What Just Happened?

I’ve spent most of my adult life at war, fighting for lost causes. I gave the decades of my youth to strive for that in which I generally believed, alongside men I loved and respected. I regret none of it, but days like today I do feel a bit old, tired, and discouraged.

For those who are wondering how we could have failed so catastrophically in Afghanistan, here’s the simple answer:

We weren’t in Afghanistan 20 years. We were in Afghanistan one year, 20 distinct times.

A long time ago in a land far, far away…the author (left) and teammates chat with some local boys who are probably teenagers now. Malozai Village, Sangin District, Helmand Province, Afghanistan, 2011.

A Three Hour Tour…

US units rotated out at least annually, and the failure to maintain a consistent operational and strategic direction as the commanders and units came and went was the single greatest constraint to achieving a better outcome. You cannot succeed in Counterinsurgency, Foreign Internal Defense or Security Force Assistance (just three of the many missions we had in Afghanistan) without a strategic vision that is focused, consistent, and achievable, and then acting on it in consistent ways over years…and years…and years.

Success in places like Afghanistan requires an effort that looks something like the old Single-Wing or Wishbone Offenses of football’s past: A grind-three yards and a cloud of dust at a time. You can’t switch offensive and defensive systems between every series of a football game, yet that is effectively what we did in Afghanistan by rotating units and every year or less and letting new commanders “adjust” strategy. Strategic and operational bipolar and attention-deficit disorders predictably resulted. For the last two decades, units showed up for their six, nine, or 12-month long tour, and the focus of the commanders was on what local measures of performance or metrics of success they could achieve (or spin to appear to achieve) that would reflect positively on themselves and their unit. Hypothetically. If you tried to sell a commander on a brilliant initiative that would require the entire command’s focus and attention, but would actually stabilize the village/district/province three to five years down the road with a stable government and loyal populace, he’d shoot that idea down and focus on something more short term that he and his people would get credit for. There are exceptions to this, but overwhelmingly that was the case.

The author chatting with the local schoolteacher. They needed school supplies and rubber boots to keep the kids’ feet dry during the long walk to school during the icy winter months.

The Continuity Conundrum: “Pick a lane, idiot!”

I could write a book on American mistakes and this is obviously an oversimplification intended to provide a pithy idea of the problem to people who won’t read the whole hypothetical book. That said, every servicemember who spent time in Afghanistan will nod knowingly as I describe how a commander would announce his priorities and the direction for say…Regional Command South, and then the troops would sacrifice lives and limbs in that effort during that tour, and maybe one more. Then, another commander would come in a effectively say, “Nah, that’s dumb. We’re gonna abandon that effort and focus on something totally different, that I think is important.” Then that would go on a year or two and then we’d abandon that and change directions yet again. From the Office of the President down to the battalion commanders, the only consistency in the 20 individual, distinct years of American presence in Afghanistan was a consistent failure to define the mission clearly, set achievable goals, and engage in a sustained and unwavering effort to achieve those goals that transcended election cycles and command/unit rotations.

What’s the Opposite of the Sunk Cost Fallacy?

I tell people all the time that most workout plans and diets work just fine if you apply them consistently over a long period of time, and that self-discipline, patience, and commitment are the ingredients to meeting your health and fitness goals. Don’t obsess over which workout or which diet. Just pick one, commit to it, put your head down and grind and you will probably pick your head up and look around six months later and be astonished at your progress. If you change your training routine or diet every couple weeks you’ll never get anywhere.

What I think we should have done in Afghanistan starting back in 2001 is a topic for a different blog post. Here I’ll just say that we should have picked a direction, tightened up our rucksack straps, put our heads down and kept doggedly picking up and putting down our feet one in front of the other in the same direction instead of changing the plan 20+ times. Sometimes you need to recognize a bad decision or investment and make a change, but the other extreme of changing everything at the first sign of resistance is equally destructive. Commitment to a marginally decent plan 20 years ago, executed over a decade would’ve been preferable to 20+ plans in 20 years and zero to show for it. Our Republic and its military faced a most challenging military, diplomatic, economic, and cultural problem that needed solving with clarity, patience, resolve, prudence and above all else unity of effort over years. Instead, we treated a 10-20 year problem with a series of one year (or less) miracle cures that, just like on the infomercial, don’t really work. Whack-a-mole is not the military strategy of winners.

