Leaving Afghanistan After Only 20 Years

Four administrations and two decades later, it's about to be over.

President Biden announced yesterday that US troops will be fully withdrawn from Afghanistan on September 11 of this year, the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that sparked our invasion. The prominent neoconservative Eliot Cohen reflects on the war for The Atlantic, rightly, I think, seeing this as merely a phase shift rather than an end:

There is little point in debating whether the move is correct: There is no abstract ideal of a policy, only that which can be successfully executed by those charged with so doing at a given moment. The Afghan War has lacked high-level American commitment for years now. If there is any surprise, it is that for eight years of Barack Obama and four years of Donald Trump, the United States persisted in a conflict that most senior officials in those administrations regarded with pessimism and distaste.

This cannot be a moment for final judgment about America’s Afghan war—we are simply too close to make measured assessments. But we can make preliminary, if uncomfortable, judgments, and embark on morally and strategically prudent policies.

This is not the end of the war; it is merely the end of its direct American phase. The war began more than four decades ago, with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and its first American phase, in the 1980s, featured indirect United States intervention on behalf of the anti-Soviet mujahideen. The war will assuredly last well beyond the American exit. There will be no power-sharing, no reconciliation, no peace of the brave.

The war will grind on, with the edge going to the brutal fundamentalist warriors of the Taliban, who will torture and slaughter even as they repeal the advances made in women’s education and secularism in any form. But they will not have it all their own way. Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan, India, and the Central Asian republics have their own stakes in this war, and not all of them want to see an outright Taliban victory. So they will fund clients and proxies, as will, in all likelihood, the United States. And the people of Afghanistan will continue to suffer.

The American temptation to declare victory and walk away helped enable the rise of the Taliban after Soviet forces evacuated Afghanistan; the temptation to declare defeat and do the same may have similar consequences. Afghanistan will remain the cockpit of Great Power rivalries, as well as the home to a toxic and unrepentant Islamic fundamentalism that previously sheltered al-Qaeda, a movement that is not dead, and that may even gain some energy from this outcome.

The United States will be able to pick sides in the conflict, a luxury it does not now have. For decades it has been subject to implicit and explicit Pakistani threats to choke the supply lines running to American forces in Afghanistan. Once the withdrawal eliminates Pakistan’s hold on its logistics, the United States can and should more freely support India’s efforts to protect its own interests in Afghanistan. The United States can similarly play off the Russians against the Chinese, who do not necessarily want the same things there.

Given how little attention American policymakers have paid to Afghanistan despite ostensibly being at war there, I’m skeptical that we’ll be overly invested once we finally give up—something we should have done more than a decade ago.

Despite a strategic view that’s rather a bit much too Great Game, treating the people who will continue to suffer and die in Afghanistan as though they were pawns on a chess board, Cohen makes an important point that Joshua Foust and others have been making for years:

The Afghan exit will also come with a moral cost, which honesty should compel Americans to acknowledge and act upon. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans, if not more—from interpreters and helicopter pilots, schoolteachers and bureaucrats—have thrown in their lot with us. Americans owe them something. It takes a moderate amount of resolve to pull out of Afghanistan; it will take more to belatedly welcome Afghan refugees to the United States, as we did with Vietnamese refugees. And the Vietnamese example suggests that the people fleeing Afghanistan will be as hardworking, patriotic, and productive a group of citizens as any other Americans, foreign or native-born.

Opening American doors is a matter of this moment. Passing historical judgment on the meaning of America’s Afghan war is something best deferred for a decade. The temptation will be to blame it all on an ur-mistake, be it going to Afghanistan to begin with (a move that few opposed) or showing a fatal lack of will (was there evidence of anything but regression on the battlefields in recent years?).

There’s little doubt in my mind that those who worked for the Americans, especially our military, will be targeted once we’re gone. The moral equation is rather a difficult one. We owe it to these people to allow them to start over in the States if they choose, bringing their immediate family with them. But pulling out schoolteachers, bureaucrats, and those we’ve given technical training makes it even less likely that Afghanistan transitions to anything like a modern society.

FILED UNDER: National Security
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Scott says:

    It is well past time. While we might have some strategic interests there, they are not enough to commit blood and treasure there. And like Vietnam, we viewed the whole affair as an international great powers struggle when it really is a tribal civil war that we stuck our nose into.

    One aspect not discussed is the NATO role. Have we coordinated with them and are they on board also. I assume so but we are terrible at caring what our partners think.

    One more aspect is that I doubt that anyone in our higher parts of government thinks we are going down the road of the British Empire, spending our national wealth and power keeping a grip on a world that will inevitably slip through our hands. We really can’t afford it any more and will afford even less if we keep desperately keeping our grip on things.

