Some more Afghan post-mortem, and a sort of analogue

On Consimworld I came across a couple of short pieces from the NY Times (reproduced here due to paywall) that I think are worth referring to in future, as the end of this current phase of the war recedes, the analyses become ever more reductive and simplistic, and the Dolchstosslegende multiply.

Further down, a crude analogue for 2021 using A Distant Plain. Scroll down; I don’t know how to make skip-ahead anchors or whatever you might call them.

First, Ezra Klein, 26 August 2021:

Let’s Not Pretend That the Way We Withdrew From Afghanistan Was the Problem

In 2005, my colleagues at The American Prospect, Sam Rosenfeld and Matt Yglesias, wrote an essay I think about often. It was called “The Incompetence Dodge,” and it argued that American policymakers and pundits routinely try to rescue the reputation of bad ideas by attributing their failure to poor execution. At the time, they were writing about the liberal hawks who were blaming the catastrophe of the Iraq war on the Bush administration’s maladministration rather than rethinking the enterprise in its totality. But the same dynamic suffuses the recriminations over the Afghanistan withdrawal.

To state the obvious: There was no good way to lose Afghanistan to the Taliban. A better withdrawal was possible — and our stingy, chaotic visa process was unforgivable — but so was a worse one. Either way, there was no hope of an end to the war that didn’t reveal our decades of folly, no matter how deeply America’s belief in its own enduring innocence demanded one. That is the reckoning that lies beneath events that are still unfolding, and much of the cable news conversation is a frenzied, bipartisan effort to avoid it.

Focusing on the execution of the withdrawal is giving virtually everyone who insisted we could remake Afghanistan the opportunity to obscure their failures by pretending to believe in the possibility of a graceful departure. It’s also obscuring the true alternative to withdrawal: endless occupation. But what our ignominious exit really reflects is the failure of America’s foreign policy establishment at both prediction and policymaking in Afghanistan.

“The pro-war crowd sees this as a mechanism by which they can absolve themselves of an accounting for the last 20 years,” Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, told me. “Just think about the epic size of this policy failure. Twenty years of training. More than $2 trillion dollars’ worth of expenditure. For almost nothing. It is heartbreaking to watch these images but it is equally heartbreaking to think about all of the effort, of lives, and money, we wasted in pursuit of a goal that was illusory.”

Emma Ashford, a senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, phrased it well. “There’s no denying America is the most powerful country in the world, but what we’ve seen over and over in recent decades is we cannot turn that into the outcomes we want. Whether it’s Afghanistan or Libya or sanctions on Russia and Venezuela, we don’t get the policy outcomes we want, and I think that’s because we overreach — we assume that because we are very powerful, we can achieve things that are unachievable.”

It is worth considering some counterfactuals for how our occupation could have ended. Imagine that the Biden administration, believing the Afghan government hollow, ignored President Ashraf Ghani’s pleas and begins rapidly withdrawing personnel and power months ago. The vote of no-confidence ripples throughout Afghan politics, demoralizing the existing government and emboldening the Taliban. Those who didn’t know which side to choose, who were waiting for a signal of who held power, quickly cut deals with the Taliban. As the last U.S. troops leave, the Taliban overwhelms the country, and the Biden administration is blamed, reasonably, for speeding their victory.

Another possible scenario was suggested to me by Grant Gordon, a political scientist who works on conflict and refugee crises (and is, I should say, an old friend): If the Biden administration had pulled our allies and personnel out more efficiently, that might have unleashed the Taliban to massacre their opposition, as America and the world would have been insulated and perhaps uninterested in the aftermath. There have been revenge killings, but it has not devolved, at least as of yet, into all-out slaughter, and that may be because the American withdrawal has been messy and partial and the Taliban fears re-engagement. “What is clearly a debacle from one angle may actually have generated restraint. Having spent time in places like this, I think people lack a real imagination for how bad these conflicts can get,” he told me.

