Our generals reveal why we lost in Afghanistan, and will continue to lose

Summary: Afghanistan was invisible during the campaign, but has surfaced again in the news. This time, so rare in modern America, we hear some truth about the war from our generals. They reveal why we have lost so much for so little gain, and why we continue paying in blood and money to get nothing. All that remains is for us to listen — and act.

Afghanistan war

Trump is a clown president, but he fills one role of a court jester by saying truths that are unspeakable in the Capital. As he did on a July 19 meeting in the White House with his military advisers (per NBC News).

We aren’t winning. We are losing.

That is refreshing honesty after 15 years and ten months of happy talk from both civilian and government officials. Perhaps Trump has read the long dirge of news from Afghanistan, such as “The war America can’t win: how the Taliban are regaining control in Afghanistan” by Sune Engel Rasmussen in The Guardian — “The Taliban control places like Helmand, where the US and UK troops fought their hardest battles, pushing the drive toward peace and progress into reverse.” Our military leaders did not respond well to this obvious truth, as awareness of the failure of their past plans implies skepticism about their shiny new plans. Their response to Trump’s words reveals much about why the war in Afghanistan has run for so long, at such great cost, for no gain to America. It deserves your attention.

There are winners at chess.

From NBC News, August 2.

“Trump is the third president to grapple with the war in Afghanistan. On Wednesday, two American troops were killed in Afghanistan when a convoy they were in came under attack. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.

“Trump’s national security team has been trying for months to come up with a new strategy he can approve. Those advisers are set to meet again to discuss the issue on Thursday at the White House. The president is not currently scheduled to attend the meeting, though one official said that could change.

“Former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush went through multiple strategies over the course of their presidencies to try to stabilize Afghanistan. What set Trump apart in the July meeting was his open questioning of the quality of the advice he was receiving. …At one point the president directed his frustration at Mattis, saying Trump had given the military authority months ago to make advances in Afghanistan and yet the U.S. was continuing to lose ground, the officials said. …

“One official said Trump pointed to maps showing the Taliban gaining ground, and that Mattis responded to the president by saying the U.S. is losing because it doesn’t have the strategy it needs. …

“‘If the president doesn’t listen to the generals, like Gen. Nicholson and he goes down the road that President Obama went, Afghanistan is going to collapse,’ Lindsey said. ‘Here’s my advice to the president — listen to people like Gen. Nicholson and McMaster and others who have been in the fight.’ …

“The president’s advisers went into the mid-July meeting hoping he would sign off on an Afghanistan strategy after months of delays, officials said. One official said the president’s team has coalesced around a strategy, though it had presented him with other options as well such as complete withdrawal. Trump, however, appeared to have been significantly influenced by a meeting he’d recently had with a group of veterans of the Afghanistan war, and he was unhappy with the options presented to him.”

Optimism about our Afghanistan strategy in January 2010
Optimism about our Afghanistan strategy in Jan 2010.

From The Hill, August 2.

“…The Trump administration has been grappling for months with devising a new strategy for the 16-year-old war in Afghanistan. Defense Secretary James Mattis promised to deliver one to Congress by mid-July, but nothing materialized.

“Gen. John Nicholson has been commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan since March 2016. Trump has not met Nicholson, and his military advisers reportedly offered to set up a meeting in order to help ease Trump’s concerns. In February, Nicholson was the first to call the war a stalemate and said he needed a few thousand more troops to break it. …

“Trump left the national security meeting without making a decision on a strategy. His advisers were stunned, administration officials and others briefed on the meeting said. Two Pentagon officials close to Mattis said he returned from the White House that morning visibly upset. Mattis often takes a walk when grappling with an issue. That afternoon, the walk took longer than usual, the officials said.

“Among those at the meeting were Trump’s senior White House advisers including Steve Bannon, Jared Kushner, national security adviser H.R. McMaster, and then chief-of-staff Reince Priebus, plus Mattis, Dunford, Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.”

Photo of US military officer's ribbons from Government Executive.
Photo from Government Executive.

How many times have we heard these excuses?

“A core competence is a combination of complementary skills and knowledge bases embedded in a group or team that results in the ability to execute one or more critical processes to a world class standard.”
— From “Is your core competence A MIRAGE?“ by Kevin P. Coyne, Stephen J. D. Hall and Patricia G. Clifford in the McKinsey Quarterly (1997).

