Afghanistan: Disengagement and Dishonor


The Taliban-led insurgency remains adaptive and determined, and retains the capability to emplace substantial numbers of IEDs and to conduct isolated high-profile attacks. The insurgency also retains a significant regenerative capacity.

— US Defense Department Report to Congress, December 2012

“In some ways, it feels like I’m leaving family behind to an uncertain future.”

— General John R. Allen, departing US Commander in Afghanistan, January 29, 2013.

I think we have gone a long way to setting the conditions for what, generally, usually, is the defining factor in winning a counter-insurgency — to set the conditions for governance, to set the conditions for economic opportunity.  I think we are on the road to winning.

— General Allen BBC interview, February 9, 2013.

There appears to be some sort of planning going on in Washington that might possibly decide the degree of US military involvement in the future of Afghanistan, but it is far from clear about what is going to be required of the armed forces of the US and the other forty-odd nations with soldiers serving and dying in that unfortunate and chaotic country.

Just what is the Mission of foreign military forces in Afghanistan?  What, exactly, are the dwindling numbers of troops supposed to achieve?  Will the new US Defense Secretary tell us?  Will the new Secretary of State tell us?  After all, they are former military men — and brave ones, too — for whom as a fellow soldier I have much admiration.  But disengagement is in the air.  And there is more than a whiff of dishonor involved.  Let’s hope they don’t inhale it.

Military planning at the highest level is in essence straightforward.  First of all a government decides it wants to take action against a specific country and briefs its defense headquarters in detail. The essential thing is that politicians provide a precise Mission Statement to define the outcome of the desired military operation. Then the senior defense officer orders a plan to be made by his staff.  He adjusts it as he sees fit and submits it to the civilian head of the defense department who explains it to the deciders. But then we come to a possible problem.

If a country’s senior military man states that the government’s Mission cannot be undertaken with fewer than, say, 30,000 troops, and the government says “No : you can have only 20,000,”  what does the senior military man then do?   It is clear he must protest, saying that the national plan will fail if he does not have the required number of soldiers.  The principled general tells the politicians that any reduction would be fatal to their venture.  For any general to go to battle without the number of troops he has assessed as essential would be deceitful and disgraceful.

Which brings us to General Allen, the just-departed US commander in Afghanistan. The Economist of January 12 reported that  “This month General Allen offered revised proposals for a force ranging from about 3,000 to 9,000.  Most military experts, however, still believe that an international force of around 30,000 is needed to support the Afghan National Security Forces after 2014.”

“Offered revised proposals”?   But why did General Allen revise his proposals?  Was he given a different Mission by his government?  Or had something happened in Afghanistan that would make him alter his careful assessment about essential numbers of troops?

Last week, just before leaving Afghanistan forever,  the general declared “We’d like to maintain our campaign so we’re as pervasive in our touch this fighting season, because this fighting season Afghans are going to be moving into the lead operationally . . .  We would like to be with them through the fighting season and then you’d see our numbers come down and then stabilize across the election,” which is feeble and gruesome gibberish. These are the words of a moral coward who lacks the courage to say openly what all soldiers know, which is that in order to stabilize Afghanistan, train the Afghan army properly, establish an efficient national military structure and protect civil development projects, the US and other foreign armies would need to commit 150,000 fighting troops for at least another five years.

On January 30 the Washington Post reported that “About 640 NATO and US troops [since when has the US not been in NATO, one wonders?] have been killed in Afghanistan since Allen took over” while General Allen said, “his voice breaking,” that  “Those are the ones that are with you in the middle of the night, and you can’t sleep when you think about them.”

Spare us your emotion, General. Let’s have some honor and decision, because that’s what keeps soldiers alive.  What kills them is military capitulation to politicians’ priorities.

A military leader who states he needs a certain number of troops to achieve his government’s aim and is fobbed off with an offer of a smaller number has no honorable option but to resign at once.  Otherwise he would be betraying his uniform and all those under his command, because, obviously, his acceptance of fewer troops than he needs will result in more of his soldiers being killed and wounded than would otherwise be the case.  And how many US senior officers can you think of — just offhand — who have taken this honorable course of action?  In round figures, that is.   And Zero is probably about the roundest figure you can think of.

Even the honorable General Eric Shinseki didn’t resign immediately as US Army Chief in February 2003 when Washington’s crazed warmongers blasted his assessment about the number of troops that would be required to stabilize Iraq after their invasion.  He told the Senate Armed Services Committee that it would take “several hundred thousand soldiers” to “secure Iraq,” which was correct, of course, although contrary to what was being proclaimed by the slavering barbarians who were hellbent on the carnage they began in April, which resulted in anarchic shambles.  And then General Shinseki became a non-person, and when he left the army two months later the despicable Defense Secretary, Rumsfeld, didn’t even turn up to his farewell ceremony.  And loyal members of his staff were crucified professionally.

That’s what happens to honest military officers in America —  but at least they have their honor, even if they can’t go on to well-paid jobs in military industries.

The International Crisis Group, an admirable and totally independent commentator on world affairs, concluded late last year that “Afghanistan is hurtling toward a devastating political crisis . . .   Plagued by factionalism and corruption, Afghanistan is far from ready to assume responsibility for security when US and NATO forces withdraw in 2014.” And almost everyone agrees with that summation, except official Washington and London.

Resigning on principle in the military or anywhere else is rare to the point of being extinct these days, but it’s about time some of these generals put their honor on a level with their ambition. The outgoing General Allen, leaving the shambles in Afghanistan, declares “it feels like I’m leaving family behind to an uncertain future,” and takes refuge in the family of deference and ever-increasing adulation as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe.  (We used to have the saying about incompetent generals in Vietnam that they would  “Stuff  Up and Move Up”.)   If he resigned on the point of principle that his plans for Afghanistan had been rejected — which is what it comes down to — then he might be worthy of respect. But now he deserves nothing but contempt, along with all the other generals who have sold their souls.

‘Death before dishonor’ was a maxim we soldiers used to think appropriate for our military leaders and, indeed, ourselves.   Now, it’s the name of a grubby little hardcore music band in Boston.  Perhaps ‘Disengagement and dishonor’ would be a better motto for this generation of generals.

Brian Cloughley’s website is www.beecluff.com

Brian Cloughley writes about foreign policy and military affairs. He lives in Voutenay sur Cure, France.

November 24, 2015
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