Monthly Archives: October 2015

The Never Ending War – continued

The announcement last week that the US will be increasing the number of personnel that will remain in Afghanistan should come as no surprise.  Tactically, the decision continues the current US posture, while strategically it does nothing to address the long term problems.  The Afghan government is not interested in governing and that is the reason that increasing forces now will do nothing to prevent future failure.

The mission to advise and support Afghan security forces is a failure.  It is a failure precisely because the tactical goals are divorced from underlying strategic problems.  The key to a stable Afghanistan has always been to have a government that is broadly acceptable to the majority of Afghan people.  A government that is capable of governing within the constraints of Afghan society.  As of now it is hard to imagine a government of Afghanistan that would be acceptable to the major ethnic groups such as Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras. Thirty or forty years ago that might have been possible.  Now, there just doesn’t seem to be any one leader capable or willing to unite the country.  With deep ethnic divisions, any advantage one group gains over the other produces resentment.

With such rivalry in play, the current Afghan government is more interested in the spoils of government than attempting to govern.  The list of its failures is long and includes two failed elections, dubious status as the third most corrupt country in the world, and no Minister of Defense for the past year.  While that is just a tip of the iceberg, the examples clearly demonstrate that the current government of Afghanistan is not government capable of governing the country.  Unfortunately for the US, this is the government we are determined to support.  Given its faults and the inherent ethnic tensions, it is not surprising that the security forces we trained and support are failing.

Successful military force can only exist if the government it supports is viewed as legitimate and acceptable by the majority of the people.  This dictum has been true both in South Vietnam in the 1970s and Iraq in 2014. Both militaries collapsed because the governments of both countries were corrupt and incompetent and no amount of tactical assistance by the US could make the soldiers of those countries willing to fight and die for those governments.  The same quandary exists in Afghanistan.  The continued training mission which addresses only tactical problems, without solving the strategic problem of bad governance, is destined to fail.

Additionally, are the Afghans really that incompetent that they need assistance year after year without end?  This seems unlikely given the 14 year timeframe.  It doesn’t take that long to figure out how to fight.  The Taliban took over the country in two years starting in 1994, without a massive training program.  At some point the Afghan forces have to take responsibility for their country without US support.  After 14 years, it is clear this can only happen if the US sets a firm date for withdrawal.  As seen on the other side, the Taliban keeps increasing their capability every year without a huge influx of foreign money and training or air support that the Afghan government gets every year.

There is no easy fix.  However, the US should have only extended our stay in Afghanistan if the Afghan government demonstrated the will to fight.  Without such commitment any additional US troops will not make any noticeable long term difference.  The reason the Taliban is successful is because they, in spite of their 7th century ideology, do address the concerns of the people with regards to the corrupt and predatory central government in Afghanistan.  Until that concern can be addressed by the Afghan government, the US could be in Afghanistan another 50 years without accomplishing much of anything and supporting a government that is not interesting in governing.  Our limited resources instead can be better spent in the Pacific theater where a rising China presents a true threat to our security that has to be addressed.

Tactics over Strategy

The recent mistaken targeting of Medicines San Frontiers (MSF) hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan highlighted continued US involvement in the Afghan conflict.  This incident and the preceding capture of most of the Kunduz city by the Taliban forces prompted a number of different voices to call for increased US presence in the country post 2016 withdrawal date.   Those voices could not be more wrong.

The tragic events surrounding the attack on MSF hospital demonstrate the limits of what could possibly happen if the incompetent local forces are supported by the US firepower.  The first question that should have been asked is why the numerically superior Afghan government forces needed the US air support.  By all accounts the Taliban forces were not only inferior in numbers, but consisted only of lightly armed troops, without armored vehicles.  That the numerically superior and better equipped Afghan government forces were unable to prevent capture of Kunduz should speak volumes.  The subsequent partial recapture of the city by the Afghan forces only when accompanied by the US Special Forces only highlighted the fact that the US training mission in Afghanistan is a failure and should no longer be continued.  The root cause after all is the Afghan government itself.

The failure of Afghan government is easy to see.  From the elections last year that brought to power an ad hoc Ghani/Abdullah coalition, to the fact that the there is still no Afghan minister of defense a whole year after the government was seated.  This only demonstrates to any critical thinking observer that the Afghan government is more interested in power politics rather than trying to defeat the Taliban.  The fact that we continued to waste money and train Afghan military without addressing the underlying failure in governance is not surprising.  The Afghan government clearly does not believe it is in the fight for its survival.  Why do we?  The US military is really good at tactics, but terrible at strategy, especially at the strategic level of leadership.  How else can the continued emphasis on tactical training without regard to the state of governance in Afghanistan be explained?  From the beginning, the only way the US should have been involved in training the Afghan security force is if there was a viable Afghan government to support.  Ironically if that was the case there would probably be no need to train Afghan forces, as they would be fighting for the government they believe in.

The failure of Afghan forces in Kunduz is just the beginning.  Similar to Iraqi military, the Afghan military trained and supported by the US will have a lot of difficulty stopping the numerically inferior Taliban.  The reasons for that are strategic; the failure of the Afghan government is the root cause.  Until the Afghan government gets its act together, no amount of tactical training by the US will be able to compensate.  For years Afghanistan relied on US tactical superiority to support their strategic failure of poor governance.  With that support gone, there is no surprise that the poorly led local forces are not willing to fight and die for the government they do not believe in.  The tragic attack on the MSF hospital should instead serve as another wake-up call to those advocating continued US presence in Afghanistan.  No amount of tactical support will ever overcome lack of poor governance.  The support, which from the beginning should have been contingent on a viable Afghan government. To continue to do what we are doing now will mean expending resources and possible American lives in pursuit of objectives that do not provide any benefits for the US foreign policy.  No matter how much we want, good tactics still don’t supersede a viable strategy.