In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 the Department of Defense largely froze up. It had no plans for a response to this kind of attack. It did not have troops in position. In short, it had no idea what to do.
In the window of opportunity that paralysis afforded, creativity flourished. A small group of individuals at the CIA who were used to “thinking outside the box” stepped into the breach. Cofer Black, Hank Crumpton, Gary Schroen, Gary Berntsen, and others put together and executed – on the fly – the most brilliant military campaign since the Second World War. A relative handful of CIA officers and Army Special Forces personnel working with tribal allies and the U.S. Air Force crushed the Taliban and drove Al-Qaeda (AQ) from Afghanistan.
Then, the bureaucracy woke up. The giant conventional military apparatus could not abide that this new war was not their province. Army and Marine units flooded into the country.
In their wake came the rest of official Washington and their modern-day camp followers – the contractors. Bureaucracies live to expand their missions and increase their budgets. Contractors will build bases and airstrips on the dark side of the Moon if the money is right.
The Bush administration, which had been only too willing to hand the mission of attacking the Taliban to the CIA when the chips were down now adopted the policy that the Department of Defense would be the lead agency in fighting the “war on terror.” This fight would be fought by a giant, ponderous bureaucracy never designed for any such mission. It was a catastrophic decision.
The Department of Defense is a huge, cumbersome machine. It is designed to fight major conventional wars, which in large measure are won by logistics, not strategy or tactics. In executing such a mission, the emphasis must be on standardization and groupthink.
Every mechanized infantry platoon in the Army must look and operate exactly the same. We must know precisely what is on every C-17 flying in and out of a remote airfield, when it will land, when it will take off, and its precise flight path. We must know the exact amount of fuel remaining on every warship at sea, when it will need refueled, and precisely where that will happen.
PowerPoint rules. Spreadsheets are king. The art of briefing senior officers must be refined to a science.
If you want to defeat a full-on conventional attack on Ukraine by massed Russian armored forces you need this level of rigidity, inflexibility, and organization. It is the only thing that will get you through that storm. If you want to defeat terrorists and relative handfuls of insurgents blending into the native population, this approach is going to ensure you spend most of your time feeding your own process and relatively little doing anything that makes any real difference.
You will be hunting snakes with a howitzer. If you hit one you may accomplish something. Most of the time you will be churning up dirt and wasting ammunition.
Afghanistan is not the only example of the failure of this DOD-centric approach to combatting terrorism but is certainly the most salient. The U.S. government spent 20 years and $145 billion trying to create functioning civil, security, and military institutions in Afghanistan. It spent another $867 billion on actual warfighting. Over the course of the conflict, 2,443 American troops and 1,144 allied troops were killed. In excess of 20,000 U.S. troops were injured. Tens of thousands of Afghan soldiers died and tens of thousands more Afghan civilians died.
In the end, once American troops were seen to have fully disengaged from the fight it took less than two weeks for the entire edifice so laboriously constructed to fall apart. Perhaps never in world history has there been such a catastrophic systemic failure. Nothing we had done for twenty years had worked. In 2001 the Northern Alliance with the help of a few hundred Americans and some air support tore the Taliban apart. In 2021 the new Afghan Army, armed with the best weapons the American taxpayer could buy could not run away fast enough.
As we begin the process of soul searching and try to identify lessons learned, we must begin by facing an uncomfortable truth. Handing the task of fighting terrorists to the conventional military and the giant military-industrial complex was a bad decision. That approach has failed, and it has failed catastrophically. The mistake the Bush administration made in empowering the Pentagon to take the lead in this fight has cost us dearly in blood and treasure and it will continue to do so unless we change course quickly and radically.
The fight against terrorism must be fought on many fronts. Much of the struggle frankly will be diplomatic and economic. When it comes to the “kinetic” elements of this struggle, however, we must understand that this is a war for unconventional forces. It will not be won by the deployment of armored divisions or by the transformation of some foreign military into a miniature version of ours.
It will be won by elements of the Central Intelligence Agency and Army Special Forces who retain the capacity to think outside the box, adapt to local conditions and wage war with limited resources. They will operate in small numbers and in teams adapted to the unique circumstances of each country in which they operate. In most cases, they will function with a low profile and make no attempt to transform the societies in which they must operate.
Such an approach – following the defeat of the Taliban in 2001 – would have meant small numbers of CIA and Special Forces personnel remaining on the ground supported by U.S. airpower. There would have been no push to turn Afghanistan into Switzerland in Central Asia. Instead, there would have been an effort crafted to Afghan realities, with the sole purpose of preventing Afghanistan from ever again becoming a safe haven for international terrorists.
Had we followed that path Afghanistan today would not be a European-style nation-state. It would not be a model of gender equality. It would, in fact, almost certainly only arguably be a single nation at all.
It would also not be under the control of the Taliban. It would not be a terrorist superstate. It would not be awash in advanced American weaponry. The same tribal forces that beat the Taliban once, with American assistance, would have prevented its resurgence. Americans would be able to sleep well in their beds at night.
At the Department of Defense, they are no doubt well into preparing some massive after-action report on what went wrong. That report will inevitably conclude that the overall plan for the war in Afghanistan was solid, but that there were failures in execution. As we speak, many hundreds of PowerPoint slides are no doubt being created, recommending changes to reporting procedures, training manuals, and organizational structure.
None of that will fix the problem. We must begin by acknowledging the error made twenty years ago when big DOD was given the lead in this fight. We are using the wrong tool for the job.