Some insight into our military ineffectiveness

At least in Syria, the Russians were able to show up to a conflict zone, achieve their desired military results, and pack up and leave. We Americans, on the other hand, seem to spend 10+ years in places without even figuring out what our goals might be. “The Bidding War” is a March 7, 2016 New Yorker article that sheds some light on the subject:

America’s war in Afghanistan, which is now in its fifteenth year, presents a mystery: how could so much money, power, and good will have achieved so little? Congress has appropriated almost eight hundred billion dollars for military operations in Afghanistan; a hundred and thirteen billion has gone to reconstruction, more than was spent on the Marshall Plan, in postwar Europe.

One result has been forms of corruption so extreme that the military has, in some cases, funded its own enemy. When a House committee investigated the trucking system that supplied American forces, it found that the system had “fueled a vast protection racket run by a shadowy network of warlords, strongmen, commanders, corrupt Afghan officials, and perhaps others.” Its report concluded that “protection payments for safe passage are a significant potential source of funding for the Taliban.”

The system has also made a few individuals very rich. Hikmatullah Shadman, an Afghan trucking-company owner [in his late 20s], earned more than a hundred and sixty million dollars while contracting for the United States military;


10 thoughts on “Some insight into our military ineffectiveness

  1. How do you know that financing the enemy is not intentional? An army without any enemies is an army in danger of being laid off. Afghanistan is a very poor country – the Taliban could never afford to fight us unless we helped them financially.

  2. The answer must be either that we elected morons or we elected crooks or we elected traitors.

    It’s often some combination of those three. But ultimately (assuming the elections weren’t stolen, which I cannot be sure of), it’s still the voters’ fault. It is possible for political candidates to conclusively demonstrate that they are not morons, and for them to provide good if not conclusive reasons to believe they are not traitors and not crooks, but the voters haven’t shown that they care much about those three things.

  3. There’s no evidence Putin achieved anything. He showed up to belittle Obama. Wouldn’t be surprising if the tires on Afghan trucks are now $1 million, like everything else which is relabeled mil spec.

  4. From a military perspective, there is a good reason that Coalition forces could not close out the fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq and it is to do with numbers deployed. In simple terms, taking, holding and developing a province like Helmand would require 4 infantry brigades and Div support troops, so about 25,000 men. The UK had 8,000 ground troops at most, so could effectively administer one-third of the province and provide relative security and stability for that minority part, leaving the Talibs free to reign over the rest and attack at their leisure. That picture is repeated across every one of 50 provinces on the two countries.

    One reason for the massive shortfall is political: the Pentagon estimated they would need IIRC 450,000 troops to sort out Afghanistan; Cheney and civilian chums decided it could be done with half the number, which inevitably turned out to be nuts.

    2nd reason: over-reliance on air force. As seen there and now in Syria v ISIS, air strikes can degrade an enemy but cannot do much more. Munitions and troops can go underground, disperse, use civilian transport etc, thereby nullifying much of the air effort.

    3rd reason: The USA stepped up to the plate, despite Cheney and Wolfowitz, but the European allies did the minimum. (I say this as a Brit, we are equally culpable). They have virtually all run their defence spending and force numbers down to dangerous levels and simply cannot any longer provide much in the way of ground forces. The money has been switched into vote-winning social and economic ploys instead. There is a lot that needs to be sorted out within NATO, starting with the very low defence expenditure.

    We all have professional armies now without conscripts, which means numbers will always be in short supply. Unless US allies step up and pull their weight, both militarily and politically, the West will not have much influence on what’s happening around the globe.