    2
  2. Two points;

    1. As you say it’s been apparent for a decade that we needed to get out of Afghanistan. The last ten years have been a huge waste that has caused unnecessary loss of lives.

    2. The Afghans will either prove themselves capable or maintaining a liberal democracy or they won’t. Even if we stayed another 20 years there’s nothing we can get to successfully influence the outcome of that process.

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  3. OzarkHillbilly says:

    ‘Bout damn time.

    There’s little doubt in my mind that those who worked for the Americans, especially our military, will be targeted once we’re gone. The moral equation is rather a difficult one. We owe it to these people to allow them to start over in the States if they choose, bringing their immediate family with them. But pulling out schoolteachers, bureaucrats, and those we’ve given technical training makes it even less likely that Afghanistan transitions to anything like a modern society.

    Sad fact, but we have a debt.

    2
  4. Sleeping Dog says:

    We owe it to these people to allow them to start over in the States if they choose, bringing their immediate family with them.

    Yes, unfortunately our recent history with similar allies in Iraq says that we won’t or only at a large political cost to Biden. R’s will scream and mobilize against an Afghani refuge program. You’re right about the Vietnamese immigrants, but don’t forget the Hmong, who were culturally a 16th century society dragged into the 20th.

    An aside. Mentioning the Vietnamese refugees, aka the boat people, has me remembering sitting in a South Dakota motel room, watching the local news, when on came Paul Harvey, doing his syndicated screed, that night demanding that the US Navy sink the ‘boat people’ flotilla. I expect that Carlson, Hannity et.al. will make similar demands regarding any Afghani refugees.

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  5. Scott says:

    This has been quoted before and will again because we can’t learn but….

    “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.

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  6. Not the IT Dept. says:

    @Scott:

    F.Scott Fitzgerald deserves to be immortal just for that one line that nails the American character better than any non-fiction ever could. Foreigners who want to throw in with us had better understand that we aren’t serious about their societies and could care less about their lives. Last helicopter off the embassy roof in Saigon is about to be repeated again, but we will no doubt blame Afghanis for not doing more to deserve our “help”.

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  7. JohnMcC says:

    @Sleeping Dog: The ‘welcome’ that the Vietnamese refugees received was remarkable to me in it’s cruelty. Rick Perlstein (I happen to be re-reading) points out the the three centers to which they were directed, Pensacola, Little Rock and SanDiego, all were densely populated by people willing to demonstrate against refugees. As recall about Paul Harvey, the right wing covered itself with it’s usual glory.

  8. Michael Reynolds says:

    After 911 it was absolutely necessary that we respond. It was not necessary that we invade. We should have responded with a truly catastrophic bombing campaign, to the point of using small nukes or daisy cutters to close mountain passes and blow out dams and seriously disrupt life in the country for years. Far fewer deaths – theirs and ours. Far, far lower cost. Far less exposure. Far more effective.

    The mistake was invading. Once we did that we leveled the playing field with guys who’ve been fighting this same war since Alexander. At most we should have taken an airfield or two for our temporary use.

    The mentality of proportional response is stupid. It sacrifices all our advantages and sets a price – a price the enemy will willingly pay. Similarly, the invade-and-reform approach fails because we simply lack the endurance and the necessary savagery over the course of years, which is what it would have taken, both in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    Instead we played the game as badly as it could be played. We half-assed the shock and awe so we could still be the good guys. We half-assed the invasion so we wouldn’t look like the Russians. We half-assed the occupation because we’re parochial ninnies who lack any notion of the kind of long-running nastiness required to drag that country into the 21st – okay, 19th – century.

    We are not Israel, we aren’t cute or clever, we don’t handle scalpels well. We’re Godzilla, what we are good at it is smashing the living fuck out of things, then wading off into the sea. The great advantage of being a superpower is that we can hit hard in ways that make response impossible, but again and again, we give that up. We end up killing more people, wasting more time, burning through more billions because we won’t bite the bullet, announce to the world that we are going to spend about two months fucking Afghanistan up, so they might want to look away if they’re squeamish. And then proceed to do so.

    Would have all been over 20 years ago, likely with zero American dead.

    6
  9. Teve says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    when on came Paul Harvey, doing his syndicated screed, that night demanding that the US Navy sink the ‘boat people’ flotilla.

    I’ve never heard This ‘rest of the story’.

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  10. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Teve:

    This would been 1979? Maybe 1980, in the summer. I was out there with my ex-wife. Perhaps that segment is on YouTube.

    1
  11. JohnMcC says:

    @Michael Reynolds: You’re saying that massively intelligent folks like Paul Bremer, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and GW Bush … made a huge mistake? NO! They only acted on the model of the Great Game. Don’t you realize that the Czar would be emperor of India if we hadn’t spilled the blood of 2400 GIs.

    It was a triumph of Republican foreign policy!

