Patterns in the Dust: Lessons from Afghanistan’s Fall

By: - August 18, 2021

The stunning collapse of Kabul and the ignominious departure of American personnel has shocked America and the world. The implications will continue to reverberate in domestic American politics and foreign policy for years. But we can notice patterns in the dust that help us learn vital lessons.

Men over Material

Hardware doesn’t fight on its own. The tank, battleship, stealth fighter, and gun are used by soldiers, seamen and airmen. The quality of training and the strategy that employs them is often more important. For example, the King Tiger tank had impressive armor, engines, and guns, but they were rather gas hungry and wasted in a too audacious offensive instead of husbanded for defense of the German homeland. Japanese battleships were impressive, but they were so impressive the high command was too afraid to use (and possibly lose) them until late in the war when they were out fought by the aggressive and battle tested American leaders.  In both cases the strategy made impressive hardware obsolete.

The Chinese and Russians both stun America with carrier killing and hyper sonic weapons. But they are often employed by soldiers with a relatively high risk of desertion, or whose training exercises are often called insufficient. So, they sound scary on paper, but would be more likely to be impotent in the face of dedicated professionals on the other side. (This reminds me of a classical Chinese writer who said it would be like flinging eggs instead of a rock.)

The Afghan forces were modernized over 20 years and obtained advanced American equipment. The Afghans had the appearance of modernity due to their hardware, but they didn’t develop the needed heart to win with them. In both terms of strategy, and the soldier using them, the Afghans and in particularly, their American partners didn’t properly enforce their soldiers to take advantage of their hardware. The incredibly useful Humvee can operate over a wide variety of rough terrain and lousy roads (of which Afghanistan has a bit). But if the soldiers are running the other way it does them little good. The air force is useless when it stays on base due to lack of American logistical support.  It takes years of hard fighting to produce a solid officer corps, dedicated NCOs, competent and honest logistical officers, and in general, a culture of victory. The only solace readers can take is that the Taliban will face the same limitations using seized American hardware.

Blowback

Isolationists and opportunist politicians looking to oppose intervention point to the supposed blowback we risk in every mission.  Of course, they do so without regard to the consequences of doing nothing. They claim that American action aggravates local tensions and give transnational terrorists an opening to coopt those local grievances. American actions can be counterproductive but the chaos unfolding in Kabul provides a strong counter argument that leaving is worse than being there in the first place!!!

As Henry Kissinger outlined, America has long seen debates over the merits of human intervention verses those based on national interest. But Afghanistan has both. The U.S. has a national security interest in preventing the terrorists from staging another 9/11 style attack.

They have a compelling moral interest after providing 20 years’ worth of guarantees that we gave as late as last week saying we wouldn’t let the Taliban close down schools for women, steal child brides, impress child soldiers, and stone dissidents. This moral interest also leads to a national security interest, as U.S. promises are increasingly seen as impotent, they will be unwilling to work with us. But the desire to stop endless war and prevent blowback has produced a preventable horror.

Afghanistan could have been more like Germany and South Korea. Places where we have a garrison, but they are peaceful investments that provide America with forward operating bases against potential threats. We had few casualties overall, and even fewer combat deaths. Compared to the firehose of spending coming from Washington on domestic policy, the financial commitment was minimal. Under the aura of strength projected from President Trump instead of the weakness of Biden, we could have guaranteed the Afghan government, and the human rights of Afghans for the next 50 years.

Trump’s Fault

Like clockwork, Joe Biden has blamed the previous president. President Obama pulled out of Iraq in 2012 and did so using specious reasoning. The Iraqi government didn’t sign a status of forces agreement, but that is likely because the U.S. offered so few soldiers it wasn’t worth the Prime Minister taking the hit as a American stooge. Shortly after that withdrawal ISIS turned varsity and swept through much of the region. President Obama was handed a relatively peaceful and strong position, but after the ISIS sweep everyone blamed President Bush for the mess!!

Similarly, Joe Biden had a situation where withdrawal was in the works, but a reasonable and stable post American order was being created using a credible Afghan government and military, support by technicians, sharing power with the Taliban. President Joe Biden took office and set the artificial deadline of September 11th! The fighting season in the summer and fall before the winter closes many key passes. But Biden timed the deadline in the middle of fighting season so the government couldn’t even have an off season to get ready. Biden ignored the signs of a swift Taliban takeover to continue the artificial pull out. Biden let peace talks become meaningless. Biden pulled key logistical support and most airstrikes. This was especially impactful because America had built up an American style Afghani force that needed those technicians for critical precision strikes and resupply over rough terrain held by the Taliban.

Handcuffed by Biden’s decision to the point they relied on zoom calls to fix their aircraft, he then blamed the Afghans for not fighting for their country. Biden projected an aura of weakness with things like the emergency pull out of embassy staff. Even though Trump has been out of office, on the golf course and off social media for almost 9 months, he is being blamed for it!

This horrible and needless tragedy is being shifted as much as possible. It reveals the weakness of relying on technology without the proper strategy and trained soldiers. And it shows that America’s presence more often improves the places we go. We don’t face blowback for being there in the first place, but for leaving too soon and abandoning our allies and breaking our promises. While the full horrors are yet to come, we can already see these principles in application.