Small Wars Journal

Afghanistan: What Went Wrong?

Tue, 02/05/2013 - 3:30am


It’s 2015 and across Afghanistan security institutions are failing. NATO wonders: What Went Wrong?

Bernard Fall wrote that “When a country is being subverted it is not being outfought; it is being out administered” and that is has certainly proven true in Afghanistan.

In 2011 I wrote an article stating my belief that the Coalition had failed to understand the Afghans capabilities and, instead, imposed systems that were far too complex and unsustainable.  I still maintain we tried to do too much (complex, technology based systems) with too little (a human capital base that ranks among the least literate in the world) in too short a time (Afghan literacy is a generational issue).  I closed that article saying “History will ask; why did they think that would work”? 

What Afghanistan looks like in 2015

If one accepts Bob Woodward’s reporting in “Obama’s War” (and I do) various presidential advisors consistently identified key factors to success in Afghanistan: solving the Pakistan issue, good governance, addressing the rampant corruption and the creation of a credible Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). In fact, the decision to ‘surge’ in 2009 intended to set conditions to address those very matters.

Despite two different administration’s seemed understanding of the necessity of fighting corruption and demanding good governance they were, in the larger picture, essentially ignored under the auspices of Afghan sovereignty.   There are endless examples of rampant corruption across the breadth of the Afghan government and security forces yet there are NO instances of major convictions for those crimes.  Literally, billions of dollars were diverted to private coffers by malign actors yet no one was held accountable--thus the citizenry developed a decided disdain for the government in power.  There is little evidence that either the Greater Islamic Republic of Afghanistan’s (GIROA) policing efforts or their judiciary helped the government of Afghanistan in a way that made any significant, positive impact with respect to the daily lives of the people.  With that in mind the people implicitly understood that when the Coalition Forces left the government would not be able to lead because the citizenry neither believed in, nor trusted, the government.  Had the citizens possessed the confidence that their government’s security forces would protect them and provide emergency services, they would likely have been loyal to the state. Quite simply, the legitimacy of their government was at stake and they failed.

Everyone failed in terms of holding anyone accountable.  The same power brokers and malign actors who controlled Afghanistan throughout the last 20-30 years of conflict are still empowered.  A culture of impunity developed and that built public distrust.  ANSF Generals were caught red-handed and either not punished or, worse, transferred to other assignments for fear of disrupting political power bases.  Our insistence that Afghanistan be treated as a sovereign nation clouded our judgment and we continued to pour billions of dollars into the country without prosecutions or forced retirements.  Instead, we took no action other than continually demanding that GIROA address the issue of epidemic corruption which touched virtually every facet of the ANSF.  Quite simply, we implicitly condoned corruption by failing to act in any meaningful way.  That having been said, in 2015 corruption continues unabated and increasingly impacts the ANSF while the overall pool of donor nation funding declines resulting in ever greater infighting over ever smaller resources. 

Crippling corruption not only created systemic failures of governance but directly impacted ANSF logistics as well.  Corruption affected the quantity and quality of the stocks in the national depots leaving desperately needed fuel, clothing and equipment in short supply.  Couple those shortages with the fact Afghanistan’s ring road offers the only significant supply route supporting the ANSF.   Along its length strategic insurgent interdiction has resulted in convoy delays and losses that severely curtail the flow of critical supplies to the provincial security forces.  In response the ANSF has committed extraordinary assets to road clearing/ security which, subsequently, is adversely affecting maneuver operations. In fact, over large parts of the country offensive operations have ceased entirely and, in cases even resulted in a withdrawal of security forces from key terrain.   Similarly, the vaunted fiber optic cable ring offering national connectivity was easily cut, disrupting the advanced information management systems and communications designed around the system rendering them virtually inoperable.  Moreover, the Afghans cannot afford the cost of the satellite bandwidth necessary to offset the loss of the fiber optic system.  Without adequate supplies and effective communications large portions of the east, south and west are effectively isolated from Kabul and operational readiness and living conditions have plummeted. Those conditions, coupled with the abandonment of key terrain have caused increasing numbers of security force to become disillusioned and normally high attrition rates have swelled to epidemic, levels that greatly exceed the rate at which new recruits are being added.

How did this happen?

We failed to grasp the depth of the Afghan environment as it related to their religion, culture and levels of literacy. In doing so we established far, far too advanced technology systems and bureaucratic processes mirroring Western Governments but which far exceeded the Afghans human, religious, and cultural capacities.

We simply ignored the old adage “First Crawl, then Walk, then Run” as it applies to a long term transition plan for step-by-step growth in a society where cultural acceptance, technological infrastructure, literacy and economic capability were all critical factors to success or failure.  When you do not clearly define your mission any destination along the way can be deemed ‘mission accomplished’ even though the end result may well be expensive as well as lacking in focus to the point of being dysfunctional---there was never a clearly defined end state with respect to what we hoped to accomplish with the ANSF as a whole.  Just what was our plan for the interrelation of army and police for 2014 and beyond?