Let me offer one more: Even though few believed Ghani’s government would prevail in our absence, and the Trump administration cut them out of its deal with the Taliban, there’s widespread disappointment that the government we supported collapsed so quickly. Biden has been particularly unsparing in his descriptions of the Afghan Army’s abdication, and I agree with those who say he’s been unfair, underestimating the courage and sacrifice shown by Afghan troops throughout the war. But put that aside: Americans might have felt better seeing our allies in Afghanistan put up a longer fight, even if the Taliban emerged victorious. But would a multiyear civil war have been better for the Afghans caught in the crossfire?

Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, put it simply: “I think there’s a lot of cognitive dissonance and smart people are struggling with how to rationalize defeat. Because that’s what we have here in Afghanistan — a defeat.”

I will not pretend that I know how we should have left Afghanistan. But neither do a lot of people dominating the airwaves right now. And the confident pronouncements to the contrary over the past two weeks leave me worried that America has learned little. We are still holding not just to the illusion of our control, but to the illusion of our knowledge.

This is an illusion that, for me, shattered long ago. I was a college freshman when America invaded Iraq. And, to my enduring shame, I supported it. My reasoning was straightforward: If George W. Bush and Bill Clinton and Tony Blair and Hillary Clinton and Colin Powell and, yes, Joe Biden all thought there was some profound and present danger posed by Saddam Hussein, they must have known something I didn’t.

There’s an old line: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” And so it was with the Iraq War. Bush and Clinton and Powell and Blair knew quite a bit that wasn’t true. As Robert Draper shows in his book, “To Start A War: How The Bush Administration Took America Into Iraq,” they were certain Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Only he didn’t. They were also certain, based on decades of testimony from Iraqi expats, that Americans would be welcomed as liberators.

There were many lessons to be learned from the Iraq war, but this, for me, was the most central: We don’t know what we don’t know, and, even worse, we don’t always know what we think we know. Policymakers are easily fooled by people with seemingly relevant experience or credentials who will tell them what they want to hear or what they already believe. The flow of money, interests, enmity and faction are opaque to outsiders, and even to insiders. We do not understand other countries well enough to remake them according to our ideals. We don’t even understand our own country well enough to achieve our ideals.

“Look at the countries in which the war on terror has been waged,” Ben Rhodes, who served as a top foreign policy adviser to President Barack Obama, told me. “Afghanistan. Iraq. Yemen. Somalia. Libya. Every one of those countries is worse off today in some fashion. The evidentiary basis for the idea that American military intervention leads inexorably to improved material circumstances is simply not there.”

I wrote a book on political polarization, so I often get asked to do interviews where the point is to lament how awful polarization is. But the continuing power of the war on terror framework reflects the problems that come from too much bipartisanship. Too much agreement can be as toxic to a political system as too much disagreement. The alternative to polarization is often the suppression of dissenting viewpoints. If the parties agree with each other, then they have incentive to marginalize those who disagree with both of them.

At least for my adult life, on foreign policy, our political problem has been that the parties have agreed on too much, and dissenting voices have been shut out. That has allowed too much to go unquestioned, and too many failures to go uncorrected. It is telling that it is Biden who is taking the blame for America’s defeat in Afghanistan. The consequences come for those who admit America’s foreign policy failures and try to change course, not for those who instigate or perpetuate them.

Initially, the war in Afghanistan was as broadly supported and bipartisan as anything in American politics has ever been. That made it hard to question, and it has made it harder to end. The same is true of the assumptions lying beneath it, and much else in our foreign policy — that America is always a good actor; that we understand enough about the rest of the world, and about ourselves, to remake it in our image; that humanitarianism and militarism are easily grafted together.

The tragedy of humanitarian intervention as a foreign policy philosophy is that it binds our compassion to our delusions of military mastery. We awaken to the suffering of others when we fear those who rule them or hide among them, and in this way our desire for security finds union with our desire for decency. Or we awaken to the suffering of others when they face a massacre of such immediacy that we are forced to confront our passivity, and to ask what inaction would mean for our souls and self-image. In both cases, we awaken with a gun in our hands, or perhaps we awaken because we have a gun in our hands.

