Why the Failures in Afghanistan Shouldn’t Surprise Anyone

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Mon, Jun 2 - 9:00 am EDT | 4 years ago by
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Lines of Departure

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:

  1. To bring Afghanistan into the Eighteenth Century (bringing it all the way up to the Nineteenth was never more than a fantasy), or
  2. 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.

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  • gaige

    Would have been nice if we’d severed ties with the Saudis, what with 15 of the 19 hijackers being their subjects and all…

    Not sure what we could have done after that to punish them for their duplicity, since I don’t think my solution for them is geopolitically feasible, just like the solution of “annihilate Pakistan” isn’t for the same reasons. Not without an incredibly ballsy US President and a world willing to let America occupy the oil producing areas of the Gulf.

    Probably would have confused the piss out of Bin Laden though, taking down the House of Saud.

    • Tom Kratman

      To a very large extent al Qaeda’s preferred target isn’t us; it’s the corrupt kingdoms and shiekdons and emirates of the Arabian Peninsula.

      That’s doesn’t, of course, mean that they don’t want us to disappear, too.

      Thing is, though, that the Saudis are probably more split than duplicitous. Some of them – I speak of the Royal Family, here, or those also highly placed – are on our side, if only because we have always offered a measure of security. Those often actively support us. Some are on the other side and actively support al Qaeda. Coming from a split country that sometimes acts just as badly in our own way, I don’t know we’re in a position to sneer at the Saudis.

    • Alexander Macris

      How much do you think our politicans’ “the polls say…” triangulations harm our foreign policy or grand strategy?

    • Tom Kratman

      That would presuppose that we have or even could have a consistent foreign policy, as such. I won’t address the notion of American Grand Strategy because too much laughter may induce a heart attack.

      Actually, the only consistent foreign policy driver/goal I can think of is that we won’t tolerate a military threat in this hemisphere.

  • Neil

    For the last couple of years I’ve been encouraging the defense contractors I work with to go ahead and bid on the armored vehicle projects, even though they’re just informational studies for now, even though the budget isn’t big enough to cover the engineering.

    You should see the thoughtful looks I get when I point out the geopolitics and logistics of Afghanistan, the corollary that we’re going to be leaving behind an awful lot of equipment, and the budgetary and programmatic consequences thereof.

    • Tom Kratman

      Not much in the way of armored vehicles, though.

    • Neil

      Yes, but the key is to be the A-team that solved the requirements problems on the informational RFP for armor. That way they know you when they come back for cavalry vehicles, wheeled IFVs, etc.

      There’s a heck of a lot of mundane stuff that’s either used up or likely to not be retrievable when the time comes. Unless we’ve got some kind of back-room deal going with Russia, but that doesn’t seem likely.

    • Tom Kratman

      I would, personally, advise them to back away from wheeled armor. Shinseki, fertilized by OOTWAR attitudes, and with too much faith in things like LOSAT, forced the Stryker on us. I have pretty good info that it is not very good, not strategically mobile, not well liked in the ranks, and not up to tracks. It’s not bad for overawing primitive villages in some African dustbowl; that is how France maintains its still extant empire, after all. But for fighting? I’d pass.

      (Opinions, being like assholes, I am sure there are those who disagree with the above. But remember what I said about our country being led by arrogant idiots? Don’t just think about the Edsel, McNamara, and Vietnam. Don’t just think about Rummie, the War on Poverty, and Iraq. Expand your mind a little: Think Shinseki, black berets, Stryker, LOSAT, and the VA. )

      Pulling out what we wanted to pull out via Mazar e Sharif and RusskiRailsRus would be so emotionally satisfying to Russia, really, that I think they’d have bands playing Sacred War at the railheads. But whatever we do, we’re going to want to leave the Afghans with at least the indicia of continued support. They’ll be getting the equipment. Even if we didn’t want to leave it, we don’t have the wherewithal in country to fight our way out. A future column will discuss that.

    • Neil

      Yeah, what’s there is there for good, for the most part, not coming home for one reason or another. Thus, the need to get tight with the prime contractors on ground vehicles.

      I’ve heard the same things about Stryker, but I also hear a lot of mumbling about the need for air-mobile armor. That may very well be true, as the surface fleet dwindles and our ability to lift a heavy division dwindles with it. Take that too-small C17 fleet and do your load calculations again for a heavy brigade…I’ve been telling everyone who would listen right from the start that we would rue the day we shut down that C17 production line.

      I very much hope that somebody is currently doing a ground-up rethink on the practicalities of our strategic situation, and what sorts of equipment we’re going to be needing in the near and mid-term. If we get on it promptly in two years or so, there might possibly be just enough time to design the equipment that we will be needing.

