Why We’re Just Flatly Screwed in Afghanistan

I badly want our project in Afghanistan to go well, because I do believe it is important to our national interest, and personally – my son is there as I write this. Over this past eleven months of his deployment, I’ve gotten to know his fellows, their families, and the widows and parents of the heroes from his company who have died there. I want their effort, their blood, their lives – the risks he has taken and is taking today – to matter by bringing us closer to some national goal.

And yet, they’re not.

Who – seriously – believes that the path we’re on in Afghanistan today will be looked on in a decade as a victory?

The problem isn’t the troops – they are incredibly brave and competent. It isn’t even the grand tactics – CounterTerror or COIN anyone? Tactics matter, but the reality of either as applied on the ground blurs the distinctions our strategists dispute so seriously in Washington or Kabul.

The problem isn’t fate – as a nation, I reject Bacevich’s notion that we’re doomed to fail in long, costly, slow wars in far-away places.

The problem is confusion. It’s confusion between means and ends, between methods and goals, and between sending signals, winning hearts and minds, and killing bad guys. It’s simple confusion about what we’re trying to do in Afghanistan and how we’ll know we’re doing it.

I’m not talking about the Strategy-Of-The-Month club as proclaimed by our ever-changing military leadership in Washington or Kabul. That is a symptom, not a cause. It’s a symptom of a deeper failing that’s taking place at a still higher level – on the grassy axis between the Congress and the White House.

Afghanistan isn’t a new Vietnam – but we’re acting like it is. We’re making many of the same mistakes that we made in losing back in the 1970’s today.

I’ve read much of the literature on Vietnam, from A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam to The lost revolution; the story of twenty years of neglected opportunities in Vietnam and of America’s failure to foster democracy there and Why Vietnam Matters: An Eyewitness Account of Lessons Not Learned, as examples.

One book that stands out is Col. Harry Summers Jr’s On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War. In it, he attempts to set out the military history of Vietnam, the domestic and military politics around it, and ties those back to Clausewitz.

There are a few critical ways that we’re acting like we did in Vietnam (as well as some critical ones in which we’re different).

Here are some highlights from Summers’ book, and a commentary on how and why I think the points he makes are relevant.

He opens his book:


“You know you never defeated us on the battlefield,” said the American colonel.
The North Vietnamese colonel pondered this remark a moment. “That may be so,” he replied, “but it is also irrelevant.”
Conversation in Hanoi, April 1975

One of the most frustrating aspects of the Vietnam war from the Army’s point of view is that as far as logistics and tactics were concerned we succeeded in everything we set out to do. At the height of the war the Army was able to move almost a million soldiers a year in and out of Vietnam, feed them, clothe them, house them, supply them with arms and ammunition, and generally sustain them better than any Army had ever been sustained in the field. To project an Army of that size halfway around the world was a logistics and management task of enormous magnitude, and we had been more than equal to the task. On the battlefield itself, the Army was unbeatable. In engagement after engagement the forces of the Viet Cong and of the North Vietnamese Army were thrown back with terrible losses. Yet, in the end, it was North Vietnam, not the United States, that emerged victorious. How could we have succeeded so well, yet failed so miserably? That disturbing question was the reason for this book.

At least part of the answer appears to be that we saw Vietnam as unique rather than in strategic context.

So who today would say that things in Afghanistan are significantly different? We are consistently winning engagement after engagement. Even Wanat was not a tactical defeat, regardless of the cost. But is there anyone who can confidently say that we are on a path to victory? Bueller? No one?

The reason is simple; we don’t know what victory looks like. We don’t have a political-strategic context for the war we’re in, other than killing the people who shoot at us and who intermittently murder their countrymen.

That’s my core point. We have no strategic objective. That’s the basic failure that Obama inherited from Bush – who failed to build a strategic justification for the war either. What are we doing here? What will winning look like? We never set out a simple and clear “this is what we’re going to do and why” so that the generals – who are supposed to figure out the How – could do their jobs.

Instead we treated Iraq and Afghanistan – and the smaller engagements and the security measures we’re taking domestically – as if they were unique responses to individual situations, rather than part of a global strategy. What, simply put, is the militarily obtainable Objective of these wars?

Clausewitz’s clarification of the importance of the objective was one of his main contributions to understanding the nature of war. He emphasized that war was not waged for its own sake but was waged to obtain a particular aim – what Clausewitz called the political object of war. As he said, “the political object is a goal, war is the means of reaching it, and means can never be considered in isolation from their purpose.”‘ This loss of focus also exacerbated a common American failing – the tendency to see war as something separate and apart from the political process. World Wars I and II had been not so much wars as crusades to punish evil. Even so astute a military professional as General of the Army Douglas MacArthur saw war in this light. As he told the Senate, “the general definition which for many decades has been acceptable was that war was an ultimate process of politics; that when all of the political means failed, we then go to force.” This statement reflected the rejection of the Clausewitzian belief that “it is clear that war should never be thought of as something autonomous but always as an instrument of policy.” The truth of this dictum was brought home with a vengeance during the Vietnam war and its aftermath.

With this framework for analysis we can now turn to an examination of how the principle of The Objective was applied during the Vietnam war. We will begin with an analysis of North Vietnamese actions using our own frame of reference. Not only are their doctrinal manuals not available, the material that is available primarily reflects North Vietnamese declaratory strategy which was designed to continue the smoke screen of revolutionary war to mask their own aggression. It was not until after their conquest of South Vietnam that they revealed (e.g., General Dung’s “Great Spring Victory”) the true nature of the war. Their smoke screen was so effective that we were blinded throughout the course of the war to the point that the majority of our analyses focused on revolutionary war and the Viet Cong. Volumes have been written on their organization, structure, doctrine and tactics. According to former CIA analyst, George Allen, one of the country’s foremost experts on Vietnam, such analysis distorted the true nature of the war:

The National Liberation Front was not … a viable, autonomous organization with a life of its own; it was a facade, a “front,” by means of which the DLD (the Vietnamese Communist Party) sought to mobilize the people in the south to accomplish its ends, and to garner international sympathy and support.

The guerrilla himself may well have believed in the revolutionary cause and have believed that he was fighting for a revolutionary government in Saigon under southern leadership. Such beliefs were essential if his Morale and fighting spirit were to be sustained. But the Viet C0119 were only a means to an end. As General Weyand said in his analysis of Tet-68:

Applying the test of cui bono (for whose benefit) it can be seen that the real losers of Tet-68 were the South Vietnamese Communists (the Viet Cong or PRG) who surfaced, led the attacks, and were destroyed in the process – just as the Russians eliminated their Polish competitors [with] the Warsaw Uprising, the North Vietnamese eliminated their southern competitors with Tet-68. They thereby insured that the eventual outcome of the war would be a South Vietnam dominated and controlled, not by South Vietnamese Communists, but by the North Vietnamese.

As we saw earlier, after Tet-68 the majority of the day-to-day combat in Vietnam was carried out by North Vietnamese troops, and the Viet Cong had been reduced to no more than 20 percent of the Communist fighting force.

