“When Americans suffer casualties, they run away from battle,” the high-ranking Taliban commander, Seif Galali, famously told an Al Jazeera interviewer in 2009, after U.S. forces withdrew from the Nuristan Province, due to fierce Taliban resistance.
Around that time, Marine Corps platoon leader Lieutenant Jake Kerr, would recount to the legendary military writer (who is also a retired Marine), Bing West, the travails of his platoon’s experience fighting in Afghanistan. He would detail how his Marines held a forward operating base in Kunar Province but, since the Marines weren’t allowed to venture out beyond the base—and since they were not given enough reinforcements (and USAID had cut off funds to their Afghan partners)—the Taliban would simply “go around” the Marines when attacking the Kunar Province.
“My platoon is fucking pissed off that we gave away the initiative.” Kerr told West.
Kerr’s sentiments would be shared by the majority of American forces fighting in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the Taliban have a saying: “The Americans have all of the watches, but we have all of the time.”
And that’s really the nub of the whole war, isn’t it? When the United States and its allies invaded Afghanistan following the horrific 9/11 attacks, America had the initiative. U.S. forces destroyed the Afghans’ perception that theirs was the winning side. That was an important step for us toward victory. Alas, the opportunity it created was squandered when we assumed our side was too big to fail.
When Americans look at the Taliban or al Qaeda, we see cave dwellers living in squalor compared to our high-tech military prowess. Or, as an Army Ranger friend of mine once told me, “We look like men from Mars to the Afghans.” Meanwhile, they look like the Flintstones to us.
What we fail to recognize, however, is how the enemy’s belief system empowers them to stand against America’s fearsome military might. In fact, after 17 years of fighting against an American force that—considering its capacities—has been woefully under-resourced and horribly mismanaged by ignorant politicians in Washington, the jihadists in Afghanistan have regained their former false impression of superiority over their American foes.
When perceptions change in combat; when a pre-modern band of religious zealots now disbelieves that yours is the superior fighting force, their resistance quotient increases exponentially. Under such circumstances, groups like al Qaeda and the Taliban assume that their god is truly on their side. So now, the Taliban, al Qaeda, ISIS, and others affiliated jihadists are simply running out the clock on America’s forces. Why fight America’s comparatively heavy armed military if the jihadists can just psyche out our weak political leaders from afar?
We’ve heard this tale before. During the Civil War, the Confederates became convinced that, despite the numerical superiority of the Union forces, the Union was poorly led, and that its populace had little appetite for the kind of war that the South was willing to wage.
In Vietnam, the North Vietnamese kept telling themselves that, the greater levels of casualties they inflicted, the more the Americans would cut-and-run.
During both Desert Storm and the Iraq War in 2003, Saddam Hussein genuinely believed that he could inflict enough casualties that the Americans would repeat the Vietnam withdrawal experience.
In Vietnam and in Iraq in 2003, it was not the military that handed America a defeat, but rather, it was America’s pathetic politicians who did the deed. Conversely, in the case of the Civil War, it was presidential courage that allowed for the promotion of controversial men like Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman into positions of authority. These men, possessed of fierce fighting abilities, visionary leadership, and an unrelenting desire for victory are the reasons why the North ultimately defeated its wayward Southern brethren.
Sheer brutality and a clear-eyed strategy for victory—coupled with political courage from the White House—allowed heroic and brutal men to wage the only kind of war America wins: a total unrestricted war that is committed to victory.
This is precisely the kind of political courage that President Trump must display now.
For the last 17 years in Afghanistan, we’ve lacked it. America went in to fight terrorists and ended up nation-building. Clearly, something in our strategy went awry. The problem was in America’s political leadership—the “Permanent Bipartisan Fusion Party.” Possessed of crippling political correctness, our leaders negated our military’s strengths and turned our warfighters into “armed humanitarians,” because the Bipartisan Fusion Party’s political correctness made them think that victory was immoral. Coincidentally, the jihadists also believe an American victory is immoral.
As former Army Intelligence Lt. Col. Ralph Peters has written over the years, the initial strategy for the United States in Afghanistan was apt. The United States was striking back at those who attacked it on September 11, 2001. Due to force limitations (and the need for a swift response), the United States could only bring a small force to bear in the initial days of the war. The Bush Administration had to rely heavily on the Central Intelligence Agency’s paramilitary arm, since the Pentagon, after years of President Bill Clinton’s short-sighted talk of a “peace dividend,” was caught flat-footed by the 9/11 attacks.
In addition to the lack of preparation on the part of the military when it came to invading Afghanistan, there were also severe logistical limitations surrounding that invasion. Not wanting to accept these challenges as insurmountable, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld rightly pushed through serious expansions and reforms of America’s Special Forces, from which we are still the beneficiaries today. So, together with the CIA, special-operations teams inserted themselves into Afghanistan.
These groups quickly enmeshed themselves with larger, anti-Taliban and anti-al Qaeda indigenous forces, such as the Northern Alliance. Using satellites to link them with American and allied airpower just over-the-horizon, America cobbled together an effective punitive expedition. This expedition punished al Qaeda and ousted the Taliban from power in record time. By 2002, the war was mostly won. America should have declared victory and gone home, leaving behind a small counterterrorism force to ensure that those busted remnants of al Qaeda and the Taliban were kept at bay.
