The humiliating retreat from Afghanistan shows how little we understand about the new realities of 21st-century warfare so horrifically made clear on 11 September 2001
There is undoubtedly a straight line that goes from 9/11 to the rout that has been taking place in Afghanistan. After all, we went into Afghanistan as a consequence of the 9/11 atrocities.
But I think it is deeper than that. There are fundamental concepts of war that we continue to ignore; and there are new developments in warfare that we do not appreciate.
We do not understand the very concept of military victory and so we are ill-prepared to understand the nature of victory in these new circumstances. Most people, even most military personnel, define victory in warfare as the defeat of the enemy in battle. But that is victory in sports, or perhaps in chess. Victory in warfare is the achievement of the war aim.
Captivated by an unthinking acceptance of victory as the defeat of the enemy, the failure to defeat the Taliban has been taken as the equivalent to a failure to achieve victory: a waste of lives and treasure that must be terminated whatever the cost, because the cost must be less than endlessly extending the cost of what is assumed to be – and what the public has been persuaded to regard as – failure.
Thus an essayist in Time wrote, “Putting more soldiers and money on the line for a cause the country neither believes in nor can win will do nothing to bring back the lives lost and dollars wasted.” He failed to note that no American soldier had died in combat in the last 18 months.
We have ignored the most elemental lessons of the effect of coalitional behaviour upon the morale of the dependent society. There is a story told of the young Napoleon Bonaparte that is instructive in this respect. While a lieutenant in the artillery, he was dispatched from Paris to the siege of Toulon. This city, then the centre of resistance to the revolution, sits at the midpoint of a bay forming a natural harbour and partly enclosed by heights at the harbour entrance.
Napoleon is alleged to have advised the besieging revolutionary commander to move his artillery batteries from their position overlooking the city to the distant point that commanded the entrance to the bay. When this apparently counterintuitive advice – moving the besieging artillery beyond a range where it could shell the city – was taken, it had the effect of creating anxiety in the commander of the British fleet that lay in the harbour. He feared that French guns might cut off his means of exit. Accordingly, he withdrew the fleet to a point beyond the mouth of the bay.
When the British ships withdrew, however, morale among the citizens of Toulon collapsed, for they too had counted on British support, and even rescue should that have proved necessary, and the city quickly surrendered. The remark attributed to Napoleon, as he pointed on the map to the remote edge of the harbour precipice, is: “There lies Toulon.”
We don’t even understand how to calculate the costs and benefits of an armed intervention. We ask whether the US is better off now, having spent $2 trillion (if that is the right figure) and suffered more than 2350 military deaths and 20,000 casualties – and, of course, the answer is “probably not”. Before this war we knew where al-Qaeda had its bases. It had not struck since 11 September 2001. A large number of American and allied soldiers who became casualties were then alive and unwounded. Public opinion in Pakistan was less hostile to America. There was a greater measure of sympathy around the world for our losses in New York and Washington. We had not spent the immense sums required to fight a war halfway around the globe and then support a fragile postwar government.
There is, however, a more relevant question: Are we – the states of the coalition, including the US and the UK – better off today than we would be if we had let the arming, training, and sheltering our al-Qaeda enemies in Afghanistan continue, many of whom we killed and captured in our intervention? Would we have been able to interdict the subsequent operations we thwarted through the interrogation of captives and the capture of documents and disc drives?
My judgment (for it is a matter of judgment) is that we – and the Afghan people – are vastly better off for our having acted. We may not be better off than we were (though a great many Afghans unquestionably are) but rather than we otherwise would have been, had we not acted.
The link between the attacks by al-Qaeda in 2001 and our present difficulties in Afghanistan also exposed our refusal to come to terms with precepts that are not a matter of logic or history. 9/11 was the opening shot in a new era of warfare, while the events in Afghanistan exposed the fact that we still don’t appreciate that historic change.
We did not grasp the appropriate role of outside, intervening forces in stabilising a state under threat from terror. Much of America’s efforts after 2001 were wasted on this account. By 2010, however, the Americans had begun to put in place a strategy that would achieve their war aim of preventing Afghanistan from becoming a sanctuary for terrorists at an acceptable cost to the US. We had drawn down from 150,000 coalition troops to under 12,000.
By 2020 the number of American armed troops had come down to 4,500, then fluctuating between 3,500 and 2,500 (while allied troops ranged between 7,000 and 8,000). We had changed the focus of coalition deployments from front-line combat to “advise and assist” units, located in the headquarters of the Afghan forces.
These liaison teams and tactical air controllers provided the targeting necessary for very close air support. The airstrikes were conducted by the Afghans, relying on coalition systems and personnel who enabled their effective use.
Moreover, reliance had been shifted to some 18,000 contractors who maintained the Afghan Air Force and provided logistical support for the Afghan troops. Without them there was no emergency resupply of front-line forces, there was no one to direct and coordinate reinforcements, there was no emergency medical evacuation and above all there could be no close air support.
Eventually even the in-country supply chains of ammunition and rations failed because the Coalition’s management of those logistics ceased. And so, Afghan forces collapsed and we, to our shame, blamed them for refusing to fight for their country.