Although most of the literature on North Vietnam and the Viet Cong is misleading, that is not to say that there were no analysts who were aware of the true nature of the war. The problem was that counterinsurgency dogma had so distorted our own frame of reference that such analyses did not fit the fashion of the time. For example, in 1963, a year before the Gulf of Tonkin incident, P. J. Honey, a lecturer in Vietnamese at the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London, wrote:

The clearest statement of the long-term objectives of the Lao Dong Party which has yet come to light is to be found in a secret party document captured by the French Expeditionary Corps in North Vietnam during the spring of 1952…The ultimate aim of the Vietnamese Communist leadership is to install Communist regimes in the whole of Vietnam, in Laos, and in Cambodia …

The proof of Honey’s analysis is in what Clausewitz called “judgments by results.” A Vietnam under the domination of the North was achieved on 2 July 1976 when the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV) with headquarters in Hanoi was proclaimed. Hegemony over Laos was achieved when the Pathet Lao seized control of Vientiane in August 1975. In Cambodia the attainment of the objective was delayed by the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot, who seized control of Phnom Penh in April 1975. On Christmas Day 1978, Vietnam launched a multidivisional cross-border attack on Cambodia to overthrow the Pol Pot government. On 7 January 1979, they announced the foundation of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea. Although sporadic fighting still continues, Indo-China is effectively under Vietnamese control.

In his 1973 analysis of North Vietnamese strategy John Collins, former director of Military Strategy Studies at the National War College and now a member of the Congressional Research Service, stated that

“enemy strategy can be outlined quickly, since it was simple, concise, and consistent … the opposition knew what they wanted to do, they had the initiative, and they had the winning combination…Controlling and communizing all of Indochina have always been the foe’s overriding objectives.

In contrast with North Vietnam who could focus all of their attention on the conquest of South Vietnam, the formulation of U.S. objectives was much more complex. It is difficult to recall now that at the beginning Vietnam did not occupy center stage and was only subsidiary to a number of other issues facing the American President. Domestic issues, for example, were a major preoccupation. Even in the area of national security the primary concern was not Vietnam per se but the larger issue of the containment of Soviet and Chinese communism. The result was that American political objectives were never clear during the entire course of the war.

University of Nebraska Professor Hugh M. Arnold examined the official justifications most often cited for America’s involvement in Indochina from 1949 through 1967. Compared to the one North Vietnamese objective, he found some twenty-two separate American rationales. They can be grouped into three major categories: from about 1949 until 1962, emphasis was on resisting communist aggression; from 1962 until about 1968, the emphasis was on counterinsurgency; after 1968, preserving the integrity of American commitments was the main emphasis.

How many political justifications have our political leadership set out for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? How – in the light of this confusion – can we expect the military, who are supposed to tailor their plans and activities to achieve the overriding Objective – to act with clarity, consistency, and economy? By contrast, how simple (if irrational and ultimately evil) are the justifications of our enemies?

Here’s FM100-5


The detailed formulation of national strategic direction is beyond the scope of this manual. Nevertheless, national military strategy, derived from national security policy, provides the basis for all operations.


Fundamental to the Army’s doctrine is an appreciation of the levels of war-tactical, operational, and strategic-that define the entire range of military operations and the links between tactical actions and strategic objectives. The levels of war are defined more by the consequences of their outcome than they are by the echelon of involvement although, as a general rule, the higher the echelon, the higher the level of war. The levels of war apply not only to war but also to operations other than war. The strategic perspectives are worldwide and long-range. Strategy is concerned with national or, in specific cases, alliance of coalition objectives. The operational level provides the vital link between strategic objectives and tactical employment of forces. At the operational level, military forces attain strategic objectives through the design, organization, and conduct of campaigns and major operations. Tactical battles and engagements are fought to achieve operational results.

We don’t have clear top-level strategic objectives, and without them, any operational or Grand Tactical effort is doomed to be simply reactive until we decide it’s not working and so is no longer valid – think about Restropo and the Korengal.

This failing isn’t the military’s – except that they haven’t stood up on Capital Hill and demanded it. It’s not only Obama’s – although he owns the problem today. Bush was equally inarticulate about why we were doing what we were doing once we deposed the Taliban and chased Al Qaeda to Pakistan. But that failure to state a clear, simple and attainable goal is the root of our problems.

Not only are we failing on the strategic level, but we’re not looking great at the operational level either. The Vietnam War was the first war that was planned by MBA’s; McNamara’s ‘Whiz Kids’ developed the PPBS (Program Planning Budgeting System) model and extended it through the military. This rationalization wasn’t without consequences for warfighting, however:

The rationalistic economic approach dominated military strategy formulation throughout the Vietnam war. It is especially ironic that this so-called new approach to strategy was actually two centuries old. As Clausewitz had observed (and as Vietnam was to prove) the economic approach to military strategy “stood in about the same relationship to combat as the craft of the swordsmith to the art of fencing.”‘ The problem was that Secretary McNamara’s Planning, Programming, and Budgeting System (PPBS) approach was only half of the equation. To return again to Clausewitz:

. . . We see clearly that the activities characteristic of war may be split into two main categories: those that are merely preparation for war, and war proper. The same distinction must be made in theory as well.

The knowledge and skills involved in the preparation will be concerned with the creation, training and maintenance of the fighting forces…. The theory of war proper, on the other hand, is concerned with the use of these means, once they have been developed, for the purpose of the war.

The rationalistic system introduced by Secretary McNamara–PPBS–did an excellent job in “getting control of the lines of supply.” It was and is a useful system for “preparing for war.” As former Under Secretary of the Navy R. James Woolsey wrote in February 1980:

… Systems analysis has come to be the conventional framework for decision-making in the Defense Department and in much of the rest of government as well. The catechism is familiar: objectives, criteria, options, costs, benefits, quantify as much as possible, focus on changes at the margin.

It has made some contributions in Defense. In 1961, Robert McNamara had inherited a military establishment long on force structure and short on fighting capability – e.g. paper divisions with neither the material to sustain combat nor the airlift and sealift to get there. Systems analysis had laid bare and helped correct some of these problems over the years. Certain types of comparisons of competing weapons systems ave also been usefully handled this way.

But while it was efficient in structuring forces in preparation for war, it was neither designed for, nor was it capable of, fighting the war itself. As Woolsey said:

… People who only ask how much is enough, or how few can we barely get by with, tend to develop an instinct for the capillaries.

That is not the instinct it is wisest to cultivate if you want to win real – not bureaucratic–battles. There are more important questions: How can I destroy the enemy’s strategy? …How can I keep him on the defensive? Analytical offices, staffed with economists and the like, are not especially good at answering, or asking, these sorts of questions.

British defense analyst Gregory Palmer found that the rationalistic approach is “…characterized by the pretension to universality of its solutions, its intolerance of tradition and authority, quantification, simplification, and lack of flexibility. Its very efficiency prevents flexibility by eliminating what does not contribute to achieving the current objective so that alternative means are not available if the objective is changed.” The effect was that “the pseudo-economic ideology that dominated defense policy reduced the flexibility available to the President.”

The fatal flaw was that consistency was a premise of rationalist policy, and the one thing that war is not is consistent. As Clausewitz wrote:

The conduct of war branches out in almost all directions and has no definite limits; while any system, any model, has the finite nature of a synthesis. An irreconcilable conflict exists between this type of theory and actual practice.

But the systems analysts ignored this “irreconcilable conflict.” They had an educated incapacity to see war in its true light. As Palmer observed:

. . . By using the numerical techniques of economics … rationality could be assumed … In game theory, if all players make rational choices of strategy, they all do as well as possible given the total rewards available in the game, but if one player acts irrationally in terms of the game, he is sure to do worse. Therefore, when Hanoi appeared to be acting irrationally in not. accepting American terms and yet did not appear to be near defeat, it could only be assumed that they were bluffing, and a little more pressure would force rationality upon them.

Like McNamara and the systems analysts, Clausewitz too had compared warfare to economics. But Clausewitz saw that “the essential difference is that …in war, the will is directed at an animate object that reacts.”

