In the 17 years since the September 11 Attacks, I have thought often of an anecdote from Classical times.
Croesus of Lydia had a dispute with Cyrus of Persia. Although he was not a Greek and did not worship their gods, Croesus queried the Python, the Priestess of Apollo who was the Delphic Oracle, if he should go to war. The reply from the Python was succinct: “If you to war, you will destroy a great power.”
Croesus went to war with Cyrus of Persia. In doing so, Croesus destroyed a great power. Unfortunately, that great power was Lydia, rather than Persia.
Possibly, in waging what was formerly known as the Global War on Terrorism (“GWOT”) in the way we have, we are emulating Croesus.
Recently, Douglas Proudfoot posted an essay about how the United States might win in Afghanistan. I think what he proposed was militarily feasible. However, I do not think victory in this war is a purely military question.
What Kind of War?
The US has been fighting in Afghanistan for almost 17 years. We have fought in Afghanistan longer than we fought in Vietnam, another divisive “Small War.” Its length is comparable to that of the Seminole Wars in the early to mid-19th Century and the Apache Campaigns in the late 19th century, both of which were wars with tribal societies like the war in Afghanistan.
What the military categorizes as Small Wars or Low Intensity Conflicts (“LIC”) or Counterinsurgencies (“COIN”), generally involves conflict with small, lightly armed insurgent forces, which avoid decisive engagement with US forces until they can win decisively. These forces enjoy some shifting degree of support from certain groups within the host nation population.
Given the fact that insurgents generally operate in small, lightly armed groups, it is difficult to bring the full panoply of US military force to bare against them effectively. Because our military power carries with it an inherent potential of collateral damage, casualties and property damage for the host nation population, and because the insurgents are reliant on support from the host nation population, “brute force and ignorance” approaches carry the risk of increasing support for the insurgents among that population the more force you use.
If we were in the Afghanistan purely to protect routes for gas pipelines or secure access to mineral resources, we could effectively control these areas with fires, as the author of the other article suggested. The fact that we have not done this, tends to disprove the thesis that this is purely a neo-colonial war over natural resources.
I think we deployed to Afghanistan after the September 11th attacks in order to deny Al Qaida active sanctuary in a state ruled by the Taliban, a régime we did not recognize. (The US has tended to be very willing to apply military power against what we consider “failed states” or “ungoverned spaces” at least since the Tripolitanian Wars in the early 19th Century.) We further remained because it created a sort of an operational cavalry screen/covering force: deceiving AQ as to our intent; roiling AQ and associated Taliban communication links, allowing us to collect intelligence; and providing a cover to the “Black Side” special operations forces that ultimately killed bin Ladin. (In accomplishing this, we arguably “won” our war in Afghanistan. However, it continues for reasons I will suggest below.)
Why Are We Still Fighting It?
After we took bin Ladin, we had an established pathway to end our involvement in Afghanistan along the lines of our withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, developed in President Obama’s 2009 formal analysis of the Afghan War. However, with the rise of the Islamic State in 2014 after our withdrawal from Iraq, we have remained because both political parties fear the question “Who lost Afghanistan?”
An oft-quoted Taliban maxim sums up our dilemma, “You have a watch; we have a calendar.”
The strategic objectives of this war dictated our tactics. To meet the intent described above, we sent Marine and Army Infantry to patrol the rugged terrain. We deployed Civil Affairs (“CA”) and Civil Military Operations (“CMO”) forces to scope projects and “win hearts and minds” in the tradition of CORDS in the Vietnam War. Across the Military Services, in all the schoolhouses, junior instructors updated VGTs and PowerPoint slides to change “LIC” to “COIN.”
Some things, inherent to a technologically advanced force inhibited these efforts.
The Army, in particular, had an institutional nostalgic affection for the idea of tank warfare on the Thuringian Plane or in the Fulda Gap. The Marine Corps raised the valid question whether an Expeditionary force was best used in allocating significant amounts of a small force to repeated deployments to a mature theater.
GEN (R ) McCrystal’s initiative to associate officers with the Af-Pak Theater also tended to stove pipe those officers and reduce their competitiveness for advancement in rank and selection to attend advanced Professional Military Education ("PME") courses, such as the Command & General Staff College or the War College.
Conclusion And A Possible Way Forward
To end this, I'll reference another anecdote from the Classical World.
I read this in a memoir by a Soviet Paratrooper who served in Afghanistan in the 1980s. During their tour, his platoon would pass a tower with an inscription in a local language the Russians could not read. Finally, after a long time, the Soviet Paratroopers asked their Afghan guide/translator what the inscription meant.
The translator said, "You can conquer Bactria, but you can't hold it."---Alexander of Macedon.
"Bactria" is the old name for what is now Afghanistan. It was conquered by Alexander of Macedon (called "The Great"). There may really have been a deeper meaning: Alexander took a Bactrian Princess for a wife.
Afghanistan enjoys a (somewhat inflated) reputation as a"graveyard of empires."
Afghan tribesman are not the greatest Soldiers in the world. However, they are the greatest Soldiers in Afghanistan and the return on the effort does not justify besting them.
Great Powers, notably the USSR in the 1980s and Great Britain in the 19th Century, tend to come to Afghanistan late in the game; when the "lower hanging fruit' has been exploited and they are also over-extended. Alexander, in contrast, came to Bactria in the first flush of glory from besting the Persian Great King at Gaurgamala.
The US should gracefully ceade this war to the PRC, the world's emerging great power, which has an economic incentive to bring Afghanistan into its One Belt/One Road initiative. The idea of a declining great power passing on a "twilight struggle" is a great meme in history: Britain passing the torch to the US in the course of World War II or the struggle with Persia passing, in turn, from Hellenic City States to Macedon to Hellenistic Successor States to Rome to the Romaioi.
I have thought since the "Long War" began 17 years ago, that it would probably end with the US passing the conflict on to the PRC.