Will They Fight? Washington Wants to Know.

The United States thought Afghans would fight and Ukrainians would fold. Reality is forcing a reassessment.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
A Ukrainian officer awards soldiers in Donetsk, Ukraine.
A Ukrainian officer awards soldiers in Donetsk, Ukraine.
A Ukrainian officer awards battle-hardened soldiers during a ceremony at a position along the front line in the Donetsk region of Ukraine on Aug. 15, amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Anatolii Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images

A little over a year ago, on Aug. 12, 2021, U.S. officials issued a dire but not-yet catastrophic warning about the future of the Afghan government. As Taliban militants cut a swath through the country in anticipation of the U.S. withdrawal at the end of that month, U.S. officials predicted Kabul could be surrounded within 30 to 60 days and fall within 90 days. The reality was far worse.

Just three days later, on Aug. 15, 2021, the Taliban sailed into the city unopposed as the Afghan national army and police force simply vanished, triggering a stampede at Kabul’s airport and an ignominious end to the United States’ longest war. 

Six months later, as Russia amassed thousands of troops on its borders with Ukraine, U.S. officials warned that the capital, Kyiv, could crumble within days of a Russian invasion; instead, Kyiv has held out to this day, and Ukrainian forces are apparently preparing a counterattack to take back Russian gains in the south of the country. 

A little over a year ago, on Aug. 12, 2021, U.S. officials issued a dire but not-yet catastrophic warning about the future of the Afghan government. As Taliban militants cut a swath through the country in anticipation of the U.S. withdrawal at the end of that month, U.S. officials predicted Kabul could be surrounded within 30 to 60 days and fall within 90 days. The reality was far worse.

Just three days later, on Aug. 15, 2021, the Taliban sailed into the city unopposed as the Afghan national army and police force simply vanished, triggering a stampede at Kabul’s airport and an ignominious end to the United States’ longest war. 

Six months later, as Russia amassed thousands of troops on its borders with Ukraine, U.S. officials warned that the capital, Kyiv, could crumble within days of a Russian invasion; instead, Kyiv has held out to this day, and Ukrainian forces are apparently preparing a counterattack to take back Russian gains in the south of the country. 

These incorrect assessments underscore the challenge faced by government analysts in gauging what’s known as the “will to fight,” the X-factor that determines how hard and effectively the troops of another military will wage war. It prompted a sweeping review, still underway, within the intelligence community of how those assessments are conducted. Accurately assessing the complex array of factors that can make a foreign military fight effectively has been described as the single most important factor in war, but it is one that the United States has struggled with from Vietnam to Iraq and, most recently, Ukraine. It can encompass dozens of factors, from the motivations of individual soldiers to the culture of their military and their broader sense of national identity. Missing the mark can have profound impacts on policymaking. 

“The intelligence community needs to be able to do a better job on this issue,” said independent Maine Sen. Angus King in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing with the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, and the country’s top intelligence chief, Avril Haines. “Had we had a better handle on the prediction, we could have done more to assist the Ukrainians earlier.”

A 2018 analysis by the Rand Corporation found that U.S. efforts to track the will to fight have ebbed and flowed over the course of the past century and have often been based on anecdotal impressions but that there was no standard definition or model of what defined it. “U.S. defense and intelligence leaders have been pretty forthright about the fact that there hasn’t been a process,” said Ben Connable, a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council and one of the authors of the 2018 Rand Corporation report. “We’re really almost starting from scratch.”

In the corridors of power in Washington, there is a strong preference for analytical frameworks, models that a set of factors can be plugged into to give an assessment of how a given scenario may pan out. But when it comes to weighing on the will to fight, the set of factors that may motivate one military may vary significantly when compared to the next. Intelligence analysts have a tendency to home in on things that can be counted—hours of training or quantity and lethality of military equipment—over more qualitative factors, said Michael McNerney, a senior researcher with Rand who previously worked in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. 

“Analysts have been sort of bullied over time to have to caveat everything that’s not based on very hard, concrete, countable measures,” he said. Former French leader Napoleon Bonaparte, on the other hand, famously posited that in war, moral factors outweigh physical and technological factors 3 to 1. 

With the Ukrainian military outgunned and outspent by Russia many times over, it’s not hard to see how, on paper, analysts concluded that Kyiv would not hold out for long. But ultimately, it was Moscow’s poor planning, scrambled supply chains, and callous attitude to its own troops that would sap morale and kneecap Moscow’s efforts at a lightning advance on Kyiv. The Ukrainian military, thrust into an existential battle, proved to be highly motivated and resourceful, and it hung together around a shared sense of national identity and purpose. 

A more holistic analysis of what motivates a foreign military could help U.S. military planners adapt their training and support to allies in a bid to plug any gaps in their resilience ahead of a conflict. “If you’re looking at Taiwan, you might say ‘here are their weaknesses. We need to strengthen those areas,’” McNerney said. 

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have taken an interest in the issue too. Both the defense and intelligence spending bills passed by Congress for next year contain provisions urging the U.S. Defense Department and intelligence agencies to review their ability to assess the will to fight of foreign militaries and report back to Congress. At a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee in May, Haines, the country’s top intelligence official, acknowledged that a review was already underway at the National Intelligence Council, a body within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. A classified report on the topic has already been provided to the House Intelligence Committee, according to a committee aide who spoke on condition of anonymity. 

A similar assessment is also underway within the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). “Accurately assessing the will to fight is a complex endeavor in which many factors often must be considered together,” a spokesperson for the agency said in a statement. “DIA is continually working to refine its methodology for assessing intangibles that shape the battle space.” Gen. Carl von Clausewitz—a former Prussian officer who fought Napoleon, served the Russians, and wrote On Warwould have used “friction,” but he still observed that the simplest things in war remain the hardest to pull off, as Russia’s attempts at bridge-crossings attest. 

Experts said it remains to be seen whether the renewed interest will lead to fundamental changes in the way U.S. officials assess what makes foreign militaries fight effectively. 

“I think people are talking about this issue more, but it’s not clear to me what’s being done in a concrete way,” McNerney said. “I was in the [Defense Department] for 18 years. We’re really good at emphasizing how we’re working on something. … And then five years later, you come back and nothing seems to have changed.”

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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