A British military jibe maintains that “Experience is the ability to recognize a mistake the second time you make it.” Can we recognize that, in Afghanistan, we made the identical two grand mistakes we made in Vietnam—then added a third to guarantee our failure?
One may quibble as to whether President Biden was wise to announce the departure of our last forces from that intractable country, but the greater damage has already been done: squandered American lives, ruined bodies by the tens of thousands, and massive debt incurred in a hopeless effort to do the impossible while adhering to a code of military comportment as politically correct as it was practically inept.
Certainly, it was essential to deploy to Afghanistan in the autumn of 2001 to punish our enemies and their enablers. We did that with resolve and finesse. Then, tragically, we lingered instead of leaving, attempting to change the character, values, and beliefs of a population as foreign to us as any upon the earth. We refused to learn from our own recent mistakes and from millennia of history. As early as the summer of 2002, we were doomed.
The fundamental requirement for a successful counterinsurgency of any hue is that our efforts must be in support of local leadership and institutions that can gain the self-sacrificing support of their own people. Instead, in both the Republic of South Vietnam and Afghanistan, we supported—indeed, imposed—leaders we found convenient. In both cases, our enemies had homegrown leadership that had earned its way to high-echelon command through sacrifice, guile, and commitment. More Vietnamese were willing to give their lives for Ho Chi Minh’s vision than were willing to die for South Vietnamese generals—often corrupt, rarely competent, but cynically ingratiating. In Afghanistan, we supported anyone who spoke English and could tie a Windsor knot. The result was that, despite our tactical prowess, the Taliban never wanted for volunteers and the organization is stronger today than a decade ago, midway through our semi-occupation. Taliban chieftains inspire loyalty; “our” Afghan leaders provoke jokes in the bazaar. The proof of capacity is on the ground, not in cheery briefings by ambitious colonels.
The second great mistake is directly related to the first: With shortsighted good intentions, we poured wealth into South Vietnam, corrupting the government and society we hoped to save. We were “the land of the big PX,” and our largesse broke our clients’ will to fight. North Vietnam’s greatest strength was its poverty. We sought to defeat Spartans with sybarites.
In Afghanistan, after twenty years of our sacrifices, the Taliban appear poised to be the third and final winner. The first two victors were the well-connected contractors who made billions of dollars from ill-judged, often-uncompleted projects, and privileged Afghans who stole billions outright. We turned a ruling class of petty thieves into case-study felons. Now the powerful have prepared for comfortable exiles and Afghans of military age are not inclined to sacrifice their lives for the Kabul government in sufficient numbers to preserve social liberties gained but never earned.
Insurgencies are not fundamentally contests of wealth or weaponry but of strength of will. We struggle to train our allies’ troops even as we sap their society’s strength.
First win, then build.
As for the new, third fatal error, our military itself must bear the blame. Our comprehensively failed counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine—which has not achieved lasting success anywhere—demanded courage of our troops but lacked courage in its creation. Politically savvy, the doctrine writers ignored the enemies we actually faced—religious fanatics—and based their easy-to-brief prescriptions on a narrow set of political insurgencies. Yet, religion-fueled insurgencies and rebellions are an order of magnitude more challenging than those coalesced around tangible demands. You can make deals with Marxists—land for peasant farmers, seats in parliament, a share in government graft—but those ablaze with religious zeal have to be killed. We were unwilling to do the latter, so we pretended we were dealing with the former.
It remains morally incomprehensible and intellectually appalling that the doctrine framers did not examine a single religious uprising in their published work, but glorified the minor and much-embellished deeds of T. E. Lawrence, ignoring even here that, without General Allenby’s conventional-force victories, Lawrence would have meant nothing, while Allenby still would have entered Jerusalem and Damascus without Lawrence: Lawrence annoyed the Turks; Allenby defeated them.
Secular insurrections are about power as an end. Religious insurrections are about power as a means to do a god’s will. There is not one significant incidence in known history of a faith-driven insurrection being defeated without relentless savagery, without a superior strength of will. We want to befriend our enemies even as they kill us. Better to stay home and eat a Big Mac.
If you back the wrong horse, feed it to bloating, then mistake the nature of the race, you are apt to lose. And lose we did.