America’s Foreign Legions: How We Treat Our Proxies Defines Us

Foreign Legion

America’s Foreign Legions: How We Treat Our Proxies Defines Us

The real and present history of American warfare is one of outsourcing; of volatile marriages of convenience between the United States and its partisans, partners, and proxies. Like all relationships, they come with mixed expectations and varied intentions.

On October 7, 2001, President George W. Bush launched America into its new war in Afghanistan. Preceded by the insertion of CIA and U.S. Special Forces teams into Afghanistan to prepare the ground, Operation Enduring Freedom commenced with massive bombing and airborne assaults. The operation made quick work of dispersing the Taliban and taking something initially resembling control of Afghanistan.

The Bush administration attempted to meet the letter of U.S. and international law. Within two weeks of the 9/11 strike, the U.S. Congress passed legislation titled, “Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists.” The Bush administration subsequently made what it believed to be a compelling case for authorization of U.S. action in Afghanistan under the United Nations Charter, a question never effectively resolved. Nonetheless, in December 2001 the United Nations Security Council authorized the creation of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to assist the Afghan Interim Authority in maintaining security and the Bonn Conference selected Hamid Karzai the leader of the Afghan Interim Authority. The second American adventure in Afghanistan was in motion. 

At peak, American forces in Afghanistan reached more than 100,000, almost the same number of troops the Soviets had at their own peak, garrisoned at almost exactly the same spots across the expanse of Afghanistan. In addition, according to the Brookings Institute Afghanistan Index, at the height of the war, there were almost 110,000 U.S. Defense Department contractors in Afghanistan and an almost equal number of local national contractors. Through the end of FY2020, the combined costs of all of the U.S. wars in South Asia and the Middle East totaled $6.4 trillion, according to the Watson Institute of Brown University’s Report in November 2019. According to the Congressional Research Service Report of December 23, 2020, the cost of World War II, in today’s dollars, was $4.1 trillion. Major nation-building costs following World War II, specifically the U.S. Marshal Plan for Europe, were approximately $135 billion in today’s dollars. 

The American response to the 9/11 attacks came swathed in the flags of many nations. That the cause was righteous was not in doubt and international forces participating in ISAF numbered in scores. But as years wore on, signs the American effort was beginning to spin out of control were becoming apparent and by 2014, most of those countries were gone. Now, twenty years after the initial invasion, the second U.S. betrayal of Afghan forces is underway as America slouches towards the exits.

The withdrawal of the remaining 2,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan is one that should be managed with exquisite forethought—a requirement unlikely to be met in a war long guided by political exigency and reinvented almost annually as yet another corner is supposedly turned. An entire generation of Afghans has been born and grown into young adulthood in a society influenced, if not entirely afforded, by an American presence. We must understand that when we depart we leave behind hundreds of thousands of Afghans in whom we have engendered belief in national and local government institutions we created in our own democratic image, with little thought given to their survivability in our absence. We depart with the hope of a population whose percentage of university students over the last twenty years has grown from less than 30,000 to over 185,000 since 2001. We pack up and leave with the expectations of the women who have tripled their numbers in Afghan schools. We take with us the standard of living of a “wired” Afghan population whose access to the Internet rose from 0.01 percent of the population in 2002 to 13.5 percent of the population by 2018 and a “connected” Afghan population where mobile cellular subscriptions rose from 25,000 in 2002 to almost 22 million in that same time. When the last American plane departs Kabul International Airport, so too departs the remaining hope of the 58 percent of the population who still believes the country is headed in the wrong direction and the 73 percent who believe that the greatest single problem facing Afghanistan is insecurity. This is not a case for staying in Afghanistan. This is an illustration of just some of the realities of what appears to be an inevitable decision to withdraw completely.

IF THERE is one issue where the incoming Biden administration seems to agree with the outgoing Trump administration, it is the apparent determination to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan. The Vietnam debacle may not ultimately be the perfect cautionary tale for the withdrawal from Afghanistan, but if we are to leave entirely, we must seriously contemplate the fate of the Afghan National Security Forces now. Peace negotiations with the Taliban in Doha may be reassuring to some, but the chances for smooth reconciliation in Afghanistan after so many years of warfare remains in serious question. Regardless of the results in Doha, an Afghanistan without U.S. forces will be an entirely new standard. Any agreements will at best be fragile. The United States must take into account that the main points of any agreement will likely fall apart soon after our forces leave the field for good. We must ask ourselves of what we are willing to simply wash our hands.

Over the course of our twenty-year engagement in Afghanistan, indigenous security forces have grown from under 5,000 at the launch of Operation Enduring Freedom to more than 350,000 today; about 200,000 under the Ministry of Defense and another 150,000 under the Ministry of Interior. Those numbers do not include veterans of the Defense and Interior Ministries who have retired from service due to wounds or longevity. Agreements with the Taliban aside, the obvious first question will be whether these Afghan security forces will be adequate for, and committed to, protecting the population and the established Afghan government entities the United States created. Will they stand fast when inevitable hostilities with the Taliban break out or will there be significant levels of desertion and defection? That is an unknown. What is known is that there will be a settling of accounts and retribution following an American withdrawal. Those Afghans who have fought at our side, serving as combatants, interpreters, or other close support personnel will inevitably turn to us for salvation. Will we bring them with us? Will we issue visas for them and their families, a process that has not so far given any Afghan cause for faith? Will we simply abandon them? These are just some of the deeply moral questions the incoming Biden administration will face. Our historical record is not promising. Even the relatively well-publicized category known as “Special Immigrant Visas” for Iraqi and Afghan translators/interpreters, designed for those “who worked with the U.S. Armed Forces or under Chief of Mission authority as a translator or interpreter in Iraq or Afghanistan” is available to only fifty persons a year. It is a program in which administration has been so rife with flaws and inefficiencies that far more than fifty Afghans and Iraqis are in very real danger as a result of very real service to American forces.

As in Vietnam, civilians will suffer for an American departure. There will be a massive movement of Afghans across “The Zero Line,” as the border with Pakistan drawn by the British in the nineteenth century, is known. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan almost three million Afghans took refuge across the Zero Line, a demarcation recognized only by Pakistan. There the Afghan drama will play out as it always has. Will the United States walk away from its Afghan adventure completely and consign another generation of hopeless Afghan youth to the waiting arms of the extremist mullahs in the madrassahs of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas? How will we avoid some of our best-trained partner forces in Afghanistan joining the vicious Haqqani Network when American subsidies and trainers disappear? Will we be prepared for events at the Zero Line and help Pakistan deal with the inevitable? Again, the signs are not auspicious. 

AFTER DECADES spent using $100,000 munitions to destroy $1,000 water buffaloes in Vietnam or $2,500 mopeds in Afghanistan, American defense planning currently revolves around great power competition (GPC) and the need to reset for a high-end fight with an international competitor such as China. This seems logical if GPC is simply moving to the fore for planners and force modernizers as irregular warfare takes a step back. But that is not the case. We are once again seeking to deny inconvenient reality; that we fight the wars with which we are presented while preparing for the ones that never come.

American military history is rife with repeated attempts to deny the basic truth that in practice the American way of war is predicated upon working by, with, and through third-party forces, and has been since 1950. It is a style of warfare built upon commitment and trust, two factors that American culture and impatience largely make us incapable of implementing effectively. Worse still, our national predilection for drive-through convenience and a chronic lack of a strategic constant ultimately results in the predictably consistent abandonment of the forces we entice to serve on our behalf.