As the United States turns the page on the 16th year of the war in Afghanistan, many U.S. citizens and leaders are questioning the cost and sacrifice required to sustain this protracted and seemingly unwinnable war. Just days after the 9-11 anniversary, the Pentagon announced that hundreds more U.S. troops were deploying to Afghanistan. They reportedly will be joined by at least 1,000 more U.S. service men and women this year. In short, U.S. investment and involvement in Afghanistan is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.
When do wars end? Prussian war theorist Carl von Clausewitz postulated: “Once the expenditure of effort exceeds the value of the political object, the object must be renounced.” What he should have added is “This is easier said than done.”
The early hope that Afghanistan would become a stable democracy has all but been abandoned. The current objectives were described by President Donald Trump on 21 August as threefold:1
• Deliver “an honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices [sic] of lives”
• Eliminate safe havens for the “twenty U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations active in Afghanistan and Pakistan”
• Avoid creating a vacuum and allowing “hard-won gains to [slip] back into the hands of terrorist enemies”
Trump’s honorable outcome is a difficult objective to quantify, and it will be hard to know when that goal is reached. Even more difficult to achieve is the elimination of safe havens for terrorist organizations. The physical occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, engagement with Pakistan, and hundreds of drone strikes over the past 16 years have shown that even a great commitment of resources will at best mitigate, but not eliminate, safe havens. Finally, not “creating a vacuum” in Afghanistan is another way of saying, “we are in it for the long haul.”
Based on these stated objectives, the way out of the United States’ longest war is murky, but history shows us that someday the United States will leave, and it may happen suddenly.
Surprisingly, insight for the way out of Afghanistan can be found in the American Revolutionary War. Despite the time, culture, and geographic differences, the parallels between these two conflicts are strategically informative and illustrate some of the patterns great powers confront when fighting a determined insurgency. Similarities include the strategic incoherence over each phase of the war and blundering the opportunity to secure a quick decisive victory. In addition, like the British in the Revolutionary War, the way out of Afghanistan for the United States likely will not occur until competing priorities and cost make the current effort unsustainable.
No Quick Victory
The war in Afghanistan might have been quick and decisive. For example, the initial strikes on Afghanistan in October 2001 can be compared to the British forces in America some two centuries ago.
The British stormed Long Island with an 18th-century version of “shock and awe.” The 400 ships and 32,000 highly skilled troops they embarked off New York in July 1776 were the equivalent of a Death Star orbiting over the colonies. Trying at first to fight the British conventionally, the Continental Army was routed from several fields of battle in New York. In part because of the indecision of British General William Howe at a critical moment in the battle, the beleaguered remnants of the Continental Army escaped to the wilderness of Pennsylvania. There they regrouped and reassessed. In the sanctuary of Valley Forge, a new strategy of deliberate protraction and small tactical victories was adopted by General George Washington. The Revolution became a protracted struggle, and the opportunity for the British to end the conflict early was missed.
Likewise, in the opening weeks of Operation Enduring Freedom the Taliban and al Qaeda attempted to engage the coalition in conventional battles. The Taliban and al Qaeda forces quickly were overwhelmed by coalition air and ground forces. The surviving remnants fled to their mountain redoubt of Tora Bora near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
At this decisive point in the offensive, like British General Howe on Manhattan Island, U.S. General Tommy Franks failed to administer the coup de grâce. With the enemy trapped at Tora Bora in December 2001, the CIA commander on the ground requested 800 U.S. Army Rangers to “block a possible al-Qaeda escape into Pakistan!”2 However, because of institutional dysfunction with a Secretary of Defense who wanted to demonstrate a new light and high-tech military force, indecision among the Joint Chiefs, and a lack of support at U.S. Central Command, the request was denied. No U.S. Army Rangers were sent to secure the mountain passes leading to Pakistan. Northern Alliance Afghan troops were sent instead.
When asked about Tora Bora in a later interview, General Franks said, “The Afghans themselves wanted to get to Tora Bora. . . . I think it was a pretty good determination, to provide support to that operation, and to work with the Pakistanis along the Pakistani border to bring it to a conclusion.”3 Obviously, the destruction of the al Qaeda force and Bin Laden was not brought “to a conclusion” at Tora Bora. With the escape of Bin Laden and the remnant of al Qaeda forces, any hope of a quick victory for the U.S.-led coalition was lost.
As the Pashtuns had done with the Soviets and countless enemies of the past, time became a weapon, and sufficient tactical means were developed to exact a bloody cost on the enemy. As noted by Lieutenant Commander Carlos Oroza in his insightful October 2017 Proceedings article, “Their [Pashtun] experience with protracted warfare makes it difficult for us to reduce their strength of will and to persuade them that they have been defeated.”4 Improvised explosive devices, snipers, and suicide attacks became the tactical means to raise the cost for the coalition force.
As with the British in the American Revolution, travel outside the wire became a dangerous business. Safety was found only in tightly controlled occupied areas, and the enemy controlled the countryside. Today, after 16 years of war and occupation, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the Taliban is estimated to control more than 40 percent of the country.