    1
  12. Michael Reynolds says:

    @JohnMcC:
    At the time I thought, well, if they insist on invading at least Dick Cheney’s enough of a prick to maybe make it work. People think you can’t force changes on a society, well, tell that to the Romans or the Mongols. Or to the Americans circa 1945. Unfortunately, if you’re going to remake a society, you have to shatter the existing society first, and then place boot firmly on neck and keep it there for a while.

    We remade Japan by burning their cities to ashes, co-opting what was left (the emperor), flatly dictating laws, and if there was pushback we could point to the Soviets itching to get in, and to Hiroshima.

    4
  13. Gustopher says:

    I’ll believe in the withdrawal when I see it. We have been talking about leaving for a decade, we never seem to do it.

    4
  14. inhumans99 says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    I did not know Paul Harvey was such a dick when it came to expressing any type of sympathy towards the boat people. My father helped mentor a boat refugee (my father has worked for banks his entire career, has been a computer programmer, and other stuff over the years…his aptitude with languages and computers had something to do with why the military sent him to Turkey instead of simply sticking a gun in his hand during the Vietnam conflict) and the man and his family went on to great success over the years.

    For several years, we shared in the benefit of this man’s wife who would occasionally send my family over some egg rolls that were to die for, so freaking tasty. For quite a few years he kept in touch with my father and was so thankful for the guidance that propelled him towards a successful career.

    We will be missing out if we do not open our arms to many Afghans who deserve an opportunity to succeed in the United States, but I actually think James is right that it could create a brain drain in Afghanistan. Of course, the trick is for these brains to survive long enough after we leave the country to help push society forward in Afghanistan but it does not change the fact that it does indeed further hinder progress in countries like Afghanistan.

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  15. Raoul says:

    We should stay in Afghanistan in a highly secure area where we can direct military operations (eg., drones). The cost of life and material is minimal (we have been in Korea 70 years) but we prevent the reestablishment of a terrorist regime that will threaten us and we prevent the usurpation of human rights of half the population (women).

    1
  16. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Raoul:
    That ship has sailed, there’s no public support for it. It’s Vietnam circa 1972 or so – we’re leaving, the only question is how. We have bigger fish to fry – Pakistan, India, China, the ‘Stans, Iran and I don’t see a force in Afghanistan helping with any of those. Our base in Afghanistan can be shut down any time by Pakistan, which is not a good situation for a long-term presence.

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  17. @Michael Reynolds:
    The war on Afghanistan has required us to look thr other way as Pakistan makes trouble in the area and harbor terrorists. It’s not accidental that Osama bin Laden was essentially “hiding” in the open there and I remain convinced that he was bring protected nu elements of the Pakistani government or military

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  18. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Wait??!! Are you saying we can’t just transplant THE TREE OF LIBERTY [TM] wherever we want to? That’s gonna put a big dent in foreign policy. And American Exceptionalism.

    3
  19. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Scott: @Just nutha ignint cracker: On rethinking, maybe it won’t be as big a dent as I imagine.

  20. Sleeping Dog says:

    @inhumans99:

    … it could create a brain drain in Afghanistan.

    That’s the Taliban’s problem isn’t it? They’ll probably kill a large number of these people and imprison many more anyway. The Taliban isn’t interested in building a modern state and improving the lives of Afghani’s, they are interested in recreating a mythical feudal state that never existed in Afghanistan.

    A significant American competitive advantage has been our willingness to take the world’s unwanted and give them an opportunity, often when that was politically unpopular. Which was almost always. Start filling the airplanes and bring them here, they’ll repay us by growing the GDP.

    Harvey was an evil scum bag who trafficked in dog whistles when he wasn’t being an outright racists. He did it with a smile on his face and a lilt in his voice, so he got away with it.

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  21. Kingdaddy says:

    @Michael Reynolds: There was no way to ensure that we had ended the Al Qaeda threat by bombing alone. And there’s no reason to respond to the 9/11 attacks by making life in Afghanistan more difficult than it already was, by “truly catastrophic bombing campaign, to the point of using small nukes or daisy cutters to close mountain passes and blow out dams and seriously disrupt life in the country for years.”

    You can say that many aspects of the invasion and its aftermath were botched. Operation Anaconda in particular was a massive cross-service, cross-agency mess. But an Operation Rolling Thunder like approach would have accomplished practically nothing. And talking about using “small nukes” would have been ridiculously disproportional, on top of the horrible international ramifications of using nuclear weapons.

