Episode 4, Season 1 of the Social Science of War podcast examines the lessons that the United States military, and in particular the US Army, should take from the twenty-war year in Afghanistan. Our three guests bring both extensive and diverse experience with Afghanistan—a senior strategic military leader, a scholar who has researched Afghanistan and counterinsurgency extensively, and a practitioner who conducted counterinsurgency at the platoon level during the surge.
Our guests begin by arguing the United States Army has multiple important lessons to learn from Afghanistan, but both the military and broader US government may not be interested in capturing these lessons as the focus shifts to strategic competition. As the conversation progresses, US performance in multiple key areas is discussed in depth: strategic design and understanding of the operational and strategic environment, security force assistance and building effective partner forces, general challenges of how to encourage tactical-level units to focus on putting partner forces first, and the tendency for the US government to overmilitarize its efforts from the tactical to strategic levels.
The conversation also examines the theoretical assumptions underpinning US counterinsurgency doctrine as implemented in Afghanistan. Scholars have conducted extensive research on population-centric counterinsurgency, with many recent studies finding weak evidence that counterinsurgency as implemented in Afghanistan—and captured in Field Manual 3-24, Counterinsurgency—works. While the conversation focuses on the context of Afghanistan, our guests argue that many of the lessons hold relevance in an era of strategic competition as well.
Retired Lieutenant General Doug Lute has led a long and distinguished career in public service, which includes serving as the assistant to the president and deputy national security advisor for Iraq and Afghanistan under President George Bush, special assistant and senior coordinator for Afghanistan and Pakistan under President Barack Obama, and United States permanent representative to NATO. Ambassador Lute is currently the Robert F. McDermott distinguished chair within the Department of Social Sciences at West Point.
Dr. Jason Lyall is an associate professor in the Department of Government at Dartmouth College. He has conducted fieldwork in Afghanistan as a scholar, has published extensively on counterinsurgency and conflict in fragile states, and is currently writing a book on lessons learned from the American war in Afghanistan. His latest book, Divided Armies: Inequality and Battlefield Performance, has won multiple book awards and was the topic of a recent guest lecture at the Department of Social Sciences at West Point based on its relevance to both Army organization and working with partner forces.
Major Sam Wilkins is an active duty US Army Special Forces officer currently teaching international affairs in the Department of Social Sciences at West Point. He deployed to Afghanistan during the surge as an infantry lieutenant, has multiple deployments to Africa, and has published multiple articles on Afghanistan and irregular warfare more broadly. His most recent article on Afghanistan examines the rise and fall of Village Stability Operations in Afghanistan, published through the Irregular Warfare Initiative.
The Social Science of War podcast is produced by the Department of Social Sciences at West Point. Visit our website if you would like to be a student or teach in the department, or if you would like to connect with any of our instructors based on their expertise.
Kyle Atwell was the host for Episode 4. Please reach out to Kyle with any questions about this episode or the Science of War podcast.
The central problem with our efforts in Afghanistan — and with our efforts relating to nations such as Russia, China, Iran, N. Korea, the Islamists, etc., today also I suggest — and even with regard to our problems here at home in the U.S./the West of late — this is our failure to acknowledge the political objective of the U.S./the West post-the Old Cold War; this being, to achieve revolutionary political, economic, social and/or value change — both here at home and there abroad — this, in the name such things as capitalism, globalization and the global economy.
(A political objective, thus, which is guaranteed to piss off and mobilize status quo-desiring "conservatives" — in Afghanistan — in Russia, China, Iran, N. Korea, etc., — and even status quo-desiring "conservatives" here at home in the U.S./the West?)
In this regard, and relating only to foreign nations in this instance, consider the following from U.S. Naval War College Professor Derek S. Reveron:
“Since the 1990s the focus of American international security policy has been focused on creating conditions for extending zones of security and prosperity to other states under the theory that ‘political as well as economic globalization would make the world safer — and more profitable — for the United States.’ Consequently, the United States saw expansion, rather than retraction, of American military presence around the world.”
(See the Professor Reveron's book (the 2016 edition) “Exporting Security: International Engagement, Security Cooperation, and the Changing Face of the US Military;” therein, see the bottom of Page 2 of the Introduction chapter.)
With regard to this such "achieve revolutionary change" political objective — which was/is common to both our domestic and foreign policies post-the Cold War — note how Dr. Robert Egnell, below, sees this from the perspective of the war in Afghanistan, etc.:
"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 (however), 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."
