Afghanistan – anatomy of a failure

Op-ed views and opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

In the past few days, the Taliban have overrun half of Afghanistan’s nation’s regional capitals, now Kandahar, the second-largest city has fallen. Kabul may be overrun within the week.

The U.S. has spent two decades in Afghanistan, to what end? Bismarck’s remark that the Balkans weren’t “… worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier” describes Afghanistan as well. Much of the country is “the land that time forgot.” Trying to forge a disciplined modern force from a largely and mutually hostile tribal society suffused with primitive Islamic fatalism has been a tribulation worthy of Job. Efforts to negotiate with the Taliban is as worthless as negotiating with North Vietnam was; they are winning and they know it. 

For Americans in combat, the rules of engagement were absurd.  Even when the enemy and his intentions were visible and obvious, Americans had to wait to be fired on before taking action.  Bing West, the retired Marine general who has been in Afghanistan and written extensively about it, was infuriated by rules that put Americans at a disadvantage. Pursuing bin Laden through the mountains turned into another fiasco where technology would do the job but where in reality the way to deal with his scruffy band was the way Gen. Crook dealt with the Apaches — stay on them and never give them any rest—an unceasing year ‘round campaign. Horse cavalry and mountain pack howitzers which could follow the tribesmen into the mountains and blast the stuffing out of them was what was called for. The U.S. military refused to learn from its own history. Forgotten were the Indian Wars, the army’s success in the Philippine Insurrection. and the marines squashing bandits in Central America in “the banana wars”. Needed for Afghanistan were long service troops dedicated to the effort like Crook’s cavalry, not rotating units out after a year knocking out any relationship with the locals and the experience gained in fighting mujahedeen or the Taliban.  

Likewise, Clausewitz’s admonitions about waging war, which every senior officer learns at Command and General Staff College, or War College were ignored by the military, and certainly by the Bush and Obama administrations.  Night Letters: Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the Afghan Islamists Who Changed the World, (2019) offers a detailed examination of the origins of Afghan conflict whose leaders from Kabul University’s elite waged an internecine conflict until an exhausted population welcomed the Taliban as the only alternative to constant death and destruction. Did it ever make it to any military reading list? The CIA knew the situation but still thought they could deal with warlords who passionately hated America.

The U.S. arrogantly ignored the British experience (just as in Iraq). I urged generals going out to read Churchill’s Malakand Field Force as little had changed since it was published in 1899. Viewing “The Man Who Would Be King” as a training film would be helpful as well. Few understood the place or appeared to want to, it was just getting a career ticket punched because at the end there is nothing to show for it, except a lot of dead and horribly wounded Americans who would be better off dead. What should have been a short, violent, punitive expedition morphed into a “nation-building” fiasco in a land where treachery and duplicity are the common coin, where pederasty is a national pastime, and women are scarcely human.

De-classified reports of dealing with the Afghan military paint a picture of frustration in problems in training to outright treachery.  All of the treasure and time expended have been to no avail.  Afghan units fall apart. What might have put some spine in them is the method the Russians used on their own troops in WW II. As the Red army moved forward behind it stood the NKVD (KGB) troops who would shoot any Russian who did not advance toward the enemy. You might get shot or killed by the enemy, but if you faltered the NKVD would definitely shoot you, a chance vs. a certainty. Stalin’s senior generals were under a death sentence.  

Even before the current predicament Afghans should have been told to fight for their own country: “You better win because if you lose, you’re not coming to America. The US is not an escape valve, and GIs are not doing your fighting.” As for the interpreters, the U.S. government wants to bring them here: NO! Let them grab a rifle and fight!

For America the Afghan war is winding down, Biden is fulfilling Trump’s withdrawal order. The press will write that it was the country’s longest war; it was not. The longest war was the Indian War, waged in fits and starts from the early 1600s to the late 1800s.  It was a conflict won by the grim determination of a small under-resourced volunteer army led by commanders who understood their enemy.  In the modern age is that too much to ask?


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