We worked to the Coalition timeline rather than an Afghan timeline.  The rate of growth of the ANSF overwhelmed the institutional reforms required for the development of, and control over, independent, democratic security institutions.  As a result, corruption was pervasive. For example; the widespread demand for bribes by the security forces themselves eroded the confidence of the public. Security forces require the support and trust of the public before they can enjoy any degree of success.   In essence, we did not take the time to generate and build a shared appreciation of the problem and a way forward. Instead we forced our solutions and our timelines onto them. They deferred, rather than agreed, with us because that was the path to the most money, which we held and they wanted. Therefore, as we withdrew, few of our processes survived because they were not Afghan processes.

The unrealistic growth of the forces emphasized quantity rather than quality. This led to poor leadership, low rates of literacy as well as poorly trained and motivated personnel. Literacy levels failed to reach the minimum required proficiencies extolled by the Coalition as we failed to recognize that significant improvements in literacy across a society are generational in nature. In many cases the ‘solution’ worked like this: An American Air Force officer designed an Army unit that was staffed with largely illiterate forces, trained by a British officer, validated by a Canadian officer and later mentored by  Italian officers and NCOs….sound like a recipe for success? Make no mistake, while we are all members of the same Coalition we all have slightly different ways of doing things and the result often confused the Afghans.  Why not a single coalition member embedded with the unit throughout? 

Our focus on the Afghan leadership was too technocratic. We magnified the smallest successes of the Afghan leaders; even when those successes were, in reality, the result of Coalition efforts. Conversely, we minimized failures of the Afghan leaders. Our assessments focused on the numbers, charts, and other factors of quantity while the human side of the processes, the quality factor, including deliberate misbehavior of the high-positioned Afghan actors was condoned.

We focused on the wrong level. The Coalition focused on building national-level capabilities and institutions. At the same time we ignored the provincial level is the true locus of power and influence in Afghanistan. We over-estimated the ability of Kabul to exert control over outcomes in the rest of the country.  Because of that, much of our effort became irrelevant. To the average Afghan, Kabul and a national government are an abstraction, and while our metrics for success led us to believe we were improving Afghanistan, in reality we were really just improving Kabul.

We trained the wrong leaders.  In an effort to bring current changes to the leadership of the ANSF, we trained the senior leadership but failed to train their successors.  The second tier followed by example and fell into the cycle of graft and corruption they observed as they grew up within the system.  To effect enduring change we should have trained those who would have the most impact in the future.  Training the junior members of the organization provides the greatest return on investment because those personnel will remain a part of the system long enough to have the largest impact; even if it meant hand picking them and taking them out of the country for a 1-2 year training program

We created an unsustainable level of cost and complexity. We thought we were shattering the slow-moving Soviet style bureaucracy in the belief that was the major impediment to progress. What we failed to realize was that the Soviet system was something the Afghans were comfortable with and could manage. Instead we replaced that ‘peasant’ run style of bureaucracy of centralized control, which was compatible with low literacy, with a dynamic staff system.  Dynamic staff systems require intense coordination, delegation of responsibility, and careful planning; capabilities the ANSF could not internalize in the time available. Thus, once we pulled back they reverted to what they were comfortable with. In much the same manner the physical resources we built/provided -- training centers, headquarters, countless other facilities, vehicle fleets, IT systems, etc. -- can only be managed by the processes we had created, not the ones the Afghans could manage. In the end the ANSF found themselves unable to anticipate requirements, plan and budget effectively, or allocate resources in a timely fashion. As we watched from the sidelines hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure fell into disrepair, were deliberately destroyed or misused and the ANSF failed to reap the benefits of what we had created in their name. 

We created ‘needs’ which did not really exist. Just because a single Coalition officer declared that it was a ‘requirement’ did not make it so.  Look no further than the following two examples of ‘requirements’: (a) More than 13,000 of vehicles built into what is supposed to be a ‘light infantry’ army.  Vehicles require drivers, mechanics, parts and fuel while drivers and mechanics require extensive training. (b) 31,000+ computers for an army that is functionally illiterate and for which we trained less than 2,000 computer operators is not a ‘requirement’ but foolishness.  On the equipment side, the byproduct of inadequately trained and too few maintenance personnel resulted in the forced used of contractor based maintenance and unacceptable operational readiness rates.  Excess vehicles and equipment accumulated and contributed to the long standing ‘hoarder’ mentality long ingrained in the Afghan mind.  Damaged or broken vehicles and equipment were not addressed until the ANSF reached a point at which chronic equipment failure caused mission failure. Even at the most critical junctures leaders failed to understand the logistics picture and were unable to manage sustainment through any semblance of lifecycle management. 