This was not news to the military professional who knew that the enemy could, and often did, frustrate even the most carefully drawn plans. As Lieutenant General James F. Hollingsworth used to observe, “Any damned fool can write a plan. It’s the execution that gets you all screwed up.” But these “traditional” views seemed old-fashioned and out-of-date. In what was to become the bible of the McNamara years (How Much Is Enough: Shaping the Defense Program 1961-1969) two of the leading systems analysts commented:

What is commonly called “military science” is not scientific in the same sense as law or medicine or engineering. It encompasses no agreed-upon body of knowledge, no prescribed curriculum, no universally recognized principles that one must master to qualify as a military professional. (The so-called “principles of war” are really a set of platitudes that can be twisted to suit almost any situation.) .. .

The point is that military professionalism is largely in the conduct of military operations, not in the analysis and design of broad strategies.

Experience in military operations was not good enough, they believed. “Modern-day strategy and force planning has become largely an analytical process….[and] civilians are often better trained in modern analytical techniques. ” From his perspective as National Security Advisor to President Nixon, Henry Kissinger commented on the impact of systems analysis on the military.

[In the 1960s] young systems analysts had been brought into the Pentagon to shake up the military establishment by questioning long-held assumptions. Intellectually the systems analysts were more often right than not; but they soon learned that the way a question is put can often predetermine an answer, and their efforts in the hallowed name of objectivity frequently wound up pushing personal preconceptions.

Misuse of systems analysis apart, there was a truth which senior military officers had learned in a lifetime of service that did not lend itself to formal articulation: that power has a psychological and not only a technical component. Men can be led by statistics only up to a certain point and then more fundamental values predominate. In the final analysis the military profession is the art of prevailing, and while in our time this required more careful calculations than in the past, it also depends on elemental psychological factors that are difficult to quantify. The military found themselves designing weapons on the basis of abstract criteria, carrying out strategies in which they did not really believe, and ultimately conducting a war that they did not understand. To be sure, the military brought on some of their own troubles. They permitted themselves to be co-opted too readily .. .

Throughout the 1960s the military were torn between the commitment to civilian supremacy inculcated through generations of service and their premonition of disaster, between trying to make the new system work and rebelling against it. They were demoralized by the order to procure weapons in which they did not believe and by the necessity of fighting a war whose purpose proved increasingly elusive. A new breed of military officer emerged: men who had learned the new jargon, who could present the systems analysis arguments so much in vogue, more articulate than the older generation and more skillful in bureaucratic maneuvering. On some levels it eased civilian-military relationships; on a deeper level it deprived the policy process of the simpler, cruder, but perhaps more relevant assessments which in the final analysis are needed when issues are reduced to a test of arms.

That remains true today. While the limitations of rational warfighting are well-discussed among military academics, and while the senior most leadership (Mattis, anyone) understands the deficiency, what does that look like in the field?

Here’s Lt. Matt Gallagher, in Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War

Higher developed an obsession with quantifying every aspect of the war effort. PowerPoint slides and pie charts and information overload for the sake of information overload became our raison d’etre – the more of those things we did, the more we were left alone to conduct legitimate counterinsurgency operations the way we knew how. The mass quantifying reached a personal apex when I tracked “nose time,” the number of minutes a military dog spent sniffing for explosives over the course of a mission.

Here’s Jonathan Vaccaro in the New York Times:

Mindful of orders to protect the civilian population, we developed a plan with the Afghan commandos to arrest the Taliban commander that evening before he moved back into Pakistan. While the troops prepared, I spent hours on the phone trying to convince the 11 separate Afghan, American and international forces authorities who needed to sign off to agree on a plan.

Some couldn’t be found. Some liked the idea, others suggested revisions. The plan evolved. Hours passed. The cellphone in the corner rang. “Where are you?” the villager asked urgently. The Taliban commander was drinking tea, he said.

At 5 a.m. the Afghan commandos gave up on us and went home. The helicopters powered down. The sun rose. I was still on the phone trying to arrange approvals. Intelligence arrived indicating that the Taliban commander had moved on. The villagers were incredulous.

This incident is typical of what I saw during my six-month tour in Afghanistan this year. We were paralyzed by red tape, beaten by our own team. Our answer to Afghans seeking help was: “I can’t come today or tomorrow, but maybe next week. I have several bosses that I need to ask for permission.”

The decision has been made to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, and Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top American commander there, is expected to speak to Congress this week about his strategy for the war. Our troops can win the war, but they will be more effective if the bureaucracy is thinned.

In my experience, decisions move through the process of risk mitigation like molasses. When the Taliban arrive in a village, I discovered, it takes 96 hours for an Army commander to obtain necessary approvals to act. In the first half of 2009, the Army Special Forces company I was with repeatedly tried to interdict Taliban. By our informal count, however, we (and the Afghan commandos we worked with) were stopped on 70 percent of our attempts because we could not achieve the requisite 11 approvals in time.

For some units, ground movement to dislodge the Taliban requires a colonel’s oversight. In eastern Afghanistan, traveling in anything other than a 20-ton mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle requires a written justification, a risk assessment and approval from a colonel, a lieutenant colonel and sometimes a major. These vehicles are so large that they can drive to fewer than half the villages in Afghanistan. They sink into wet roads, crush dry ones and require wide berth on mountain roads intended for donkeys. The Taliban walk to these villages or drive pickup trucks.

The red tape isn’t just on the battlefield. Combat commanders are required to submit reports in PowerPoint with proper fonts, line widths and colors so that the filing system is not derailed. Small aid projects lag because of multimonth authorization procedures. A United States-financed health clinic in Khost Province was built last year, but its opening was delayed for more than eight months while paperwork for erecting its protective fence waited in the approval queue.

Communication with the population also undergoes thorough oversight. When a suicide bomber detonates, the Afghan streets are abuzz with Taliban propaganda about the glories of the war against America. Meanwhile, our messages have to inch through a press release approval pipeline, emerging 24 to 48 hours after the event, like a debutante too late for the ball.

I’ve communicated with a lot of other parents and family members of deployed soldiers in the last year, and I can tell you that these kinds of stories are so common that they become banal. Tragic…but banal.

Here’s a Christian Science Monitor story as cited by Tim Lynch (go see the photos he attaches on the linked post – he’s an amazing ex-Marine who runs a reconstruction program in Jalalabad) from the exceptional Free Range International:

The story of what went wrong exposes serious weaknesses in the third pillar of America’s “clear, hold, build” Afghan strategy. Among them: big-spending hastiness, unrealistic deadlines, high development staff turnover, planning divorced from ground realities, and ever-present security risks in this war-torn nation.

“In Vietnam, they were measuring success of operations in the numbers that are killed. In Afghanistan, it is how many schools you are building and how much money you spent. This is better, but as wrong,” says Lorenzo Delesgues, director of Integrity Watch Afghanistan, in Kabul. “What you need to measure is what is the impact of what you’ve done.”

The tools of rational planning – somewhere between vital and useful in managing logistics – have taken over our vision of warfighting. Here’s Summers:

Colonel Albert Sidney Britt III, Department of History, United States Military Academy, noted that “the modern philosophy of limited war derives in part from the practice of the 18th century.” Colonel Britt’s observations were borne out in the classic critique of 18th century warfare, Carl von Clausewitz’s On War. His 150-year-old description of “the art of war” closely paralleled the conditions bitterly attacked by such critics as Richard Gabriel and Paul Savage in their widely quoted book Crisis in Command (New York: Hill & Wang, 1978) – an army more concerned with management than with military strategy. Describing these conditions, Clausewitz said:

[In the 18th century] the terms “art of war” or “science of war” were used to designate only the total body of skill knowledge and that was concerned with material factors. The design and use of weapons…the internal organization of the army, and the mechanism of its movements constituted the substance of this knowledge and skill.’

