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.