The myth of victory

Roundup
tags: war



Mark Kukis is the author of Voices from Iraq, and covered the Afghan and Iraq wars for Time, The New Republic and Salon. This fall he will be working with Andrew Bacevich on an open online course, War for the Greater Middle East (Boston Univ./EdX).

... How could the Taliban have bested the United States? A more uneven military contest is scarcely imaginable when you consider the state of the two factions on the eve of 9/11. Before the US invasion, the Taliban had an army of roughly 30,000. Taliban forces hardly qualified as a real army, though. They operated more like a decentralised militia scattered around a mountainous country, with few roads and no communications of any kind. They had no officers. A rotating crew of regional commanders oversaw garrisons around the country. Most fighters went unpaid except for the occasional handout from a commander before they went on leave.

In the US, meanwhile, armories bristled with sophisticated weaponry and equipment. The US store of cruise missiles, for example, was 10 times greater than that used in Desert Storm in 1991. Military readiness generally stood at historically high levels. The total number of soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines serving the US passed 1 million. Hundreds of military cargo planes waited at beck and call, prepared to ferry everything from troops and rations to tanks and helicopters into Afghanistan. More than 200 bombers remained primed for action, ready to fly carrying terrifying payloads. A dozen aircraft carriers roamed the oceans. With bases and ships literally all over the planet, the Pentagon ensured US ability to fight anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice.

The Taliban are not to be underrated as military adversaries, clearly. They have proven again and again to be cunning and dogged fighters. Still, the war should have tilted greatly in favour of the US by any reasonable assessment at the outset, given the overwhelming material advantage of the US military. The Americans were, from the start, in control of the skies of Afghanistan, a dominance that had never been achieved over North Vietnam. True, a similar Afghani force had driven out the Soviet Union, but the Soviet Union was already well into a steep decline when, in 1979, Russian forces poured into Afghanistan and began a doomed occupation. The general state of Soviet military reflected this decline.

By contrast, the US forces that entered Afghanistan in 2001 stood at historically high levels of power and readiness. Back then, few were betting on the Taliban to win. The more pessimistic prognosticators, myself included, foresaw a long and difficult war for the US in Afghanistan, but not failure.

Even the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden, a major US war aim, has not overcome the sense of defeat that hangs over US military efforts in Afghanistan now. Last year, the US Army General Daniel Bolger published an account of his time as a commander in both Iraq and Afghanistan, titled Why We Lost. Bolger, and other observers, explain the loss chiefly as a result of consistently poor strategic choices by senior military and civilian officials. Indeed, US leadership has made many bad decisions in Afghanistan and Iraq – the 2001 failure to capture Bin Laden at Tora Bora, the 2003 decision to disband the Iraqi national army, and the willful blindness to the rise of the Iraqi insurgency early in the occupation stand out as particularly consequential. The biggest mistake, however, might have been the presumption, widely shared among US political and military leaders, that military victory was ever possible.

Massive blunders aside, it is also true that the US waged military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq about as well any modern nation could. The Pentagon had never seriously contemplated fighting a war in Afghanistan until 9/11 and yet, within weeks, US forces and their Afghan allies were overrunning the country. In 2003, Iraqi forces began crumbling within days of the onset of shock and awe, and Iraqi defence against the subsequent US ground invasion amounted to little more than a tactical retreat. But these momentary triumphs masked a deeper reality about modern conflict that troubled US pursuits from the beginning. Military victory in Iraq or Afghanistan was never, in fact, a real possibility. The very nature of war has changed so much in recent decades that military victory as we tend to imagine it, with winners and losers emerging after a fight with an unambiguous end, is utterly obsolete. ...




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