thoughts on the Impact of the Iraq War on U.S. National Security Structures.”

The United States, along with several allied countries, supported insurgents in Afghanistan in the 1980s who overthrew a Soviet-installed regime. Then Washington walked away. By 2001, Afghanistan was ruled by an extremist Taliban regime, supportive of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack, the United States collaborated with some Afghan insurgents to oust the Taliban, and with other countries helped establish what was hoped to be a more democratic government. This time we stayed.

In 2003, Washington led another military coalition that ended the Iraqi dictatorship of Saddam Hussein and sought to install a more democratic system in Baghdad.

By 2005, the United States found itself trying to remake the Kabul and Baghdad governments while fighting insurgents in both countries. In Iraq, about 4,500 Americans were killed and 32,000 wounded with direct costs of about $830 billion — plus billions more to come from veterans’ benefits. Afghanistan has seen 2,200 killed and 19,600 wounded, with a cost exceeding $700 billion and counting.

The two commitments expanded far beyond what was contemplated.

In Syria, the United States is again working with a group of nations in support of insurgents. But what will be Washington’s responsibility if Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad is forced out and a new government emerges in Damascus? In Ukraine, we are giving support to its new government, which is facing armed, pro-Russian insurgents. Obama has offered financial support and recently announced $5 million worth of body armor and night-vision goggles to go along with already provided ready-to-eat meals and funds for non-lethal assistance — including clothing, sleeping bags and generators.

What’s next for the United States in Syria and Ukraine?

As the Rand paper points out, U.S. intervention, whether supporting insurgents or countering them, lead to unintended consequences. Speaking of support to Syrian groups fighting Assad’s forces, the Rand paper says, “It remains to be seen how far the lessons of fighting insurgents [as was done eventually in Iraq and is being done in Afghanistan] will go when it comes to the task of helping them topple their government.”

The Rand paper focuses on several issues, starting with counterinsurgency operations.

Whatever the U.S. military learned in the 1960s and 1970s in Vietnam about fighting insurgents was forgotten, requiring almost five years after the 2003 invasion of Iraq for the adoption of Gen. David Petraeus’s counterinsurgency doctrines. Transferred to Afghanistan, forms of the doctrines have become basic to the military.

One apparent post-Iraq outcome, according to Rand, is the avoidance of “large-scale, prolonged stability operations” in favor of “small-scale contingency operations,” with a recognition that stability and counterinsurgency activities may be required after any combat against a major country.

There is also mounting appreciation for the value of “local intelligence” carried out by “lower-level units, whereby local intelligence about tribes, networks [and] economic issues . . . could be effectively collected and exploited,” the Rand study said.

One of the most effective counterinsurgency tools for the military, Rand said, was the Commander’s Emergency Response Program (CERP), which — after some trial and error — allowed lower-level officers to use readily available funds “to repair battle damage, make condolence payments or start local reconstruction projects.” Used to better results in Afghanistan, Rand believes CERP “will hopefully inform future missions should they arise.”

One result from Iraq has been the growth of military civil affairs units, but the biggest gainer for the future has been Special Operations Command, which has increased to almost 70,000 while the size of Pentagon’s overall force levels decline.

Another effect of Iraq, according to Rand, is concern about combat casualties. While the fatalities have been far lower than in Korea or Vietnam, the ratio of wounded-to-killed was “higher than ever before, largely as a result of advances in battlefield medical treatment.” According to Rand, “these relatively low casualty rates may increase public expectations that future wars can and should be fought without losing large numbers of U.S. troops.”

Cost is another factor. Iraq and Afghanistan were the first wars in which a president did not seek a tax increase to pay for the fighting. That was the case with George W. Bush when he invaded Iraq and with Obama when he added troops in Afghanistan. The bills are still coming in for both.

The Cost of War Project, based at Brown University, has projected veterans’ benefitsfrom the Iraq war alone could top $450 billion. In the decade since 2001, the Pentagon’s base budget increased 40 percent in real terms, and though it has dropped since its 2010 peak, it is higher than “defense spending during the Reagan administration, at least in real dollars,” the Rand study said.

What costs are those advocating increased intervention in Syria and Ukraine willing to pay in terms of casualties and funds?

For previous Fine Print columns, go to



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