In the End, the Afghan Army Was Always Doomed
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- In 2006, as a Navy vice admiral, I was in Iraq traveling with Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld. At a town hall with U.S. troops, he famously answered a question about the U.S. Army’s lack of armored vehicles by saying, “You go to war with the army you have — not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” It was an honest but tone-deaf comment, and it was rattling through my mind over the weekend watching the stunning collapse of the Afghan security forces in the face of a Taliban onslaught.
After my Pentagon service, I ended up as the Supreme Allied Commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. One of the key missions over four years, from 2009-2013, was to build an Afghan national army that could take over fighting from the 150,000 U.S. and International Security Assistance Force troops at the center of the fight with the Taliban. When we pulled out the final few thousand troops over the past several weeks, Afghanistan went to war with the “army we had,” and it collapsed miserably.
Despite plenty of resources and talent, and over a decade of serious effort, the training mission clearly failed. Why? What is there to learn from this debacle?
Let’s begin by pointing out that the effort failed in many separate aspects. First comes the lack of will and leadership on the part of the Afghan government and people. There are also many policy mistakes, including the failure to hold the Taliban to the agreement it negotiated with President Donald Trump’s administration before taking U.S. troops out: the insistence on a “conditions-based withdrawal.”
At the endgame, Western intelligence did not predict the rapidity of collapse, nor did our imagination encompass the determination and audacity of the Taliban. Pakistani havens just across the border played a part in this long drama, as did the underlying corruption that suffuses Afghan culture. But all of that would probably have been survivable if the Afghan army had fought capably.
In retrospect, we trained the wrong kind of army for Afghanistan. America and the ISAF tried desperately to use the U.S. army as the model, and it was the wrong approach. The U.S. way of war is very resource-rich: exquisite satellite-based intelligence; high-end technology with precision guided firing; superb air cover (manned and drone) with nearly instantaneous response times; crisp and clear command and control that provided over-the-horizon connectivity; “on time” logistic systems that allowed fuel, food and ammunition to support combat operations; and “golden hour” medical evacuation to sophisticated hospitals. The Taliban had none of that, and while the U.S. was side-by-side with the Afghans, those local partners could fight — by relying on American support.
Think of the American revolution as an analogy: The U.S. and ISAF trained up an army of British redcoats, but what was really needed were more minutemen. We should have emphasized what might be called “Afghan-right” fighters, meaning forces that were far lighter, and could fight in decentralized teams, squads, light platoons and quick-maneuver companies. There is a strong combat DNA in many Afghans — they have all grown up in a war zone, after all, given the continuous conflicts stretching back to the 1980s (and, indeed, to previous centuries). The Western allies should have capitalized on that, building their own version of the Taliban’s force.
In particular, the Afghans should have been organized into local, light-defense forces in and around their own villages, districts and provinces. People will fight much harder when it is their own family behind them. They needed simpler weapons and larger caches of ammunition, with less of the sophisticated communications gear (much of which is now being harvested for scrap at Bagram Air Base outside Kabul).
Like politics, all security is local; but instead the focus was on creating a “national army,” seeking to use it as a tool to unify the nation. As we have seen, it simply did not work. In fairness, there was an attempt to create some local militias, but they were starved for resources that were committed to the big effort of creating a kind of “mini-me” force that looked better on paper than in combat.
It is instructive that the most successful of the domestic fighters for the past few years have been the 20,000 Afghan commandos. They resembled this philosophy of highly maneuverable troops able to move quickly, but were too few in number and still too reliant on U.S. air support and high-tech gear. By the end, they had become exhausted, like the smokejumpers now battling fires all over the American West — too few, too tired.
A decade ago, we debated all this at senior levels, but kept coming back to a firmly held belief that we could succeed best by modeling what we knew and found comfortable: ducks like ducks, in the end. We did not sufficiently respect the culture, history, traditions and norms of this difficult nation. The Greeks have a word for it: hubris.
Will this collapse create a Taliban government that will welcome back al-Qaeda? Perhaps they will have learned the lesson of allowing their land to become an ungoverned space. Given all the factions within their own movement, and the competing bastions of ethnic and regional actors, the Taliban will probably have imperfect control over their troubled nation. The only certainty of Taliban 2.0 is that the ultimate losers will be women and girls, who are on a rocket ride back to the 9th century, after briefly tasting the fruits of the modern, educated world.
You can hear the immense frustration in the voices of President Joe Biden and his team, saying in effect, “We gave them everything they needed, and they failed.” There is truth in that. But Americans also need to admit that we built that failed army, over the course of 15 years. The Pentagon and civilian leadership must admit their part of this failure, and learn the lessons from those mistakes, for which the Afghan people will pay dearly. It was, tragically, the army we wanted. It just wasn’t the right army to win.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former supreme allied commander of NATO, and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is also chair of the board of the Rockefeller Foundation and vice chairman of Global Affairs at the Carlyle Group. His latest book is "2034: A Novel of the Next World War."
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