Streetwise Professor

August 13, 2021

The Land of Bones, Redux.

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — cpirrong @ 7:19 pm

Things are going pear-shaped, to put it mildly, in Afghanistan. A Taliban offensive launched on the heels of the American withdrawal has resulted in the fall of 12 provincial capitals, the collapse of the Afghan army, and the likely fall of Kabul within weeks if not days.

No doubt this will be framed as “who lost Afghanistan?” But maybe it should be framed as “should we have lost it later–or sooner?” Because it is likely that the loss was inevitable, and we only had control over the timing.

In 2009, I wrote a post about Afghanistan and my ambivalence about our continued presence there, a mere 8 years after our intervention (not 20). In that post, I suggested it might be best to come home–in 2009, mind. No doubt if we had, what we are seeing now would have been acted out then. Which could have been preferable to having it acted out now.

The real insight in that post was not mine, but that of a University of Houston colleague, Frank Holt, who wrote Land of Bones: Alexander the Great in Afghanistan. I again quote from his 2003 book:

[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).

Ignoring Holt’s injunction, we did not seek another path. We eventually retreated, and though our losses were not as staggering as those suffered by the British or Soviets, they were bad enough, the financial costs were high, and the damage to American reputation great.

Contrary to Holt’s warning, the US attempted to subdue Afghanistan by half measures (which was the main thing I cautioned against in 2009). We ended up “mired in a winless situation,” and eventually chose to exit rather than occupy indefinitely a la Alexander. (Although note that Alexander quickly went on to other things and left the dirty work to his subordinates.)

Holt was very prescient, because he wrote this in 2003 when the glow of the initial routing of the Taliban and al Qaeda brightened many an American cheek. But he saw ahead, by looking back at history. Somewhat later I read him, and agreed with his gloomy assessment.

So I was in the “sooner” camp over a decade ago. In poker, trading, and war, you need to know when to cut your losses, and stop doubling down.

Could we have lost it better, then or now? Perhaps. Rather than withdrawing after a long and rather desultory campaign against the Taliban, as we did, a robust attack on them that seriously degraded their capability immediately prior to withdrawal might have bought the Afghan government and army some time. Might. But the evident abject failure of our enormously expensive and time consuming efforts to create a stable, relatively uncorrupt government and competent military suggests that the end result would have been the same, just delayed by a few months–until next spring, most likely. Those few months would hardly justify the lives and treasure spent in firing such a Parthian shot.

The US track record on third world nation building and third world army building is dismal (recall the utter rout of the American trained and equipped Iraqi army before ISIS). There is no reason to believe a miraculous improvement in the Afghan government and military even given a respite from the Taliban bought by American blood and bombs.

In retrospect, the Colin Powell Pottery Barn assertion (“you broke it, you bought it”–he applied it to Iraq but it is apposite for how we approached Afghanistan as well) was incorrect. Yes, we broke it, and achieved fairly rapidly our objective of dispersing Al Qaeda and its Taliban supporters. But then we went all romantic, believed that we owned it, and thought we could transform Afghanistan into something it has never been: a stable, even moderately peaceful, polity. Remember the purple fingers? Yeah. Good times, good times.

We shoveled trillions down a rathole, lost thousands of American lives and damaged many others, and failed utterly to change Afghanistan in any meaningful way. Nor, realistically speaking, was there any prospect of doing so–nobody has succeeded in doing so in 2300 years. The attempt was hubris, and nemesis has duly arrived.

In retrospect, the appropriate policy would have been to break it in 2001-2002, and leave it in 2003. If a terrorist threat to the US analogous to bin Laden’s had reappeared, go in and break it again. There might have been the political will to do that. But now, the we-broke-it-bought-it-and-didn’t-fix-it policy of the past 20 years has created a situation where the American people have no appetite whatsoever to have anything to do with Afghanistan ever again.

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15 Comments »

  1. Spot on! I said at the start, invade if you want, then get out. The Powell ‘pottery barn rule’ was utterly unhinged. My late grandfather was their with the last British incursion, he had more wisdom on this than the entire DC operation.

