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Understanding Afghanistan’s Disappointing Outcome (Part IV)

By Dr. Kelly C. Jordan
Faculty Member, Military Studies and National Security Studies

Note: This article is the fourth and final article in a four-part series about Afghanistan. This article will address what we can learn from the disappointing outcome of the recent U.S. experience in Afghanistan.

In Part I of this series, I referred to three enduring lessons to remember about Afghanistan, based upon its location and history:

  • Afghanistan’s location – along the old Silk Road and at the nexus of British, Russian/Soviet, and Middle East concerns – has subjected it to countless invasions.
  • Foreign invaders appear to be the only force capable of unifying Afghanis and bringing a temporary halt to internal conflicts.

America’s recent experience in Afghanistan reinforces all three lessons, but there are more lessons to learn from this episode.

Using Our Conventional Understanding of War and Warfare to Identify Lessons from Afghanistan

Finding ways to process and understand complex events like the war in Afghanistan is challenging. What students learn in our military studies program can be useful to identify what lessons can be learned from the Afghanistan experience. More specifically, we can use the traditional constructs of war and warfare as useful frameworks to analyze what happened.

The Nature of War

Greek historian and Peloponnesian War general Thucydides taught us that the three strongest motivations in war are fear, honor, and interest. Similarly, Afghanistan experts Larry P. Goodson and Thomas H. Johnson provided an analysis that helps us understand 2021 events in Afghanistan. They noted that “The United States went to war in Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 attacks due to fear and to protect its honor, but an inadequate understanding of Afghanistan and its geopolitical neighborhood, as well as limited U.S. interests, prompted mission creep, such that 20 years marched on” without the U.S. achieving the desired strategic outcome.

Goodson and Johnson note that “humans simply cannot stay in a state of intense fear for very long.” They state that it is only the emotion of “intense fear” that is powerful enough to sustain the will to win in such a prolonged, difficult conflict like Afghanistan.

While it may be true for America and its allies that only the emotion of “intense fear” is powerful enough to sustain the will to win in such a prolonged, difficult conflict, the Afghan people appear to have found ways beyond relying on the emotion of “intense fear” to sustain their will to win prolonged and difficult conflicts. Afghanis have demonstrated their resilience throughout their successful history of resisting subjugation from outsiders.

Thucydides might have added that appeals to a country’s honor and national interest help buttress internal resolve in prolonged conflicts like the Peloponnesian War and America’s war in Afghanistan. Sparta emerged victorious from the Peloponnesian War precisely because it found ways to retain its resolve throughout the duration of the war. One essential lesson to be learned for the disappointing outcome in Afghanistan is that the U.S. was not successful in finding ways to maintain its resolve for the conflict’s duration.

Afghanistan and Warfare

About the conduct of war – otherwise known as warfare – one of the foundational assumptions regarding irregular warfare is that it is fought quite differently from conventional warfare. However, events in Afghanistan suggest that these two types of warfare may not be so different.

Based upon his in-depth look at non-state military conduct, international relations scholar Stephen Biddle argues that numerous non-state armies are now fighting more conventionally than many state armies. This change was certainly the case with the recent and successful operations of the Taliban in Afghanistan, allowing them to retake control of the country.

The relevance of Biddle’s argument is that methods for evaluating conventional warfare, like the Principles of War, might be just as applicable to the conflict that occurred in Afghanistan as they are to conflicts we consider to be more conventional in nature, such as World War II. Accordingly, applying the Principle of War “objective” to the situation in Afghanistan can be a way of helping to understand it better and make more sense of it.

Current U.S. joint doctrine states that “the purpose of specifying the objective is to direct every military operation toward a clearly defined, decisive, and achievable goal.”In other words, it is imperative that a military objective is clearly defined, and that political and military goals align with that objective.

Historian John Alger contends that this Principle of War has become increasingly important, as control of societies and ideas has supplanted the control of territory and the destruction of an opponent’s army as main military objectives. Current joint doctrine supports this way of thinking, advising that military efforts must change in response to a situation and cautioning commanders to avoid actions that do not contribute directly to achieving specific military and political objectives.

