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America Is Headed For Military Defeat in Afghanistan

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 [1] 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 [2]—some 44 percent—than at any time since the 2001 invasion. Total combatant and civilian casualties are forecasted [3] 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 [4] (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 [5] more bombs than in any other year of the war. It appears that nothing stands in the way of impending military defeat.

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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 [6] 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 [7] in a friendly fire incident and three other troopers died [8] 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 [9] in an attack on Sunday, and on Tuesday 30 civilians were killed [10] 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.

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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 [11]. Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet [12].

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.

72 Comments (Open | Close)

72 Comments To "America Is Headed For Military Defeat in Afghanistan"

#1 Comment By MEexpert On December 3, 2018 @ 2:50 am

America does not go to war to win it. She goes to war to occupy the land. The war in Afghanistan was not about Taliban. It was part of the strategy to invade Iran for regime change. The US got stuck in Afghanistan. The US should teach history in the school. Americans thought they won in Iraq “mission accomplished,” yet they are still there fighting Al-Qaeda and ISIS. Turkey and Turkmenistan refused to allow US forces to launch attacks from those two countries. So the US tried Yemen, hoping to draw Iran into the conflict. Guess what? Iran once again outsmarted the US.

The only solution to this quagmire is for people to rise up and demand an end to all these wars. Throw out the warmongers in Washington, both the politicians and the bureaucrats.

#2 Comment By Jon Cloke On December 3, 2018 @ 7:22 am

Before the military defeat came the socio-political defeat, which took place in 2001 when Afghanistan was suddenly allocated second place to Dick Cheney’s ambitions in Iraq, thus entraining a whole series of compromises which derailed any regime-change process.

When the US military steam-rollered into Afghanistan following 9/11 the invasion had substantial potential – it had casus belli since the Taliban plainly knew in advance of OBL’s plans; it had the remnant Northern Alliance and at least the possibility of an Afghan government of unity and it had the sheer military force to defeat the Taliban.

If in the initial stages the USAF had pursued OBL and the remnant al-Qaeda into Tora-Bora and not quit; if the Pentagon had politely informed the Pakistani government of their intention to pursue al-Q into Balochistan and the tribal areas and that the Pakistani army should stand aside; if the ISI hadn’t engineered a truce in Tora-Bora through which they spirited OBL away to his 10 years in Abbotabad, things might have been different. Might have been… if, if, if.

But the US was desperate to go and kick over the Iraq sand-castle and get a quick victory for regime change. And so the compromises that would make any stable change in Afghanistan impossible followed each other ever more rapidly – Kharzai and his rigged elections; massive fraud masquerading as ‘reconstruction’; payments to local Taliban/al-Q leaders to keep the peace; drug trade warlords as ‘government representatives’; Abdul Rashid Dostum as VP.

You’d have thought that after implementing exactly the same proxy-regime-corruption in the name of democracy in Cambodia, Vietnam and any number of Latin American states the US as a country would know where that leads, but then it isn’t the US as a country that makes money out of these wars and doomed-to-failure kleptocracies.

The US as a country does the bleeding and the dying, whilst the money goes up the food chain.

#3 Comment By Driving Miss Nancy On December 3, 2018 @ 10:05 am

Eric Prince says he can win it, period, for $5B. Having listened to him a few times on it, I believe he is right.

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#4 Comment By Kurt Gayle On December 3, 2018 @ 10:42 am

Thank you, Bill Smith, for your comments and for linking to interviews with James William Gibson re his important book “The Perfect War: Technowar in Vietnam.”

Understanding the concept of the “technowar” has become a key to understanding the Vietnam War and every US war since Vietnam.

In a 2013 interview with Nick Turse (author of “Kill Anything That Moves—The Real American War in Vietnam”) Bill Moyers said (17:14):

“I was struck by your writing that by the mid’60s the US military had turned, or [was] making—and I’m quoting you—“into a thoroughly corporatized, quantitatively-oriented system known as ‘technowar.’ And you say that that became in Vietnam the American way of war.”

