Small Wars Journal

Afghanistan, Continued

Sat, 01/06/2018 - 3:46pm

Afghanistan, Continued

Thomas Neely

The United States has been continuously at war in Afghanistan since 2001. On August 21, 2017, President Trump gave a major speech about our future there.[i] Some had speculated that the new president might fully wind down our military involvement in Afghanistan and possibly elsewhere.[ii] Now we know the war will not only continue but will expand, that we will keep at it on a larger scale with new and sweeping objectives; if our experience in wars since Vietnam is a guide, our troops and the country will have a high price to pay. How did this happen?

General John Nicholson, commander in Afghanistan since March 2016, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on February 9, 2017. In his accompanying written statement, he said “the current security situation [in Afghanistan] is a stalemate.  . . .”[iii] On June 13, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, testifying before the same committee, said “We are not winning.”

On July 19, President Trump met with Secretary Mattis, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford, and other senior military and civilian advisors to review the status of the war. Reportedly, the president expressed dissatisfaction with progress, said “We aren’t winning, we are losing,” and suggested that General Nicholson be replaced as commander.[iv]

The subject of this paper is how our troops will be used during the continuation, however long it may last.[v]  The speech deals with other topics: relations with Pakistan and India, the need for assistance from our allies and cooperation from the Afghanistan government and military, “the integration of all instruments of American power — diplomatic, economic, and military — toward a successful outcome.” Those are important matters, but the focus here is on the role of United States soldiers and Marines as we pursue the president’s goals presented in the speech. What will they be asked to do?

It takes until the 44th paragraph of the speech to get to it, but once there the answer explodes off the page: “Our troops will fight to win. We will fight to win. From now on, victory will have a clear definition: attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing Al Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge.”

Two features of this paragraph stand out. The first is its tone, the ringing, muscular prose reminiscent of Churchill’s first speech as Prime Minister, Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat: “You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war . . . with all our might . . . against a monstrous tyranny.  . . . You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory despite all terror.  . . .”

The second notable aspect is its astonishing breadth. President Trump, presumably at the urging of his Secretary of Defense, National Security Advisor, and other military and civilian leaders, directed our troops to attack, obliterate, crush, prevent the spread of Taliban control, and stop domestic terror; so at the end, to be successful, they must wipe out or neutralize three terror organizations presently in Afghanistan, ISIS, Al Qaeda, and the Taliban. How they will do this, when Presidents Bush and Obama tried unsuccessfully for years to defeat jihadists, having available hundreds of thousands of soldiers and Marines to do the job, is anyone’s guess.[vi]

The president isn’t telling. But he says that “to prosecute this war, we will learn from history.” He blames President Obama for leaving Iraq prematurely in 2011, and says that “conditions on the ground — not arbitrary timetables will guide our strategies.” He will not announce when military operations will begin and will not talk about numbers of troops. “I will not say when we are going to attack, but attack we will.”

If the president wants to learn from history, he should review the course of our wars since 1950, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf, Iraq, Afghanistan. None of the five were authorized by Congressional declarations of war, and all but the Gulf were open-ended in that they were pursued with Congressional support short of all out declarations that put no effective restraints on the president.[vii] In the case of Korea, President Truman acted with no authorization by Congress.[viii] The war in Afghanistan has been conducted under a Joint Resolution of the House and Senate, Public Law 107-40, adopted September 18, 2011, a week after 9/11. It authorized the president to use force against all involved in the attacks and those who harbored the attackers, in order to prevent future attacks. Whether this is sufficient to authorize President Trump to follow the strategy proclaimed in his speech is beyond this paper. But in the absence of Congressional action, his speech will stand as the Trump Doctrine. He will have free rein as commander in chief to conduct military activity as he sees fit, as Presidents Johnson and Nixon did in Vietnam and Presidents Bush and Obama did in Iraq and Afghanistan. If the logic of the Doctrine goes unexamined by Congress, it could be easily expanded by the president to cover any place in the world.[ix]