(Item in parenthesis above is mine. 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:
If one's post-Cold War political objective is to achieve "revolutionary" political, economic, social and/or value "change" — both here at home in the U.S./the West and there abroad elsewhere — this, in the name of such things as capitalism, globalization and the global economy —
Then, as Dr. Egnell notes above, one's various "instruments of power and persuasion" must be organized, ordered, oriented, trained, deployed, equipped, etc., — this, so as to:
a. Achieve these such "revolutionary change" political objectives — both at home and abroad —
b. And to adequately deal with those who would resist these such "revolutionary changes — both at home and abroad.
The GWOT in Afghanistan is best told by the non-fiction books written by US soldiers, Marines, officers, and those who were there. Hubris, arrogance, "Oops". bad luck, lack of planning, lack of preparations, and straining of the SOFs were all salient points. But our men and women of the Armed Forces fought bravely and well and the nation should be proud of them. "All gave some and some gave all."
Some of the lessons learned from "those that were there" from reporters to actual combat veterans:
* Minigun motors need battery backups because one lucky AK-47 bullet punctured the battery compartment of the MH-47 and rendered the minigun useless. This has been addressed and remedied.
* Armored HMMVWs need CROWS II RWS because standing in the open exposed turret to fire meant many gunners got shot and hit. Tactical trucks need a fully enclosed armored turret to reload ammo under armor like the USMC AAV7 and Army M1117 ASV and so far the US Army and USMC don't have this turret for trucks.
* Mortars played a huge role in mountain warfare and the US Army needs mobile autoloading mortars like Sling or AMOS. Open mortar pits were targeted by RPGs and the US Army and USMC needs lighter and more mobile "pocket artillery" that can shoot-and-scoot and not remained in a fixed sandbag position.
* The US Army needs longer-range rifles and the 6.8mm NGSW is the answer. The M4 carbine was too short-ranged to reach out to AK-47 range.
* Helicopters need to be faster and longer range and this has been addressed with the Future Vertical Lift. Odd how peer nation challenges have solved some of the GWOT issues in equipment and ranges.
* The enemy practiced good PSYOPS, believing that they will win in every firefight and encouraging their comrades said US PSYOPS. The US Army was often extended thin at FOBs and posts and the ANA were not dependable allies who abandoned their posts many times.
* Even light and cheap airpower like the A-10 or Light Attack Plane could have benefited the US Army…but there was no Light Attack Plane (LAP) at the time. This has been addressed and remedied with SOCOM. CAS needs to get closer, faster, and cheaper be it from drones to LAPs to smaller helicopters.
* ACU pattern was a flop in desert camouflage…the enemy found out US soldiers stuck out like neon wearing ACU and the Army rushed to field Multicam. But this took years for the US Army to acknowledge and remedy this. The US Army could have issued DCU pattern instead.
* Money can't always buy loyalty and wins. The CIA poured billions in bribes and payment and the result was corruption and "ghost soldiers." Money helped, but in the end, money can't solve everything.
* NATO and USA tactical gear, NVGs, radios, new weapons, and new vehicles can't make up for poor tactics, fear, lack of commitment, logistics, and lack of communications. Some ANA officers were extremely young. Some ANA can't read GPS coordinates. Some dropped their weapons and ran only to be overrun. The US Army still had to deal with mass waves of enemy troops and an enemy on fast motorcycles and technical pickups. Speed, maneuver, numbers, heavy firepower, and sheer determination will drive forth and the US Army needs to train to deal with odds 50-100 to 10 soldiers…out-manned and outgunned were some of the hallmarks of Afghanistan GWOT.
* Veteran hospital care and mental health needs to catch up for PTSD and rehab. The closing of VA Hospitals after 20 GWOT years is a shame and VA Hospitals are farther apart now. The "after care" needs to expand further beyond the hospital such as VA mobile trucks, vans, and clinics. VA needs to reach out and go to Veterans instead of Veterans driving to VA centers.
* The nation needs to learn that many teenagers grew up in the GWOT and knew only a USA at war, not the 1980s and 1990s of peace. The nation needs to be taught that the world has changed and that there was a time when GWOT did not exist. Culture needs to change to respect these times pre-and-post GWOT and pre-and post COVID.
You did not read the Quran (properly), it has the same categorisation of Other as Mein Kampf you are the antithesis threat to the Islam/Muslim political networks. The good create altruists, when you cannot tell the difference you walk away or you will be buried.
You remain and convert enough of whole to your own belief system to tell the difference or you will be buried.
Mali, Afhgan, any Islamic socialscape react with overwhelming force attacking specific targets then leave do not remain believing you can do anything to the politic.
The strategy is flawed read the codex.