Home Afghanistan military recent War War on Terror Why Aren’t Our Generals Learning?
Home Afghanistan military recent War War on Terror Why Aren’t Our Generals Learning?

Why Aren’t Our Generals Learning?

A third of the way into his article, “Afghanistan Did Not Have to Turn Out This Way”, David Petraeus, former head of Central Command, who led forces in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and then headed the CIA, admits the war was never going to end.

“Some senior officials, including me, had cautioned that we would not be able to do in Afghanistan what we had done in Iraq—that though we might be able to drive violence down, we would not be able to ‘flip’ the country, as we had during the surge in Iraq, and provide it a whole new beginning,” he writes.

"When we recognized that we couldn’t 'win' the war, we did not even seriously consider that we might just 'manage' it," Petraeus complains.

Managing the war would mean a permanent military presence in Afghanistan.

There was never any serious plan to withdraw from Afghanistan. Nation building, Petraeus argues, “was not just unavoidable; it was essential”. “How else do you help build the forces and capabilities that allow you to hand off crucial tasks—such as denying sanctuary to terrorists, securing the population and infrastructure, and running the country and its myriad institutions?”

The Afghan government and its military were never meant to function independently and couldn’t. As the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction’s report demonstrated, the Afghan military had not been designed to work independently. When the United States and our allies withdrew, the infrastructure was gone and it collapsed.

Petraeus’s theme is that Afghanistan fell because of a lack of commitment from us, but his idea of commitment is a permanent military presence propping up a permanently failed state.

“Forever war” gets thrown around a lot. And it’s unavoidable. The western world has been in a forever war with Islam for over a thousand years. There’s no reason to think that’s about to change except through our surrender. But did it ever make sense to turn Afghanistan into the frontier of a forever war? What Petraeus ignores is that the war quickly migrated back to its epicenter in the Middle East and the fighting followed it. Al Qaeda became irrelevant.

While Petraeus lobbied for a presence in Afghanistan, Obama’s Arab Spring poured gasoline all over the Middle East. Afghanistan became a backwater of the Global Jihad. And despite recent events, it still is. When Osama bin Laden headed to Afghanistan, there were few places in the Middle East where Islamists could safely organize, build training camps and plan a great war.

Al Qaeda turned to the outskirts, Africa and Afghanistan. These days, ISIS, Al Qaeda allies, and other Jihadists have plenty of room in Iraq, Syria, the spaces between Israel and Egypt, and Libya, not to mention much of Africa. Most importantly, they built networks in Europe and have a physical and internet presence that can recruit Islamic terrorists across America.

“Islamist extremists will seek to exploit ungoverned, or inadequately governed, spaces,” Petraeus observes. But those spaces now include European no-go zones, significant portions of the Middle East, and, at the rate we’re going, will come to include parts of the United States.

The Bush solution was to build up democratic governments as alternatives to the Islamists. Obama flipped that formula on its head by presenting Islamists as the democratic alternative. That approach led eventually to a deal with the Taliban and the collapse of Afghanistan.

But what happens in Afghanistan may matter much less than the broader scope of the war.

Petraeus warns that Afghanistan will "likely will be an incubator for Islamist extremism in the years ahead".

True, but the country with the highest percentage of ISIS fighters was Tunisia, the vanguard of Obama’s Arab Spring. That's followed by Saudi Arabia, Russia, Turkey, Jordan, and France. Afghanistan doesn't even place, but America, with 150 Jihadis, is 25th, right behind Algeria.

America and Europe’s major cities have long since become incubators of what he calls “Islamic extremism”. The Jihadist imams aren’t just running mosques, they’re teaching in major universities, they’re not just recruiting in prisons, but in Congress. Qatar’s Al Jazeera isn’t just a drop box for Osama’s videos, it sets the foreign policy agenda for the entire media. And D.C.

Petraeus is still fighting yesterday’s war, because he never understood the nature of the enemy. There’s no sign that any of our blind generals can offer more than the same failed strategies.

The Afghanistan withdrawal was a disaster because it was based on a series of lies built around nation building, beginning with the idea that Afghanistan could ever function as a non-Islamist and non-terrorist state, and concluding with the bigger myth that a deal could be made with the Taliban. Diplomats try to turn military problems into political ones, but Petraeus admits that he knew better, that there could be no political solution to Afghanistan’s problems.

