This year marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Soviet client government in Afghanistan. Mark Twain, and more recently Niall Ferguson, claimed that history does not repeat itself, rather, it rhymes.1 If this is the case, then the poem the United States has written in Afghanistan is a tragic one of the Greek variety and highlights hubris in ways we have not seen since that other tragic poem named Vietnam. There is an even more similar Soviet one, also in Afghanistan.
Failing to pay heed to these “poems” has had dire consequences, and now, during a presidential race, we see again how the relentless calculus of election-year politics can drive senior decision-makers in directions they do not wish to go. Leslie H. Gelb, one of the more interesting almost-famous people in American history, and a keen student of this calculus and American history-as-tragedy, has again weighed in on decision-making in this season of discontent. This time Gelb addresses the issue of the United States’ continued involvement in Afghanistan in the wake of Koran burnings, broken-soldier rage, and attempted suicide attacks on the Secretary of Defense.2
Let us recall that this is the same Leslie Gelb who headed up the Pentagon Papers writing team established by then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara more than 45 years ago to produce a history of decision-making in Vietnam. Some of his team’s top-secret results were then made part of the public record in The New York Times in 1971.3 In other words, and unlike most Americans it sometimes seems, Gelb might have a proper sense of perspective on these matters. He states clearly, much in the same way as he and his team did in the Pentagon Papers, “To me, the only way to think about Afghanistan is to ask the question directly and without prejudice: is it in America’s vital interests to fight on in Afghanistan? To me, the answer is an unequivocal ‘No.’”4
Gelb further argues that President Barack Obama will not increase the pace of the U.S. military drawdown in Afghanistan despite the palpable weariness of the troops, their commanders, the American people, and the bad news that seems to come weekly out of that forsaken piece of real estate. Why? Because, Gelb argues, the politics of the moment prevents the President from a pullout that might give his political opponents, both on the campaign trail and in the House and Senate, an issue to use against him in the national election this fall should a hasty withdrawal become messy.5
The purpose here will be to examine what Gelb predicts as a certainty in 2013—almost complete withdrawal from Afghanistan. If we must stay there in the short term, is there a way to more efficiently and intelligently shape the circumstances for a pullout next year? There certainly is; the killing and fighting seem likely to continue, so why not conduct a fighting exit instead of a passive “waiting for Armageddon” approach? Let us first look at another “poem,” that of the Soviets in the late 1980s and a similar military withdrawal.
The Soviet Experience
What insight might the Soviet disengagement and withdrawal experience in Afghanistan offer for U.S. forces and NATO today? The enemy of the Soviet Union yesterday is the same menu of enemies we face today—a loose, decentralized coalition of tribes and factions whose glue seems to be the presence of Western troops and modernizing civilians, both governmental and private volunteers. The Taliban was only one group of many back then—the essential dynamic of the makeup of today’s threat has changed little. The Pakistani-Afghan border in the rugged Hindu Kush is still a sanctuary of sorts. The Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI) still plays all sides against each other in the interests of its own opaque agendas.6 Given these factors, an operational examination of what went right for the Soviets during their endgame is apropos. They were the proximate cause of the insurgency—when they left, much of what unified the disparate elements of the insurgency should have been removed. As it turned out, Mujahideen insurgents, supported by external financial, military (the United States, CIA, and ISI), and ideological aid, eventually prevailed—but only after a “decent interval” almost four years after the Soviet military formally withdrew. It took even longer for the Taliban to prevail (1996) after the withdrawal. Was it the Soviet withdrawal alone or perhaps the withdrawal in concert with other pre-existing factors that slowed their final seizure of power?
