The name, blame and shame game over the Taliban victory in Afghanistan is just getting started. Former and even some current government officials and senior military officers, members of Congress, think tank experts, and journalists are filling print and electronic media with their critiques of every decision made regarding the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan going back some twenty years. The fact that many of these same individuals were responsible for formulating or advocating some of these failed policies and strategies is apparently irrelevant.
There is a real danger that in the drive to find someone to blame, we will lose sight of the important lessons learned in the fight against the Taliban and other violent extremists in Afghanistan. This is what happened after Vietnam. It became a canon of U.S. national security policy that this country would never fight another protracted insurgency. Well, instead we fought two.
The U.S. military did a remarkable job projecting and sustaining forces half a world away and conducting military operations under the most pressing conditions. It pivoted from a focus on a high-tech fight against the Soviet Union to combatting the equivalent of a seventh-century insurgency. Now that the military is back to a focus on high-intensity warfare, particularly in the Indo-Pacific, it must be careful not to forget the lessons it has learned over the past 20 years.
What did the U.S. military get right in Afghanistan? At least five things.
First, it successfully adapted its airpower advantages to the demands of a conflict for which those forces were never designed. Airpower proved critical to the conduct of the war in Afghanistan from the start. A handful of Special Forces tasked with designating targets for U.S. fighters and bombers allowed a few thousand resistance fighters to topple the Taliban in a matter of days.
For the next twenty years, airpower continued to play a decisive role in support of both Coalition and Afghan forces. It is noteworthy that the withdrawal of that air support by the Biden administration over the summer coincided with the collapse of Afghan security forces.
Airpower involved much more than just strike missions in Afghanistan. Air support, including intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), airlift, resupply, and medical evacuation, was vital to sustaining operations in a country with little basic infrastructure. U.S. airpower also included Army aviation. Army helicopter pilots performed heroic feats with aircraft never intended for the high altitude and hot environment of Afghanistan.
The U.S. military even created an Afghan Air Force (AAF) that operated quite effectively given its personnel limitations and the need to rely on U.S. support for logistics, maintenance, and mission planning. The U.S. provided the AAF with helicopters, transports, and even A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft, which it used to great effect. It was only when the U.S. withdrew support for the AAF that it, like the rest of the Afghan security forces, fell apart.
Second, the U.S. military learned how to exploit electronic means to counter the threat from improvised explosive devices (IEDs). U.S. soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, the Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) and the U.S. defense industry to thank for a massive and successful effort to counter this threat. Billions were spent on IED detectors and a variety of airborne, vehicle-mounted and man-portable jamming devices such as the Thor system from Sierra Nevada.
Over time, because of this comprehensive campaign against the IED threat, U.S. and coalition losses to these devices dropped by more than half. As a result, especially in Afghanistan, the enemy was left having to use the simplest of devices, pressure detonated IEDs with virtually no metal in them.
Third, the U.S. military stood up an extremely sophisticated ground and airborne ISR capability that both protected friendly forces and multiplied the effectiveness of offensive operations. U.S. bases deployed both ground-level and elevated sensors, including both electro-optical and radar systems, to detect attacks. In the air, the U.S. deployed a wide range of systems, including Predator and ScanEagle drones, manned platforms such as the MC-12W, RC-135V/W Rivet Joint, and even U-2s. The military integrated these assets with a near-real time tactical intelligence fusion capability.
Fourth, the U.S. military forged a close and effective alliance with the private sector. The U.S. cannot go to war without private contractors. At the height of the U.S. deployment in Afghanistan, there were more contractors than uniformed personnel in the country. While many of these were third-country nationals, the core of the support was provided by U.S. and Coalition citizens.
Without companies such as KBR, Dyncorp and Fluor, there would have been no infrastructure to support the troops. The support of the major OEMs and companies such as General Dynamics, BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Oshkosh, and Leonardo DRS made it possible to maintain critical equipment. Contractor support was also critical to the operations of the Afghan Army and Air Force.
Fifth, the U.S. military learned how to create a supply chain that stretched all the way from the factories and fields of America to bases and even outposts in the wilds of Afghanistan. Logistics in Afghanistan essentially relied on commercial supply lines and commercial logistics providers such as Agility to move supplies from ports in Pakistan into Afghanistan
The southern supply routes were supplemented for years by the so-called Northern Distribution Network (NDN) from Europe across Russia and Central Asia to Afghanistan. Standing up the NDN was a tremendous organizational and political feat. The NDN was operated by three private companies: APL, Maersk Line and Hapag-Lloyd. These companies and their employees — volunteers from the United States and other coalition countries, but others hired locally — make it possible for the U.S. military to operate. Future counterinsurgency campaigns will rely heavily on commercial supply lines.
We will be back to fighting insurgents. ISIS and Al Qaeda have not gone away. There has been a resurgence of violent extremism in Africa. Whether it is Boko Haram in West Africa, Al Shabab in Somalia, or Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, there are plenty of insurgencies around the world that could challenge U.S. strategic interests. The U.S. military may find itself needing to reach for the Afghanistan playbook sooner than it thinks.
Dr. Daniel Goure is Senior Vice President with the Lexington Institute, a nonprofit public-policy research organization headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. He is involved in a wide range of issues as part of the institute’s national security program. Dr. Goure is also a new Contributing Editor to 1945 as well.