Refighting the Last Wars

What have we, and Senator John McCain, learned about Iraq and Afghanistan?

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Illustration by Oliver Munday for TIME

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We've argued these things to death over the past decade. But we may have the distance now to talk more analytically about what we learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, though probably not at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, unfortunately. The discussion might begin with an excellent new book called The Insurgents by Fred Kaplan, who writes about the military for Slate. It's an intellectual thriller about a guerrilla band within the U.S. military, led by Petraeus, who overturned the conventional theories of war fighting and installed counterinsurgency, or COIN--the jingling, unfortunate military acronym--as the tactic of choice to subdue Iraq. Kaplan clearly admires Petraeus and his circle of warrior-intellectuals. But he is clear-eyed about COIN's complicated track record.

In the long run, Kaplan argues, COIN may have limited practical utility in U.S. military operations. It requires time, resources and a responsible partner. The American public isn't very likely to provide the first two after this decade of war, and the developing world provides precious few of the latter. I'm talking about you, Hamid Karzai. But that doesn't mean COIN should be abandoned. In my experience, the tactic's greatest impact may have been on the U.S. troops who practiced it in the field. It forced them to be more thoughtful, entrepreneurial and humane--to knock on doors rather than knock them down--to protect and serve towns that badly needed both. These skills will be valuable in future humanitarian operations. They also may prove valuable as the troops come home to American neighborhoods that need security, services and leadership. Indeed, the success or failure of the surge home over the next few years may provide the ultimate answer to McCain's question.


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