Hold the Line in Afghanistan

He who defends everything defends nothing ~ Frederick the Great

On October 5, 2009, approximately two hundred Taliban fighters attacked the US Army's Forward Operating Post Keating -- an outpost guarding the mountainous avenues of approach into Afghanistan's northeast frontier. The militants launched their assault from an adjacent town and surrounding heights which allowed them to pour fire into the vulnerable position. The battle raged for twelve hours until the platoon-size garrison heroically repelled the attackers with the assistance of air support.

News of the firefight quickly spread through the international media spurred on by the number of US casualties: eight soldiers killed in action. Media critics, political pundits and military experts compared the battle to a similar attack which occurred only twenty miles away during the previous year and concluded that military leaders failed to implement lessons learned. And, not-ironically, the assault occurred right before the garrison was scheduled to abandon the indefensible post as a small part of Commanding General McChrystal's new plan to withdraw from the border and occupy population centers in what can only be described as an exercise in naiveté given a man of his caliber, education and experience, as well as, those who advise him. According to the New York Times:

General McChrystal has publicly stated many of the conclusions in his report: emphasizing the importance of protecting civilians over just engaging insurgents, restricting airstrikes to reduce civilian casualties, and sharply expanding the Afghan security forces and accelerating their training.

Retreating from linear borders ignores the nature of US ground combat forces and geo-politics and, therefore, is illogical. According to the 2009 CIA World Factbook, Afghanistan has a population of 28 million people. All US and NATO forces combined amount to 62,000. That provides an approximate ratio of 1 Soldier/Marine to every 411 Afghans. Based on numbers alone, the US Army, Marine Corps and ISAF cannot adequately protect the civilian population of Afghanistan.

In today's world of instant media, perception is reality; any student of history will remember the impact that images of the Tet Offensive had on the course of the Vietnam War. When the United States of America, the lone superpower, and NATO state that they will "protect" the Afghan population, the expectation is one hundred percent. There is not a single metropolitan police department in North America or Europe that can make that guarantee.

Protecting the Afghan population is mission impossible and will only succeed in destroying the morale of our own troops (as they are picked off by road-side bombs and snipers), and, any remaining public support for the war at home. Ironically, the attack on Operating Post Keating is not a harbinger of defeat, but, a clarion call for success. What the military can do, and does well, is defend Afghanistan's sovereignty and territorial integrity. Which begs the question...why would the Taliban sacrifice 100 fighters in open battle to kill 8 US Soldiers?? Because, to win, the Taliban must have access to the interior of the country and the population in order to dismantle the idea of Afghanistan as a Nation-State -- a Western concept. The only way to do that is to break the psyche of the one power that stands in their way: the West's military who have dominated eastern forces since the Battle of Thermopylae.

The Nature of US/NATO Ground Combat Forces

In October 1989, William Lind, COL Keith Nightengale (USA), Cpt. John Schmitt (USMC), COL Joseph Sutton (USA) and Lt.Col. Gary Wilson (USMC) published "The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation." They argued that firepower and linear combat form the basis of US land combat doctrine:

Tactics were based on fire and movement, and they remained essentially linear. The defense still attempted to prevent all penetrations, and in the attack a laterally dispersed line advanced by rushes in small groups. Perhaps the principal change from first generation tactics was heavy reliance on indirect fire; second generation tactics were summed up in the French maxim, "the artillery conquers, the infantry occupies." Massed firepower replaced massed manpower. Second generation tactics remained the basis of U.S. doctrine until the 1980s, and they are still practiced by most American units in the field.

The conventional active duty military -- which accounts for the majority of forces in Afghanistan due to political sensitivities at home regarding deploying Reserve and National Guard forces -- is ill-suited for garrisoning civilian population centers. Why? Military police and civil affairs units account for a small percentage of personnel and active duty units are, historically, incompatible with garrison duty given their combat training, youthful inexperience and aggressiveness by trade.

There are a number of accounts from Iraq where National Guard units successfully pacified communities utilizing their combined civil-military experience only to relinquish the terrain to active duty Marine and active Army units and see their success ruined by ignorant incompetence. With all due respect to the bravery of Soldiers and Marines, the raising of Fallujah not once but twice and The Surge are a testament to the failure of senior military and civilian leadership to properly plan the occupation of Iraq in the first place. The Surge was an operational band-aid that prevented the United States from being prematurely forced out of the country. As Sydney J. Freedberg wrote in National Journal:

Even if the extra 20,000-plus combat troops stanch the sectarian bloodletting in Baghdad, the only thing that the U.S. gets out of their success is more time. It will still need troops there, and President Bush shows no signs of pulling them out.

