Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Why did we lose in Afghanistan? That’s easy: We failed to execute the basics

By Lt. Col. Jeremy Kotkin, U.S. Army Best Defense debater in the Gourley challenge “Why did we lose in Afghanistan?” In hindsight this seems like an easy enough charge to answer: FM 3-24 was a cherry-picked collection of flawed logic and history; the Pakistani government enabled the very enemy we were fighting against and we never ...

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By Lt. Col. Jeremy Kotkin, U.S. Army

Best Defense debater in the Gourley challenge

Why did we lose in Afghanistan?” In hindsight this seems like an easy enough charge to answer: FM 3-24 was a cherry-picked collection of flawed logic and history; the Pakistani government enabled the very enemy we were fighting against and we never seriously dealt with the safe haven across the Durand Line; the US DoD was ill-prepared to fill all the socio-political and economic requirements of nation-building; NATO never fully signed on to the fight; the civilian surge fizzled out after never really materializing; we overemphasized the “human terrain” in relation to warfighting, etc. These answers are all true, to some extent. Many more excuses exist with varying levels of veracity or relevance. But the honest answer is simple enough. We didn’t understand ourselves.

By Lt. Col. Jeremy Kotkin, U.S. Army
Best Defense debater in the Gourley challenge

Why did we lose in Afghanistan?” In hindsight this seems like an easy enough charge to answer: FM 3-24 was a cherry-picked collection of flawed logic and history; the Pakistani government enabled the very enemy we were fighting against and we never seriously dealt with the safe haven across the Durand Line; the US DoD was ill-prepared to fill all the socio-political and economic requirements of nation-building; NATO never fully signed on to the fight; the civilian surge fizzled out after never really materializing; we overemphasized the “human terrain” in relation to warfighting, etc. These answers are all true, to some extent. Many more excuses exist with varying levels of veracity or relevance. But the honest answer is simple enough. We didn’t understand ourselves.

While saying ‘we didn’t understand ourselves,’ the reader must also acknowledge that a lot of other misunderstandings spawn from that, each going off in different directions, chipping away at the effectiveness of ISAF’s chosen lines of operation, our larger strategy, or even our fundamental comprehension about war and policy. But it all starts with us; our image of ourselves, our role in the world, the yes-men and sycophants to power in our military who refuse to acknowledge critical thought, and how our liberal, 21st-century Western minds see the messy world of geopolitics. With these problem factors in tow there was no way we could “win” Afghanistan. No COIN strategy, no better synchronized civil-military operations, no “better war” to save us. From the moment our war changed in 2001/2002 from a punitive expedition to exact justice and topple a regime to a large-scale and long-term nation building effort while never really settling the valid causes of the insurgency, we were doomed to fail. No amount of warrior-scholars who bought into the “graduate level of warfare” drivel could have saved that.

We failed because we forgot the basics. Matching strategy to policy. Letting the DoD run with a course of action, if not directly at odds with, than at least over and above civilian intent. Mirror imaging and assuming the Afghans wanted solutions as we would want them. Not dealing with the causes of the insurgency and instead chasing its symptoms and its tail. Assuming our geopolitical hypocrisy while dealing with states generating the ideological cause of the insurgency, i.e. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, would not come back to bite us in the end. Forgetting the entire determination and definition of what are vital national interests. These are all issues at the highest levels of understanding war and politics that we wholesale forgot from 2002 to the present. To wit, even the incoming SECDEF says we can still win if we just stick it out a little longer.

America at one time understood effective policy. We understood war making to achieve clear and definable objectives. We used to understand international relations for vital interests. We understood strategy development, coalition warfare, labeling true friends and real enemies, and being true to our traditions. We also used to win wars.

LTC Jeremy Kotkin is an Army strategist who, as an Afghan hand, was deployed twice to Afghanistan at the strategic level, once embedded in the Afghan National Security Council and once negotiating non-military aspects of the ISAF OPLAN with the Afghan government and international community ahead of ISAF’s end of mission. He currently serves on HQ Army Staff. This article contains his personal opinions, which are not necessarily those of the Army, the Defense Department, or the U.S. government.

Image credit: U.S. Army

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 ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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