Using this criterion for the art and science of war, it can be argued that the system worked, that it did everything that it was asked to do. Such arguments are the Army’s version of Leslie H. Gelb and Richard K. Betts’ analysis of the Vietnam-era political-bureaucratic system. Examining the structure of the system, they found that it did everything that it was designed to do. If the Army is, as some would have it, merely a logistics and management system designed to “organize, train, and equip active duty and reserve forces,” it was an unqualified success.

The illogic of such an analysis springs from a faulty understanding of military theory. In his clarification of military theory Clausewitz said. “The activities characteristic of war may be split into two main categories: those that are merely preparation for war, and war proper.” All that is required from the first group, he said, is “the end product” – trained and equipped fighting forces. “The theory of war proper, on the other hand, is concerned with the use of these means, once they have been developed, for the purposes of the war.” During the Vietnam war we confused these two activities. There are those who would have it that the reason was that there were so many conflicting definitions of “strategy” that we lost our way. But such an excuse is not supported by the facts. According to the joint Chiefs of Staff Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, the official definition of military strategy is “the art and science of employing the armed forces of a nation to secure the objectives of national policy by the application of force, or the threat of force.” As we saw earlier, the “missing link” in strategy was the failure to address the question of “how” to use military means to achieve a political end.

So we are mounting 18th century armies – professional armies driven by hosts of bureaucrat-officers – using 20th century tools – PPBS and PowerPoint. And the same quantitative, data-driven model of command controls the midlevels of our military, between the warrior-monks like Petraeus at the top and the field grade officers like Matt Gallagher and Jonathan Vaccaro who are trying to obey orders, keep their men alive, and do what’s ne3cessary to complete their missions.

It’s like we turned the military over to the DMV.

Another impact of this rationalization of war is in the language we use to describe the war itself.

As we go back and read the writings of the political scientists and systems analysts on limited war, they are noteworthy for their lack of passion. The horror, the bloodshed and the destruction of the battlefield are remarkably absent. Clausewitz warned about those who would “exclude all moral factors from strategic theory and…reduce everything to a few mathematical formulas.” The academics could be excused for this omission, but we in the military knew better. It was the job of those of us who had seen war firsthand to add this missing dimension to their academic theories. We knew the true nature of war. We knew the truth of Clausewitz’s observation that:

Kindhearted people might…think there was some ingenious way to disarm or defeat an enemy without too much bloodshed, [but] pleasant as it sounds, it is a fallacy that must be exposed…It would be futile even wrong – to try and shut one’s eyes to what war really is from sheer distress at its brutality.

But through fear of reinforcing the basic antimilitarism of the American people we tended to keep this knowledge to ourselves and downplayed battlefield realities. In order to smooth our relations with the American people we began to use euphemisms to hide the horrors of war. We became the Department of the Army (not the War Department) and our own terminology avoided mention of the battlefield. We did not kill the enemy, we “inflicted casualties”; we did not destroy things, we “neutralized targets.” These evasions allowed the notion to grow that we could apply military force in a sanitary and surgical manner. In so doing we unwittingly prepared the way for the reaction that was to follow.

We had concealed from the American people the true nature of war at precisely the time that television brought its realities into their living rooms in living color. As a result, to many Americans Vietnam became the most destructive, the most horrible, the most terrible war ever waged in the history of the world. This viewpoint has persisted in the face of all historical evidence to the contrary.

The contradiction between what was being told to the American people, and what they saw in their newspapers and on television was too great to leave the powers that be with any shred of legitimacy or credibility. People could see for themselves what war was like, and because what they saw was filtered through a small window – the media – what they saw was unrelenting horror (sound familiar?).

Instead it inflamed American idealism and further eroded public support for the war.
The North Vietnamese were quick to seize the strategic advantage provided by this erosion of public support. Author Tom Wolfe commented on what he called “the Johnson Administration’s attempt to fight a ‘humane’ war and look good in the eyes of the world”:

There was something out-to-lunch about it, however. The eyes of the world did not flutter for a second. Stories of American atrocities were believed by whoever wanted to believe them, no matter what actually occurred… If the United States was seriously trying to win the battle of world opinion – well, then, you had a real bush-league operation. The North Vietnamese were the uncontested aces. After describing a raid on the Iron Triangle in North Vietnam, Wolfe notes that:

The North Vietnamese [were] blessed with a weapon that no military device known to America could ever get a lock on. As if by magic…in Hanoi…appears…Harrison Salisbury! Harrison Salisbury – writing in The New York Times about the atrocious American bombing of the hard-scrabble folks of North Vietnam in the Iron Triangle! If you had real sporting blood in you, you had to hand it to the North Vietnamese. They were champions of this sort of thing…. it seemed as if the North Vietnamese were playing Mr. Harrison Salisbury of The New York Times like an ocarina, as if they were blowing smoke up his pipe and the finger work was just right and the song was coming forth better than they could have played it themselves.

“And yet,” Wolfe concludes, “it couldn’t simply be blamed on Salisbury. No series of articles by anyone, no matter what the publication, could have had such an immediate strategic effect if there weren’t some kind of strange collapse of will power taking place back in the States.” Wolfe’s closing comments are important. There is a tendency in the military to blame our problems with public support on the media. This is too easy an answer. Certainly there were some like Salisbury who reported enemy propaganda, but the majority of on-the-scene reporting from Vietnam was factual – that is the reporters honestly reported what they had seen firsthand. Much of what they saw was horrible, for that is the true nature of war. It was this horror, not the reporting that so influenced the American people.

There is an important lesson in this for the Army. Any future war will more than likely be as bloody as the war in Vietnam. It will probably also be carried into American living rooms by television reporters, for that is the nature of their craft. As we have seen earlier, attempts to hide the realities of war from the American people only inflame the problem. Censorship is not the answer. How then do we square the circle of the battlefield and the idealism of the American people?

In his analysis of the Vietnam war General Weyand pointed out the conflict arising out of American idealism and counseled what we must do in the future:

As military professionals we must speak out, we must counsel our political leaders and alert the American public that there is no such thing as a “splendid little war.” There is no such thing as a war fought on the cheap. War is death and destruction. The American way of war is particularly violent, deadly and dreadful. We. believe in using “things” – artillery, bombs, massive firepower – in order to conserve our soldiers’ lives. The enemy, on the other hand, made up for his lack of “things” by expending men instead of machines, and he suffered enormous casualties. The Army saw this happen in Korea, and we should have made the realities of war obvious to the American people before they witnessed it on their television screens. The Army must make the price of involvement clear before we get involved, so that America can weigh the probable costs of involvement against the dangers of uninvolvement…for there are worse things than war.

And that brings me to the final point Summers makes: that the ultimate declaration of America’s ability to wage war is made by the people, not by our leaders or our military.

As will be seen in subsequent chapters, placing the blame on General Westmoreland was unfair, but, unfair or not, it did spare another innocent victim – the American people.

The main reason it is not right to blame the American public is that President Lyndon Baines Johnson made a conscious decision not to mobilize the American people – to invoke the national will – for the Vietnam war. As former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Phil G. Goulding commented, “In my four-year tour [July 1965-January 1969] there was not once a significant organized effort by the Executive Branch of the federal government to put across its side of a major policy issue or a major controversy to the American people. Not once was there a ‘public affairs program’…worthy of the name.