Since the main U.S. goal of preventing Afghanistan from becoming a haven for future terrorist attacks against America was not clearly defined, military commanders failed to avoid actions that did not contribute directly to achieving this objective. As a result, the U.S. was not successful in directing “every military operation toward a clearly defined, decisive, and achievable goal.” Thus, another lesson to be learned from the U.S. failure in Afghanistan is the importance of retaining focus on the “objective” as a Principle of War.

Conducting a Limited War in Afghanistan

Foreign and military policy expert Robert Osgood argued in 1957 that the best way to limit war is to limit a war’s ends and not its means. From a strategic perspective, this approach encourages the setting of objectives that are achievable and stated clearly, providing sufficient means to achieve those objectives, and then concluding the effort once the specified objectives have been achieved.

The U.S. was focused on keeping its involvement in Afghanistan limited. The U.S. restricted its means allocated to the war effort instead of limiting its ends.

The goal of preventing Afghanistan from serving as a future sanctuary for threats against the U.S. was particularly problematic in this regard. This goal had few practical limits and required an open-ended or unlimited commitment to sustain it. Using this approach, which was contrary to his counsel, Osgood would not have been surprised by the disappointing outcome in Afghanistan.

The Failure to Prevent the War’s Escalation in Afghanistan

Sixty years later, professor of international studies Spencer Bakich argued that to succeed strategically in limited war, states must devise military and diplomatic courses of action that minimize the chances of the war’s escalation. According to Bakich, escalation in limited war comes principally in two forms:

  • Scope – the undesired intervention by a third party, the influence of an undesired ideology (e.g., religious), the use of undesired means (e.g., insurgency), and the emergence of new capabilities (e.g., nuclear weapons)
  • Duration – the continuation of the war for a time longer and at a cost greater than the state expects at the outset and/or desires 

In relation to the Lykke Model of Strategy, a war’s escalation results from an approach containing an unacceptable level of strategic risk. In essence, Bakich argues that reducing strategic risk by striking the most appropriate balance among Means, Ways, and Ends is the best way to minimize the chances of escalation.

Another important lesson from the conflict is that the U.S. conduct of the war in Afghanistan was not successful in preventing an escalation in either the scope or the duration of the conflict. For example, the war in Afghanistan witnessed the undesired intervention of several third parties, including the reconstituted Taliban, al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State.

Other factors involved the influence of an undesired ideology in the form of a radicalized and extremist Islamic State, along with the Taliban’s previously eschewed use of suicide bombers. These elements combined to widen the scope of the war significantly.

In addition, the duration of the war lasted far longer than the U.S. (and its allies) intended. The war also came at a high cost in terms of blood and finance that was far greater than the U.S. expected.

Based upon these outcomes, Bakich would conclude that the U.S. was unsuccessful in devising military and diplomatic courses of action that reduced strategic Risk by striking the most appropriate balance among Means, Ways, and Ends to minimize the chances of escalation. That lack of balance and resulting escalation provides a partial explanation for why the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan was not successful.

The Strength and Resistance of the Afghani People

It is also important to acknowledge the strength of the Afghani people, including their internal culture of fierce independence, a tradition of martial prowess, their history of resisting subjugation from outsiders, and the important roles those factors played in the war’s outcome. These factors highlight the strategic importance of considering the culture, tradition, and history of one’s opponents in any conflict.

Applying the concepts of Osgood and Bakich to the events in Afghanistan, we can determine the following lessons:

  • To understand the risks they are facing, policy leaders must understand the environment in which they operate, including the culture, tradition, and history of opponents. They should also clearly comprehend the capabilities of their national security organizations and available military forces in a particular strategic environment. 
  • To successfully limit war, it is necessary to use strategic risk assessments that address the balance among Means, Ways, and Ends and have a clear understanding of an opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. Other considerations should be the challenges and opportunities present in the international environment, and the capability of a nation to act in a purposeful way along multiple lines of operations.