And what was accomplished? Devastated infrastructure, imprisoned neighborhoods, countless civilian casualties, untold misery and billion...billions of dollars spent. Will applying same strategy in Afghanistan accomplish a different outcome? The answer is no. By retreating from the border to "protect" the population, General McChrystal is unwittingly playing into the hands of the Taliban who demonstrate a better grasp of Western military dynamics.

The Taliban are in a quandary. They cannot fight adequate American/NATO forces toe-to-toe on a linear battlefield and if there is to be any long-term hope for their insurgency, they must have uninhibited access to infiltrate into the interior of Afghanistan to continue asymmetrical warfare in order to erode Western resolve. The only means to solve their dilemma is to lure the West into a psychological trap of its own making so USA/NATO will reject the only strategy that is feasible: seal the border.

That is why the attack was not-ironic. It was the calculated loss of 100 insurgents to tweak the nose of the World's superpower, seed self-doubt and build the myth that Afghanistan is the grave-yard of empires. In one year, two assaults by the equivalent of a light infantry battalion succeeded in convincing the Commanding General to fall back. What kind of impact does that have on the psyche of the men and women in the field, the descendants of Thermopylae -- the archetype of Second Generation warfare?

Napoleon Bonaparte stated, "Even in war, moral power is to physical as three parts out of four." If our Soldiers and Marines believe they cannot win on a linear battlefield against an inferior enemy how can we expect them to fare any better on an asymmetrical battlefield? By ceding the borders, the Taliban, by default, is three quarters of the way to victory -- they are inside the country and inside the psyche (the decision making process) of the Military's most valuable resource: the boots on the ground.

Once they have free reign of the border they will flow like water into the interior where they will come and go as they like, pick and choose their targets on their timetable, and insert themselves into our logistical decision making process by choking off the MSR's that connect the far-flung urban centers which the West will "protect" in vain. Then, ironically, the use of airpower will become even more important and, then, the stated intent to limit the number of airstrikes becomes an oxymoron.

The USA/NATO simply does not have enough forces or even drones to garrison the cities and patrol the highways. The only logical utilization of conventional active duty combat units is to station them along the border in company-sized strong points with interlocking fields of fire, liberal rules of engagement to include field artillery and air support to cover the miles of dead space -- the very hallmarks of Second Generation warfare -- the West's strong-suit. Naysayers will cite the Maginot Line and the "failure" of fortifications. They need to re-read their history, or, perhaps, read it for the first time. From the website Bunker Tours:

Many writers, trying to justify a point of military futility, have seized upon the Maginot Line as being the classic example (of a White Elephant), which is to ignore the fact that the defenses fulfilled the purpose for which they were constructed -- to stop a German invasion of Alsace and Lorraine. The fact that they decided to invade elsewhere is another matter. The Line has even been blamed for the fall of France in 1940. The latter, however, was caused by a mixture of moral and political degeneration and the blindness of the military authorities to the development of warfare after 1918.

And according to another source, History Learning:

It was not a continuous line of forts as some believe. In parts, especially in the south from Basle to Haguenau, it was nothing more than a series of outposts as the steep geography of the region and the River Rhine provided its own defense between France and Germany. The Line comprised of over 500 separate buildings but was dominated by large forts (known as 'ouvrages') which were built about nine miles from each other.

And according to the 44th Infantry Division's site:

On June 14, 1940, the German 1st Army went over to the offensive in "Operation Tiger" and attacked the Maginot Line. The result: failure. The French soldiers at the Maginot gros ouvrages forts prevailed. Not even a single French artillery piece was neutralized. The Germans failed to even get close to the mighty forts.

Forward Operating Post Keating was poorly positioned near a hostile settlement and underneath surrounding ridgelines. The fault lies not with the theory but the execution of the plan. Had senior leaders heeded the lessons learned from the previous attack (which itself should not have occurred as it did) proper planning, construction and manning would have prevented or at least minimized the Taliban assault.

