Small Wars Journal

Letter to the Editor: Critical Afghanistan Assessment

Sat, 08/14/2021 - 5:33pm

Letter to the Editor: Critical Afghanistan Assessment


I received the following letter from a longtime (decades long) friend and colleague with whom I served in the Army. He is former Special Forces NCO/Officer, speaks regional languages, and has extensive experience on the ground through the region to include the FATA.  He is using his nom de guerre because he is serving in a sensitive position in an international organization.



First, thanks a million for taking the time each day to compile and publish the daily National Security News and Commentary.  I hope others on your mailing list and reading Small Wars Journal appreciate your efforts and dedication.  


I’m currently part of a Crisis Coordination Center for Afghanistan.  With my time crawling around Afghanistan and Pakistan, being in the direct presence of the Taliban and having produced multiple predictions and forecasts, I’ll share some thoughts on the Afghan-related pieces in your daily. Pardon any misspellings. I’m typing on a phone with one thumb.  


1.  As I wrote in my note to the 3rd SFG(A) in 2009, the reality on the ground and perception in the Pashtun community supporting the Talibs and drug Warlords is that NATO/ISAF are the Turks and the Taliban are the Lawrences.  The Taliban are not a uniform, lock-step outfit. The strategic leadership (once referred to as the Quetta Shura) are coordinating the strategic push. The operational leaders (other Taliban outfits, supporting armed opposition outfits) are generally following along, but acting within their own interests, as well. The significance of this, in the overall success of the offensive, is a lesson for the US Army Special Forces and PSYOP communities.  The Taliban took the Unconventional Warfare playbook and ran with it. They tenaciously established shadow governments and auxiliary support groups around the country since late 2008.  We’re seeing the fruits of those labors.  There’s, of course, more to the story, as with all the points here, but I digress (typing with one thumb on a phone screen).


2.  The Taliban cannot do what it’s doing without the support of a state or elements of a state’s architecture.  There are only three factories in Pakistan which produce the main ingredient for the Taliban’s mass casualty IEDs. “Members” of the ISI have maintained support of the general Taliban movement since they helped organize and train them in 1995. China has given tacit support with assurances of international recognition, once the Taliban attain power in Kabul. 


3.  The Taliban has been playing a game of Go, not Chess.  Unlike 1996 (Kabul being the king of the chessboard) they took their time and surrounded the government forces, like a game of Go.  This was possible due to the idiocy of the strategic approach of both NATO/ISAF and the Afghan government in retreating to fortified cities and relying on air support to deter attacks/reconnaissance in force in the northern/northwestern districts over the last 5 years. 


4.  I’ve stated over the years and I’ll say it again. This has NOT been an insurgency. It has been a Pashtun Uprising. There is a distinction, with all sorts of components and problem-solving strategies. Not all Pashtuns support it, but not all colonists supported our war of independence from Great Britain (1776-1787).  Our general lack of strategic thinking and planning, at least at the policy level, was bad enough in dealing with a diagnosis of an insurgency, it totally failed in recognizing that actual internal instability problem. Therefore, the assets and planning were never in place to achieve victory.  This isn’t Monday morning quarterbacking.  I’ve been pointing this out for years.  


5.  It’s doubtful a protracted civil war will ensue. Civil War is violent power sharing.  At best, former Northern Alliance leaders, like Dostum, may engage in what?  An insurgency. But with whose active support? The Taliban (or their advisors…ISI?) were correct in gobbling up territory in the north and west. The former Northern Alliance has few options for conventional, contiguous lines of communication and supply. Anything that can evolve over time will likely take the shape of an insurgency or an uprising.  We’ll see what happens if the CCP plays an active role as a Taliban ally. 


6.  Training an army (in this case the ANA) in counter insurgency/counter terrorism tactics and in a model which was foreign to them (gotta be like us/US) was a worst case of mirroring. Again, many of us, including you, cautioned against this. This isn’t the only case (Iraq, Syria, Yemen), but I digress. 


