Streetwise Professor

December 6, 2009

The Graveyard of Timelines

Filed under: Military,Politics — The Professor @ 4:36 pm

I’m reading a book by a University of Houston colleague, history professor Frank Holt.   (I tend to juggle books.)   It’s called Into the Land of Bones: Alexander the Great in Afghanistan.   Written in the immediate aftermath of 9-11 and the American invasion of that country, Holt puts current events in historical perspective by analyzing Alexander’s Bactrian and Sogdian campaigns in detail, mixed with discussions of Britain’s First and Second Afghan Wars, and the USSR’s travails there.

Reading it makes it clear that any thoughts of “time lines” or “exit strategies” in Afghanistan are delusional.   Utterly delusional:

[W]e must acknowledge that the wars waged in Afghanistan by Alexander, Britain, the Soviet Union, and now the United States share some salient features that may not bode well for our future.   For example, all these invasions of Afghanistan went well at first, but so far no superpower has found a workable alternative for the recipe for ruin in Afghanistan:

  1. Estimate the time and resources necessary to conquer and control the region.
  2. Double all estimates.
  3. Repeat as needed.

Afghanistan cannot be subdued by half measures.   Invaders must consider the deadly demands of winter warfare, since all gains from seasonal campaigns are erased at every lull.   Invaders must resolve to hunt down every warlord, for the one exception will surely rot the fruits of all the other victories.   Invaders cannot succeed by avoiding cross-border fighting, since the mobile insurgents can otherwise hide and reinforce with impunity.   Invaders must calculate where to draw the line between killing and conciliation, for too much of either means interminable conflict.   Finally, all invaders so far have had to face one more difficult choice: once mired in a winless situation, they have tried to cut their losses through one of two exit strategies:

  1. Retreat, as did the British and the Soviets, with staggering losses.
  2. Leave a large army of occupation in the area, as Alexander did.

Neither option seems acceptable to the United States, which must therefore learn from its predecessors’ mistakes and seek another path.   (pp. 18-19).

In other words: go large, or go home.   (Holt wrote this, note well, in 2003.)   Half measures, like those in Obama’s plan, are likely doomed to failure.   This is especially true inasmuch as Obama’s “other path” (building on Bush’s “other path”) depends heavily on transferring responsibility and control to an Afghan government and army in a period of months; Holt provides chapter and verse on how this is almost certainly an exercise in futility, given Afghan history, and the nature of its society (or more accurately, societies).

As I’ve written before, there are no good options in Afghanistan.   But by far the worst is the “middle path,” especially when it is not sold to the American people honestly.   The “time line” has short-term, domestic political considerations written all over it.   But what happens in July, 2011 when it is almost certain that the objectives Obama has set have not been achieved?   Obama will suffer a crisis of credibility regardless of what option he chooses at that time: if he decides to leave then, he will raise questions about why he spent additional lives and treasure on what was foreseeably an unworkable strategy; if he decides that “conditions on the ground” require continued heavy involvement, he will raise questions about his judgment in setting a time line in the first place, his honesty in asserting that there was a time line, and the wisdom of a strategy for 2010-2011 predicated on such a time line.   Even as a cynical political calculation, it makes no sense (except perhaps to the extent it reduces the salience of Afghanistan as a 2010 campaign issue). He can kick that can down the road for awhile, but the problem he will face will only be worse when it comes to rest, and he will have so damaged his credibility (on issues of both judgment and honesty) that he will be ill-disposed to deal with it then.

I supported the surge in Iraq in 2006 (and have the posts to prove it).   The circumstances in Iraq, tactically, operationally, strategically, and (essentially) logistically, were all different than in Afghanistan.   The odds of even a robust surge in Afghanistan working are substantially smaller than the odds were in Iraq.   The odds of Obama’s semi-surge succeeding, hedged as it is, with the palpable lack of enthusiasm and will that oozes from Obama’s every pore, are virtually nil.

If you read Frank Holt’s book, you’ll know a good deal about Alexander.   And you’ll know that Obama is–for both better and worse–no Alexander.   Which bodes ill indeed for the prospects in Afghanistan in the coming months.

