“There has never been a protracted war from which a country has benefited.” — Sun Tzu, The Art of War.
The Art of War is one of the oldest and most successful books on military strategy in the world. It has been the most famous and influential of China's Seven Military Classics. For the last two thousand years it remained the most important military treatise in Asia, where even the common people know it by name. It has had an influence on Eastern military thinking, business tactics, and beyond. It is also taught at military academies like West Point and the Citadel.
Sun Tzu emphasized the importance of positioning in military strategy, and that the decision to position an army must be based on both objective conditions in the physical environment and the subjective beliefs of other, competitive actors in that environment. He thought that strategy was not planning in the sense of working through an established list, but rather that it requires quick and appropriate responses to changing conditions. Planning works in a controlled environment, but in a changing environment, competing plans collide, creating unexpected situations.
We are quickly approaching the tenth anniversary of our military involvement in Afghanistan, a county that could not be tamed from Alexander the Great to the Soviet invasion in 1979. It is a land-locked country comprised of 34 provinces that range in elevation from 2,500 along its western border with Iran to over 15,000 along its eastern border with Pakistan.
Afghanistan has no known oil reserves and is an impoverished and least developed country, one of the world's poorest. In 2010, the nation's GDP exchange rate stood at $16.63 billion and the GDP per capita was $1,000. Its unemployment rate is 35% and roughly 36% of its citizens live below the poverty line. About 42 percent of the population lives on less than $1 a day, according to USAID. Agricultural is the backbone of the nation's economy with over 75% of its citizens involved in this field. Their main cash crop is the opium poppy.
In November of 2001 U.S. forces began military operation in Afghanistan for the purpose of capturing or killing Osama Bin Laden and driving the Taliban out. In ten years neither had been accomplished.
To date 2,425 NATO and coalition troops have perished in Afghanistan including 1,553 Americans and 364 British. Just yesterday 9 coalition security forces were killed in Kabul by a member of the Afghan Air Force. Last week over 500 Taliban and terrorist prisoners escaped from a prison in in the southern Afghan town of Kandahar. It took years of effort and causalities to capture and incarcerate these terrorists and in one day they were gone due to government ineptness or collusion.
Since our initial military actions, in 2001 our mission had changed dramatically. We moved from looking for Bin Laden and chasing the Taliban that supported him to one of nation building and economic assistance. To put it another way we went into Afghanistan to chase the roaches out of the hotel. We chased them into Pakistan and now we are rebuilding the hotel and the infrastructure that never was.
Jim Lacy writes in National Review; “….This raises a question: What are we still doing there? If the answer is nation-building, then it is time to declare victory and leave. The nation is built. It may fail again later, but that will be a problem for the Afghans. As of this moment, Afghanistan has a functional society and a working economy. How it works is ugly beyond measure, but it works, and everyone gets fed.”
“As we are not going to pour hundreds of billions of dollars a year into bringing Afghanistan up to Western economic standards, we must accept that all we can do from this point forward is tinker around the edges. One needs to ask — as I did before I left for Afghanistan three weeks ago — if it is worth the cost in blood and treasure just to stick around and tinker.”
“If, however, the answer is to stop al-Qaeda from using Afghanistan as a base, then it is time to bring a taste of strategic reality to the picture. Al-Qaeda and its associated movements have moved on. Their main bases are now in countries like Yemen and Pakistan. I would also expect to see cadres moving into some of the Arab countries that are experiencing political upheaval. Al-Qaeda loves nothing more than taking advantage of chaos and instability.”
“Where you will not find al-Qaeda is in Afghanistan, at least not in any substantial numbers. While I was in Kandahar, General Petraeus announced that the Coalition faced about a hundred al-Qaeda fighters. Did anyone do the math? There are over 140,000 Coalition soldiers in Afghanistan, or 1,400 for every al-Qaeda fighter. As it costs about a million dollars a year to deploy and support every soldier, that adds up to $140 billion, or close to $1.5 billion a year for each al-Qaeda fighter. In other words, we spend more each year hunting down a single al-Qaeda fighter, hiding in some barren cave, then the entire annual GDP of the poorest 20 nations on earth.”
“In what universe do we find strategists to whom this makes sense?”
“At a time when our debt has grown to the point where soldiers joke about the need for “WILL FIGHT FOR FOOD” signs, surely our country can make better use of its strategic resources than this?”
All the indications are that this is an unwinnable war. And if it is, our blood and treasure belong elsewhere.
Lacy writes; “I recently attended the umpteenth conference at which I heard how we can win in Afghanistan by creating a vibrant economy there. If one is to believe the speakers, all that are required for success in one of the most blighted regions on earth is the tweaking of this aid package and the refocusing of that one. After which, we will be well on our way to building a new Switzerland in the Himalayas. This is a pipe dream.”
