Historian Says The U.S. Is 'Losing Hearts And Minds In Afghanistan' NPR's Steve Inskeep speaks with Aaron O'Connell about his book Our Latest Longest War. O'Connell, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, argues the U.S. is making the same mistakes it made in Vietnam.

Historian Says The U.S. Is 'Losing Hearts And Minds In Afghanistan'

Historian Says The U.S. Is 'Losing Hearts And Minds In Afghanistan'

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NPR's Steve Inskeep speaks with Aaron O'Connell about his book Our Latest Longest War. O'Connell, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, argues the U.S. is making the same mistakes it made in Vietnam.


In 2011, U.S. Marine Lieutenant Colonel Aaron O'Connell finished a tour of duty in Afghanistan. He's had a lot of time since then, year after year, to think about why that war continues.

AARON B. O'CONNELL: There seem to be a lot of parallels to the way we fought Vietnam.

INSKEEP: Vietnam, which was America's longest war until 9/11. Aaron O'Connell is not the first person ever to make that comparison. In fact, the specter of Vietnam is loomed over every U.S. military intervention since. But that is exactly what got Aaron O'Connell thinking, how could this be happening again?

O'CONNELL: I was surprised by that, particularly since the people who had written the counterinsurgency manual were steeped in the lessons of Vietnam. They weren't - we didn't forget Vietnam. We didn't ignore Vietnam. The people who wrote our tactics for Iraq and Afghanistan were scholars of the Vietnam War. They were men who had written Ph.D. dissertations on the war in Vietnam. And yet, we repeated the errors over and over again.

INSKEEP: As an officer who finished his career with a period on the staff of the National Security Council, Aaron O'Connell kept asking - why? He came to believe that there is something cultural about the way Americans fight wars, about the way they fight against insurgent groups, the way they try to win hearts and minds. This, he says, may help explain why the United States still has troops in Afghanistan, even though the force is much reduced, after 15 and a half years.

O'Connell has edited a book of essays by writers on the war, called "Our Latest Longest War." It's informed by his own experience. He was in Afghanistan six years ago when Osama bin Laden was killed.

O'CONNELL: I thought to myself, there's finally a way for this war to end. I had always been troubled by the global war on terror, both because you can't have a war against a tactic but also because war should be fought in confined spaces and for confined objectives.

INSKEEP: And this was the 10th year of that war.

O'CONNELL: And this was the 10th year of that war, and that was deeply troubling to me. And so when I saw that we had killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, I thought to myself - well, now we have an exit strategy.

INSKEEP: So it was a chance to declare victory and, if not go home, sort of go home. Why didn't that happen?

O'CONNELL: It's a difficult situation. The exit strategy we've had for Afghanistan since we started this war was to put in place an Afghan government that could secure the country by itself, that could provide for the basic needs of its people and, in so doing, not provide a breeding ground for terrorism. So that suggests that the bulk of the money, the resources, should go towards governance - towards building up the institutions of a state.

But there's a first precondition for all this, and that's security. And as long as the people doing the aid work, the infrastructure work, the building of the roads, the creation of a power infrastructure - as long as they're still being attacked by the Taliban, you can't do the governance and development. So security has to come first.

INSKEEP: So security hasn't been there to build the state even though bin Laden was killed, even though al-Qaida was...

O'CONNELL: That's correct. It's gotten worse almost every year.

INSKEEP: Have all of the United States's efforts to build up the central government, then, been just totally counterproductive all these years?

O'CONNELL: They have not, no. Some things have worked, and a number of things have not. The education efforts have worked quite well. Under the Taliban, there was less than a million people in schools and almost zero women. Now there are between 6 and 9 million Afghans going through education, and about a third of them are women. All of this is real progress, and it's sustainable. It pays dividends in the years that follow.

INSKEEP: Oh, because somebody who's educated might be more economically productive...

O'CONNELL: Exactly.

INSKEEP: ...Make more money, pay some taxes.

O'CONNELL: Correct. There's been some improvements in infrastructure, but it comes with a lot of caveats. So we've spent billions building roads in Afghanistan, but we then turned the roads over to the Afghans in 2013. We trained up a maintenance unit so that it could provide for road maintenance, and nothing has happened since then. Now, today, more than half of the roads are deemed unfit for heavy traffic. And as one taxi driver put it in 2014 - things have gotten so much worse, now if we drive too fast, everyone in the car dies.

So it's - really, we have to think about the things that are sustainable. And a number of our efforts in Afghanistan keep requiring follow-on costs or require Afghan actions that haven't been forthcoming.

INSKEEP: Would you keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan if it were up to you?

O'CONNELL: I would. But I think I would change how they operate there. There is a real and important counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan. So we have almost 9,000 troops in Afghanistan; 2,000 of them are there doing counterterrorism missions. That's appropriate and should stay. The real question is, what are the other 7,000 doing? If they are there for training the Afghan army and police and that Afghan army and police are showing no real signs of getting better, we probably have to re-evaluate how we engage with the Afghan government.

INSKEEP: Can I just mention one other thing? In visiting Afghanistan some years ago, quite early in this war, I found what many other people have found - that it was a wonderful and scenic country full of often inspiring, big-hearted people who were living through an unbelievably tragic story. Do you believe that it is the place of the United States and that the United States has the ability to help them out of that tragic story?

O'CONNELL: I believe we've been trying to help them out of the tragic story of Afghanistan for 15 years. Americans are big-hearted people. The United States is the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world. But there is still space to reason what the appropriate amount of blood and treasure is to spend on a mission that seems to be in stalemate at best, backsliding at worst.

I think we have pretty good evidence now, both from Iraq and Afghanistan, that the massive assembly-line attempt to produce capable, professional national security forces has not worked well, and it's been at tremendous cost. And for all those who say we should just keep doing what we're doing in Afghanistan, let me explain why that's not sustainable. Every year, between a quarter and a third of the Afghan army and the police desert. Now, these are people that we have armed and trained. We've given weapons to them. We've given them basic military training. And every year, a third of them disappear.

INSKEEP: With the guns.

O'CONNELL: With the guns. That's not sustainable for us economically, and it's certainly not sustainable for the Afghan people to just fill the hills with armed militias.

INSKEEP: Aaron B. O'Connell is the editor of a book of essays called "Our Latest Longest War." Thanks very much.

O'CONNELL: Thank you.

INSKEEP: O'Connell just left a post on the National Security Council and is becoming a university professor. His former boss, national security adviser H.R. McMaster, has been in Afghanistan this week considering what to do now.


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