Dr. Robert Bauman of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College has both written and lectured that the Soviets withdrew only after a positive, albeit temporary, result was achieved—operational military victory. In other words, punch your enemy a good one in the nose as you leave so he won’t, under the worst of circumstances, make the withdrawal a messy one. This method also gave the Soviets some measure of credibility in claiming “victory,” however specious. The Soviets accomplished this result by conducting a military campaign to suppress the insurgents before withdrawing in a relatively quick and incident-free manner.7 To some degree the Soviets were looking for much the same sort of “decent interval” as was the Nixon administration in Vietnam.8 They seemed to have gotten it, but not enough for their claims of victory to be believed. Their client government, led by Dr. Mohammed Nadjibullah, physically survived as a political entity in Afghanistan until 1992, mostly because Soviet economic and financial aid continued after the military withdrawal until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Under a different set of circumstances, this sort of operational method possibly could have led to the survival of the Soviet client regime—i.e. victory. The insurgent Mujahideen (including the Taliban) might never have prevailed as completely as they did as long as the Soviet Union managed to remain a coherent political entity providing moral and matériel support to its client regime. We now know that the resistance movement suffered severe problems after the assassination of the president of Pakistan and the chief of the ISI in 1988 (along with the U.S. ambassador and several senior U.S. military officers.) With the Pakistani leadership in chaos and the United States’ loss of interest at the end of the Cold War, Nadjibullah’s government survived in part because of a suddenly headless resistance whose funding had temporarily dried up. However, by 1992, when Nadjibullah took refuge in the U.N. compound in Kabul—an event analogous with Saigon in 1975—the Soviet Union already had ceased to exist, and Russian re-intervention and financial aid had long been unfeasible as courses of action.
To restate, the insight worth considering from the Soviets in Afghanistan: Begin to withdraw under circumstances that equate to success—in the Soviet case, only after applying successful military force. Leave under circumstances that look like victory—a military campaign that both suppresses the insurgents and damages or sets back their ability to take the offensive quickly—thus leaving the government in place with a better chance for survival. The Soviets did exactly that in their pullout from Afghanistan—the Taliban/Mujahideen were suppressed, allowing the Nadjibullah government to hang on for another four years while at the same time removing a major recruitment and propaganda casus belli for the insurgents.
Has the ‘Train Left the Station?’
Admittedly, this train seems to have left the station in the case today. It is hard to swallow, but the United States and its NATO allies are in a worse situation than their Soviet predecessors of more than 20 years ago. Is there a way ahead beyond hunkering down and waiting for the U.S. presidential election to run its course? There certainly is. Some of the military’s most talented leadership is in charge in Afghanistan. First, the overall commander, Marine General John Allen, has recommended to Congress that we resist the urge to continue the drawdown. The reasons he gives reflect the political correctness of the times: “Transition, then, is the linchpin of our strategy, not merely the ‘way out.’”9 But the essential wisdom behind these words remains—transition means change, change means movement, and movement ultimately means movement of troops home.
Lieutenant General Daniel Bolger is among the more learned and thoughtful men currently serving in the U.S. Army. A professionally educated historian with a Ph.D. and an impressive record of operational experience as well as published scholarship, Bolger holds the even less appealing job as the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan/Commander, NATO Training Mission, Afghanistan. So Bolger is really General Allen’s point man for the most important noun/verb in the mission—transition. Did I mention that Bolger’s doctoral specialty is Russian history? How fortuitous. And that he wrote a prescient article after Desert Storm titled “The Ghosts of Omdurman” that predicted a nasty surprise for the U.S. Army in some future insurgency? Curiouser and curiouser.10
Let’s face it, executing a Soviet-style course of action is past due, and the longer we wait the less favorable the result. Among the most difficult tasks in the list of military operations is the fighting retreat, or perhaps more palatable—the retrograde under fire. Improperly handled, or executed at the wrong time, it can lead to disaster (look at Napoleon in Russia). These two generals and their staffs, despite their unenviable situation, are probably the right men for such a job, and we should not make scapegoats of them. We need to let the professionals handle this mission because it has come to that point in the ballgame. I suspect I am not recommending to them anything their staffs have not already subjected to a rigorous course of action-analysis. But this message is not aimed so much at them as at their political masters in Washington and the American public, so here goes.
• The traditional Afghan campaign season is in full swing and so a higher tempo of operations is to be expected. Why react to the enemy’s expected offensives? Why not use the Soviet model and savage the Taliban factions that are most intransigent, probably with looser rules of engagement? Take the offensive with U.S. military strengths, firepower, and mobility, since ground-troop numbers limit us to this option. The goal is not to reclaim or pacify areas that demand troop-intensive operations, the goal rather is to damage the Taliban and gain breathing space. So the recommendation is not for a general offensive but rather a surgical one.
