THOUGHTS ON AFGHANISTAN, from a senior military officer with whom I am acquainted:
I ask that you not use my name. I am a currently serving General Officer and what I have to say is highly critical of our current military leadership. But it must be said.
I don’t blame President Biden for the catastrophe in Afghanistan. It was the right decision to leave, the proof of which is how quickly the country collapsed without US support. Twenty years of training and equipping the Afghan army and all that they were capable of was a few hours of delay in a country the size of Texas. As for his predecessor, the only blame I place on President Trump was that he didn’t withdraw sooner.
We should blame President Bush, not for the decision to attack into Afghanistan following 9-11, but for his decision to “shift the goalposts” and attempt to reform Afghanistan society. That was a fool’s errand any student of history would have recognized. And yes, we should place blame on President Obama for his decision to double down on failure when he “surged” in Afghanistan, rather than to withdraw.
However, most of the blame belongs to the leadership of the US military, and the Army in particular. The Washington Post’s “Afghanistan Papers” detailed years of US officials failing to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan, “making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.” That report was two years ago, and the stories within it began more than a decade before that. Afghanistan was, and always will be, “unwinnable”.
Of course, I blame President Biden for the disastrous retrograde operation still unfolding. But let us not allow that to deflect us from heaping even more blame on military leaders. They stonewalled President Trump rather than beginning deliberate preparations to exit the country when he told them to. They thought that they could outlast him and then talk sense to his successor. Then after the inauguration, they pressed the new president to reverse course. He wisely chose withdrawal. Then and only then did the generals begin their preparations in earnest. But it was too late to do it well.
The war in Afghanistan lasted more than twice as long as the Vietnam War. Although the cost in terms of American blood was thankfully far smaller, the mistakes are the same: America got involved in a long land war in Asia, in a peripheral region, in order to prop up a floundering and unreliable government, and at a time when there was a much bigger looming threat. In fact, Afghanistan was worse than Vietnam in that at least the Vietnam War was tangentially related to the effort to stop the global spread of communism during the Cold War. Afghanistan was worse than Vietnam in another respect: the military’s leaders of the Vietnam era had no precedent to dissuade them from a disastrous path. Today’s military leadership has the precedent of not just Vietnam, but also Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. That much obtuseness must be punished and removed from the system.
General Milley must resign. Not only is he the Chairman of the Joint Staff, prior to that he was the Chief of Staff of the Army. While all services share the blame, the Army is the land domain proponent. The 20 years of failure in Afghanistan is an Army failure. Scores of other generals also deserve a thorough evaluation; many of them are complicit in the lies to protect a decades-long failed strategy.
Secretary of Defense Austin also must be fired. The recently retired Army general and former CENTCOM commander was, and still is, part of the culture that is impervious to the fact that 20 years of trying it their way did not work.
Just as it did after Vietnam, the military, and especially the Army, must conduct a comprehensive review of why it exists. The purpose of the Army is to visit profound violence on our nation’s enemies; it is not to rebuild failed states. We have decades of experience: counter-insurgencies and nation-building does not work for America. We do not have the stomach for long wars of occupation—and that is a good thing. We are a nation of commerce, not conflict. A constellation of retired stars will tell you that the two can coexist. They are wrong. Retired Vice Chief of Staff of the Army General Jack Keane said only two months ago that because Afghanistan consumes just a small portion of the force, America “can afford the cost of fighting” there. What he does not see is that for 20 years, that “small portion” was the most important portion of the military. Everything else necessarily is subservient to the portion of the force in conflict. It has altered who the Army is and how it thinks. There exists only a handful of officers below the general officer ranks who served during the Cold War and who have lived through an era of great power conflict. From private through brigade commander, virtually every Army Soldier serving today has experienced little other than counterinsurgencies or nation-building while operating out of secure FOBs. Large scale combat operations and insurgencies require different cultures and mindsets. In a resource constrained environment, the same service cannot do both well. The Army today could not win a major war. Yet, winning a major war, is the number one reason why an Army exists. It will take a generation to break bad habits, to think in terms of closing with and destroying the enemy versus winning hearts and minds. Keane sees raw numbers (and ignores the stark evidence that there was no progress over 20 years) and thinks that America’s Army can sustain that level of commitment. It cannot, and the opportunity cost to the culture of the force is much too great. Ignore him. Ignore Petraeus, McMaster, Stavridis, and the rest of their ilk.
