Coming to Terms with America’s Undeniable Failure in Afghanistan

February 11, 2019

The United States failed in Afghanistan. The only points of debate left for analysts and historians are by how much and who is to blame. With negotiations and withdrawal plans still in the air as of early 2019, nearly 18 years after September 11, 2001, the true extent of American failure remains to be determined, but it is not too early to examine where our institutions and leaders fell short.

Over the course of the war in Afghanistan, pundits have laid the blame at the feet of successive administrations. The arguments were that President George W. Bush was distracted by Iraq, that President Barack Obama gave a timeline that allowed the Taliban to “wait out” the efforts of coalition forces, and that President Donald Trump simply does not have a strategy. Each of these critiques may hold some truth to them and ultimately the commander in chief is responsible for the execution of American foreign policy, but unexamined in these critiques is the limiting factor of American military capabilities.

In the eyes of America’s uniformed leadership the United States was “winning militarily” in Afghanistan for the entirety of the conflict. For nearly 18 years, American military commanders declared solid progress as they rotated through Afghanistan. These positive assessments became so standard, and seemingly so out of line with reality, that in 2018 even the normally staid Military.com wrote of Gen. Mick Nicholson’s farewell remarks, in an article titled “Outgoing US Commander Continues Tradition of Hailing Progress in Afghanistan,” that

Nicholson’s confident stance on operations in Afghanistan mirrors the positive assessments on Afghanistan that many U.S. leaders have made over the 17 years of war, only to see conditions deteriorate into stalemate.

Nicholson’s comments represent the paradox of proclaiming steady progress in the midst of ongoing failure. Despite repeated and sustained setbacks resulting in what can only be charitably described as a stalemate, the nation’s respect for the military has been such that even if the military was the overall lead and most influential actor in our efforts in Afghanistan, that somehow it should neither be scrutinized nor held accountable for our overall lack of progress. One can argue the merits of the overall strategy, or lack thereof, in Afghanistan, and even make the argument that the military was not ultimately responsible for that strategy. That is true, but fully understanding the military’s contributions to a strategy’s failure must be an integral part of evaluating American foreign policy.

That this has not been the case with Afghanistan is representative of an increasing distance between the American public and its military. It is also indicative of a widespread veneration of servicemembers and respect for their sacrifice. Unfortunately, this respect for the military has also led to a lack of scrutiny of those military leaders most directly charged with ensuring that their service and sacrifice has not been wasted.

Excuses

During his remarks on the state of Afghanistan in late 2018, Nicholson repeatedly outlined the failure of the Taliban to achieve its objectives, echoing a common theme that the Taliban cannot win. Over the years this statement has served as a rallying cry for staying the course, but never addressed is the fact that it is increasingly clear that the Afghan security forces can not “win” either. Even with massive coalition support the war is in stalemate. And without massive external support, the Afghan security forces have repeatedly demonstrated that, despite nearly a decade of intense support and training from the Coalition, they have a hard time holding off a numerically inferior force that possesses far fewer resources.

These failures of the Afghan security forces have been attributed to the Afghans, and not those tasked with training the force. As Gen. John Campbell, the commander in Afghanistan prior to Nicholson, remarked to Afghan leadership as he was departing Afghanistan in early 2016, “You’ve got to want it more than we do.” Never considered, however, was that maybe the Afghans want peace as much, or even more, than visiting Americans, but that our chosen path to achieving peace is incompatible with Afghan culture and unachievable given internal political divisions and the state of the Afghan government.

The military objectives of what became the Resolute Support mission are therefore worth examining. For starters, the overarching goal was the construction of a security force of approximately 350,000 soldiers and policemen. Hovering at just over 300,000 by 2018, the U.S. share of the cost to build and sustain Afghan security forces has averaged around $5 billion annually. That cost vastly exceeds the Afghan government’s budget, guaranteeing the need for extensive foreign support even if the Afghan security forces are reduced to a fraction of their current size.

But what is most interesting about this force is that it is largely structured in the image of a Western military. Heavily reliant on airpower, with an emphasis on specialized training and based on a meritocratic promotion system, the “it” we prescribed for Afghanistan looked much like a faint carbon copy of the American military. While we are rightly proud of our military, it is a valid question to ask if such a military is appropriate for Afghanistan.

This question was made even more salient in light of the declaration that Trump made in 2017 that we were no longer in the business of nation-building. That is fine in and of itself, but the United States is still embroiled in building a military in Afghanistan that assumes the existence of something resembling a Western nation. More specifically, the military America has been building assumes a strong and legitimate central government, effective bureaucracies, a lack of corruption, the absence of sectarian division, and a literate and technically competent population of potential recruits.

