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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat

Twenty Years in Afghanistan: What to Make of American Credibility?

Afghanistan History
A U.S. Army mobile gun system Stryker variant belonging to Quickstrike Troop, 4th Squadron, 2d Cavalry Regiment fires at several targets during a week-long gunnery range at the Grafenwoehr Training Area, Germany, Feb. 14, 2019. The gunnery was the culminating event for their multi-month training progression. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Timothy Hamlin, 2d Cavalry Regiment)

It’s a truism in the halls of professional military education schoolhouses that the enemy gets a vote in the success or failure of our strategy, just as we get a vote in the success or failure of the enemy’s strategy. Each casts its vote in favor of stymieing the other, in multiple rounds of balloting. That’s the nature of armed competition or warfare. Each contestant tries to one-up and outdo the other until one prevails, they strike a compromise settlement of some sort, or the competition deadlocks.

My colleague Jill Hazelton appends a commonsense corollary to that truism, noting that the “client” gets a vote in counterinsurgent ventures. Common sense, but worth repeating. That is, a weaker local ally dependent on an outside patron like the United States—Jill uses the Vietnam War as her case study—gets a vote in its own destiny. It isn’t captive to the will of the stronger ally despite its dependency.

And it may cast its vote in perverse-seeming or even self-defeating ways, as Saigon had a proclivity for doing.

So lesser allies still have “agency,” in international-relations-speak. The client is not an inert object. Its interests and purposes may diverge from the patron’s. It may turn out not to be a competent partner for one reason or another, even though it’s fighting a foe bent on extinguishing its political—and in all likelihood physical—existence. Or it may never mature into a sovereign state capable of imposing a monopoly of force within the territory it claims.

By design or by default it may cast a vote against victory—and its own self-interest. South Vietnam fell prey to this syndrome in 1975, as innumerable photos of helicopters evacuating personnel from the U.S. Embassy in Saigon have reminded us since the weekend. As news reporting and photos make obscenely clear, Afghanistan is the latest ally to underperform with mortal consequences for itself.

What to do? In my department, we teach that any wise combatant thinks about how to terminate a war and preserve the peace before getting into that war. Three questions figure prominently. Strategic leaders should ask themselves what they should demand politically from the foe, how far they need to go militarily to get what they demand politically, and who can be expected to keep the peace won by force of arms.

That last part is crucial for a predominant power like the United States, which could well end up as the peacemaker and peacekeeper. Do the American government, military, and people care enough about a venture to preserve the peace for a very long time? If not, they may be better off foreswearing the endeavor.

Surveying this week’s news, in fact, it almost feels as though U.S. leaders confront a binary choice when contemplating entangling themselves in a beleaguered land like Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Iraq. They can conclude that American society is either all in on the enterprise, and prepared to help preserve the fruits of victory forever, or that they should abjure the attempt. The United States (and NATO, and fellow friendly powers) policed Afghanistan for twenty years. That’s a long time. Indeed, they defied reputable authorities who maintain that democratic societies cannot wage seven years’ wars.

Nevertheless, twenty years may not be enough. In the future, U.S. leaders had better think hard about how a foreign adventure ends—and what it will take to lock in its results—before they arrive at its beginning. Sobriety is a virtue of utmost importance when deliberating about matters of war and peace.

All of that said, potential adversaries should think twice before gloating or embarking on their own adventures. The instant conventional wisdom after the fall of Kabul is that the United States has been discredited as an ally, ruined as a leading power, etc. It’s finished. Its “credibility” is shot, perhaps for all time.

I’m not so sure.

In Afghanistan, America has shown, under presidencies and Congresses controlled by both parties, that it is prepared to expend lives, national treasure, and military resources of all types for years upon years, on behalf of an ally in a region where it has no compelling geopolitical interest. That’s a strong statement about power and purpose.

So our friends in capitals like Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran ought to reflect: if Americans will mount a twenty years’ war to defend Afghanistan, a place of peripheral U.S. interest, what burden might they bear, what price might they bear on behalf of a long-time friend, kindred democracy, and geopolitically important country like Taiwan? One of these places is not like the other—and might warrant an entirely different strategy from Washington.

