We walked in a single file. Not because it was tactically sound. It wasn’t -- at least according to standard infantry doctrine. Patrolling southern Afghanistan in column formation limited maneuverability, made it difficult to mass fire, and exposed us to enfilading machine-gun bursts. Still, in 2011, in the Pashmul District of Kandahar Province, single file was our best bet.
That’s right, the local “Taliban” -- a term so nebulous it’s basically lost all meaning -- had managed to drastically alter U.S. Army tactics with crude, homemade explosives stored in plastic jugs. And believe me, this was a huge problem. Cheap, ubiquitous, and easy to bury, those anti-personnel Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs, soon littered the “roads,” footpaths, and farmland surrounding our isolated outpost. To a greater extent than a number of commanders willingly admitted, the enemy had managed to nullify our many technological advantages for a few pennies on the dollar (or maybe, since we’re talking about the Pentagon, it was pennies on the millions of dollars).
Truth be told, it was never really about our high-tech gear. Instead, American units came to rely on superior training and discipline, as well as initiative and maneuverability, to best their opponents. And yet those deadly IEDs often seemed to even the score, being both difficult to detect and brutally effective. So there we were, after too many bloody lessons, meandering along in carnival-like, Pied Piper-style columns. Bomb-sniffing dogs often led the way, followed by a couple of soldiers carrying mine detectors, followed by a few explosives experts. Only then came the first foot soldiers, rifles at the ready. Anything else was, if not suicide, then at least grotesquely ill-advised.
And mind you, our improvised approach didn’t always work either. To those of us out there, each patrol felt like an ad hoc round of Russian roulette. In that way, those IEDs completely changed how we operated, slowing movement, discouraging extra patrols, and distancing us from what was then considered the ultimate “prize”: the local villagers, or what was left of them anyway. In a counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign, which is what the U.S. military was running in Afghanistan in those years, that was the definition of defeat.
Strategic Problems in Microcosm
My own unit faced a dilemma common to dozens -- maybe hundreds -- of other American units in Afghanistan. Every patrol was slow, cumbersome, and risky. The natural inclination, if you cared about your boys, was to do less. But effective COIN operations require securing territory and gaining the trust of the civilians living there. You simply can’t do that from inside a well-protected American base. One obvious option was to live in the villages -- which we eventually did -- but that required dividing up the company into smaller groups and securing a second, third, maybe fourth location, which quickly became problematic, at least for my 82-man cavalry troop (when at full strength). And, of course, there were no less than five villages in my area of responsibility.
I realize, writing this now, that there’s no way I can make the situation sound quite as dicey as it actually was. How, for instance, were we to “secure and empower” a village population that was, by then, all but nonexistent? Years, even decades, of hard fighting, air strikes, and damaged crops had left many of those villages in that part of Kandahar Province little more than ghost towns, while cities elsewhere in the country teemed with uprooted and dissatisfied peasant refugees from the countryside.
Sometimes, it felt as if we were fighting over nothing more than a few dozen deserted mud huts. And like it or not, such absurdity exemplified America’s war in Afghanistan. It still does. That was the view from the bottom. Matters weren’t -- and aren't -- measurably better at the top. As easily as one reconnaissance troop could be derailed, so the entire enterprise, which rested on similarly shaky foundations, could be unsettled.
At a moment when the generals to whom President Trump recently delegated decision-making powers on U.S. troop strength in that country consider a new Afghan “surge,” it might be worth looking backward and zooming out just a bit. Remember, the very idea of “winning” the Afghan War, which left my unit in that collection of mud huts, rested (and still rests) on a few rather grandiose assumptions.
The first of these surely is that the Afghans actually want (or ever wanted) us there; the second, that the country was and still is vital to our national security; and the third, that 10,000, 50,000, or even 100,000 foreign troops ever were or now could be capable of “pacifying” an insurgency, or rather a growing set of insurgencies, or securing 33 million souls, or facilitating a stable, representative government in a heterogeneous, mountainous, landlocked country with little history of democracy.
The first of these points is at least debatable. As you might imagine, any kind of accurate polling is quite difficult, if not impossible, outside the few major population centers in that isolated country. Though many Afghans, particularly urban ones, may favor a continued U.S. military presence, others clearly wonder what good a new influx of foreigners will do in their endlessly war-torn nation. As one high-ranking Afghan official recently lamented, thinking undoubtedly of the first use in his land of the largest non-nuclear bomb on the planet, “Is the plan just to use our country as a testing ground for bombs?" And keep in mind that the striking rise in territory the Taliban now controls, the most since they were driven from power in 2001, suggests that the U.S. presence is hardly welcomed everywhere.
