Last week we talked a little about just what victory would mean in Afghanistan, how we can’t have the one we’d hoped for, but either can have – or maybe already have; we’ll have to see – the one we went to war for in the first place. This time I want to expand a little into the whys of how the campaign in Afghanistan, which seemed to start off with so much promise, has now, at least seemingly, turned to crap. That’s going to involve a short history lesson interwoven with some logistics.
To recap from last week, there were really only two serious war goals, or, arguably, taking today, two and a half. These were:
- To bring Afghanistan into the Eighteenth Century (bringing it all the way up to the Nineteenth was never more than a fantasy), or
- Punishment and deterrence, globally perceived and effective, to someone letting an enemy plan and organize an attack against us from that someone’s territory. This may already have been met, or 2.b) The variant, maintenance of the status quo, fighting until the sun runs out of hydrogen.
Though our political leaders may have claimed the objective was “freedom,” I have a hard time seeing that as anything but a propaganda sound bite for domestic consumption. The war, for us, wasn’t about freedom or the loss of it, except insofar as we’ve reduced freedom for ourselves.
“Professionals study logistics.” — Omar Bradley
Actually, no one really knows who said that first. Bradley is often credited with it but I am sure the sentiment precedes him by a millennium or three… or five. Should we ever find some hieroglyphs in the Great Pyramid quoting Khufu saying the same thing I would be unsurprised. In any case, it doesn’t really matter who said it; it’s true. Moreover, it’s a truth that contains the seeds of our current predicament in Afghanistan.
Anyone who wasn’t swept up in the emotions of the thing, circa November 2001, could have predicted that all the cheering for Team USA was premature, that the Taliban hadn’t really been hurt in any decisive way, and that most or all of the clans and tribes seemingly switching sides or, if previously neutral, joining us or the Northern Alliance, were doing so for advantage, and not on any principle, other than the twin principles of “get while the getting’s good,” and, “Who knows what those maniac Americans might do? They’re as bad as we are for sheer vindictive bloody-mindedness but – much worse – they have nukes!”
Any student of war, or at least any serious student of war, could have also come up with, “We need X troops to control the country, or X (-) to control enough of it, in the form of defensible and developable enclaves, which enclaves can later be expanded. We need Z troops simply to keep the enemy on the run and to keep the initiative. Even Z troops will require Z (+) to secure bases behind them, though Z (+) might be equal to or less than X (-). Even then, we can only keep the initiative, can only keep the Taliban on the run, until they either go to ground in some supportive village or run across a border we won’t be allowed to violate, which is potentially every border around the country. We have no real contiguous allies. We cannot control those borders.
“Not only don’t we have enough soldiery to do all of that, but even if we did, they would need Y in logistic support, which the roads, airports, and limited rail capacity just can’t deliver. They won’t support even what we do have. And we can hardly count on Russian rail, via Uzbekistan, to Mazar e Sharif, or Pakistani ports and the highway through the Khyber, either.
“No, the Berlin Airlift is a bad example: Flight time from Rhein-Main to Tempelhof via C-54? About an hour and a half. Flight time from Kuwait City to Kabul via C17? Depending on who and what you have to go around, two and a half to three times more. And we don’t have nearly as many C17s (about eighty-five, in 2001) in the inventory as we did C-54s (about five hundred and sixty-five, in 1948). Though the cargo capacity of the two fleets is similar, see comment on distance, above. Bulk of the cargo to Berlin? Nicely compact coal. Bulk of the military cargo to Kabul and Kandahar? A lot of compact ammunition but, if we have to supply totally by air? Don’t ask; think: ‘Cube out before weight out.’1 Convoys from Tempelhof to Charlottenburg ambushed by Russians in 1948 and 1949? Zero. IEDs detonated along any of West Berlin’s roads in 1948 and 1949? Zero. Road distance between the above points in Berlin compared to the route Kandahar to Farah (which has an airport but not much of one)? About a 25th in distance and maybe a 50th in time to travel, say, 20 minutes as opposed to 18 hours. Road distance from the railhead at Mazar e Sharif to Kandahar? One hundred and fifty or so times greater than Tempelhof-Charlottenburg. And even when the Afghan Ring Road isn’t covered by ambush and IED, it’s mostly not very good road.
“Worse, the enemy hasn’t really been hurt much, and he only needs willing bodies, which he already has, a wad of bills, which any number of Saudi ‘charities’ can provide, and the occasional mule train from Iran or Pakistan. And both money and more volunteers are going to be en route about next Tuesday.”
“Ah, but allies?” might another – perhaps not quite so serious – student of war have asked.
“Their goals will not be our goals,” might the first student of war have answered, especially if he’d made a study of law of war. “As badly in thrall to the International Community Of The Ever So Caring And Sensitive (ICOTESCAS, marca registrada) as we are, most of them are worse. Moreover, most of them have signed onto Additional Protocol One to Geneva Convention IV, which we might call the ‘Soviet Union-Sponsored Treaty for the Undermining of Western Military Power and the Advancement of Global Barbarism…while sounding nice.’ Under this regime, actions which by any traditional understanding of the law of war are legitimate become war crimes. That they’ve also signed up for the International Criminal Court makes this even worse. We will have to moderate our conduct to absurd and preposterous levels of restraint or we will be implicating our allies in supporting things that, by their law and treaties, are criminal. No help there.
“Moreover, they will suck up the already limited logistics like a sponge, and produce little in return. These are people who cannot run a war in frigging Bosnia without our support. Though some are better than others, on the whole they haven’t either our logistic expertise or a fraction of our logistic assets.
“So what’s actually going to happen is that, after a fairly brief period of recovery, the Taliban, reinforced with all kinds of foreigners, bucked up by foreign money, replenished with foreign arms, and with the moral support of most of the Islamic world, are going to bounce back. They are going to bounce back faster than we can build up and support the necessary force to deal with them, because we cannot get sufficient supply into country fast enough or distribute it widely enough. And they’re going to bounce back smarter than they left.
“We, on the other hand, are not going to be strong enough or well supplied enough to be able to secure our bases, expand our bases, improve our logistic infrastructure, hunt him in his lairs, root out his support structure, train a reliable allied Afghan army, and, by no means least, gather intelligence. We are not going to be able to field enough troops to provide security to those whose inclination is to help us, but whose greater inclination is to make sure their families are not disemboweled in the public squares.
“In short, we’re in a race, and though it looks like we’re ahead, here in 2001, it’s an illusion and we’re actually behind. We’re going to lose that race unless we figure out something clever and do it quickly and well.”
Next week: The US (probably accidentally) does something clever, and then (pretty much deliberately) screws it up.
1“Cube out before weight out” refers to the tendency of cargo to fill up available space before the means of transport actually becomes overloaded. Things like coal, liquid fuel, and ammunition typically don’t do this. Neither does heavy armor. But food often does and spare parts, Class IX, in the vernacular, can. Ideally you mix cargos to waste as little carrying capacity as possible. But some kinds of cargo cannot be mixed. Because so much of the cargo to Berlin was coal, efficiency of the airlift was very high, approaching one hundred percent. But airlift in general is not efficient. I’ve been told, by people in a position to know, that it can be as low as two percent, though seven to ten seems more common. It is also very expensive.
Tom Kratman is a retired infantry lieutenant colonel, recovering attorney, and science fiction and military fiction writer. A political refugee and defector from the People’s Republic of Massachusetts, he makes his home in Blacksburg, Virginia. He holds the non-exclusive military and foreign affairs portfolio for EveryJoe. Tom’s books can be ordered through baen.com.