The Day After Kabul

By Garri Benjamin Hendell

Everyone in the American military community watched the (most recent) fall of Kabul with their mouths agape. For a generation who grew up in the shadow of Vietnam, to watch another ignominious American retreat was shocking and painful. This was, presumably, an immeasurably worse experience for those that served and lost comrades there (a fraternity to which the author does not belong).

A discussion of recriminations, responsibility, how it may have been done differently, and lessons learned may be left for those more knowledgeable about the region and the history of the conflict. What may be more usefully and immediately subject to discussion by the larger American military community is what this means for what comes next. What effect will the fall of Kabul have on American military planning and operations going forward?

The death of deterrence.

Although America might have a decent overall win/loss/tie ratio in warfighting, examining our recent record—especially in post-conflict management (“stability operations” or, as we used to call it, occupation)—may not reflect as well on us. Sooner or later our allies—and our adversaries—are going to take notice.

Like the waning British Empire’s inability to intervene to protect its ally Poland in 1939, the inability or unwillingness to stave off the fall of Kabul devalues America’s friendship. We can repose in our smoking jackets and talk about the decline of the American Empire over snifters of brandy as an academic distraction. But the fall of Kabul also has real-world consequences for the future employment of American military power.

The fall of Kabul will make the United States less willing to use military power to achieve national goals and, at the same time, make the use of decisive and overwhelming military force more necessary when the U.S. does decide to act. For years, America used her military scorecard in World War II as “credit” with our allies and adversaries. The positioning of a small American military force in some corner of the world provided deterrence at a fraction of the cost of placing a large enough force to actually win a decisive engagement or a campaign. We can all think of innumerable examples where America “held the fort” in a variety of strategically valuable locales while in reality planning to fight no more than two—I mean one and a half or maybe even just one—actual conflicts at any given time. America was and is securing key terrain “on margin”. 

Kabul was a margin call. From now on, America may well be obliged to “pay cash”, viz., deploy combat capable formations of sufficient size to engage and win if we want anyone to take us seriously. A token “speedbump” force or a promise of ”over the horizon” support—which is the majority of what the U.S. military now does—isn’t going to reassure any friends or deter any adversaries. At least not anyone who is paying attention.

Our adversaries will be emboldened. It is not so much that America’s military reputation has been irretrievably damaged, but the lessons that the Vietnamese, the Hmong, and now the Afghans have learned so painfully cannot fail to be appreciated by us or by the wider world. It appears that America (not the military, but America herself) has lost her stomach for a real fight. Americans taught the world the same lesson about the British Empire during the Revolutionary War (although Britain recovered enough to build her “second empire”), it would be foolish to fail to now see ourselves through that particular historical prism. 

Desperation plays (dangerous over-reliance on strategic weapons).

Although we may no longer be willing to occupy and control contested ground on the other side of the world, America does still have some pretty significant strategic capabilities and there are things in the world that America wants. As the saying goes, when all you have is a hammer… 

A narrowing of options to effect strategic influence could lead to an over-reliance on what remaining options exist. When strategic goals are sufficiently important to put a military option on the table, an America that saw her will frustrated in Afghanistan may be more desperate to see those remaining options be effective. Decline itself may be a harbinger of aggression (“the trap in which an aspiring superpower peaks and then refuses to bear the painful consequences of descent”). There is also the sometimes dangerous matter of America’s national pride exceeding her good judgment. 

The disastrous drone strike which constituted the last offensive option of the Afghan campaign is the example of a desperate America lashing out ineffectively with what few weapons she is prepared to employ that comes to mind most readily. The remaining options include our strategic weapons—I’m thinking specifically of America’s space-based capabilities and our strategic missile and bomber force. In the event America’s last credible threat becomes the use of these weapons, sooner or later we are going to make that threat explicit. Sooner or later someone is going to call us on it. It goes without saying that such a scenario cannot end well. The Air Force has spent its existence creating weapons too terrible to be used. What if using them was one of the only credible threats left in America’s basket of threats?

This is an especial danger in a two-war scenario. Imagine a malign actor who tries to take advantage of an America already decisively engaged in the one war America’s military is now designed to fight. How will America react if the proposed second front holds something truly important at risk? The temptation to open the doors to one of our missile silos…just to posture…may be too great to resist. The drone wars are the “light” version of this, but are undesirable for many of the same reasons (indiscriminate killing in violation of the law of land warfare).

The tactical cost of ignorance and self-deception can become strategic.

Humility is not America’s thing (for more on that, see below). But maybe Kabul offers America’s military a chance. A chance that this second great example—after Vietnam—of cultural ignorance and epic self-deception will re-kindle a desire to truly understand the environments in which the military operates. Maybe it will reinforce the military’s commitment to ethics to the extent that it will apply even when faced with the practical realities of D.C. politics. 

The American military works for the elected and appointed leaders that make up the National Command Authority, but it must challenge their blinkered view of the world and it must not lie for them. I have written elsewhere how an institutional preoccupation with the Beltway “budget wars” decrements the services’ preparedness for the defense establishment’s mission essential tasks (actual wars). Similarly, the fall of Kabul points out how institutional self-deception, plain old ignorance, and boss-pleasing groupthink can lead to tactical defeat. Too many tactical defeats will, inevitably, have strategic consequences. Recommitting the defense establishment to critical thought and the truthful assessment of battlefield conditions (regardless of the political, budgetary, or career consequences) will be necessary for re-establishing America’s post-Afghanistan military credibility. 

Continued erosion of the moral high ground. 

A United States that is not defined in the minds of the world by what it is willing to do militarily but is instead defined by what it might (or might not) be capable of doing, just hastens the decline of the unipolar world of American pre-eminence. In the aftermath of the second world war Americans and America displayed a vaunted reliance on our principles, no doubt because America believed in them, but also because America could. Her enormous economy, superpower status, and her relative geographic isolation from threats (those two magnificent oceans!), let her adopt a principled approach when our friends, say in Finland or Poland (or, latterly, Hong Kong), could not. America’s record as a champion of universal values has been even less promising since 9/11.

On a charitable view, America’s principled approach meant she was able to lead. A less charitable view of America was as a rich and muscular loudmouth who liked to spout off about freedom and universal human rights. Even so, she could do so when others were not willing to speak their minds. Will a resource-constrained and militarily reticent America be one with a more measured (and less principled) approach? Will America find she can no longer afford her principles in quite the same way as before? Alliances, necessary for success in a multi-polar world, proceed not only on the basis of shared interests, but also on the basis of shared values.  

If so, the transition from a world where America thought of herself as the protector of a values-based international regime to the neo-Westphalian world of “great power competition” may now be complete. We saw it on TV.

About the author: Garri Benjamin Hendell is a major in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. He has served in leadership and staff positions at the platoon, company, battalion, division, and state Joint Force Headquarters levels, in addition to serving in uniform and as a Department of the Army civilian branch chief at the National Guard Bureau. He has deployed overseas operationally three times—including two tours as a military planner. He has been published on a variety of military topics. The opinions expressed here are his own.

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