Having deliberately never been built, it could hardly be said that the national will “collapsed.” According to his biographer, President Johnson’s decision not to mobilize the American people was based on his fears that it would jeopardize his “Great Society” programs. As he himself said:

History provided too many cases where the sound of the bugle put an immediate end to the hopes and dreams of the best reformers: The Spanish-American War drowned the populist spirit; World War I ended Woodrow Wilson’s New Freedom; World War II brought the New Deal to a close. Once the war began, then all those conservatives in the Congress would use it as a weapon against the Great Society….

And the generals. Oh, they’d love the war, too. It’s hard to be a military hero without a war. Heroes need battles and bombs and bullets in order to be heroic. That’s why I am suspicious of the military. They’re always narrow in their appraisal of everything. They see everything in military terms.

What the military needed to tell our Commander-in-Chief was not just about battles and bombs and bullets. They needed to tell him that, as Clausewitz discovered 150 years earlier, “it would be an obvious fallacy to imagine war between civilized peoples as resulting merely from a rational act on the part of the Government and to consider war as gradually ridding itself of passion.”

They needed to tell him that it would be an obvious fallacy to commit the Army without first committing the American people. Such a commitment would require battlefield competence and clear-cut objectives to be sustained, but without the commitment of the American people the commitment of the Army to prolonged combat was impossible.

Unfortunately, this fallacy was not obvious to either the military or its Commander-in-Chief, for the limited war theorists had excluded the American people from the strategic equation.

And, sadly, they have done so again. In the bickering and infighting between the COINdinistas and the CT doorkickers, the important party – the American people – has been left out of the discussion. That is, to a large extent deliberate, because to a large extent everyone in the military is playing hide-the-pea and trying hard to whistle past the critical point that it would require clear-cut objectives – an Objective – in order to make the American people support the effort necessary to militarily win a war like this.

Here’s what I wrote in 2003:

What they said, all the way. And I’ll echo Kevin strongly in disagreeing with Den Beste and Trent (and other commenters who have supported Trent here); it is critical that Bush articulate and sell his vision for why we are at war and what the war will look like – not tactically or diplomatically, but historically – and a clear vision of what we are really fighting and what we are fighting for. Because we will win this war with ideology, belief, and determination, and the role of the leader is in no small part to express those and to embody them so that the rest of us will internalize them and come to act on them. It is a high standard, but we have had wartime Presidents – including the rich, spoiled sons of privilege – who have met it, and by the time we win this war, we will have had one or more Presidents who have met it. The challenge isn’t beyond Bush, and I hope that he can grow to meet it.

I was wrong about Bush, and so far, about Obama as well.

Summers makes a much wider and richer set of arguments than I’m pointing out here. One of them goes to the decline of strategic thinking in the military of the 1970’s – a decline that (from my reading, anyway) appears to have been well reversed.

But mapping the core similarities – the lack of an understandable and expressible Objective; the mismatch between available means and desired ends; the focus on the symptoms of insurgency and not the causes of global conflict; the belief that war is a manageable project; and finally, the belief that the American people don’t need to be engaged in a conflict and that we can somehow shield them from the awful reality of war.

These are hard problems. But our national leadership must be up to them.

Because at this point, it looks as though we’re going to keep paying a price in blood – and getting little in return – for key failures by our national and military leadership.

Those failures are:

* Failing to establish a clear Objective for the war – which is why the strategy for the war keeps spinning like a weathervane.
* Failing to check the rise of the administrative/bureaucratic military over the warrior military.
* Lying to the American people about the real nature of the war – trying to paint the war as ‘bloodless’ and ‘surgical’ when like any war it is anything but.
* Distrusting the American people by trying to keep them from being aware of and involved in the war and in the cause the war is being fought in the name of.

These are disastrous failures, not glitches. They are, in large part, the failures which led to the disaster in Vietnam (Summers points out others which go to the weakening of the Army’s self-understood role – but those have been largely remedied). But they are failures we can still fix, if our political leadership can summon insight and courage – or be summoned to it by us.

My son deserves it…all our sons and daughters deserve it. How do we make it happen? Or do we just take our ball and go home and wait for the consequences?


Here’s Gulliver, over at the Ink Spots blog:

As I’ve told you before, the way we formulate national strategy is all kinds of effed up right now. The QDR should really be informed by a National Military Strategy that’s nested within a National Defense Strategy that’s nested within a National Security Strategy, all of which should coherently articulate American interests, strategic objectives, means, choices, and associated risk. But let’s be clear: the QDR is not a strategy, per se; it’s a strategic review. The QDR is overlaid on the various strategies, articulating how the various tools of national power housed in DoD will be applied to threats and strategic challenges. The NSS hadn’t yet been published when the QDR came down the pike, and that’s a problem. (Of course, the NSS sucks so badly that it wouldn’t have helped to produce a better QDR anyway, so I’ve always found the bleating on that note to be sort of silly.)

Make sure you click through the link in the quote as well…

20 thoughts on “Why We’re Just Flatly Screwed in Afghanistan”

  1. A.L.,

    That’s my core point. We have no strategic objective. That’s the basic failure that Obama inherited from Bush – who failed to build a strategic justification for the war either

    That’s why every time this topic comes up, I ask what the strategic objective is. There are no answers that are both correct and satisfactory.

    The correct answer from a security context is, “So arrangement by which Afghanistan is brought to someone’s heel, and made into something that does not threaten the United States or its citizens en masse.

    The satisfying answer is, “Turn it into a pro-Western client state,” because that’s what we expect victory to look like. The problem is, geography makes this completely impossible. It’s not simply the distance, or the terrain, although those are part of it. It’s that:

    1) Control of Afghanistan is far more important to Pakistan than it is to the United States. An unfettered Afhganistan, geographically, is a threat to Pakistan by its very existence. An unfettered Afghanistan can basically destroy Pakistan. It cannot do anything of the sort to the United States, not even if it had a nuke and smuggled it into New York. We’d bleed for a generation, but we’d survive. Afghanistan is not an existential threat.

    2) It is far easier for Pakistan to influence Afghanistan than anyone else, except possibly Iran. This is due to geographic proximity and cultural similarity.

    We could spend trillions of dollars trying to subdue Afghanistan and Pakistan and still not change that basic fact. We could destroy Pakistan a dozen times in series, and every time they rebuild they would have the same basic dilemma. We could hand Pakistan over to India, and India would have the same basic dilemma. There is nothing we can say or do to the Pakistani government, in any configuration or reformulation, that will sever their interest in Afghanistan, any more than anyone can say or do anything to us that will make Cuba non-critical.

    It cannot be done.

    All effective strategy must flow from that basic observation. But that observation leads to culturally unsatisfactory answers. From a security perspective, from a cold, hard, realpolitik perspective, the answer is to scare the crap out of Pakistan and give them the keys to the place with the directive to keep the place out of trouble.

    That won’t work domestically, because any President, left or right, who suggests it will be savaged in the next electoral cycle. It will also cause India to go fucking ballistic– and not unreasonably so.

    If Bush and Obama have both failed to provide a strategic rationale for the area, it’s probably because they’ve both come to similar conclusions: The only workable answer is to keep a lid on the place (at cost in blood and treasure) until something changes.

