Our Own Worst Enemy: How America Defeated Itself in Afghanistan
Michael Waltz's new book reveals how America defeated itself in Afghanistan.
Members of the U.S. military who served in Afghanistan had a simple faith that when they pledged their lives to the defense of their country they would receive the same dedicated loyalty and commitment to victory from the U.S. government in return. Similarly, the American people had a simple faith that the U.S. military and its civilian and uniformed leadership were committed to victory and that they would do all that was required to ensure the American homeland was protected. These sacred promises were never really fulfilled, and hundreds of men and women frequently died implementing a strategy that was often flawed at best, lacked the right resources to prevail, and that embraced concepts of war ill-suited for the Afghan context. Even as the war in Afghanistan continues, despite the Obama administration declaring an end to the combat mission, a long-needed re-evaluation of the conflict in its totality is taking place. While journalists, retired generals, former diplomats, and, to some degree, past administration officials are entering the fray, few authoritative voices from the field, those who were charged with directly fighting the war, have added their perspective -- this is beginning to change.
Members of the U.S. military who served in Afghanistan had a simple faith that when they pledged their lives to the defense of their country they would receive the same dedicated loyalty and commitment to victory from the U.S. government in return. Similarly, the American people had a simple faith that the U.S. military and its civilian and uniformed leadership were committed to victory and that they would do all that was required to ensure the American homeland was protected. These sacred promises were never really fulfilled, and hundreds of men and women frequently died implementing a strategy that was often flawed at best, lacked the right resources to prevail, and that embraced concepts of war ill-suited for the Afghan context. Even as the war in Afghanistan continues, despite the Obama administration declaring an end to the combat mission, a long-needed re-evaluation of the conflict in its totality is taking place. While journalists, retired generals, former diplomats, and, to some degree, past administration officials are entering the fray, few authoritative voices from the field, those who were charged with directly fighting the war, have added their perspective — this is beginning to change.
Into this breach steps a unique author, one who takes the reader through repeated tours both in Afghanistan as a mobilized reserve Special Forces officer, and into the halls of government in Washington, D.C. as a policy official charged with shaping the very Afghan policies he would have to implement. Michael G. Waltz’s searing new memoir, Warrior Diplomat: A Green Beret’s Battles from Washington to Afghanistan, is a unique insider account of the internal deliberations of the Bush administration, both at the Pentagon and the White House, as well as the experiences of a U.S. Army officer with two combat tours in southern and eastern Afghanistan. The seamless blending of these twin narratives repeatedly confronts the reader with the profound disconnect between the staid bullet points of policy memos full of good intentions and the visceral reality of ambushes and state-building as the policies are implemented and found wanting.
Additionally, as a Green Beret, Waltz’s perspective of the conflict is one of a practitioner and expert in unconventional and counterinsurgency warfare, so both policy and military decisions are viewed through the lens of best practices in these types of conflicts. While it will take many years and the exertions of historians to fully unravel the complete story of the war in Afghanistan, Waltz’s account points to several factors that prevented the United States from adapting its strategy as well as its resources to the unique dynamics of the conflict.
Waltz argues that too frequently the American approach to fighting the war was done for the convenience of our bureaucracies rather than dealing with the war on its own terms. At the outset, the United States sought to fight both al Qaeda and the Taliban principally through a counterterrorism approach which narrowly focused on targeting members of both groups for kill or capture missions. This strategy was easy to pursue since U.S. conventional forces focused on what they were expressly designed to do — kill our nation’s enemies — and Special Operations Forces (SOF) were re-tasked to perform direct action raids and other missions in support of the counterterrorism strategy. By narrowly conceptualizing the conflict in this manner, the United States missed the central prize in the war — the hearts and minds of the Afghan people and their support for their government; the Taliban and its leadership did not. While U.S. units successfully engaged Taliban forces repeatedly during this time, they too often confused conventional warfare metrics of enemy body counts, raids undertaken, patrols completed, and other measurements as success. Military units during this time were more concerned with measuring what they had done to the Afghan population rather than what came from it in terms of their rejection of the Taliban through siding with the government. As U.S. forces relentlessly cleared valleys and villages early in the war, never having enough forces to hold areas or local partners to do so, other efforts to build Afghanistan’s security forces and its government suffered from their own pathologies.
Initial efforts to build Afghanistan’s police and military forces, a cornerstone of a successful counterinsurgency strategy, were embryonic and never a central focus of U.S. efforts until later in the war. Recruiting, training, mentoring, and equipping these forces fell to NATO countries and a haphazard collection of reserve and re-tasked U.S. units not designed to undertake such work. Instead, premier U.S. infantry and SOF forces performed direct combat tasks rather than building indigenous forces. As a Green Beret, a member of a community expressly designed to train foreign militaries, Waltz’s observations are particularly informative and devastating. Many NATO countries never fully resourced their obligations and also suffered from a misunderstanding of the nature of the conflict, seeing it frequently as peacekeeping work. Additionally, as the number of NATO and other partner countries increased in Afghanistan, differences in language were exacerbated by differences in strategy, resourcing, manning, etc., which prevented a coherent approach from being taken against the Taliban insurgency. In many respects, coalition warfighting efforts assumed the character of a dysfunctional committee more at war with itself than with the enemy.