  5. It is difficult to succeed at a task whose aim is poorly defined. What would constitute victory in Afghanistan? In Iraq? What would victory have looked like in Viet Nam? The construction of a self-governing, civil society? Can self-government and civilization be imposed militarily by a foreign power on a people who are determined to fight to the death to reject it? This seems self-contradictory: the means defeat the aim. Is the death or repression of every last person willing to take up arms against the US-imposed regime the aim of our adventures in Afghanistan or Iraq? We don’t have the stomach for that – are rightfully unwilling to shed the necessary blood and treasure and are rightfully uncomfortable at the thought of this aim. If the aim is somehow to prevent small, determined bands of berserkers from committing atrocities such as 9/11 or the subway bombings in London and Spain, it is hard to imagine that the military subjugation of Iraq and Afghanistan could be effective. As we are beginning to see in Europe, a strong police response is effective, while our military adventures mostly seem to have the counterproductive effect of recruiting yet more berserkers willing to blow themselves up to spread chaos. Is the aim of our Afghanistan/Iraq adventure to enrich munitions manufacturers and warlords on all sides, to channel the people’s treasure into the pockets of the unscrupulous, greedy and murderous? If so, then our efforts seem to be succeeding beyond our hopes and expectations.

  6. Just FYI. Mil-specs haven’t been required contractually for years. Those that are still relevant are mainly used for references purposes only. Most of them are quite outdated. DOD uses commercial standards now wherever they are in place.

  7. @jack crossfire

    What Putin accomplished:
    -Peace negotiations in Geneva. The parties are now on the table unlike before.
    -A ceasefire which was unimaginable 4 months ago.
    -A weakened ISIS than was seen 5 months ago (around 1,100 Islamic State fighters killed, helped Syrian & Iranian ground forces in capturing strategic areas near Latakia province & Allepo , capture of Sheikh Maskin and Damascus-Daraa highway, capture of Kuweires military airbase, Palmyra recaptured, the list goes on)
    -Undermined U.S. influence in the middle east, proved that Russian military and diplomacy are more effective then the West.
    -Saved his Ally Bashar Al-Assad
    -Used Syria as a showcase for Russian weapons which will boost Russian military sales to countries.

    Probably other things too.. What can we say about Obama’s coalition?

  8. btw that was in 5 months, compare that to 5 years of Obama’s approach. Now you may argue on what is the right approach. But I think we have pretty good empirical evidence that the Russians are more effective when it comes to dealing with conflicts that were triggered by US/Europe interventions (see also Ukraine/Crimea), arguably with far less resources, but considerably more smarts.

  9. Three fastest ways to super wealth in America:
    *Equity Markets
    *Government contractor

  10. Good comment by Robert Cripes.

    For an excellent analysis, I’d recommend Roland Paris, Afghanistan: What Went Wrong?

    … [Thomas Barfield] refutes the conventional wisdom that Afghanistan is an ungovernable land of timeless intractability, pointing to several stretches of stable rule, including the long reign of King Zahir Shah from 1933 to 1973. His main finding is that Afghan governance has been most successful when a balance has existed between central authorities and informal solidarity structures at the regional and local level—that is, the ethnic, religious, village, tribal, clan, and professional networks that have long been the primary affiliation of most Afghans. Attempts to use the power of the state to suppress these solidarity structures have almost always “come to grief ” by provoking resistance (p. 173). …

    On the basis of this historical survey, Barfield then diagnoses the problems with the international strategy in Afghanistan after 2001. He maintains that international decision makers, who “had little familiarity with Afghanistan’s culture or history” (p. 317), promoted a system of government that was simultaneously overcentralized and underresourced. The outlines of this system emerged at a UN-run conference in Bonn, Germany, in December 2001, which set out a plan for Afghanistan’s political transition that would culminate in democratic elections in 2004. Karzai and the “Kabul elite” favored a highly centralized government, with powers concentrated in the office of the president (p. 303). The UN and United States offered “uncritical support” for this model and “adamantly opposed devolving power to the regional or provincial level” (pp. 337 and 298). However, this was exactly the kind of highly centralized government that had “failed repeatedly” in the past (p. 302)….

    This governance formula—overcentralized and underresourced—was almost certain to produce problems. It meant that the national government, and specifically the president’s office, would intrude deeply into local affairs, but would still lack the ability to perform the basic functions that Afghans expected of their state. For example, Kabul gained full responsibility for the nation’s schools but was unable to pay teachers’ salaries. … When Afghans perceived that Kabul was unable to deliver basic public goods—that is, when the government “failed to bring security to many regions and did little to improve people’s dire economic condition”—public opinion began to turn against both the Karzai regime and its international backers (p. 277).

    For a general discussion of the challenges facing the US military, see James Fallows, The Tragedy of the American Military.

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