Passing out crayons and construction paper/coloring books to the local kids, which were donated by the fine folks at First Baptist Church of Watauga, TX.

So?

So as citizens and taxpayers, here is what you can do to be patriots and support the troops: Next time the politicians want to use military force, demand they articulate a strategic vision and goals in quantifiable terms that are easily understood, measured, and pursued. Don’t let them hide behind cliche, vague soundbites, and general buzzwords. Demand that civilian military leadership holds military leadership accountable to pursue the long-term strategic end-state desired. Ultimately, the fact that we could have spent two decades war-fighting in a place like Afghanistan, failed so totally, and yet saw so few commanders relieved because of incompetence suggest a lack of accountability at multiple levels within the command structure.

In your own lives, remember that committing to a “good enough” plan, and executing it with zeal and ardor, is better than swerving all over life’s roads searching endlessly for the perfect solution and abandoning yesterday’s plan. Choosing a simple path and grinding away while tuning out distractions is the way to achieve most anything.

The one thing we know for sure is that distractedly chasing squirrels (and careerist self-interest) one year at a time for two decades isn’t the path to helping facilitate a stable ally and valued long-term partner in Central Asia. So I am going to spend the next few days watching some of the news, sipping some bourbon, and grieving a bit at what I’ve known was inevitable for at least the last ten years. Knowing it was coming doesn’t make it any easier to digest, but I will process it, neither ignoring nor obsessing over it, and make it part of my life and past, and move on into the future to do what good I can on the road ahead of me. God be with the good and decent people in Afghanistan as they face this new reality.

Having been awake for over 24 hours, I thought I was hallucinating this scorpion. I wish I had been, because after killing it I was nervous pulling my boots on the entire rest of the trip. Grand times and high adventure.

28 thoughts on “What Just Happened?

  1. I always enjoy reading your posts. You are a very articulate person. You just don’t say words to say words; you explain and define what you are wanting to get across. I have shared your link with many of my brothers that had trips over to Afgan and they all say you hit it square on the head.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Chris; First time reader, won’t be the last. Everything you wrote could have been applied to my war over 50 years ago. I have often thought over time that those who benefit from extending it are the problem, not my buddies and yours who do the dirty work. But then I am by nature suspicious I guess.

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  2. Sen Sgt Cypert – thank you for your service to the war fighter. Thank you for your articulate and very wise words, and the challenge for those of us not directly in the fight to challenge our common leaders and politicians to ensure consistency in mission planning & execution.

    This issue exists in corporate America too. While we live in a fallen and evil world, we can and should all do better.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re right about corporate America. Self-serving short-sightedness is an inherently American moser trait, and we see it in our military because our military is and always will be a reflection of our culture.

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  3. Well done brother. I too have expected this day. It definitely has me thinking of the sacrifices so many made and the countless others that are dealing with physical and mental health issues and will for the rest of their lives.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. 1st great job at illustrating the problems with “rotating” units and Commands. Especially at the theater of operations.

    However a couple of things:

    1. You forgot to mention the “Iraqi distraction”. Which began soon after Operation Anaconda when Rummsfeld told Gen Franks to start planning for an Iraqi invasion. He did, he led it, and made him a hero. But then everyone forgot about him because Iraq became a train wreck. And nobody cares about Afghanistan because… It was good to go right?

    2. War. Especially a people’s war, or partisan war, guerrilla war, insurgency, you name it. It’s about POLITICS, specifically local politics. In 2002 the US drafted an Afghan Constitution, have Karzay the reigns, disbanded the Northern Alliance, dumped $$ on the new Gov’t and new Afghan National Army and National Police. And threw douces.
    ….well tried to throw douces, but as the corruption, ineptitude, passes year after year, by 2007 Taliban were fighting back hard.

    3. Oh … And the hubris of the US military in always thinking of the Taliban as an evil cartoon character, or at best a complete foreign entity.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Some great points.

      1.) I didn’t forget to mention the Iraq Distraction because it was irrelevant. Iraq was the main event but we did the same thing there from 2003-2011: One year, eight separate times. It’s what we do. Had we never even considered invading Iraq the outcome for Afghanistan would’ve been the same for the same reasons. Our eight, one year trips to Iraq and botched exit resulted in ISIS taking over half the country three years later.