    • Tom Kratman

      Well, I’ve an idea for an ammuniiton mod I think we need that I need to patent RSN.

    • Neil

      Heh, well I can’t help you there. Unless you just need a recommendation for a patent attorney.

    • Tom Kratman

      Nah, I can figure out how to patent it. I mostly need to get off my ass and do so.

      Actually, it’s two different ideas.

    • akulkis

      Shinsecki and the black beret. I got a lot of backlash for noting at the time that making the beret standard field headgear was a ridiculously stupid idea, and that whoever came up with it out to be taken out back behind a provost marshall’s post.

    • James

      Never got barets. They are as a item of head gear useless.

    • akulkis

      They’re sharp-looking with with dress greens or dress blues. Other that that, it’s an utterly ridiculous piece of headgear when wearing any sort of “utility” or field uniform.

    • Tom Kratman

      This guy’s an old friend of mine. Shinseki actually tried to call him to active duty to court-martial him over this: http://www.slideshare.net/1st_TSG_Airborne/us-army-black-beret-briefing

    • Alexander Macris

      Is that presentation for real? That’s hilarious. Did he actually give that at an army briefing? Your friend has balls of steel.

    • Tom Kratman

      He put it on line. When he heard that Shinseki want to court-martial him he put up an “apology” that was anything but. Basically he took some of the same slides and hand drew sombreros over the berets.

    • akulkis

      That briefing’s a hoot.
      Shenseki should have got the hint. The threat to recall to active duty over it leads me to believe Shenseki might have some sort of personality disorder.

    • William Jackson

      The silliest thing I have seen was video of German troops marching in berets, why not the campaign hat as seen on troops of the Afrika Korps it stayed on the head had a bill to shade the eyes and looks as intimidating as any beret. And its useful in the field.

    • Tom Kratman

      The Feldmuetze? They have those, too.

    • akulkis

      If it were emotionally satisfying to the Russians…. what of it? I don’t understand why our foreign policy w.r.t. Russia has been to treat as enemies the people who overthrew our biggest enemy (the Soviet Union). Before the November Revolution, there had never been enmity between the U.S. and Russia. Our beef was with the criminal enterprise known as the Soviet Union, not with Moskva, or Sankt Peterburg.

      Of course, then again, look who started treating the (post-Communist) Russians as enemies, and it has consistently been the same party which has been trying for 80 years to turn our own government into the same sort of criminal enterprise that the Soviet Union was — so maybe it’s not surprising that they treat the post-Soviet Russians as (in the words of the Kingston Trio) “Counter-revolutionary cads.”

    • Tom Kratman

      The only of it is in refutation of whether they’d let us leave with our equipment via their rail. They will.

      And I concur, in general; we and Russia should be friends, if only because we have so many of the same enemies. But we’re the ones who upgefucht that, not them.

    • Jamie Robertson

      Bravo, sir. You just about made me spew my rootbeer with “upgefucht”. Brilliant ger-glish (german-english bastardization) invention.

    • Tom Kratman

      Wish I could say I invented it, but it’s been US Army slang for…hell…close to 70 years, I think.

    • akulkis

      Very true. It was completely senseless to needlessly antagonize Moscow, and continues to be so to this day.

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    • Alex Shishkin

      Ahem. And you think people who rule Russia now are different from those who ruled the late USSR… how, exactly?

      The only principal difference between current Russia and USSR of late 1970′s – 1980′s is that current Russia is a lot less powerful, and a lot less capable. The rest is mostly cosmetic. If you thought USSR an enemy, I have no clue how you can consider post-Soviet Russia a potential friend.

    • Tom Kratman

      Because, indeed and as mentioned, we have so many of the same enemies. Putins may come and go (though it may be that he’s as good as it gets there and we should hope he doesn’t go), but on the whole, whatever Russia’s flaws, the US and Russia don’t really have a reason for emnity, and never have had one that wasn’t ideological.

    • Alex Shishkin

      That is all true. And it was just as true in the late Soviet times.

      There were no reasons whatever for the USSR of 1970′s – 1980′s to be an enemy of the US, if one excludes the ideological ones. And I am not talking about Communist ideology here, which, for all intents and purposes, was a dead letter at that time. It was the ideology of clinging to power at all costs that mandated the ‘fortress USSR’ approach, which eventually crushed the country because of its inability of going toe-to-toe with US economically.

      Exact same reasons apply today. Current Russian rulers need an external enemy, and the most logical enemy for them is the US. Why? Because the enemy is needed for internal consumption, to mobilize ‘fortress Russia’, mostly against potential internal challenges to power, and for such purposes, US is a very safe enemy to have: as long as Russia does not do anything absolutely world-destructive _externally_, US is not likely to do anything truly dangerous to Russian ruling group. Pissing the same way on China’s shoes, for example, might prove a lot more immediately dangerous.

