Official Jack Carr website
It was inevitable. Or was it?
“The Americans have all the watches, but we have all the time.” I first heard this saying in Afghanistan in 2003 from a former mujahadeen who fought against the Soviets. Its precise origin is unknown, but it certainly applies, and from that point on I examined all U.S. tactical and strategic efforts through the prism of that very simple and accurate adage. It made such an impact that the quote is in the first paragraph of chapter one of my 2018 debut novel, The Terminal List.
September 11, 2021 marks the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that propelled the United States into Afghanistan. This year, for the first time in U.S. history, one could have joined the military, served for twenty years, and retired while the country is still involved in the same war.
That should give us pause. As Dr. David Kilcullen notes, the enemy was prepared with a strategy they have used against invading armies for centuries:
Provoke – Intimidate – Protract – Exhaust.
Our enemies have figured out how to not only effectively counter but defeat the most technologically advanced military on earth. In what is accurately described as imperial hubris, the United States political-military establishment confused entry and initial resolve with victory. They were wrong; America’s sons and daughters paid the price.
In April of this year, I wrote,
“if withdrawal from Afghanistan proves popular with the American public, then President Biden will take credit for what was a Trump Administration plan. If it proves unpopular or disastrous, then President Biden will blame the previous administration.”
While true, it does not accurately portray what was a whole of government failure, a failure that crossed party lines over four separate administrations, two Republican and two Democrat. As we watch the U.S. Embassy evacuation in Kabul and see images of the Taliban taking control of the country, to those of us who fought there it is more than a strategic failure; it’s personal.
Our senior political and military leaders failed those service men and women they sent into harm’s way. As a nation we failed the soldier, sailor, airman and Marine who stepped up in service to the nation following 9/11. We owed them better. We owed their families better. And we owed our country better.
How did this happen?
Simply put, our elected officials and senior level military leaders were trapped by their own intellectual inertia, condemning us to eventual defeat.
On September 12, 2001, the day after 9/11, I briefed my platoon and the commanding officer of Naval Special Warfare Unit One in Guam on Afghanistan, al-Qaeda and the Taliban. As the SEAL intelligence specialist for the platoon and a lifelong student of history, warfare, terrorism, and insurgency, I covered the recent and not so recent history of Central Asia from the perspective of, although I did not use these exact words at the time, understanding the nature of the conflict in which we were about to engage. Today’s outcome was obvious to a twenty-something E-5 shooter in the SEAL Teams, which begs the question, how was it not obvious to those policy makers and senior level military leaders whose job it was to understand the strategic level implications of their decisions?
Without an intricate understanding of Afghanistan, its history, people and culture, an eventual U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in defeat was inevitable. That inevitability could only have been thwarted through studying the past, heeding its lessons and applying them to the conflict. The 19th and 20th centuries were replete with case studies — case studies that were ignored.
Should Afghanistan’s reputation as “The Graveyard of Empires” caused us to further evaluate our strategies and intent? Should the history of the massive and brutal military campaigns of Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, and Timur bogging down in Afghanistan inspired us to put the requisite time, energy and effort to the study of those wars to extract their lessons?
Should the more modern experience of three British Anglo-Afghan Wars and the Soviet invasion and occupation have guided our strategy? We had firsthand experience supporting the mujahadeen to counter the Soviets in the 1980s. After the U.S. entered Afghanistan in 2001, allied forces occupied positions that were built on British forts abandoned over a hundred years earlier. Some would call this foreshadowing. I returned home with a rifle as a reminder of my time there. I mounted it to the wall in my office as a physical reminder of what that former mujahadeen told me in 2003. It’s a Lee Enfield muzzle loaded musket. It was made just outside London. A date is stamped into its metal: 1864.
United States military and political leaders did not understand the nature of the conflict to which they were committing America’s sons and daughters; their strategic level decisions were abject failures. While politicians and their appointed advisors failed on the policy front, our military leaders were never held accountable for their poor performance at the strategic and operational levels. Accountability has been a critical part of our military operations since the founding of our nation. That began to change in the 1960s. General Washington did so during our war for independence. President Lincoln did so in the Civil War. George Marshall did so before and during World War II. As Georges Clemenceau put it, “War is too important to be left to the Generals.” Tactically, on the battlefield, we were held accountable for our mistakes.
Strategically, our leaders were not held to account for their blunders — in too many cases, blunders of epic proportions. Rather, they were promoted and eventually retired with full pensions to sit on the boards of companies making a killing in the world of government contracts; the military industrial complex is alive and well.
As Lt. Col. Paul Yingling pointed out in his 2007 article A Failure in Generalship, “As matters stand now, a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.” This remains true fourteen years and three administrations later.
What were America’s strategic interests in Afghanistan?
How many politicians have an answer to that question if asked by the mother or father, son or daughter, husband or wife of a fallen servicemember?
Our Initial goals were to disrupt al-Qaeda operations and destroy the al-Qaeda organization. We made rapid progress in those opening months of the conflict in what Carl von Clausewitz would have called “the culminating point of victory.” The men and women on the ground from our military and intelligence services came within a stone’s throw of decapitating the organization and destroying enough of it to set them on their heels.
What we failed to do was recognize that al-Qaeda was more than a physical organization of terrorists, leaders, bombmakers, and facilitators; al-Qaeda was an idea, and ideas are harder to kill than human beings made of flesh and blood.
After our initial success on the battlefield, we “snatched defeat from the jaws of victory” as our political leaders switched gears to reconstruction and nation building, shifted focus to Iraq, and attempted to counter corruption (bribery, extortion, drug trafficking) endemic in the new Afghan government, one modeled after the United States and our allies in Europe.
Any terrorist network or insurgency needs a sanctuary.
For a tribal people who don’t recognize borders on a map, especially a map drawn up by western invaders, neighboring Pakistan and Iran posed difficult political problems that directly resulted in dead Americans on the battlefield. Those countries had a vested interest in the United States not becoming a permanent presence in the region.
Offering sanctuary to insurgents and terrorists on the other side of borders we recognized, but our enemy did not, allowed that enemy to rest, recover, refit, plan and train beyond the reach of American power.
Leveraging cross-border sanctuary should come as no surprise – it was widely known and reported, yet, with few notable exceptions, we took no action to address it. The United States failed to recognize that Middle Eastern and Central Asian nations have been trading borders since the Old Testament. This history, coupled with our lack of understanding of it, ensured that we would become bogged down in twenty years of conflict. Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan in May 2011 and Abu Muhammad al-Masari, al-Qaeda’s second in command, was killed in Iran in August 2020. Also killed in that attack was the widow of Hamza bin Laden, Osama bin Laden’s son. Those HVIs were not in Pakistan and Iran by chance.