We did not take sufficient risk in trusting the Afghans to generate Afghan solutions and were never prepared to let them feel the pain of failure though we often talked of holding them accountable and ensuring their leadership took responsibility.  The reality was other than minor, unimportant matters we always bailed them out and they never felt the consequences of poor decisions, corrupt institutions, and ad hoc processes until we left and everything fell apart.  In order to truly develop capabilities and capacities we must be willing to accept, or even force, selected, controlled failures.  Human nature is to learn more from mistakes, especially mistakes that have some negative impact, than we do from decisions/actions wherein we succeed or are saved from failure through no action of our own. 

We greatly exceeded Afghanistan’s economic capacity to sustain the ANSF.  For some reason, until far too late in the game, we either ignored or failed to grasp the cost consequences increasingly complex requirements posed. As late as 2010 we were projecting annual budgets of $8B-$9B to sustain the 325,000 man ANSF we were building but where did we think that money would come from?  Even worse, when we finally realized the financial risk outweighed the benefit associated with its’ size we persisted in fielding a security force we acknowledged was unsustainable; all at the cost of several hundred million dollars in equipment and personnel costs which we were concurrently planning to downsize!  The Afghans simply could not afford the system we built.  A common failure of security assistance efforts is to attempt to duplicate our own security architecture for a developing country even though the developing nation clearly lacks the human or financial capital to sustain what we build.  

In working with ANA we consciously fielded infantry first, without logistics or other enabler support.  Granted logistics are harder to master, require more literate personnel, and thus, take longer but does not that literally scream ‘Enablers First!’  With the infantry at full strength, but poorly supplied, they lost faith. Logistics supports armies and without that support armies fail; it’s really just that simple.  Finally recognizing the problem we attempted to surge enablers. Unfortunately, simply filling technical positions with personnel incapable of mastering the requirements of the position does not solve the problem.  We simply waited too long to transition from recruiting “numbers” rather than enablers. 

The Coalition mandated that the ANSF change from their historical “push” logistics system to the westernized “pull” system; a mandate which only compounded the logistics problem.  The head of that new ‘pull’ logistics snake resided in Kabul and the Coalition demonstrated little or no understanding of what issues the ANSF faced as they stockpiled supplies that then sat in Kabul’s warehouses.  Without adequate policies and sufficiently trained personnel the logistics systems collapsed.

As a result of the 2014 deadline, the organizational framework (personnel assignments, policies, and procedures) were not in place to sustain the force 2014 and beyond.  Rapid expansion of the ANSF and accelerating the need for them to assume the fight, within fixed timelines set by the Coalition’s withdrawal, skewed the perception the ANSF’s capability and masked their readiness to assume responsibility for security

From the outset, policing was militarized so they could 'join in the fight'. Thus, the Ministry of Interiors and its various forces were never effectively shaped into a police model which met the expectations of the people. The model for the Afghan police appeared to be based on Coalition experiences learned elsewhere but which bear little or no resemblance to an Afghan environment where we find no form of stable government but, instead, weak security institutions and extremely low levels of human capital.

The ANSF leadership could not prioritize issues then make hard decisions with respect to resourcing mission essential requirements versus ‘nice to have’ capabilities.  Inadequate, initial institutionalized training (partnering and field advising) coupled with epidemic levels of corruption undermined all productive efforts toward that end.

This combination of mistakes created a crippling combination of factors and created a near ‘perfect storm’ for Afghan security forces and led me to the title of this article “What Went Wrong?”

In summary, the ‘next time’ we cannot allow our hubris to again shape our thinking toward the belief that every country’s security force is capable of being forged into a mirror image of our own.  We cannot posture about corruption without a willingness to act on it.  We cannot ignore the realities of the developing nation’s human capacity, it’s near term economic capabilities or the fact many issues are generational in nature.  Quite frankly, Afghanistan required a different approach yet we failed in our analysis, strategy and application of resources; mistakes for which we have paid a horrific price and can ill afford in the future.

About the Author(s)

John Gillette is a former infantry officer and private sector business owner with ‘on the ground’ experience from Viet Nam to Afghanistan.  He recently completed a two year tour as a member of the first team deployed under the Minister of Defense Advisors (MODA) program.   In Afghanistan he served as the senior advisor to an Afghan Major General with whom he traveled extensively within the country.  His length and breadth of experience across more than forty years offers candid, passionate insights of the pitfalls to success he has seen repeated again and again, the actual state of our mission today and what we must do in order to be successful in the future.



Tue, 02/12/2013 - 8:48am

In reply to by JasonT

Jason...the last thing in the world I expected was "..a nice clean end..." Quite frankly what I expected was a more thoughtful approach and the last thing I expected was to build a mirror image of our own western concepts. In fact, I think your second paragraph misses my point entirely. Had I the authority I would have taken then "Back to the Future" and re-set the army to the days immediately following the Soviet withdrawal and from there ever so slowly and surely built something that fit their culture; that way we would have not had to "...spend hard earned taxpayer money, to find out that...the tide is coming back to the old mark...".


Tue, 02/12/2013 - 6:48am

In reply to by JasonT

Another good example would be Taliban (the "Students") coming to NYC after Sandy hit, teaching locals how to rebuild, based on a very restrictive, peculiar, some would argue partial exegesis of the Koran.