The second assumption is far more difficult to argue or justify. To say the least, classifying a war in far-away Afghanistan as “vital” relies on a rather pliable definition of the term. If that passes muster -- if bolstering the Afghan military to the tune of (at least) tens of billions of dollars annually and thousands of new boots-on-the-ground in order to deny safe haven to “terrorists” is truly “vital” -- then logically the current U.S. presences in Iraq, Syria, Somalia, and Yemen are critical as well and should be similarly fortified. And what about the growing terror groups in Egypt, Libya, Nigeria, Tunisia, and so on? We’re talking about a truly expensive proposition here -- in blood and treasure. But is it true? Rational analysis suggests it is not. After all, on average about seven Americans were killed by Islamist terrorists on U.S. soil annually from 2005 to 2015. That puts terrorism deaths right up there with shark attacks and lightning strikes. The fear is real, the actual danger... less so.
As for the third point, it’s simply preposterous. One look at U.S. military attempts at “nation-building” or post-conflict stabilization and pacification in Iraq, Libya, or -- dare I say -- Syria should settle the issue. It’s often said that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Yet here we are, 14 years after the folly of invading Iraq and many of the same voices -- inside and outside the administration -- are clamoring for one more “surge” in Afghanistan (and, of course, will be clamoring for the predictable surges to follow across the Greater Middle East).
The very idea that the U.S. military had the ability to usher in a secure Afghanistan is grounded in a number of preconditions that proved to be little more than fantasies. First, there would have to be a capable, reasonably corruption-free local governing partner and military. That’s a nonstarter. Afghanistan’s corrupt, unpopular national unity government is little better than the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam in the 1960s and that American war didn’t turn out so well, did it? Then there’s the question of longevity. When it comes to the U.S. military presence there, soon to head into its 16th year, how long is long enough? Several mainstream voices, including former Afghan commander General David Petraeus, are now talking about at least a “generation” more to successfully pacify Afghanistan. Is that really feasible given America’s growing resource constraints and the ever expanding set of dangerous “ungoverned spaces” worldwide?
And what could a new surge actually do? The U.S. presence in Afghanistan is essentially a fragmented series of self-contained bases, each of which needs to be supplied and secured. In a country of its size, with a limited transportation infrastructure, even the 4,000-5,000 extra troops the Pentagon is reportedly considering sending right now won’t go very far.
Now, zoom out again. Apply the same calculus to the U.S. position across the Greater Middle East and you face what we might start calling the Afghan paradox, or my own quandary safeguarding five villages with only 82 men writ large. Do the math. The U.S. military is already struggling to keep up with its commitments. At what point is Washington simply spinning its proverbial wheels? I’ll tell you when -- yesterday.
Now, think about those three questionable Afghan assumptions and one uncomfortable actuality leaps forth. The only guiding force left in the American strategic arsenal is inertia.
What Surge 4.0 Won’t Do -- I Promise...
Remember something: this won’t be America’s first Afghan “surge.” Or its second, or even its third. No, this will be the U.S. military’s fourth crack at it. Who feels lucky? First came President George W. Bush’s "quiet" surge back in 2008. Next, just one month into his first term, newly minted President Barack Obama sent 17,000 more troops to fight his so-called good war (unlike the bad one in Iraq) in southern Afghanistan. After a testy strategic review, he then committed 30,000 additional soldiers to the “real” surge a year later. That’s what brought me (and the rest of B Troop, 4-4 Cavalry) to Pashmul district in 2011. We left -- most of us -- more than five years ago, but of course about 8,800 American military personnel remain today and they are the basis for the surge to come.
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To be fair, Surge 4.0 might initially deliver certain modest gains (just as each of the other three did in their day). Realistically, more trainers, air support, and logistics personnel could indeed stabilize some Afghan military units for some limited amount of time. Sixteen years into the conflict, with 10% as many American troops on the ground as at the war’s peak, and after a decade-plus of training, Afghan security forces are still being battered by the insurgents. In the last years, they’ve been experiencing record casualties, along with the usual massive stream of desertions and the legions of “ghost soldiers” who can neither die nor desert because they don’t exist, although their salaries do (in the pockets of their commanders or other lucky Afghans). And that’s earned them a “stalemate,” which has left the Taliban and other insurgent groups in control of a significant part of the country. And if all goes well (which isn’t exactly a surefire thing), that’s likely to be the best that Surge 4.0 can produce: a long, painful tie.
