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Lessons learned: Afghanistan

Image credit: US Army/Spc Justin Young

When the United States launched Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001, few would have envisaged that the US and her allies would occupy Afghanistan for 20 years. Even fewer would have envisaged that the operational-strategic objectives would be so dynamic and change so often. After the US’ chaotic withdrawal from Kabul, what are the lessons learned from Afghanistan?

When the United States launched Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001, few would have envisaged that the US and her allies would occupy Afghanistan for 20 years. Even fewer would have envisaged that the operational-strategic objectives would be so dynamic and change so often. After the US’ chaotic withdrawal from Kabul, what are the lessons learned from Afghanistan?

Hindsight paints the picture that the US' grand strategy throughout 20 years in Afghanistan was often in flux and really static. Not what one looks for in a grand strategy.

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From SOF-intelligence led kill/capture operations, to decisive mass campaigns overwhelming the nation's countryside, as well as training and support to the ANA. The occupation was a multi-headed beast.

The operational-strategic level goals evolved, too. From holding al-Qaeda to account for 9/11 (as the Afghan government was ‘unwilling or unable’ to do so), to training, equipping and funding the Afghan government making sure that Afghanistan would never again be a safe haven for transnational terrorist organisations.

Over recent years, scholars have become divided on how to perceive the operational-strategic objectives of Operation Enduring Freedom. Naturally, hindsight has given military theorists more clarity on the Operation than was available during the post 9/11 chaos.

On the one hand, some view Operation Enduring Freedom and the broader War on Terror as an example of “extraterritorial law enforcement”, wherein the US and her allies took the place of international law enforcement to combat the spread of transnational terrorism. Others suggest that Operation Enduring Freedom was a purely military campaign conducted in self-defence – in line with traditional Just War principle of necessity. Others blend the two notions.

Though similar in nature, the philosophical disagreements between these two perceptions of the US’ involvement in Afghanistan illustrate the difficulties in developing a coherent and unified grand strategy.

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Fallout from Afghanistan

David Clukey, in the Small Wars Journal, argues that despite the US$2 trillion price tag and the copious amounts of human lives lost, transnational terror organisations such as al-Qaeda nevertheless retained “nənawā́te (Pashto: ننواتې‎, "sanctuary")” in Afghanistan. The failure to achieve one of the war’s stated objectives, coupled with this September’s haphazard withdrawal, evidence chaos and incoherence in the country's grand strategy.

“The US lost legitimacy and credibility on a global stage in Afghanistan in an eerily similar fashion to the fallout from Saigon, Vietnam in 1975. As Afghan citizens flooded the gates of HKIA, triaged by Taliban and US forces in complete chaos, images of Afghan’s falling to their death from a US C-17 flooded news and social media,” Clukey wrote.

“These scenarios were preventable had the US executed a deliberate withdrawal it had 20 years to design; or pursued any other scalable alternative … History offered insight to predict the mass exodus of refugees, humanitarian crisis, and disarray prior to the Taliban’s symbolic march into Kabul.”

The disastrous fallout of the withdrawal was so preventable that throughout the withdrawal the United States unlearned decades of Taliban combat behaviours. This was evidenced through the disregard for the lesson that “Afghanistan has a predictable fighting season with much less activity during winter months”. Indeed, a better timed withdrawal could have left the remaining security forces in a much stronger position. Clukey expounds on this, explaining that the withdrawal from Bagram left the remaining forces in a “precarious position”.

The US' woes however don't end here. Clukey explains that other challenges for the US’ grand strategy are likely to emerge over coming years with “only three out of 10 youth meet the moral, medical, and intellectual aptitude necessary to serve”. In the event of an industrial scale war, the US military may be unable to find capable recruits.

Incoherence

One of the key lesson from the war in Afghanistan is that without an overarching operational-strategic objective, even the world’s foremost superpower can succumb to a resilient and determined adversary. Was conflict to be an exercise in cross boarder law enforcement? Then perhaps a SOF-intelligence led dimension would have been preferred, enabling small teams of great people develop innovative ways to kill and capture the transnational terror actors. Was the invasion necessary to create a strong government in Afghanistan to stem the flow of terror into the West? Then perhaps decisive mass at the turning point of the conflict would have been preferred to provide immovable support for the Afghan government. Two divergent philosophical approached to the occupation. 

Examining the beginning of the conflict, Clukey explains that the original SOF-intelligence led approach proved successful.

“When the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001, US Army Special Forces Teams, with Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) collaboration, aligned with Afghan warlords and leveraged US airpower in a joint-combined effort to defeat the Taliban. The mission was clear and the inherent tasks understood. Over time, the US deviated from this economy of force architecture and deployed larger formations of conventional military forces,” Clukey explained.

However, Clukey argues that the transition from a SOF-intelligence led operation to conventional military forces was not underpinned by overarching operational-strategic goals that provided clear objectives for victory.

“US commanders in Afghanistan changed annually, as did the campaign’s priorities and focus. The Taliban in exile and those hiding in Afghanistan exploited this disorder to regroup and organise,” Clukey continues.

“The US did not fully understand what defined victory in Afghanistan prior to the invasion or what constituted an end to the conflict. This lack of clarity affected the US’ ability to advance its national interests in the region through a well-conceived diplomatic strategy with bordering nations Pakistan and Iran.”

Such incoherence in the ongoing reason for occupation led to inevitable operational-strategic downfalls.

Lessons

There are as many opinions on the “lessons from the War in Afghanistan” as there are commentators. However, there appear to be two overarching points: firstly, the invasion evidenced the need for a nation to construct a coherent grand strategy from the outset in the classical notion of "what does winning look like?"; secondly, a nation must actually apply lessons learned. 

On a grand strategy: the US' operational-strategic objectives appeared to change from commander to commander, from president to president, giving no decisive notion of "what does winning look like?"

On applying lessons learned: Throughout WW2, the Allies guided an array of insurgencies across continental Europe to undermine the hard-power of the Nazis. Using any available vector of irregular warfare – right from information warfare through to guerrilla operations – the allies left no stone unturned in enabling small groups of resilient and determined partisans to overcome hard power.  Throughout Vietnam, the US dropped twice as many bombs on the country as used during World War II, yet their hard power could not overcome a resilient and determined adversary. Winning a war is more than a sum of hardware and man power.

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia's political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch with [email protected], [email protected], or at [email protected]


Liam Garman

Liam Garman

Editor – Defence and Security, Momentum Media

Liam began his career as a speech writer at New South Wales Parliament before working for world leading campaigns and research agencies in Sydney and Auckland. Throughout his career, Liam has managed and executed a range of international media and communications campaigns spanning politics, business, industrial relations and infrastructure. He’s since shifted his attention to researching and writing extensively on geopolitics and defence, specifically in North Africa, the Middle East and Asia. He holds a Bachelor of Commerce from the University of Sydney and is undertaking a Masters in Strategy and Security from UNSW Canberra.
 
Lessons learned: Afghanistan
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