Concurrent with its review of purpose, the Army must reevaluate its size and how it is organized. The active component is much too large. That makes it too eager to get involved in irrelevant theaters where failure is likely or even preordained. It should be very difficult for an American president to deploy the Army without the National Guard performing most combat operations. You argue that that takes time? Yes, that’s the point: it should take time to make the case to the American people that war is worth it.
The Marine Corps must provide the nation’s rapid response forces. It is a self-contained deployable multi-domain force. Some would argue that the service has both insufficient combat power and staying power. However, that is a feature, and not a flaw, as it forces the nation to rely on its Army—and hence its reserve components—before engaging in heavy combat or lengthy operations. The current Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Berger, already seems to recognize his service’s role—hence his decision to eliminate armor from the Corps.
Congress must reevaluate the authorities contained within Sections 12301 through 12304 of Title X. The president has too much latitude to, on his own authority, mobilize tens or even hundreds of thousands of Guardsmen and Reservists without congressional approval. It must be the policy of the United States that we do not place our service members in harm’s way without first making the case to the American people. This also means ending the 2001 and 2002 Authorizations for Use of Military Force as well as strengthening Congress’ role in the War Powers Act such that, absent an actual declaration of war, there can be no war.
Some would argue that such a constraint would limit the nation’s ability to respond to a Russian incursion in the Baltics or a Chinese attack on Taiwan. However, recent open-source studies conclude that the US military already is unable to defend against either attack. Pretending otherwise while not having the means to back up our assurances unnecessarily emboldens our partners and allies, making such an attack more likely. We lose nothing by making the law match the reality.
Let us not forget the intelligence agencies. They reported that Kabul was at risk of falling in as little as 90 days. That report was from last Thursday! The capital fell in less than 90 hours. Failure must be punished. And punishment in a bureaucracy means mass firings and a smaller budget—not more money so that they might be better the next time. Congress must consolidate and collapse our intelligence agencies. And when its reorganization is done, if the overall size of the nation’s intelligence apparatus is a quarter of what it is now, that still is too large.
And while we are on the topic of “too large,” DoD must be halved. There are too many flag officers, too many agencies, departments, and directorates. It is the only secretariat with independent but supposedly subordinate secretaries. There are too many Geographic Component Commands—each led by a 4-star virtual proconsul whose budget dwarfs what the Department of State spends in their regions. The result is a foreign policy that is overly military and underly diplomatic, informational, and economic. Congress must revisit the 1947 National Security Act and the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act. Both were good for their times, but after decades of experience, there clearly are new reforms necessary.
Unreformed, DoD is an inscrutable labyrinth which invites fraud, waste, and abuse. The excess attracts unscrupulous camp followers. Amazon did not choose Crystal City to locate its new headquarters because of low rents and ease of transportation access for its 25,000 employees. It chose the Arlington, Virginia neighborhood because it is two blocks from the Pentagon. That building controls the distribution of three-quarters of a trillion dollars every year. Most of it is wasted. The excess is apparent in the scores of class-A high rises housing defense contractors just blocks from the Pentagon. To end that waste, nothing so concentrates the senses as austerity.
Let me conclude with one last thought: the generals, the intelligence analysts, the defense contractors, and the pundits all leveraged America’s rarest resource: the American serviceman and woman. They are the ones who fought, and sweat, and bled, and died for what is now clearly a failed strategy and a doomed mission. Even after its failure was apparent to their leaders, they continued to enlist and reenlist, largely because their superiors—the experts—assured them that success was possible. It was not. It never was. Absent American support, Afghanistan collapsed over the length of a long weekend. That is proof enough that the last 20 years were in vain, and proof enough that the system is broken from within.
“Failure must be punished.” An idea so crazy it just might work.