Best Defense

A challenge from Gourley: ‘Why did we lose in Afghanistan?’ in 500 words or less

Best Defense guest columnists on why the U.S. lost in Afghanistan.

Patrolling in Afghanistan
U.S. Army Sgt. Nathan Schrock, from Arthur, Ill., tries to keep warm after waking up on a cold morning in the mountains near Sar Howza, Paktika province, Afghanistan, Sept. 4. Schrock is deployed with Bulldog Troop, 1st Squadron, 40th Cavalry Regiment.

By Jim Gourley

Best Defense roving reporter

Why did we lose in Afghanistan? I think Matthew Hoh accomplished a lot more in four pages than General Bolger did in 436, but for all his prescient observations of what we were doing wrong he didn’t offer any alternatives.

I’ve heard the “because we lost civilian support” argument dozens of times, but I’ve yet to see how that materially affected the effort. It certainly didn’t stop funds and recruits from reaching the combat zone. I recently got into a discussion with someone about how our primary method of destroying armed resistance was through direct fire engagements, and by various means we made that task extremely difficult on soldiers. He responded “you can’t say we lost because we couldn’t chase them over mountains when most of our guys died in IED attacks.” It reminded me of Patton’s saying that no one ever won a war by dying for their country. The point is to kill the other guy. I think our fundamental failure can be identified right on page one, chapter one of On War. “Force… is thus the means of war; to impose our will on the enemy is its object. To secure that object we must render the enemy powerless.” We never rendered the enemy powerless. As a consequence, he continued to counter our efforts to build a stable government and security force within Afghanistan while also engaging us directly in combat.

But why? Why didn’t we ever put an end to him, when that was ostensibly our purpose for going over there in the first place? Because we didn’t have within our arsenal the necessary amount and type of force to achieve the objective? Because western perceptions of morality in warfare prevented us from applying it? Because of political ineptitude in defining the enemy and how to render him powerless? Because it was just physically impossible?

Tom thought this question was good enough to solicit responses, so here’s the prompt. In 500 words or less, why did we fail to render our enemies — those people who actively participated in open hostility against our forces — powerless?

Jim Gourley is a former military intelligence officer. He now works as an author and journalist covering military affairs and sports science. His newest book, about ultra-endurance triathlon, is in stores now. His Twitter is @jim_gourley

Image Credit: Dvidshub Flickr

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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