The recent Mayweather-McGregor fight is a good analogy for the United States' ("US") war in Afghanistan.
Mayweather, despite being 11 years older than his opponent and slightly smaller was able to win in a TKO because: 1) he knew his own strengths and weaknesses; 2) knew his opponent's strengths and weaknesses; and 3) had a plan for using his strengths against his opponent's weaknesses.
In the last 16 years of fighting in Afghanistan, the US has had none of those things.
Afghanistan is a classic "escalation of commitment" error (as they say in Business Schools) or a "bus ride to Abilene" (as they say in C&GSC). We got involved in Afghanistan because SOMETHING had to be done about the 9-11 Attacks and bin Ladin and the Al Qaida Brain Trust were there under Taliban protection.
There were more effective things that could have been done. Then-President Bush alluded to them during his speech after the attacks:
"Americans are asking, 'How will we fight and win this war?''
We will direct every resource at our command--every means of diplomacy, every tool of intelligence, every instrument of law enforcement, every financial influence, and every necessary weapon of war--to the destruction and to the defeat of the global terror network.
Now, this war will not be like the war against Iraq a decade ago, with a decisive liberation of territory and a swift conclusion. It will not look like the air war above Kosovo two years ago, where no ground troops were used and not a single American was lost in combat.
Our response involves far more than instant retaliation and isolated strikes. Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen. It may include dramatic strikes visible on TV and covert operations secret even in success.
We will starve terrorists of funding, turn them one against another, drive them from place to place until there is no refuge or no rest.
And we will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism. Every nation in every region now has a decision to make: Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists." Speech before a Joint Session of Congress, September 20, 2001.
However, instead of a "Back Alley War" (such as the one Israel had successfully waged against Palestinian Terror Cells in Europe after the1972 Munich Olympic Massacre), we attempted to fight a more conventional war, likely as an attempt to mollify public opinion.
We needed to be seen as having done SOMETHING.
THE US IN AFGHANISTAN
For a variety of reasons, that SOMETHING (called OPERATION ENDURING FREEDOM or "OEF," which also involved other places, like the Horn of Africa and the Philippines) was not all that effective in Afghanistan. Many of the old CIA operatives and "Blackside" Special Operators had retired since their involvement, whatever that was, in Afghanistan in the 1980s (almost 20 years before). While the Special Forces Operational Detachments A ("ODAs") that were involved in Afghanistan in 2001 did fine work, they did not really know the people they were working with and had less of an appreciation of what their capabilities and limitations were.
Bin Ladin escaped from Tora Bora, in part because warfare in Afghanistan has more in common with the Táin Bó Cúailnge than with the Bosnian and Kosovar Wars that Army Special Forces had recently been involved with. Warfare in Afghanistan was tribal warfare and tribal warfare is not total war, it is not uncommon to leave an enemy a way out.
Bin Ladin's escape made us unable to quickly leave Afghanistan. Afghanistan became, in effect, an operational-level Cavalry Screen, hopefully deceiving bin Ladin and the AQ hierarchy as to what our plans were, while forcing them to communicate, and allowing us to exploit those communications.
At first, the main effort was Civil Affairs ("CA") and Civil Military Operations ("CMO"). The place was, in essence, a "JCMOTF" ("Joint Civil Military Operations Task Force"). While it was the same "nation building" that George W. Bush had campaigned against, such things are a necessary (but not sufficient) part of Counter-insurgency ("COIN").
As the Iraq War heated up and more and more resources were taken away from Afghanistan and other parts of OEF after 2003, the fact it was not "sufficient" became more and more clear. US casualties mounted as time went on.
In 2007 and 2008, GEN Petraeus and then-LTG McCrystal's efforts in Iraq began to pay off. In the last year of the Bush Administration there was more and more talk that something now had to be done about the eroding situation in Afghanistan. Furthering that discussion was then-Presidential Candidate Obama talking about emphasizing Afghanistan over Iraq.
Upon taking office, the Obama Administration increased the amount of troops available to then US Commander GEN McKiernan. McKiernan was ultimately removed and then- LTG McCrystal designated as the new commander.