      And thus, no matter who sits in the White House and what they do, Russia’s rulers will find reasons to be enemies. Not seriously, not to the point of outright armed conflict. Just enough to have a continuous stream of ‘American wrongdoings’ pumped through their government-controlled media into the minds of their electorate.

      Whether these American wrongdoings are real or imaginary, DOES NOT MATTER: if there are no real ones to exploit, imaginary ones will be provided.

      It is impossible to be friends with an entity like that. No matter how hard you try, and no matter how good it would be for both countries.

    • Tom Kratman

      I don’t think that actually works, Alex. Yes, quite possibly or even – and, since you were there, I’ll just go ahead and concede -, definitely the ideology was dead among those that mattered in some major way inside the USSR. But that doesn’t mean everyone inside the USSR assumed it was dead, nor that the nomenklatura didn’t have to dance to the tune for those who could not be trusted with the understanding that the ideology was a dead failure.

      But even were that not true, what was understood inside Russia was not necessarily understood or perceived here. I assure you, on this side of the pond we still considered communism to be _the_ threat.

      As for finding reasons to be enemies, we had a window there where Russia seemed to be trying to find reasons to be friends, and we – which is to say, Bill “Shazaam, just think o’ all them wider women” Clinton, tossed that away for a multiculti illusion in Bosnia, presented to the credulous, and humiliating in the process a proud people, whose pride was already rather badly injured.*

      That pissing on China’s shoes may be dangerous is one of the two best reasons – I believe I mentioned, “a lot of the same enemies” – for ourselves and Russia to buddy up again. Now is that still possible? I don’t know. Putin seems to be, among other things, trying to restore their pride. Unfortunately, he’s doing so in ways that its driving deeper the wedge between us. But I still go back to Bosnia and Bubba for blame for that.

      *Being entirely unwilling to let bygones be bygones, a lot of people wondered what Bill Clinton was thinking as he pensively walked the beaches at Normandy. I am certain of what he was thinking: “Shazzam, if only Ah’d been of age back then, just think o’ all them widew women Ah coulda ‘comforted’.”

    • Alex Shishkin

      Can’t argue with that. I, too, thought at the time and still think to this day, that the 90′s were a great – and rather long – window of opportunity for improving both relations with Russia, and Russia’s prospects for the future. And that this opportunity was blown rather badly. US role in Yugoslavia was an important part of it, too – pretty much all of what was worth achieving there could, in my opinion, have been achieved without giving Russia such a black eye. And that black eye is one of the reasons Russia currently has the leadership it has. Not the only one; not even the primary one, IMO; but an important one, nonetheless.

      But that window has closed over a decade ago. The fact that we blew it then doesn’t mean we can fix it now. IMO, that train has long left the station. The next opportunity will be when this new ‘fortress Russia’ will implode like the ‘fortress USSR’ did before. Frankly, I don’t think we have all that long to wait.

    • akulkis

      Re: Clinton…
      I am fully convinced that Bill Clinton went into politics SOLELY as a means of chasing women. Running for President was probably more about gaining access to more women than any policy goals he might have had (of which he seems to have had none).

    • akulkis

      Post-Soviet Russia isn’t in the business of agit-prop and exporting revolution (Communist or otherwise). That’s a HUGE difference.

    • Alex Shishkin

      Sigh. It wasn’t, for about 10-12 years, up until mid-2000′s.

      The agit-prop is back in full swing again now. The tune has changed a bit, and is more Imperial Russian than Communist Soviet, but the methods and even a lot of the people guiding that work are the same. They first restarted the internal agit-prop, and are now busily expanding it outside the country – from ‘Russia Today’ buying place in the cable TV lineups, to getting a modicum of control over some local Western news outlets through discrete investments, to thousands of paid trolls inundating Western websites with comments scripted the same way Soviets used to script friendly publications in Western media.

      For my sins, I can’t quite get rid of a curiosity about the goings-on in my country of birth, and spend an entirely unwarranted amount of time reading Russian news sites, blogs, etc. What I’ve been seeing over the last decade is a gradual re-emergence of the very agit-prop I used to so despise, only a lot less subtle and skilled than the Soviet original.

      And what do you think is going on in Ukraine right now, other than the export of revolution? Now, Russia is in no position to do that last part to the degree USSR was doing it in the 50′s and 60′s – that, at least, is true. But within its luckily very limited reach, it is doing precisely what the USSR was doing – grabbing what it can.

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