• Offensive operations need targets. Work with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the ISI and see if we and they can come up with a common list that all would like to see militarily damaged. This means that some Taliban insurgent groups and areas will not be attacked because they are precisely the ones most palatable, or least important, to Karzai’s government and the ISI. Use the classical strategic process of matching ends, ways, and means in order to accomplish the possible—not the usual “double down” and hope for the impossible that often characterizes American actions.
• Limit these operations to Afghanistan; cease drone strikes in Pakistan, and minimize them as much as possible inside the Afghan area of responsibility. Go on a drone-strike diet, at least for this season. They can always be turned on again after the bulk of U.S. and NATO forces leave.
• Let Karzai know the real reasons for what we do and what the future holds. Do not even consider replacing him—no leadership is always worse than bad leadership—remember Ngo Dinh Diem (the president we allowed to be assassinated in South Vietnam).
• Again, work with the ISI; find out how we can align our operations with theirs. This baby will, in part, be theirs after we leave, so why alienate them outright and make things worse by further damaging the fragile relationship with Pakistan?
• Once winter sets in and operations wind down, rapidly withdraw with force protection and overriding security for the troops as the priorities. As in Vietnam, leave the broken and unneeded equipment behind. Also pull out as many U.S. military contractors as possible. No one wants to be the last person killed in an overseas campaign.
• After the drawdown, be prepared for a noncombatant evacuation operation (NEO) for the (hopefully) few folks we do leave behind. Better an NEO than an Iran Hostage Crisis on a massive scale or infamous pictures of folks hanging on helicopter skids.
• Caveat—I know this is nominally a NATO/coalition conflict, but I suspect our allies will follow our lead—just a hunch.
Remember, if things really get bad after we leave, the scale of the difficulty is much reduced—this problem now belongs to Karzai, Pakistan, and to a lesser degree to Iran (a happy thought). Besides, air power and drones are more easily turned back on than ground forces.
There are no good options, only bad ones and worse ones. Instead of pointing fingers about “coulda, woulda, shoulda,” let us give Generals Allen and Bolger what they need to get on with the closing act of this tragedy. I wrote this several years ago and I stand by it: “American policy formulation seems to follow a process that only learns from success and not from failure. This tendency must not deter us from the insight that study of losing/lost conflicts can bring to a strategic discussion.”11 Let us be honest that this is the last major U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan and keep its cost in blood minimized to the greatest extent possible during the final drawdown. The Soviets, now gone, can give us some insights on how if we will only let them (through an honest study of history). If we have to stay in Afghanistan for another season of fighting, let us do so intelligently.
1. The author was present when Niall Ferguson used this phrase during a lecture at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, 21 April 2007. See also http://h-net.msu.edu/cgi-bin/logbrowse.pl?trx=vx&list=h-war&month=0704&week=d&msg=s4Y9SqDhaswDCDJ3rVRCkA&user=&pw=.
2. Leslie H. Gelb, “Why Obama Won’t Speed U.S. Troop Withdrawal In Afghanistan,” TheDailyBeast.com, 19 March 2012.
3. Neil Sheehan et al., The Pentagon Papers: As Published by The New York Times (New York: Bantam Books, 1971), xix.
6. For discussions on the ISI see, for example, www.cfr.org/pakistan/isi-terrorism-behind-accusations/p11644.
7. Robert F. Bauman, Russian-Soviet Unconventional Wars in the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Afghanistan, Leavenworth Paper Number 20, (Fort Leavenworth, KS: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1993), 148; conversations of author with Dr. Baumann in fall 2003.
8. Arthur J. Dommen, The Indochinese Experience of the French and the Americans, (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2001), 754.
9. Thom Shanker and John H. Cushman, “U.S. General Sees No Sudden Afghan Drawdown” The New York Times, 21 March 2012.
10. www.facebook.com/pages/Combined-Security-Transition-Command-fghanistan/126926100683789; see also Daniel P. Bolger, “The Ghosts of Omdurman,” Parameters, 21 (Autumn 1991), 28–39.
11. John T. Kuehn, “Withdraw AND Win: Gaining Insight from Defeat,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, December 2006, 14–19.