President Biden was right to reject the recommendations of the Afghan Study Group and to order the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan. It was clearly not an easy decision, as it involved going against the recommendations of many current and former military leaders who were heavily invested in the conflict. With this difficult decision should come some introspection about the limits of military power and the danger of simplistic narratives of American capabilities, but initial responses suggest that this will not be the case.
We have already heard a lot about “conditions-based” approaches and all that Afghanistan might lose with our withdrawal. Notably missing from those arguments is any acknowledgment of how inefficient and ineffective our nearly 20-year-long military-led endeavor has been, how our efforts thus far have fed into Afghanistan’s dysfunction, and why we should not expect “more of the same” to lead to better outcomes now.
I spent a total of nearly two years in Afghanistan during my U.S. Army career, first serving in conventional infantry units and later as an advisor to the Afghan military, interacting with members of the Afghan army and police across six provinces — during which I’ve seen up-close how the U.S. military’s approach can blind us to what really matters on the ground. Right now, we have less than five months before the announced pullout date, so the question of what we got wrong isn’t just self-criticism: It’s a necessary, and urgent, step to insuring we best use the remaining leverage we have now and after we withdraw troops from Afghanistan. And maybe, even at this late date, help to accomplish the goal of a country able to resist Taliban domination.
“You have the watches, we have the time” is a popular phrase among veterans of the war in Afghanistan. Attributed to a member of the Taliban, the saying highlights the difference between Taliban patience and an American desire to win quickly and go home. It is most often used as an excuse for our lack of progress in the war: a verbal shrug of the shoulders that implies there was nothing the military could have done to overcome this implicitly political dynamic. Yet it was not politicians, but U.S. military commanders who for years pushed short-term solutions to the war, while using profound-sounding statements like this and vague assertions that “COIN takes time” to cover for the failure of our approach.
Missing from this catchy phrase are those who have always had just as much time as the Taliban: the Afghan forces fighting them. These Afghans, who number in the hundreds of thousands, have resisted the Taliban their entire lives, with several thousand dying directly in the fight each year. Many of them have sacrificed more in the fight against extremism than any American can dare imagine, and this raises the uncomfortable question of why the Afghan forces have been so unsuccessful against the Taliban. The answer is simple: We gave them watches.
Instead of building a force that fit Afghanistan, we built an Army of mini-me’s. A force that, like our military, requires massive logistical support and technical capabilities to manage. A force that relies heavily on airpower and armored vehicles to fight an enemy who relies on his feet, IEDs and an AK-47. This is not a new revelation, but with the constant turnover of American commanders and a perennially optimistic (or delusional) view that the potential for victory over the Taliban was just around the corner, the instinct was always to double-down, or keep propping up the Afghan forces just long enough to get them over the finish line.
Unfortunately, there was always a fatal flaw to this approach. Pushing western technology and firepower into the Afghan military was never going to be sufficient to beat the Taliban, not when pouring billions of dollars into a government ill-equipped to handle it also contributed to the corruption and illegitimacy that opened additional political space for the Taliban to operate.
Being a foreigner in Afghanistan, it was always jarring to work with Afghan military officers who also needed translators to talk to the local population. They operated far from home as part of the national army we designed for them, and under the umbrella of our air support and firepower. But, even if they could speak Pashtun, they were often predatory or, at best, simply out of touch with the local population and ill-equipped to counter the perception that they were merely the arm of corrupt political leaders in Kabul. This dynamic continues today, with Afghan commando units operating far from Kabul having the upper hand in firepower, but often being on the sideline of the battle for “hearts and minds” as the Taliban work more closely with local powerbrokers.
With President Biden’s decision to withdraw there undoubtedly will be consequences for the Afghan military. The absence of sustained American airpower will enable the Taliban to move even more freely, while the Afghan government will be challenged to move its best fighters around the country via helicopters to counter Taliban gains. Unfortunately, American military leaders have placed so much emphasis on building a force reliant on these assets that it will take some time for security forces more organic to Afghanistan to emerge, and it is far from certain whether an effective force can form in the face of increased Taliban attacks.
All the more reason why an honest reckoning is required—and quickly. Sadly, there’s little evidence of it yet.
