The View From Olympus: A Strategy for Disaster

Last week President Trump laid out his new strategy for Afghanistan.  Actually, it wasn’t his and it wasn’t a strategy.  His strategy, one he talked about numerous times during his campaign, was to get out of what he correctly called a futile war.  The “strategy” he laid out last week was, as his speech made clear, not his but his generals’.  He abandoned his (usually right) instincts and deferred to them.  He might want to ask Kaiser Wilhelm II how that worked out for him.

The generals’ strategy reflected what the Pentagon defines as strategy, which is to do more of the same thing tactically.  This is the classic, Second Generation war “strategy” of accumulating kills in a war of attrition.  We will “take the gloves off”, put more long range, remote firepower on more targets and thereby move more quickly to defeat at the moral level.  There is no surer way to lose a Fourth Generation war.  But it is all the U.S. military knows how to do.  It’s a one-trick pony, and its one trick is to poop on its own head.

If this were all the president had laid out, it would add up to nothing.  Unfortunately, there is more.  And that “more” is a recipe for strategic disaster.

President Trump was correct in saying the key to defeating the Taliban is cutting the cord that links it to Pakistan.  As I have pointed out in previous columns, so long as Afghanistan is allied to India, Pakistan has no choice but to support the Taliban.  A Taliban government will de-allign with India and ally with Pakistan, which is all that can save Pakistan from being caught in a two-front threat.

But instead of calling for Afghanistan to sever its Indian connection, President Trump, acting as the mouthpiece of his generals, said we are going to try harder to engage India in Afghanistan.  Nothing could do more to push Pakistan and the Taliban closer together.  Our new Afghan “strategy”directly contradicts itself.

If the only result of that contradiction were to make our Afghan war even more futile, that would be bad but not catastrophic.  Regrettably, it points to an American defeat far worse than anything that can happen in Afghanistan.  It promises further pressure on an already-fragile Pakistani state, with the potential of causing that state to collapse and turn Pakistan into another happy hunting ground for Fourth Generation entities — a happy hunting ground where the game is nuclear warheads.

All that currently holds Pakistan together is its military.  If, as President Trump suggested, we are going to ramp up pressure on Pakistan to do what it cannot and renounce the Taliban, that pressure is likely to include cutting off money and weapons we now provide to Pakistan’s armed forces.  Unless someone else steps in to fill the gap (perhaps China), that will weaken the only glue holding Pakistan together.

We have seen the disaster that results when we help destroy a state in Iraq, in Libya, in Syria, and in Afghanistan itself, where before 9/11 the Taliban had proved the only effective government since the monarchy fell.  But the collapse of the Pakistani state would be far worse.  In addition to loose nukes, we would face tens of millions of refugees, competent soldiers now for hire, mass murder on a vast scale (with Pakistan’s Christians first on the list) and God knows what else.  As they saw their state disintegrating, Pakistan’s generals might decide to take out their old enemy India with them and nuke every Indian city.  I am told the Indian military realizes that a failed state in Pakistan would be much more dangerous to them than is the Pakistani state, and for that reason have opposed a conventional war with Pakistan they know they would win.

      But our generals do not seem to be as smart as Indian generals.  The “strategy” they have foisted on a reluctant president is self-contradictory, potentially disastrous and just plain stupid.  The president would have done better to take strategic advice from the good ladies who clean the White House, the nut cases in Lafayette Park, or the cabbages in Mrs. Obama’s White House garden.  Or, better yet, listen to his own instincts.  Had Kaiser Wilhelm II done that, the House of Hohenzollern would still be on the throne in Berlin, just as God intended.

14 thoughts on “The View From Olympus: A Strategy for Disaster”

  1. The correct solution to Afghanistan is that used by the British in Malaysia in 1960. That counterinsurgency was highly successful, and is worth studying. Especially because they weren’t obsessed with ‘population-centric COIN.’

    First of all, troop levels need to increase. How can we win a war with 6,000 men in a country the size of Afghanistan? That’s not enough men to hold all the major cities, much less go on the offensive. The Surge in Iraq brought 20,000+ men, and it was highly successful. It’s not far-fetched to believe that this could work again. Conventional wisdom is still relevant.

    Secondly, we need more mountain divisions and light infantry divisions. Our doctrine calls for it, ane we have the necessary resources to accomplish it (especially if we abolish SOCOM and recycle most of its personnel), but we’re not following our own doctrine (COIN relies on police/SWAT tactics, not infantry tactics). Light infantry, fighting dismounted and from helicopters, can ruthlessly hunt down the enemy and chase him into the mountain caves, and deny him free access to the countryside. Saturation of light infantry patrolling is the optimal approach to counter guerrillas in virtually every military textbook, but population-centric COIN (not to be confused with 2nd generation war, which still goes by the book) throws this principle away.

