The description of what went right for the U.S. and NATO in Afghanistan is short. After the 9/11 attacks on America, the need to eliminate terrorists operating out of Afghanistan was patently clear. The American and NATO invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 quickly defeated and chased the governing Taliban and their fellow al-Qaida extremists into sanctuaries in Pakistan.
This fundamental war aim was promptly achieved, and a new Islamic democratic government was installed.
But that achievement was not maintained. After nearly 20 years of fighting, the Taliban have returned — along with al-Qaida and ISIS.
What went wrong?
Under the U.S. Army/Marines’ 2006 Counterinsurgency Manual, the military’s strategy was “clear, hold, build.” The 2014 update now dubs this strategy: “Shape-clear-hold-build-transition.” The theory is once a district is cleared, held, institutions and infrastructure built, and the attitude of the local population “shaped,” the new government can be transitioned in.
The policy should have been “clear, hold, build and pursue,” with the main effort being constant pursuit. The failure to relentlessly chase down and eliminate the insurgents allowed them to return and reestablish themselves.
A nascent pluralistic Islamic democratic government faces hostile and decidedly different ancient religious traditions in a land long teeming with Islamic fanatics and jihadis. It likely can succeed only if the militant extremists who are implacably opposed to such a government are eliminated or kept thoroughly marginalized.
ISIS’ overrunning large parts of Iraq when that country’s nascent democracy was left to fend for itself illustrates the type of enduring commitment that is needed to give a democratic government a chance in these hostile environments.
Renowned military theorist Carl von Clausewitz observed that a nation’s “moral forces” are crucial for success in war. Previous British and Russian failures in Afghanistan teach us that war there for outsiders is to be avoided unless it is absolutely necessary, as it was in 2001.
But once committed, for success in places like Afghanistan, western leaders must be able to maintain their nation’s “moral force.” Initially and throughout the military campaign, they must explain what they are getting into, the realistic commitment that “clear, hold, build and pursue” will require, and the reasons why the people should accept and support the accompanying casualties, and loss of life and the nation’s treasure.
Save for a few like John McCain and Leon Panetta, America’s political and military leadership never understood this need. They did not marshal the nation’s “moral forces” for this commitment, but instead hopelessly relied on “clear, hold and build” with sporadic surges of force.
Perhaps the closest historical analogy is the Spanish guerrilla war against Napoleon. Invading Spain in 1807, Napoleon swiftly vanquished its regular armies and installed his brother, Joseph, as king.
Napoleon expected Spaniards to acquiesce to French rule like other French-conquered nations and, like them, even appreciate some of the more liberal policies born of the French Revolution. What he did not anticipate and understand was the deep-rooted fanaticism of Spaniards for church and state.
A vicious guerrilla campaign soon erupted. The term “guerrilla” originated here and means “little war.” Guerrillas terrorized the countryside, made travel unsafe, and limited French troops to the towns and outposts by ambushing and killing isolated French soldiers.
In the province of Andalusia, Marshal Jean–de–Dieu Soult had rare success against the guerrillas. He organized “flying columns” of French troops that, with the help of knowledgeable locals, constantly swept the plains, countryside and mountains relentlessly, chasing and killing the guerrillas.
Andalusia was secure.
According to the 2006 Counterinsurgency Manual, the Spanish guerrilla war lasted close to six years, ultimately requiring about three-fifths of French armed strength. It helped facilitate the Duke of Wellington’s advance through Portugal and Spain that threatened Napoleon’s strategic rear as Napoleon advanced into Russia in 1812.
Of Napoleon’s failure against the guerrillas, the 2006 Manual states: “At the theater level, a complete understanding of the problem and a campaign design that allowed the counterinsurgency force to learn and adapt was lacking.”
The same can be said about Afghanistan.
Had Soult’s example of relentless pursuit been consistently followed from the beginning, Afghanistan likely would have stayed secure with fewer troops needed to keep the Taliban and other fanatical Islamists in Pakistan or on the run. The Islamic democratic republic would have had a realistic chance to root in a land with decidedly different ancient traditions.
Before America again determines that it must take the risk of a guerrilla war in a strange and foreign land, the flaw in the Counterinsurgency Manual must be corrected.
Daniel O. Jamison is a retired attorney who writes on military affairs and other issues. He wrote this commentary for InsideSources.com.