Hanging over all this is the shadow of the failed policies of the Cold War.

After America abandoned efforts to fight Communism at home, we did our best to fight it abroad. The Soviet Union and Communist China dragged us into brutal battles against insurgent forces into narrow theaters that drained our morale and public support for the war on Communism. It also allowed the Left to radicalize the culture and begin the takeover of the Democrats.

Islamists and their leftist allies recreated this gameplan in the aftermath of September 11. And it worked the same way. The anti-Islamist Democrat is as extinct as his anti-Communist counterpart. Public support for the War on Terror collapsed after Afghanistan and Iraq.

A smarter retired general who serves on numerous influential boards and committees might examine how it was that our enemies got us the same way twice. And how we failed to learn anything either time. But we have a distinct shortage of smart generals or leaders of any kind.

Petraeus’ arguments recapitulate familiar Cold War paradigms. He argues for sustained commitments in war theaters, bipartisan foreign policies and accepting the fallibility of allied governments. These were the arguments coined by Cold War interventionists in response to leftist anti-war movements. And they have a certain truth to them, but they’re also defeatist.

Fighting Islamic terrorist outbreaks, like Communist ones, in certain places like Afghanistan made sense, turning them into another outpost of a global cordon sanitaire is a level of imperialist ambition we cannot afford and that Petraeus isn’t even proposing. Instead he envisions that we commit to fighting in the same theater in 2022 that we did in 2002.

Even if it makes no particular sense.

The Bush administration made plenty of mistakes, but believing that we should permanently remain in Afghanistan wasn’t one of them. It was Obama who insisted on an Afghan surge. That disastrous policy was championed by men like Petraeus and it led us absolutely nowhere.

The trouble with Petraeus and so many of the generals, woke or un-woke, is that they’re McClellans, procedurally and politically competent, but lacking any larger vision of the war.

That’s why we continue to win battles while losing the war.

Almost every time Petraeus mentions the I” word, it’s paired with, “Islamist extremism” or “ultraconservative interpretations of Islam”. Like so much of his essay, it’s an outdated formulation that acts as if the central issue in a global conflict is tone rather than victory.

Winning battles while losing the war has taught them nothing except to ignore the war harder.

Our enemies are using ideology to win a war. Our generals still believe that the war can be managed if we avoid dealing with reality, the nature of the enemy, the battlefield and the fact that the trajectory of the fighting has been steadily drawing closer to our interests and to us. If we don’t find some better generals soon, they will go on managing the war while dooming us to an absolute defeat within another generation, not in Afghanistan, but here on our own soil.

Afghanistan was always going to turn out this way. The question is how will America turn out?

Daniel Greenfield is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center. This article previously appeared at the Center's Front Page Magazine.

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Thank you for reading.


  1. Anonymous23/8/22

    Of the world's eight billion people, a quarter,
    or two billion are Muslim. Muslims hold that
    those six billion infidels will be killed if
    they refuse subjugation or Islam. Absolute;
    unchanged for 1,400 years.

    This is part of what our Generals and civilization
    refuse to learn: The fate of the six billion.

    The ultimatum addresses the infidels: submit or
    die. What if the infidels finally turn it around?
    Abandon Islam or die. Liars die too.

    There it is; what we and our Generals resist.
    Simple and obvious. Not easy, but a millennium


  2. Holly Salassie23/8/22

    This is profound, and I'd the sequel to your previous insights in the last blog.
    "Ungoverned or inadequately governed spaces "eh?
    An insecure population with no reliable infrastructure or institutional redress or protection huh?
    Chicago, London , Brussels or Malmö know nothing about these Big Themes of the ribboned buffoons like Petreaus, Kelly, McChrystal and Thoroughly Modern Milley...(© Mark Steyn!😁).
    Do they?
    Our chances came in the late 80s, but Reagan and Thatcher were mired in Iran Contra and Poll Tax internal twaddle. Fuelled by Mother's Little Helpers that now infest public life like Blair, Soros and Clinton Inc.
    We should have been forever funding the losing side in the Iran/ Iraq war, as Kissinger said...even an evil clock can be correct twice a day!
    And the Mother of All Battles was going on in Frankfurt and San Fran/NY wasn't it? Not in the dust bowls of Mesopotamia, Gig and Persian Magog etc . But we missed it ,and preferred the peace of the graveyard then, as now!
    We should also have got Yeltsin sobered up, and dealt with the supplicant ,appalling CCP after Tiananmen...but we screwed the Soviets( Armand Hammer etal), and slobbered all over the Chinese. Feinstein, Lieberman and( of course) Clinton and Murdoch etc.
    Could not have been more wrong . But our existential threat now pays Zuck and Fink well. So here we are.