Something to ponder.

A 1945 Contributing Editor, James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the U.S. Naval War College and a Nonresident Fellow at the Brute Krulak Center, U.S. Marine Corps University.

Written By

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”

6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Rick

    August 20, 2021 at 11:39 am

    “The United States (and NATO, and fellow friendly powers) policed Afghanistan for twenty years.”

    You would think that a self-identifying military expert would take notice of what we dummies in the infantry noticed: the last seven years it hasn’t been us, nor NATO, doing the combat patrols, the fighting, and the dying in Afghanistan. Not to “police” Afghanistan, but stopping the Taliban from taking it, and once again setting up secure terrorist training bases for terrorist groups to export mass casualty terrorist attacks to Western nations like the US.

    How did Holmes miss the part that it was the Afghans, not Americans doing that?

    “Afghanistan is the latest ally to underperform with mortal consequences for itself.”

    Jeez, they so underperformed that while doing all the combat operations that cost them 57,000+ KIA over the last seven years (almost twice what America lost in WWI trench warfare, with a tenth our population) they kept the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan.

    And in doing so, fighting and giving those lives to give America and the Coalition countries seven years of security from terrorist attacks exported from a Taliban controlled Afghanistan.

    And then, Biden pulled the combat net backbone out from under them. The one we taught them all those years to use in fighting. Which they did successfully. And then, imagine that, they collapsed.

    Yeah, they get to try and stay alive in Afghanistan in the consequences of Biden’s latest abandonment and people left behind.

    I wonder if James Holmes feels up to writing a column confidently assuring readers this won’t result in both exported terrorism coming from Afghanistan again and strategic threats to America.

    That would be a fascinating assurance to read from such a brilliant military analyst and instructor.

  2. Herod

    August 21, 2021 at 11:53 am

    I concur with the above poster. The Afghans were already fighting and dying for their country. US leadership just failed. It is unbelievable the irresponsibility of the senior American political leadership. US combat operations ended in 2014 so the Afghans were holding up their end of the bargain. What I don’t understand is the need to kneecap our allies by withdrawing the contractors to maintain Afghan air force to resupply their troops and carry out air strikes against Taliban targets. Why is this a surprise when our allies in the Afghan government lost the will to resist when the US as the senior partner in the partnership defaulted on our end? Afghanistan is not an industrial society so the modern tools of warfare and the technical personnel to maintain a modern military would fall on the senior partner, the US. The US failed in its commitments to a people under mortal threat. This shame with live on.

  3. Paul Be

    August 21, 2021 at 7:03 pm

    It’s nonsense like this that will make this American betrayal reverberate around the capitals of the US’s former trusting allies for decades. When Americans don’t even recognise their imbecilic, treacherous and shameful actions, it continues to diminish what little trust and respect may remain.

  4. Stefan Stackhouse

    August 22, 2021 at 4:56 pm

    The natural (and logical) grand strategy of the USA should be to use our fortunate position on both major oceans to secure strategic depth for ourselves by projecting naval and air power across those oceans. To the extent that we can incorporate fortunately-located offshore island nations (Japan, Australia, Britain, etc.) as forward outposts along our defensive perimeter, so much the better.

    This works best, of course – or maybe only works at all – if we remained focused on our strategic priorities and necessities. Once we give in to the temptation to meddle in the affairs of places on the Eurasian mainland, and divert large amounts of forces and resources in ill-advised interventionist misadventures, then we inevitably find ourselves misallocating resources away from our strategic priorities. This is a recipe for disaster. The only thing worse than withdrawing in disgrace from these places is to keep on being bogged down, wasting more and more resources.

  5. Andrew N

    August 22, 2021 at 9:50 pm

    There should be a recognition by Americans they won’t have any alliances left in Asia if Taiwan falls. The Europeans will probably look to be a lot more self sufficient as well. Everyone will look to nukes and being nice to the Chinese to try and secure their borders. Look at the effect of Obama ignoring the Scarbough shoal invasion.

  6. abhay

    September 2, 2021 at 4:09 am

    instead of recruiting afghans ready to fight for afghanistan, US went to bed with pakis who were in bed with talibs. the end result is evident.

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