Could America's Afghanistan war calamity have been avoided?

Could America's Afghanistan war calamity have been avoided?
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As we mourned the 3,000 souls who perished at the hands of evil fanatics on the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and the thousands of combatants and civilians who died during America’s 20-year quest to avenge the innocent, obvious questions came to mind: Could the whole thing have been avoided? Could we have done something differently that would have saved the $2.2 trillion worth of blood and sweat of hard-working Americans who had little say in Washington? Did the U.S. continue a doomed project in Afghanistan no matter the costs? Could we have prevented the tragic loss of 6,200 American lives and countless other victims who were killed, displaced as refugees, or otherwise harmed by U.S. leaders’ proclivity to get entangled in long wars?

As a former Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) intelligence officer and specialist in Russian doctrine and strategy, I say yes, absolutely.

The following three approaches to the war could have helped the bureaucracy to define ahead of time achievable goals, identify a winnable warfighting strategy, and conclude America’s military campaign in Afghanistan as soon as victory was achieved back in 2001.

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First, instead of obsessing over tactical brilliance — how accurately we can identify a terrorist leader and how precisely we can put “iron on target,” military slang hitting a target with a bullet or bomb  — the Pentagon had a choice to focus on the big picture before plunging into a protracted war. Strategic intelligence provides us with clues — the mindset and thinking of an adversary, how well it is organized, how hard it will fight, what weaponry it might use, and what tactics it might pursue against the superior U.S. armed forces. 

Regretfully, during my service at the leading agency providing intelligence to our warfighters, I observed that DIA’s primary focus was on collecting tactical intelligence to populate its military intelligence database, called MIDB, which contains data on foreign militaries’ infrastructure — that is, things that are countable and represent targets to be destroyed. Doctrines, strategies, mindsets and the “otherness” of foreign cultures are not quantifiable. Therefore, intelligence managers, whom we analysts called “bean counters,” not only deprioritized such intel but sometimes penalized analysts who veered away from collecting and counting the “beans.”

But tactical brilliance does not compensate for strategic incompetence. And it doesn’t win wars. The Washington establishment’s lack of understanding the big picture in Afghanistan was exposed by the “Afghanistan Papers,” which are based on previously confidential U.S. government documents that summarized the impressions of 400 participants in the war. The bureaucracy’s absence of knowledge about the region and Afghan culture and history meant that neither our leaders nor our military knew much about what they were undertaking. According to the August report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, “The U.S. government continuously struggled to develop and implement a coherent strategy” in Afghanistan because “no single agency had the necessary mindset, expertise and resources” to do it.  

Second, to avoid just the kind of extraordinary failure that we experienced in Afghanistan, there’s a special office within the Pentagon — the Office of Net Assessment, or ONA. This “brain trust” was created in 1973 to produce classified, strategic-level research and comparative assessments of how foreign capabilities and doctrines stack up against U.S. military strength. The ONA is required by law to produce detailed reports directly to the Secretary of Defense on risks and opportunities that American armed forces are likely to face. During the Cold War, the ONA even challenged the CIA by producing an alternative estimate of Soviet defense spending, resulting in a fundamental shift in U.S. thinking and long-term military competition with the USSR. 

Alas, in 2016, the ONA was found to have failed to produce a single net assessment since 2007, for which it drew scrutiny from some members of Congress. Such a top-secret intelligence estimate would have helped the Pentagon to game out various scenarios in Afghanistan ahead of time, avoiding or mitigating the two decades-long strategic blunder. At minimum, it would have helped reduce the loss of life and treasure by the United States and our allies.

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Third, lessons learned by the Soviets — who were engaged in a failed occupation of Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989 — should have informed U.S. intelligence of the cultural and battlefield conditions. The Washington “experts” had plentiful primary sources to do the homework they should’ve done before repeating the Soviets’ errors. The DIA, CIA and U.S. Army produced detailed intelligence assessments of Soviet miscalculations in Afghanistan to provide decision-making support for the Carter, Reagan and Bush administrations and to enable the 1980s-era CIA covert mission in Afghanistan to undercut the Soviet army’s operations.

Ironically, according to these declassified reports, the Soviets made similar mistakes that Americans made decades later. Both underestimated how much the Afghan culture and mindset would shape the battlefield and render unachievable the broader goals by the U.S. and the USSR for Afghanistan, both of which sought to remake the country in their own image and ideology. Neither forecasted how difficult to train and how fractured the loyalties of Afghan forces would be, and how fanatic the insurgents were about fighting against “foreign invaders.”

Paradoxically, what Western militaries traditionally perceive as weaknesses — such as disunity, disorganization and lack of structure — turned out to be the insurgents’ strength at the operational and tactical levels. It is impossible to infiltrate and eliminate leadership and disrupt plans that do not exist. Disorganization in planning and spontaneous operations reduced predictability and helped the insurgents achieve tactical surprise. The difference between the Soviet and the U.S. fiasco in Afghanistan is that the Soviets were faster learners — it took the Communist Party leaders 10 years to pull out of Afghanistan instead of 20.

The tragedy of Afghanistan perhaps can best avoid being repeated if the Ivy League stewards of our national security team keep in mind a slightly updated version of a centuries-old serving of wisdom: Look carefully before you leap.

Rebekah Koffler is a former Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) intelligence officer and author of the new book, “Putin’s Playbook: Russia’s Secret Plan to Defeat America” (Regnery, July 27, 2021). Follow her on Twitter @rebekah0132.