In future conflicts, the U.S. must conduct effective strategic risk assessments to acquire a more accurate understanding of the environment where its forces operate, as well as the capabilities of its own national security organizations and available military forces. Other elements for a successful outcome include analyzing an opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, knowing the challenges and opportunities present in the international environment, and understanding the capability of America to act in a purposeful way along multiple lines of operations. The better the quality of the strategic risk assessment (especially in terms of how realistic it is), the better the chances of the resulting strategy to achieve desired political and strategic objectives.

The Influence of Morale on Warfare

Despite the ever-changing conduct of war (i.e., warfare), which induces a level of dynamic unpredictability that defies simplistic approaches, the nature of war is enduring. Prussian military expert and “On War” author Carl von Clausewitz contended that understanding the complexities of the human dimension is central to understanding war.

Since both war and warfare involve unquantifiable aspects that are at times unknowable, a final way of determining what we can learn from the recent U.S. experience in Afghanistan comes from an assessment of one of the most enduring intangibles of war: the influence of troop morale. Maintaining troop morale is a common factor to the outcome for both the U.S. and Afghanistan.

In Leon Tolstoy’s 1869 novel, “War and Peace” (written about a long conflict whose outcomes vexed many throughout its duration), Tolstoy tells us that it is “the spirit of the army” that is “the chief sinew of war.” Tolstoy defined this spirit as “that mysterious indefinable bond which maintains throughout an army one and the same temper” and inspires soldiers. For Tolstoy, this soldierly morale accounts for the difference between success and failure in battle, even more than the size of an army, the number, and type of its weapons, or the brilliance of its leaders.

Napoleon is credited with penning the famous 1808 saying, “In war, the moral is to the physical as three is to one.” With this saying, Napoleon was emphasizing the influence of morale as being perhaps the most powerful element in the strength of armies.

In 1921, the work of French Colonel Ardant du Picq, “Battle Studies: Ancient and Modern Battle” was translated and published in English. This work became famous for making essentially the same point as Napoleon.

Remember that foreign invaders appear to be the only force capable of unifying Afghans and temporarily halting internal conflicts. As recent events in Afghanistan have shown, Tolstoy’s observations about tapping into the powerful force of troop morale, along with those of Napoleon and du Picq, appear to be as true today as when were originally written.

Morale is therefore an element of the enduring nature of war. Like human nature, morale has not changed and is of the same value in the present as it was in the past.

More recently, retired U.S. Army LTG and former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry observed that it was up to the Afghans to “breathe the soul” into the Afghan army, just as it is the responsibility of Americans to do the same for its own military forces. A soul, however, requires one’s will to be animated.

The U.S. political decision to make peace with the Taliban and withdraw its support had a role in draining both the American will to continue fighting and also the Afghan army’s will to fight. It was perhaps this lack of will that was most responsible for weakening the morale of both U.S. and Afghan forces.

Returning to the lessons from Thucydides, the most enduring lesson we can learn from the disappointing recent outcome in Afghanistan may be the importance of maintaining morale and will in any conflict, especially one that is limited and can become prolonged. Ultimately, Thucydides, Napoleon, Tolstoy, du Picq, and Eikenberry all highlight the importance of ensuring that the U.S. considers the complex relationship among morale, will, and success in combat in all future military endeavors.

Dr. Kelly C. Jordan is a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, and he is currently a full-time associate professor of military studies and national security studies. Dr. Jordan received his B.A. from the Virginia Military Institute, graduating with academic distinction and as a Distinguished Military Graduate. He holds a M.A. and a Ph.D. in military history from The Ohio State University and is also a graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. As an academic, Dr. Jordan is an award-winning professor who has served on the faculties of the United States Military Academy at West Point, the United States Army Command and General Staff College, the United States Naval War College, and the University of Notre Dame. As a scholar, he is the author of numerous military history and leadership studies publications.

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