    Even if we had not maintained a long-term military presence in Afghanistan, we would have needed to work with the people who live there. Even if the only goal was to find Al Qaeda and Taliban targets, and kill them, some Humint would have been necessary. Of course, if the Taliban had remained in power, that task would have been vastly harder. Plus, as the Taliban and Al Qaeda did in the version of history that did happen, they evolved tactics, over time, to reduce the effectiveness of aerial attacks. And then what? Would it have been acceptable, after the 9/11 attacks, to shrug our shoulders and say, “OK, a few enemies killed, a lot of civilians killed, the Taliban further entrenched in power, Al Qaeda still capable of operating out of that country. Job’s done.” Or if not, then let’s do an even more difficult invasion? Or drop tactical nukes?

    I’m extremely frustrated with the war in Afghanistan, over the course of 20 years. The Bush Administration bungled a lot of it from the get-go, then lost interest when it decided to invade Iraq. There were lots of problems after that. I think there’s a good debate to be had about the counterinsurgency campaign we waged, and how we tied ourselves to the Karzai government. I don’t know if there is a great answer to the question, “What kind of government in Kabul would be stable and reliable enough of a partner for us?” without lapsing into dangerous repeats of past “nation building” mistakes. But your “bomb them into the Stone Age” proposal is the worst form of armchair generalship. And we’re not even getting into a discussion of whether it’s possible to win any conflict completely by air power alone.

    8
  22. Zachriel says:

    @Michael Reynolds: After 911 it was absolutely necessary that we respond. It was not necessary that we invade. We should have responded with a truly catastrophic bombing campaign, to the point of using small nukes or daisy cutters to close mountain passes and blow out dams and seriously disrupt life in the country for years.

    Total destruction wasn’t necessary to stop the Taliban from harboring international terrorists, but without the notion of remaking Afghan society entire. More important was capturing bin Laden to set an example of justice.

    @Michael Reynolds: People think you can’t force changes on a society, well, tell that to the Romans or the Mongols.

    BRIGHTON
    Look, sir, Great Britain is a small country; it’s much smaller than yours; a small population compared with some; it’s small but it’s great, and why?

    ALI
    Because it has guns!

    BRIGHTON
    Because it has discipline!

    FEISAL
    Because it has a navy; because of this, the English go where they please and strike where they please and this makes them great.

    LAWRENCE
    The desert is an ocean in which no oar is dipped and on this ocean the Bedu go where they please and strike where they please. This is the way the Bedu have always fought. You’re famed throughout the world for fighting in this way and this is the way you should fight now!

    The Romans built roads as they conquered and could move their legions from one end of the Empire to the other. The Mongols could traverse the Steppes for thousands of miles without supply. The British had ships that could traverse oceans. The Americans had air power and a system of global bases. Each of these civilizations could attack where and when they wanted, where the enemy wasn’t. But when the U.S. fought in Vietnam, and when they fought in Afghanistan, they gave up their mobility — the very thing that constitutes great military power.

    1
  23. Zachriel says:

    @Kingdaddy: There was no way to ensure that we had ended the Al Qaeda threat by bombing alone.

    Bombardment alone is not effect, as has been known (and repeatedly forgotten) for a century. The enemy simply disperses and digs in. Effective action takes boots on the ground. Ground troops compel the enemy to concentrate their forces or be destroyed in detail. Once the enemy is concentrated, then bombardment can be effective.

  24. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Michael Reynolds: It was never going to work and the proof was in their first steps: CIA agents with pallets of money. They were trying to do it on the cheap with other people’s cannon fodder.

    We should have just stayed out of there.

  25. Chip Daniels says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    using small nukes or daisy cutters to close mountain passes and blow out dams and seriously disrupt life in the country for years.

    Cool, cool. Then what happens?

    2
  26. Andy says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    The notion that savagery and “will” are the key ingredients for success in places like Afghanistan is simply wrong. The Soviets dished out savagery in spades resulting in somewhere around 60% of the population were killed, maimed, or refugees.

    At the other end the idea we half-assed the invasion is also wrong. We completely routed the Taliban in a land-locked country with no infrastructure, no established logistics with almost no casualties in a couple of months. Our “shock and awe” was actually quite good.

    We should have departed then and left the country to the Northern Alliance and let the civil war there continue. In other words, it should have only been a punitive expedition, but our American ideals turned it into nation-building fiasco.

    Our error, therefore, wasn’t a lack of ferocity or a lack of will or endurance. It was our American exceptionalist worldview that presupposes that there is a little George Washington or John Locke hiding inside just about everyone, and that the US and our power can bring that out and thereby transform society into a liberal, secular democracy.

    It’s the same mistake we made with China, presuming that exposure to US culture and markets would seep into Chinese society and that gutting our industrial capacity would pay dividends in the future via access to Chinese markets while transforming China to adopt western political and social values.

    @JohnMcC:

    It was a triumph of Republican foreign policy!

    Honestly, that kind of partisan claptrap gets me riled.

