Afghanistan Lessons: No Good Exits From Losing. Was There a Way to Win?

I’m not convinced yet that there was a good way for the US to exit Afghanistan. Part of saying that the exit has been a disaster is to project or predict some better way to go about it.

Historians of the future will undoubtedly debate whether any good exit existed at all, and I for one am not seeing any evidence of it yet.

Think of it like a car accident. In the first two minutes as lanes are merging, many options in a decision tree present themselves with several good outcomes. Yet in the last seconds before slamming into each other, it’s just a matter of stop loss.

The only options left are all bad ones. This isn’t to say better options didn’t exist earlier, just that the point at which sudden and abrupt movements had to be made they all look bad.

With that in mind, after reading the story of US Army Special Forces officer Jim Gant I’m pretty sure he was exactly right about how to win the war. And not for the most obvious reasons. This makes perfect sense to me, for example:

…decentralized effort focused on empowering Afghanistan’s tribes rather than one that bolstered a corrupt central government…

That’s tapping right into the core of transitions we’re seeing around the world. Gant was on to something much, much bigger than Afghanistan.

It’s a narrative we even see played out regularly in the American news of its domestic tribes pushing for more “freedom” (read as control) and less oversight.

Just to be clear, flying the Confederate battle flag is tribalism. A group calling itself “Proud Boys” is tribalism. Perhaps it then has to be said that in no way would empowering these tribes in America turn out well for America.

And there’s the rub. Which tribes get to be magically empowered through foreign military intervention and why? Who decides and how? This was some of the (admittedly very naive and weak) foundation of my masters thesis work decades ago.

What jumped out at me in Gant’s particular study of the problem was something completely unexpected. (Full report in PDF: “One Tribe at a Time – A Strategy for Success in Afghanistan“)

Let’s go back in history for a minute.

In the 1800s President Grant required that his wife be buried along side him, and in doing so he was refused his rightful place in a US military cemetery.

The best general and best president in American history was literally denied proper burial rights only because he cared so deeply for his life partner.

That is why Grant’s massively impressive tomb instead is conspicuously in the heart of NYC.

Gant’s story had a interestingly similar tone, since the woman he married joined him in the field. He brought her close enough that the US military wanted Gant out. Somehow that seems like a giant clue, Gant might have been so far ahead, really understood victory in a way Grant did too, that his ideas seemed so good and deserve much more attention.

He perhaps could have even won the war.

The bureaucratic hurdles he was up against were his downfall.

Douglas Lute, “a three-star Army general who served as the White House’s Afghan war czar” under former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, told interviewers “we were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan – we didn’t know what we were doing.”

“What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking,” Lute said in 2015, according to the Post.

In another example, Jeffrey Eggers, a retired Navy SEAL and White House staffer for Bush and Obama, bemoaned the cost of the war to interviewers, asking, “What did we get for this $1 trillion effort? Was it worth $1 trillion?” the Post said.

There’s a big disconnect between spend and value here, especially when you look at the transition from authorizing “harass” tactic under Carter, to full-bore support of extremist right-wing religious militants under Reagan and Bush.

But is the right answer to shut off spending or to increase value from that spend? Are either options realistic?

It brings to mind retrospectives on an unsustainable cost of the Vietnam War, such as this one:

When you stop to think about it if you have $30M orbiting reconnaissance aircraft to transmit signals, and $20M command post to call in four $10M fighters to assault a convoy of five $5000 trucks with $2000 worth of rice, it’s easy to see that’s not cost-effective. This is a self-inflicted wound… a losing proposition…

That’s only a little bit ironic given Brzezinski in 1980 wanted the US to get into Afghanistan to make it into a Vietnam War for the USSR; a form of payback that would create political quagmire too expensive for the Soviets to sustain militarily.

Saying in 1980 that Kabul should be the Saigon of the USSR has literally turned into Russia saying Kabul should be a repeat of Saigon for America; don’t forget Putin cut his teeth in the KGB during the 1980s.

However, despite all these interesting and useful references to Vietnam, Gant’s predicament reminds me much more of the American Civil War.

I’m especially thinking about Lincoln’s decision to expeditiously promote Grant right to the very top of decisions.

When I read it was a West Point graduate who petitioned to have Gant removed from his post — a hint at patronage instead of competence as a deciding factor — it reminded me of Grant as well. Grant had success navigating West Point while refusing to play into its patronage system, such that if America had depended on the men above Grant to win the Civil War it’s not clear they could have done it without him.

In that context, although I have limited Gant background, we have to wonder what would have happened if Gant had been promoted for his ideas and skill instead of kicked out on some technicality.

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