N. Rogeiro

Can I take a completely different tact and ask on what basis in the context of what is Afghanistan (not what we want it to be) the author is making the inference in his question that it all went wrong? I realise this may be a risky argument to this audience.

The points you raise are examples of what went wrong based on our own complex metrics. Are we not falling into the trap of we think success should look like if we were given all this money, equipment and lectures on what is culturally acceptable as well as platoons of INGOs and government administrators erecting bureaucracies to create a ticker-tape of regulations, as we have back at home? We are looking at this with the expectations we place on our own governments’ when we are asked to judge them, how have they spent our taxes, applied the law and improved our lives through policy reform.

I saw the same inconceivable progressive nonsense during the civil war area of Sri Lanka after the 2004 Tsunami when a Western senior health bureaucratic insisted on giving a lecture on medical-legal ethics to the local doctors and hospital administrators when they didn’t even have a basic equipment to treat the thousands of people injured.

Back to AFG - what did we expect with numerous changes in military and development approaches across one of the most complicated patchworks of human social geography on the planet. International security forces with contradictory rules of engagement and strategic intent across their individual AORs. Multiple changes of NATO-US Commanders. The constant need for many of us to remind our political leaders to explain the mission that ranged from destroying al-Qaeda, to defeating the Taliban, to nation building and from time to time vociferous speeches proclaiming that the reason we are there is to change the cultural, moral and social values - one of the largest social and cultural engineering programs the West has ever attempted. The cognitive dissonance of our time in Afghanistan is all around. The more we invested, the more it was failing the more we tried harder, the more we spent. Even if we had done the things better as described in this paper, would they have been necessary to achieve our original objective?

But did it all fail? True, many aspects have turned out to be a dog’s breakfast and were never going to be sustainable. I am only going by open-source information and don’t have any more facts to back this up than what is available to us all here, but no terrorist attack has occurred on Western countries as a result of non-state actors training, funding and planning their operation from Afghanistan for a very long time now. OBL was found and eliminated. Dozens of insurgents were chased back to the un-governed spaces along the Pakistan border and removed through drone strikes. Many young mobile Afghans have tasted open access to the world that they are hardly likely to let close once we leave. While many, other corners of Afghanistan will not change and nor should they if that is what they freely choose, other areas have been transformed for good, with exposure to opportunity in an era of extreme global interconnectivity, whether they exploit this for good or bad, was never going to be for us to decide.

If anyone expected a nice clean end they must have their head’s buried in a Rudyard Kipling fairy tale. We are just one more set of boot prints that have marched into this land, where locals have evolved to adapt and survive with what they have learnt from foreigners who came before us and from what we have left behind now. 2015 may feel like it all went wrong. We may ask ourselves why we needed to lose so many good soldiers’ lives and spend so much hard earned taxpayer money, to find that in 2015 the tide is coming back to the old water mark left after the end of 2001/2002 – with al-Qaeda removed and the insurgency dispersed (not defeated) Afghans having to sort out Afghanistan themselves with a neighbour intent on maintaining instability as its insurance against India.

(Thanks for the example Hubba Bubba re the Computer lab.)


Sat, 02/09/2013 - 10:33pm

Portuguese SF and other units, working in the OMLT and other modules, had the opportunity to contrast the needs of future Afghanistan security and defense forces and the same requirements by Portuguese speaking military in Africa (Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde, São Tomé, Guinea Bissau before it turned into a narco-state) and Asia (East Timor, in this case), where Portugal does some sort of mentoring and training via the so called CTM agreements (technical-military cooperation). The interesting thing is that in the African case Portuguese military cooperants were instructing ex-enemies, as most trainees came from the ranks of independence parties, that fought Portuguese administration from 1961 and 1974.
What can be said about Afghanistan, in that light?

*First, goals and needs are more important than structures and procedures, "models" or paths. If we conclude that the main goal is to bar future Afghanistan from becoming a terrorist haven (this was the initial idea, before nation building came into the frame), maybe the constitution on some sort of non-western model forces makes sense, where a combination of combat intelligence-SF-constabulary-tribal mobile units may be more suitable than conventional brigades.

*Second,Afghanistan tried, during its troubled history, all kinds of political systems, from monarchy to tribal confederate self rule, from "real socialism" to forms of economic feudalism, from some semblances of parliamentarian control to several forms of autocracy. Nothing really worked. One of the reasons was the nature of "physical transition" associated to the country: many neighbours see it as a mere "geographical phase", an approach or a backyard to their own spaces, and not a real nation. Without naming names, many of these countries engage in open or secret warfare in Afghanistan, for that reason: the country is a testing ground for many intelligence, military, economic, diplomatic and political indirect strategies.

*Third, neighboring countries continue to be ambiguous and/or hypocritical about guaranteeing the internal stability and security of Afghanistan. Atlhough there were plans to have a permanent Arab or Islamic states coalition doing FID or assisting thew new forces, nothing happened, and so it was the West to again have to pay the price for a far away protection operation, that seems each day more remote and more disconnected from 9-11 to most European and US public opinion sectors.