    Most of the Americans who died in Afghanistan (including one friend and a couple of colleagues) died on Obama’s watch during his “surge” to pacify the country.

    It was a long time ago, but you may remember that through almost all of the 2000’s, Democrats ran on and pushed the narrative that Iraq “took our eye off” the war in Afghanistan and that we would have won if only it weren’t for Bush failing to win there by invading Iraq. The “failure” to get UBL was another common theme along that same line.

    So Obama comes into office after running on that exact platform. He got UBL. He did the surge. Thousands of dead and maimed US and allied soldiers later and here we are in 2021 and the true nature of Afghanistan hasn’t changed one single bit. The grandiose ideas of both Republicans and Democrats were tried and crashed and burned.

    The reality is that Afghanistan was an American failure. I’m pretty damn disappointed that it’s taken 20 years for our political class to finally realize that when it was obvious to me back in 2005-2006. It’s frankly awful that it’s taken 20 years of abject failure to make getting out of Afghanistan a bipartisan, except for the few clingers in the NATSEC establishment. Clingers who ought to be helicoptered into the country as our forces there pull out, so they can put their money where their mouth is.

    Sorry for the ranty response. This is a bit of a sensitive topic for me. I applaud Biden for this action that no other President in the last 20 years had the courage to do.

    6
  27. Chip Daniels says:

    @Andy:
    I live in downtown Los Angeles and one of the fixtures here is the evolutionary Communist Party, RevComs for short.

    They have been active for over 50 years, stretching back to the late 60s, and their standard playbook is:
    Step 1: Hold loud noisy protest; Smash a few windows, set fire to a car;
    Step 2:???
    Step 3: The global capitalist oligarchy collapses in ignominious defeat.

    “Bomb ’em into the Stone Age” is like that, but on a grander scale.

    4
  28. dazedandconfused says:

    @Kingdaddy:
    The mistake was conflating the Taliban with AQ. OBL kept his Talib hosts out of the loop on 9/11, he used Saudis and trained them in other places. He apologized to the Taliban for getting them destroyed. What screwed the Taliban was both the Islamic and Pashtun tradition of hospitality: Your guest is under your protection. They waffled with trying to get OBL into the hands of a third party to wiggle out of that but that was problematic, no way Osama was going to let them off the hook by taking himself out of the country.

    What we should have done in continue the pursuit at Tora Bora into Pakistan and killed that SOB, told the Talibs “Please don’t let this happen again. We have no beef with you. Next time some Arab comes to you for a place to stay because he’s too much of a whack-job for even the Wahhabis, tell him to go somewhere else and so we can leave you alone.

    …and gone home.

    The difference between the Taliban and AQ? There are two main types of religious whackadoodles: The kind that’s out to convert the world and the kind that seeks to wall itself in to keep the rest of the world out.

    1
  29. Teve says:

    You’ve really got to see this Sahil Kapur tweet w/r/t Biden, infrastructure, and Trump.

  30. Kathy says:

    @Kingdaddy:

    And we’re not even getting into a discussion of whether it’s possible to win any conflict completely by air power alone.

    To paraphrase the Robot Devil, very likely certainly not.

    The short version is you cannot hold ground through aerial bombing.

  31. liberal capitalist says:

    For 35 years of my life [Afghanistan (20 years), Vietnam (15 years – I was born 1960)], we have been at war with Eurasia. That is 57 % of my life.

    Can we have those responsible acknowledge that they know not what they are doing… before we put them up against the wall as responsibility of our massive deficit. Next time you hear someone say that we cannot afford a school lunch program, remind them of 35 years of war.

    4
  32. Kingdaddy says:

    @Kathy:

    It’s not just taking and holding. Compelling an enemy to do what you want, purely because you threaten to bomb the hell of them, has a very poor record of success. I can only assume that people who advocate a “bomb them into the Stone Age” approach are unaware of this history of failure.

    2
  33. Kathy says:

    @Kingdaddy:

    The mere threat, no. It has to be carried out, probably several times. Even then, as with Libya in the late 80s, it may not work that well.

    And it has to cause enough pain to the ruling class, and it needs to avoid hurting the general population too much. That’s very hard at best and impossible at worst.

  34. @Kathy: What examples do you have in mind, because I am having a hard time thinking of examples wherein bombing alone was enough to alter behavior on the scale under consideration.

  35. Kathy says:

    Oh, nothing recent. Though one could argue Qaddafi’s surrender of his WMD programs was a consequence of the Iraq war, that involved lots of ground troops as well as bombing.

    I was thinking of how Egypt managed to extract tribute from its weaker neighbors, but even that required repeated incursions into their lands. Of course, no bombing was involved

  36. Scott O says:

    @Kingdaddy: I remember reading a column maybe a month after 9/11, before we invaded, responding to those who said we should bomb them back into the stone age. The writer said too late, the Russians already did that.