After a decade’s effort, nearly 12,000 Americans killed or wounded, and almost $350 billion, we have managed to double the size of the Afghan economy. In doing so, we have picked all the low-hanging fruit. From now on, things just get harder. A second doubling of the Afghan economy will take far longer and cost much more than the first. But let’s assume we can double the Afghan economy again if we just hang in there for ten more years, 12,000 more casualties, and another $350 billion. What would we get?
One more doubling would give Afghanistan a per capita GDP equal to Chad’s. In short, Afghanistan would still rank among the poorest nations on earth. Instead of a new Switzerland in the Himalayas, we would have created a mountainous Chad.
Chad might be good enough.” Yes, it just might be, but we should know going in that what we are aiming for is Chad. Too many so-called “experts” are still looking at this problem with rose-colored glasses.
Two years ago there was a conference where much was made of Afghanistan’s probable trillion dollars of mineral wealth. Most of the participants were ecstatic over the geological surveys. Mineral exploitation was going to propel Afghanistan into a prosperous future. At the time, no one wanted to be troubled by “minor” problems, such as Afghanistan’s possessing no modern infrastructure worthy of mention, no settled rule of law to defend contract or property rights, and no functioning market economy. Moreover, Afghanistan is a landlocked country, which would make it expensive to transport anything the mining companies did manage to extract. On top of all that, there is still a war raging over large swaths of the country, and rich mining communities are a magnet for men with guns.
Of course, the world’s hunger for various ores is ravenous. So, in time, the mining companies might venture into Afghanistan, but only after they have been just about everywhere else. In the years since Afghanistan’s mineral wealth was discovered, there has been scant progress toward exploiting it. I believe that a decade hence I will still be able to write the same thing.
It is time to face facts. Afghanistan has always been poor. It will still be poor when we leave. And it will probably be poor long after I have departed this world. To become wealthy takes a certain mindset and dedication to creating the institutions that underpin a stable market economy. Foremost among them is the willingness to forswear killing visiting businessmen, engineers, and workers. Outsiders can sometimes, but not often, graft a workable market system onto an alien culture. For the most part, though, if the locals are unwilling to make the fundamental cultural shifts (à la turn-of-the-last-century Japan), the grafts will not take.
Nothing I have seen, heard, or read makes me optimistic that Afghanis are ready or willing to build the lasting institutions required for success in a globalized world. The country was an economic basket case when we arrived in 2001. It will be little better when we leave. At some point, we have to accept the fact that we gave the Afghanis their best shot at peace and prosperity. That they failed to grasp it cannot be laid at our doorstep. I, for one, am finding it harder and harder to reconcile myself to the idea of expending the blood of another 12,000 men and women, along with another several hundred billion dollars, just to create Chad.
So, what are the reasons for staying and making one more supreme effort? The first and most emotional is that we have already sacrificed so much that we must see this endeavor through to the end. I understand this desire and often fall prey to it myself. It took someone wiser than me to point out that the past is rarely justification for the future. Our 12,000 dead and wounded in Afghanistan are not honored by adding thousands more to their number.
Others want to stay the course in Afghanistan to ensure that al-Qaeda is never again able to establish bases there. Well, al-Qaeda has adapted to the loss of Afghanistan. In fact, its post-9/11 decentralized organization has made its members much more difficult to track and target. Many in our military would welcome al-Qaeda’s finding a new safe haven where it can set up camps and begin to mass again. Unlike in the years before 2001, there is today no reluctance among the American military to strike terror groups wherever they are found. Departing Afghanistan would not mean we will not go back if it is in our interest to do so. In the future, though, we won’t stay for any longer than it takes to eliminate those who threaten us.
The military has done everything that has been asked of it in Afghanistan. It has, in fact, performed magnificently under the most trying of conditions. Our armed forces have fought and died in a hundred places we have never heard of. But it is now time to honor their service and start bringing them home. What becomes of Afghanistan now is up to the Afghanis. The world is becoming a much more dangerous place. We must begin conserving our blood and treasure for possible use in places much more vital to our national interest and safety (as Afghanistan was in 2001) — places where we can make a real difference.
As Lacy writes; “Afghanistan can swim on its own. If it sinks, the blame lies with the Afghans. We have created an army of over 400,000 Afghans, who are paid twice the rate of the average Afghan worker. That army is well trained and well equipped, and it outnumbers the Taliban by more than 40 to one. Let’s wish them well and let them get on with building their own nation. It already works well enough.”
“If the Afghans want it to work better, let them do it.”