Nick Turse Describes the Real Vietnam War,” Moyers & Company, Feb 7, 2013 (25:31):

#5 Comment By Jim On December 3, 2018 @ 11:08 am

Just declare that we’ve lost–which will thrill Democrats–and pull out. Anyway, the hotbeds of international Islamic terror are no longer the caves of Afghanistan, as in the 1990s, but in London, Minneapolis, and Brussels.

#6 Comment By Son of a Nam Vet On December 3, 2018 @ 3:31 pm

From the Jaws of Victory is a great book about military stupidity through history by Charles Shaw. Last chapter is about Westmoreland. Guess it needs an update.

#7 Comment By Just_Dropping_By On December 3, 2018 @ 3:32 pm

While I think there’s no possibility of a U.S. victory in Afghanistan at this point (and I doubt there ever was one), I don’t think there’s a possibility of a U.S. defeat either unless the U.S. government actively decides to permit it. U.S. airpower is simply too effective at this point — it can’t win a war (since bombing people won’t change their minds to supporting you), but, as long as the money for aircraft/drones and bombs/missiles keeps coming while the other side lacks effective antiaircraft weapons, you can prevent the other side from being able to mass a sufficient number of troops in one place to overrun the capital and a handful of other strategic locations.

#8 Comment By Tim Hogan On December 3, 2018 @ 3:36 pm

Fight the real enemy: the corrupt and oppressive Saudis. What they’re doing Yemen with our backing is criminal.

#9 Comment By Alan John Hunter On December 3, 2018 @ 3:39 pm

OMG you seriously are kidding yourselves. You haven’t won a war since WW2. Stalemate in Korea. Loss in Vietnam. Booted out of Somalia. Pyrrhic victory in Iraq. Losing in Afghanistan. You have killed more people than Stalin = 25 million, USA 32 = million. Spent more than the combined economies of over half the world’s countries on wars and propping up corrupt right wing dictators. Under the guise of spreading democracy you have toppled democratically elected governments in Afghanistan and Chile and others and supported some of the least democratic leaders in the world. Most of your operations in other countries have ended in failure, that is failing to meet stated objectives. Then you have the audacity to say, “The U.S. can never be militarily defeated in any war.” This is clearly rubbish, as the facts show otherwise. Get a grip and face reality, your overseas military adventurism is a failure.
Alan Hunter
Walla Walla NSW
Australia

#10 Comment By Eileen Kuch On December 3, 2018 @ 4:31 pm

Foreign armies have been trying to conquer Afghanistan for centuries, but every one of them, beginning with Alexander the Great, were unable to conquer the hostile terrain and defeat the fierce warrior tribes who inhabited it. The area was dotted with caves which the tribes inhabited and used for ambushing invading armies.
The next invasion came in the 19th Century AD from Great Britain, but the British suffered very high casualties and had to withdraw, and it wasn’t until well into the 20th Century that the Soviet Union entered Afghanistan at the behest of the Socialist gov’t. Once again, defeat was staring the Soviets in the face despite their mechanized forces. This time, the fierce warrior tribes staged ambushes but it took them ten years to drive them out. By then, the USSR was headed for disintegration and had to pull its forces from Afghanistan.
Blinded by the 9/11 terror attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, the US ignored the history of failed invasions of Afghanistan and began its longest war in history. And just as the ancient Macedonians, the Brits (twice) and the Soviets before it, the US invaded Afghanistan. That was over 17 years ago, and just like its predecessors, the US is headed for military defeat.

#11 Comment By David Parsons On December 3, 2018 @ 5:06 pm

The mission was won in 1 month, Oct-Nov 2001, evicting the Taliban from Kabul.

Changing the mission to reinvent Afghanistan into something other than Pakistan’s backyard was stupid and impossible.

