Afghanistan – a Retrospective and Military Lessons
Biden has announced that the United States will pull out of Afghanistan by September 11th – the twentieth anniversary of the World Trade Center attack and the twentieth anniversary of the US decision to invade Afghanistan to capture al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
The American invasion (and retreat) also marks another chapter in Afghanistan’s successful opposition of foreign invasion that goes back over 2,000 years to Alexander the Great. America has joined the Greeks, the English, and the Soviets in wasting lives and treasure in trying to conquer the Afghans.
Much has changed in the last 20 years – nearly all bad. Today Americans are routinely spied upon by American intelligence agencies. Until 9-11, it was illegal for the NSA and CIA to spy on Americans.
Today there security checkpoints everywhere not only around government sites and the Capitol. Americans must show identification to board trains, airplanes and even interstate busses. Invasive body searches are now accepted.
America has now turned its national security agencies on its own citizens, with widespread fear and danger of “domestic terrorists” a term that has been used lately by government and security officials.
The payoff for all of this has been minimal. The Taliban still is found in Afghanistan. And there are even more radical Muslim groups today like the resurgent ISIS. Except for a few buildings, the impact of the Americans on Afghanistan will disappear within a few years.
Why did this happen?
A lot of the lessons are contradictory. In the 1990s, the US ignored the turmoil that was occurring in Afghanistan. They understood that Afghanistan was a quagmire that was best to avoid. One the other hand, by ignoring what was happening a price had to be paid later, which it was.
One problem was that the US entered the war without strong goals. Yes, there was the desire to find and capture bin Laden, but the US was throwing Special Forces units into Afghanistan within days to the 9-11 attack without knowing what the goal of the invasion was.
Rather than focus on attacking the al Qaeda strongholds, the US focused on a political win by capturing the capital of Kabul and other key cities that had nothing to do with the war on bin Laden.
The problem is that Americans used in their intervention the cover of being strong advocates of democracy and freedom. Suddenly, political leaders who had wanted a “hands off” approach to Afghanistan were pushing for invasion to introduce democracy and human rights. However, that goal quickly disappeared as Obama said he was elected to end the war and the nation building effort was needed at home. He remained, however, committed to the Afghan war even after bin Laden was found and killed.
Trump also wanted to withdraw, only to find himself fighting his own generals, who wanted to remain.
The reality is that Americans and the West were not ready for the commitment needed to stop transnational terrorism. President George W. Bush warned Americans that this would be a “lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen.” British Defense Chief Adm. Michael Boyce warned in 2001 that the war on terrorism “may last 50 years.”
In this way, the war on terrorism, which was frequently fought in Afghanistan, was more like the Cold War, which occupied generations of American soldiers and sailors. Although money was spent, and people died (especially in Vietnam) the war was ideological. Much of the focus was on bolstering our allies politically and spreading the advantages of democracy and “evils of communism”.
This “Battle for the Minds” failed in Afghanistan. And that contributed to the eventual pull out of American forces without a clear victory.
Wars need clear goals.
There was never a clear goal in Afghanistan. It started out to kill or capture bin Laden. Then it was to cripple al Qaeda. Then it was to topple the Taliban. Then it was to install a friendly government. Then it was to turn Afghanistan into a functioning nation. No wonder that the small military footprint that saw most of the American victories in 2001 was replaced with a military presence that was more reminiscent of the Vietnam War – without the jungle.
Americans established large military camps and carried out operations away from those bases. It seemed that these bases had more in common with the massive facilities at Da Nang, Vietnam.
Forget clear cut goals. For many career soldiers, going to Afghanistan was the key to promotion. For politicians and bureaucrats, it was the statistics – numbers of Taliban killed and the amount of new investment in Afghanistan.
When presidents like Trump or Obama wanted to leave Afghanistan, there were no clear-cut reasons to stay. Generals did not tell their leaders that staying in Afghanistan for another six months would achieve a certain goal. Instead, they spoke of potential long range problems and outbreaks of terrorism elsewhere – very reminiscent of the “Domino Theory” given as a reason to stay in Vietnam.
The American military will pay a considerable price for its time in Afghanistan. When the war began, it carried out an invasion on the other side of the world that no other nation could do. It parked aircraft carriers in the Arabian Sea that launched hundreds of Special Forces into the country to assist pro-American tribes.
As the mission evolved from finding bin Laden, the shape of the military force changed. Special Forces who worked with the tribes became less important than a large military force that could occupy large parts of the country.
Equipment priorities also changed. American tanks were too heavy for many roads and bridges in Afghanistan, so lighter armored equipment like the Stryker was deployed. And, as more improvised mines were encountered, mine resistant vehicles (MRAPS) were used.
There were some problems with these new vehicles. To keep them light enough to be airmobile, their armor became so light that heavy Russian machineguns could penetrate their armored skin. Of course, there were kits of additional armor available, but that added to the weight and kept them from being as mobile.
Military doctrine also evolved. The Air Force did not need to establish air superiority in the sky over Afghanistan, so they focused on bombing and ground support. Meanwhile, the Army was focused on a military designed to fight insurgencies, so they did away with the “division” concept and established brigades that could move quickly by air to a developing country with an insurgency problem.
Even the Navy has problems as it has invested in inexpensive “littoral combat” ships that are best used in low threat naval operations around countries that have insurgencies. Some of these ships will be decommissioned early because they do not fit the Navy’s needs.
The problem now is that the Afghan War is over, and the US military finds itself with equipment and tactics far different from the conflicts they may face in the near future.
Both Russia and China are focused on establishing air superiority in any potential conflict and the wargames that US generals and admirals play show that the US may have problems controlling the air, even over its own naval task forces.
Meanwhile, the US Army has large numbers of light armored vehicles that will easily blow apart in the face of Russian main battle tanks. They are so unfit for conventional combat that the US has started giving them to local police forces, which only allows the police to become more aggressive in the face of popular protests in parts of the US.
There is also the problem of the military personnel and their training. Although the Afghan War has provided good combat experience for a cadre of Army and Marine soldiers, there is a big difference between breaking down the door of an Afghan family hut in search of weapons and facing Russian soldiers with more modern weapons. Can a pilot who has spent the last ten years providing ground support to the US Army go head-to-head with a fifth-generation Russian fighter aircraft?
America’s generals have spent nearly all their careers fighting in Afghanistan. Can they adjust to fighting a conventional war in Europe?
The Army is slowly evolving away from an insurgency mode of combat. Last year, before the Covid epidemic, the US Army carried out a major movement of US ground forces and equipment (including main battle tanks) from the United States to Europe. Although the movement was cut short, it did demonstrate that the military is beginning to move away from the Afghan experience.
If the US military can start preparing for the next conflict – one that will probably involve China or Russia, at least they will have learned one lesson – prepare for the next war, not the last one.