To the surprise of only the Biden administration and its top brass, the Taliban retook control of Afghanistan last week after 20 years of frivolous American adventurism. It was a spectacular failure of American diplomacy, statecraft, intelligence and, most of all, military capability. In short, mission very much not accomplished.
But that’s pretty much standard operating procedure for the nearly useless behemoth called the Pentagon, which hasn’t won a war since the kinder, gentler American government changed its name from the War Department to the Defense Department shortly after World War II. If you’re always on defense, you’re losing.
Largely thanks to the CIA and special forces, the punitive expedition against the launching pad of 9/11 was swiftly completed, the primitive Taliban scattered, and an example made. But then that soft-headed American notion of mission creep and “nation building” took hold, abetted by a succession of weak presidents and a careerist military utterly unfamiliar with the sweet smell of victory.
The result? Thousands of dead Americans and trillions of borrowed dollars down the drain. The demise of a sham “nation” that never existed in the first place. And another military humiliation as the world’s major superpower piteously is reduced to begging Islamic fundamentalists not to abuse our nationals trapped in the country and please, pretty please, don’t be beastly to the Afghan women and, by the way, please put one or two in your cabinet.
It’s easy to blame the craven civilian leadership that pushed us into this morass, starting with the naïve and weak-willed George W. Bush; the feckless Barack Obama, and now the senile Joe Biden; only Donald Trump, who rightly criticized the “forever wars” and had put into place a carrot-and-stick approach to resolve the situation, had any grasp of the problem.
But the real villains here are the throne-sniffing Pentagon brass who failed in the one mission every commanding general has: to win the damn war. The argument is made that — in Vietnam, Iraq, and now Afghanistan — the politicians wouldn’t let them win. But, throughout history, generals who understood the larger strategic situation even when their nominal superiors didn’t — or couldn’t admit it for political reasons — went ahead and won anyway.
During the Civil War, Lincoln cycled through general after general until he found Ulysses S. Grant, who frequently rejected his commander in chief’s tactical suggestions, for which Lincoln was ultimately grateful.
In World War I, the American Commander “Black Jack” Pershing ignored British and French insistence that his men serve in a supporting role. Under Pershing, the US First Army smashed through the German defenses at Saint-Mihiel in September 1918; two months later, the war was over.
With America reeling from the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Army and Navy came up with an audacious plan to attack Tokyo, and in April of 1942, Jimmy Doolittle’s B-25s were raining bombs on the Japanese homeland.
By contrast, the Failure Generals in Iraq and Afghanistan such as David Petraeus, Jim Mattis, Stanley McChrystal, and Mark Milley (currently the embarrassing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), have consistently failed upward despite divulging classified information to their mistresses, sabotaging President Trump’s military policy, and fretting about “white rage” in the ranks.
Just last month, Milley was airily dismissing reports of an imminent Taliban victory in Afghanistan, where he once served: “I don’t think the end game is yet written,” the clueless commandant said. He would have been sacked or tendered his resignation by now if a concept like honor still existed among our military brass.
But the “defense” industry’s addiction to taxpayer dollars has ensured there will be no end to low-level “unwinnable” conflicts as long as victory is always secondary. Amazingly, losing has become our official war-fighting strategy.
What’s needed now is a wholesale rethinking of the uses of the military that returns us to first principles. As William T. Sherman famously said, “War is cruelty. There’s no use trying to reform it. The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.”
It was another American fighting man, the great George S. Patton Jr. — who won his stars on the battlefield and not in the halls of Congress — who best exemplified how winners think.
Ordered in March 1945 to bypass the historic city of Trier in the Third Army’s lightning thrust into Germany because it was likely to take at least four divisions, Patton seized the town anyway: “Have taken Trier with two divisions. Do you want me to give it back?”
Until we return to prizing our Shermans and Pattons over Milleys, expect more Afghanistans.
Michael Walsh is the author of “Last Stands: Why Men Fight When All Is Lost” (St. Martin’s Press).
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