The year of 2006 was a pivotal time in the war in Afghanistan for it was when the “Potemkin Village” of stability fell apart and a renewed Taliban reasserted itself. Waltz served in southern Afghanistan during this time and led his unit in direct combat with Taliban fighters operating more like conventional forces than illusive specters hiding amongst the population. The Taliban attempted to seize control of large swathes of southern Afghanistan by taking advantage of a population alienated from the Afghan government due to the depredations of warlords, a lack of government services, and weak, ineffective, and in many areas nonexistent, Afghan police and army forces.
Fighting with several-hundred-man formations, the Taliban seized district centers across the south, utilized suicide vests and car bombs on a far larger scale than before, and closely partnered with foreign fighters for advanced warfighting capabilities. They also mobilized local Pashtun tribes and villagers, which had been marginalized by then-President Hamid Karzai’s government. Taliban operations assumed more of the character of a popular insurrection than military forces preying upon the population. The Taliban’s renewed strength had a lot to do with the fact that U.S. efforts were focused on constant clearing operations rather than dealing with the insurgency’s political strategy to harness the population to its advantage. Similarly, due to a lack of local security forces, communities opposed to the Taliban were often unable to defend themselves and fell prey to intimidation.
As the insurgency worsened, U.S. forces began to learn more about Afghan culture and the requirements for stability utilizing a counterinsurgency approach. However, it would take several years before a concerted effort was made to harness these lessons in a meaningful way with a military and civilian leadership steeped in the requirements for stability and success, and who also possessed the resources and leadership qualities to put them into action.
The United States was beginning to realize that however effective it’s clearing and direct-action missions were against the Taliban, absent a viable local partner who could hold a cleared area, it would have to repeatedly “re-clear” the villages. What was becoming more apparent was that the United States and the Afghan government had to confront the Taliban insurgency holistically, addressing its political, tribal, and economic aspects, as well as its military arm. In a sense, the United States had to use the Taliban’s structure and strategy against it.
Some of this process of learning had to do with the U.S. experience in Iraq, where U.S. forces actively enlisted with Arab tribes against al Qaeda in the western Iraqi province of Anbar, leading to significant security gains. A revised U.S. approach in Afghanistan would need to blend military and political strategies relatively seamlessly and be based in the villages and districts where the people lived. It would have to be nested in a “shape, clear, hold, build, and transition” strategy, enlisting local Afghans in their own defense in a partnered manner alongside Afghan police and military forces. Instead of constantly clearing villages, U.S. forces would now have a “persistent presence” there; instead of engaging in direct combat, the United States would support Afghans doing so; and instead of just using a top-down approach to build stability, the United States would adopt a bottom-up or grassroots strategy as well. Eight years into the war in Afghanistan, the United States finally began to adopt many of these initiatives and, with a renewed focus on Afghanistan due to successes in Iraq, had enough resources and the right leadership to bring them to fruition.
While the United States slowly began the process of adapting itself to the unique characteristics of Afghanistan and the full-blown insurgency it now faced, a pernicious enemy stalked the military bases, diplomatic embassies, and leadership of the war: rotations, careerism, risk-aversion, and other pathologies of the American way of war.
One of the side effects of the frequent rotations of military units, diplomats, and development experts to Afghanistan was that U.S. personnel were never there long enough to develop wisdom about Afghan culture, counterinsurgency, and the Taliban. They were there long enough to participate in the war, but not long enough to win it. To paraphrase John Paul Vann, the central character in Neil Sheehan’s Vietnam book, A Bright Shining Lie: “We weren’t in Afghanistan 14 years; we were there one year 14 times.” This frequently led to U.S. personnel viewing the conflict through their own bureaucratic lens versus seeing the war for what it was. Thus, infantry units saw the Taliban as targets, diplomats focused on engagements with central government officials, and development personnel spent money on projects. These efforts were largely uncoordinated and made all the more difficult due to the presence and activities of NATO and coalition partners. Deploying personnel often knew little about Afghanistan when they arrived and, once they were close to achieving wisdom about the country and its problems, would rotate out only to begin the learning process all over again when they returned.
A related symptom of these rotations was careerism. As U.S. attention turned back to Afghanistan in 2009 and more resources were devoted to the war, increasing numbers of U.S. government personnel arrived in the country and viewed their tours as necessary career moves rather than as part of a mission and a war that must won. Once it became clear that the Obama administration’s policy was focused on the withdrawal of U.S. forces, risk aversion due to fears of harming one’s career became more pronounced. Thus, while common sense and calculated risk would allow the setting aside of certain rules which got in the way of achieving victory, a “go along to get along” attitude prevailed. Waltz states this very clearly: “With the institution of the all-volunteer force, the military became a livelihood, and having a successful career became paramount. While the system created a much higher quality product, it also created an environment where succeeding in one’s career became the dominant motivator.”