To many, America’s pretensions of humanitarian motivation were always suspect. There are vicious regimes America does nothing to stop. There are vicious regimes America finances directly. It is callous to suggest that the only suffering we bear responsibility for is the suffering inflicted by our withdrawal. Our wars and drone strikes and tactical raids and the resulting geopolitical chaos directly led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Afghans and Iraqis.

This is the deep lacunae in America’s foreign policy conversation: The American foreign policy establishment obsesses over the harms caused by our absence or withdrawal. But there’s no similar culpability for the harms we commit or that our presence creates. We are much quicker to blame ourselves for what we don’t do than what we do.

My heart breaks for the suffering we will leave behind in Afghanistan. But we do not know how to fix Afghanistan. We failed in that effort so completely that we ended up strengthening the Taliban. We should do all we can to bring American citizens and allies home. But if we truly care about educating girls worldwide, we know how to build schools and finance education. If we truly care about protecting those who fear tyranny, we know how to issue visas and admit refugees. If we truly care about the suffering of others, there is so much we could do. Only 1 percent of the residents of poor countries are vaccinated against the coronavirus. We could change that. More than 400,000 people die from malaria each year. We could change that, too.

“I want America more forward-deployed, but I want it through a massive international financing arm and a massive renewable energy arm,” Senator Murphy told me. “That’s the United States I want to see spread across the world — not the face of America today that’s by and large arms sales, military trainers and brigades.”

The choice we face is not between isolationism and militarism. We are not powerful enough to achieve the unachievable. But we are powerful enough to do far more good, and far less harm, than we do now.

Next, an interesting piece by a senior Afghan general, Sami Sadat – not that self-serving I think because he was a corps commander in Helmand, and then appointed leader of the Commandos who were among the best of the ANA forces. 25 August 2021.

I Commanded Afghan Troops This Year. We Were Betrayed.

For the past three and a half months, I fought day and night, nonstop, in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand Province against an escalating and bloody Taliban offensive. Coming under frequent attack, we held the Taliban back and inflicted heavy casualties. Then I was called to Kabul to command Afghanistan’s special forces. But the Taliban already were entering the city; it was too late.

I am exhausted. I am frustrated. And I am angry.

President Biden said last week that “American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves.”

It’s true that the Afghan Army lost its will to fight. But that’s because of the growing sense of abandonment by our American partners and the disrespect and disloyalty reflected in Mr. Biden’s tone and words over the past few months. The Afghan Army is not without blame. It had its problems — cronyism, bureaucracy — but we ultimately stopped fighting because our partners already had.

It pains me to see Mr. Biden and Western officials are blaming the Afghan Army for collapsing without mentioning the underlying reasons that happened. Political divisions in Kabul and Washington strangled the army and limited our ability to do our jobs. Losing combat logistical support that the United States had provided for years crippled us, as did a lack of clear guidance from U.S. and Afghan leadership.

I am a three-star general in the Afghan Army. For 11 months, as commander of 215 Maiwand Corps, I led 15,000 men in combat operations against the Taliban in southwestern Afghanistan. I’ve lost hundreds of officers and soldiers. That’s why, as exhausted and frustrated as I am, I wanted to offer a practical perspective and defend the honor of the Afghan Army. I’m not here to absolve the Afghan Army of mistakes. But the fact is, many of us fought valiantly and honorably, only to be let down by American and Afghan leadership.

Two weeks ago, while battling to hold the southern city of Lashkar Gah from the Taliban, President Ashraf Ghani named me commander of Afghanistan’s special forces, the country’s most elite fighters. I reluctantly left my troops and arrived in Kabul on Aug. 15, ready to fight — unaware how bad the situation already was. Then Mr. Ghani handed me the added task of ensuring the security of Kabul. But I never even had a chance: The Taliban were closing in, and Mr. Ghani fled the country.