*I am not sure that there are "recipes" for Afghanistan. As the author indicates we may know what are the wrong ones, but we don't know what are the right ones. Of course there are evolving "models", as there were in Russia about Chechnya: raze the place, convert it, win hearts and minds, create a sanitary cordon, enforce regional cooperation (including from Iran), leavethe country to itself and just seal the borders, keeping it into perpetual limbo, transform into a Westminster model, ask the locals, ask yourself,explore minerals and other sectors underdevlop and pay with that for future security, leave and use drones whenever necessary, accomodate a moderate Taliban state, eliminate all armed Taliban factions, etc etc.

*The lack of obvious, longstanding, "historical" solutions is the main reason for the mess. It could be better. But it could be worse.

Nuno Rogeiro

MAJ Cynical

Wed, 02/06/2013 - 5:45pm

So does this mean I won't get to march in a parade down New York and get a chance to suck face with a good looking girl!!!!

"We suck again!!!!"

Bill M.

Wed, 02/13/2013 - 12:41am

In reply to by Sabot

There have been several articles comparing the U.S. to the Soviets in Afghanistan, and many of the parallels are of course uncomfortable. What I found most interesting about your article is it was written (or at published) in 2005. We had very arrogant leadership at the time who developed a strategy based on far fetched assumptions about human nature and the power of the U.S. to influence the behavior of others. The truly sad part is we have learned little, if you read the Army's lesson learned from a decade of war it proves we learned little.

Target! Well said. In 2005 I got emails calling me un-American and traitor of all things for a historical piece: "Don’t Follow
the Bear: The Soviet Attempt to Build Afghanistan’s Military"

I called for a new approach too.

Hubba Bubba

Wed, 02/06/2013 - 8:07am

I am glad John wrote this. To summarize all of the wrong things we did there (and are continuing to do so), we rigidly hold to the western "Teacher-student" model for our Security Force Assistance philosophy. Thus, where ever we go, we enter a country and decide to build a security force, and regardless of what that country needs/requires for a durable, appropriate force, we do what we prefer.

Every point John brings up is 100% right, and I saw it all and more. We are the teachers, and we teach non-westerners how to be western military/security forces without realizing that this is entirely a bone-headed approach. Further, we never reverse the relationship and become the student to their teacher. This is critical in the first stages of any SFA sort of operation, even in a UW campaign because if you succeed, your insurgents become the security force of the new legitimate government you put into power.

So, what are a few examples to tie in with John's examples where we should have been students instead of teachers?

1. Afghan corruption. Instead of fighting it (which was brought up in the comments that if we cannot do it in Chicago, how the heck will we do it in Afghanistan), we should have embraced it, and learned from it. Let the Afghans teach us, and then we should have provided them the right security force that would thrive in such a scenario. Instead, we went Elliot Ness on their arse and got nowhere. Oh, and it cost us BILLIONS.

2. Afghan culture. Literacy, women rights, Sharia Law, centralized government, etc. We boned it here and refused to be anything but teachers. We are so busy trying to tell Afghans that they need to be literate that we never learned from them how they could successfully (a relative term) run their own durable, adequate security force with a largely illiterate population. Other parts of the world can do it. Is it western? No, but it works for them. Same on women rights; I want them to activate the potential of 50% of their population as much as the next westerner, but we teach and refuse to learn from them. Same on religion, local versus centralized government; their economy; drugs; criminal patronage; etc.

3. A durable ANSF versus what we want, versus what they want. The Afghans wanted (and still want) tanks, fighter jets, C-130s, and a military that can roll out into Pakistan, Iran, or elsewhere to become a regional player. They got this (sort of) from the Soviets, and expected it from the Coalition. We gave them what we wanted, which is a COIN-centric non-exportable and non-regional player military force. However, it is still a highly technical, fancy force. Do the Afghans need C-22s or rotary wing? Hell no...but we gave it to them. Do the Afghans need the urban strike vehicles we promised them, with all of the maintenance and training necessary? No, and those things will become status-symbol lawn ornaments in Kabul within 48 months- because the ANSF cannot maintain them. Do they need CSI teams, SWAT teams, or any of that tech stuff? No...they realistically could use a lot of Toyota pickup trucks with 50cals mounted in the back, plenty of body armor and small arms; contract-provided air and technical support; and nice static positions for strong-points for border control and holding key terrain.

