The two-decade debacle that has been the American-led War in Afghanistan has almost come to a close. Doubtless much will be written on the subject in years to come, but in the immediate aftermath, two things are clear. First, the American military has a long road ahead of it if it ever wishes to be taken seriously again as an intellectual leader in the Profession of Arms. Second, the American political class, and by extension, the voters who elect them, are not serious people who can be trusted to act competently in the long term by allies whose very survival rests on that reliability. While this may have been suspected, the shambolic withdrawal/reinforcement currently being executed has brought both issues into stark relief. It is impossible to overstate the damage to U.S. credibility. In a serious nation, heads would roll. In the United States, as it currently operates, the culprits are relatively safe.
The enduring truth the U.S. military must learn, and Afghanistan’s parting lesson to the United States is adaptation. For twenty years the American military had unquestioned technological superiority in Afghanistan and could conduct operations as it wished. It was able to wage war with every advantage on its side. America is now defeated and retreating from Afghanistan.
The explanation is simple: American senior officers couldn’t adapt when institutional sacred cows were slaughtered by operational realities. Technology can’t fully substitute for manpower in a counterinsurgency; you can’t rebuild a nation before you secure it; and the Marquis of Queensbury rules can’t be used when fighting a ruthless fundamentalist insurgency, if you want to win. For two decades the U.S. military leadership attempted variations of the same strategies that failed time and again, rather than revert to effective and politically unpalatable methods with proven track records. The results of which we can now all watch with our own eyes.
The senior officers in question and the civilians who enabled them must now be called to account for their hubris and stupidity. America can survive the bungling of a low-intensity conflict half a world away. It cannot allow the same officers to botch a peer-level engagement against a nation like China, when they will have neither twenty years to figure out how to win nor unparalleled operational freedom to do so. The cost of a defeat inflicted by a peer-level adversary may be the destruction of our nation. Those who orchestrated this disaster must be cashiered from the service before they are given the opportunity to repeat their performance in Afghanistan against an opponent who poses a true existential threat.
The War in Afghanistan began simply enough. The United States had an undeniable casus belli in the 9/11 terror attacks. Afghanistan was playing host to Al Qaeda, who perpetrated them. America went to war as any self-respecting nation must in the face of such an attack. Or did it? There was no declaration of war on anyone. Even after 9/11, the American political class lacked the courage to take that most serious of steps. The excuses they offered were that Al Qaeda isn’t a nation, and an authorization for the use of military force is the same thing as a declaration of war. These lame excuses illustrate the personal cowardice of our governing class. A declaration of war is the gravest action Congress can take and requires individual senators and representatives to sign onto the act, undeniably tying them to the forthcoming war. The denizens of Congress hold it as a personal mantra to never allow themselves to be inextricably tied to, and thereby responsible for, anything. This was a herald of things to come.
Initial military operations had ostensibly clear goals; destroy Al Qaeda and overthrow the Taliban government that had given them shelter. This was effectively accomplished in the first twelve months. What came next? No one had bothered to plan that far ahead. Eventually, the politicians and the military brass decided nation-building was the thing to do. Nation-building was profitable for corporate America after all, not to mention defense contractors supplying a long-term occupation force. Undeniably, some members of the Bush administration and the Pentagon actually believed they could turn Afghanistan into a democratic country.
Unfortunately, by 2003 America was invading Iraq, and the Taliban, who’d retreated into the tribal regions of Pakistan, was ready to start making serious trouble again. Forcing the issue by overtly pursuing the Taliban into the only nuclear-armed Muslim nation with a highly unstable government had been deemed unwise. Military manpower was suddenly at a premium. The United States had the troops for shock and awe invasions, but it didn’t have enough to effectively garrison Iraq and Afghanistan while fighting two counter-insurgency campaigns.
Perhaps this situation might have been alleviated by federalizing the National Guard en masse, mobilizing the reserves, and deploying everyone into the combat zone for the duration…otherwise known as going to war. This never occurred. National Guard and Reserve units both deployed, but never in the numbers required. Whether this was purely a political decision, or a military miscalculation, is debatable; I suspect it was both. Instead, the decision was made to raise local forces and employ “contractors”—read: mercenaries—to augment US forces on the ground.
Suddenly the game plan became complex to the point of incoherence. The United States was to simultaneously raise local forces, coordinate allied operations in both nations, occupy both nations, democratize them, rebuild them, fight counter-insurgency operations in them, and do all of it with completely inadequate forces operating under the most politically correct rules of engagement imaginable. Serious questions on what the preconditions for a safe U.S. withdrawal looked like in both nations began to be met with evasive, nebulous answers. Several years into both conflicts, certainly by the Obama administration, those uncomfortable questions stopped being asked. The Forever War had begun.
From the standpoint of the political class and the military leadership, it wasn’t a bad war. It was undeclared and fought by a volunteer force. This enabled the politicians to be on whatever side of the pro/anti-war debate they liked whenever it was most convenient, and they didn’t have to worry about draft riots a la Vietnam. Contractors were making a mint on a conflict that seemed endless. The Pentagon brass got to try out their theories on things like low-intensity conflict, counterinsurgency, and force multiplication. As long as they didn’t bring up uncomfortable realities to the politicians in charge, they were lavished with trillions of dollars in military spending and left largely to their own devices. When they failed, very few of them were relieved for cause unless the failure happened to be widely publicized and politically damaging.
It all began to unravel in 2011 when President Barack Obama withdrew the bulk of American forces from Iraq. Without recapitulating the withdrawal debate, the prescient lesson from that decision would come two years later in 2013 when a numerically superior, better-equipped Iraqi Army was repeatedly beaten by invading ISIS forces. U.S. re-intervention stabilized the situation, but the curtain had been pulled back to reveal what every American soldier already knew: the Iraqi Army couldn’t fight. Outside of a select few units, the force the Americans had trained for years and lavished billions of dollars of equipment on was functionally useless on its own in the face of a determined enemy.
Instead of having a major “Come-to-Jesus” moment, the U.S. military blithely continued on in Afghanistan as if its Iraqi showpiece army hadn’t just been humiliated in its first major trial by fire. After all, the military reasoned, no one is going to pull out of Afghanistan. It would be a political nightmare, especially considering the catastrophe just witnessed in Iraq. The military had time to address any issues. Seven years later, nothing changed. The answer to this, I think, is simple. The Department of Defense had no better ideas. Even now as Afghanistan collapses, those shouting for us to remain in-country cannot articulate a plan of action that would eventually allow the United States to withdraw from a stable Afghanistan capable of defending its own interests. The Forever War is their only plan.
Compounding this lack of introspection was the nature of the Afghan Security Forces; the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP) themselves. As a group they were badly led, poorly trained, equipped to varying standards, frequently infiltrated by the Taliban who then attempted to kill their American trainers and Afghan comrades, and exhibited poor morale. There were exceptions in individuals and units. Generally, with enough command, control, and communications hand-holding and fire support they could be relied on to perform adequately in an auxiliary role for Coalition units. As a force capable of standing on its own resources in a credible defense of their nation, they were a nonentity. This reality has been made brutally clear over the past several weeks as the ANA and ANP largely melted away in the face of a fresh Taliban offensive. Those few capable units, primarily the hand-picked Afghan Special Forces, were committed piecemeal without adequate support and predictably destroyed.