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  1. Obviously, Obama is not a strategist, he cannot think a single move ahead. Unfortunately for Americans, he is the one in charge of making strategic decisions right now.

    All you can hope for is that he does not do any irreversible damage.

    Comment by Deith — December 6, 2009 @ 6:23 pm

  2. You have finally made a post I (mostly) agree with. Congrats! I too think victory in Afghanistan is unattainable without a politically-unacceptable level of violence, as I wrote here.

    One thing I don’t agree on is that it will come back to bite Obama in the ass in 2012. First, American public interest will be waning after the withdrawal. Second, the Soviet experience suggests there will be a period of (relative) stability for at least a couple of years after the beginning of withdrawal; perhaps the US-sponsored government will even manage to hold Kabul for many years, as long as a few billions $ of arms and funds continue flowing every year.

    Meanwhile, Republican revanchism will be defeated, and our great leader Obama will serve a second term.

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — December 6, 2009 @ 7:17 pm

  3. “In other words: go large, or go home.”

    This adds nothing but confusion. Since war is not a senseless act of passion, but is controlled by the political object, the value of the political object determines the commitment and sacrifice to be made for it, both in magnitude and also in duration. If it isn’t worth doing at all, it cannot possibly be worth doing “large”.

    Comment by rkka — December 6, 2009 @ 8:40 pm

  4. Machiavelli pointed this out a long time ago as well – “Taking over a country with a strong central government like Persia would be very difficult, but once conquered relatively easy to maintain. Whereas taking over a land ruled by several warlords would be relatively easier, but very difficult to maintain in the long run.” The only way to subdue and retain Afghanistan would be to become Afghani – settle there like Alexander’s legions did. Most super powers – Britain , Soviet Union and now the US dont have such intentions. Its like a middle school classroom. The moment teacher steps out chaos will reign. If the teacher is a tad ineffective, chaos will reign in her presence as well 🙂

    Comment by Surya — December 7, 2009 @ 9:11 am

  5. kka–the value of the objective is arguably worth going large. I said arguably, not certainly. I am doubtful that it is, as I’ve said several times. If we go large, it is possible that we will succeed, but the value of the objective is not worth the cost, but it is possible that the reverse is true. The middle option Obama has chosen is horrible because it has no chance of achieving the objective. The outcome there is cost>benefit with probability 1.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — December 7, 2009 @ 6:45 pm

  6. A leader is as good as the team around him. If you think his team can hack it, so will he. Paki nukes should be the first thing on the agenda.

    Comment by So? — December 7, 2009 @ 9:29 pm

  7. Declare victory and go home.

    Comment by jojo — December 8, 2009 @ 5:20 am

  8. Obviously, the president’s objective and yours differ.

    Looking at some other historical insurgencies, I’ve found cases where the forces required run as high as 150 security personnel per 1000 population. Given the inherent difficulties of the theater, even McChrystrals dream of 80,000 more wouldn’t help.

    And for some more perspective, a year ago we had 28,000 US troops there.

    Comment by rkka — December 8, 2009 @ 5:55 am

  9. Not graveyard – gravy train:

    Comment by So? — December 11, 2009 @ 12:42 am

  10. […] was a blunder of the first magnitude.   Hmm.  Didn’t somebody call Afghanistan “The Graveyard of Timelines“?, writing “any thoughts of ‘time lines’ or ‘exit strategies’ […]

    Pingback by Streetwise Professor » This Too Was Predictable — June 16, 2010 @ 1:50 pm

  11. […] Afghanistan was a blunder of the first magnitude.   Hmm.  Didn’t somebody call Afghanistan “The Graveyard of Timelines“?, writing “any thoughts of ‘time lines’ or ‘exit strategies’ in Afghanistan are […]

    Pingback by This Too Was Predictable — June 17, 2010 @ 2:13 am

  12. […] Gates specifically–and you’ll see that was the gravamen of my criticism in 2009-2011.  For instance: In other words: go large, or go home.   (Holt wrote this, note well, in 2003.)   Half measures, […]

    Pingback by Streetwise Professor » Lèse-majesté, or Bill Gates Tells Truth to Power on Afghanistan — January 8, 2014 @ 10:01 pm

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