Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps colonel who served as a civilian adviser In Iraq and Afghanistan.
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Russia’s most recent debacle, the latest in a long string caused by tactical incompetence in the Ukraine, highlights the lack of leadership, training and combat discipline that plagues the Russian army from top down.
Soldiers were apparently housed by the hundreds in a building where ammunition was also stored. Whether through a lack of proper command discipline or simple inattention to security, many were making cell phone calls home. That made it fairly simple for Ukrainian electronic warfare personnel to triangulate an ideal target for an M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS, rocket attack that resulted in anywhere from 60 to 400 Russian deaths, depending on whose counting one trusts.
The number of casualties suffered by Russian troops since last February, when the invasion began, has exceeded by multiples those suffered in two decades by American forces in Afghanistan. Pentagon officials gleefully point out the superiority of the discipline, training and weaponry of U.S. forces. All that is true, but it is also irrelevant.
Our exit from Afghanistan was as humiliating as that of the Russians from Ukraine will likely be. Great tactics cannot make up for bad strategy and flawed operational art. In this, both Russian and American political-military leadership has shown amazing incompetence.
At the strategic level, the Russians miscalculated Ukrainian national will. At first, they tried to execute shock and awe by decapitating the Kyiv government. After failing, they have tried terror bombing and the destruction of Ukrainian infrastructure to compel a loss of will; that has not worked either. Instead of dividing Ukraine, they brought it together in ways that political action never could.
In Afghanistan, the American strategy was nation-building. We wanted to turn a country with an 80% illiteracy rate that excluded women from any public role into a western-style liberal inclusive democracy. The majority of Afghan men might have accepted our money, but few accepted our vision as something to die for. The concept was flawed from the start. The idea of negotiating for a one nation-two systems agreement with the Taliban might have worked, or at least bought time for our allies, but was never seriously considered. By 2021, it was too late to seek alternatives.
At the operational level of war, the critical vulnerability of both nations was logistics. In the case of the Russians, it was the fact that, since World War II, they have never developed an army capable of operating much more than 70 miles from its railheads. That, combined with systemic corruption in the defense logistics community, ensured that Russian troops would not be properly supported. Ammunition, fuel, food and even medical care remains in critically short supply. It adds to a justifiable sense among rank-and-file soldiers that they are led by incompetents.
To fix this, the Russian leadership would need to do two things that it currently cannot do. The first would be to totally reform the logistics system, an incredibly difficult undertaking in the midst of a war.
The second problem makes the first impossible. The very people who run the corrupt defense industrial complex are also the elites that Russian President Vladimir Putin needs to retain power. They would resist reform to the point of throwing Putin to the wolves and even actively working against him if a serious reform movement were ever undertaken.
America’s operational art problem was never fully recognized at the highest levels of command. Or if it was, it was papered over. By 2012, it should have become obvious to anyone looking closely that the Obama administration’s efforts to “Afghanize” the war were only an attempt to create a decent interval between our withdrawal and ultimate failure.
In the remote district where I was a civilian interagency team leader, this reality was particularly stark. Our only resupply in winter was by helicopter or airdrop because roads were nonexistent. However, we were on a strict timeline to turn over operations to the Afghans by September of that year. It was obvious to us that the Afghan battalion supported by a U.S. Marine Special Operations Team and their Italian partners would not be resupplied by the Afghan air force once we had departed. Our coalition military commanders and I sent reports to higher headquarters that were universally met by the explanation that “orders are orders.”
Within weeks of our leaving, the local Afghan military had cut deals with the Taliban to live and let live, and the district reverted to effective Taliban control. This situation would be played out on a grand scale in the summer of 2021 when the Biden administration finally gave up the ghost.
The original sin of the whole Afghan debacle was a bipartisan effort when the decision was made to implement the nation-building strategy by creating a military in our image. That was initially a Republican project. If any of our generals saw the fallacy of that, they lacked the moral courage to question it. To some extent, it worked in Iraq, which had the road and administrative infrastructure to implement it. A reasonably mechanized and motorized army could be resupplied using those networks. Trying to implement a similar approach in the 15th-century environment of Afghanistan was a fool’s errand.
The proper operational approach would have been to build a national army on a decentralized, regional basis. Troops should have been recruited and based locally, where they could fall back on tribal support when needed. Supplies, with the exception of ammunition, could have been procured locally as well. Such a system would have helped local economies and increased support for the government. As it was, only the Taliban were buying locally. This would have cut out the need for resupply over roads that did not exist or by an air force that would never have been up to the task. Instead of pay going through layers of national and regional army headquarters, where each level took its cut before some or any reached the troops in the field, there could have been two or three levels within which accountability against graft could have been monitored more closely.
Unfortunately, a decentralized system would have diminished the power of national politicians. Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his successors resisted this, and few senior American military leaders had the moral courage to wage the political battles that reform would have entailed. To his credit, U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus made an effort with the creation of the Afghan Local Police, but it soon became obvious that the Afghan national kleptocracy was only going to wait him out. The concept never got the support it deserved. At the end, soldiers from Kabul were defending Herat and troops from Herat were in Kandahar, often unable to send home what little money that trickled down to them. With the exception of Petraeus, most of the revolving door of generals who commanded in Afghanistan chose to go along to get along.
The strategic failure in Afghanistan was truly a bipartisan civilian and joint military venture. We lost Afghanistan, and the Russians will very likely lose in their attempt to dominate Ukraine. The Russians will probably try to pin the blame for poor performance entirely on their troops.
American civilian and military leaders — former and present — do not have that luxury. They need only look in the mirror.