Our Generals might not know how to win wars — as Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq demonstrate — but they manufacture industrial grade excuses. It is their core competence (as I wrote in 2007). The F-35 does not work as promised. We get great excuses. The supercarrier USS Ford was commissioned although not ready, 6 years late (2 years so far, probably 4 more it is until fully ready) and $3 billion over budget — and counting (details here). Instead we get wonderful excuses. Such as this from James Mattis (SecDef and USMC four-star general, retired), explaining why we have gotten so little from our Afghanistan War at such great cost in money and American blood.

“Mattis responded to the president by saying the U.S. is losing because it doesn’t have the strategy it needs.”

What could Mattis have learned after 17 years of war in Afghanistan that invalidates the many previous US strategies and revealed “what we need”?

Republican politicians worship the military (hence all those generals in Team Trump), adjusting their memories as needed to maintain the delusion of general’s infallibility. As in this from Senator Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“If the president doesn’t listen to the generals, like General Nicholson and he goes down the road that President Obama went, Afghanistan is going to collapse. Here’s my advice to the president — listen to people like Generals Nicholson and McMaster and others who have been in the fight.”

That’s nonsense, awesome amnesia about how Presidents Bush Jr. and Obama relied on our generals to set strategy and methods for the war.

Celtic Trinity Knot
3 tools, only one outcome: failure.

What strategy did they propose to Trump?

We can only guess at what the generals proposed to Trump, the latest “strategy”. Looking backwards, what the military calls “strategy” are usually tactics. The military has offer a variety of strategies, all mixtures of the US trinity of COIN.

  1. Popular front militia (locals, usually minorities, fighting for us – like these in Afghanistan).
  2. Firepower on civilians (e.g., Fallujah in Iraq, winning hearts and minds with artillery here and here, and Mosul this year).
  3. Sweep and destroy missions (numbers beyond count, with thousands of US casualties for no gains).

They probably offered Trump a remix of these plus the usual demand for more troops. Which seems daft. We could not defeat the Taliban with 130,000 NATO troops in 2012, when they were weaker than they are today. There are 14,000 NATO troops there now. Even if we put 130,000 troops in Afghanistan, the same tried-and-failed COIN methods that have failed everybody since WWII will fail for us as well.

Why was Trump unhappy with the generals’ proposals?

We can only guess at this, since the journalists’ stories tell (as usual) present only the generals’ perspective. But the generals’ track record in this war is horrifically bad and their proposals were probably more of the same plus two wildly unacceptable choices (e.g., destroy Afghanistan or admit defeat and leave). See Daniel Ellsberg’s explanation how they play that game: Presidential decision-making about Vietnam and Afghanistan: “You have 3 choices, sir”.

Trump had ample reason for his unhappiness. To see why look at Slate’s article about the meeting by Philip Carter from the war-boosters at the Center for a New American Security. It was incoherent, alternating between silly criticisms of Trump (e.g., he was disrespectful to the generals, poor babies) and admissions that Trump was right to question them.

Our Sponsor: Victory Gin
Our Sponsor. We’ll need it when reading the news from Afghanistan.

Why Trump will eventually agree to the generals’ plan.

People are policy. Trump’s advisors come in two flavors. First, there are those who know none of this. Second, those who know all of this and will not tell him. The generals who staff his national security team (and his Chief of Staff) are, of course, in the latter group.

Trump might have an instinctive-like awareness that something is wrong with his general’s stale advice. But can Trump escape the box he has built around himself, acting contrary to the advice of his own team — against the advice of Republican leaders.

What are the odds of an effective war policy emerging from this stew? I’ll bet on “low” — and more US casualties, and many more dead in Afghanistan. To see what should happen, ask yourself How many generals would Lincoln have fired to win in Iraq & Afghanistan?

Update: another perspective on why we keep losing.

It’s not just a problem of our senior officers. I have been in countless discussions about our counter-insurgency wars (COIN) with US Marine and Army officer since 2003, both retired and active duty.  I had one this morning about this article. It was, as usual, identical — almost word for word — with those from 2003. They even cite the same fake “successful COIN” wars (e.g., Kenya, Malaysia). They remain blind to the two kinds of counter-insurgencies, and how we are fighting the kind that almost always loses.