A now familiar pattern emerged over several years in the wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, as action morphed from one type of war to another. Each war began with traditional warfare, troops versus troops, what we think of when we hear the word “war.” (In Vietnam, American soldiers started out as advisors during the Kennedy administration, as they are now in Afghanistan, and then in 1965 assumed a significant combat role.) In this traditional warfare, our soldiers and Marines, fighting in large numbers, won virtually all their battles. We were better trained and equipped than the enemy, and the troops were highly motivated. Mission accomplished. But then the enemy largely disappeared, substituting insurgencies against the populace and opposing troops for traditional warfare. This, in turn, generated counterinsurgency tactics by U.S. troops and our allies. Large scale battles became uncommon. But insurgencies and counterinsurgencies were not the only ongoing military activities. What emerged over a long time, often several years, were lethal but hard to see attritional nether-wars that ripped the soul out of our troops and led to defeat in Vietnam and possibly in Iraq and Afghanistan as well.[x]

These attritional wars overlapped with the insurgency/counterinsurgency and traditional warfare phases, which made it difficult to think of them as separate. Wars became attritional in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan when military action consisted primarily of sniper fire, suicide bombs, and IEDs inflicted on our troops as they went in search of an enemy that had left the field but continued its insurgencies and terrorist activities. It was often experienced at small unit levels, company, platoon, and squad. Characteristics of attritional warfare in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan were the lack of any apparent reason why one unit was hit and others were not; random violence at any time from any direction; anonymous violence — those responsible for it were long gone when the damage was done and our troops found no enemy to fight; fewer casualties than in traditional warfare, which contributed to an invisibility in the public and military consciousness; the absence of battles for the media to report; and from a military perspective, ground wasn’t taken, strongholds were not contested — nothing much seemed to happen. And all this went on for a long time.[xi]

This warfare corrodes morale, induces tension, fear, frustration, a sense of helplessness. There is no enemy to attack, but there are a lot of people who look like the enemy, speak the language of the enemy, and who in fact may be the enemy. Soldiers and Marines are not trained in the tactics of attritional war. They cannot be because there are no tactics. Our troops are put in harm’s way doing tasks for which they are not trained. They are attacked, the attackers are nowhere to be found, medics and corpsmen tend to our dead and maimed.[xii]

And the key takeaway for the president, as he studies these wars in his quest to learn from history, is that attritional warfare is a war that even our magnificent troops cannot win. They do all of the taking and very little of the giving. It is a prescription for disaster, and we have seen it before.

Does “Afghanistan, Continued” have to end in attritional nether-war? No, but it will take planning, conscious effort, and a strong will to avoid it. Several of the conditions that led us to it in Vietnam, Iraq, and previously in Afghanistan are present now.

First, troop head count — General Nicholson’s Statement presented at his February meeting with the Senate Armed Services Committee, says we had 8,488 troops in-country in 2016[xiii] to support “Our primary mission [which is] to protect the homeland from being used again as a safe haven for terrorists to attack the United States or our allies.”[xiv]  It was reported recently[xv] that 4,000 more troops were sent in August, which would be about what we had in Vietnam in 1963 under President Kennedy. The Nicholson Statement further says that our troops are currently assisting Afghani troops in counterterrorist activities.[xvi]

President Trump’s pledge that our troops will fight to win and that victory will involve obliterating, crushing, harnessing the Taliban, and preventing mass attacks on America will almost certainly mean that many thousands of additional troops will be sent to the war.

Second, nature of the mission — General Nicholson’s primary mission, to ensure that Afghanistan and Pakistan will not be safe havens from which to attack America, will no longer be limited to assisting with counterterrorism. If the president means what he says, most of the many thousands of additional troops sent there will be combat trained, and will fight, in traditional warfare, ISIS, Al Qaeda, and the Taliban, and any other groups in the region that converge to assist them. If our experience in Vietnam, Iraq, and earlier in Afghanistan holds, as it almost certainly will, we will win these battles handily and reasonably quickly. Then what will the president do with our many combat troops still in-country?

