Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

How America Forgot It Needed to Understand The Enemy

Social scientists helped win World War II by judging enemy morale. But in Afghanistan, the U.S. kept getting it wrong.

By , the author of A Sense of the Enemy and Blunder: Why Smart People Make Bad Decisions.
Soldiers of the German Wehrmacht stand with their hands up
Soldiers of the German Wehrmacht stand with their hands up after being rounded up by Allied forces in Normandy, France, on June 9, 1944. Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

America’s recent loss in Afghanistan is drawing understandable comparisons to Vietnam—two conflicts where the U.S. leadership supposedly never grasped the power of morale, the role of culture, or the reality on the ground. While these comparisons are inescapable, the United States has not always been so unsuccessful. There are valuable lessons in the U.S. approach to determining how the enemy thinks—from a war the United States won.

In 1943, many experts believed that the German will to fight would soon collapse. The Russians had just beaten back the Germans at Stalingrad, while Allied forces had routed the Germans in Tunisia, leading to the capture of more than a quarter of a million Italian and German troops. The tide had clearly turned against the Nazi juggernaut. Buoyed by this dramatic momentum shift, many U.S. military and political leaders at the time could not imagine Germans continuing to fight for a lost cause.

That, at least, was the prevailing view, but a small and unusual group of intelligence analysts inside the United States disagreed, warning that Germans would lose the will to fight only with the invasion and destruction of the Wehrmacht itself. And the opinion of those unique experts carried weight. They were not only Germans (many of them Jews who had fled the Nazi regime), but they were also trenchant social critics, leading members of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory. (The name of the school itself was coined after World War II, although it existed as a social research institute.) As declassified records of their reports reveal, they were frequently correct in their assessments of how German social structures shaped the war. Their focus on cultural and societal forces proved invaluable.

America’s recent loss in Afghanistan is drawing understandable comparisons to Vietnam—two conflicts where the U.S. leadership supposedly never grasped the power of morale, the role of culture, or the reality on the ground. While these comparisons are inescapable, the United States has not always been so unsuccessful. There are valuable lessons in the U.S. approach to determining how the enemy thinks—from a war the United States won.

In 1943, many experts believed that the German will to fight would soon collapse. The Russians had just beaten back the Germans at Stalingrad, while Allied forces had routed the Germans in Tunisia, leading to the capture of more than a quarter of a million Italian and German troops. The tide had clearly turned against the Nazi juggernaut. Buoyed by this dramatic momentum shift, many U.S. military and political leaders at the time could not imagine Germans continuing to fight for a lost cause.

That, at least, was the prevailing view, but a small and unusual group of intelligence analysts inside the United States disagreed, warning that Germans would lose the will to fight only with the invasion and destruction of the Wehrmacht itself. And the opinion of those unique experts carried weight. They were not only Germans (many of them Jews who had fled the Nazi regime), but they were also trenchant social critics, leading members of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory. (The name of the school itself was coined after World War II, although it existed as a social research institute.) As declassified records of their reports reveal, they were frequently correct in their assessments of how German social structures shaped the war. Their focus on cultural and societal forces proved invaluable.

During World War II, the Office of Strategic Services, a forerunner of the CIA, recruited scores of scholars to assess America’s enemies. Their job was to help win the war by providing insights into how the enemy functioned and thereby avoid policy blunders. In just one of many examples, they corrected the then prevalent but mistaken view that German morale after Tunisia would crack. Although they did not use the term, they explained how this misperception was the result of what psychologists today call mirror imaging: the belief that the enemy thinks and acts as we do. In a democracy, loss of faith in the government can presage collapse, but in the Nazi dictatorship, they insisted, the sentiments of individuals mattered little.

As one of those scholars, Franz Neumann, correctly predicted in his report “German Morale After Tunisia” that only invasion and destruction of the Wehrmacht would make morale a political factor. For the average German, “Whatever their personal desires or fears, they must continue doing the Nazi job: the only alternative is the concentration camp or the executioner’s ax.”

Decades after World War II, the United States faced a major challenge in assessing the will of its Afghan allies to combat the Taliban once American forces withdrew. Press reports suggest that the intelligence community warned that the Taliban could eventually retake the country after a U.S. pullout, but the traumatic images from Kabul illustrate how vital it was to know whether the Afghans could hold out for years, months, weeks, or days.

It’s not yet clear if the intelligence community provided continuing, let alone accurate, assessments throughout the war of the Afghan army’s willingness to stand on its own. But the chaotic withdrawal occurred in part because planners assumed that the Afghan military would provide security. Even if they pessimistically anticipated a Taliban victory, they at least imagined that an army in which the United States had invested would not suddenly collapse. That assumption, in turn, rested on a mismeasuring of Afghan morale. In the planners’ defense, measuring morale is exceedingly hard, though the Frankfurt scholars often managed to do it.

What might have happened if the United States had had the benefit of the Frankfurt scholars throughout its long war in Afghanistan? Unfortunately, the chance of obtaining such incisive analysis proved far less likely once the Cold War heated up, as it became increasingly difficult to bring foreign nationals into the American intelligence establishment. Security concerns seemed justified when it was discovered that Franz Neumann had passed top-secret materials to the Soviets. Ever since, security concerns and the clearance process have largely precluded access to some of the people best able to grasp a foreign culture: the foreign nationals themselves. But the Frankfurt scholars were not just foreign-born; they were also deeply knowledgeable about social forces, and that is one area of America’s national security establishment that might need an upgrade.