In a March 4 discussion at the Center for a New American Security, Lockheed Martin board member and former commander of the International Security Assistance Force, Gen. (Ret.) Joseph Dunford stated:
No one can argue about some of the mistakes that might have been made along the way in terms of growing the Afghan forces (I) would say over the last couple of years greater emphasis has been placed on reinforcing those elements of the Afghan forces that work in moving them to a more sustainable level, particularly their counter terrorism capabilities and special operations capabilities …
The statement was remarkable in the way it inadvertently highlighted the dysfunction of our approach to the Afghan military. Beyond the passive ‘mistakes were made’ framing of the response is the idea that pushing special operations forces into the fight was either sustainable or effective. The idea of relying on special operations forces to carry the brunt of combat is anathema to U.S. military doctrine, and for good reason. Pushing a military’s most highly trained units into the center of the fight risks the loss of years of investment and training for marginal gain. The use of these forces in this way should not have been viewed as a success, but a sign of desperation and an implicit admission that our design for a national army simply failed.
This alone was concerning, but more troublesome was the fact that even these most extensively trained Afghan units struggle to be combat effective without massive external support. The failure of putting “greater emphasis” on these forces was highlighted mere days after Dunford’s remarks by the latest updates from the fighting in Afghanistan.
In reporting by Susannah George in the Washington Post, General Haibatullah Alizai, the commander of Afghanistan’s Special Operations Corps described a force on the edge. “We have really brave soldiers and tough soldiers, really [well] trained by U.S. Special Forces … The only thing we are missing for now,” he said, “is the technology and more air support.” The general went on to describe the fight as “sustainable” but “impossible to win without the new technology and without increasing the U.S. airstrikes.”
None of these statements suggest a force that has moved to “a more sustainable level.” At the very least they imply that any previous level of sustainability was close to nonexistent. It also highlights how we have created a force entirely dependent on technological assets like armed surveillance drones and warplanes that can only be provided and maintained by the United States or its allies. And because it bears repeating, this force has been struggling against an enemy that has neither warplanes nor the type of heavily armed drones available to Afghan forces.
With this in mind, the second part of Dunford’s statement revealed the perennial gamble that Biden finally rejected. After describing the current Afghan force as sustainable, Dunford stated that “the key issue is that by supporting the Afghan peace process the environment within which the Afghan forces are operating becomes quite different and the ability to sustain forces become quite different.”
Translated, it was a variant of the strategy pursued by himself and every one of the numerous other ISAF commanders as they rotated through Afghanistan: Ignore the structural deficiencies of Afghan forces, double down on technological solutions and foreign support to prop up the fight against the Taliban, and hope that the military gains yielded by pushing assets into Afghanistan outpaced the political dysfunction and corruption that this support unintentionally feeds.
The failure of this approach must be acknowledged, and not only for understanding what the U.S. military got wrong, but for understanding the future of Afghan forces as we withdraw. There is already some discussion about continuing to support the maintenance and employment of a massive fleet of Blackhawk helicopters and other assets that Afghan special forces have become reliant on. Providing the funding required to maintain and employ these assets at current levels would be a mistake.
These are notoriously difficult assets to maintain, even for the U.S. military. The quickest way to forfeit public support for continued funding to Afghan forces would be to dedicate our funding post-withdrawal to assets that require extensive and expensive contractor support to sustain. Given Afghanistan’s lack of trained mechanics, pilots and logisticians, the future of these assets is easy to see: One only needs to look at the massive boneyards of abandoned Soviet-era equipment left for Afghan forces at the end of Soviet occupation and imagine fleets of American-supplied assets parked next to them in the years ahead.
We must, at long last, acknowledge that building a national army requiring the kind of technological and logistical support to which western militaries are accustomed was not only a massive waste of American blood and treasure, but actually counterproductive to the fight. Jettisoning our delusional vision for the Afghan military will be painful in the short run, but necessary for Afghan stability in the long run. It is well-past time to shift our thinking from how many millions of dollars we need to keep airframes operational, to making sure that those assets that are actually sustainable and useful for Afghan forces are in place as foreign forces withdraw.
It will be painful to watch the devolution of the Afghan military, but the idea that this military is not already fractured is an illusion.
The loyalties of Afghan military officers have never neatly mapped onto the chain of command structure that we copy-and-pasted from our own military doctrine, but lie with either the politicians who got them their jobs or the tribes and ethnic groups that have sustained them through nearly forty years of fighting. As Ryan Evans and others have been suggesting since at least 2012, the fragmentation of the ANSF has never been a question of if, but when and, more important for our interests — how. So instead of ignoring these organic power structures in the hope that they will naturally go away, we must use the limited time we have left to back away and give them space to surface, identify those most aligned with our interests and provide them the support that fits their needs, not our ideals.
The American military feels naked without our watches, but with the Taliban we have seen what a force can do without them. As we withdraw we should trust and support our Afghan counterparts to do the same.
Go To Source