Example that still bugs me: last time I was there (which was not too long ago), I visited an Afghan police training center. Inside, they had a computer lab. Let me say that again, but first realize that even a level-1 trained Afghan has less than a 1st grade education...and most of their force is not even level 1. THEY HAD A COMPUTER LAB. Now, examining this empty lab, I saw that the keyboards for all of them were western keyboards.
We had ordered them essentially the same systems we used. Taped to the desk of each station was an Arabic (actually Dari- but minor differences) keyboard layout that allowed them to translate and type. So let me walk this dog for a second: the Afghan recruit, having perhaps passed level 1 literacy in his own language (Pashtun or Dari), is going to use a computer and type by first looking on the desk and identifying each key, then looking at the keyboard where a DIFFERENT language he is untrained in- English, and he is going to tap the right key to get things onto the screen.
Now, Arabic/Pastu/Dari words structure very differently from ours- their "letters" change based on where you connect them to form a word...let me just say that as a westerner with significant education, I did the same approach as this and slowly learned to type in Arabic by using the same process. It took forever, and I eventually bought an actual Arabic keyboard. But my point is: what the heck are we even doing here?

Here is what usually occurred. Big VIP visitors, usually Generals, Senators, Congressmen, and Diplomats would visit the location. The Afghans put on a swell show with marching, saluting, providing gifts, a wonderful meal, and a nice little tour. The VIPs saunter down the hallway and at each classroom, the students parrot whatever the teacher tells them in Dari when the VIPs go by- this is a play that they put on to demonstrate progress and the investment is working. If the VIPs go to the computer lab- they find 3-6 Afghans that might be functionally literate, and they have them pecking on the keyboard as best they can. When the VIPs leave, the labs are empty because the Afghans operate as a pen and ledger society- but we are the teachers and they are the students…so we give them laptops and teach, but we just never learn.
Rant complete!

Blowing bubbles

Hubba Bubba

When I see this:

<i>In summary, the ‘next time’ we cannot allow our hubris to again shape our thinking toward the belief that every country’s security force is capable of being forged into a mirror image of our own.</i>

I can't help but shudder at the assumption that there must inevitably be a "next time". Do we never learn?

The discussion of strategies and tactics is not without its uses and its merits, but to me this was a failure at the policy level: the adoption of vague, ephemeral and utterly unrealistic goals that were not realistically achievable with the time and resources we were prepared to commit. If success is achieving your goals, the first step to success must be the selection of concrete and realistic goals. The goal of transforming Afghanistan into a Western-style democracy with a complex civil bureaucracy and armed forces built in our image was utterly unrealistic and would probably have failed no matter what strategy and tactics were adopted.


Wed, 02/06/2013 - 12:03am

Spot on. We trained the army/police the way we thought it ought to be done. Did anyone ever ask the Afghans what they thought. We should have trained and equipped a light infantry force... After we kicked the crap out the insurgents. Our senior leadership is caught up in buzzwords and cannot seem to grasp that there peers have not been to one of the Academies, Harvard or Yale... And yet this does not mean they are stupid. Our training model should have been more along the lines of how we trained the Army in WWII. Every computer give to them is used for porn. They won't have an army like ours in a hundred years. Our senior leadership should hav
e focused on killing the enemy, training a light force on the basics.


Wed, 02/06/2013 - 8:56pm

In reply to by carl

The gorilla in the corner of the busted up room is us, and I fail to see the relevance of Pakistan's inability to tax Americans.


Wed, 02/06/2013 - 7:13pm

In reply to by Dayuhan


All I know is he didn't mention that gorilla setting over there in the corner when he figuring how the room got busted up.

You don't believe there was anything at all we could have done about Pak Army/ISI activity. Fine. I believe that there was seeing how the Pak Army/ISI doesn't have the power to tax Americans.


Wed, 02/06/2013 - 7:06pm

In reply to by carl

Possibly the author was concerned with elements within our capacity to control.


Wed, 02/06/2013 - 6:51pm

In reply to by Dayuhan


Position that pinata just right. Adjust it again, then WHAM! Knock the stuffing out of it. (I got tired of straw man and used straw man instead.)

I don't care if the Pak Army/ISI does what it feels like. My feelings aren't hurt because of that. I am not going to go in the corner and cry because they said they liked us but really didn't. Who cares?

But if you are going to list things we did wrong or that went wrong or why thing went wrong or whatever, the actions of the Pak Army/ISI need to be on the list. And you just listed them. The article didn't.


Wed, 02/06/2013 - 6:24pm

In reply to by carl

I read it more as a list of things we did wrong than as a list of things that went wrong.

Certainly the reality that Pakistan's perception of their interests diverges from our perception of our interests should have been considered before the "nation building" policy was adopted. The reality that the Pakistanis were likely to act on those perceived interests in ways similar to ways they've acted before and elsewhere should have been considered as well. The reality that dependence on Pakistani supply routes would effectively remove any leverage the US had that might constrain the Pakistanis form acting on these perceptions might have had a look as well, though it is unlikely that any leverage would have produced much change.

Once the policy was adopted, these were simply given facts that had to be managed within the real world constraints. Given the extent of those constraints, there was never going to be any really satisfactory way of managing the situation. If you wish you can blame people for having interests not compatible with ours and accuse them of acting on those interests, but the blame and accusation aren't likely to achieve anything as long as the underlying perception of interest exists.

