Does the U.S. Military Know What It’s Doing in Afghanistan?


Not knowing (or lying) about the enemy's numbers makes for a very long and costly war.  Ask Vietnam vets.

Not knowing (or lying) about the enemy’s numbers makes for a very long and costly war. Ask Vietnam vets.

By Daniel N. White.  Introduction by William Astore.

The current count of American service members killed in the Afghan War stands at 2245.  What did they die for?  For most Americans the answer remains unclear.  Also unclear is why, nearly twelve years into this war, the U.S. military continues to maintain a large (and expensive) presence in Afghanistan.  According to General Joseph Dunford Jr., the current commander of international security forces in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda is a “shell of its former self, with only about 75 members in Afghanistan, and most of them too busy trying to stay alive to plan attacks in the West.”  Yet despite the seemingly good news, Dunford argued that American combat forces would need to stay long after the planned U.S. withdrawal in 2014 to keep “Al Qaeda on the margins.”

Do we really need to sustain a major U.S. military commitment to Afghanistan past 2014 to keep 75 Al Qaeda types at bay?

Dan White, today’s guest columnist for “The Contrary Perspective,” knows the score.  Recently he asked an Army general about the enemy’s order of battle in Afghanistan, and also whether the enemy still had the initiative with respect to picking where and when (and whether) to fight.  The answers he received were unsatisfying in the extreme, but let’s listen to him tell the story.  William Astore.

The U.S. Military on Parade – with Courtiers in the Vanguard

Daniel N. White

If we start and continue wars with no political objective, are we insane as a society and country?  Are we a curse on the rest of humanity for doing so and killing tens of thousands of persons who have done us no injury?  Or are we both?  Nobody in the brain trades has guts enough to ask those questions, near as I can tell.  What’s worse is that nobody in the god business in this country of ours does, either.

Let me give you an example of what I speak.  The Commanding General (CG) of Fort Hood and III Corps (one of the Army’s largest troop commands) recently spoke at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.  Three stars on his shoulders, and he struck me as a fairly decent sort, a better than average human being for a general officer for sure.   I’ve always found that senior military officers generally have a larger streak of turd in their makeup than most people; pleased to see one different.

The General was doing community outreach to the academic world, which shows a considerably larger and more forward-thinking world view than most senior military in his position have, as they tend to stay on the reservation and not stray far from it ever.  A big part of the why of that I suspect is a belief on their parts that the natives aren’t friendly, and/or they don’t matter anyway.  The General was also in part making a pitch to LBJ School students to consider working with the U.S. military, either as a civilian with the Department of Defense (DOD) or perhaps even to consider going into government service via a tour as a military officer.

What might even be the most remarkable thing for him or any other senior general officer is that he claimed to be out here to listen to what the LBJ School students had to say about the U.S. military, about military-civilian issues, and any other issues that they might want to discuss with him.  Such curiosity, and concern for larger citizenship issues, is most rare for career military and is most commendable on his part.

But you know, there is a war on, and I ain’t taking prisoners.   The General was introduced, gave a brief set of remarks, and went straight to the Q&A.  Stuck my hand up, and asked him two questions.  The first was what was the enemy order of battle (OB) strength in Afghanistan, current and past, past is OK if you can’t give out current, and what are the trends in the numbers?  The second question was what percentage of the military engagements with the enemy we initiate versus what percentage they initiate, and if he had any trend numbers on those statistics.

There is a good useful bit of basic military craft and historical backstory to these questions that most nobody out there knows, mostly on account of American historical illiteracy and the distressingly widespread ignorance of things military by civilians nowadays in the USA.  The first thing is OB—the order of battle—is the number of enemy troops you are facing in the war.  The size of the enemy forces determines absolutely how many of your troops you must commit to the war for victory.  How big a war effort you require to win is determined by how many enemy troops you face.   This is one of the basic facts of military affairs, and always has been.  It is the sort of fact that gets explained in the first five minutes of the first day’s lecture in military affairs 101.

Now with the second question, on who is starting the shooting out in the field, this statistic is perhaps the second most important statistic, after the OB numbers,  there is in a counterinsurgency (COIN) war.  The shooting part of COIN involves unconventional/guerrilla small unit engagements against the opposing regular army’s (that’s us) small units.  There are no big knock-down drag-out battles in a guerrilla war as are fought in a conventional war.  The guerrilla’s objective is to fight an increasing number of small engagements, taking advantage of surprise and temporary local numerical superiority, to defeat small detachments of the opposing regular army, and over enough time, inflict a military death of a thousand cuts on the conventional army.  Given enough time, the conventional army will tire of the losses and will up and quit the war.

In short, if the guerrillas are initiating the engagements, it means that they have the initiative on the battlefield and in the war in general, and are almost certainly going to win their war.

Now the historical backstory from our most recent big war, Vietnam, on these two questions is something that everyone ought to know, and in particular, every career military.  There was a great scandal that never got the attention it deserved about how the U.S. Army in Vietnam deliberately misstated the Viet Cong military strength (the VC OB numbers) in its intelligence  reports to Washington DC.

This scandal blew up with the Tet Offensive in 1968, which battle, assuming that the Army’s VC casualty numbers were right (which they largely were) meant that every single VC in South Vietnam had been killed or wounded, some more than once.  Funny, the war didn’t end, or slow down any for that matter, after Tet.  Partly that was because North Vietnamese Army (NVA) forces reinforced or supplanted the VC cadres that were decimated during Tet.  But it was also because the U.S. military had consistently undercounted the Viet Cong OB strength, despite severe CIA protestations otherwise.  Pacification simply hadn’t worked.

