How to Lose a Civil War: Lessons for Afghanistan and Syria


In a number of civil wars, the final, decisive mistake of the incumbent government occurred when it decided for reasons of prestige or strategy to overextend its military to hold exposed positions, thus inviting the destruction of key military assets. This was the case of Chiang Kai-shek’s post-WWII attempt to hold Manchuria, which ended in the destruction of the elite American-trained and American-equipped Chinese Nationalist armies and other formations leading directly to the end of the Chinese Civil War. In 1975, the South Vietnamese attempt to hold too far forward doomed its Army’s 1st Infantry Division and the Marine Division, thereby initiating the South Vietnamese collapse along the coast. The mechanisms of defeat were not just the tactical loss of units through combat, but also the wider demoralization of commanders and soldiers upon realizing that they were caught up in a debacle.

Recently, both Syria and Afghanistan have seen battles that demonstrate anew the potential risks of seeking to defend exposed positions. Syrian leaders seem to have recognized that there are limits to the amount of territory its military can hold. Afghanistan’s leaders would be well advised to come to the same conclusion.

In the last week of July, Syrian President Bashar Assad publicly acknowledged that not all areas of Syria could be held and identified manpower rather than armament as the limiting factor. His speech suggests that the Syrian military will focus on defending the territory of regime-supporting groups. Presumably, some exposed positions will be abandoned to rebels seeking to topple Assad — including places such as Palmyra.

In Afghanistan’s Helmand Province, where British and American ground forces sacrificed so much to make inroads, there are many examples of exposed positions that invite the Afghan government to overcommit. The emotional investment of outside sponsors predisposes Kabul to defend all that was once held. But only a few places in Helmand are important in their own right, and many are simply killing grounds, places never secured by the government as a result of the Taliban’s ability to mass fighters in Helmand on short notice. At the end of July, Helmand’s district of Now Zad was overrun despite some supporting American airpower. The Taliban documented its victory with video and pictures of dead Afghan soldiers left on the ground.

Over the last few weeks, the New York Times has reported on difficulties faced by the Afghan National Security Forces in attempting to hang on to isolated district capitals in the south and east, where re-supply, relief, and reinforcement are increasingly difficult. Afghan soldiers and police voiced worry that the bodies of the fallen will never be returned to their homes for proper burial. An unspoken additional worry is mutilation of the dead, an Afghan practice that Winston Churchill described as adding “to unphilosophic minds, another terror to death.”

While the elite Afghan forces can be quite proficient, many of the ordinary units are plagued by poor leadership, tactical skills, and morale. Even so, they deserve better from their leaders than to be left in isolated outposts with no real bond with the local people, sometimes not even speaking their language. Their weaknesses and vulnerabilities are magnified in these situations in which help will never come, and their deaths or humiliations are meaningless to the people they supposedly serve.

The recent negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban may have provided a rationale for hanging on to bits and pieces in the Pashtun south, which might provide leverage for a grand bargain. Yet following the announcement of Mullah Omar’s death and the resulting unsettled state of the Taliban leadership, hopes that events might be quickly settled by negotiations are fading.

While Afghanistan’s situation is not yet as dire as that of Syria, Kabul’s decisions need to be shaped by a clearer recognition of what can be accomplished on the battlefield. The long-vacant position of defense minister needs to be filled with a permanent appointment. Any candidate to fill this critical post should have the competence to instill confidence in the military and the respect of both President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah. This new minister then needs to develop a clear understanding of what can realistically be protected by Afghanistan’s own forces with reasonable commitments from foreigners, and then must convey that information to the political leadership.

Districts in which the people have long been alienated from the government and in which the Taliban can generate overwhelming manpower against isolated regime forces need to be identified and recognized at the political level. The Afghan military needs a political decision and direction to withdraw from these areas before they are defeated. Voluntary withdrawal will permit the Taliban to claim some immediate victories in those areas that have never really been under the control of the regime, but it will also strengthen the regime’s forces in the areas that remain. The areas of true military control will be more starkly revealed by such a move, but the Afghan military should then find itself in reliably defensible positions.

Only once Afghanistan is able to successfully defend the positions it claims will the Taliban understand that negotiations offer more promise than continued combat.


James T. Quinlivan is a senior operations research analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.


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