Third, what is “victory”? — There must have been dancing in the halls of the Pentagon when folks got wind of the 44th paragraph in President Trump’s full-throated oration. Surely they were granted everything they asked for — and more. The president had come all the way from his “original instinct . . . to pull out” (speech, 17th paragraph), to obliterating and crushing the enemy. Further, the president gave more authority for commanders to act unilaterally in the field without “micromanagement” from Washington. In all, a broad mandate, indeed.

But be careful what you wish for: President Johnson wished that Congress would give him carte blanche to fight communism in Vietnam, which it did in 1964 with the Tonkin Gulf Resolution.[xvii] His wish led to his decision not to seek re-election in 1968. President Nixon wished for peace with honor as he turned over the fighting to the South Vietnamese. Those of us of a certain age are left with the indelible memory of helicopters lifting Americans from the roof of the U. S. embassy upon the fall of Saigon, out of reach of grasping Vietnamese.[xviii] President Bush got several years of questionable nation-building, and President Obama continued Bush’s initiatives until most of our combat troops left Iraq and our mission changed in Afghanistan from combat to assisting with counterterrorism. All four presidents got virulent, unwinnable, attritional war.

Fourth, war and remembrance[xix] — We have learned that modern wars are much easier to start than to stop, and the price of all wars, however short or long, is carnage. We carry on not only despite the carnage, but because of it. Lincoln at Gettysburg, rallying the country to “the great task remaining before us,” vowed that “we here highly resolve these dead shall not have died in vain.” President Trump promises that our continued military actions will honor the sacrifice of those who have previously died and suffered. The difference between the two presidents is that Lincoln aimed to defeat Lee and the other confederate generals. This he could do and he did. In contrast, President Trump has set the stage for perpetual war in Afghanistan, South Asia, and elsewhere, perpetual because his concept of victory is beyond reach.                         


The president expresses his love and admiration for the military at every opportunity. He did it again in his speech, devoting paragraphs two through thirteen to encomiums, and then, in classical style, he returned to the subject in the final eight paragraphs. The president said we will not telegraph our strategies and plans to the enemy henceforth. Fair enough. But he now owns the continuation of the war, and he owes his troops an explanation of how he will proceed without having it slide into the murk of attritional war. His generals will deny the existence of attritional war, just as they denied the reality of PTSD for so many years, and just as they failed to tell him that the goals in paragraph 44 cannot be met, which they well know.[xx] But as a part of his promise to learn from history, the president should conduct his own due diligence.

He should read Tim O’Brien’s The Thing’s They Carried[xxi], or, if that is too much, he should read any five pages at random; he should watch The Vietnam War by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick[xxii], or, if that is too much, he should watch Episode 8, from 1:04:20 to 1:05:22, just two ticks over a minute, where he will hear O’Brien’s description of a war that for him had become attritional: “Somewhere around 80% of our casualties came from land mines of all sorts in Vietnam for me just to get up in the morning and look out at the land and think in just a few minutes I’ll be walking out there and will my corpse be there or there will I lose a leg out there I had always thought of courage as charging enemy bunkers or standing up under fire but just to walk through Quang Gnai day after day from village to village and through the paddies and up into the mountains just to make your legs move was an act of courage that if say you were living in Sioux City it wouldn’t be courageous to walk to the grocery store or down main street you know just have your legs go back and forth but in Vietnam for me just to walk felt incredibly brave. I would sometimes look at my legs as I walked, thinking: how am I doing this?”[xxiii]; he should read Dexter Fllkins and Phil Klay[xxiv] on Iraq and Afghanistan; he should talk to enlisted grunts and jarheads in ranks from E-3 to E-5 (private first class to specialists to the lowest ranking sergeant) injured by IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan and now suffering from PTSD; he should do what a leader does: find out for himself, without relying on his generals, who are diligently planning to attack, obliterate, and crush, and who will not help him.

This much, as commander in chief, he owes the soldiers and Marines he’s sending back to war.