There is an enormous sense of betrayal here. Mr. Ghani’s hasty escape ended efforts to negotiate an interim agreement for a transition period with the Taliban that would have enabled us to hold the city and help manage evacuations. Instead, chaos ensued — resulting in the desperate scenes witnessed at the Kabul airport.

It was in response to those scenes that Mr. Biden said on Aug. 16 that the Afghan forces collapsed, “sometimes without trying to fight.” But we fought, bravely, until the end. We lost 66,000 troops over the past 20 years; that’s one-fifth of our estimated fighting force.

So why did the Afghan military collapse? The answer is threefold.

First, former President Donald Trump’s February 2020 peace deal with the Taliban in Doha doomed us. It put an expiration date on American interest in the region. Second, we lost contractor logistics and maintenance support critical to our combat operations. Third, the corruption endemic in Mr. Ghani’s government that flowed to senior military leadership and long crippled our forces on the ground irreparably hobbled us.

The Trump-Taliban agreement shaped the circumstances for the current situation by essentially curtailing offensive combat operations for U.S. and allied troops. The U.S. air-support rules of engagement for Afghan security forces effectively changed overnight, and the Taliban were emboldened. They could sense victory and knew it was just a matter of waiting out the Americans. Before that deal, the Taliban had not won any significant battles against the Afghan Army. After the agreement? We were losing dozens of soldiers a day.

Still, we kept fighting. But then Mr. Biden confirmed in April he would stick to Mr. Trump’s plan and set the terms for the U.S. drawdown. That was when everything started to go downhill.

The Afghan forces were trained by the Americans using the U.S. military model based on highly technical special reconnaissance units, helicopters and airstrikes. We lost our superiority to the Taliban when our air support dried up and our ammunition ran out.

Contractors maintained our bombers and our attack and transport aircraft throughout the war. By July, most of the 17,000 support contractors had left. A technical issue now meant that aircraft — a Black Hawk helicopter, a C-130 transport, a surveillance drone — would be grounded.

The contractors also took proprietary software and weapons systems with them. They physically removed our helicopter missile-defense system. Access to the software that we relied on to track our vehicles, weapons and personnel also disappeared. Real-time intelligence on targets went out the window, too.

The Taliban fought with snipers and improvised explosive devices while we lost aerial and laser-guided weapon capacity. And since we could not resupply bases without helicopter support, soldiers often lacked the necessary tools to fight. The Taliban overran many bases; in other places, entire units surrendered.

Mr. Biden’s full and accelerated withdrawal only exacerbated the situation. It ignored conditions on the ground. The Taliban had a firm end date from the Americans and feared no military reprisal for anything they did in the interim, sensing the lack of U.S. will.

And so the Taliban kept ramping up. My soldiers and I endured up to seven Taliban car bombings daily throughout July and the first week of August in Helmand Province. Still, we stood our ground.

I cannot ignore the third factor, though, because there was only so much the Americans could do when it came to the well-documented corruption that rotted our government and military. That really is our national tragedy. So many of our leaders — including in the military — were installed for their personal ties, not for their credentials. These appointments had a devastating impact on the national army because leaders lacked the military experience to be effective or inspire the confidence and trust of the men being asked to risk their lives. Disruptions to food rations and fuel supplies — a result of skimming and corrupt contract allocations — destroyed the morale of my troops.

The final days of fighting were surreal. We engaged in intense firefights on the ground against the Taliban as U.S. fighter jets circled overhead, effectively spectators. Our sense of abandonment and betrayal was equaled only by the frustration U.S. pilots felt and relayed to us — being forced to witness the ground war, apparently unable to help us. Overwhelmed by Taliban fire, my soldiers would hear the planes and ask why they were not providing air support. Morale was devastated. Across Afghanistan, soldiers stopped fighting. We held Lashkar Gah in fierce battles, but as the rest of the country fell, we lacked the support to continue fighting and retreated to base. My corps, which had carried on even after I was called away to Kabul, was one of the last to give up its arms — only after the capital fell.

We were betrayed by politics and presidents.