#12 Comment By Michael in Charleston On December 3, 2018 @ 5:15 pm

Why did the US keep troops in Germany for 50 years and in Korea for over 70? If you look at Afghanistan from that perspective we are not losing because we are not even doing the fighting: the Afghan military is doing all the heavy lifting and absorbing tremendous losses. We are playing the role of coach and trainer but it is primarily an Afghan battle space. Comparisons with Vietnam are pointless (except for the description of the local government as ineffective and corrupt…but Ghani is no Diem) as US soldiers are not out on daily patrols in any significant number…Most of our soldiers are in support roles except for the special forces types who probably accomplish every objective they set for themselves. The problem here is that Trump believes his generals who want to keep Afghanistan alive because that’s what generals do…they fight wars, even phony ones. Given our investment, its not such a bad thing to maintain a set of bases in that part of the world and our history shows we can easily stay for the long haul if it’s in the national interest. Abandoning Afghanistan would be a moral (as well as a military) failure as well as an unnecessary capitulation that would leave the field open, not for the Taliban, but for Iran, Russia and China. If we are going to remain relevant in the world we need to project power, otherwise we may as well be Belgium. Perhaps we should ask the Afghan people what they would like us to do? Wouldn’t that be novel?

#13 Comment By jay kalend On December 3, 2018 @ 6:59 pm

Yes, there IS shame in losing a war, as the strategic and political debates Post-VietNam proved. But the US can stil wind down and not actually lose. There are no peace talks or great power collusions to constrain us. What passes for ‘peace talks’ get no mention in Western press, and are largely the fiction of the Afghan government, which now actually proposes an out of order convocation of the Loya Ghirga, to supposedly ‘bring us all together’.

What I find particularly irksom is the involvement of money in this thing.After unreasonably accepting billions in Chinese loans to build the One Road, Pakistan is on the verge of bankruptcy, and is bellying up to the World Bank for a bailout. Since they have chosen to make this China’s problem, which is now even a problem to China wary India and Iran — Iran! –let them go to Beijing. The Brits in particular were eager that China set up its own developmental bank, which was actuall a surprise to Xi. Now we know what the purpose of such a bank ought to be.

#14 Comment By Priester John On December 3, 2018 @ 8:48 pm

@George — “We aren’t ruthless, or at least ruthless enough to beat the enemy into submission. “

Maybe we aren’t. But the Soviets sure as hell were ruthless, and Afghanistan didn’t turn out too well for them either.

The Taliban are highly motivated. They see their cause as righteous, by their peculiar lights they love their people and their God, and they’re willing not just to die for them, but to fight a multi-generational war for them. If fact, they’ve fought several multi-generational wars over the last couple of centuries.

So unless by “ruthlessness” you mean outright Nazi-style extermination, this is where things are likely to end up.

#15 Comment By EliteCommInc. On December 3, 2018 @ 9:56 pm

Ohhh good grief,

Mayhem, death, and horror in a war zone no kidding. However, stepping back from the war crime myopia, one finds very quickly that “war crimes” were nonstandard operating procedure.

Liberals never fail to make whole truth from some portion of truth. I think it is valuable to address war crimes.

However, the proportion of war crimes — do not make up the whole of the war in Vietnam. The very idea that Abu Gaharib could have prevented by this matter becoming public doesn’t understand the nature of warfare and how it affects those who engage in it.

War is an insane environment — hardly a shock that people engage in insane behavior.

—–

When losing an argument trot out the drama as cause. The number of service members who shot by their own service members (fragging) accounted for less 0.04% or less.

#16 Comment By CAulds On December 4, 2018 @ 5:57 am

How far the mighty are fallen.

A few years ago, a Canadian friend of mine made a three day visit to Boston. When I asked him about his trip, I was amused by what he had to say. He told me, “Boston is interesting. We took a Trolley Tour of the city, then we went on the USS Constitution, which was neat … for a mere $50 you could buy an American Flag. have it flown on the USS Constitution, and then take it home with you and fly it in your yard.”

Yeh … ok. That’s neat, but he said, “When we were on the Trolley Tour, the Tour Guide was so full of telling how the Americans beat the British, I had to bite my tongue to keep from saying, “Yeh … that’s funny, considering how a nomad from the desert caused you such a pile of grief!”

