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 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 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.
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.