Withdrawal in contact, under pressure; it’s a toughie. It’s harder than Hell at squad level and only gets worse as the unit level goes up.
Just to set the framework of the problem, there are a number of military operations that are unusually difficult and perilous. Amphibious landings, for example, are extremely problematic (Gallipoli’s an extreme example, though Tarawa – “situation in doubt” – was iffy, as well). Parachute operations (Crete, Market Garden) are only just less so. But among the more difficult exercises is Withdrawal in Contact.
Its potential for turning into a rout is immense. Think here: Napoleon in Russia. Nearly three quarters of a million men march in; maybe one in 20 makes it back as part of an organized force, with individual stragglers being little or no more numerous. It’s risky, very risky.
The immediate risk to us and ours isn’t the whole of it, either. There are some other considerations. There is some history to consider, too.
The press (“ever ready to feed the masses on the carrion of events” – JFC Fuller) plays up the green on blue attacks, those occasions when an Afghan, theoretically working with us, turned on us or our allies. It’s happened, of course. From the beginning of 2008 to February 2014, there have been – liberally reported – 86 claimed green on blue attacks, which caused us and our allies (but mostly them), some 307 casualties, with slightly fewer dead than wounded. That’s non-trivial, of course, in one sense, and extremely so in the case of the dead and wounded, and their families. But looked at from the larger view, it’s not that much, not given the number of US-Allied-Afghan contacts on a daily basis. The dangerous places for green on blue were also somewhat localized, Helmand Province, plus the provinces of Kapisa and Kandahar, were the biggies.
It doesn’t appear to be an especially Iranian-inspired problem, either; the provinces near Iran have had either very few or no incidents.
Moreover, there is a difference, indeed it’s a completely different problem, between someone who really was on our side and turned on us, and someone who never was but infiltrated by enlisting, intending to do damage from the beginning, as Mullah Omar called for in his October 2012, Eid al-Adha message. Still different is the Taliban fighter, who has never been enrolled in any Afghan force, but who acquires one of our uniforms and uses it to launch an attack is still another category entirely and certainly should not be counted as green on blue.
More than half the attacks took place in one year, 2012, which is to say more than two years ago.
So perhaps some Afghans have been faithless. Some have not. Really, most have not. Does the faithlessness of a few – and it’s only been a comparative few – remove our obligation to repay good faith with good faith? I have to say, “No, we must stand by those who stood by us, so long as they deserve that we stand with them.”
(This doesn’t necessarily include Hamid Karzai, who hasn’t obviously been faithful to much of anything.)
A lot of the enemy fighting us are fighting us because we’re there. Their fathers, uncles, and older brothers and cousins fought the Soviets only because they were there, and promptly went home as soon as the Soviets did. A lot of them are probably going to go home when we do. We probably ought to try to remember that few Afghans got a say in whether Al Qaeda was allowed to use the country as a base.
Nobody can say what’s the size of the Afghan Army. In Soviet days, it was officially about 130,000, of whom maybe 40 percent actually existed and were serving with the colors. With 32,000 desertions a year, they couldn’t hope to keep up strength. Back then, there were more men and more combat formations with the internal security troops. Now, the army is the big force… but we still can’t say how big. Well… maybe the Taliban know, but they aren’t talking.
The old government of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (basically communist, though toward the end they’d made some progress in making it more pluralistic) didn’t go under until the Soviet Union became the Russian Federation and cut off all support.
Does that sound like South Vietnam to anyone else?
The Soviets could withdraw by land.
So what should our withdrawal do?
It should leave the Taliban in fear of our coming back.
It should make others all over the globe worry that we might intervene there, if they let their territory be used to base an attack against us and ours. This will actually get better once our forces are not so completely committed, and are retrained to a proper attitude of maximum feasible violence, too.
It should save those of the Afghans who have been very faithful to us or, at least, give them a fighting chance. It would be nice, but isn’t strictly necessary, if it would leave those who have not been faithful – Karzai, I am looking at you – to the hopefully not too tender mercies of the Taliban. Or a coup, say.
It should not weaken the government we leave behind us by pulling out those who should be among its staunchest supporters.
It should leave the Afghan National Army, the ANA, a breathing space. There has been at least one example in the past of an allied army – ARVN, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, say – letting us do the heavy lifting, right up until we refuse to anymore. Then they got quite tough, fast, as they realized they were mostly on their own. Some knowledgeable people, Sir Robert Thompson, for example, considered the ARVN 1st Infantry Division to be, by about 1973, the best non-communist infantry division in the world… once we were no longer there to do the heavy lifting.
Economic support, and the provision of training, arms, ammunition and other necessary supplies should continue. Yes, indefinitely, if indefinitely is what it takes. We’ve abandoned allies before; our position in the world gets much worse when we do.
Ah, but the mechanics of that terribly difficult operation, Withdrawal in Contact? There are different ways to deal with it. One of the better ones is to attack, to drive the enemy back, to send him reeling, and thus to disorganize him in order to gain some space and buy some time for an orderly retreat. You can sometimes gain even more time and more advantage by feigning a retreat that turns into an attack once the enemy has moved forward.
Both of those techniques should be in our toolbox.
For that, I’d recommend something like the following program. In rough:
1. Invite our allies to leave more or less quickly, or as quickly as we can take over from them in areas we want to take over. They aren’t much help and for other reasons impose or cause us to impose unwise and unnecessary restraint on ourselves. Other reasons? We are not party to either the Rome Statute, which created the International Criminal Court, nor of the Additional Protocols to Geneva Convention IV, which were created for the most part by the Soviets to disadvantage the west in the Cold War. Most of our allies, however, are. The effect of having them in theater is that either we follow the rules they’ve signed up for, or they become complicit in what, by those rules, are war crimes. Those allies’ rules are preposterous, but we need not bow to them if they are not present.
2. Build up supply in country for a several month-long campaign for several corps, five or six divisions’ worth.
3. Send in sufficient heavy equipment for a mechanized force. I’ll leave to the planner whether that should be a battalion or two, a brigade or two, or a corps.
4. Spend the time of that build up retraining the troops away from velvet glove approach of COIN and back to maximum feasible violence and frightfulness in action. We may well have to relieve any number of officers to do that; we seem to have been selecting against people given to maximum violence for some time now. As far as trying to turn the Army and – hopefully to a lesser extent – the Marines into a heavily armed Peace Corps, that game is played out.
5. Delay his advance toward our base areas, but not too much.
6. Cease the logistic effort, from outside, introduce troops, en masse, and attack with no higher purpose than to kill as many Taliban as we can. Use maximum feasible firepower and maximum feasible frightfulness, short of re-enacting a Lidice.
7. Pull back to the airheads. Possibly rinse and repeat a few times, in different parts of the country.
8. Pack our bags, turn over whatever of our own supply and equipment we can’t use or economically evacuate to the Afghans, and leave, leaving no more than some Special Forces advisors and trainers.
We’ll know if we won if – after demonstrating “No More Mr. Nice Guy” and “Welcome to My Nightmare” – no Islamic fundamentalists attack our civilians again on our home soil.
If we haven’t won, we go back and do “School’s Out” and “Under My Wheels.”
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.