In this, Washington put the cart before the horse in building a military for a nation that did not exist. It is possible that somehow a state that can control and support the Afghan security forces may someday organically appear in Afghanistan, despite history, but the odds are much more likely that the military America attempted to build will collapse without significant, and endless, foreign support. But Americans have been told for so long that our own military is the best on earth, and is capable of accomplishing the impossible, that it might be hard to grasp the absurdity of this effort without taking it out of the context of Afghanistan.

Imagine for a moment that the senior leadership of the Marriott Hotel chain took a team-building jaunt to remote, western Mongolia. And, having experienced the majesty of the steppes, the yurts, and the nomadic lifestyle, they decided at the end of their trip that the Mongolian countryside could really use a modern Marriott hotel. Of course, few of the roads in Mongolia are paved, it lacks modern infrastructure across most of the country, and there is no culture or economy that would support modern hotels, but Marriot works for us, so they should love it, too!

Of course this is a ridiculous idea, but imagine if the implementation plan made it worse. Imagine that the Marriott executive tasked with carrying out this plan came back to the chief executive officer and said that the best way to execute this plan would be to send the manager of one of the Washington, D.C. Marriotts to Mongolia to oversee the effort. After all, Marriott Hotels are well-run, efficient, and generally profitable, so why wouldn’t the manager of a domestic Marriott be able to go to an entirely foreign country and build one from scratch?

This is a fundamentally absurd plan for building a hotel in a foreign land, but somehow Americans have collectively decided that if someone in uniform proposes something similar for building a foreign military, it must be OK. Unfortunately the plan only gets worse in the details. Going back to our Marriott example, it is easy to imagine that Marriott would not want a local manager gone for too long, so they would decide to limit the time any manager spends overseeing the effort to nine months. Towards the end of that nine months they would then send another manager to take over the effort, with only a week or so overlap between managers planned, but not always executed.

Of course, hotels in Mongolia being tangential to Marriott’s main business, none of these managers would be formally trained or required to be fluent in Mongolian. Furthermore, given that their primary job is managing domestic Marriott hotels, they would only receive a cursory overview of engineering, finance, or contracting practices before going to Mongolia.

It is difficult to imagine Marriott ever signing off on such a plan, but the military spent almost a decade executing just such a plan in Afghanistan. The difference is that Marriott has interested shareholders and a board that exercises oversight responsibilities.

Minions for a Failed State

The state of security in Afghanistan remains tenuous, at best. Despite over 17 years of engagement, including nine years of significant military training and financial support, the Afghan government can only claim control of most major cities (albeit with frequent bombings), tenuous control of central provinces, and a ceding of significant swaths of rural territory to the Taliban.

The Marriott analogy is helpful for understanding why the Afghan security forces continue to struggle against an enemy that receives only a fraction of the support. Indeed, much of the absurdity of Washington’s plan can be seen in the actual headquarters and outposts that the U.S. military built for the Afghan security forces across Afghanistan. Much like the incongruity of a Marriott in outer Mongolia, these headquarters stick out because they were designed for the U.S. Army, not the Afghans. Stocked with propane kitchens, motor pools, fueling points, and other modern amenities, they are distinctly out of place in Afghanistan’s rural provinces. Today a great number lay underutilized, abandoned, or even never used at all.

These wasteful monuments to our hubris have been neglected not only by the Afghans, but are glossed over by Americans who would rather not question the fundamentals of our approach. Yet they make a good starting point, as these structures assumed the existence of modern command structures, robust air assets, and efficient resupply channels and logistics. But for years, the main focus of the U.S. effort was spent on training tactical units. Much of this was out of habit. After all, a hotel manager who knows nothing about building construction but a lot about managing is naturally going to gravitate to his or her comfort zone. One can be exceptionally proud of teaching a hotel cleaning crew how to restock bathrooms, but it will not mean much if nobody is working on the infrastructure to deliver running water.

While the American military finally gave up on building massive headquarters for the Afghans, it never shook the need to build Afghan forces in its own image. By late 2018 the U.S. military viewed the Afghan commandos as essential to securing a military victory. Trained closely and escorted on missions by American special operations forces, the Afghan commandos were considered more proficient than their regular Afghan military counterparts. Designed around American strengths, the tactics of the commandos were highly effective when supported by American airpower and advisors.

Unfortunately they also replicated American weaknesses. The dramatic Taliban assault on Ghanzi in August 2018 and the annihilation of isolated Afghan commando units laid bare the limits of the American plan for the Afghan military. Without direct U.S. support, the Afghan commandoes were surrounded by the Taliban and ultimately forced to flee into the nearby mountains. Once there, the majority of commandos were ambushed and either killed or taken captive by the Taliban, who had better knowledge of the local terrain and at least the tacit support of the population.