Many historians and strategists believe if Washington and the remnants of his army had been crushed following their rout from Long Island and Manhattan, the British would have been in a position to negotiate a settlement to end the war in their favor. The annihilation of the neophyte Continental Army would have left the American patriots without a leader, and left the barely unified colonies without an army at a very early stage in the war. The material and psychological effects would have created a culminating point for the British.
What if, after the U.S.-led coalition quickly routed the Taliban and al Qaeda forces from Bagram, Kabul, and Kandahar, Bin Laden and his surviving forces had been annihilated in their mountain redoubt of Tora Bora? A crushing defeat in early December 2001 likely would have dimmed the Jihadi fervor in the hearts of many aspiring volunteers around the world. As it was for the British, the opportunity to secure a better result arguably was more likely at this early stage in the conflict than at any other point in the war.
Search for Strategy
Like the greatest military power of the 18th century, the United States today has proven itself to be an army of conquest, not occupation. Neither could translate sweeping tactical success in the early phases of war into lasting strategic security. With the early opportunity crush the enemy’s center of gravity lost, the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan settled in for a nation-building strategy that depended on empowering pockets of moderate Muslims to rebuild and secure their nation. This parallels Britain’s third and final phase of the American Revolution, the Southern Strategy (1778-81).
The Southern Strategy was heavily dependent on Loyalist support for a campaign that amounted to a modern-day ink blot counterinsurgency strategy.5 The British enjoyed as much success at convincing loyal colonists to take up the fight on their behalf as the Americans have had in their search for pockets of moderate Afghan Muslims to carry out the fight against extremist elements.
The recent uptick in U.S. boots on the ground reportedly is necessary for training, equipping, and supporting the Afghan National Army (ANA). Reports on the progress of this latest of seven or eight attempts since 2001 to create a better Afghan Army are not encouraging. The Washington Post reported in October 2017 that 152 Afghan soldiers brought to the United States for training had gone AWOL.6 Other sources indicate many ANA forces in Afghanistan have taken their weapons and joined the Taliban. That a better army will emerge on this umpteenth rebuilding of the ANA is unlikely. If there is a silver lining, it is this: The United States has come to better understand both its enemy and its allies in Afghanistan over 16 years of interaction.
A way out
Knowing you are waist deep in an unwinnable war does not make it any easier to get out. In the winter of 1778 through the summer of 1779, the British government investigated the stunning defeat of General John Burgoyne’s army at the Battle of Saratoga. During the course of the debates, “returned army officers and generals gave devastating testimonies that the war was unwinnable.”7 One British officer with three years of service in the colonies warned in 1779, “if 50,000 Russians were sent, they could do nothing . . . our posts are too many, and our troops too much detached . . . we are not able to carry on the war offensively.”8
Few U.S. flag officers have openly expressed such despair about the state of affairs in Afghanistan, but also telling is that none are promising a way out anytime soon. This stalemate was reflected in Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. When asked about current conditions in Afghanistan, he responded, “We are not winning in Afghanistan right now. And we will correct this as soon as possible.”
As it was for the British by 1779, the war in Afghanistan likely is unwinnable, but the current course of action may be the best option available—at least until the next larger, and more serious, crisis emerges. A new war, a bigger war, one that requires a greater commitment of means, and perhaps even threatens the homeland, likely will be the United States’ way out Afghanistan. The wars with France and Spain beginning in 1779 gave the British reason to finally let go of their colonies.
Britain likely would have wallowed in the American colonies for many more years if the French and Spanish had not given them a reason to cut their losses and find an off-ramp. Thus it will be for the United States; finding a way out of the war in Afghanistan will not occur until a higher threat demands a reassessment of the nation’s strategic priorities. Most likely, the exit will be buried in the noise of a much larger conflict in Asia or the Middle East. Few in the West will take notice, but the irrepressible Pashtun fighters of Afghanistan will take note as their wives weave a new war rug design that commemorates another empire buried in the mountains of the Hindu Kush.
2. Gary Berntsen and Ralph Pezzullo, Jawbreaker (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2005), 290.
3. Ibid., 291.
4. LCDR Carlos Oroza, USN, “The President’s Decision for Afghanistan Matters,” Proceedings 143, no. 10 (October 2017), 19.
5. Ink blot, or ink spot, counterinsurgency is based on the idea that counterinsurgency and reconstruction efforts begun in a small number of safe areas will spread outward and eventually merge.
6. Alex Horton, “Some Afghan Troops Training in the U.S. Feared Violence and Corruption at Home. So They Went AWOL,” The Washington Post, 20 October 2017.
7. Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy, The Men Who Lost America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013), 165.
8. Ibid., 165.
Commander Dolan teaches strategy and war with the Naval War College’s Distance Education program and history as an adjunct professor at the University of Maine. He is a former EP-3E/special mission P-3 naval flight officer and a contributor to USNI News, Proceedings, and Proceedings Today.