America’s High-Tech Problem in Low-Tech Wars
By Michael Ferguson
In 1997, between two very different wars with Iraq, military historian Williamson Murray highlighted what he saw as a disturbing trend in the US Department of Defense. A newfound obsession with supposedly revolutionary military technologies was sidelining history and strategic studies in professional military education programs. He believed this fascination was preparing the US officer corps “to repeat the Vietnam War” in the twenty-first century, only more “disastrously.”
These new tools, such as the highly accurate Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM), F-117 Nighthawk stealth aircraft, and AH-64 Apache attack helicopter were so successful in Operation Desert Storm (1990-1991) that the defense community dubbed that conflict the 100-hour war. Gen. Colin Powell, who oversaw the operation as chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, even got his own philosophical doctrine out of it: The Weinberger-Powell Doctrine.
After the 9/11 attacks, intelligence officials began exploring the possibilities of hunting down Osama bin Laden using specialized teams augmented with the most sophisticated equipment and intelligence platforms. Commander of US Central Command, Gen. Tommy Franks, bought into the idea of emerging technologies supplanting the need for a large ground force. In his memoirs he envisioned a coming “revolution in warfare” that would look like science fiction compared to military operations a decade prior.
Chief of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, Cofer Black devised the initial incursion plan into Afghanistan and tasked Gary Schroen to wrangle the Northern Alliance and kill Osama bin Laden. As a long-time advocate of revolutionary military technologies, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld embraced the idea, especially because President George W. Bush was reluctant to place a heavier military force at risk.
The pitch for small teams with big technologies won the day.
A group of roughly 100 intelligence officers and special operators fought alongside their Afghan partners to route al-Qaeda and topple the Taliban government by December 2001. But it wasn’t enough to capture bin Laden. A 2009 report from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee concluded that the refusal to deploy a larger ground force at Tora Bora allowed bin Laden to escape into Pakistan where he remained for the next decade until his death in 2011. Cofer Black later echoed this sentiment, suggesting that the deployment of additional military forces could have been decisive in the early hunt for bin Laden.
Most experts came to agree that the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine was effective in 1991 not because of its high-tech means, but rather its massing of combat power and well-defined, feasible ends. At the height of the Afghan War in 2011, the United States had 98,000 troops on the ground. That is less than one-fifth of the US manpower dedicated to push Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in 1991. The Taliban is not the Iraqi Army, but anyone who has spent time traversing Afghanistan’s unforgiving terrain can tell you that securing that country is a monumental task.
While the initial operation in Afghanistan was relatively successful, the subsequent campaign turned the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine on its head. By deploying limited means—supposedly balanced by advanced weapons and intelligence systems—the United States sought an audacious political objective: Transform an ardently tribal region into a relatively stable democracy through overt foreign military occupation.
Throughout the war, the United States and by extension its Afghan partners relied heavily on persistent aerial surveillance, accurate close air support, uncontested tactical communications, and abundant logistical networks. None of these resources were organic to the Afghan National Army (ANA) or sustainable in the absence of US forces. After America’s withdrawal from the country in August 2021, highly effective Afghan commandos could only do so much without this enabling framework.
Former commander of US European Command, Gen. Ben Hodges, recognized that attempts to mold the ANA into a high-tech, conventional force similar to the US military were poorly imagined. Not only that, but they likely contributed to the rapid collapse of the Afghan government last month. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley concurred with this assessment in a more recent interview.
This strikes at the heart of the issue.
Once US forces withdrew, it pulled the rug out from under the Afghan Army by removing the structure upon which it spent the last twenty years building a dependency. This certainly influenced their will to fight, leading to what senior defense officials now characterize as an unexpectedly rapid deterioration of Afghanistan’s security forces.
Gen. Sir Nick Carter, the UK’s chief of defence staff, stated recently that everyone got the intelligence wrong on the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. If he is right, the inevitable question is, why did everyone get it wrong? In light of the above approaches to America’s involvement there, it seems likely that the advanced technologies employed by foreign advisors created a bloated image of the Afghan Army’s operational capacity.
Technology evolves quickly. With discussions on everything from lethal autonomous weapons to quantum computing now swirling about the defense enterprise, the potential for advanced military technologies to make similar promises in future wars is far greater than it was in 2001. Even if fully imagined, however, none of these capabilities would have delivered victory in Afghanistan. There is no guarantee they will do so in the next war, either.
None of this is to say that modern technologies are not vital to military operations. They have saved my life in Iraq and Afghanistan more than once, and there is certainly much work to be done in the realms of modernization and acquisitions. But I have yet to come across an Afghan War postmortem that pinpoints a lack of advanced weapons as instrumental in America’s failures there. I don’t expect to.
Any review of Afghanistan’s history reveals that Afghan problems have always demanded Afghan solutions with Afghan resources. Low-tech, decentralized approaches have characterized that region’s style of warfare since Alexander the Great invaded Bactria in the fourth century BCE. If America takes nothing else from its experience there, it should adopt a more realistic outlook on the limits of its massive, conventional military in small, irregular wars.
Williamson Murray insisted that any technological leap into the future must be done with a healthy respect for the past and a realistic appreciation of what is humanly possible. Aptly named, the title of his 1997 paper cited in the opening of this article was Clausewitz Out, Computer In, referencing the famous Prussian strategic theorist, Carl von Clausewitz. Two centuries ago, Clausewitz wrote of the moral powers in war—the forces external to those that can be measured and calculated. He described their “incredible influence” as “best exemplified by history.” America’s high-tech gambit in low-tech Afghanistan is now part of that history. Learning from it will be the mandate of a generation.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the policies or positions of the United States Army, Department of Defense, or United States Government.