Official DC couldn’t paper that one over; and that meant that the Vietnam War wasn’t going to be won by us, simply because there were just too many of them.  It meant we had to make some settlement and leave.  Our other choice was to commit a million or more troops, which was a political impossibility.

Years later, in 1983, CBS did a report on this scandal (CBS Reports:  The Uncounted Enemy, dir. George Crile) which led to General William Westmoreland, US commander in Vietnam, suing CBS for libel.  Westmoreland lost, badly.  Presumably every journalism student since 1983 has had this case run by them in school and maybe some of them remember something of it yet.

And on the percentage of engagements initiated question, well, everyone out in the field during that war knew that the VC always started the fighting whenever and wherever they wanted,  and that U.S. forces hardly ever got the drop on the VC.  The U.S. military high command, as well as most American journalists, were largely blind and deaf to this fact during the war—willfully so?—nobody to my knowledge has adequately researched the why of this.  But RAND did a study immediately afterwards that showed that 98% or so of all engagements in the war were initiated by the enemy.  That statistic shows how incredibly far away we always were from ever having the battlefield initiative in that war.  We never had the initiative in the war and inevitably therefore we never had a chance of winning it.  Period.

The military is one of the few professions where there is at least some study of history practiced.  Knowledge of military history is expected of all officers.  The most usefully studied wars are the ones you just fought.  One would therefore reasonably expect the Vietnam War to be somewhat studied by currently serving officers.  One would also reasonably expect these two questions/scandals to be a part of any officer’s military knowledge set.    Anyone with any real knowledge of the Vietnam War knows that these two questions are two of the biggest historical scandals/issues about the war.

So when I asked my questions there at the LBJ School, three things happened.  First is that the General went into a lengthy huddle with his ADC (aide de camp, his lead horse-holder), I assumed, to discuss if the information I requested was classified.  Second is that the LBJ School faculty there at the event all turned to stare at me for asking these questions.  Third is that the questions obviously went over the heads of the LBJ School students.  After a bit, the huddle ended, and the General announced that he didn’t know what the enemy OB strength was in Afghanistan, that the only figure he’d ever heard about enemy strength in Afghanistan was one of 20,000, and that figure was four or five years old now.

I slammed my hand down on the desk and said loudly, “Come on.  We’ve killed more than 20,000 of them over the past four years.  Why then is the war still going on?”  The General responded after a bit by saying that the insurgents were good at recruiting.  His ADC winced at his answer.

At that point, Celeste Ward Gventner, second in command of the LBJ School Strauss Center, turned around again and gave me quite the stare and said, loudly, that it was time for other people to ask questions.  I replied, more loudly, that the General hadn’t answered my second question, would he please be so kind as to do so?   The General went into another huddle with his ADC, and came out of it to say that he had no idea as to the answer to the question, that he’d never heard of anyone asking it.

Have to give the General credit for honesty, a rarer than usual quality for general officers.  I didn’t see any signs of life from any of the LBJ School students showing that they’d caught what had just happened.  None caught up with me afterwards to talk or ask a question.  And as usual, none of them asked any critical or probing questions in the Q&A.

Why don’t the right questions get asked at these events?  Everybody who knows about war knows what I asked about.  Courtier culture, and the brainwork professions’ endorsement and spreading of it through their institutions, is the best and biggest share of the explanation that I can come up with.  Courtier culture, and the dishonesty, moral and professional, that comes with it, will be the death of this republic yet, if it isn’t already.  Courtier culture and accepting and embracing it—that’s the American academy, today, on parade.

The problem is that wars aren’t won on parade.  If there is a single political objective to our wars, a single political goal we are working toward for the peoples of those countries, I have yet to hear it, even after nearly twelve years of the “war on terror.”

Whether that makes us insane, or a curse, or both, is a question I leave for you to decide.

Daniel N. White has lived in Austin, Texas, for a lot longer than he originally planned to.  He reads a lot more than we are supposed to, particularly about topics that we really aren’t supposed to worry about.  He works blue-collar for a living–you can be honest doing that–but is somewhat fed up with it right now.  He will gladly respond to all comments that aren’t too insulting or dumb.

5 thoughts on “Does the U.S. Military Know What It’s Doing in Afghanistan?

  1. Dan.. astounding report and well written. It sounds like you have military experience or read like a sponge ( or the NSA) absorbing information. The shame is that the “general staff” of our military has morphed into the same paradigm as our political elite in that they are more interested din their personal careers than their obligation as citizens of a democracy.
    In my opinion all of these wars we have chosen to engage in since WW II have been wars of “choice” not necessity. This has bred a military leadership that looks at war as a way of “getting ahead” in their career. James Jones, author of The Thin Red Line, even observed this in WW II. So it has always been there but is now enhanced by a political leadership who has never seen war or military service and to them it is all just ‘politics’ so don’t bother with the facts. b. traven.

  2. Your concise and engaging description of that event reads as authentic . Would that it be read by those who make the decisions .
    And your assessment that the mindset of academy must eventually lead to weakening of the US military seems plausible .
    However …..
    as a ( transplanted to N America ) european , one whose country ( the UK ) is a shameful poodle for the USA , I feel the failure of the murderous juggernaut that is the USA is an outcome much to be hoped for .

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