7.  For those supporting the line that Afghanistan has nothing to do with US interests (I was guilty of that myself a few years ago), I point to China, which wasn’t actually a significant global threat until after the COVID-19 economic Black Swan…but I digress.  A significant US military presence was a thorn in the side of Chinese ambitions in the region.  Now the rare earth minerals in Afghanistan will fall into the hands of the CCP.  Pakistan’s western flank will be secured from India. The CCP and Pakistan will be free to exert significant pressure on India from two flanks. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor will be more secure (not totally ~ Baluch and other “ “miscreants”, as the Pakistanis call them).  Regardless, Pakistan’s security forces will have less pressure on them contending with a vulnerable western flank, which was the incentive for “members” of the ISI and other institutions to continue supporting the Taliban and turning a blind eye toward Al Qaeda.  


8.  Abject fear of the Taliban and, now, total mistrust of the US will make any support for a popular uprising challenging…at best.  As much as I hate to say this, US Army Special Forces has a lot of work to do, to get itself reoriented back to perfecting the art UW (I’m choosing my words very carefully here ~ don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings).


9.  Without properly funding and nurturing PME, I see other “Saigon” moments on different scales, with CCP expansion in the background.  To be clear, a “Saigon” moment doesn’t have to be as literal as what we’re witnessing in Kabul, which is shameful. It can be giving-in to the will of those more astute and resolute in what is called “Hybrid” and “Political” Warfare.  Many may sound-off about “Gray Zones” and “Hybrid Warfare”. But, so far, it’s mostly theoretical rhetoric falling the deaf ears of policy wonks.  As Elvis once sang, “A little less conversation, a little more action….”  A lot of effort must be undertaken to avoid what Tony Cordesman coined “Strategic Tokenism.”


Flavius Belisarius

About the Author(s)



Thu, 02/10/2022 - 11:59pm

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Fri, 08/27/2021 - 4:18pm

See my comments here:

Last line: Without Pakistan the Taliban could not have retaken the country. Without US incompetence, neither could have won 


Terry Tucker

Wed, 08/18/2021 - 2:43pm

@ Carl.  This might get you started. 

Also, When i was in Afghanistan 2006 to 2010 as an embedded trainer and advisor, i spent about a week in Kabul at Camp Julien to train new arrivals and then 2 or 3 weeks down range with both the ANA and Coalition Units.  The Chinese were in the Country then, in 2008, they were contracted to redo the ring road and they also started revitalizng mining operations.   From my perspective, the Chinese used Afghanistan as  great big intelligence gathering operation.  

Regarding point number 8 and the comment about the Special Forces getting back to UW, what need they get to UW from?

Additionally, over the years I have read literally hundreds of insightful articles and accounts in SWJ like this one, that, if they were acted upon would have stood the US and our allies in extremely good stead.  Few were.  So it seems to me our basic problem is the military/political powers that be can't or won't get anything that is sensible.  Until this problem is solved all is for nothing.  I don't think anything short of a major defeat of the US by Red China will shake things up enough to solve the problem.

Where can I learn more about point 4, a Pashtun uprising?

I point to China

The other parts of this post are interesting, but I'd like to note that the China analysis is completely wrong.  While we were in Afghanistan, we had to be friendly and supportive of Pakistan, which annoyed the Indians immensely and thus caused issues with a nation that should be a strong ally in resisting China.  Now that we're out of Afghanistan, that irritant is gone.

Second, an Islamist government in power in Afghanistan is not going to look kindly on what China is doing to its co-religionists in the Uyghur region of western China, so it's hardly likely the Taliban will be friendly to the Chinese (despite the lovely photo op the Chinese foreign minister just had with the Taliban)

Third, the US significant military presence in region was hardly a thorn in China's side, given that military focus on Afghanistan.  Rather it tied the US down and sucked resources and attention to the Indian Ocean and the Middle East.  Now those resources have been freed to reorganize and get shifted to the Pacific -- for example, that's 1-2 aircraft carrier groups that don't have to be continuously positioned in the northern Indian Ocean.

Fourth, any geostrategic analysis of Afghanistan that leaves out Iran is highly incomplete at best.  Having the US in Afghanistan (and Iraq before that) inflamed relations with Iran.  Now, with the Taliban there, the Iranians have to deal with a radical Sunni government on their border, which means less time to mess around with the US.

No, despite the chaos of the exit, getting out of Afghanistan is clearly a strategic advantage for the United States.