    1
  37. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Andy: @Chip Daniels: @Kingdaddy:

    I think you’re all forgetting the historical moment that was 9/11. Any US president that failed to act against Afghanistan would have been impeached and removed. We were, without any question, going to lay a serious hurt on Afghanistan. The goal was not just to forestall future terrorist activity – the goal was revenge, first and foremost. This is the United States, not Costa Rica – we hit back. Had George W. Bush rained ICBM’s down on Afghanistan he’d have had the support of 70% of the American people. That’s where things stood.

    So all the solutions involving subtlety? Non-starters. We wanted blood, lots of it, and we were going to get it. The only question was how. My suggestion is that we accomplish that first goal without exposing US troops. As to the snarky question, ‘then what?’ I’d answer, ‘now what?’ We wasted American lives and Afghan lives and tanker-loads of money and we accomplished what, exactly?

    If a guy shoots your dog you don’t invade his house and move in for 20 years. An attack merits a counter-attack. And not tit-for-tat, but a deliberately disproportionate, superpower counter-attack. That would have accomplished what could be accomplished. Everything else was a waste.

    Little guy hits big guy. Big guy flattens little guy. That’s all that had to happen. And we’d have avoided losing 2312 of our own to avenge 3000 we lost on 9/11. Sometimes baseball bat upside the head really is the best solution.

    1
  38. Kingdaddy says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    I don’t know whom you’re arguing with, but you’ve addressed none of my points. And your ignorance of the last 100 years of military experience with the efficacy of strategic bombing is abundantly clear.

    I’ll be glad to stack the success rate of counterinsurgency in the last century versus strategic bombing. There are examples of successful counterinsurgency campaigns (Malaya, the Philippines, Greece, etc.). There are even more examples of failure. However, the success rate of winning a war through bombing alone is zero. While you might make an argument that bombing has succeeded in “armed suasion” of regimes, there is no case in which it successfully replaced a regime with something better (or at all). The most recent example, Libya, fractured a country, replacing the Qadaffi regime with anarchy, warlordism, refugees, crime, and a place for Islamists to operate. Hell, the bomber advocates in WWII, such as Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris and the American “Bomber Mafia,” failed at defeating Germany through strategic bombing, despite the hundreds of thousands of bombs dropped on German cities and military targets.

    Counterinsurgency and counterterrorism is hard. You can say that we did a bad job of fighting the war in Afghanistan. You might also argue that the cards were stacked against us from the beginning. But you cannot make a convincing argument that dropping a lot of bombs on Afghanistan was going to accomplish the objective of eliminating the threat of Al Qaeda. Not only is the kind of bombing required ineffective, but you wouldn’t have a prayer of getting rid of the Taliban that way. Both the Taliban and Al Qaeda would have (and did) figure out countermeasures against aerial bombing. Afghanistan would have remained a base for our enemies. Which then leads the question you want to hand-wave away: Then what?

    Your suggestion that using nuclear weapons was a legitimate option is both silly and obscene. The silly part is that they would not have been a sure-fire way to achieve our objectives. The obscene part involves the morality of misguided overreaction that kills countless civilians. Plus, we would have crossed the nuclear threshold for the first time since WWII, something we didn’t do in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq (twice) and other conflicts. Imagine the political and diplomatic consequences. It isn’t hard. I also doubt that 70%, or some significant majority, of Americans would have been in favor of exercising an option that would have left us a pariah state who didn’t even reach the objectives sought by using nuclear weapons. It would have been the lashing out against Iraq multiplied by orders of magnitude. Silly and obscene.

    These are serious subjects of life and death that require more knowledge and reflection than barstool musings about baseball bats.

    2
  39. @Kathy:

    Oh, nothing recent. Though one could argue Qaddafi’s surrender of his WMD programs was a consequence of the Iraq war, that involved lots of ground troops as well as bombing.

    But Qaddfi’s actions were more likely motivated by fear of invasion (the US had just invaded Afghanistan and Iraq) more than he was afraid of being bombed.

    Kingdaddy is more of an expert in this area than I am, but I honestly cannot think of a case where bombing alone compelled changes in behavior beyond whatever direct effect destroying a specific target might have had.

  40. @Michael Reynolds:

    Had George W. Bush rained ICBM’s down on Afghanistan he’d have had the support of 70% of the American people. That’s where things stood.

    This is just silly.

    That’s not a baseball bat upside the head.

    And yes, I remember the immediate moment in time right after 9/11 quite distinctly.

  41. Andy says:

    @Kingdaddy & @Kathy:

    Speaking as a former practitioner, combined arms is how we’ve fought for most of the last century. The whole debate about which force component is the most decisive is situational, but in the vast majority of cases, actions are combined arms even if one force component (air, land, sea, etc.) appears to be primary on the surface.

