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New Insights Into An Old War

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Earlier this month the U.S. entered the tenth year of the war in Afghanistan. Does anyone still care? Will the war be even a minor election issue, or not. From this perch it looks like not. For those who still do care this article is designed to provide new insights into the war. As the reader is accustomed, they are not welcome insights. Good news is far beyond our reach.

The first insight is self-evident. Bush chose a good name for the operation, Enduring Freedom. The war is nothing if not "enduring." We who still care about American, NATO, and Afghan civilian lives being lost are entitled to ask, when will it end? How will it end? No one, not our President, not our commander in Afghanistan recently demoted to that position, Gen. David Petraeus, and not our Joint Chiefs of Staff know the answer to those two critical questions.

Andrew J. Bacevich, professor of history at Boston University and a former Army colonel, opines, "No doubt the United States military was then (and remains today) unbeatable in traditional terms. Yet, after 9/11, Washington committed that military to an endeavor that it manifestly cannot win. Rather than probing the implications of this fact -- relying on the force of arms to eliminate terrorism is a fool's errand -- two administrations have doggedly prolonged the war even as they quietly ratcheted down expectations of what it might accomplish."

The U.S. military today is so much different from the military of our illustrious past. There is rich military history from Washington to Grant to Eisenhower that embraced the axiom that winning battles meant winning wars. That all changed with Vietnam where winning battles became irrelevant. We won them all and lost the war. So, now our military embraces the Petraeus Doctrine, in our two wars "there is no military solution." Brigadier General H. R. McMaster, one of the Army's rising stars, summarized the latest in advanced military thinking: "Simply fighting and winning a series of interconnected battles in a well developed campaign does not automatically deliver the achievement of war aims." Winning is out. Persevering is in.

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To call this pathetic is an understatement, and a question must be asked. Following Vietnam, how could our political and military leaders place our military in this position " again?

Some maniacal genius who probably wanted to destroy every Western army on the planet came up with a strategic theory called counterinsurgency, or COIN. This theory involves the conqueror winning the hearts and minds of the people of a nation he just vanquished by bombs, artillery shells, strafing attacks, and bullets, many of whom did not survive the ordeal. Somehow, despite the total destruction of their infrastructure and economy, the conquered must feel beholden to the conqueror. Anyhow, that is how COIN is supposed to work. It has not in over 60 years of warfare, but, yet, that is exactly the position our leaders have placed our troops in Afghanistan (and Iraq).

George Friedman of Stratfor writes , " Generals must think about how to win the war they are fighting. " Hm-m-m, I am now thinking of the Petraeus Doctrine and his COIN strategy. My apologies for interrupting, let us allow Friedman to continue. " Presidents must think about whether the war is worth fighting. The president is responsible for America's global posture. He must consider what an unlimited commitment to a particular conflict might mean in other regions of the world where forces would be unavailable. " The unavailability of troops is inherently true today due to two elongated wars without an end in sight yet. For the unenlightened who think Iraq is almost over, think again. While you are at it ponder if the 50,000 troops remaining in Iraq are merely chopped liver. Afghanistan, well that is a no-brainer. Anyone worth his salt knows we are there for the long haul " still.

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Friedman adds, " A president must take a more dispassionate view than his generals. He must calculate not only whether victory is possible but also the value of the victory relative to the cost. " We now have two Presidents that did not make that assessment.

Friedman now provides us a unique analysis of guerilla warfare. This time I promise not to interrupt. This material is invaluable to the reader, and Friedman does not need my help.

In thinking about Afghanistan, it is essential that we begin by thinking about the nature of guerrilla warfare against an occupying force. The guerrilla lives in the country. He isn't going anywhere else, as he has nowhere to go. By contrast, the foreigner has a place to which he can return. This is the core weakness of the occupier and the strength of the guerrilla. The former can leave and in all likelihood, his nation will survive. The guerrilla can't. And having alternatives undermines the foreigner's will to fight regardless of the importance of the war to him.

The strategy of the guerrilla is to make the option to withdraw more attractive. In order to do this, his strategic goal is simply to survive and fight on whatever level he can. His patience is built into who he is and what he is fighting for. The occupier's patience is calculated against the cost of the occupation and its opportunity costs, thus, while troops are committed in this country, what is happening elsewhere?

Tactically, the guerrilla survives by being elusive. He disperses in small groups. He operates in hostile terrain. He denies the enemy intelligence on his location and capabilities. He forms political alliances with civilians who provide him supplies and intelligence on the occupation forces and misleads the occupiers about his own location. The guerrilla uses this intelligence network to decline combat on the enemy's terms and to strike the enemy when he is least prepared. The guerrilla's goal is not to seize and hold ground but to survive, evade and strike, imposing casualties on the occupier. Above all, the guerrilla must never form a center of gravity that, if struck, would lead to his defeat. He thus actively avoids anything that could be construed as a decisive contact.

The occupation force is normally a more conventional army. Its strength is superior firepower, resources and organization. If it knows where the guerrilla is and can strike before the guerrilla can disperse, the occupying force will defeat
the guerrilla. The occupier's problems are that his intelligence is normally inferior to that of the guerrillas; the guerrillas rarely mass in ways that permit decisive combat and normally can disperse faster than the occupier can pinpoint and deploy forces against them; and the guerrillas' superior tactical capabilities allow them to impose a constant low rate of casualties on the occupier. Indeed, the massive amount of resources the occupier requires and the inflexibility of a military institution not solely committed to the particular theater of operations can actually work against the occupier by creating logistical vulnerabilities susceptible to guerrilla attacks and difficulty adapting at a rate sufficient to keep pace with the guerrilla. The occupation force will always win engagements, but that is never the measure of victory. If the guerrillas operate by doctrine, defeats in unplanned engagements will not undermine their basic goal of survival. While the occupier is not winning decisively, even while suffering only some casualties, he is losing. While the guerrilla is not losing decisively, even if suffering significant casualties, he is winning. Since the guerrilla is not going anywhere, he can afford far higher casualties than the occupier, who ultimately has the alternative of withdrawal.

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The asymmetry of this warfare favors the guerrilla. This is particularly true when the strategic value of the war to the occupier is ambiguous, where the occupier does not possess sufficient force and patience to systematically overwhelm the guerrillas, and where either political or military constraints prevent operations against sanctuaries. This is a truth as relevant to David's insurgency against the Philistines as it is to the U.S. experience in Vietnam or the Russian occupation of Afghanistan.

So very many years ago the original purpose of the invasion of Afghanistan was to root out Al-Qa'ida, destroy it along with its founder, Osama bin Laden, and remove the Taliban that provided a sanctuary for Al-Qa'ida. On 9/11 we were hit hard, and defiant Americans wanted to hit back. All of this is perfectly understandable. Things did not work out for Americans. It was supposed to be short war. It was not. The invasion was an unmitigated disaster, too few ground troops (approximately 1300 in Nov. 2001), and too few resources. The invasion became a joke as our military commanders had to rely on indigenous troops to do the fighting for them, a recipe for disaster, and disaster it was.

Today, matters have changed drastically, but our political and military leaders are still living in 2001. Terrorism is transnational, as is Al-Qa'ida itself. To send a military force to defeat terrorism is akin to asking it to fight a ghost. Al-Qa'ida now operates in Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, North Africa, Somalia, and elsewhere. Essentially, they have left Afghanistan. This realization has been known to many for years. Our Presidents simply don't get it.

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I am the author of two novels, "The Bode Testament" and "Impeachment." I am also a columnist who keeps a wary eye on other columnists and the failures of the MSM (mainstream media). I was born in Minnesota, and, to this day, I love the Vikings (more...)

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