    Maybe that “something” is to work on Pakistan and modernize and westernize it while keeping a lid on Afghanistan… but that’s tough. That’s not a strategy in harmony with itself, that’s a strategy that plays against itself. It’s also one of the comparatively rare cases when an open discussion of the strategy might be harmful. I usually scoff at the idea that strategies are secret, fragile things. The opposite is usually true– a truly good strategy can be discussed in public because knowing about it doesn’t help you avoid it. Tactics and operational details are secrets. In this case, though, discussing the strategy out loud causes diplomatic problems with everyone: With Pakistan, because we’re meddling with their society more overtly than normal; with India because the end goal is strengthening their mortal enemy to the point that we can trust them with Afghanistan; and with Afghanistan because we’re only holding them as a pawn until their other masters are “ready” to take them back.

  2. For what it’s worth “here is a White House white paper”:http://www.whitehouse.gov/assets/documents/afghanistan_pakistan_white_paper_final.pdf/ on what they are trying to achieve. The articulated objective is multidimensional and complex, but it seems pretty clear and broadly understood by the American public. What makes it unsatisfactory is that there is not much reason to believe that our efforts to facilitate a pro-western, stable country that can take care of itself will be successful any time soon.

    In the first portion A.L. quotes from the Summers book, Summers says: “At least part of the answer appears to be that we saw Vietnam as unique rather than in strategic context.” This quote, viewed in isolation like this, strikes me as backwards. My impression is, rather, that we viewed Vietnam through the lens of fighting world Communism and failed to correctly understand Vietnam as a unique place. This was not unreasonable in light of Russian and Chinese rhetoric, and on the heels of the Chinese revolution, Korea, the Cuban Missile crisis, etc. In hindsight, of course, it seems we misread the situation. If we had viewed Vietnam less as a falling communist domino, and more as a unique case, we might have more correctly concluded that the military effort there was not necessary or prudent.

    It seems to me that the comparison to Vietnam that A.L. is making here is useful for this reason. We fear that if we leave Afghanistan/Pakistan to their own devices Islamist terrorism will grow, just like we feared Vietnam would be another domino in the advance of world communism. We may be wrong in our judgment about Afghanistan, Pakistan and the course of world Islamist terrorism, just like we were wrong about the force of world communism.

    Joseph Hertzlinger seems to suggests that the fight in Vietnam was not in fact a mistake, that to engage there helped to stall the forward progress of communism and eventually helped us win that broader (cold) war, even if we failed to sustain capitalist South Vietnam along the way. Perhaps by engaging in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in the long run it will help us lick Islamist terrorism–irrespective of any actual accomplishments on the ground in Afghanistan or Pakistan. That’s not my view.

    For now, I am willing to support our effort there for a while, to give it our best shot, despite grave doubts that our efforts to achieve a stable and reasonably peaceful regime in Afghanistan will be successful. It sure would be nice to get some broader international community support.

  3. I just finished Horse Soldiers by Doug Stanton- and he makes a good point. If you want to figure out where we’ve been going wrong, look back at when it was going right.

    Consider how the war started. A couple dozen Special Forces and CIA operatives on the ground, with the highest ranking officer a Lt Colonel, helped the Afghans rout the Taliban completely out of the country. They were badly outnumbered and completely outgunned, but some smart, flexible tactics and great diplomacy achieved the most cost effective bang for the buck in American history.

    I believe the tide changed the day the first General put boots on the ground and ordered the SF soldiers to shave their beards (true story).

    AL is right about the objective- but the underlying problem with that is that there are in fact as many objectives in Afghanistan as there are agencies at work. Is our primary objective to destroy the Taliban or prop up Karzai… they may be mutually exclusive. Is leaving Afghanistan a ‘functioning nation-state’ plausible or even desirable given the level of corruption? Is not rocking the boat in Pakistan worth losing Afghanistan over? I guarantee the State Dept, CIA, Pentagon, and WH all have different answers to those questions. Unity of purpose is lacking to say the least.

    So instead we toss the military on the ground an objective and attach a million conditions… and we wonder why there is so much red tape and inflexibility. We aren’t being creative and using our most natural and dependable strengths (such as engineering and production) to secure the countryside and win hearts and minds… somehow that concept has been dropped on the military alone (who have manfully and uncomplainingly taken it up)… but they don’t have a tithe of the resources and expertise to build faster than the Taliban destroys. America certainly does, but the Pentagon alone does not.

    I mean- think of what the ‘real objective’ is and how it has been entirely thrust on the military. It goes something like:

    _’Prevent the Taliban from expanding in Afghanistan from their havens in Pakistan which you can only attack via drone with express permission from 50 white house lawyers being careful to limit civilian casualties or embarrass the sovereignty of Pakistan and under no circumstances reveal the level of material support Pakistan’s intelligence agencies are providing the enemy. At the same time secure the countryside in a classic COIN operation being careful not to undercut the authority of the Karzai government but also ensuring the democratic freedom of the people despite the central governments rampant corruption and fraud, while also being careful not to offend local tribal structure that actually govern. Build the infrastructure of the countryside to win hearts and minds being careful not to do to much so that the Afghan government gains confidence to stand up for itself. Get out there and pave roads, build schools, dams, provide electricity, etc. Bring material in over your land bridge through Pakistan (see above). Establish trust and ties with the locals convincing them of their security from the Taliban, while preparing to withdraw from Afghanistan within a year. Be bold and take the fight to the enemy where-ever he is found, but be sure not to risk heavy casualties by engaging with less than overwhelming force… hence don’t stray to far from our static bases. And pay close attention to those ROE, they will change regularly. Speaking of which, they will vary amongst all your allied commands, most of which wont lift a rifle or leave Kabul anyway. Oh, and btw you aren’t killing enough Taliban. You can tell who they are because they are shooting at you.’_

    Something like that?

  4. I just finished Horse Soldiers by Doug Stanton- and he makes a good point. If you want to figure out where we’ve been going wrong, look back at when it was going right.


    I believe the tide changed the day the first General put boots on the ground and ordered the SF soldiers to shave their beards (true story).

    I don’t think that’s fair, though.

    There’s a huge difference between taking territory, and holding it, especially when you take territory by chasing guerilla fighters out of the strongholds and into the rough countryside.

    Neither of those is easy, per se– the Northern Alliance couldn’t even do the “easy” part without our assistance– but clearly the first part is easier than the second.

  5. Marcus,

    the answer is to scare the crap out of Pakistan and give them the keys to the place with the directive to keep the place out of trouble.

    It will also cause India to go fucking ballistic

    Doesn’t the latter imply that the ‘scare the crap out of Pakistan’ part wasn’t actually achieved? Surely our friends in India understand, and would be somewhat satisfied with, the notion that we would have to allow P. to save some face by putting a brave front on it all publicly…

  6. _”There’s a huge difference between taking territory, and holding it, especially when you take territory by chasing guerilla fighters out of the strongholds and into the rough countryside.”_

    There’s no question that is true- but i’m talking about the strategy involved, not the tactics. Its going to be devilishly hard no matter what you do.

    My point (Stanton’s point I should say) is that we made a serious mistake overlaying our vision of a centralized functioning government as the stepping stone to a stable Afghanistan. We didn’t boot the Taliban out by establishing a government in exile and arming them- sending them into the fray with US weapons and air support. That would have failed horribly.

    Instead we allied with the tribal system and played it as we found it. That certainly meant partnering with plenty of unseemly characters, but the pure fact is nobody over there could survive being Abe Lincoln. They’d be torn apart long ago. But that certainly applies to whoever we set up in Kabul (as we’ve learned), so what’s the difference aside from success?

    I understand the hindsight factor here- but its still relevant because we can still change course. Karzai is an expensive distraction. Let him sit in Kabul and play at being president. We should refocus our efforts on the tribes, because the tribes aren’t going anywhere. But its the thought process that is difficult because our people just dont ‘get it’. Its not that we’re looking for George Washington to emerge out of our favored tribes, its that a relatively stable coalition that we can work with and just plain _work_ from year to year indefinitely is a plausible victory condition. It is certainly preferable than to seeing Karzai swinging from a lamp post and the Taliban back in control. But it isn’t adding a seat at the democratic end of the United Nations either.