    1. Anonymous23/8/22

      "...forever funding the losing side in the
      Iran/Iraq war." I read this excellent plan
      by Daniel Pipes, How brilliant to keep them
      wasting lives and resource at so little cost
      to us. Islam's rise was eased by post-war
      weakness of Persia and Byzantium. Time for
      a little pay-back. --Thomas

    2. you're right about all of it, the underlying issue was a combination of elites detached from the country, the absurd humanitarian imperialism of a foreign policy adopted initially as a propaganda technique that we decided to take seriously, and the decay of our own culture

      like most empires, we're now swamped with the enemy which we fought abroad and then imported at home

  3. Mike-SMO23/8/22

    Afghanistan was a "forever" gang/clan war. The government we installed was just a front for the U.S. military "gang". If we destroyed the clans and stayed for many generations, it might have made a difference. Our only realistic option was to destroy al Qaeda and those supporting the terrorists, including those in Pakistan, and then go home. Maintaining the clans perpetuated the endless war. The gang war would go on, forever.

    Someone in DC was skimming a lot of cash off that occupation and had no interest in ending the grift.

  4. Anonymous23/8/22

    Really, it's "Why aren't our politicians learning?" and the answer is that they have been captured by the Complex and the Complex wants forever wars for budgets, promotions, weapons systems, profits, ego, pensions, etc. And ALL of those are used to rent or buy pols willing to send your kids to kill and die for reasons not important enough to win. The military remembers the inter-war period of bad postings, now toys, no promotions, no upgrades to bases, etc. They don't want to go through that again and the only way to avoid it is to gin-up stupid, pointless wars they demand to fight but refuse to win - and refuse to allow their rented politicians to end or to not fight.

  5. Anonymous24/8/22

    After reading this I must ask the question: Daniel, have you served in the military or Army? If not I am amazed at your insight into our military, you truly have it nailed. I served 26 years, Army and my last 10 as a primary staff officer at the 4 star level.

    Even in my last years on AD from 84-94, when working at the 4 star level I worked for several Generals in Doctrine that not only did I think they were just plain stupid, but so did the DA civilians and in private the Colonels also.

    In our ranks there are ‘wunderkinds’ these are GOs that somehow make the rank of General by the time they are 40 with less than 20 years of active duty? I knew one who made his mark as the Landry officer at Ft XXXX, that was the GRAND start for his career to 4 stars. I can say the people that worked for him all thru the ranks never thought he would see Col let alone 4 stars. I also worked for him when he was a 4 star and not call him smart General.

    I was an Infantry soldier enlisted and Officer. I served under some that I would have followed to Hell itself and I served under more than a few that I followed out of idle curiosity and duty; always wondering what are they going to do next.

    I concur with your thoughts 100%!

    1. thank you for your service, no I did not, unfortunately I've been writing about this since 9/11

      thank you for your insights from within, it seems as if the career ladder has become more corrupt and more political than ever, following D.C. agendas rather than any kind of talent or merit

  6. Anonymous24/8/22

    We need a draft system like Israel Military or Community Service. Currently in USA 🇺🇸 the majority of enlisted come from CSA and are poor

    1. yes, we tried to avoid the subversion of the Vietnam War by ending the draft, which worked to a limited degree, but meant that those most likely to serve were poorer, more rural, white or minority, and elites had no skin in the game unless, like Buttigieg, etc, they were using the military as a springboard for politics

  7. Anonymous24/8/22

    You have written here about the gelding of our military, their fealty to the administration and the increasing technical obsolescence of certain branches of the services. If protracted conflicts in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan were disastrous mistakes in retrospect, and the combined threats of radical, insurgent Islam globally (and within our borders) and now China are imminent, what exactly, in your opinion, should be the posture of our military regarding any sort of future intervention. In other words, what constitutes smart leadership by smart generals, should any ever surface again?


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