    Comment by David Moore — August 13, 2021 @ 7:25 pm

  2. The only way you can improve Afghanistan is to modernise it. Which is a heck of an undertaking, but might be possible. You dig a canal through Pakistan and connect it to the sea for trade, build railways and roads. You make it more of a trading, industrial nation rather than an agricultural one.

    The likes of the Taliban are products of their environment. Before Europe was industrialised, the likes of the conquistadors and William the Conqueror behaved similarly. It’s industrialisation and trade that civilised us.

    What we instead did was a load of utterly pointless obsessions of the decadent Western establishment that don’t work. There is no point in throwing money at educating girls for 12 years when there are few factory, let alone service jobs. Most of them marry at 16. Britain was more industrial in 1870 and didn’t have mandatory education. The UK built 30 miles of road per year since 2010, for a country that desperately needs better roads.

    The best hope for Afghanistan is China. China has already invested a ton of money in road and rail, and will invest more. It’ll connect up Afghanistan and bring trade and prosperity to it.

    Comment by UK Commentator — August 13, 2021 @ 8:08 pm

  3. Afghanistan has been like Salusa Secundus for our now ridiculously capable tier-1 special ops units.

    Unfortunately those units aren’t likely to be all that important in any upcoming peer-conflicts.

    Comment by ThinkLikeA1L — August 13, 2021 @ 8:16 pm

  4. On 9/12/01, we should have told the Taliban regime, you’ve got 24 hours to turn over Biden and his gangs or in 24 hours and 25 minutes you’ll see a brand new sunrise.

    Comment by The Pilot — August 13, 2021 @ 9:25 pm

  5. ‘Cassandra! Cassandra!’

    Hubris indeed. Remember the mind-set in Washington in late 2001:

    – centre of the most powerful and wealthy country on earth, no peer competitors anywhere, nor any likely in the foreseeable future;
    – psychological shock and trauma after the attacks of S-11;
    – a group in power who were determined to use US power and wealth to get at some nasty regimes, and who wouldn’t let grass grow under their feet;
    – a focus on ‘streamlined’ operations – using the bare minimum of force to ‘break’ what needed to be broken.

    Bin Liner’s plan was to lure the US into a war of attrition that would exsanguinate it, as he and his mates had done to the USSR. He broke the ice, hubris has done the rest.

    Years ago I read a Stratfor piece looking at the world through the eyes of the United Kingdom at 20-year intervals. Start at 1900 (top of the world), go to 1920 (safe again but seriously weakened), then 1940 (fighting for its life and sinking), then 1960 (a debt-ridden shell of its former self). Now do the same for Germany. This should make it obvious that twenty years makes a lot of difference in a nation’s life.

    Getting out is a great thing for the US. Those resources and energies are needed for repairing a newly-traumatised homeland. But I suspect the real reason was to marshal resources for the struggles to come – two peer competitors have caught up and are testing their strength.

    Comment by Ex-Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break — August 13, 2021 @ 9:54 pm

  6. @The Pilot. Turn over Biden? Freudian slip there? LOL.

    Come to think of it, if we had threatened to turn over Biden to them they would have folded in a minute. “Dear Allah. Anything but that! Predator drones–OK. Senator drones–we surrender!”

    Comment by cpirrong — August 13, 2021 @ 10:24 pm

  7. Auto correct is wonderful aid and a fearsome master. Bin Ladin and his gang was all we needed, rebuilding Afghanistan was a fool’s errand brought about by the stupid Pottery Barn idea—we broke it, got our man, here’s back to you.

    Comment by The Pilot — August 14, 2021 @ 7:21 am

  8. There is a case for the punitive expedition. Though wouldn’t it have been better aimed at Saudi Arabia and/or Pakistan?

    To ask the question is to answer it: America wanted a victim that was somewhere weak that had some ties to bin Laden. Turned out it was less weak than it appeared to be – as anyone who had read, say, Kipling, knew already.

    Comment by dearieme — August 14, 2021 @ 8:39 am

  9. @UK Commentator. “Modernise it.” That reminds me of the old Steve Martin routine, How to Make a Million Dollars Without Paying Taxes: “First, make a million dollars.” The US spent hundreds of billions in a futile attempt to modernize. Yeah, maybe we did it wrong, but I don’t see any great ideas on offer to do it right.