The reality of Pakistan seems to me an excellent reason, one among multitudes, for not adopting a nation building policy in the first place. Once that policy was adopted, I don't really see how failure to change those existing circumstances as a failure of strategy or tactics.


Wed, 02/06/2013 - 4:00pm

In reply to by Dayuhan


The author didn't mention anything beyond this "solving the Pakistan issue". The article purports to be a list of reasons why Afghanistan would be falling apart as seen backwards in time from 2015. Since one of the major reasons for that, perhaps the major reason, is the Pak Army/ISI, the article is incomplete without mentioning. So incomplete as to be a description of something that actually isn't. If you want to make a list of the reasons things aren't good in Afghanistan, and you don't include the Pak Army/ISI, you ain't made a list.

Not blaming the Pak Army/ISI for their part and doing something about it makes the goal unachievable.


Wed, 02/06/2013 - 2:41am

In reply to by carl

The author might have mentioned Pakistani support for the Taliban, but I'm not sure what he could have said about that factor, other than that it was a given from the start and should have been recognized as such. The Pakistanis exist. They will act according to their perceived interests no matter what we say or do. There's not a thing we can do about it within any remotely reasonable parameters.

Blaming the Pakistanis for our inability to achieve unachievable goals in Afghanistan seems a bit like trying to swim the Bering Strait and complaining later that the water was cold. Ground reality is what it is. If you can't or don't want to deal with it, don't put yourself in a position where you have to deal with it.

There a few little to medium things wrong with this article, a lot of big things right and one huge gigundazoid thing overlooked.

First, everybody seems to be fond of using Fall's quote which actually is "In one lapidary formula: When a country is being subverted, it is not being outfought or outgunned, but it is being outadministered-particularly at the village grassroots, where it counts." The context in which he said that though was not that the VC were providing more desirable government than the South Vietnamese gov. The context was that the VC were killing dead all the South Vietnamese gov. officials they could so they would not face any competition. The original sense of Fall's comment is still very applicable to Afghanistan. Taliban & Co kill dead the competition to the extent they can.

I think it unfair to criticize giving a light infantry Afghan army 13,000 vehicles, depending upon the vehicle types that is. From what I read, people in Afghanistan mostly get around in passenger cars, tractors, pickup trucks and motorcycles. Taliban & Co get around on motorcycles and in pickup trucks. Everybody walks some depending on the terrain, but important movement is motorized. The Afghan army has to match that so it entirely reasonable that they have pickups, motorbikes and jingle trucks (I think that is what they are called). MRAPs and LAVs may not be such a good idea though.

Now the gigundazoid thing that was overlooked. Nowhere was the Pak Army/ISI mentioned. Pakistan is mentioned briefly in a left hanging phrase but not a word specifically addressing the effect of the Pak Army/ISI. Considering the huge amount of support and sanctuary they have been giving Taliban & Co, without which they could not exist in the form they are today nor have the strength they have, not mentioning the Pak Army/ISI is sort of like not mentioning the whale that stove in the side of the boat while critiquing the captain's navigation.

I have no idea if Afghanistan will stand after we leave. It won't if we pull the logistics/money plug on them like we did to South Vietnam. But Afghanistan is not the country it was when we showed up, as David Ignatious points out in his Jan 16 column. For one thing, the country is vastly more urbanized than it was. That is a very big thing. And unlike, South Vietnam, once we lose interest in the place, there are a lot of countries that will still care very much about what happens in Afghanistan.

This article could be summed up in one word: Chicago. If we can't solve the problems in our country in a place like Chicago, what made us think we could reverse centuries of problems in a country halfway around the world in a culture we didn't understand.


Wed, 02/06/2013 - 4:06pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Robert C. Jones:

I asked why the one group was more legitimate than the other. You didn't answer. I asked that because you said one of the groups was illegitimate. See this is what you said "to help the team we picked sustain their ill-gotten (and thereby inherently illegitimate) gains." You made the judgment that one group's gains were ill-gotten and illegitimate. You judged that group, the current gov, to be illegitimate. So since you made that judgment, I figured you would have a reason why you did. What is it?

And your comment also addressed the situation in Afghanistan without mentioning the Pak Army/ISI. You should. It is important.

Robert C. Jones

Wed, 02/06/2013 - 5:41am

In reply to by carl


You always want to paint things in terms of what you deem to be "right" or "wrong"; "good" or "evil" as measured through your lens. We all have those lenses, but the reality is, those assessments while perhaps holding a great degree of truth are largely immaterial to the nature of why operations such as Afghanistan turn out as they do.

Some things are simply none of our business, or stated in formal turns, not related to our vital national interests. Certainly that was and is the case in Afghanistan. Equally, some actions are inherently illegitimate regardless of how legal, or how pure the motives of the actor are. Just because the other side does not have clean hands either does not legitimize ones own acitons in such cases. Old cliche' sayings exist for a reason: "two wrongs don't make a right" or "possession is 9/10ths of the law."