In 2009, Pres. Obama and GENs Petraeus and McCrystal engaged in a very public discussion of force levels in Afghanistan, which resulted in an even larger number of troops being sent, although fewer than the Pentagon had wanted. This was considered a victory for Pres. Obama, who was not a combat veteran and had never served.
Following comments made by aides quoted in an article in Rolling Stone, published in 2010, GEN McCrystal retired and GEN Petraeus became the commander in Afghanistan. According to noted COIN authority, LTC (R) John Nagl, Ph.D., early efforts in Afghanistan had some success. However, it should be noted that GEN Petraeus ultimately changed the restrictive Rules of Engagement ("ROE") that GEN McCrystal had implemented. It should also be noted that some of McCrystal's initiatives, such as "Government in a Box," were not successful.
After 2011, when bin Ladin was killed in a raid by Navy SEALS and when the US withdrew from Iraq, it became a question if we would accelerate the time line (set by President Obama) for US withdrawal from Afghanistan. The amazing 2014 gains made by the Islamic State in Iraq lead to the US abandoning the timeline for withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Recently, contrary to his campaign policy, President Trump has approved a troop increase in Afghanistan. Dr. Nagl has suggested a COIN approach.
I am not sure any approach we take can succeed. I am not sure there is an issue there we can address.
That is because, unlike Floyd Mayweather, Jr.: 1) we do not understand our own strengths and weaknesses; 2) our opponent's strengths and weaknesses; or 3) have a plan for applying our strengths to our opponent's weaknesses.
WHYARE WE THERE?
Some people say it is because of a gas pipeline that is supposed to be built there. That is nonsense because: 1) after 16 years it still isn't built; and 2) fracking has made it less than profitable anyway. Others say the issue is rare earth metals, which actually are important, but known deposits exist in places which would be far easier to exploit, like the US, Canada, Brazil and Australia.
The real reason is less laudable. It is a combination of inertia and fear.
We went to Afghanistan to do SOMETHING. We stay there because the security situation collapsed in Iraq in 2014, not considering that our influence with the Government of Iraq ("GOI") also collapsed when we left in 2011 and that the security situation there had really started to improve in 2007-2008 largely because the Shia faction (which controlled the GOI) had won the civil war that was going on under our occupation.
No subsequent Administration wants to be accused of "losing Afghanistan" (even if we were not trying to own it in the first place).
WHO ARE WE FIGHTING?
You often hear that "Afghanistan is "the graveyard of empires."
The reality is Afghanistan is a place where it is not worth the trouble to win. The British were mauled on the Retreat from Kabul, but that was the culmination of a series of errors. The USSR's efforts to prevail in Afghanistan came around the time the USSR collapsed, but that was more correlation and less causation.
The Afghans (specifically the Pashtun) are not the "greatest soldiers in the world," but they are the greatest soldiers in Afghanistan, their native land, which they love and to whose challenging natural conditions they are inured. A reasonable operating hypothesis is that fighting the Afghans is like fighting iron age warriors with modern weapons. Achilles or Cú Chulainn with an AK or an Improvised Explosive Device ("IED") is not an inaccurate description of the Taliban.
This logically involves trade-offs, body armor is necessary due to the lethality of the small arms the Taliban use, but body armor makes it harder for US military personnel to maneuver in the mountains and sustain operational tempo and situational awareness.
AFGHANISTAN AS A WAR OF RELIGION
In Afghanistan, almost everyone is a Muslim. Most are Sunni. Among the Pashtun, local customs (called Pashtunwalli) were equated with being a good Muslim. However, refugees from the Afghan Civil War and the Russians living in refugee camps in Pakistan were proselytized, by Deobandi Muslims from Pakistan and Wahabi Muslims from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia ("KSA"). Many young men in the camps undertook funded religious training to become mullahs in order to support their families. Some of them became the early Taliban (in Arabic, "The Students.")
In the 2008 Presidential campaign, Barrack Obama said (in another context):
"It's not surprising, then, they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."
It is, however, also a good overview of Islamic militancy.
