Two Alliances in Afghanistan
David T. Zabecki
In the early 1920s Major General Fox Conner formulated a short set of guidelines that would shape the strategic thinking of some of the U.S. Army’s senior-most leaders during World War II. Conner, who was General John J. Pershing’s Chief of Operations G-3 during World War I, was one of America’s most important defense thinkers. During their time in France and immediately after the war, Conner was an early mentor to both George C. Marshall and George S. Patton, Jr. While assigned as a brigade commander in the Panama Canal Zone after the war, Conner drew-up his warfighting guidelines for his latest protégé, his executive officer, Major Dwight D. Eisenhower. Conner had three basic rules for when and how the United States should go to war: Never fight unless you have to; Never fight for long; and never fight alone. How do Conner’s rules apply to America’s involvement in Afghanistan since 2001?
The first point is difficult to evaluate, because the situation has changed over the past eighteen years. Going directly after Al Qaeda in the heart of its sanctuary immediately after the most catastrophic terrorist attack on American soil was the right and just thing to do. Al Qaeda, however, was not indigenous to Afghanistan. The organization essentially was formed by Egyptians and Saudi Arabian, many of whom were originally focused on overthrowing their own governments. Osama Bin Laden used Sudan as his operating base for several years in the early and mid-1990s. It was only in 1996, when the Sudanese government kicked Al-Qaeda out, that the center of operations moved to Afghanistan, where an indigenous Islamic militant group called the Taliban captured the capital city Kabul.
The Taliban and Al Qaida, however, were not the same things. Although they shared some similar ideologies, there were linguistic, ethnic, and other cultural differences that kept a gap open and often contributed to tension between the two groups. The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan did succeed in killing Osama bin Laden (albeit in Pakistan) and driving Al Qaida out of Afghanistan, but its reach, power, organization and global influence have expanded to new theaters since then and in many ways became more localized, Al Qaida is still a significant terror force in the world, but it is no longer operating out of Afghanistan.
The Taliban, of course, remains a major presence in Afghanistan. But is the Taliban an international terror threat? Or is it an indigenous movement and an internal problem for the Afghan people to resolve in their own way? Is America’s mission in Afghanistan today the same as it was eighteen years ago? Given the nearly 20 years U.S. troops have been operating on the ground, the answer to that question is an emphatic no.
So, what then is the mission today? And is it, as Fox Conner would ask, a fight we have to fight? That also brings up Conner’s second point about never fighting too long. The metric here is self-explanatory: eighteen years is far been too long. Thus, it seems that America’s scorecard on Conner’s first two points is mixed at best.
On Conner’s third principle, never fight alone, the results look much different. America did far better on that point than did the Soviet Union during its almost ten-year occupation of the country. The impact on the alliance structures of the two super-powers, NATO and the Warsaw Pact, cannot have been more different. The Soviet Union went into Afghanistan alone, and it came back out alone more than nine years later, after suffering thousands of casualties and spending billions of dollars. The various countries of the Warsaw Pact may have sent the occasional observer, but they put no “boots on the ground” and were far less committed than Washington’s NATO allies have been in seeing the mission through. In the end, the war destroyed the Red Army’s aura of invincibility; widened the long-standing gulf between the Soviet Union’s political and military leadership; and emboldened the various independence movements in the non-Russian republics, and especially in the Warsaw Pact countries. There can be little doubt that the Afghanistan intervention contributed directly to the demise of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact.
America’s war in Afghanistan had almost the opposite effect on NATO. Afghanistan actually brought members of NATO together at a time when its original raison d'être was questioned. The transatlantic alliance led the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) from August 2003 to December 2014 and the follow-on Operation Resolute Support (RS) to provide training, advice and assistance for Afghan security forces.
All of the NATO Allies have sent troops to the mission including all six of the former Warsaw Pact states that subsequently joined NATO. More significantly, almost one-third of the coffins returned from Afghanistan have not been draped with American flags. Of the 3,567 Coalition soldiers who have died in Afghanistan, 1,142 have been from the NATO countries. The highest numbers of fatalities have come from seven of our NATO Allies: United Kingdom (456); Canada (157); France (88); Germany (57); Italy (53); former Warsaw Pact Poland (44); and Denmark (43). These are sacrifices that demonstrate real commitment, despite strong complaints about Germany’s defense spending, Berlin, at 1,300 troops, makes the largest contribution to the current Afghanistan training mission after the United States.
Thus, while the Soviet war in Afghanistan contributed directly to the demise of the Warsaw Pact, NATO’s support of America’s involvement was a significant factor in NATO’s continued existence and relevance. When Germany reunified in October 1990, NATO membership stood at 16 nations. Nine years later three former Warsaw Pact nations joined the Alliance. Since the start of the ISAF mission in 2003, another ten nations have joined, bringing the total to 29. All thirteen of the post-German unification new members currently have troops in Afghanistan. Twenty-nine members makes NATO the largest and most complex military alliance in history. It can be a very unwieldly number; but the experience of working together in Afghanistan on a real-world mission has given NATO an unprecedented opportunity to synchronize its operational doctrine, coordinate its procedures, and test its interoperability.
Whatever we have achieved in Afghanistan, NATO’s unity-of-effort is one accomplishment that we must preserve and build upon if the alliance hopes to maintain its status as the preeminent military player in a global strategic environment that has changed significantly over the last eighteen years. A resurgent Russia is increasingly a threat to NATO’s eastern perimeter. The lessons that the NATO nations learned together all these years in Afghanistan, if incorporated properly and built upon, will in the long run give the Atlantic Alliance an invaluable edge over Russia—which at the end of the day has no real, long-term allies of its own. As Fox Conner said so many years ago, never fight alone. Russia did just that in Afghanistan. We did not. We can’t afford to lose what we achieved there in coordination with our Allies.