    The problem is that development/modernization is devilish hard. Scholars have identified necessary conditions, but not sufficient ones. One of the necessary ones is some security of life and property … but how do you transition from a Hobbesian state of nature where security are lacking to one in which it exists. The Hobbesian answer: Leviathan. Well, Alexander, Victorian Britain, the USSR, and latterly the US tried to play Leviathan and that didn’t work out.

    The non-Hobbesian answer is basically a fortuitous convergence of circumstances. European (and especially English) fractiousness and fractured polities balanced with enough central authority provided the right balance. Too much centralization (Leviathan) crushes the civil society and freedom that are the germs of modernity. Too much anarchy is similarly inimical to civil society and freedom.

    Afghanistan is in the anarchy tail of the distribution. Digging canals ain’t gonna hack it.

    I agree with your point re pointless obsessions.

    Regarding China, I say “bon chance.” Why should they succeed where others have failed? And getting them embroiled in a hopeless enterprise–instead of the US–has definite appeal to the realist (cynic?) me.

    Culture matters. A lot. Until the Afghan culture changes it will remain a shithole. And changing culture from the outside is virtually impossible. That is the main hubris of the US (and the UK to some degree): to think that superficial totems of modernization (voting, educating women), etc., would have a material effect on a culture, especially in the span of a few years.

    Comment by cpirrong — August 14, 2021 @ 11:51 am

  10. @Ex-Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break. The overriding consideration for me with respect to Afghanistan and Iraq has been that they have been sucks of resources (emotional as well as financial/military) that have compromised the US’s ability to respond to challenges from China (and to a far lesser degree Russia). Afghanistan has been a huge gift to Xi and Putin. Take the reputational and morale hit, suck it up, and focus on the real challenges.

    Comment by cpirrong — August 14, 2021 @ 11:56 am

  11. As the late Peter Drucker would say, “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. Taliban 2.0 will be interesting to watch— will they be pragmatic or religious ideologues. Their geography sucks—who has an interest in Afghan development? Even the Chinese would rather buy raw materials like lithium from a more pliable and secure country. The BRI doesn’t fit in as where does Afghanistan lead to—Gateway to Iran isn’t a selling point.

    Comment by The Pilot — August 14, 2021 @ 3:13 pm

  12. Prof I completely agree. And not just because I live in a country which, to our disgrace, has relied way too much for way too long on US sacrifices to keep the wolves at bay while we lived the good life. I sincerely believe these forever wars are great contributors to the malaise and unrest that afflicts the US today.

    But you know well the sunk cost fallacy: the response to these sort of mistakes is almost always, Madoff-style, to double down and cross one’s fingers until the resources run out and it all falls apart. Finally, it seems that someone in Washington has run the numbers and worked out 1) that not even the US could step up to the Bear-Panda alliance while continuing to drone jihadis in Afghanistan, 2) that a hard choice would have to be made, and 3) it was Afghanistan that would have to be struck off the to-do list.

    Which shows that at least someone in Washington is thinking rationally! Just a shame it took so long. But he/she was fighting against human nature – the sunk cost fallacy isn’t just a textbook thing, it is everywhere. (I’m fighting against it now in thinking about how to allocate my savings).

    One question I have now is: just what will the US do, now that it has demonstrated its seriousness? You mentioned before something about how the US could just blast past Bear-Panda once it puts on the afterburners. We may be about to see the specifics of that choice. Just what will they do? What will we see? A 700-ship navy? A huge fleet of drone-subs?

    Another question is: When will Washington work out that the current international monetary and security structure essentially sees the US pay lots of dollars to the Chinese, which the Chinese then use to grow its wealth and industrial and defence capacity domestically, and undermine the US internationally, all under the protective umbrella provided and paid for by the US? And when they work this out, what will they do about it? I can’t see any alternative but breaking this arrangement, much as Nixon broke things in 1971 (fifty years ago today – happy anniversary!) But what will come after it?

    Lastly: how is the domestic situation there, after last summer’s orgy of mindless violence? I hope people on all sides have taken a step back from the brink. Covid hysteria wouldn’t be helping but I hope things have improved.

    OK I’ll shut up now. I’m at home recovering from Covid so my mind is running wild while I stare at the ceiling waiting for this Fauci-made junk to clear my system!

