The Afghanistan War Report Part I: Looking Back on Eleven Years

The war in Afghanistan approaches its 11th full year in October. It’s worth pausing to reflect on the full course of the war before the 2012-13 fighting season begins. To put 11 years in perspective, the American Civil War lasted 4 years, World War II just over 3.5.  Significant American involvement in Vietnam, the third or fourth longest war in our history after the Iraq and Revolutionary Wars (depending on how you count) slogged on for about 8.5 years.  Eleven years starts to sound archaic, like the way we say “The Thirty-Years War.”  Eleven years is a long, long time to be at war in any era.

Yet in many ways it's misleading to think of the war in Afghanistan as a single, 11-year-long fight.  There have arguably been 3 distinct phases to the conflict.  The initial invasion marked a watershed moment for the US military, a moment not many in the general public appreciate.  After the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, at a point when US public opinion across the political spectrum was uniformly pushing for a military response, the Pentagon was unable to deliver one.  When President Bush asked for options, the Joint Chiefs were able to offer up a ground invasion that would take, at best, 6 months to prepare, or a missile strike that would in essence be a multi-hundred-million dollar symbolic expression of national outrage.

It was the CIA who offered a third-way, one that would make use of a very small number of clandestine services personnel and US troops, mostly (but not exclusively) from the Special Forces community. Air-dropped into the country in the weeks immediately after 9/11, they directed the group of anti-Taliban tribes known as the Northern Alliance.  The Alliance, with US forces acting largely as advanced spotters for aerial gunships and bombers, drove the Taliban from power.

But the controversy inside the military community over what came to be known as the 'Afghan Model' of war-making didn't end there.  Contrary to the 'Rambo' myth, most Special Forces units are tasked with taking on long-term training programs of local forces.  These units learn the titular languages of a region and live in small groups inside local communities.  Started under President Kennedy, the Special Forces were conceived of (pardon the apparent paradox) as a kind of Peace Corps with guns.  There were some places too dangerous to be in without the ability to provide self-security.  They were 'special' because they didn't just do basic shoot-and-scoot warfare.  Training and liaison, with both military and civilian figures, remains the foundation of the USSOCOM approach.

Special Operations Forces (SOF) fights wars at the most basic level—at the level of broken or non-existent societies.  But in 2001 the Special Forces were used like conventional troops.  They fought what was essentially a conventional war with Northern Alliance members as massed infantry, not the guerrilla-style war it has been labeled as.  Training and liaison work will be the central focus of the last phase of the war in Afghanistan.

The second phase of the war covers the period from 2002 to 2009, when US attention was largely focused on Iraq.  One measure of the caretaker nature of the war in this period is reflected in the fact that Department of Defense funding for Iraq exceeded that for Afghanistan in every year from FY 02-10, with Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) spending exceeding Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) funding by 5 times in 2006.  Finally in 2009 the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command (IJC) was founded to coordinate efforts in Afghanistan among different commands.  The IJC marked a return to a focus on Afghanistan.  But it also reflected the deeply broken nature of the effort there.

What kind of problems?  To be blunt, the war was failing because the mission was succumbing to 'death by powerpoint'.  The mission to Afghanistan consists of 50 troop-contributing nations with nearly as many different Rules of Engagement and reasons for being there. Often the biggest struggle is just clarifying exactly who’s in charge of what in order to clearly communicate to the soldiers and diplomats from around the world what the plan is for a given place and time.  When this isn’t done well, jurisdictional confusion leaves seams where there is no clear sense of authority or clear plan.  In a war zone, unclear planning has consequences. Death. By powerpoint.

In the interim the 'enemy' in all its ugly guises of corruption, discrimination and brutality re-asserts itself.

Has the US and the coalition caused a lot of suffering?  Yes.  But the reality is that even under the trauma of the last 11 years, most Afghans (53 percent) feel their country is moving in the right direction.  Significantly, only 13 percent have a favorable opinion of the Taliban. In part this explains the muted response of the populace to the horrendous killing of 17 civilians in recent days.  After 30-plus years of fighting, the capriciousness of war’s violence is well known.  What seems to be new is that the population holds at least some kind of hope that it’s not all in vain this time around.

The truth is that the absolute number of deaths, on all sides, is relatively low.  Relatively.  Total civilian deaths are estimated to number 12,800 since 2007, 70 percent of which the United Nations attributes to the Taliban and other anti-government forces.  Total coalition forces deaths stand at about 3,000 out of some 700,000 to 1 million troops who have rotated in and out of country since 2001.  In contrast there are over 5 million boys and 3 million Afghan girls in school now—a phenomenal rise over even just the last 3 years (click here for a discussion of these stats).  What is often not talked about is that those schools, especially for girls, have to have their own guard force (trained by the US and even sometimes drawn from the ranks of the nominal Taliban).

This is part of waging war at the community level.

For more on what lies ahead in the Afghanistan War, look for Part II of the Afghanistan War Report in the Georgetown Journal next week.


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The views expressed are entirely those of Dr. Schmidt or his guest contributors. The views expressed in this forum are not endorsed by the US Army, the Department of Defense or the US government.