In the West, after centuries of having to accept what Rome determined was "legitmate" or "illegitimate" for government across Europe drove that region into decades of turmoil and violence that shaped what we think of as "normal" today, there was one key aspect of the treaty of Westphalia that we tend to overlook when inconvenient: That all existing governments are legitimate simply by the fact of their existance. That no government that has the strength and abilty to rise and stay in power can be deemed as "illegitimate" by some foreign body. This same principle was incorporated into the founding charter of the UN. Yet, far too often we in the US and the UN as well judge others as being "illegitimate" when they do not fit our image of what proper looks like. We forget where we came from and how we got to where we are. We deny for others what we demand for ourselves. But more importantly, this was never any of our business, and we never had any true national interests there. A punitive raid post 9/11 was highly proper, but that is where we should have stopped.

Dayuhan says this was a failure of policy more than strategy, perhaps - it is impossible to separate the two at that level.


Tue, 02/05/2013 - 11:12pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Robert C. Jones:

Why is the "team of patriots, rogues and opportunists" we ran off into Pakistan any more inherently legitimate than the "team of patriots, rogues and opportunists" we supported? Taliban & Co took over Afghanistan with the gun. I don't understand how that makes them more legitimate than the current gov which kicked out Taliban & Co. with the help of our guns. At least this crew of "patriots, rogues and opportunists" pays lip service to the importance of elections and holds some. Taliban & Co doesn't do that. And this crew of "patriots, rogues and opportunists" hasn't supported and shielded AQ. Taliban & Co has.

Also on the one hand you say the system caused political irritation amongst some and so a Revolutionary insurgency began in earnest. So from that I conclude the people in that insurgency have a good appreciation for politics. But on the other hand you say the populaces of Afghanistan are largely apolitical. The one contention doesn't seem to match the other. Besides from what I've read, the Afghans, of whatever ethnic group, at the local and regional levels especially, are some of the most politically astute people on earth. They may not be able to write op-ed pieces for the Times but they can precisely keep track of all the games within games that go on and see six moves ahead.

Finally, and I know this is an oversight on your part (sarcasm alert! sarcasm alert!), but you forgot to mention the Pak Army/ISI. I figured you would want me to remind you, since you say we should think bigger than the tactical level and perhaps the biggest strategic reality of the conflict is the sponsorship of Taliban & Co. by the Pak Army/ISI.

Robert C. Jones

Tue, 02/05/2013 - 6:29am

If we only think about these situations in tactical terms we will never move beyond arguing tactics. This article makes several worthy observations of how we could have done the wrong thing better. But that does not lead to success, only to a different version of failure.

We understood and approached Afghanistan wrong strategically from the very beginning. We applied a mix of one part colonial king making and one part American self-righteousness and produced a very predictable result.

We picked a side, we disrupted the balance of power, and we ran one team of patriots, rogues and opportunists off into exile in Pakistan, and elevated another team of patriots, rogues and opportunists into a power they could never hope to attain on their own. We then, upon deciding we needed Afghanistan as a base of operations to stage out of in pursuit of AQ in the region, decided to stay and "fix" Afghanistan.

That is when the real trouble began. We were happily manipulated into supporting the development of a constitution and a conduct of elections designed by the Northern Alliance to solidify their monopoly on governance and patronage in Afghanistan with a major twist: They saw the value immediately of a centralized system with vast power vested in the President as a means to control all major patronage from Kabul and to largely eliminate the risk of a future rise regional challengers as had always happened in the past. Once that was done the Revolutionary insurgency began in earnest. Check the history (yes, this conflict is so long that the beginnings are now well recorded history). Don't read what we said we did, read past that and attempt to understand what was actually going on.

We then decided to help build a huge centralized security force to allow the Northern Alliance to better fend off challengers to their monopoly of patronage and power. This is a culture that is much better suited for local militia-like forces answering to governors, but even hand-selected governors can become none of that. Besides in America we have become convinced over the past 70 year of the superiority of a large active military, even though it has contributed to all of the problems our founders warned about.

As the Revolution grew we then decided to help the Northern Alliance suppress it. We called it "COIN," but in reality it was a mix of colonial policing and simply being a hired gun to help the team we picked sustain their ill-gotten (and thereby inherently illegitimate) gains. Our efforts to beat down the agents of the revolution that ventured into Afghanistan from their winter sanctuaries in Pakistan every fighting season produced an equally predictable result: it began to motivate a powerful resistance insurgency among the largely apolitical populaces of Afghanistan who were simply hoping to ride this latest disruption out. But we brought it to them, and they gave it back to us.

We built this. We need to own that. We need to attempt to break it down and understand it at a fundamental and strategic level. We made bad choices at both the policy and operational level. No amount of good tactical effort is apt to overcome that degree of top-level wrong-headedness. But instead we argue tactics, and will likely do this all again someday. Perhaps in Mali or Mexico - there are those already eagerly plotting both. This is the problem with tactical thinking. One always believes that next time will be different. But it never is.