We do not understand that the war aims of the Coalition depended upon expanding opportunity for the Afghan people and so we confused this with the century-long task of building a modern nation-state. Thus, the metrics for our success were submerged in the corruption, confusion, and incoherence of the Afghan government.
We do not appreciate that wars on terror are struggles against global networks, not simply bands of local militants. What makes a Talibanised Afghanistan dangerous are its links to terror groups operating out of Pakistan, and the sanctuary that Afghanistan will provide for other jihadist training and organising. Anytime a writer uses shudder quotes to set off the “so-called war” on terror, the reader can assume that it is simply inconceivable to this particular author that the means of warfare can be usefully deployed against a 21st-century phenomenon – global, networked groups using terror as a destabilizing weapon – quite different from the 20th-century national liberation or secession groups to which he is accustomed.
We recoil from the unsettling idea that warfare itself has changed in this century. The American general who, having removed the Iraqi political leadership, accepted the surrender of the Iraqi commanders, and seized Baghdad, could confidently pronounce the end of hostilities when fewer than 500 American deaths had occurred was not alone in his assumptions about war at that time.
What is disheartening is that, even today, many commentators have a blinkered idea about the nature of 21st-century warfare. In Afghanistan it has taken the US and her allies more than a decade to adapt to these new conditions. From the fact of the Taliban triumphs of the last few weeks, some commentators have been apt to conclude that warfare in Afghanistan really has had no impact whatsoever on the terrorist networks against which the warfare was originally commenced.
This depends upon equating “winning” with “eradicating” the enemy, and upon making the further assumption that if you are not winning, in these terms, you must be losing. In fact, not losing, in the kind of war a dominant, status quo power like the US will be fighting in the coming century, constitutes a kind of victory as we will now discover when the true extent of our losses become manifest.
Those losses will not be calculated in American lives or expenditures, but they will be losses nonetheless as the surge in confidence that is already evident in social media spreads throughout the societies under siege and to the capitals of our adversaries.
If it is true that Moscow and Beijing were content to have the US committed in Afghanistan, with no prospect of withdrawal in sight, how much more they must be rejoicing to see the US abandon not only Afghanistan but the very coalition of Nato countries she had organised. What must the political leaderships of many states, friends and potential enemies be thinking are the lessons for Ukraine or Latvia or Taiwan or, for that matter, India?
These conceptual frameworks matter. If you think that victory in a particular armed conflict is unattainable; if you think that therefore your defeat is inevitable because you cannot win, and that a stalemate means a “forever” war whose costs cannot be justified because they do not pay for victory; if you think your withdrawal, which rationally must come as soon as is feasible, will not necessarily cripple your ally or, if it does, only underscore the wisdom of abandoning a position that was doomed anyway; if you assess your current situation as no better than it was before and likely to get worse and therefore rationally unsustainable; if you hold all these views more or less unquestioningly then the decision by Presidents Trump and Biden to unilaterally withdraw from Afghanistan is not hard to fathom.
If the tacit assumptions behind these conclusions are wrong, then it is those assumptions, and not merely the immediate consequences of your decision – the natural focus of most commentary – that you must rethink.
Without such a fundamental reassessment of our basic ideas and assumptions, we will continue on this merry-go-round, repeating what appear to be the same mistakes; hence the photographs of Saigon, 1975 juxtaposed with Kabul, 2021. Even the explanations of our failures are little more than recapitulations of previous explanations.
But my own view is that the explanations are themselves just further examples of this merry-go-round. That is, they simply repeat the analyses offered time and again when US government forces appear to be stymied by unconventional warfare, when relatively backward organisations seem to defeat the awesome strength of the US military.
Of course, the analysts and the commentators complain that the bureaucracy is not listening, or that recent events are yet another vindication of past advice, or that Americans are culturally incapable of operating in distant theaters – if only columnists were running US security policy!
My view of this phenomenon – the same mistakes, the same rebukes – is that something far more fundamental is going on. The entire frame of reference that the analysts and the military bring to the problem is deeply and consequentially wrong.
The past three US administrations concluded that the US must quit Afghanistan because they thought that there was no purpose in losing American lives and money if defeat was inevitable. That’s not wrong, but this analysis contains within it various erroneous assumptions: that failing to defeat the enemy amounts to losing a war; that an apparently endless conflict amounts to a defeat because wars are won by terminating conflict on favorable terms. In fact, refusing to be defeated in Afghanistan, if that could be achieved with a small force and greatly diminished risk to that force, amounted to a success. The fact that that success could be maintained indefinitely was not a fatal indictment of our policy but a vindication of our changed tactics.
War is inseparable from tragedy. But a detached observer might think that the US has introduced a comic element. In the film A Fish Called Wanda, the Kevin Kline character describes the war in Vietnam: “We didn’t lose. It was a tie.” Leaving Afghanistan on the grounds that we would lose if we stayed has the same ring of absurdity.
Philip Bobbitt KBE is professor of jurisprudence at Columbia Law School, Distinguished Senior Lecturer at The University of Texas in Austin, and author of Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-First Century.
Photograph by Porter Gifford/Corbis via Getty Images