    Comment by Ex-Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break — August 14, 2021 @ 9:09 pm

  13. “One question I have now is: just what will the US do, now that it has demonstrated its seriousness?”
    US prefer to sweep the question under the rug – and turn in ire on its own citizens.
    Calling Americans protesting mask mandates – “terrorists”.
    https://www.thegatewaypundit.com/2021/08/dhs-extremists-covid-vaccines-stolen-election-pose-national-security-threat-ahead-9-11/
    A Russian saying (yes, I have an inexhaustible number of those, drawn from live experiment of 90yrs of the Soviet rule) : бей sвоих, чтоб чужие боялись.

    Comment by Tatyana — August 15, 2021 @ 7:25 am

  14. cpirrong,

    “The problem is that development/modernization is devilish hard. Scholars have identified necessary conditions, but not sufficient ones. One of the necessary ones is some security of life and property … but how do you transition from a Hobbesian state of nature where security are lacking to one in which it exists. The Hobbesian answer: Leviathan. Well, Alexander, Victorian Britain, the USSR, and latterly the US tried to play Leviathan and that didn’t work out.

    The non-Hobbesian answer is basically a fortuitous convergence of circumstances. European (and especially English) fractiousness and fractured polities balanced with enough central authority provided the right balance. Too much centralization (Leviathan) crushes the civil society and freedom that are the germs of modernity. Too much anarchy is similarly inimical to civil society and freedom.

    Afghanistan is in the anarchy tail of the distribution. Digging canals ain’t gonna hack it.”

    It’s industrialisation, and it’s about gradual, cyclical improvement. You start with say, mining, you employ lots of armed people to protect the mining operation. You make some people richer, and they spend money that makes everyone richer. Then maybe you get sweatshops. Crime decreases as the population is growing richer. Out of the sweatshop money, people spend a little more on education, crime decreases some more. And so on. This is a pattern that can be observed throughout history in many places.

    “I agree with your point re pointless obsessions.”

    Thanks

    “Regarding China, I say “bon chance.” Why should they succeed where others have failed? And getting them embroiled in a hopeless enterprise–instead of the US–has definite appeal to the realist (cynic?) me.”

    Because China isn’t doing this from the sort of well-mannered Blair/Bush/Ivy league/Foreign Office kumbayah perspective of “nation building” with all the pointless obsessions. It’s about trade routes and mineral rights, making money for China. They’re also working with the Taliban, which I guess means Taliban guys will be getting kickbacks, but they get protection.

    And the Taliban know that China are not to be trifled with. You can bullshit the west and f**k with us because western government culture is polite, merciful and accepts failure. The Taliban made promises and they knew they didn’t have to keep them.

    “Culture matters. A lot. Until the Afghan culture changes it will remain a shithole. And changing culture from the outside is virtually impossible. That is the main hubris of the US (and the UK to some degree): to think that superficial totems of modernization (voting, educating women), etc., would have a material effect on a culture, especially in the span of a few years.”

    I mostly agree. I’m saying is that in certain basic ways, you can plant a few seeds that can help to accelerate industrialisation. You have to start with the right things for their current situation. I’m not saying mass government planning.

    Comment by UK Commentator — August 15, 2021 @ 10:11 am

  15. You canna bomb the Afghan resistance back into the stone age … ‘cos have you seen the living conditions in some of their villages?

    While you’all are reflecting on the Afghan Fiasco, I have been looking at the most remarkable statistic of the week, one you’all should be thinking about – since it strikes closer to home

    20% – yep, that’s right! – 20% of US military families are ‘food insecure’ – i.e. they ain’t got enough to put food on the table for the kids ‘n all every day. Now, it won’t need a historian to delve into the decline and fall to know that when Roman armies weren’t paid, they started getting strange insubordinate ideas into their heads. Ditto, the Thirty Years War. Don’t you think some of the Defense budget should be diverted from the maw of the ‘Complex’ into the pockets of the soldiers before they too start getting strange insubordinate ideas into their heads?

    And how exactly do you spend $700 billion without paying the troops proper?

    Comment by Simple Simon — August 15, 2021 @ 10:38 am

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