The View From Olympus: Afghanistan

The United States has lost another Fourth Generation war.  To his credit, President Biden has stuck with President Trump’s decision to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan.  Will that mean the fall of the current Afghan government, a return to Kabul for the Taliban, and renewed civil war?  Of course.  That’s Afghanistan.  We could stay one hundred years in that wretched hellhole and nothing would change.

The astonishing thing is that we went there in the first place.  I was a Senate staffer on Capitol Hill when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan.  Everyone was glum, expecting the Red Army to win a quick and easy victory.  I was exultant, because I knew the Soviets had just joined the tar baby in the briar patch.  I found it hard to believe Moscow would do anything so foolish and I was confident it would end badly for them.  And then, with the Soviet example staring us in the face, we made the same obvious blunder!  Why?

The first answer is that the Washington foreign policy establishment is willfully ignorant.  They know the history of places such as Afghanistan and the Balkans, but they don’t think it applies to them.  So they behave like bad children, doing whatever they want and leaving adults, in the form of the U.S. military, to clean up the mess.  Unfortunately, the senior military is also willfully ignorant, in their case of the fact that they lead a Second Generation military that is doomed to defeat in Fourth Generation wars.  So thousands of lives and trillions of dollars later, we accept our inevitable defeat and go home with another loss on the board.

Why does it take us so long–twenty years in the case of Afghanistan–to admit defeat and go home?  Because both the civilian and senior military Washington establishment is made up almost exclusively of moral cowards.  Their focus is their personal careers, they got to the senior positions they occupy by avoiding decisions and passing every buck, and they don’t want to be the ones holding the bag for losing another war.  So they kick the can down the road, letting a lost war continue at vast human and financial cost.  Twenty years is a long time to be kicking the can.

We should have gotten out of Afghanistan no more than 90 days after we went in.  By that point, we had done all a foreign invader can do.  We had taken Kabul, thrown out the government we didn’t like, put a puppet government in its place and given it some money and weapons.  After that, if an invader stays he becomes everyone’s target.  Within those first three months we had also botched the chance we had to grab bin Laden, so that mission offered no justification to stay.  Again, the only reason we did so is moral cowardice in high places. 

That military failure points to the third reason we have scored another loss: military incompetence.  Osama was in the caves of Tora Bora when we tried to grab him there.  He escaped because the U.S. military does not know how to fight battles of encirclement.  It draws a line on a map with us on one side and the enemy on the other, then dumps vast quantities of firepower on their side of the line.  Such a reductionist approach to war has little chance of success unless the enemy must move while under fire, which in most cases he does not.

Generally, decisive success in battle requires either ambush or encirclement, not just a firepower dump.  The U.S. military makes few attempts to do either, and, as at Tora Bora, the few times it does attempt it the result is usually failure.

Dealing with these three causes of our repeated defeats in Fourth Generation war requires replacement of the existing Establishments, civilians and military.  They cannot be reformed; they are too far gone for that.  Replacement will come only from a national catastrophe severe enough to grab the public’s attention.  I suspect that lies just over the horizon.

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