    Even in Libya, the example Kathy cites, what was going on on the ground was an essential part of the conflict. The US role was limited to airpower, but the local rebel forces on the ground were essential in concentrating and fixing Qaddafi’s forces so that they could be destroyed with that airpower. Airpower alone would not have resulted in Qaddafi’s overthrow, but the rebel forces would not have won either, much less so easily, without the airpower we provided.

    The same thing happened in the early stages of the Afghanistan invasion where airpower was decisive but required ground teams embedded with Northern Alliance forces to fully achieve the desired effects.

    But even when airpower is used alone, I think it goes too far to say that bombing is always or usually a failure. Typically we’ve used one-off airstrikes or short air-only campaigns to “send a message” as a deterrent or retribution against an adversary, or to destroy specific adversary capabilities. Those effects are, by nature, almost always of limited duration, but that doesn’t make them failures.

    But for anything outside those limited instances where airpower acts alone, everything is some form of combined-arms.

    The one exception I’d make here is strategic bombing with nuclear weapons. It’s undeniable that combination altered behavior. Nuking Japan, for example, was a pretty decisive use of airpower that was successful in the sense of achieving our political goal of unconditional surrender. Then, during the Cold War, air-dropped nukes (and later missiles) were deemed to be so decisive that we and the Soviets went to great pains to avoid ever using them. We should be thankful that was never tested.

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  42. Andy says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    I think you’re all forgetting the historical moment that was 9/11. Any US president that failed to act against Afghanistan would have been impeached and removed. We were, without any question, going to lay a serious hurt on Afghanistan.

    Yeah, I agree with that part. And that’s what we did.

    My suggestion is that we accomplish that first goal without exposing US troops. As to the snarky question, ‘then what?’ I’d answer, ‘now what?’ We wasted American lives and Afghan lives and tanker-loads of money and we accomplished what, exactly?

    As noted earlier, we routed the Taliban in a couple of months. From 2001 through 2004 there were a total of 200 US killed and most of those were accidents. 2005 is when the Taliban got regrouped and started the serious insurgency – three years later.

    In 2002-2003 we should have handed the place over to our erstwhile allies and left. By that time, the war was in Pakistan, where the surviving AQ and Taliban leadership fled, along with the other areas around the world where AQ was active.

    We should have told the Pakistani’s, “clean up the rest of your mess, and don’t make us come back here.” Instead, we opted to try to turn Afghanistan into something it’s never going to be and whined at Pakistan every year about FATA safe haven.

    Therefore our mistake wasn’t about the unwillingness to use force, it was about our own hubris in thinking we could change Afghan society into something resembling our own while ignoring all the obstacles to that goal, which included Pakistan and most Afghans.

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  43. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Kingdaddy:
    ‘Silly and obscene’ to carry out an action that would have killed no more Afghans and no Americans at all. Whereas a counterinsurgency campaign doomed to fail that costs us 2000 dead Americans, and a trillion dollars is, what? The decent thing was to get Americans killed so people like you wouldn’t knee-jerk a reaction to too much force? See, to me, that’s obscene. That’s sacrificing lives for public relations and a hypocritical morality.

    Your opinion seems to me to be of a piece with people who criticize the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki because: nukes, while being rather less troubled over the equally deadly firebombing of Tokyo. And the preferred alternatives to Hiroshima? A blockade! Yay! Starve the civilians of the entire country so that we don’t look bad dropping an A-bomb. Or an invasion which would, in the normal course of things, have killed far more civilians plus a hell of a lot of Americans.

    And BTW, I’m not talking about a strategic bombing campaign, which obviates your points. I’m talking about a massive punitive raid. You hit me, I hit you harder. I don’t take over your house, insist on educating your children, give you a few billion dollars then let you shoot me occasionally. Hit, hit back. And 2000 American families are not shattered, wheelchairs and psych wards and burn wards are not filled. But yeah, that outcome would be, ewww, savage.

  44. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Andy:
    The Taliban were routed, and yet, they did not disappear. Had we simply knocked them off, left our allies (uh huh) to take over, the Taliban would have been back in six months. The Afghans. . . first of all, that word is nonsense. We’re not talking about a unified country, we’re talking about tribes and militias. And as usual, our tribes and militias weren’t very effective minus the USAF, because our guys were not Pashtuns – the largest ethnic group, by far – they were Tajiks and Turkmen and Uzbeks and not exactly united.

    Let’s take your analysis that it took the Taliban three years to ramp up their reaction. Would it have taken that long absent US forces? I suspect absent the US, the Taliban would have regained control within months, aided by our good friends (uh huh) the Pakistanis. And what lesson would the Taliban have taken from that? The lesson that the Americans are fools, that rather than fight them as a superpower, where we could stand off and inflict pain without risk, we decided to fight them as one faction in an eternal war.