This was not an Afghan war only; it was an international war, with many militaries involved. It would have been impossible for one army alone, ours, to take up the job and fight. This was a military defeat, but it emanated from political failure.

A Sort of Game Analogue

Now, not surprisingly, I’ve been posting on BGG and other social media recently in response to people commenting on A Distant Plain and how it could, or could not have modelled these events. Here is the gist of some of what I have been saying (forgive me if it is repetitive for some of my Constant Readers).

A Distant Plain was designed in 2012 and its action stops in 2013/14, for a reason. There is language in the playbook about how the game is a product of our thoughts and research up to 2012/13, and we did not claim any predictive value for it. We meant that. To condemn it because it could not perfectly model the situation 8 years after that end, a situation that only came about with changes in political and operational parameters outside the scope of the game, is a bit much IMO.

The current situation, in COIN terms, required meta-level events and arrangements far beyond the framework of the original game design, combined with a lot of deliberately bad and counter-productive play. In my unfocused way, I can still try to render an ADP analogue, a rough game-equivalent (or inequivalent) states and conditions, and how they could be prompted or advanced by deliberately bad play. Don’t pick nits with it please, I’m trying to bend this thing to do something it wasn’t meant to do.

By 2021:

  • The actual formal talks opened between the US government and the Taliban in 2020, to which the Government of Afghanistan was not even invited, have an effect far larger than those of Card #24 (US-Taliban talks) because they set in motion a timetable for ultimate American withdrawal. In effect, the Coalition player has played this card and declared that the last bus home for him is 10:35 and he has to be on it, with his copy of the game!
  • There is a small number of Coalition cubes and a small number of Bases (all those private military contractors have gone home). They cannot Assault and are limited to one Sweep per card. They do not add Aid in Surges (well, they do, but it is all diverted to no game effect – in fact, Aid would be very low in this analogue). They rarely Train and if they ever do, they do not reduce Patronage.
  • There is a much reduced number of Government cubes, and considerable and accelerated desertion and loss of presence and power among the Government Troops and Police because, quite frankly, the political leadership of Afghanistan is no longer interested in supplying or even paying their security forces, as they have been offered (or arranged) a personal bolt-hole out of this. Government deliberately does not Train and loses some cubes practically every turn (but there are always some Troop cubes; some ANA units, especially the Commandos, have fought hard). For his part, the Government player also has to get up early for work tomorrow and wants these people out of his house, so he is not really interested in playing much more than the Coalition player.
  • Few or no Air Strikes. (Bagram was shut down months ago and less use was being made of airpower anyway – all the private contractors have been withdrawn, the ones who among other things kept the Afghan Air Force flying).
  • A large and growing number of “local understandings” that result in the more or less pre-planned flip-flop or absence of security forces – see the earlier post Making flippy-floppy. So along with the loss of cubes above, the effectiveness of Taliban Infiltrate and the Warlord Suborn is much greater by now, as is the Captured Goods rule in Attacks and Ambushes.
  • Fewer Warlord cubes and bases. President Ghani had been cracking down on their leaders and dismantling their militias for several years. Hence they weren’t all that interested in defending such a government, while arriving at arrangements with local Taliban. So, Warlords do not Suborn Taliban.

So anyway, we can try and construct some game analogies, but this does not make a new scenario. It makes an unplayable, or at least pointlessly uncompetitive and not at all comparable game, with victory conditions that no longer apply because one player (Coalition) is effectively no longer at the table, and another player (Government) is not really interested in playing anymore.

We talk about defeat being a phenomenon that takes place in the mind of the adversary – and in this case, it’s been a catastrophic collapse of morale/interest in what was going on. Besides A Distant Plain I have designed other games on insurgency, many of which belong to one or more families or systems. One of those other families is the “4-box” system. The central concept is an index of “political support” which rolls up a lot of things into it, and responds to this concept. When one side hits zero political support, there is assumed to be some catastrophic failure or collapse; end of game. On the way there of course, there are numerous and growing problems and disadvantages, so it does accelerate. Titles in the family include: Tupamaro, Shining Path, Algeria, Andartes, EOKA, Kandahar.