      2.) The Taliban was completely defeated in 2002 and nobody ever wanted them back. Then bored conventional force commanders with nothing else to do in 2003 and 2004 said, “Hey. Drugs are bad. Let’s eradicate these drugs by burning them, and we’ll be heroes,” ignoring the fact half the country farms or transports poppy to feed their kids because it’s got 10x the profit margin of wheat. Insanely stupid poppy eradication initiatives literally handed the Taliban the lever they could use to revive their usefulness to a segment of the populace: “Hey, if you pay us a percentage of your poppy, we’ll fight the Americans and GIRoA Forces and keep them away from your poppy fields so you can make money and live in peace.”

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      1. Ding, ding! A lot of people have no idea about your 2nd point. Besides wheat, we tried to get them to grow saffron, but that didn’t work out as well as hoped. Poppy was still so prevalent in 2013 the pollen covered vehicles and I got a sinus infection (was at BLS). And… tbh, a lot of people knew the collapse was inevitable. We saw hints/inklings when we started BRAC’ing all the little OPs/COPs/etc. and the places we once controlled were quickly “lost”. And so many issues/concerns re:ANDSF sustainment (and loyalty) away from Kabul. There were reasons there were 20, 30, 50 year plans discussed in certain circles. It would take a full generation in relative calm to overcome some of the barriers to long-term stability, unity and true self-rule (tribalism, PAK/IRN influence, internal cultural prejudice, wide-spread/tacitly accepted corruption, etc.). I think those “on-the-ground” did their best and should be proud, even if appears it was all in vain (yes, I lost friends, some while I was there, and not all in uniform). — AntGut

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    1. Interestingly, I think we did succeed in the first year, thanks to the great work of 5th Special Forces Group. We dismantled the Taliban, destroyed and displaced Al Qaeda, and enjoyed control of the entire country. We won the war. Unfortunately through a series of foolish and misguided missteps we lost the peace, and created conditions for the Taliban and the war to return. I don’t think a Patton, genius of a warfighter though he was, was what we were missing. I think what we needed but didn’t have was a GEN George C. Marshall and his Marshal Plan to rebuild Europe after WWII.

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  5. Love seeing the pics!😍 Thank you for explaining things so well and telling your story. I just knew we were there. And now I see a little better why things have fallen apart.😢
    Thank you Chris for serving our country! I’m so glad we are on the same side.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I decided to write this after receiving questions from friends and family about how this could’ve happened. While I want my blog to be a potpourri of writing on various topics about which I’m passionate, I suspect my next couple pieces will expound on structural and cultural flaws in our national defense apparatus.

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  6. My thoughts exactly. I got who I could get out and brought my advisor teams back safely. Our high level military leadership has been abyssmal for 2 decades doing exactly the wrong thing while suffering no shame to their careers.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Your analysis of a major failure in Afghanistan, and your recommendations for future wars, are word for word precisely those of commentaries of the Vietnam war made by its veterans almost 50 years ago. Annual rotations and focus on short term measurable goals were the hallmark then. It will always be such anytime this country gets involved in wars it has decided not to win. They are adaptations made to expend energy and resources in which the participants know that victory has already been decreed as not an option. Those of us from that long ago war were the first to detect this country was once again on a familiar path to failure, complete with the finale of desperate citizens clinging to aircraft trying to make an escape. They didn’t even get to hear the song “White Christmas” by Bing Crosby aired over Armed Forces Radio Network to signal everyone to get to the runway for rescue. This generation needs to be a strong voice to the electorate in hopes that 50 years from now, in some other place, our office holders don’t do this a third time.

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  8. I thank you for spending the 20 best years of your life – fighting with a long term view of what America could – and should – be. So many have sacrificed so much for so long and will continue their fight for the rest of their lives. How was it possible for us to allow our American resolve to fade, beginning with the Korean “conflict,” to the present day level? Once, it was the best on the planet, now, every foe knows the Americans’ will is capable of being defeated. Thanks also – for articulating the abysmal, but true, story. I look forward to your future efforts.

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