In the aftermath of the disaster that is the Biden Retrograde from Afghanistan, there will be much bodice ripping, teeth gnashing, and some actually serious analysis of lessons to be learned and what should be done from those lessons.
There will be many such adjustments; these are key in my pea brain.
A Strategic Adjustment
One lesson that we fail repeatedly to learn, but which is no less important for that, is to clearly define—before entering into any conflict, however major or minor, and whether economic, political, or shooting—what our victory conditions are. But it’s not enough to say “We win, they lose;” although that makes a good summation. But it does our businessmen, politicians, or especially our soldiers no good to leave it at that.
Our victory conditions for the folks on the ground must be devoid of glittering generalities: name those conditions in concrete, measurable terms. “Burn the Taliban to the ground.” What are the defining characteristics of such a burning, since that’s a metaphor, not a literal goal?
“Defeat the [enemy].” For anything short of his unconditional surrender, or his Carthaginian destruction, what constitutes the that defeat? How will we know, concretely, that we’ve defeated our enemy? What are the explicit criteria that define his defeat?
That’s all plowed ground, even if we’ve so far planted nothing in the furrows. Here’s the thing: the dual of our victory is the enemy’s defeat. But our enemy isn’t defeated when we think we’ve won. The enemy is defeated when he thinks he’s beaten. The goals of a conflict are our victory conditions; they’re not necessarily the same—short of unconditional surrender in a total, all-out war—as the conditions of our enemy’s defeat.
Critical to achieving our enemy’s defeat, which must be achieved in his mind, not just ephemerally on the ground, is to stop thinking like Americans in this aim, to stop projecting our attitudes, our ideals, our definitions onto our enemy. We must, instead, think like our enemy does. This requires our understanding his culture, his ideology, his polity’s strengths and weaknesses and thought processes. But those are just background. We’re not, after all, trying to defeat an enemy, per se; we’re trying to defeat the particular men and women who are in control of our enemy, persons who most likely the formal leaders, but not necessarily.
Thus: it’s necessary to identify the real leaders. Then, it’s Critical Item to understand the thought processes of those persons, their personal motivations, personal thought processes, their own strengths and weaknesses, their pain points. And then to think like them in particular.
Even that, though, isn’t necessarily sufficient. After all, defeating the enemy leadership and defeating the enemy population are two different things, for all that they might heavily overlap in a particular conflict. If we’re to remain as an occupier, both necessary. Both defeats require the same understandings, but to defeat the population, the background understandings aren’t background; they’re necessary in their own right.
In fine, our Victory Conditions must be defined in terms of our enemy’s defeat. Once we understand that, then and only then can we begin to develop the strategy and tactics for achieving his defeat. Which will be our victory.
A Tactical Adjustment
It’s critical that we lose our dependency on air power. Air power is highly useful, and it can be a game changer in this or that individual battle, but the overall war? Keep in mind that the last two long-duration wars we’ve fought, Vietnam and now Afghanistan, we’ve lost. We lost both wars to an enemy that had no air capability at all, despite the fact that we had, and used, overwhelming air superiority and raw air power.
In the end, our infantry (and associated ground forces, but especially our infantry) must be able to meet/ambush and destroy enemy units and kill their soldiers even without air cover or any other sort of air power. Our infantry, man for man, must be better men, better fighters, than the enemy’s fighters.
To achieve that, our soldiers must have inculcated in them their fighting superiority, the mindset that they can fight and win under any conditions, that they don’t need any air power.
To achieve that, they must be trained and equipped for rapid mobility; high aggressiveness; high flexibity in unit structure, unit tactics, unit mission, and particular battle goal.
And yes, to work with air power, but not be dependent on it. Our infantry must fight every battle to win it and follow with advance, not merely to hold. Our infantry must actively seek contact with the enemy and not let the enemy disengage until he has been defeated (see above regarding “defeat”). That applies whether we’re fighting set piece battles or engaging small unit insurgents or terrorist cells.
Much of this is old hat, but that old hat must be adjusted to lose the mindset of dependency on air power.
And this: where we train other nations’ military, or help one build their military establishment from scratch, we need to train those armies, too, to be able to use air power but not be dependent on it.
Their enemies, and ours, don’t necessarily have their own air power; we need to learn to crush them, also.
A Nation-building Adjustment
Don’t do it. We’re lousy at nation-building; stop trying. The closest we’ve ever come to success was in helping extant nations—Germany, Italy, and Japan—rebuild on the foundation of an extant Western-style nation (Germany and Italy) or on the foundation of a nation long familiar with the concepts of a Western-style nation. We will fail especially where we insist on trying to build a Western-style nation in a culture that has no concept of Western-ness.
Instead, when our victory conditions have been achieved, acknowledge that. Promote that. Leave.
Don’t hang around to pick up the pieces. Don’t let the mission, our victory, drift into nation-building. Don’t announce a new mission of nation-building. Perhaps—perhaps—announce a new facility to provide humanitarian aid, but strictly circumscribed to that aid. Treat the area as we do, for instance, a hurricane- or earthquake-ravaged Haiti, supporting NGOs and charities in their provision of aid and succor. Then leave that, too.
At best, nation-building must be done in coordination with the local men and women in their originating culture, and at a pace their culture can absorb, not at a pace that’s convenient to us. And the nation we try to build must be one consistent with their culture, not dogmatically Western.
This will require stepping outside our own projections, patience, and an acceptance that the effort will, of necessity, span generations. And that also requires we understand two additional things. The first is that we must understand that culture.
The second is that we must understand—and be able to clearly articulate—the end result toward which we’re reaching. And to enable the recipient to understand that result and to agree that the result is a good idea.
All of the above requires that we understand both our enemy—his culture and ideology and the particular men and women leading our enemy—and ourselves. And introspection is the hardest of all these tasks, nor is it for the weak of will.