Then he added, “what happened on 9/11 was definitely, terrible but Americans sure aren’t as mighty as they think they are!”

#17 Comment By Timothy Hadfield On December 4, 2018 @ 2:16 pm

The USA lost Vietnam militarily, so Afghanistan will certainly not be the first.

#18 Comment By Carl Jones On December 5, 2018 @ 5:17 am

As others have pointed out, the US does not fight minor of regional wars to win. This policy might impact on American chances in a real war. Note that recent aircraft designs are very flawed in a real war scenario. Russia planes can fly 5 sorties for every US sortie. US planes are over complicated are require lots of service time.

#19 Comment By Al On December 5, 2018 @ 12:31 pm

This article has defeated its own central argument.

The United States does not get defeated militarily, but politically, and this article is an example of what political defeat looks like:

The people willing to pledge loyalty become outnumbered by those who oppose your goals and you simply become swamped, after which your options are genocide or surrender.

The biggest problem since the end of WWII has been the lack of political will among top brass and civilian leadership to properly enforce an occupation by indoctrination of those who can be indoctrinated, and the elimination of those who continue to resist.

What I am saying sounds ugly because it is, and it’s what we did in places like post-war Japan.

If presidents, congressmen, and military leadership are not willing to accept this necessity then they need to not go to war in the first place.

If they took this into account there would be fewer wars, but we would also win them.

#20 Comment By Kurt Gayle On December 5, 2018 @ 9:23 pm

In a Washington Post article (Dec 3) entitled “Trump sends letter to Pakistan asking for help with Afghan peace process” Pamela Constable reports from Islamabad:

“Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said Monday that he has received a letter from President Trump asking for his government’s help and cooperation in advancing peace talks with the Afghan Taliban insurgents. Both the Foreign Ministry and Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry confirmed that the letter has been received. Chaudhry said the U.S. president told Khan that relations with Pakistan were ‘very important’ to solving the Afghan conflict, especially in helping to bring the insurgents to the negotiating table. The letter, which has not been publicly confirmed by U.S. officials, would be Trump’s first direct communication with Khan since the former cricket star took office as prime minister in August.”

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#21 Comment By maryland my maryland On December 5, 2018 @ 10:22 pm

@Al – “The biggest problem since the end of WWII has been the lack of political will among top brass and civilian leadership to properly enforce an occupation by indoctrination of those who can be indoctrinated, and the elimination of those who continue to resist.”

Indoctrinated in what, pray tell? Pornography? Opioid abuse? Transgender studies? The glories of same sex marriage? The importance of having women in the military? Robot brothels? What exactly does fin-de-siecle America have to teach people who hate us for precisely the things we’re qualified to teach?

We’re not the same America that just won WW II, and Afghanistan isn’t postwar Japan, in case you really didn’t know that. We aren’t going to be “politically defeated”. We were defeated before we even went over there. Defeated by stupidity, incompetence, corruption, and treachery. Cure ourselves of those ills and maybe we can start “indoctrinating” others.

#22 Comment By Adnan Ahmad On December 6, 2018 @ 2:06 pm

Sun Tzu on the Art of War
Five factors determine the out come of a conflict:

THE MORAL LAW – causes the people to be in complete accord with their ruler, so that they will follow him regardless of their lives, undismayed by any danger.
HEAVEN – signifies night and day, cold and heat, times and seasons.
EARTH – comprises distances, great and small; danger and security; open ground and narrow passes; the chances of life and death
THE COMMANDER – stands for the virtues of wisdom, sincerely, benevolence, courage and strictness.
METHOD AND DISCIPLINE – marshaling of the army in its proper subdivisions, the graduations of rank among the officers, the maintenance of roads by which supplies may reach the army, and the control of military expenditure.

We have achieved unprecedented heights, unequaled by any power past or present in all the factors that determine the outcome of a war, except the most important – the first one.

Since WWII we have not had complete accord about the morality of our campaigns.