The nature of the experts employed by the intelligence community is often opaque—but those of us working from the outside can guess at them through the results. An internal CIA review or a secure congressional panel might find that the community possesses a surfeit of military, political, economic, and technological analysts, but a dearth of sociologists, cultural anthropologists, and related specialists—and that the former are overvalued. Recent events in Afghanistan make painfully clear that knowing how many guns an army owns is less important than knowing whether soldiers will use them. Sometimes those guns have been sold to others, given to family, or left to rust in favor of more familiar weapons.

There may be sensible solutions to these problems. Gregory Treverton, former chair of the U.S. National Intelligence Council, once pushed for the assembling of foreign area scholars to assess unclassified documents while working on retainer, but he found it hard to gain traction for the plan. Similarly, the CIA briefly experimented with Open Source Works, an initiative that allowed nearly 100 native-level foreign-language speakers to offer their assessments of unclassified material, but the agency quickly shuttered the program.

From 2007 to 2014, the U.S. military employed anthropologists as part of its Human Terrain System project, and while some subsequent studies found the effort to be highly effective, it received strong criticism from the American Anthropological Association and others. That opposition created its own constraints on the program. Without the benefit of experienced scholars, and with severe management problems of its own, it was forced to rely largely on graduate students looking for a way to pay off their loans, some of them with no background in Afghanistan. Most tragically, the attempt to embed Human Terrain System personnel with front-line forces resulted in three deaths.

Those objections, however, would largely not apply to remote intelligence analysis on the Frankfurt scholars’ model. At least two benefits could flow from increasing the number of cultural analysts. First, it could help combat number worship—the tendency to be mesmerized by figures and to give them a credibility they often don’t deserve. Numbers don’t lie, but people often do. During the Vietnam War, U.S. military officials frequently inflated the numbers of enemy soldiers killed and understated the numbers of enemy troops entirely.

In one embarrassing example after the Tet Offensive, discussed in David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest, the military’s numbers didn’t even add up. At a briefing of the so-called Wise Men, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s council of establishment elders brought in to advise on the war, a military briefer claimed that they had killed 45,000 enemy troops during the battle. When one of the Wise Men asked what the enemy’s strength had been at the start of the offensive, the briefer stated it was between 160,000 and 175,000. The questioner then asked what the killed to wounded ratio was, and the briefer replied 3½ to 1. The questioner then observed that if those numbers were correct, the enemy had no effective troops left in the field—and yet someone was still shooting at Americans.

Did the so-called ghost soldiers in the Afghan National Army reflect a similar attachment to concrete numbers? The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction reported that the official figure of 300,000 Afghan troops was wildly inflated and may often have been 50 to 70 percent less, but such a robust figure may have felt too comforting for some leaders to reject. Both supporters and critics of the withdrawal have clung to the figure of a quarter-million or more members of the Afghan National Army as if it were reality over the last few months.

Numbers give the illusion of truth. They feel tangible, reliable, powerful. But not everything in war can or should be quantified, and that is especially true of morale. Perhaps investigations will discover that some leaders in the national security establishment overvalued hard data, such as numbers of troops, weapons, or aircraft, while overlooking the softer intelligence reports on Afghan motivations, ideological convictions, and commitments to a cause. Some 66,000 Afghan soldiers died fighting the Taliban, and many more fought bravely alongside their fallen comrades. Their commitment should never be questioned. What ultimately mattered, however, was not the number of soldiers who died but the conviction of those who failed to fight when it mattered most.

A second benefit of diversifying the intelligence community’s ranks is that it might help overcome the tendency to focus on intentions while ignoring drivers. As I wrote in my book A Sense of the Enemy, if intentions are what someone wants to do, drivers are why they want to do it. If, for example, an Afghan villager joins the National Army, his intention might be to fight the Taliban, but his underlying driver might be to secure a steady paycheck until a better offer comes along—or an offer he can’t refuse, such as violent intimidation by the Taliban.

Delving into soldiers’ motives can help us gauge at least some of the complexities of morale. It can also spotlight the ways that American actions altered Afghan drivers. By cutting a separate deal with the Taliban, by forcing the Afghan government to release some 5,000 Taliban prisoners, and by removing all the support on which the Afghan government depended, the Trump administration may have dealt a crushing psychological blow to America’s Afghan allies. As a result, many may have felt abandoned by the United States long before it withdrew. Those actions may have equally emboldened the Taliban, convincing them that their victory was inevitable. Certainly one area that anthropologists know well is the practices surrounding kinship. Deeper knowledge and sensitivity to the Afghan practice of switching sides, as occurred in the 1990s and in 2001, might also have helped planners prepare for what we have seen in the war’s final phase.

Political leaders often ignore the intelligence assessments they dislike. There is no stopping the willful rejection of information. But for those leaders with open minds, more frequent, probing studies of people’s underlying drivers, conducted by cultural experts or reliable foreign nationals, might at least reduce the chance of debacles.

As the inevitable post-mortems unfold in the coming months and years, there will surely be plenty of blame to go around. Was this primarily a failure of political leaders, of military strategy or training, of the intelligence community, or of all of the above? Rather than simply assigning blame, the more productive route will be to study what went wrong and strive to fix it. Has there been an unreasonable aversion to foreign nationals working on unclassified materials, an undervaluing of cultural experts, a tendency toward number worship, or an insufficient focus on people’s underlying drivers? If any of these mindsets have sabotaged U.S. success, there is a duty to rethink them.

Zachary Shore is the author of A Sense of the Enemy and Blunder: Why Smart People Make Bad Decisions.

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