Why Big Nations Lose Small Wars: An Analysis of The US War In Afghanistan

“The guerilla wins if he does not lose. The conventional army loses if it does not win.”

(Henry Kissinger)

US withdrawal from Afghanistan is the practical implementation of this statement by Henry Kissinger.

For 20 years, the USA had been engaged in an asymmetric conflict in Afghanistan, with the initial goal of rooting out Al-Qaeda from the country, a goal outlined by President G.W Bush but abandoned by the later US Administrations. The United States resorted to military might in the pursuit of its objectives.

However, US Strategy in Afghanistan is largely criticized in the pretext of the recent events, as the world saw a hasty withdrawal of US forces and the eventual collapse of the American-backed democratic regime in Afghanistan. The USA failed to realize the flaws in its 20 years strategy, the failure of which directly led to the current chaos.

USA’s strategy stems from the approach that military seizures of the territory will ensure victory in the fight against international extremists’ groups and ideologies, whether in Afghanistan or any other country. The US assumes that promoting democracy in a country is an effective way to restore the security and stability of the country and that particular region, which can be justified in moral terms.

But the right direction for this is an indigenous political reform originating from the grass-root level of the local societies, rather than a military operation waged by a foreign force.

A military operation is not a solution to civilian-centric missions because the focus is never on narrative building or reshaping it, forming political institutions, or inculcating democratic practices. Therefore, military tools aren’t capable enough for fostering democracy at the societal level or nation-building.

The winner of the conflict is never the one who controls the land but whose narrative prevails. The USA, for decades, failed to build the influence of its narrative among the local masses of the land. On the contrary, the Taliban’s ideological narrative of the corrupt nature of Afghan leaders, such as that of Hamid Karzai regime and later Ashraf Ghani administration, the foreign powers, and the betrayal of the Islamic traditions and practices prevailed was widely accepted by the masses. Moreover, the western powers failed to build a sense of national identity. They couldn’t erode the religious and tribal attachments of the locals, which the Taliban used effectively for their advantage. Taliban came up with alluring ideologies and narratives for the locals, using this as bait to win the war of ideas and information (Information and Psychological Warfare). And they did, instead of relying on conventional response; the Taliban’s exploited the weaker points of the enemy, lack of information about local culture and values.

Furthermore, the insurgents used the same tactics to win on the battlefield. The USA had complete supremacy when it came to military might. Still, when it came to applying the art of maneuver, the Taliban made them exhausted both in terms of finical cost and time frame as no nation can afford war for unlimited time. In this asymmetric conflict, the Taliban relied on guerrilla warfare and exploited the advantage of being the son of the soil to their favor. The lack of knowledge about the adaptability of the terrain and atmosphere led to the failure of the world’s strongest military force on the battlefield despite spending trillions of dollars and around two decades in the country. USA’s military was fighting the war of attrition. In contrast, the Taliban’s stuck to the war of maneuver. With the art of deception and element of surprise, they employed hit and run tactics as they used to hit the enemy, run, and hide, an approach propagated by Sun Tzu, as he advocated about hitting the weak points instead of the center of gravity.

The US approach was Clausewitzian in nature, concentrated on hitting the center of gravity, while the Taliban relied on Sun Tzu’s strategy of indirect warfare.

With the lack of knowledge about the adversary comes the possibility of making miscalculations. The USA miscalculated its adversary, thinking of them as mere insurgents and few religious extremists that they would easily defeat in months. On the paper, it would have taken just a few strikes, but when the ground reality hits, the uncertainties, frictions, and the fog of war led to the realization of the miscalculations.

In the case of Asymmetric conflicts, it is in the interest of the weaker party to prolong the conflict to inflict a negative impact on the morale of forces. As illustrated by Sun Tzu, for the weaker party, it is the war of survival, and thus, they opt for the defensive strategy. As the stronger party will be determined to win the war, prolonging the war will inflict negative impacts as the war won’t be coming to the expected ends. This eventually exhausts the enemy and leads to the breaking down their will and morale. Being on the weaker front, the Taliban applied the same tactics; through guerilla warfare, surprise attacks, the art of maneuver, and psychological and information warfare, they prolonged the war for two decades. All of this resulted in body-bag syndrome which can be defined as “a casualty aversion that decreases public support of participation in military missions.”

The American soldiers were being killed for nothing in return, and more and more soldiers were deployed to ensure the victory of US objectives. The prolongation of the war and the increase in the count of dead bodies being sent back to the metropolis turned the general public’s opinion against the US involvement in Afghanistan. The USA was facing the consequence of the prolongation of war at home and in the foreign land, in the form of negative public opinion and exhausted, passionless soldiers.

Eventually, the guerilla survived the military might of the conventional power, forcing it to withdraw from the country. Thus, the USA failed to achieve its long-term objective of creating a western democracy in the region.

What can be concluded from this? All the answers point to one thing; wars are no longer won only based on conventional might, and military power is not the only solution to all the problems. The course of the war is changing, and so is the character of the war, making the world realize that new wars require new tactics and strategies.

Published in Global Affairs April 2022 Edition

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Kainat Zahra Naqvi

Written by Kainat Zahra Naqvi

The author is an intern at Global Affairs. She is currently pursuing her undergraduate studies in Strategic Studies from National Defence University. Her areas of interest include emerging technologies, nuclear politics, and the middle east.

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