Episode 61 of the Irregular Warfare Podcast contemplates lessons learned from America’s twenty years of war in Afghanistan. Our guests begin by discussing whether, in the year following the US withdrawal, the United States and its allies have sufficiently reflected on lessons learned from the war. They then explore various reasons why the intervention in Afghanistan failed, based on their extensive research and on-the-ground experience—to include multiple lessons from SIGAR (Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan) reporting and Dr. Malkasian’s argument that the Taliban won because it fought for values close to what it means to be Afghan, including religion and resistance to occupation. Our guests conclude with policy implications we can draw from twenty years of strategy that ultimately resulted in failure.
Dr. Carter Malkasian is a historian with extensive experience working in conflict zones, including two years in Afghanistan as a State Department political officer. He also served as the special assistant for strategy to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and is the author of multiple books, most recently the award-winning The American War in Afghanistan: A History. This book forms the basis of this episode’s conversation.
James Cunningham is a senior analyst at SIGAR. He has spent more than seventeen years focused on America’s involvement with Afghanistan, and played a leading role in researching and writing SIGAR’s forthcoming report deconstructing and assessing why America failed to achieve its objectives there.
Jeff Phaneuf and Kyle Atwell are the hosts for Episode 61. Please reach out to Kyle and Jeff with any questions about this episode or the Irregular Warfare Podcast.
The Irregular Warfare Podcast is a production of the Irregular Warfare Initiative (IWI). We are a team of volunteers dedicated to bridging the gap between scholars and practitioners in the field of irregular warfare. IWI generates written and audio content, coordinates events for the IW community, and hosts critical thinkers in the field of irregular warfare as IWI fellows. You can follow and engage with us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, or LinkedIn.
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Image credit: Senior Airman Taylor Crul, US Air Force
It is improper, I believe, to consider the war in Afghanistan from the perspective of the U.S. and coalition forces fighting an "insurgency;" this, for the reasons David Kilcullen and Robert Egnell note below:
Similarly, in classical theory, the insurgent initiates. Thus, Galula asserts that ‘whereas in conventional war, either side can initiate the conflict, only one – the insurgent – can initiate a revolutionary war, for counter-insurgency is only an effect of insurgency’. Classical theorists therefore emphasise the problem of recognising insurgency early. Thompson observes that ‘at the first signs of an incipient insurgency … no one likes to admit that anything is going wrong. This automatically leads to a situation where government countermeasures are too little and too late.’ But, in several modern campaigns – Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Chechnya, for example – the government or invading coalition forces initiated the campaign, whereas insurgents are strategically reactive (as in ‘resistance warfare’). Such patterns are readily recognisable in historical examples of resistance warfare, but less so in classical counter-insurgency theory.
Politically, in many cases today, the counter-insurgent represents revolutionary change, while the insurgent fights to preserve the status quo of ungoverned spaces, or to repel an occupier – a political relationship opposite to that envisaged in classical counter-insurgency. Pakistan's campaign in Waziristan since 2003 exemplifies this. The enemy includes al-Qaeda-linked extremists and Taliban, but also local tribesmen fighting to preserve their traditional culture against twenty-first-century encroachment. The problem of weaning these fighters away from extremist sponsors, while simultaneously supporting modernisation, does somewhat resemble pacification in traditional counter-insurgency. But it also echoes colonial campaigns, and includes entirely new elements arising from the effects of globalisation."
(See Kilcullen's "Counterinsurgency Redux.")
Robert Egnell: Analysts like to talk about 'indirect approaches' or 'limited interventions', but the question is 'approaches to what?' What are we trying to achieve? What is our understanding of the end-state? In a recent article published in Joint Forces Quarterly, I sought to challenge the contemporary understanding of counterinsurgency by arguing that the term itself may lead us to faulty assumptions about nature of the problem, what it is we are trying to do, and how best to achieve it. When we label something a counterinsurgency campaign, it introduces certain assumptions from the past and from the contemporary era about the nature of the conflict. One problem is that counterinsurgency is by its nature conservative, or status-quo oriented – it is about preserving existing political systems, law and order. And that is not what we have been doing in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, we have been the revolutionary actors, the ones instigating revolutionary societal changes. Can we still call it counterinsurgency, when we are pushing for so much change?
Dhofar, El Savador and the Philippines are all campaigns driven by fundamentally conservative concerns. When we are looking to Syria right now, it is not just about maintaining order or even the regime, but about larger political change. In Afghanistan and Iraq too, we represented revolutionary change. So, perhaps we should read Mao and Che Guevara instead of Thompson in order to find the appropriate lessons of how to achieve large-scale societal change through limited means? That is what we are after, in the end. And in this coming era, where we are pivoting away from large-scale interventions and state-building projects, but not from our fairly grand political ambitions, it may be worth exploring how insurgents do more with little; how they approach irregular warfare, and reach their objectives indirectly."
(See the Small Wars Journal article "Learning From Today’s Crisis of Counterinsurgency" — an interview by Octavian Manea of Dr. David H. Ucko and Dr. Robert Egnell.)
Bottom Line Thought — Based on the Above:
Thus, could the reason that we lost the war in Afghanistan, might this be because:
a. We sought to achieve "revolutionary change" in Afghanistan; this,
b. Via theories, methods and techniques which were designed to prevent "revolutionary change?"
No Afghanistan Lessons Learned? No one wants to even think of it anymore? Welcome to the same problems that are to be had with the Vietnam War and the rush to erase it from the New Army’s mindset.
Listening to how we couldn’t stop the flow of men and material in/back to Pakistan brought to mind Osama bin Laden in Pakistan and the North Vietnam Army in Laos (despite the signed agreement to not violate its neutrality (which Vietnam had already ignored and would continue to do so).
In both countries, we didn’t lose. In Afghanistan, the Executive Branch (with the help of rotating generals’ leadership) lost it. In Vietnam the Legislative Branch (with the help of the press and the university “experts”) conspired to doom South Vietnam.
The similarities between the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army in South Vietnam are many, but Vietnam isn’t taught by experts who were there. Instead, Vietnam remains taboo and the Lessons Learned are theorized by “experts” who were not there and by “experts” who were taught by the “experts” who suffered from the same condition. Afghanistan may suffer from the same dilemma.