There’s a prevailing maxim, both inside the armed forces and around the Beltway, that goes something like this: “The U.S. can never be militarily defeated in any war,” certainly not by some third world country. Heck, I used to believe that myself. That’s why, in regard to Afghanistan, we’ve been told that while America could lose the war due to political factors (such as the lack of grit among “soft” liberals or defeatists), the military could never and will never lose on the battlefield.
That entire maxim is about to be turned on its head. Get ready, because we’re about to lose this war militarily.
Consider this: the U.S. military has advised, assisted, battled, and bombed in Afghanistan for 17-plus years. Ground troop levels have fluctuated from lows of some 10,000 to upwards of 100,000 servicemen and women. None of that has achieved more than a tie, a bloody stalemate. Now, in the 18th year of this conflict, the Kabul-Washington coalition’s military is outright losing.
Let’s begin with the broader measures. The Taliban controls or contests more districts—some 44 percent—than at any time since the 2001 invasion. Total combatant and civilian casualties are forecasted to top 20,000 this year—another dreadful broken record. What’s more, Afghan military casualties are frankly unsustainable: the Taliban are killing more than the government can recruit. The death rates are staggering, numbering 5,500 fatalities in 2015, 6,700 in 2016, and an estimate (the number is newly classified) of “about 10,000” in 2017. Well, some might ask, what about American airpower—can’t that help stem the Taliban tide? Hardly. In 2018, as security deteriorated and the Taliban made substantial gains, the U.S. actually dropped more bombs than in any other year of the war. It appears that nothing stands in the way of impending military defeat.
Then there are the very recent events on the ground—and these are telling. Insider attacks in which Afghan “allies” turn their guns on American advisors are back on the rise, most recently in an attack that wounded a U.S. Army general and threatened the top U.S. commander in the country. And while troop numbers are way down from the high in 2011, American troops deaths are rising. Over the Thanksgiving season alone, a U.S. Army Ranger was killed in a friendly fire incident and three other troopers died in a roadside bomb attack. And in what was perhaps only a (still disturbing) case of misunderstood optics, the top U.S. commander, General Miller, was filmed carrying his own M4 rifle around Afghanistan. That’s a long way from the days when then-General Petraeus (well protected by soldiers, of course) walked around the markets of Baghdad in a soft cap and without body armor.
More importantly, the Afghan army and police are getting hammered in larger and larger attacks and taking unsustainable casualties. Some 26 Afghan security forces were killed on Thanksgiving, 22 policemen died in an attack on Sunday, and on Tuesday 30 civilians were killed in Helmand province. And these were only the high-profile attacks, dwarfed by the countless other countrywide incidents. All this proves that no matter how hard the U.S. military worked, or how many years it committed to building an Afghan army in its own image, and no matter how much air and logistical support that army received, the Afghan Security Forces cannot win. The sooner Washington accepts this truth over the more comforting lie, the fewer of our adulated American soldiers will have to die. Who is honestly ready to be the last to die for a mistake, or at least a hopeless cause?
Now, admittedly, this author is asking for trouble—and fierce rebuttals—from both peers and superiors still serving on active duty. And that’s understandable. The old maxim of military invincibility soothes these men, mollifies their sense of personal loss, whether of personal friends or years away from home, in wars to which they’ve now dedicated their entire adult lives. Questioning whether there even is a military solution in Afghanistan, or, more specifically, predicting a military defeat, serves only to upend their mental framework surrounding the war.
Still, sober strategy and basic honesty demands a true assessment of the military situation in America’s longest war. The Pentagon loves metrics, data, and stats. Well, as demonstrated daily on the ground in Afghanistan, all the security (read: military) metrics point towards impending defeat. At best, the Afghan army, with ample U.S. advisory detachments and air support, can hold on to the northernmost and westernmost provinces of the country, while a Taliban coalition overruns the south and east. This will be messy, ugly, and discomfiting for military and civilian leaders alike. But unless Washington is prepared to redeploy 100,000 soldiers to Afghanistan (again)—and still only manage a tie, by the way—it is also all but inevitable.
The United States military did all it was asked during more than 17 years of warfare in Afghanistan. It raided, it bombed, it built, it surged, it advised, it…everything. Still, none of that was sufficient. Enough Afghans either support the Taliban or hate the occupation, and managed, through assorted conventional and unconventional operations, to fight on the ground. And “on the ground” is all that really matters. This war may well have been ill-advised and unwinnable from the start.
There’s no shame in defeat. But there is shame, and perfidy, in avoiding or covering up the truth. It’s what the whole military-political establishment did after Vietnam, and, I fear, it’s what they’re doing again.
Danny Sjursen is a U.S. Army officer and a regular contributor to The American Conservative. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.