Most — almost all — have learned nothing from our 16 years of failure in Iraq and Afghanistan. The lives of our dead and crippled troops are an expensive and wasted tuition.

What should we do?

See my series on an alternative grand strategy. The first post is Let’s try a defensive strategy in America’s wars, and win.

For More Information

See Stratfor’s new analysis, almost a follow-up to this postStratfor sees Afghanistan war fatigue in America. Only our rulers remain eager.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about our Vietnam War, about our military & defense strategy, and especially these…

  1. Refighting the Last War: Afghanistan and the Vietnam Template.
  2. Presidential decision-making about Vietnam and Afghanistan: “You have 3 choices, sir”.
  3. Another echo in Afghanistan of the Vietnam War. Will we hear it, and learn?
  4. The military takes us back to the future. To Vietnam, again and again.
  5. Stark evidence from our past about our inability to learn today.
  6. Stratfor looks at Afghanistan and sees a Conflict With No Time Limit.
  7. Two generals chat about Afghanistan (a funny, sad, horrifying look at our war).
  8. Secret government docs reveal a hidden truth about the Afghanistan War.
Best and the Brightest
Available at Amazon.

To understand our wars first look at Vietnam.

From the publisher…

“David Halberstam’s masterpiece is the defining history of the making of the Vietnam tragedy. Using portraits of America’s flawed policy makers and accounts of the forces that drove them, The Best and the Brightest reckons magnificently with the most important abiding question of our country’s recent history: Why did America become mired in Vietnam, and why did we lose? As the definitive single-volume answer to that question, this enthralling book has never been superseded. It is an American classic.”

From The Boston Globe…

“[The] most comprehensive saga of how America became involved in Vietnam. It is also the Iliad of the American empire and the Odyssey of this nation’s search for its idealistic soul. The Best and the Brightest is almost like watching an Alfred Hitchcock thriller.”

16 thoughts on “Our generals reveal why we lost in Afghanistan, and will continue to lose”

  1. I have not been able to decide whether the military leadership’s decision to tell the truth is a moment of weakness or a sign of their increasing confidence in their ability to control the politics of Washington, which is the most important part of the Afghan war from their perspective.

  2. There are enemies you can’t intimidate into acquiescence. The Romans understood this. So did the Brits. They are called the Afghans.
    There are cultural reasons reason is not always successful. Self destructive behavior is as real in a population as it is in an angry teenager. The hard communists accepted they couldn’t convince the bourgeoisie to join their cause, they had to kill them. All of them.
    Hadrian’s wall was the public acknowledgement that the Scots couldn’t be coerced into the happy Roman world and anyway the price wouldn’t be worth it. Afghanistan is our proto Scotland.
    The problem of exported attacks from Afghanistan is our only real problem. When diplomacy failed the Romans, massive indescriminate punitive raids worked for a while. Same for the colonial Brits. For a while, though.
    Perhaps our intellectual values are ahead of the World. Or we are just unaware of the costs in blood of our values.
    Walls do have their purpose when both sides agree to their presence.
    Not all people actually want their “problems” solved. Problems give people passion, purpose and direction. Drama makes them feel alive – why else are the afternoon Soaps popular?

    1. Douglas,

      “They are called the Afghans.”

      That is not an accurate framing of this problem. Our failure in Afghanistan does not result from special circumstance. Almost without exception, foreign armies have been defeated by insurgents since Mao brought 4GW to maturity after WWII. Scores of studies have shown this. From the magisterial work of RAND to Harvard PhD dissertations. Martin van Creveld clearly explained this in his 1991 book, Transformation of War.

      If all this history and research is too complex, our failure in Iraq should prove this.

      Yet Americans, civilian and military, remain blind and amnesiac about this simple truth. I doubt that any nation, no matter how powerful, can prosper — perhaps not even survive — if it cannot see.

  3. I was about to propose the problem with US COIN is that it takes the wrong examples from history. Aside from Northern Ireland, almost every successful example of COIN I can think of since World War II has used the Hama method – Sri Lanka, Chechnya, the 1991 Shia uprising in Iraq. Winning legitimacy, which is what the first approach prioritizes, seems hard if not impossible to do for a foreign army. The second approach seems like the only realistic one.

