Plan and Bomb and Lose the the War in Afghanistan

General John F Campbell, commander of all foreign forces in Afghanistan 2014-2016, said in a speech in Kabul on December 28, 2014 that “The insurgents are losing,  they’re desperate.” But they weren’t and they aren’t.

On August 21 President Trump outlined his plan for continuation of the 16-year US-NATO war in Afghanistan, in which there is supposedly a new strategy.  Strangely, his speech included the announcement that “Our troops will fight to win. We will fight to win,” which tends to beg the question — don’t armies always fight to win?  If not, we might wonder what all the US-NATO-‘Coalition’ soldiers died for, over these blood-soaked years in which United States taxpayers have had to pay over a trillion dollars for the cost of fighting an unwinnable war.

The other foreign countries involved in the war have not had to pay anything like that amount. The cost to Britain, for example, before it reduced its forces to a small training team in 2015, was 27 billion pounds — 35 billion dollars.  And only 453 soldiers killed.  Peanuts, so far as the politicians are concerned. And there are very few people in the UK who know or care about Britain’s disastrous Fourth Afghan War.

The US bill includes $54.2 billion for the Veterans’ Administration to meet the staggering cost of caring for the all the wounded soldiers, including the countless thousands whose lives have been wrecked because they were physically maimed or mentally shattered by their hideous experiences.

So Trump announced that “From now on, victory will have a clear definition, attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge.”  What a change from his 2013 tweet that “We should leave Afghanistan immediately. No more wasted lives.”

But does Trump really believe that if the US got out of Afghanistan then there would be “mass terror attacks against America” by Afghanistan’s Taliban?

The day after Trump’s declaration that he would expand authority for US armed forces to target terrorists and criminal networks in Afghanistan because “these killers need to know they have nowhere to hide, that no place is beyond the reach of American might and American arms” his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson explained his President’s policy on the war and added a few thoughts of his own.

In talking about the “new military approach” Tillerson said “I think the President was clear this entire effort is intended to put pressure on the Taliban to have the Taliban understand: You will not win a battlefield victory. We may not win one, but neither will you. And so at some point we have to come to the negotiating table and find a way to bring this to an end.”

But that’s what guerrilla warfare is all about : wearing down the vastly superior enemy to the point that he’s desperate to get out, and will come to the table to discuss terms — the terms set by the insurgents, that is.  The militants don’t need to win a “battlefield victory.”

For example, the United States army and its sky-darkening fleets of attack aircraft rarely lost a battle in Vietnam. Of course US forces smashed their way through the opposition presented by the North Vietnamese army and the Vietcong guerrilla fighters if the Vietnamese chose to fight on the battlefield rather than using classic guerrilla tactics.  The point is that they didn’t win many battles — but they won the war.

This was realised by US Colonel Harry Summers, a military intellectual whose book On Strategy: a Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War is excellent but obviously not known by Trump or Tillerson.

Summers served in Vietnam where he was twice wounded and twice decorated for bravery. At the end of the war he went to Hanoi in April 1975 as head of a negotiating delegation about prisoners of war and spoke with many North Vietnamese officers. In the course of discussions with a Vietnamese Colonel Tu, Summers said “You know, you never defeated us on the battlefield.” Tu paused for a moment, then replied, “That may be so. But it is also irrelevant.”

Quite so.  Because the Vietnamese nationalists won the war against the Americans and the corrupt government of South Vietnam whose army was crushed finally in April 1975 (when Summers was “the second-to-the-last Army guy out of Vietnam. Flying from the roof of the embassy . . . was quite a searing experience”).  It was staggeringly obvious that sheer overwhelming military might, the superiority of technology and weapons and the sophistication of war-gamed high-technology do not necessarily win wars against guerrillas.