End Notes       

[i] Remarks by President Trump on the Strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia, from the White House Office of the Press Secretary, August 21, 2017

[ii] See, e.g., The Intercept, August 21, 2017. “All the times Donald Trump Said the U.S. Should Get out of Afghanistan,” Jon Schwarz and Robert Mackey

[iii] Statement for the Record by General John Nicholson Commander U.S. Forces — Afghanistan Before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the Situation in Afghanistan February 9, 2017, Final Version (the “Nicholson Statement”)

[iv] See, e.g., NBC News, August 2, 2017, “Trump Says U.S. ‘Losing’ Afghan War in Tense Meeting with Generals,” Carol E. Lee and Courtney Kube; and Fox News, August 3,2017, “Trump hedges as military present new Afghan strategy,” Vivian Salama and Lolita Baldor

[v] Of course this may become moot depending on the outcome of our current disputes with North Korea.

[vi] Both General Nicholson in his Statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee and the president in his speech said there are 20 U.S. designated foreign terrorist organizations active in Afghanistan and Pakistan. When our troops have dealt with the big three, what about the other 17 (which does not include three violent extremist organizations referred to on page 1 and elsewhere in the Nicholson Statement)?

[vii] President George H.W. Bush asked for and received congressional authorization for the Gulf War, Public Law 102-1. Unlike the authorizations for action in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, this was narrow in focus; it authorized the president to use military force against Iraq for its invasion of Kuwait. That successfully happened and the troops came home.

[viii] For an analysis of President Truman’s unilateral escalation of our participation in the war and restatement of our goals, see Harold H. Bruff, Untrodden Ground: How Presidents Interpret the Constitution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), pages 271-275.

[ix] Such as Niger.

[x] Why We Lost: A General’s Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars by Daniel P. Bolger (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014), should be mandatory reading for the president, his military advisors, and all others who want to learn from history.

[xi] Attritional war did not occur in Korea because we did not win the traditional war. When it seemed that the combined U.S. and South Korean forces were on the verge of victory, China intervened on behalf of the North, and the traditional war ended in stalemate.

[xii] For more on the nature of attritional war, see Thomas Neely, “Attritional War: the Neglected Phase of Modern Warfare,” The Army Press, 2016.

[xiii] Nicholson Statement, page 8

[xiv] Nicholson Statement, page 1

[xv] Fox News, August 21, 2017, “Trump approves sending 4,000 more troops to Afghanistan, senior official says,” Jennifer, Griffin, Lucas Tomlinson, and the Associated Press

[xvi] Nicholson Statement, pages 2,3

[xvii] Public Law 88-408

[xviii] America’s active involvement in combat ended in 1973, and the final withdrawal of U.S. personnel occurred at the end of April 1975 when Gerald Ford was president after President Nixon’s resignation the prior August. But the legacy of this withdrawal belongs to President Nixon.

[xix] With a bow to Herman Wouk, War and Remembrance (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1978).

[xx] Wars fought in non-traditional ways exacerbate relations between civilian and military leaders and within the military as well. See, e.g. David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest (New York: Random House, 1972), and H.R. McMaster, Dereliction of Duty (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1997)

[xxi] Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried (Boston: Houghton Mifflin/Seymour Lawrence, 1990)

[xxii] The Vietnam War, a film by Ken Burns & Lynn Novick, 2017

[xxiii] For an excellent complement to The Vietnam War, see Dateline-Saigon, a 2017 film by Thomas D. Herman, which tells the story of five young journalists — Peter Arnett, Malcolm Browne, Horst Faas, David Halberstam, and Neil Sheehan — who went to Vietnam generally supportive of the war effort but came to realize that the light-of-the-end-of-the-tunnel story spun daily by the generals in Saigon and the president in Washington was, put mildly, counterfactual.

[xxiv] Dexter Filkins, The Forever War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008), and Phil Klay, Redeployment (New York: Penguin Press, 2014)


About the Author(s)

Thomas Neely is a retired partner of Wilmer Hale, a law firm with twelve offices in the United States, Europe, and Asia. After graduation from Williams College and Harvard Law School, he served for two years in the United States Army, which included a tour in Vietnam in 1970 and 1971 that led to his general interest in military history and modern warfare in particular.