  7. Nice link Tim. The problem i’ve always had with Pakistan is that while they long to be a global as well as regional power… particularly to stay even with India, they still play the poor me blame game that has long become synonymous with Islamic states. IE- its all America’s fault and we can’t do anything even to shut down the Madrassas right in our capital pumping out the jihadis causing America to be in the region in the first place. But please respect us because we really are a major relevant power.

    Half of our most intractable problems in the world today are due directly to delusional Islamic regimes. How do you combat that? Aside from telling Pakistan to close down the Madrassas or our JDAMS will do it for them? That is a serious issue- Pakistan is pumping out trained and armed jihadis and those schools are every bit the weapons assembly line that an artillery shell factory is.

    Pakistan is the lynchpin to this whole affair, and its really difficult to figure it out. While I certainly advocate divide and conquer and work with whoever will work with us- we have to be cognizant of whether we’re getting the short end of the stick in the big picture. If Pakistan secures their allegedly sovereign territory, Afghanistan is saved and our troops go home. If not… its going to be extremely difficult, if not impossible. Thats been true for 10 years and its more true today.

  8. Mark, #9:

    Oh, okay. I misread you– I thought you were suggesting that it was a rank thing, that as soon as the generals got involved, they screwed it all up.

    I do strongly suspect that we will have to give up the notion of a strong, central, Western-style Afghanistan. It’s not going to happen. The central question to me is: Are we going to realize this by declaring victory, going home, and letting it collapse after the fact? Or are we going to realize this by getting creative, and doing something different? Just because I can’t figure out the creative bit doesn’t mean its impossible… and after we’ve tired ourselves out doing things that don’t work, and the glaring spotlights are off, we are a remarkably pragmatic people.

    (We are the people who allied with Soviet Russia against Nazi Germany, and then the precursors of the Jihadists against the Soviets. There is precedent, here.)

    The solution my mind keeps running back to is another traditional American solution– security guarantees. I’m generally optimistic that this could work in Iraq, even with Iran as part of the deal, if we could swallow it domestically. But I don’t know about Pakistan/Afghanistan/India. The geography is so different, so much more conducive to guerrilla tactics, and so much less conducive to security and stable trade.

  9. Armed Liberal,

    Your lengthy and deeply thoughtful post raises questions that our nation ought to answer. They prompt some notes below on Afghanistan, Vietnam, and the larger future.

    1. On Afghanistan, I hope we can turn the situation diplomatically, or begin to do so internally by some of the methods that General Petraeus employed in Iraq, before we begin to draw down next summer. The interval in which we withdraw our combat forces fully could stretch as far as 2014 but that date now appears to be an agreed outer limit. That may give enough time for the present Afghan government to assume responsibility if things go well. If not, though, we may have an alternative.

    Mark Buehner rightly points to the speed and efficiency with which a handful of Americans evicted the Taliban and al-Qaida in the fall of 2001. If the present Afghan government fails and we begin to pull out, resistance to the Taliban will arise among the peoples of the former Northern Alliance. We could supply arms and intelligence to these people, giving them a better chance of keeping the Taliban out of the northern half of Afghanistan. In other words, we could wage insurgency ourselves instead of trying to defeat one. Our special forces were originally created for this purpose. If we can wage it from bases in neighboring countries to the north, we might help keep half of Afghanistan out of enemy hands and maybe bring a negotiated outcome on better terms.

    There is a chance that we will decide, after another year of making no headway with current strategy, simply to get out of Afghanistan over the following year and be done with it. But I don’t think we need to abandon some support for those who are willing to fight on and defend their independence.

    2. I recall your image of a faded cover of Harry Summers many months ago and I was glad that my old copy wasn’t the only one to have faded like that. But the relevance of what is inside the covers has done anything but fade. The trouble with the book is that it makes so many perceptive points that the most trenchant one is often missed, between the bottom paragraph on page 169 and the top paragraph on page 172:

    “We were faced with essentially the same dilemma we were faced with in the Korean war. Our political policy was to contain the expansion of communist power, but we did not wish to risk a world war by using military means to destroy the source of that power. We solved that dilemma in Korea by limiting our objectives to containing North Korean expansion and successfully applied our military means to achieve that end. In Vietnam we began with just such limited objectives. Our mistake was in failing to concentrate our military means on that task….”

    “In 1977, General Bruce Palmer, Jr. (USA Retired), former commander of U.S. Army Vietnam and former Vice-Chief of Staff, U.S. Army, saw clearly what should have been done. In a seminar at the U.S. Army War College, he said that, together with an expanded Naval blockade, the Army should have taken the tactical offensive along the DMZ across Laos to the Thai border in order to isolate the battlefield and then deliberately assume the strategic and tactical defensive. While this strategy might have entailed some of the same long-term costs of our Korean strategy, it would (like that strategy) have furthered our political objectives of containing communist expansion…without reserve mobilization, without invading North Vietnam and running the risk of Chinese intervention, and with substantially fewer combat forces than were actually deployed [ie. five divisions, not ten].”

    General Palmer’s argument can be debated. But its virtue was to look at the geography of Vietnam as a primary determinant. Although not a peninsula like Korea, South Vietnam had the Mekong river just beyond its western border that could have been used to anchor a fortified line from the river along the DMZ to the South China Sea. (Arguing against this idea, some critics noted that we tried and failed to interdict the Ho Chi Minh trail, but what they mean is that we failed with air strikes and commando assaults, not by positioning several divisions along a fortified line between the river and the sea as General Palmer proposed.)

    General Palmer’s argument conceded that Vietnam was still a war of attrition. If we had cut the north from the south, the question would have still been whether under this circumstance North Vietnam’s strategy, of rationing its manpower losses to a rate at which they could be replaced every year, would have inflicted losses on America and demoralized the American people just as effectively as it did under the circumstance of North Vietnamese access to the south. But all of the convoluted debate over why we failed in Vietnam takes this access to have been inevitable and it deserves to be pointed out that it was not.

    In the case of Afghanistan since 2001, closing enemy access to the country from outside has not been possible. We do not confront an outside enemy army like North Vietnam’s, but Pakistan has made it possible for the Taliban insurgency to operate at the level that it does, and we do not have the ability to close the border because of its length. The net result is that the Taliban have replaced their losses year after year, despite the fact that we lose far fewer people and win all of our engagements. The fact that the enemy can replace his own losses, and that the only measure of progress is a declining rate of enemy replacements, are the reasons for American demoralization, as they were in Vietnam.

    Was it worth our staying in Afghanistan for nine or more years to this end? Clearly we have not achieved what we thought we could. But I wonder if things would have been better had we left in 2002. Although the Taliban have replaced their losses in the years since then, al-Qaida numbers have dwindled and jihadism has lost a lot of its credibility and appeal. That might not have happened if we had pulled out sooner. Our opponents will still claim a partial victory if we leave but in a sense they have already won that.

    3. Summers drew on Clausewitz and in limited contexts doing so is useful. But it needs to be remembered that in giving such emphasis to means and ends, Clausewitz missed the growing tension between means and means. The liberalizing democratic world has raced ahead of illiberal states in material power since 1790 and as a result the Westphalian international system contracted to a handful of great powers in 1914, to the two superpowers after 1945, and finally just to us in the 1990s.

