The All-Too-Predictable Afghanistan Outcome

by Paul Darling, author of Taliban Safari; One Day in the Surkhagan Valley

The meteoric collapse of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) is cause for even the most pessimistic observers of Afghanistan to reflect upon the myriad of failures of NATO, and the United States in particular, that led to the disaster unfolding largely silently today. The media, shameless in their breathless and unending coverage of the Fall of Saigon nearly fifty years ago, are unsurprisingly restrained in their coverage today. Some networks have eschewed any coverage at all. The military leadership, too, sees no reason to discuss the current happenings as they are just as culpable, if not more so, than the political leadership. Indeed, Afghanistan, while unquestionably a massive failure at every level, has been of great benefit to those responsible for its lack of success.

In the course of two decades, captains have become colonels, colonels have become generals, and generals have become pundits, political players and board members of very successful defense contractors. One would have to search most diligently, and entirely in vain, to find a single military leader held accountable for their failure to win our nation’s longest war against our least capable foe. Yet we still must listen to their musings on how they will defeat China.

As a mere tactical player in yet another chapter of the great game played in the mountains and deserts in and around the Hindu Kush, I can state unequivocally that our tactical supremacy was unquestioned. The Taliban could never stand and fight and they rarely tried. But, as Sun Tzu so cleverly observed, tactics without strategy are simply the noise before defeat. So the question must be asked: Did we lack strategy or did we have the wrong one?

To fast forward a few thousand years, we must crawl into the depths of Clausewitz to tear apart the answer to that question. War is policy by other means. And strategy is the designs by which conflict (in this case, primarily armed conflict) enact that policy. If our policy was the defeat of the Taliban as a challenge to the Islamic Government of Afghanistan, then our strategy of building schools for girls, unquestionable support for corrupt governments in Kabul, and the forced multiculturalism in the heart of the Pashtun part of Afghanistan was the wrong strategy. It appears our concept of operations was to make Afghanistan an experimental playground for social engineers to create a model of Afghanistan based upon lofty ideals hatched in the halls of western universities rather than the dusty realities to be found in the obviously untraveled expanses outside Kabul.

We clung to Kilcullen’s myopically contrived theories with simplistic slogans like “hearts and minds,” thinking that the key to defeating the Taliban was ignoring them. Like a cargo cult, we created an Afghan army that had all the trappings of an effective fighting force save for the actual fighting. We gave them the planes, guns, helicopters, and armored vehicles that they quickly abandoned to an enemy equipped with seventy-year-old guns and one-dollar plastic shoes from China. And that is even with a 5–1 numerical advantage and supposedly fighting in the defense.

All insurgencies, inherent in their military weakness, hinge upon one inviolate requirement: a refuge. Mao spoke of the insurgent “swimming among the people like fish in the water.” For Mao, the population was his refuge. The Taliban had no need for such quaint slogans or ethereal concepts. Pakistan has stood for twenty years untouched as the requisite refuge for the Taliban. And we did nothing.

The idea that Pakistan was ever an ally or even a disinterested party is, in retrospect, an absolutely failed concept. We have fought a twenty-year war against Pakistan and paid them handsomely to do so. The inability or unwillingness of our political and senior military leaders to address this fact is a failure bordering on treason.

At this point, it should be intuitive to even the casual observer that what we are witnessing now is a Pakistan-led invasion of Afghanistan by not even proxy forces, but rather mercenary forces. Pakistan is paying the Taliban to fight. And fight they are. This is why the ANSF is crumbling across Afghanistan, and not only in Pashtun areas. The Taliban is the true multicultural army in Afghanistan; Tajiks and Pashtuns (with Uzbeks and Turkmen along for the ride) united by the understandable desire for money and future control of the various provinces.

But Pakistan was not alone in this venture to humiliate America. China has largely subsidized the substantial costs involved in defeating NATO and ISAF. Pakistan (who gave their geo-political ally a complete F-16 Fighting Falcon many years ago) and China are united in many factors. Primarily their distrust of India. Theirs is a natural partnership. The cold war dynamics of Pakistan allying with America to counter a then pro-Soviet India has been dead for thirty years. Tragically, the octogenarian “experts” who continue to opine on such subjects (Kissenger being foremost among these) live on along with their long-expired opinions masquerading as policies.

This may be but one of the whys. I believe it to be the primary one, but another lurks and must be addressed for it will be the point of our next inevitable policy failure. Pakistan is a nuclear state. While our unwillingness to address Pakistan’s aid in killing Americans may simply have been abject stupidity on the part of our diplomatic and political elites, it may well have been a fear that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal might slip into the hands of the various Islamic terrorist organizations Pakistan (and its allies across the Persian Gulf) still openly supports. This is not an insignificant fear. However, if the possession of nuclear arms gives any nation so endowed the free rein to kill Americans, the current administration’s apparent desire to bequeath this capability to Iran (much as Obama’s administration wished to do) must be viewed as absolutely insane. Even if Pakistan’s carte blanche was not hinged upon their possession of atomic weapons, Iran will most certainly assume that it was. So not only are we apparently giving Iran a nuclear weapons capability, we are also, through our humiliating failure in Afghanistan, giving Iran the apparent green light to make good on their weekly prayer of “Death to America.”

Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. Our efforts in Afghanistan are moving quickly to an ignoble historical fact. Will our self-anointed “elites” learn from this oh-so-near history? I fear not.

Paul Darling, Lieutenant Colonel, US Army (retired), lives in Kansas City, Missouri and is both father and son of combat veterans. His writing has been published in various venues including Defense News, Proceedings, Military Review, Armed Forces Journal, and Air and Space Power Journal.