When asked about the lessons of Vietnam, military historians often quipped that ‘we didn’t fight one war for ten years, we fought ten wars for one year each.’ The same could be said of Afghanistan. Troops come in, learn the lay of the land, and leave, oftentimes within the span of six to fifteen months, depending on which country and which branch of the military they are from. For soldiers it makes sense – the burdens of life on the front lines, the draw of family back home. But for leadership to leave as well represents a continual drain of knowledge and experience essential for any kind of lasting success. So to read in the Washington Post that Lt. Gen. David M. Rodriguez, one of the most thoughtful and experienced military leaders I ever met in Afghanistan, is most likely to be passed over when Gen. David H. Petraeus leaves in the fall, makes me wonder if we are not about the repeat the same mistake. The post writes “In Washington, Rodriguez is seen as a savvy fighter but a so-so salesman.”
The decision to bypass Rodriguez for the top job reflects a determination among senior Pentagon officials that the war needs a commander who can make the case for the increasingly unpopular conflict to Congress, the news media and skeptics in the White House.
The front-runner for Petraeus’ successor, according to the Post, is Lt. Gen. John Allen ”who played a key role in turning the Sunni tribes against the Iraqi insurgency but has never served in Afghanistan.”
Allen, no doubt, has formidable experience. Perhaps his salesmanship skills are better (at any rate, they will be put to the test). But in replacing a Lt. General who has three years of Afghan experience under his belt with a man who chalked up success in Iraq, we seem to be making another mistake – confusing Afghanistan with Iraq. That blunder may well be remembered as the defining characteristic of the Afghan war, when, decades from now, historians discuss what went wrong in Central Asia.