America and its allies lost the war in Afghanistan. The expenditure of blood and treasure was extraordinary and, in the end, shed and spent for little reason. There is no denying it. The clear winner is the Taliban, which is capturing one provincial capital after another as the U.S. troops finish pulling out. There are many reasons for the humiliating loss.
The Taliban fought a total war for the existence of their way of life. America did not. Our goal was to force the Taliban to quit sheltering Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida, but that objective later morphed into “winning Afghan hearts and minds.” The former objective was possible. The latter was wildly improbable, reflecting mission creep gone mad. That led inevitably to America’s longest war.
America assiduously follows the Law of Land Warfare, which reflects our humanitarian values. The Taliban did not. America desperately attempted to avoid civilian casualties in the conduct of the conflict, especially during the Obama administration. The Taliban did not. The Taliban knew an essential old-world war-fighting truth: The winner triumphs by embracing the idea that the ends justify the means — and the end is ultimate victory.
Back to basics: The most important principle of war is “objective.” A winning combatant must first define the desired end, and then select the most suitable means necessary to achieve clear goals. Do it poorly, and precious soldiers’ lives and resources are wasted. The Bush administration established few feasible objectives in Afghanistan.
The key mistake made, though, was in staying. It was outrageous arrogance coupled with incredible naiveté that made the Bush White House wrongly assume that America and its allies could bestow democracy and liberal order on a fragmented tribalized country that had no experience with either. That administration left a foreign policy catastrophe in its wake that was inherited by subsequent commanders-in-chief.
We need look no farther than World War II for conflicts that had successful outcomes but were fought resolutely by an America that embraced the objective of the unconditional surrender of our enemies in both Europe and the Asia-Pacific. America won and subsequently dictated terms to the vanquished. The result? The birth of two of the most dynamic democracies in the world.
If we consider ourselves to be morally superior to the Taliban — and we certainly aspire to be — then the only acceptable ethical arc is the one leading to victory. Attempting compromise with the Taliban was always absurd. They never cared one whit about the deaths of women and children caught in collateral crosshairs. Tragically, if those deaths served their interests — they often did — the innocent died horribly.
War may indeed be hell. But losing a war might be worse. The only other honorable and humanitarian alternative is to choose not to fight such limited conflicts at all. Upon reflection, this seems. like a promising idea, and one worth remembering. Popular commentator and retired Army Lt. Col. Ralph Peters recently suggested to me that we should “Either fight to win or stay home.” Given recent history, it’s hard to disagree.
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Robert Bruce Adolph is a former senior Army Special Forces soldier and United Nations security chief, who holds graduate degrees in both international affairs & strategy. He is the author of the new book entitled, “Surviving the United Nations: The Unexpected Challenge.”