    The trend of concentration may reverse in the next half century. As the rise of new great powers in Asia leads to a revival of global multipolarity, chain reaction wars could make a comeback, eg. an India-Pakistan conflict that could bring in China and the Islamic world on one side and the West plus Japan on the other. I am reminded of how the British, as they passed their mid-Victorian zenith, distracted themselves in the late 19th century with Mahdism in the Sudan and with the frontier strife that created the present border of Afghanistan. In the meantime, Germany and the rest of the world grew stronger. We are the new British.

    Smaller states and private groups may also offset their disadvantage in relation to great powers by acquiring nuclear and non-nuclear weapons of mass destruction. The cost of bioweapons is especially likely to fall, making them affordable to private groups working in the back alleys of the world. This danger may counteract to some extent the rivalry between the great powers by giving them a common interest, but it could also magnify it if smaller states and terrorists can drag larger powers into collision by inflicting great damage on one of the latter.

    Losing Vietnam was only a limited setback; we maintained our larger position in the Cold War and survived because none of its conflicts escalated to a nuclear exchange. Today, we cannot be so sure that nuclear deterrence will hold, in part because the great power multipolarity now emerging will be inherently less stable than the bipolarity of the Cold War, and in part because reckless smaller actors may provoke larger powers into retaliatory actions that trigger responses from other large powers.

    We are on the way out of Afghanistan and how we leave could still make a difference. If the present Afghan government cannot make up for time squandered, we can shift our support to northern insurgents and maybe blunt a Taliban victory. But in the longer-run, Afghanistan is a battle and not the war. I hope we can anticipate the longer trends in the world and shape them to the extent that we can.

  10. Marc,

    As Summers also noted, we thought we had failed in Korea when the war there ended in 1953. But with time, we realized that the Korean ceasefire wasn’t really a defeat, even if it wasn’t the victory we had originally wanted. In Afghanistan, I think our presently negative view of what we have done there will change at least in part. We have bought time that has made a difference in a wider sense, even if our efforts have not produced the outcome in the country itself that we wanted.

    We are still at war with al-Qaida globally but in the future we will have to weigh more carefully the damage of terrorism against the costs of the actions we take in response. What I hope we have come to recognize is that a world with too many dysfunctional sovereignties is a systemic problem and not just a problem of this or that failed state. My own answer is to reduce the vacuum by merging small states into stronger regional unions. Make a regional union responsible for places like Somalia, so that if there is trouble, the region is accountable and has the means to act. Afghanistan is a special case but if another terror attack against us originates in that country, and it is in Pakistan’s sphere of influence, we will hold the larger state accountable.

    There may not be time for stronger regional unions to take shape and fill the ungoverned spaces before other kinds of threats make the world less stable. But someday such unions might help contain great power rivalries as well as terrorism. At any rate we need an alternative to the choice we have confined ourselves in recent years to debate between untenable hegemony and intolerable anarchy.

  11. toc3 and AL,

    Thanks. This thread gave me a chance to make some comments on Harry Summers that I have wanted to make for some time. The book is available on Amazon (with a new cover) and I’m glad that it is still in print.

  12. Dave, #17:

    As Summers also noted, we thought we had failed in Korea when the war there ended in 1953. But with time, we realized that the Korean ceasefire wasn’t really a defeat, even if it wasn’t the victory we had originally wanted.


    This is part of what I’ve been trying to say, and not necessarily saying it very well: For some reason, we tend to think of “victory” as meaning that we’ve completely smashed the opposing state and built it up from the rubble in (mostly) our own image again.

    To be fair, that’s because that has happened: In both theaters, in World War II, as well as (to some degree) after the Civil War. But there are a lot of conflicts that we clearly “won” where victory didn’t look like that.

    As long as we’re fixated on that model for Afghanistan, where it is manifestly not going to happen, we’re going to be beating our heads against a stone wall. It’s also not necessary. Would it be nice? Yes. For us and them both? Sure. But unnecessary and at this time impossible.

    What is necessary is:

    – The place not be used to launch major jihadist attacks against us or India. And when I say major, I mean 9/11 scale, or attacks on the Indian Parliament building. When I say major, I mean the sort of attack that mandates a harsh kinetic response.

    – The place be stable enough that we expect, in the absence of any sudden surprises, that it won’t revert back to jihadist disneyland. That means it’s probably going to be managed by someone; right now, that’s us, and it sucks. And note that “stable” is not a synonym for “peaceful” or “pleasant.”

    There’s a whole list of desirements beyond that, but the list of actual requirements is pretty short. Some of these can be worked on at leisure after the short list is achieved, too– but Western style democracy in tribal Afghanistan comes right after Unicorn Ranching, on my list.

  13. bq. I was wrong about Bush, and so far, about Obama as well.

    Hell, at least Bush tried. 0bumbler? Eh, not so much.

    I mean, WTF has the “Precious Prince” done effectively? Bankrupt the nation is about it.

    buehner has it the most right:

    bq. _….Establish trust and ties with the locals convincing them of their security from the Taliban, while preparing to withdraw from Afghanistan within a year. ……._

    The “Precious Prince” was to do so many things that are now ….. ? ….. what? Expired? Close Gitmo. What happened there? Try the denizens of Gitmo. And that one?

    The campaign in Af/Pak is a century long project. A long war. Remember that? If we are not there for that type of project then we need to leave and apologize on our way out for being feckless little princelings who misunderstood our own limitations.

    We have a brewing civil war here at home that needs attention. “The Ruling Class”:http://spectator.org/archives/2010/07/16/americas-ruling-class-and-the/print has other ideas for us that have nothing to do with nation building halfway around the globe.

  14. Kparker,

    Maybe, but I don’t think so. To be precise, I think it is possible to scare the crap out of Pakistan sufficiently so that if given free reign in Afghanistan again, they will keep Afghanistan on a short enough leash to prevent them from doing anything stupid to us.

    However, Pakistan has two fronts to manage– the western one, with Afghanistan, and the eastern one, with India and Kashmir.

    The more secure Pakistan feels with respect to Afghanistan, the more frisky they feel with respect to Kashmir… and they feel very deeply about Kashmir for sort of the same reasons of cultural kinship and a buffer zone against India. I don’t think we can scare the crap out of them enough to get them to give up dreams of Kashmir, and I don’t think we can scare the crap out of them enough to stop making trouble with India.

    Which puts us more or less in the slums of Sucktown: Our security requirements may tell us to give Afghanistan to Pakistan. Our long term global strategy would sure as hell be enhanced by a good relationship with India, which we can’t have if we give Afghanistan back to Pakistan. (Also, the cold-blooded giving of Afghanistan back to Pakistan just won’t play here, domestically, either.)

    And of course, India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan all know this. It’s not like we can fool any of them into believing the world is different, unless I’m just fundamentally wrong.

    I don’t see a good, neat solution, here. If there is one, someone smarter than me has to find it.

  15. David, thanks for the great response.

    Summers’ point – which is made in your quote and several other places – was that we treated a war between North and South Vietnam as a civil war/insurrection within the South.

    So we were fighting the wrong war.

    I fully believe he’s correct; I similarly think we’re fighting the wrong war in Afghanistan. I’m not sure what war we should be fighting – I’m firmly not on the side of the “we’re at war with Islam” folks because, simply, if we were there’d be a whole lot more dead people. But we’re at war with a movement – an insurgent archipelago – supported by states.

    Do we attack those states? Retreat from Afghanistan and Iraq via Tehran and Damascus? That’s not making a lot of sense to me either.

    But we’re on a path that’s not going to take us anywhere we want to go…


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