Beyond being in the comfort zone of American forces, prioritizing the formation of tactical units that could succeed, albeit only with U.S. logistical support and airpower, was also the easiest way to show short-term progress and gave U.S. forces rotating through Afghanistan the ability to say that they had “created space” for the Afghan security forces and government to develop. Unfortunately, Afghan security forces remain far from being independently effective and there is neither the infrastructure nor effective governance to support them. Meanwhile the Taliban continue to gain ground using tactics and methods that do not rely on Western formations and technology. Put another way, the United States stuck the Afghans with the impossible task of sustaining a modern Marriott while the Taliban have been building yurts.

A Culture of Compounding Delusions

Belief in the superiority and transferability of American cultural and political norms is nothing new. Published in 1958, The Ugly American still resonates for its portrayal of the insensitivity of American diplomats abroad to local cultures. Not much changed between 1958 and 2001 when, as the United States was working through options to destroy al-Qaeda, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage declared to the head of the Pakistani intelligence services that “History starts today.” Armitage was wrong, as the United States would spend the next 17 years merely writing a new chapter in the long history of failed interventions in Afghanistan.

But this dynamic is not limited to diplomats, and is exacerbated by American military culture. In her book, The Marines, Counterinsurgency, and Strategic Culture, Jeannie Johnson deftly lays out how the interplay between military culture and the broader American strategic culture can lead us to confuse tactical success with progress toward strategic objectives. Johnson points out how “Americans tend to see the world as a set of isolated, solvable problems rather than a complex web of historical relationships.” This is a helpful perspective for understanding Armitage’s declaration, and the problem is compounded when our solution does not quite fit a foreign problem. As Johnson observes, “When host institutions fail to perform adequately, American problem-solving agents dressed in military uniforms begin to step in and do it for them.” She makes this observation in the context of economic and political transformations, but it applies just as well, if not more so, to the military transformations pushed by American forces.

Writing in 2004, Antulio Echeverria diagnosed the problems that would plague America in Afghanistan when he described the American way of war as one that “tends to confuse winning campaigns or small-scale actions with winning wars.” This penchant for pushing American solutions on foreign countries and bias for action creates a perfect storm of delusion when paired with American military units rotating into a counterinsurgency campaign on rotations as short as 12, nine, or even seven months. Such rotations allowed units to declare progress regardless of whether their efforts meaningfully contributed to long-term strategic goals.

This optimism, and myopia, of the American military is nothing new but is in fact part of the military’s DNA. Optimism in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges and unwavering confidence can be, in military parlance, a tremendous “force multiplier.” However, without strategic oversight, or commanders capable of being reflective and adaptable in the absence of oversight, the military in Afghanistan defaulted to doing what it likes to do. In 2018, Gen. Scott Miller, Nicholson’s successor, would continue this impulse with a vow to “take the fight to the Taliban” over the course of a year that would see more bombs dropped on the country than in any other year of the conflict. Despite that reenergized military effort, there were record numbers of Afghan security forces and Afghan civilian casualties in 2018, and a steady, unrelenting Taliban that continued to hold its own and proved to be anything but defeated.

Post-Mortem

Conventional wisdom in America holds that the U.S. military is the most competent and effective fighting force in the world. This has been stated so often over the past 17 years of war that it is largely taken as a given, and the military remains the most respected national institution in America.

The irony, of course, is that the military failed to achieve clear victories, or even its own stated objectives, over the course of America’s longest war. For over a decade the key to the American strategy in Afghanistan was the creation of independently competent Afghan security forces. But as the pending drawdown of U.S. forces from Afghanistan looms it is clear that we built a force so lacking in basic proficiency, and so foreign to the country it serves, that even President Ashraf Ghani feels that it would not survive more than a few months without American support.

Reporters visiting newly completed police barracks in December 2018 explained part of the reason why, in that they found buildings outfitted with air conditioners, washers and dryers, and even treadmills still in plastic. In sum, everything the American military might want and would be able to maintain. Unfortunately these barracks were for the Afghans, who wondered who would keep the lights on and the air conditioners running. Yet public indifference to the Afghan war effort is such that even when such waste has been pointed out, as the special inspector general for Afghanistan has repeatedly done over the years, he found that “holding senior officials, especially general officers, accountable for wasting tax dollars is nearly impossible.”

Yet if we are going to learn anything from America’s longest war it must begin with at least some introspection and accountability. The first step in doing so is realizing that even our most revered national institution, the military, does indeed have its limits. Furthermore, we must acknowledge that public engagement and political oversight is not only an essential element of a well-functioning democracy but a requirement for effective foreign policy.

 

Jason Dempsey served in Afghanistan in 2009, 2012-2013, and returned again briefly in 2014 to assess the advisory mission. He is the author of Our Army: Soldiers, Politics, and American Civil-Military Relations and is as an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

Images: Spc. Elisebet Freeburg, Joint Sustainment Command – Afghanistan, U.S. Army (Header), Jason Dempsey (in article)