As National Security Advisor, H.R. McMaster, famously told President Trump, in 1973 women walked the streets of Kabul in mini skirts. I can recall being told the same thing about Dijbouti in the 1980s by people in the Intelligence Community who worked there then. However, a religious revival has swept the Dar-al-Islam since about the time of the Iranian Revolution in 1979.
The things that replaced the Caliphate after 1923, Arab Monarchies, Arab Socialist Republics, "Enlightened" Monarchs like The Shah and Secular Republics like that of Turkey . . . have not gained popular legitimacy. What DOES tend to have legitimacy is Islam. (Interestingly, you see this in Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers , a film favoring, and made with the cooperation of, an Arab Socialist Movement.)
Islam is, not surprisingly since it came up in conflict with and influenced by the Romaioi, Caesaropapist. There is no natural separation of Mosque and State. Islam provides both a system of belief and a legal system, called Sharia ("The Way").
Under the Caliphate, Christians, Jews and other Peoples of the Book (such as Zoroastrians and often Buddhists) were allowed to govern their own communities under their own religious laws, for example, a Beth Dins applying Halakha in a Jewish community. Since the end of the Caliphate in 1923, countries in the Dar-al-Islam, such as Afghanistan, have tended to be governed by a combination of the Napoleonic Code and Sharia. In many of these countries (notably in Afghanistan) there has been consistent complaint about pervasive corruption in the legal system.
The Taliban first came to prominence in the mid 1990s by enforcing Sharia law against local warlords who abused the populace in the vicinity of Kandahar. One common thing you hear about Afghanistan is that the Taliban run fair courts, that do not dispense justice only to those who can afford to pay a bribe. Similar things were also said about the Islamic Courts Union that briefly came to power in southern and central Somalia in 2005-'06.
In some ways, the Global War on Terrorism is like the religious wars that followed the Reformation. Things like The Twelve Articles of the German Peasants are within the spirit (if certainly not the letter) of what groups like The Taliban and Al Shubab are seeking. As was the case in the Lowlands of Scotland after the Reformation, the religious revival is cutting through old bonds of Clan or Tribe. Thus, other Sunni Tribes than the Pashtun support the Taliban and Clans other than the Hawlye supported the Islamic Courts Union.
TOWARDS A RESOULTION
Out of the violence of the 16th and 17th Century Religious Wars (which were savage, as the 1971 film, The Last Valley, graphically and accurately depicts) came "Cuius regio, eius religio" and ultimately the reason and tolerant skepticism of the Enlightenment. Perhaps, as with leaders from the Islamic Courts Union joining the new Somali Government, that will happen here as well.
I served in OEF in the Horn of Africa in 2004.
While there I saw a picture that gave me a paradigm for understanding that war. In the picture was a young American Army Officer, a Veterinarian, examining a cow with a crowd of 5 to 7 year old Somali girls (residents of the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, also known as the Somali National Regional State ["SNRS"]) watching the Vet like she were a combination of Hannah Montana and Katy Perry.
The Vet had many roles, scientist, professional, Army Officer, citizen-soldier (she was a Reservist, as many Civil Affairs troops are), wife and person of faith. In those little Somali girls' world, in their culture, one person could not fill all those roles. In the Vet's culture, before 1648 or so, it also would have been fairly inconceivable for one person (especially a woman) to fill all those roles.
The GWOT is somewhat like the religious wars of the 16th and 17th Centuries. It is a bloody, expensive mess that may be horrible enough to make Cuius regio, eius religio conceivable in the Dar-al-Islam. Some people, even well informed people, say Islam needs a Reformation. Actually, Islam has had several (defined as a return to the text of a religious faith and a wiping away of externalities), starting before the Christian one: Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar's comfortable Mosarab world being rocked by Reformed Almoravid Berbers trying to take control of al-Andaulus in the late 11th Century. However, Islam has not yet had an Enlightenment, in part because it has never had a religious war like The Thirty Years War, which ended with wolves wandering the streets of Paris.
Thinking in those terms, the United States has never been more than a collaterally damaged by-stander in a civil war about the future of Islam, which is the world's fastest growing religion. Our presence or absence (as in Somalia where elements of the ICU ultimately joined the newly restored national government) is not going to make a great difference.