Peel back the onion’s layers just a bit more and the ostensible reasons for America’s Afghan War vanish along with all the explanatory smoke and mirrors. After all, there are two things the upcoming “mini-surge” will emphatically not do:
*It won’t change a failing strategic formula.
Imagine that formula this way: American trainers + Afghan soldiers + loads of cash + (unspecified) time = a stable Afghan government and lessening Taliban influence.
It hasn’t worked yet, of course, but -- so the surge-believers assure us -- that’s because we need more: more troops, more money, more time. Like so many loyal Reaganites, their answers are always supply-side ones and none of them ever seems to wonder whether, almost 16 years later, the formula itself might not be fatally flawed.
According to news reports, no solution being considered by the current administration will even deal with the following interlocking set of problems: Afghanistan is a large, mountainous, landlocked, ethno-religiously heterogeneous, poor country led by a deeply corrupt government with a deeply corrupt military. In a place long known as a “graveyard of empires,” the United States military and the Afghan Security Forces continue to wage what one eminent historian has termed “fortified compound warfare.” Essentially, Washington and its local allies continue to grapple with relatively conventional threats from exceedingly mobile Taliban fighters across a porous border with Pakistan, a country that has offered not-so-furtive support and a safe haven for those adversaries. And the Washington response to this has largely been to lock its soldiers inside those fortified compounds (and focus on protecting them against “insider attacks” by those Afghans it works with and trains). It hasn’t worked. It can’t. It won’t.
Consider an analogous example. In Vietnam, the United States never solved the double conundrum of enemy safe havens and a futile search for legitimacy. The Vietcong guerillas and North Vietnamese Army used nearby Cambodia, Laos, and North Vietnam to rest, refit, and replenish. U.S. troops meanwhile lacked legitimacy because their corrupt South Vietnamese partners lacked it.
Sound familiar? We face the same two problems in Afghanistan: a Pakistani safe haven and a corrupt, unpopular central government in Kabul. Nothing, and I mean nothing, in any future troop surge will effectively change that.
*It won’t pass the logical fallacy test.
The minute you really think about it, the whole argument for a surge or mini-surge instantly slides down a philosophical slippery slope.
If the war is really about denying terrorists safe havens in ungoverned or poorly governed territory, then why not surge more troops into Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria, Libya, Pakistan (where al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden’s son Hamza bin-Laden are believed to be safely ensconced), Iraq, Syria, Chechnya, Dagestan (where one of the Boston Marathon bombers was radicalized), or for that matter Paris or London. Every one of those places has harbored and/or is harboring terrorists. Maybe instead of surging yet again in Afghanistan or elsewhere, the real answer is to begin to realize that all the U.S. military in its present mode of operation can do to change that reality is make it worse. After all, the last 15 years offer a vision of how it continually surges and in the process only creates yet more ungovernable lands and territories.
So much of the effort, now as in previous years, rests on an evident desire among military and political types in Washington to wage the war they know, the one their army is built for: battles for terrain, fights that can be tracked and measured on maps, the sort of stuff that staff officers (like me) can display on ever more-complicated PowerPoint slides. Military men and traditional policymakers are far less comfortable with ideological warfare, the sort of contest where their instinctual proclivity to “do something” is often counterproductive.
As U.S. Army Field Manual 3-24 -- General David Petraeus’ highly touted counterinsurgency “bible” -- wisely opined: “Sometimes doing nothing is the best reaction.” It’s high time to follow such advice (even if it’s not the advice that Petraeus himself is offering anymore).
As for me, call me a deep-dyed skeptic when it comes to what 4,000 or 5,000 more U.S. troops can do to secure or stabilize a country where most of the village elders I met couldn’t tell you how old they were. A little foreign policy humility goes a long way toward not heading down that slippery slope. Why, then, do Americans continue to deceive themselves? Why do they continue to believe that even 100,000 boys from Indiana and Alabama could alter Afghan society in a way Washington would like? Or any other foreign land for that matter?
I suppose some generals and policymakers are just plain gamblers. But before putting your money on the next Afghan surge, it might be worth flashing back to the limitations, struggles, and sacrifices of just one small unit in one tiny, contested district of southern Afghanistan in 2011...
So, on we walked -- single file, step by treacherous step -- for nearly a year. Most days things worked out. Until they didn’t. Unfortunately, some soldiers found bombs the hard way: three dead, dozens wounded, one triple amputee. So it went and so we kept on going. Always onward. Ever forward. For America? Afghanistan? Each other? No matter. And so it seems other Americans will keep on going in 2017, 2018, 2019...
Lift foot. Hold breath. Step. Exhale.
Keep walking... to defeat... but together.