We are talking about systemic failure on the part of senior leadership, Field Grade and General Officers, graduates of civilian universities and military training academies with years of combined experience, who failed to apply their collective professional knowledge. No one expects perfection or a casualty-free war. But, failure to hold the Forward Line of Troops (FLOT) is a clear indicator that rear area operations (i.e. the rest of the country) are in jeopardy. Deserting the FLOT is akin to opening the flood gates on a dam.

The rest of the country (nation building) should be the focus of National Guard/Reserve, Military Police, Civil Affairs and Special Operations (all services) units pushing the Afghans to be responsible for themselves. Those units have the right footprint (size, force mix, breadth of knowledge and life experience) to accomplish a mission that requires extensive civil/military interaction, patience and long term perseverance. Their deployment should precede and then compliment a larger United Nations investment in the country.

Criticism of UN peace keeping, peace enforcement and nation building is warranted in many cases if not most. However, that should not be a reason to ignore the institution's capacity -- about 113,000 people work in military, police and civilian capacities in 18 missions around the world, with 117 countries contributing people to these efforts -- or its ssuccesses such as Haiti, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo where the innovative introduction of female peace keepers has brought a modicum of peace to similarly war-torn/strife-ridden countries and simultaneously raised the status of women in an historically male dominated society.

In addition, civilian law enforcement agencies such as the DEA, FBI, ICE, BATF and Border Patrol should be tapped to help build Afghan intelligence and law enforcement capabilities especially the recruitment of confidential sources and utilization of signal and electronic intelligence to identify and neutralize clandestine Taliban operatives and networks.

It is always interesting to note the qualitative differences between our adversaries and our host nation allies. In nearly every major conflict in its history the United States has mobilized tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of its citizens to defeat the threat. So, why then, after eight years, do the Iraqi and Afghan national armies and police consistently lack the fighting spirit and prowess of their adversaries who were aggressive from the beginning? Because there is no incentive to risk their lives as long as 62,000 foreign soldiers including 34,000 US troops shoulder the burden of interior security. From Radio Free Europe:

Reports suggesting that 90 percent of Afghan soldiers cannot read or write have added to the skepticism, as have the high number of desertions among Afghan forces reluctant to serve in volatile southern provinces plagued by an increasingly violent Taliban insurgency.

Napoleon stated that, "Men are moved by only two levers: fear and self interest." We have been expanding the Afghan security forces and accelerating their training for eight years....eight years. All the training and equipment in the World will not make Afghanistan's 95,000 soldiers and 55,000 police fight the Taliban which number approximately 7,000-11,000.

The proverbial mouse is terrorizing the elephant. They will only fight when they are faced with the burden of defending themselves or what they perceive and accept to be a legitimate government. Adequately defending the border will stanch the flow of Taliban reinforcements and materiel and provide a favorable operational environment for Afghan forces to shoulder responsibility for internal security and legitimize the rule of law.


A nation has no legitimate claim to statehood if it cannot exercise control over its own territory framed by recognizable and defensible borders. By Western standards, Afghanistan is considered a Nation-State with recognized international boundaries. And that is the dilemma, because the Nation-State is a Western concept (born from the Peace of Westphalia in 1648) and, as such, is anathema to the Taliban and their like who favor the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate.

Critics will cite the rise of secular states such as Egypt, Libya and Syria, etc.. However, in historical context, those are relatively recent events and it must be remembered that those governments came to power after independence from Western colonial powers whose secular influences and democratic forms of government influenced the formation of the new countries and, simultaneously, stifled Islamic fundamentalism.

Furthermore, most if not all of the secular governments have been in perpetual conflict with subversive groups such as the Islamic Brotherhood which, like Al Qaeda, seek to establish an Islamic Caliphate. Ironically, even Egyptian secular strongman Nasser envisioned a secular Arab super-state; his successor Anwar Sadat was assassinated by the Islamic Brotherhood. By chasing the USA/NATO away from the border, the Taliban demonstrates the international community's inability to safeguard the integrity of a member state. This failure delegitimizes Afghanistan as a sovereign country in the eyes of its own people who will eventually reject the weak central government installed by the West, which shares power with marauding warlords and is maintained by an USA/NATO Praetorian Guard "protecting" the population in an operational environment, even now, eerily reminiscent of the darkest days in Bagdad, Mosul and Fallujah. As Thomas H. Johnson and M. Chris Mason write:

As historian Eric Bergerud has noted, the United States lost in Vietnam ultimately not because of its deeply flawed approach to counterinsurgency, as damaging as that was, but because South Vietnam never established a government seen as legitimate by a majority of its people. Experts agree that a government that 85 to 90 percent of the population perceives as legitimate is the sine qua non of counterinsurgency success. South Vietnam never came close to achieving such legitimacy, and neither, unfortunately, has post-2001 Afghanistan. In terms of incompetence and endemic corruption, Kabul is Saigon déjà vu. The father of modern sociology, Max Weber, pointed out that governments draw their legitimacy from three basic sources: traditional, religious, and legal. The first two are self-explanatory; by "legal," Weber meant Western-style democracies based on popular representation and the rule of law. And in this sense, political failure in Afghanistan was baked into the cake in the 2001 Bonn Process. In its rush to stand up an overnight democratic success story, the Bush administration overlooked Afghan history. Indeed, it was willfully a-historical. That's tragic, because Afghan history demonstrates conclusively and beyond dispute that legitimacy of governance there is derived exclusively from Weber's first two sources: traditional (in the form of the monarchy and tribal patriarchies) and religious. Either there has been a king, or religious leadership, or a leader validated by the caliphate (or afterwards by indigenous religious polities).

The recent election fiasco is a clear warning that the West has a limited window of opportunity to salvage the situation. Militarily, the USA/NATO must confront the Taliban at the border, starve the insurgency and push Afghan security forces to shoulder interior security with the helping hand of Special Operations who understand fourth generation warfare, National Guard/Reserve support units and US Federal Law Enforcement whose impact is exponentially greater than their footprint. A small footprint makes for a small target.

Large unit operations should be confined to clearly defined and restricted border zones where liberal rules of engagement and overwhelming firepower can be employed via conventional second generation warfare -- America's strong suit. There is no time to waste redeploying troops throughout the country to implement a mission impossible: protect the population -- there are not sufficient numbers of Soldiers and Marines to successfully implement what the Marines term as the ink-blot strategy: clear, hold and build; the theory is sound but the implementation is not.

Holding the borders is the only logical and viable means to safeguard Afghanistan and permit Afghans to stabilize the interior of their nation.

Politically, President Obama must reconsider the ill-advised decision by former President Bush, which was, according to Johnson and Mason, to:

Eliminate the Afghan monarchy from a ceremonial role in the new Afghan Constitution -- nearly two thirds of the delegates to the loyal jirga in 2002 signed a petition to make the aging King Zaher Shah the interim head of state -- while an Afghan king could have conferred legitimacy on an elected leader in Afghanistan, without one, an elected president is on a one-legged stool.

Bottom Line: Defend Afghanistan's frontier, assist with internal security and make every effort to work with the Afghans and the United Nations to construct a Constitutional Monarchy. Jeffersonian Democracy is not feasible but a Constitutional Monarchy is. Afghanistan's history demonstrates that a Constitutional Monarchy is the only feasible Western alternative to an Islamic Caliphate. If the West leaves Afghanistan abruptly then it leaves a power vacuum and all the moderate Afghans will be repressed or massacred. Afghanistan is a necessary war because, in the big picture, this is a clash between extremist Islam and the West. The invasion of Afghanistan was a just war. Make no mistake the Western world is invested in this and has an opportunity to repair the 30 year rape of Afghanistan and demonstrate the value of the nation-state system. The wise use of military power (guarding the border) to attain a feasible political solution (constitutional monarchy) is a sound strategy and based on Von Clausewitz's thesis On War. Escalation and the occupation of population centers is costly and unwise use of our military power. Let's be smart about this and help Afghanistan with the right force mix and a political solution - that is the "exit strategy."

If President Obama permits General McChrystal to implement his strategy the United States and its allies will lose the war in Afghanistan, the Taliban will return to power and the nation will once again become a safe haven for Al-Qaeda and Islamic Extremism.

Update: To those who would criticize my using a pyseudonym....the Army is not, yet, a learning environment where subordinates are encouraged to voice loyal opposition. The pyseudonym levels the playing field and allows Soldiers and Marines to present cogent arguments to the Command without fear of retribution.

Percy Blakeney is a Major in the United States Army writing under a pseudonym so as to adhere to Army disclosure protocols. No longer able to keep silent, he writes this to offer loyal, respectful and constructive opposition to the military command in Afghanistan.

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