Yet, even as the Bush Administration was beginning to focus its efforts on invading Iraq, the United States opted to remain in Afghanistan and “nation-build.” This was our greatest error of that period. In splitting America’s limited forces between “mopping up” in Afghanistan and invading Iraq, we lost the initiative. Victory was no longer the main object. More damagingly, by keeping our forces engaged in Afghanistan but woefully restrained, America’s military lost its prestige in the eyes of those it was fighting. They were hamstrung.
Meanwhile, American money has created a failed central government in Afghanistan that runs on corruption and aggravates the locals. It is likely that nothing better but, instead, something worse, would have emerged in our absence. But at least then it wouldn’t have come with our apparent seal of approval and made us the object of scorn. As Peter Tomsen wrote, the key to Afghanistan is not Kabul, but the tribes. Moving forward, America’s leaders must recognize and embrace this simple fact. There is no united Afghanistan. It is nearly impossible to try to create a united Afghanistan. It likely isn’t in our strategic interests to spend the next century trying to build a unified Afghanistan, either. What’s more, history proves that invaders who have tried to dominate a united Afghanistan do not succeed.
The whiff of corruption on the part of American-backed Afghan leaders and the taint of defeat surrounding our military strategy in Afghanistan has created a toxic brew, empowering our enemies and discouraging our allies. This toxic brew has created a self-fulfilling prophecy of Afghanistan being the place where the American “empire” went to die.
This is not a tenable situation. We cannot stay and “nation-build” in Afghanistan forever—especially not with America’s own economic situation remaining so precarious. Nevertheless, we have sacrificed many of our young men and women in Afghanistan. Is it moral to negate those sacrifices by giving up on victory there, simply because it’s expensive? I don’t think so. I think we should give Secretary of Defense James Mattis one more shot to try to resolve the outcome of this war in America’s favor. We owe it to those who’ve sacrificed everything in Afghanistan.
If Mattis cannot lead us to victory, I suspect that no one can, and then America should call it quits. Giving that war one more go isn’t going to be the thing that breaks America. A defeat just might, though.
Recently, Secretary of Defense Mattis testified to Congress that America was losing in Afghanistan but that he planned on remedying this fact. Earlier this week, Mattis was given unprecedented control over the war in Afghanistan by the President. This, after an uptick in U.S. military engagements with jihadist forces in Afghanistan—notably those of ISIS. The decision to grant Mattis the kind of autonomy that every American military leader dreams of is akin to Lincoln’s decision to trust Grant. In the coming days and weeks, we will see an increase in U.S. forces in Afghanistan. But, it will be unlike anything that we’ve seen heretofore in the nearly-20-year-long war.
The military—especially the Marines—will be allowed not only to fight, but to win. What’s more, they will be granted permission to use any and all means to win. This is exemplified by the recent use of the all-powerful “Mother of All Bombs” against an ISIS-K stronghold in Afghanistan. Neither Bush nor Obama would have ever approved the use of such weapons—even against an ISIS stronghold, removed from civilian populations.
We must not forget that all warfare is ultimately political in nature—or politics by other means. Therefore, even a return to classical concepts of American warfare will be insufficient to achieve ultimate victory in Afghanistan. Thus, it is essential to recognize some key points going forward.
First, the revitalization of America’s military posture in Afghanistan will bust the jihadists’ perception that time is on their side. This will generate much-needed momentum for America’s forces. The momentum will prompt many fence-sitting Afghan tribal leaders to come back to America’s side.
Second, the key to victory rests in the tribes, not in Kabul.
Third, Afghanistan has become a geopolitical hot potato, with China, Russia, Pakistan, and Iran all taking greater roles in the country. By crafting policies aimed at either compelling them to assist in ending the war in America’s favor or by neutering their clients in the country, the United States can secure a geopolitical, as well as a military victory.
Fourth, since the ethno-religious tribes are the key, we will need to recognize that the Taliban will likely require negotiation, since, as Michael Scheurer points out, the Taliban is effectively a Pashtun independence movement. And, to be sure, the Pashtun are not going anywhere. But, by empowering the tribes over the central government in Kabul, we can at least mitigate the Taliban’s political reach.
Fifth, America must plan to leave counterterrorism forces behind in Afghanistan indefinitely, to ensure that it does not become a bastion of jihadism yet again.
The Trump Administration must keep this in mind and begin fashioning its diplomatic strategy to comport with what will likely be an expansion of its military policy in Afghanistan. The War in Afghanistan is totally winnable. All victory will require is for President Trump to allow for America’s fighting men and women to use every means at their disposal to accomplish their mission. Further, we need to recognize that an American victory in Afghanistan will look unlike anything we’ve experienced historically, but it will be a victory, nonetheless.
Consistent military victories will rejuvenate America’s image in Afghanistan. We will return to the status of being the stronger tribe. Once that happens, real headway can be made in ending America’s commitment there.
The Trump Administration, however, must keep the American political establishment out of the management of the campaign, and it must be willing to support the war effort in a way that neither the Bush nor Obama Administrations were willing to do. Brutality of the sort unseen in many decades will be essential to send a clear and unmistakable message to our enemies that America is playing for keeps. After all, victory goes neither to the swift nor to the strong. Instead it goes to to he that endureth.
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