And beyond just games – if you are talking about COIN theory like FM 3-24, well manuals of doctrine don’t cover this either as again, a morale failure of this magnitude reflects political and social events far beyond the ken or power of the unit commander reading the manual. FM 3-24 does make some points about the government of the host nation having to have some kind of credibility or legitimacy among the people it claims to protect and rule. Well, that was a big part of the problem in Afghanistan all along!

One more note, about meta-level events and arrangements: one thing about the COIN system games, indeed most wargames, is that they have no hidden information (except for any secret deals the players may have made with each other). And few if any games have the ability to lie to the player himself about the state of his forces and how they are doing in the game. Yet that is exactly what would be required to make an approachable model of the historical end of this war: years and years of players lying to each other and themselves; the game itself lying to all players about the state of play; layers and layers of self-deception, mistaken signals, perverse incentives and hidden agendas. Casual game players have no patience or dedication for this; professional players of “games” founded their careers on it, and stars fell on their shoulders.

“Listen to the General every goddamn word

How many ways can you polish up a turd

LEFT RIGHT LEFT LEFT RIGHT”

About brtrain
This blog is mostly devoted to posts, work and resources on "serious" conflict simulation games.

4 Responses to Some more Afghan post-mortem, and a sort of analogue

  1. Pete S/ SP says:

    Great post- having seen some of the post you have made on social mediahopefully you can now link to this to save repeating yourself. Great pieces quoted too- I’d not read them before.

    Cheers,

    Pete.

    • brtrain says:

      Thanks, that is just why I made this post.
      I have spoken, and now I link.
      The NY Times pieces I found today and since they are paywalled I wanted to keep them here for future reference.

  2. Brant says:

    “one thing about the COIN system games, indeed most wargames, is that they have no hidden information (except for any secret deals the players may have made with each other). And few if any games have the ability to lie to the player himself about the state of his forces and how they are doing in the game. Yet that is exactly what would be required to make an approachable model of the historical end of this war: years and years of players lying to each other and themselves; the game itself lying to all players about the state of play; layers and layers of self-deception, mistaken signals, perverse incentives and hidden agendas”

    Sounds like you’re saying we need a double-blind Kriegsspiel adaptation of ADP 🙂

    • brtrain says:

      Long long ago, you did an interview with Volko and me on Grogheads, while we were still developing the game. Someone asked a question about realism vs. playability, and I said:

      “Volko’s COIN series games dance along the wavery oscilloscope-like line between “serious wargame” and “instructive deep Eurogame”. He chooses important topics that need to be studied and implements them in games that reward intense thought and an appreciation of second-order effects. But in order to respect the constraints described above, we do have to make abstractions and there has to be a certain suspension of disbelief on the part of players (who have already partly gone down that road in agreeing to sit down and play a game; see https://blog.itu.dk/MFPG-E2011/files/2011/09/5-semiotics-vs-mechanics.pdf for an interesting little run-down on that).

      ….

      What would we design if there were no constraints? Well, the first constraint that would have to go would be the limits on the designers’ time: we have day jobs and families, and the need for periodic refreshment and sleep! Speaking for myself, I would, for a start:

      – increase the number of players to at least 20, each with slightly different agendas;
      – throw in an entire logistics/admin/troop training sub-game, which imposes its own restraints on play;
      – make players play the game for days on end, in little cells or alone, with incomplete information that usually isn’t shared at all, or transmitted inaccurately by several hostile umpires;
      – hide the “true” victory conditions from one and all, so no one has a very good idea of just how well they are doing;
      – and so on, and so on…

      These are the pieces of “realism” that only rarely get picked up in hobby wargames, if at all. They often don’t show up in professional wargames played by the military either. Most players don’t like to play such games, and of course Volko and I would have to design all this too…”

      He retorted that this would be something better done at a convention, and you have done just that!

      http://www.grogheads.com/forums/index.php?topic=2672.15

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: