Are we doomed to failure in Afghanistan? History says, yes

#1
As many of us have predicted on these forums, here is one of the voices calling for a reduction in force levels in Afghanistan as the correct response to the request of the military to increase force levels. I wonder what our enemies are thinking as they watch all this?

COMMENTARY
Are we doomed to failure in Afghanistan? History says, yes
Eugene Robinson, THE WASHINGTON POST
Wednesday, September 23, 2009

It's hard to read Gen. Stanley McChrystal's assessment of the Afghanistan war without hearing one of those horror-movie voices that seem to come from everywhere and nowhere, a voice that grows louder and more insistent with every page: "Get out. Get out. Get out."

According to the confidential report prepared for President Barack Obama — and obtained by Bob Woodward of The Washington Post — the situation in Afghanistan is "deteriorating." The Taliban insurgency is "resilient and growing." Afghans have a "crisis of confidence" in both their own government and the U.S.-led NATO occupation force. The next 12 months will be "decisive," and "failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum \u2026 risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible."

Obama said consistently during the election campaign that Afghanistan, not Iraq, was the right place for the United States to fight al Qaeda and its allies. Now the messy conflict in Afghanistan has become Obama's war, and the president faces his most consequential decision thus far: whether he still believes his war can be "won" by military means.

"The mission is achievable," McChrystal writes. The bulk of his report, however, strongly suggests it's not.

As if on cue, the leader of the Taliban, Mohammad Omar, issued a taunting statement reminding Obama that for more than a millennium, would-be conquerors have tried and failed to subdue the mountain fastness known as the "graveyard of empires" — Alexander the Great in the 4th century B.C., the British in the 1800s, the Soviets from 1979 to 1989.

"The invaders should study the history of Afghanistan," Omar said in a message marking the end of Ramadan, reported the Financial Times. "The more the enemy resorts to increasing forces, the more they will face an unequivocal defeat."

As galling as it is to accept tutelage from one of Osama bin Laden's key enablers, this does seem to be what history teaches. Pouring forces into Afghanistan has always proved to be counterproductive. The presence of large numbers of foreign troops is the one thing that reliably unites Afghans — if only for long enough to drive the foreigners out.

Yet an additional surge in U.S. forces is precisely what McChrystal recommends — he calls it a "jump" in resources, presumably since "surge" is such a Bush-era word, but the effect would be the same. Declining to send more troops — providing a "bridge capability" until the Afghan army can be further expanded, equipped and trained — would "lead to failure," the general writes.

Already, there are about 62,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, with the number set to rise to 68,000 — more than double the U.S. commitment of a year ago.

McChrystal doesn't specify numbers in his report, but his predecessor asked for an additional 10,000 troops. As a comparison, the Soviet Union's military presence in Afghanistan peaked at just over 100,000 troops — a number that proved pitifully small to pacify a country larger than France with a population now estimated at nearly 30 million.

McChrystal at least tries to outline a clear mission in Afghanistan: strengthening the Afghan state to the point where it can "sufficiently control its territory to support regional stability and prevent its use for international terrorism."

He proposes a counterinsurgency strategy that could indeed inflict serious damage on the Taliban. In the process, though, McChrystal's plan seems unlikely to boost confidence in the weak and corrupt Afghan government, especially following the recent elections that saw widespread, credible allegations of fraud.

And as unpopular as the Taliban may be, does anyone believe that Afghans are really going to side with foreigners? Do we think that civilian casualties from aerial attacks — which would have to continue, given the size of the country and the ruggedness of its terrain — are helping to win Afghan hearts and minds? Can 1,400 years of history be so blithely ignored?

What Obama needs to do is downsize the mission. Our only goals should be to satisfy ourselves that Afghanistan will not again be a terrorist haven, and to leave as quickly as possible. We need to use not just force but also diplomacy — which means, yes, talking to the Taliban.

Some will say this shows weakness, but the ultimate sign of weakness is failure. If we send in more troops, I fear that's where we're headed.

http://www.statesman.com/opinion/content/editorial/stories/2009/09/23/0923robinson_edit.html
 
#3
omegahunter said:
I believe our enemy is thinking, that our governments do not have the will to fight, to win this war.

And I believe it too.
I agree--sadly my question was rhetorical. I would also add that without leadership our respective citizenries do not have the staying power either, which makes it a bit of a chicken/egg conundrum.
 
#4
history keeps telling us - so they keep telling us, although when this is put under scrutiny, it isn't quite so. I believe the difference this time though, is that we're directly threatened, and the threat doesn't stop if we pull out.
 
#5
Read Kipling & George McDonald Fraser it will tell you all you need to know about this part of the world. Afghanistan is not a nation but a collection of tribes.
 
#6
So history tells us we can beat Nazi Germany, but not an insurrection in a fifth world country?

Twice in the last century, UK fielded armed forces of c.5 million. Now we don't even retain the capability to make the components of something as basic as rifle rounds....

Its purely down to the will of the governments involved.
 
#7
4(T) said:
So history tells us we can beat Nazi Germany, but not an insurrection in a fifth world country?

Twice in the last century, UK fielded armed forces of c.5 million. Now we don't even retain the capability to make the components of something as basic as rifle rounds....

Its purely down to the will of the governments involved.
And three times we got our arrse kicked out of Afghanistan, the only way to win is to kill them all, and that ain't going to happen
 
#8
Malthebof said:
Read Kipling & George McDonald Fraser it will tell you all you need to know about this part of the world. Afghanistan is not a nation but a collection of tribes.
So why did the great collection of minds who do "nation building" insist on trying to rule Afg from the centre in Kabul?

Schoolboy error, wishful thinking, or laziness?
 
#9
Taken from a letter to the Telegraph a few months ago:

SIR – I respect Rory Stewart, the former soldier-diplomat who now spends some of his time managing a development project in Kabul, but I disagree with his conclusions about Western policy in Afghanistan ("This is a War We Cannot Win", Comment. July 11) which is based on an oft-repeated misunderstandings about conflicts in Afghan history.

It is often said that Britain was defeated in the wars it fought in Afghanistan in the 19th and 20th centuries. In fact, Britain won each of them militarily but lacked the political will to consolidate its gains.

We are often reminded that in the First Afghan War, a British "army" (actually a brigade smaller than the current British force in Helmand) was wiped out as it withdrew towards India in 1841. There is little mention that a British force fought its way to Kabul in 1842. It's a bit like narrating the British part in the Second World War and stopping at Dunkirk.

In the Second Afghan War (1878-81), another disaster at Maiwand is mentioned without noting the British victory that followed it at Kandahar and the diplomacy that led to an Afghan monarch being installed, who reigned successfully for the rest of the century. In the Third Afghan War in 1919, the British Indian Army units who had to stave off an Afghan invasion were inexperienced but held their own.

In each case, the reason that Britain abandoned Afghanistan was a loss of political will. One wonders what would have happened if Britain had not found Churchill in 1940 and had listened to arguments that the cost of that war was too great, we were too under-equipped, and Germany could not be defeated.

Wars are, in the words of Clausewitz, a clash of wills. If we have the political determination, we will find the resources and Afghan (especially Pashtun) allies to win. Failure will condemn Afghans to civil war and Jihadism. Worst of all, the deaths of our servicemen will have been in vain.

Dr Rob Johnson
All Souls College, Oxford
 
#10
nigegilb said:
Malthebof said:
Read Kipling & George McDonald Fraser it will tell you all you need to know about this part of the world. Afghanistan is not a nation but a collection of tribes.
So why did the great collection of minds who do "nation building" insist on trying to rule Afg from the centre in Kabul?

Schoolboy error, wishful thinking, or laziness?
Yes all the above,

Remember Doctor Brydon
 

Attachments

#11
mac1 said:
history keeps telling us - so they keep telling us, although when this is put under scrutiny, it isn't quite so. I believe the difference this time though, is that we're directly threatened, and the threat doesn't stop if we pull out.
It should also be remembered when a superpower like Britain in the 19th century is involved in Afghanistan then Afghanistan's neighbours like Russia stir up the hornets nest by arming and supplying Afghan tribes . When the USSR was invoved in the country they literally had the whole world against them

With the exception of tribesmen in Pakistan there's little support from Afghanistan's neighbours for the Taliban hence using history as an indicator shouldn't be used as a yardstick now
 
#12
Peeler94 said:
Taken from a letter to the Telegraph a few months ago:

SIR – I respect Rory Stewart, the former soldier-diplomat who now spends some of his time managing a development project in Kabul, but I disagree with his conclusions about Western policy in Afghanistan ("This is a War We Cannot Win", Comment. July 11) which is based on an oft-repeated misunderstandings about conflicts in Afghan history.

It is often said that Britain was defeated in the wars it fought in Afghanistan in the 19th and 20th centuries. In fact, Britain won each of them militarily but lacked the political will to consolidate its gains.

We are often reminded that in the First Afghan War, a British "army" (actually a brigade smaller than the current British force in Helmand) was wiped out as it withdrew towards India in 1841. There is little mention that a British force fought its way to Kabul in 1842. It's a bit like narrating the British part in the Second World War and stopping at Dunkirk.

In the Second Afghan War (1878-81), another disaster at Maiwand is mentioned without noting the British victory that followed it at Kandahar and the diplomacy that led to an Afghan monarch being installed, who reigned successfully for the rest of the century. In the Third Afghan War in 1919, the British Indian Army units who had to stave off an Afghan invasion were inexperienced but held their own.

In each case, the reason that Britain abandoned Afghanistan was a loss of political will. One wonders what would have happened if Britain had not found Churchill in 1940 and had listened to arguments that the cost of that war was too great, we were too under-equipped, and Germany could not be defeated.

Wars are, in the words of Clausewitz, a clash of wills. If we have the political determination, we will find the resources and Afghan (especially Pashtun) allies to win. Failure will condemn Afghans to civil war and Jihadism. Worst of all, the deaths of our servicemen will have been in vain.

Dr Rob Johnson
All Souls College, Oxford
Where does Rob Johnson think the political will is coming from? New Labour? He rather shoots himself in the foot with his own arguments. Gordon Brown has already turned down requests for more troops from his most senior generals, on grounds of cost!!! It would also appear that it matters not who wins the initial skirmish, it is what follows that counts.



"Afghan wars become serious only when they are over"


Sir Olaf Caroe — a legendary figure of the Raj, ethnographer of the Pashtuns and last administrator of the North-West Frontier of British India — wrote in 1958 that ‘unlike other wars, Afghan wars become serious only when they are over; in British times at least they were apt to produce an after-crop of tribal unrest [and] constant intrigue among the border tribes.’ Western leaders would have been wise to consider his words after the ‘stunning defeat’ of the Taleban, whose ramshackle theocratic tyranny crumbled in less than ten weeks’ fighting after 9/11. .........
 
#13
I doubt the Dr believes the political will for sustained military activity will come from Labour and our beloved comrade leader Brown. Perhaps he believes, like a large number of British citizens, that Labour will be out of office in a years time (it can't come soon enough!) and that the Tories will be in instead.

The Tories might be more willing to spend money on our under-funded armed forces: William Hague says that a under a Tory government, resources will match commitments; yet no defence spending ring-fencing has been promised by Cameron, as it has for the bureacrats in the NHS and African dictators through overseas aid.

My guess is the Dr would agree with your earlier post, that "nation-building" a group of disparate tribes together is unlikely to work.
 
#14
It should also be remembered that Alexander the Great didn't lose his war there. He pretty much stormed through Afghanistan, declared victory after taking the capital with relative ease. An insurgency began to pop up and after a few years Alexander decided that maintaining order in a hostile desert wasteland was not in his interests.

It should also be remembered the russians started to face a strong backlash at home to the war. In their final year the commanders decided they would have to pour more troops into Afghanistan which would mean Afghanistan was effectively under Russian occupation or pull out. The russian public were still very bitter about the millions they lost in World war 2 so the war in Afghanistan had strong public opinion from the onset - unlike now where strong opposition has only begun to crop up.They chose to pull out because the reality of the Soviet invasion was that they were after Afghanistans natural resources.

I think instead of doing a troop surge a better idea would be send our own group of special forces up into the mountains and have them pick off the most influential leaders. Once the leaders of tribes are taken out we could start cutting deals with the tribes to keep al qaieda out. Forget elections in that hell hole...with Iraq most people have a basic mobile phone and an internet connection. In afghan most afgans csn't even write their own name.
 

Andy_S

LE
Book Reviewer
#15
"So history tells us..." yawn. How many hundreds of articles and pundits have said/written the same thing since 2001?

The key debate now is:
Do more troops help us defeat the Taliban?
Or do they simply intensify the fighting, thereby creating (as a side-effect) more Taliban?

I don't have the answer to this question, but we certainly are not winning, and I don't know anyone in the UK armed forces who is NOT asking for more troops and resources.

OTOH, the most successful part of the Afghan War was in 2001 when small special units overthrew the Taliban government while laying down a very minimal foreign footprint.

There WAS a time when the British Army was full of enterprising chaps who specialized in unconventional warfare, raising private armies of tribesman on far frontiers, and leading them into successful battle against the enemies of empire. However, such chaps seem to have died out with TE Lawrence.

Still, such an approach has various advantages:
Minimal foreign footprint
Minimal foreign soldiers' blood shed
Leverages local expertise to the max.
 
#16
4(T) said:
Its purely down to the will of the governments involved.
And of course this is the point. Even if the US and UK had a decent capability in terms of their respective industrial bases to supply their own defense needs, all the kings horses and all the kings men would not necessarily equate to victory in Afghanistan.

National "will" is the essential ingredient in modern COIN operations like those were are currently waging and I fear that is precisely the resource both the US and the UK are finding to be dwindling to the point of non-existence. Effective COIN operations are premised on "staying power" of the COIN force sufficient to exhaust the insurgent force over time. This is so because an "epic" and decisive battle to determine the outcome as in classic linear Napoleonic combat or more modernly like a quick strike with limited objectives as the US did (though not particularly well) in Grenada is inapplicable or otherwise unavailable.

These basic principles are not mysterious or obscure and our enemies certainly understand, and more importantly apply, them. Regrettably, our respective political leaders do not seem to have similar appreciation for them.
 
#17
Will? Our govt has the will to get re-elected - probably less likelyhood than winning in Afghanistan and cutting plastic bag use, whilst the general public have will in who wins Big Brother or Mong-Factor!
 
#18
Andy_S said:
"So history tells us..." yawn. How many hundreds of articles and pundits have said/written the same thing since 2001?

The key debate now is:
Do more troops help us defeat the Taliban?
Or do they simply intensify the fighting, thereby creating (as a side-effect) more Taliban?

I don't have the answer to this question, but we certainly are not winning, and I don't know anyone in the UK armed forces who is NOT asking for more troops and resources.

OTOH, the most successful part of the Afghan War was in 2001 when small special units overthrew the Taliban government while laying down a very minimal foreign footprint.

There WAS a time when the British Army was full of enterprising chaps who specialized in unconventional warfare, raising private armies of tribesman on far frontiers, and leading them into successful battle against the enemies of empire. However, such chaps seem to have died out with TE Lawrence.

Still, such an approach has various advantages:
Minimal foreign footprint
Minimal foreign soldiers' blood shed
Leverages local expertise to the max.
This is a very good point indeed. Much better to encourage the locals to take on the bad guys and operate, as you say, on a leveraged basis. I guess General Lamb is the closest we have to this approach at the moment.

I, like many contributers, am aware of a few Arabic speakers for example who are the sort of enterprising men to which you refer but many are way too far off the normal career GPS to influence events or doctrine. Probably were left in the sun too long on earlier tours.

But, to use the phrase that the current leaders use, "we are where we are," and the best pointer of where we are is perhaps Gen McChrystal's initial assessment of the campaign in Afghanistan published in the Washington Post and here I'll paraphrase Stratfor commentary.

"On the surface, the headline seemed to capture it all: The senior commander in Afghanistan has made his operational need clear to his commander-in-chief, and it will be very difficult for the Obama administration to deny him more troops. But there are far more important details behind the headlines.

The most important point is that, though optimistic in places, nowhere does the report say that with more troops the United States will win the war in Afghanistan -- or even how many more soldiers would be necessary to achieve victory.

In the report, McChrystal lays out a counterinsurgency-focused strategy (or at the very least, the portions he has already begun to implement) and argues that more manpower and resources will be necessary to pursue it. To our eye, the key excerpt reads: "The greater resources will not be sufficient to achieve success, but will enable implementation of the new strategy. Conversely, inadequate resources will likely result in failure. However, without a new strategy, the mission should not be resourced."

Adding to this is the logical inference and the implicit statement it entails: President Barack Obama has now been advised by the commanding general of the Afghan campaign that the current strategy cannot win, and the implication of the caveat not to resource the mission without a new strategy is that McChrystal -- by most accounts a very sharp and capable commander -- will not command them without a new strategy.

Far from an unequivocal request for committing more troops, McChrystal's report has articulated the importance of aligning two fundamental considerations: forces committed and an achievable strategy compatible with those forces. Therefore, he appears to be laying the foundation for a profound shift in the mission and force structure in Afghanistan.

It should not be assumed at this juncture that such a shift entails more troops and a redoubled commitment to the mission in Afghanistan as it exists today."

The British goverment meanwhile, appear to be resolute in their commitement to containment in Afghanistan but appear reluctant to resource the operation to meet the requirement in terms of boots. Some other NATO allies meanwhile, are looking decidedly shaky.

I don't agree with the thread title; I believe in going in there and doing it properly for just however long it takes. We simply can't afford the risk of destabalising Pakistan or giving the terrorist a free and open base from which to direct ops and train individuals to act against us domestically and abroad.
 
#19
History is a deceptive teacher. It suggests that if something has always previously happened, it will continue to happen. Unlike chemistry, where the laws of nature are fixed, and cause and effect can be demonstrated, history is more like a disputed after-action report. 'The lessons of history' might very well be nothing more valid than a run of good cards in a poker game.

The more that you look at taking lessons from the 'history' of foreign action in Afghanistan, the murkier it becomes, because each invasion had totally different objectives, and hence different criteria of 'victory' and 'failure'.

The British interventions were motivated by a combination of nation building, regime change, and punitive raids. The Russian occupation was driven not by any urgent need to control Afghanistan or its resources, but as part of the global Cold War strategy. Alexander the Great merely punched through en route to India.

As many commentators have noted here and elsewhere, there is no coherent strategy underpinning the Afghanistan operation beyond denying a group of militant religious extremists a harbour area. To that end, we have demonstrated one historical trend, that it is relativley easy to topple an Afghan government, simply because, in governmental terms, they are rubbish. What it is never so easy to do afterwards is to impose or create a replacement that is acceptable to the locals, whose preferred culture is one of freewheeling anarchy.

Rather than look at the 18th and 19th century incursions into Afghanistan, it might be more useful to look at Anglo-Scottish history during say, the Hundred Years War period. Afghan culture is a rural, primitive, religious, clan-based society very similar to the Scots of that period, and the 'Civilised' (England and France) powers that involved themselves kept stirring it up.

Eventually, enough 'civilisation' rubbed off at swordpoint that Scotland became at least a nominal 'nation', but it still took centuries, and English military action to finally bring it into the Union, and put an end to centuries of border warfare.

I think, in Afghanistan, we are still dealing with a very primitive 'nation state'. Perhaps the best thing to do would be to reinstate a monarchy, appoint all the warlords as Dukes, create a gap between Church and State, and then let them bicker amongst themselves until they can establish some kind of national consensus.
 
#20
jumpinjarhead said:
Effective COIN operations are premised on "staying power" of the COIN force sufficient to exhaust the insurgent force over time. This is so because an "epic" and decisive battle to determine the outcome as in classic linear Napoleonic combat or more modernly like a quick strike with limited objectives as the US did (though not particularly well) in Grenada is inapplicable or otherwise unavailable.

These basic principles are not mysterious or obscure and our enemies certainly understand, and more importantly apply, them. Regrettably, our respective political leaders do not seem to have similar appreciation for them.
Tell us about it! Twelve years Malaya, thirty Northern Ireland.

I'm not as depressed as others about this. The death of any British soldier is something I regret bitterly but the losses in Afghan are still running at a fraction of those during the worst periods in Malaya and NI. The US military has very commendably transformed itself over the last three years through an appreciation of COIN ops, as evidenced by General McCrystal's recent assessment. The solution does not rest solely on putting soldiers on the ground as targets to be shot at. There is a huge amount of intellectual analysis of the military/political solution/problem going on and tactics are evolving accordingly. It may seem muddled but in true democratic style I think we will get there eventually.

If joe public gets fed up then a repeat of 9/11 or 7/7 should provide the wake up call because that will be the true indicator of whether we are losing this insurgency.
 

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