    Thirdly, the notion that we’re facing a popular resistance (losing the moral ground) is silly. The Taliban aren’t popular, they’re powerful. In a lawless, tribal society, the elders will always stick to the strongmen. While our concentrated forces are lounging in large cities, the Taliban have free reign in the countryside to intimidate and threaten the smaller villages in broad daylight. If the elders come to us with information, then they risk retaliation and our closest forces aren’t even in the same county. We don’t have the numbers to dominate conventionally, and our Afghan allies aren’t the brightest (plus corruption, of course).
    The way to fix this is to saturate with light infantry, with standing orders to hunt the bastards to extinction. After we’ve cleaned house, and asserted that we’re the strongman, then we can then rotate out our units, and rotate in ANP/ANA units to ensure that our gains are retained.

    Fourth, Pakistan is no friend of ours. Ally, maybe, but not a friend. They wont magically abandon the Taliban if we encourage Afghanistan to align away from India. This is where a re-focused SOF campaign would be relevant. Currently, SOF are preforming many duties that conventional forces should be doing, for a host of (mostly bad) reasons. Once we replace SOF with light infantry and mountain divisions, SOF is now free to perform actual Special (i.e., non-conventional) missions. This will be necessary to weaken the Taliban in Pakistan, and to keep Pakistan’s military government intact.

    Finally, maybe the solution could be to unite Afghanistan and Pakistan, possibly with an independent Pashtun state in the south. If the military junta wants more land, people, and resources to survive against India, we could look into giving it to them. Either way, tribal and cultural boundaries need to be considered whenever we re-draw the map.

  2. Afghanistan should be an enormous FID mission. We shouldn’t be on the tip of the spear (though we should be the ones holding and throwing the spear). 3SFG pioneered the Village Stability Operations Program near the beginning of the war, and it was massively successful. If you haven’t seen the movie, Legion of Brothers, about these men, you absolutely should. The successful SOF program was disbanded because the conventional forces didn’t understand it and President Obama didn’t want to hear about it. What we need is to get our troops the hell out of Afghanistan. We can only do that by assisting the ANA in launching their own COIN operations. This will require SOF operators to embed directly with the Afghan battalions. Once embedded, the ANA will have to pick up the slack with community relations and counter insurgency. Get our boys the hell out of Dodge as soon as we can…

  3. Why are we fighting the indigenous population in Afghanistan 1000s of miles from America??? They never attacked us and we the American people never seem to get any good reasons why we are spending trillions there. The generals seem to believe, that once their leadership is committed to pffensive actions, that winning is the only option… Even when there is virtually nothing to be gained…….As candidate Trump often articulated….
    Maybe more time should be spent understanding exactly WHAT the fight is about, and try to resolve whatever it is that seems to drive this war… Rather than winning.. Which never has been explained as something very much desirable… Just what the higher ups want to prove their power..

  4. We invaded Afghanistan because the Taliban refused to help us hunt Al Qaeda. We gave them ample chances to survive as the establishment, but they chose to harbor and hide the bastards who did attack us. They’re the ones who screwed up, not us.

    Secondly, going into a war without planning to win is the same mistake we made in Vietnam. In there, we refused to invade the North, and refused to disrupt the status quo. Our enemies didn’t care about the sovereignty of Laos and Cambodia, they violated it with impunity because we refused to win. In a world governed by prison rules, the best way to avoid being attacked is to ruthlessly smash our opponents’ teeth out of their heads and break them. Particularly when dealing with a violent, lawless, tribal society that places little value on human lives beyond their ability to benefit the group. Victory is the only choice in war.

    What do we have to gain, and what is the fight about? Easy: we’re going to kill our enemies and replace them with a pro-US government. All major global jihadist movements have nation-state sponsors. It’s a win-win: the jihadis can fight the fight, and the nation-states can reap the rewards without the risks. The minute the sponsors are threatened, they can simply cut off the jihadis to wither and claim no part in the atrocities.
    Our strategy involves wiping out the jihadis and toppling their sponsors. We cut off the head and the blood supply. Unfortunately, our population-centric COIN doctrine is undermining our ability to fight, and not promising the ‘moral’ rewards promised.

    If we pack up and leave, the Taliban will come back and go right back to what they were doing before. It will be a deliberately squandered victory, in spite of us having everything in place for a clear victory.

    As I said above, we need to ditch population-centric COIN until after we win a conventional victory. Taliban openly roaming the countryside is not a conventional victory. Lots of light infantry is the classic answer, and there’s little reason to believe they can’t dominate the regions conventionally. Plus, it’ll cut down on the logistical bloat, and streamline our SOPs. Once the light infantry has cleared the area of enemies, then we allow the ANA/ANP to perform population-centric COIN, and we can talk of withdrawal.