    The complicating factor is that I can’t think of a post-WW2 successful example of counterinsurgency where a foreign power is the occupier. The Soviets tried the Hama method in Afghanistan and managed to lose, albeit with a lower casualty rate than the US faced in Vietnam. France lost Algeria despite an initially brutal crackdown. Of course, one could argue that the French or Russians simply decided the costs of escalating further wasn’t worth it and chose to withdraw. That might be a problem foreign armies doing counterinsurgencies face – easier to just cut your losses and pull out when it isn’t your own country you fight for.

    Pre-WW2 has some examples, but they are arguably not relevant given the maturation of 4GW since then. Both the Germans in Namibia and the British against the Boers won through brutality. Yet the Germans managed to spectacularly lose in Yugoslavia using that same approach.

    Maybe Morocco in Western Sahara? Even that is an iffy example since their approach seems to have just been building a wall. Meanwhile, the Polisario Front is alive and well.

    Would seem like the only way to win at counter-insurgency is to avoid it in the first place.

    1. Lee,

      “Aside from Northern Ireland, almost every successful example of COIN I can think of since World War II has used the Hama method”

      You are missing the point. Local governments almost always defeat insurgencies. Foreign armies almost never do. Northern Ireland is a grey case: are the Brits “foreigners” in Northern Ireland? Same language, same religion (Christian), a majority are from the other British Island, etc.

      For details about this see here.

  4. While I am appreciative of the issues you raise your “ain’t it awful” approach fails to suggest valid alternatives. For example, what might be an alternative approach to the Afghan conundrum?

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  6. Trillions of dollars in wealth transfer, a huge river for the worst of us to drink from. How is it even possible to debate or consider options or “strategies” when so many rice bowls of so many people with real power and influence are filled by “more of the same”?

    Note that there is no palpable definition of what “winning” or “victory” ought to be or even could be, in terms that the ‘nation” could understand — other than body count, maybe (it’s interesting that the DoD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, http://www.dtic.mil/doctrine/new_pubs/dictionary.pdf, does not define “war” or “victory” or “success” at all, directly, and only vaguely by inference from other defined terms.)

    Does anyone give any attention to Sun Tzu’s principles and counsel, http://classics.mit.edu/Tzu/artwar.html, any more, or are they “no longer operative”?

    Hey, all the operating parts of the “activity” (hard to call it “war”) in Notagain?istan have been laid out by a military contractor (asserting a copyright claim to its work for hire, egads!!) in one neat PowerPoint, haven’t they, long since? https://www.theguardian.com/world/julian-borger-global-security-blog/2010/apr/27/afghanistan-microsoft Of course McChrystal was tongue-in-cheek when he said “When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war.” Obscuring the fact, as discussed in the post, that “won” and “war” are undefined terms, with no path for the Imperial military to understand or achieve “victory.”

    The people of Notagain?istan own themselves and their terrain. Not close to clear that even a “Hama strategy” could produce anything recognizable as “victory” or even “mission accomplished.” And no General wants to be the one holding the poop bag when the music finally stops..

    1. McPhee,

      Nicely said! The slide was great; thanks for the reminder of its depiction of our mad war.

      There seems to be a resurgence of interest in our mad war. So I will rerun a series about articles about why failure was and is inevitable, and a better alternative.

  7. is the military really incompetent and amnesiac or is the goal simply to keep the war going indefinitely as a route to promotion and increased budgets? in both the private and public sectors it is often observed that executives act in their own interests, not those of their constituencies (“the iron law of bureaucracy”). why should generals be any different? promotion is much more readily available in wartime than in peace.

    1. Jay,

      “is the military really (a) incompetent and amnesiac or (b) is the goal simply to keep the war going indefinitely as a route to promotion and increased budgets?”

      That’s a thought-provoking idea. We can only guess. I prefer to think (a), since (b) is outright evil. But sometimes I wonder…

  8. Would it be OK if I cross-posted this article to WriterBeat.com? There is no fee, I’m simply trying to add more content diversity for ocur community and I liked what you wrote. I’ll be sure to give you complete credit as the author. If “OK” please let me know via email.


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