At the height of the war in Afghanistan US Army Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Davis wrote that:

“The United States, along with over 40 NATO and other allied nations, possesses the most sophisticated, powerful, and technologically advanced military force that has ever hit the field of combat. We have the finest and most well trained soldiers that exist anywhere; we have armoured vehicles of every type, to include MIA2 Main Battle Tanks, artillery, mortars, advanced rockets, precision guided missiles, and hand-held rocket launchers; we have a wholly uncontested air force composed of NATO’s most advanced ground attack fighter jets, bombers, AWACS controllers, spy planes, signals-interception aircraft, B-1 bombers, attack helicopters, and massive transport jets to ferry our troops and critical supplies where they are needed; we have thousands of unmanned aerial drones both for intelligence collection and missile-launching; we have a helicopter fleet for personnel transport and attack support; we have an enormous constellation of spy satellites; logistics that are as limitless as the combined weight of the industrial world; we have every technological device known to the profession of arms; we are able to intercept virtually every form of insurgent communication to include cell phones, walkie-talkies, satellite phones, email, and even some ability to eavesdrop on otherwise private conversations; a remarkably capable cohort of intelligence analysts that are as educated, well trained and equipped to a degree that used to exist only in science fiction;  and our various nations have the economic wherewithal to spend tens of billions of dollars each month to fund it all . . .

. . . and for almost 10 years we have pitted this unbelievable and unprecedented capability against a bunch of dudes in bed sheets and flip-flops.”

The whole might of the US-NATO military alliance couldn’t beat the Taliban with their old AK 47 rifles and their bombs that they continue to explode, often suicidally, on the roadside, among hapless crowds of totally innocent civilians, against military targets — and against anything or anyone they can target in order to create fear, mayhem and realisation that the foreigners and the corrupt and incompetent government in Kabul can’t do anything to stop them.

Trump doesn’t know what he’s talking about when he declares that America “will fight to win” but it’s worrying that he was encouraged to say this by the three generals for whom he has such regard :  General Kelly, his Chief of Staff;  General McMaster, the National Security Adviser;  and General Mattis, the head of the Defence Department are responsible for directing the 200,000 US troops deployed to 177 countries throughout the world, and they want to win in Afghanistan.

We should remember that in June 2017 General Mattis told the US Senate Armed Forces Committee “We are not winning in Afghanistan right now. And we will correct this as soon as possible.”  General Kelly lost a son, 29-year-old Lieutenant Robert Kelly who was killed by a landmine in 2010. But he wants to fight on, and four days after the death of his son he said in a speech that “The American military has handed our ruthless enemy defeat after defeat, but it will go on for years, if not decades, before this curse has been eradicated.”  He’s all for victory, too, just like General McMaster who fantasised on August 5 that “There’s a tremendously successful campaign going on with Afghan forces in the lead. It’s an unreported campaign in Nangarhar Province of Afghanistan.”  That’s where Trump ordered explosion of the 15 ton Mother of All Bombs in April and where, as denied by the US authorities in Afghanistan, there were no civilian casualties caused in a series of airstrikes on August 10 concerning which “the district chief, Saaz Wali, told VOA eight of the victims belonged to the same family and were in a vehicle when a US airstrike hit them.”

To give it its due, the New York Times, while supporting the denial case, reported Mohammada Khan, 42, a truck driver, as saying he had lost six members of his family in the airstrike, which hit a minibus in which they were fleeing and that “We got to the area of the bombing and put their body parts in a truck and brought them to Jalalabad city, where we buried them this morning . . .”

So the US Administration has a brand-new plan for victory in Afghanistan.  But the bemedalled sages of Washington, led by the Vietnam War draft-dodger Donald Trump, should think of the wise words of Colonel Tu that winning on the battlefield is irrelevant. For every Afghan baby killed by a US airstrike, there are not only countless recruits to bands who fight against the foreigners and what they regard as a puppet Afghan Army, but increased resolve on the part of many ordinary Afghans to get the foreigners out of their country and boot out the corrupt government.

The Washington Generals can plan and bomb, plan and bomb, and plan and bomb again, but they’re not going to win.

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