  5. On a whim, I typed “Chechnya” into the search engine to see how things are going over there. Goolag is still yammering about how mean they are to gays, Yandex is reporting some rallies they’ve had in solidarity with the Muslims in Myanmar…

    Either way, looks like the Russian generals and their local quislings are doing a pretty good job keeping their durka-durkas nice and obedient. Why can’t our generals and our local quislings do what it takes to keep our durka-durkas nice and obedient? (Having spoken to some Russian veterans of that war, “what it takes” seems to consist mostly of ruthless destruction of enemy insurgents, strategic massacres of suspected supporters, and a heavy dose of good ole’ fashioned Slavic rape.)

    Though in all fairness, they did all that in Afghanistan too and it didn’t work. So, what exactly is it going to take? Would releasing mustard gas on Kandahar solve anything?

  6. One big problem I’ve heard with Afghan National Army is that it’s basically Afghanistan’s Checka; hodgepodge of ethnic minorities looking to get back at the former ruling class. (the US Government made them set up a literal quota system to try and counteract this; I suspect it just made them better at lying) That’s fine and perhaps even desire if you want to go with my previously-suggested Reign of Terror/Gas Kandahar stratagem, but if you want people to like you it’s probably not a good idea.

    For the soft-hand approach, what if we bring back the Afghan monarchy? Give opponents of the Taliban some concrete figure to rally around? I’ve suggested the same thing in Syria vis-a-vis the Hashemites.

  7. It all sounds good, Michael. And back when Obama launched his Afghanistan surge of 20,000+ troops with General Petraeus in charge, wasn’t the Army’s 6th Mountain Division one of the main units tasked with this mission?

    Even 20,000-30,000 troops may not be anywhere near enough to implement the strategy you espouse in a country the size of Afghanistan with high altitude mountain ranges across much of the country. It is so spread out and so mountainous that it is questionable how our troops can clear and hold enough territory to deny the insurgents the ability to move freely about the countryside. You cannot embed our troops in every mud-hut walled compound. They would be highly vulnerable (not to mention it would inconvenience and piss off the residents living there). Even hesco fortified FOB’s would routinely come under mortar attack. And patrols outside the wire would come under actual attack frequently. True, our troops would prevail with enough artillery support and close air support, but at the end of the day, our troops were back inside the wire and the insurgents still controlled the countryside.

    Another thing to consider is that the locals who.might be inclined to help us knew that some day we would leave. Maybe in a year or two, maybe in five or ten years. And when we did leave, they knew that the Taliban would take vemgeance on them and their families.

    I am not saying I have the answers. I am saying that even with another surge of tens of thousands of troops, I do not see why the end results would be much different than what we got the last time.

  8. This is why we need to ditch population-centric counterinsurgency, and focus instead on light infantry, in the style of Rhodesia or the Boers. 150 pounds of kit is not light infantry.
    Our troops were successful in clearing a number of areas (Garmser, Now Zad, Korengal), primarily through aggressive patrolling. At first, they were attacked within spitting distance of the wire, and the roads were heavily mined with IEDs, but we went on the offensive, rather than sitting behind our FOBs. If the insurgents fire on us from a certain spot repeatedly (which they do quite a lot of), then we ought to be laying ambushes. If they fire and flee, we should be chasing them with helicopters and light troops, even if we need to mount them on horseback. Our light troops should plan to be outside the wire for several days, and ensure that resupply does not overburden them (airdrops will be indispensable). And it should be a standing order that all attackers will be hunted to extinction. Again, the British in Malaysia provide a template for us.

    The locals right now are in fear of the Taliban. They want them gone as much as we do. But only by an aggressive, offensive approach can we make them safe. If the Taliban come in ones and twos, the villagers can kill them without us (particularly if we sponsor pro-government militias). If they attack in larger groups (several battles have involved 400+ fighters using conventional tactics), then we’ve got them in the perfect place to annihilate them. We can outrun them, outshoot them. And if they run, then we must chase them into their caves and wipe them out for good. Nobody likes to fight for the team that is killed to the last man.

  9. I believe it is settled international law that you can give Asylum to somebody who committed a crime in another country, just at will. So much more so you do not have to cooperate with a foreign government to “help hunt” an entire class of people who are being condemned to being shot on sight for guilt by association.

  10. It is true that governments have the right to offer asylum to anybody they please. But when that group is at war with another nation, then that other nation has the right to invade whomsoever they please. If Government A gives refuge to group X, and group X is at war with government B, then government A has taken a side in a war. They knew the consequences, and they accepted them. Now it’s our turn to make sure that we don’t chicken out and prove that we mean what we say. Otherwise, we become toothless and impotent in a world run by prison rules.

    P.S.- considering that group X’s founding purpose is to wage war against government B, then the ‘guilt by association’ isn’t an unfair treatment.

  11. Slavic rape isn’t as big as in the Orient, but the Russians aren’t slouches when it comes to flattening an area with massed artillery. The reason they lost Afghanistan was because they refused to leave the roads, and we supplied the Mujahadeen with surface-to-air missiles. Again, the British in Malaysia are the best example of how to run a counterinsurgency: light infantry, aggressive patrolling, pro-government militias, occasionally scorched-earth tactics. We should not be using special forces to do these.

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