    If you’re a boxer and you have a six inch reach advantage, why in the hell would you want to get into a clinch?

    ‘Will you walk into my parlor?’ said the spider to the fly. We walked right in, sacrificing the bulk of our power, in a situation where, as you know, Pakistan still backed the Taliban. Absent regime change in Pakistan we were doomed to fail. 2000 plus Americans dead, thousands wounded, thousands traumatized, trillions wasted, and six months from now the Taliban will take Kabul.

    I’ll say it again: we are not subtle, we are not clever, we are not the Israelis, we are not chess players, we are not martial artists, we are fucking Godzilla. Godzilla smashes shit. That’s how we won the war in the Pacific: more, bigger. It’s how we won the western front in WW2: more, bigger. It’s how we won the Cold War. Hell, it’s how the Union won the Civil War. Take away the more/bigger and you get Korea or Vietnam and now, Afghanistan.

  45. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    What’s silly, exactly, that the American people on 9-12 wouldn’t have approved of dropping nukes in some mountain passes? If we could time travel and polled the public on that vs. 20 years, a trillion or so bucks and 2000 dead Americans to add to the 3000 dead on 9-11? Poll that question and it’d be 70/30 at least.

  46. Michael Reynolds says:

    One more thing on this: we turned the tragedy of 9-11 into a far, far larger tragedy. It’s not just Afghanistan. It’s not just Iraq 2. It’s the security state, the surveillance state, the damage to our standing in the world. The cost. The dead servicemen and contractors and diplomats. VA hospitals filled to the brim. A shift of the entire US military toward the one thing we are not good at and never will be good at, which helped no one but the Russians and the Chinese.

    This last 20 years has been our fault, our hubris, our ignorance, and our mawkish, misplaced and hypocritical morality. We didn’t have to do Saddam or Qaddafi, we did have to do the Taliban. We could have done everything useful that there was to be done, without losing a single soldier, and for a rounding error in DoD’s budget. There was never an alternative to hitting them. There was an alternative to stepping in a pile of shit.

  47. Andy says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    If you’re a boxer and you have a six inch reach advantage, why in the hell would you want to get into a clinch?

    You wouldn’t, which I why I think nation-building and counter-insurgency were mistakes.

    ‘Will you walk into my parlor?’ said the spider to the fly. We walked right in, sacrificing the bulk of our power, in a situation where, as you know, Pakistan still backed the Taliban. Absent regime change in Pakistan we were doomed to fail. 2000 plus Americans dead, thousands wounded, thousands traumatized, trillions wasted, and six months from now the Taliban will take Kabul.

    Yes, and that’s another argument against staying and nation-building.

    My position is there was no way for us to kinetically defeat the Taliban as a movement and political force, so we should have just left. If they won power again and didn’t learn their lesson the first time, then we smash them again.

    And even at this late stage, we have that option and will likely exercise it in the future. I guarantee you there will covert assets left behind which, combined with our ISR and the long-reach of our punch, will give us ample opportunities to smash things there whenever we want to. And there will be plenty of factions there who will be happy for us to do what we did in Libya and be the firepower for a rebellion.

    But the whole idea that we would have somehow won if only we’d done a Mongol-style massacre of Kiev, only at the scale of millions, is kind of crazy for all sorts of reasons.

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  48. @Michael Reynolds: Michael, you are doubling and tripling down on a cartoonish interpretation of the way the world works. You sound, quite frankly, like a lot of the neo-cons at the time who were certain that if the US just shows enough force and will that it can accomplish whatever it wants.

    You are also creating counterfactuals that simply aren’t reasonable. The choice never was so simple as nuke ’em or have a 20 year war.

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  49. @Michael Reynolds:

    And BTW, I’m not talking about a strategic bombing campaign, which obviates your points. I’m talking about a massive punitive raid. You hit me, I hit you harder.

    That doesn’t obviate any of his points.

    What is the historical example that comes anywhere near to proving your point? What is your evidence?

    You tell us that you are rational, follow the evidence, and listen to experts. But you are providing an argument based on intuition, not providing evidence, and ignoring two experts in this thread (Andy and Kingdaddy).

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  50. @Michael Reynolds:

    This last 20 years has been our fault

    I agree.

    Nuking Tora Bora, however, was not some clean solution that would have avoided the last twenty years (or some alternative list of two decades of mistakes).

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  51. dazedandconfused says:

    A lot of effort went into training the US public to believe 9/11 had been a collective act of a culture and/or nation, not the act of a small band of clever lucky-mad bastards. That effort worked very well because that is what most of us, at some level, wanted to believe.

    We have a great big hammer, so we really really really want to believe we are looking at nails.