Careerism also rewarded certain bureaucratic behaviors that enhanced conventional warfare, diplomatic, and development career paths, but were antithetical to counterinsurgency warfare. Success was being mis-measured — typically along conventional warfare attrition-based metrics, which were more about what was done to the Afghans than what came from them. In many respects, professionalism got in the way of pragmatism and a focus on victory. As the war in Afghanistan became a necessary tour for ambitious government personnel and constant rotations became the norm, a counter-bureaucracy began to form that also had deleterious effects on the conduct of the war.
When the war in Afghanistan was in its infancy and the focus was on victory using a light-footprint approach, pragmatism held sway as military units and civilian personnel made do with the resources and strategy they had at their disposal. As the war progressed and more personnel, material, and support were dedicated to the conflict, constant rotations of military units and diplomats inhibited the development of wisdom about the war. Additionally, once Afghanistan became a “must have” tour for promotion, rampant careerism began to calcify decision-making and a counter-bureaucracy developed. A complicating factor was that as periodic crises occurred over the course of the conflict and risk-aversion increasingly became the norm, tactical unit decision-making became centralized. As one command reacted to a crisis and centralized control over one type of mission, the next rotation would simply accept this as standard operating procedure and not actively question it.
Waltz details how after Operation Redwings in 2005 — in which a four-man SEAL element was ambushed by the Taliban, leading to the deaths of three of its members, an incident written about in the book Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell — future surveillance and reconnaissance missions had to have at least nine people present. While this decision enhanced unit protection, it also led to less flexibility for tactical units. This and other decisions, in isolation, might have been manageable, but the cumulative effect of them restricted the decision-making of local units and made coalition efforts against the Taliban less agile and less effective. Waltz describes how he had to secure the approval of 12 different units (U.S., NATO, and Afghan) to pursue a basic mission against a midlevel Taliban commander. As he states in his book, missions were rarely denied, but “questioned to death and delayed until they became irrelevant.” The total effect of these changes in the later years of the war contributed to a “systematic and self-inflicted retardation of the most capable military in the world. It felt as though we were defeating ourselves rather than the Taliban defeating us.”
Waltz’s final tour to Afghanistan showcases all of the pathologies of the war in its later years. While greater resourcing and a better understanding of Afghanistan and the requirements for stability are there, the problems of risk-aversion, counter-bureaucracy, and a mission focused on withdrawal rather than victory are also present. The Taliban had become adept at using their understanding of our culture and methods of warfare against us. Captured Taliban fighters frequently falsely accused military personnel of torture, prompting investigations which took valuable time away from missions. Additionally, military personnel were constantly fearful of being accused of causing civilian casualties, which promptly caused missions to be cancelled, air support to be called off, and military personnel to assume greater risk, sometimes losing their own lives in the process. Waltz discovered that the nuances of the Obama administration’s policies of doubling down on Afghanistan in 2009, while signaling a simultaneous withdrawal, caused the Afghans to hedge their bets. Increasingly, they were unwilling to take risks to fight for their country knowing that the United States would not be there long-term. Waltz concludes his book by convincingly arguing that a light, lean, and long-term U.S. and international presence is required for Afghanistan to have enduring stability.
The war in Afghanistan was far harder than it needed to be and many of the conflict’s difficulties had to do with the American way of war. Too often, the United States sought to fight the war as a conventional conflict when, at its heart, it was an insurgency. High-tech solutions were used for low-tech problems and risk-averse behavior was exacerbated by frequent rotations, rampant careerism, and capital-centric operations — all pathologies that unnecessarily prolonged the war, cost lives, and made victory that much more difficult. As Waltz’s memoir demonstrates, big things often have small beginnings and the seeds of the war’s later dysfunction were sown early in the conflict even as the attacks of 9/11 were still fresh in peoples’ minds. However difficult it was to match U.S. strategy to the nature of the conflict, policy inattention, poor leadership, and bureaucracies doing what they knew versus what was required unnecessarily prolonged the war. The war in Afghanistan was violent enough to require military action but not violent enough to challenge our bureaucracies’ central tendencies or our leaders’ misconception of the conflict. While brave soldiers, diplomats, development officials, and Afghans eventually shifted the war strategy to one of counterinsurgency, by the later stages of the conflict, the American peoples’ faith in their own government and institutions had been shaken. Waltz’s important and timely memoir of service and sacrifice is a must-read and should serve as a cautionary tale of the limits of U.S. power and the necessity of holding the U.S. government accountable for its actions when our soldiers pay the ultimate price for its mistakes.
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images
More from Foreign Policy
Saudi-Iranian Détente Is a Wake-Up Call for America
The peace plan is a big deal—and it’s no accident that China brokered it.
The U.S.-Israel Relationship No Longer Makes Sense
If Israel and its supporters want the country to continue receiving U.S. largesse, they will need to come up with a new narrative.
Putin Is Trapped in the Sunk-Cost Fallacy of War
Moscow is grasping for meaning in a meaningless invasion.
How China’s Saudi-Iran Deal Can Serve U.S. Interests
And why there’s less to Beijing’s diplomatic breakthrough than meets the eye.