Afghanistan Lessons

  • by Pete O'Brien
  • 08-08-2021

In a recent article a former Marine castigated the Generals and Admirals of the last 20 years who notably have been unable to achieve anything close to victory in Afghanistan, but who are now casting about for those to blame. The sad truth is that many, indeed most, of those in a position to have affected things differently in Afghanistan overt the past 20 years were simply neither competent enough to come up with another answer nor of sufficient moral courage to stomp into the Secretary of Defense’s office (or the President’s Office) and announce that the strategy was fundamentally flawed and we needed to leave.

And that is the important point: as Field Marshal von Moltke liked to point out, “errors in strategy can only be corrected in the next war.” Once we were several years into the war in Afghanistan it was clear to many that we weren’t going to win; we were at best going to “play to a draw.”

Now, with no “draw” possible, the Taliban will regain control; Pakistan will also be pleased, at least for the short term; a new problem will begin to germinate. Future strategists take note.

And our Generals and Admirals are left casting about looking to blame someone.

Casting about for those to blame is a natural reaction; it’s always comforting to find someone else to blame when things turns into a pile of rot. I suspect there were several counselors in Troy (besides Cassandra) yelling that they knew this was wrong all along and “We should have sued for peace 9 years ago!” And things are turning into rot in Afghanistan. A small city just fell to the Taliban, a senior government official was killed, every day the Taliban gain control of a little more territory, etc. It’s hard to predict the exact time line, but it isn’t hard to predict what is going to happen.

But the question remains: What did we do wrong? 

There are a lot of ways to answer that question but at the root of it is this: we entered Afghanistan to track down Usama bin Laden. But, by late 2001, we committed to destroying the Taliban and building a new, more liberal Afghanistan. In short, we had changed our strategic goals and were involved in nation-building on top of an insurgency.

Even if we discount the immense difficulty involved in counter-insurgency against a committed force like the Taliban, nation-building is something that simply is not easy to pull off. You can make the argument it’s impossible without the nation’s population already being “on board” with your general concept. History provides few examples of it being successfully done. People will point to Germany and Italy after World War II, but it needs to be remembered that the level of destruction of those two countries was immense, that the senior leadership were all dead or captured, there was another terror looming over the horizon (the Soviet Union) to focus attention, and, most importantly, the nation-states we wanted to create had already - culturally and socially - in large part, existed prior to the rise of the fascist parties in Italy and Germany.

In Japan, after we’d burned down all their major cities, killed perhaps 3 million people, and left the Kanto plain a virtual waste land, we instituted a constitutional monarchy and left the Emperor on his throne. Japan changed, but as anyone can attest who has lived-in Japan for any time, Japan remains very much a different country than anyplace else on earth. It’s also worth noting that after the Meiji restoration of 1867 that the Japanese had adopted a wide range of customs from Europe: architecture, clothing for men, certain industrial and legal models; Japan had already many of the trappings of Western society and culture in the 1930s. The leap backwards or ahead from 1945 to what the US (and Emperor MacArthur) wanted was not as far as it might seem.

Which leaves us where?

Three points come to mind, though there are more:
1) Declaration of War
2) Nation Building
3) Pottery Barn

That there was no actual declaration of war remains an issue. It’s argued by some that this isn’t new, that the US engaged in wars in the 1800s without real declarations of war. To that I think the answer is that up until the 20th century Washington saw a profound difference between Naval Actions and the actions of the War Department. The Quasi War, the First and Second Barbary Wars, and the enforcing of the ban on the Slave Trade were sustained actions carried out by the Navy and Marines. But they involved no deployment of the Army. As such, they did not need declarations of war. And the first time the US Army operated outside what is now the Continental United States - the War with Mexico - there was a declaration of war. 

The Founding Fathers, in the Constitution, made a clear distinction between an army and a navy; Article 1, Section 8 states that Congress shall have the power: 
To raise and support Armies
To provide and maintain a Navy

A Navy could be maintained, but armies were to be raised. There was a clear distinction between naval actions, carried out with a sustained organization, and army actions, which involved raising an army. They then established two separate departments: a War department and a Navy Department. The choice of names is not happenstance. 

Simply put, if the War Department got involved, there would need to be a declaration of war; if not, then it wasn’t necessary. Again, this isn’t mere semantics. The Founding fathers understood a discreet and profound difference; it’s why they separated the Navy and Marines from the Army, a Navy Department and a War Department. The Founding Fathers recognized that movement of the Army to fight somewhere would (in today’s dialog “should” - but a subject for another day) require a mobilization, allocation of funds, training, equipping, etc. It meant a long-term, major commitment by the whole nation. 

A Naval action was something else again; ships could be sent, Marines put ashore if necessary, but it was understood that the Navy - Marine team was not going to take control or occupy a country. Naval operations came and went. They could be quite destructive but they were not involved with the seizing and holding of large pieces of terrain or overthrowing a government; they were limited, fought with on-hand forces and for specific interests. In short, they were not the sort of full-blown war that required the Army. And as such, they did not require a declaration of war. 

And so things remained until the 20th century.

This leaves us with this simple division of labor: if the idea is to conduct a punishing raid and then leave, use the Navy and Marines. If the idea is to occupy a country, overthrow the government and establish a new government - use the Army (and now Air Force). The first does not require a declaration of war, the second does.

As for nation building and the Pottery Barn, the two are related. The Pottery Barn is, of course, a reference to the comment often attributed to Gen. Powell, but which actually comes from author Walter Isaacson: “You break it, you own it.” From this follows the idea that if you go into a country and “break” their government, you are now responsible for the people. And thus, you end up in nation-building.

We need to reject that idea. We need to go back and take a hard look at Gen. Sherman - he of “War is Hell” fame. Sherman understood that you wanted to avoid war at nearly any cost. But, if you must wage war, wage it as violently as you can. People must understand that war is hell on earth and they must want to avoid it. They must want to avoid it enough that they will throw out irresponsible leaders who drag them into war for transient or egotistical causes. 

But note also that this is war, where we mobilize and invade and occupy and destroy. This is not a raid, even an extensive raid, it is war. In short, we need to understand the real nature of war, and we need to declare it as war.

John Quincy Adams warned,“Americans should not go abroad to slay dragons they do not understand in the name of spreading democracy.”
It is advice to which future generals should take heed.