By Mac WarnerWest Virginia Secretary of State
By Mac WarnerWVSOS West Virginia Secretary of State
As Afghanistan falls to Islamic fundamentalists, our sustained involvement with a haphazard withdrawal prompts the question, "was it worth it?"
The shocking images out of Kabul shout no; yet, there were benefits from our 20-year engagement.
The Army’s mission is to deter war, and when deterrence fails, to fight and win our nation’s battles. For two decades, we deterred another 9/11-style attack. We got justice for the 2,977 lives ripped from us on that fateful day. And we learned very painful, but valuable lessons.
For those of us who spent considerable time in Afghanistan, the Taliban takeover was no surprise. Taliban are Pashtun, the largest Afghan ethnic group. My son knew the takeover would happen from the kinetic missions he led in Logar Province ten years ago. The Taliban and their al Qaeda and Haqqani network allies coerced civilians to plant IEDs against the US; if the civilians refused, Taliban would rape or kill family members and plunder their homes. Yet, there was no general uprising against such terror, just acquiescence.
Seven years ago, my daughter witnessed foreshadowing of the takeover at Bagram as the Air Base was regularly targeted by Taliban mortars, no doubt assisted by informants working on the base. And I witnessed “green on blue” killings spike in 2012 when US-trained Afghans turned US-supplied weapons on their US advisors.
I also heard it first-hand in 2011-2015 through Afghan co-workers. “Do you want us here?” “No,” they responded, “we want the security, training and aid you provide, but the majority of Afghans don’t want you here.”
Two scenes from the movie “12 Strong” sum up US involvement in Afghanistan. The first was when a US leader remarked about a right decision to attack. His Afghan counterpart responded, “This is Afghanistan. There are no right decisions.” Later, the US leader wondered whether the US should leave or stay. His counterpart responded, “If you leave, you are a coward. If you stay, you are our enemy.”
Now is the time to learn the costly lessons paid in 2,448 US military lives, and countless injuries. Do not put our military on the line again without applying the lessons noted here.
Clearly define our purpose for fighting. For which “truths” were we fighting in Afghanistan after we got Osama bin Laden? Our Declaration of Independence cites war-worthy self-evident truths of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The 2004 Afghan Constitution Chapter 1, Article 1 states “Afghanistan shall be an Islamic Republic” – not a truth for which to risk American lives.
Former ASD/SOLIC Michael Sheehan succinctly wrote, “Crush the Cell.” Sheehan stressed that when someone threatens the US as was done on 9/11, we should hit hard and fast to chop the head off the snake. We took way too long to kill bin Laden, but after ten years we succeeded. We should have declared victory and exited Afghanistan right then.
Understand the culture. Don’t view their world through western eyes. Afghanistan is not a nation as we understand one. Rather, it is a collection of tribes – Pashtun (42%), Tajik (26%), Hazara (10%), Uzbek (9%), etc.—whose loyalties and respect for borders are tribal, not national. When we fight a tribal enemy, we need to fight regardless of national borders.
Legitimacy is the center of gravity. US-supported Afghan elections were feeble, with less than ten percent of Afghan people able to vote. Low participation produced low confidence, and fraud tainted the elections. Both presidential candidates claimed victory and the US-brokered power-splitting agreement led to bitter in-fighting. Afghans viewed elected officials as puppets of the West who maintained power through corruption. The government never achieved legitimacy or acceptance.
Do not tell the enemy timelines for departure. Take the gloves off and fight to win. Make departure outcome dependent. Precipitous departures absent defined exit criteria generate humanitarian disasters.
Do not negotiate with the enemy and leave the host government out of the negotiation; it emboldens the enemy and destroys allies’ fighting morale.
Recognize some problems cannot be solved; they can only be managed. Our military mission was to protect America, not to create a civil, responsible nation-state – though mission creep took us in that direction. Making Afghanistan civil cannot be solved by outsiders, and the tribes have never desired to unite as one nation.
I offer a critical closing observation. Viewing what happened in Afghanistan as a collapse or surrender lacks perspective and deserves reframing. The Taliban align with the Pashtuns. The US-supplied arms and equipment were not surrendered to an enemy; through bribery and coercion the weapons were handed off from Pashtun recipients to their Pashtun Taliban brothers. The Taliban is the means by which Pashtuns will continue to keep a stranglehold on Afghanistan.
“You have the watches, we have the time,” applies here. Afghans have outlasted Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the British, the Soviets, and now, the US. The US was the enemy if we stayed. The result was inevitable. We simply managed an unsolvable problem for two decades.
The brave men and women of our Armed Forces did their jobs, and protected our homeland until our political leaders decided they were tired of management. The subsequent deaths and dissolution of the Afghan government is on the hands of these political leaders, not our Armed Forces.
The Taliban harbored terrorists in the past, and their Islamic fundamentalist ideology and Pashtunwali culture will push them to harbor terrorists in the future. For this reason, we are already revisiting the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan to secure our non-combatants, and a peaceful future is not promising.
From a war-fighter’s perspective, think of the intelligence we now have on Afghanistan, its inhabitants, and their modus operandi. We fully understand the logistics of fighting a war across the globe in a very bad neighborhood, and we know who our friends and enemies are. Finally, we have legions of battle-hardened soldiers who cut their war-fighting teeth -- and lost friends -- in the sands of Afghanistan. We stand prepared, poised to chop the head off the snake should it attempt to strike the US again.
Mac Warner graduated from West Point and served 23 years Active Duty, followed by five years as a contractor in Afghanistan advising the Ministry of Justice, Attorney General’s Office, Supreme Court, and Ministry of Women’s Affairs. His son, Steven, was a Combat Engineer platoon leader in the 173rd Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), and was wounded while doing route clearance in Afghanistan. His daughter, Lisa, was an Adjutant General Officer with the 130th Engineer Brigade in Afghanistan. His daughter Krista is US Army Reserve, while son, Scott, is a currently-deployed Combat Engineer. Mac Warner is the Secretary of State in West Virginia.
Warner and (daughter) Captain Lisa Warner Miller in Afghanistan - Christmas 2014
Warner with two young girls touring his compound
"Purple fingers" - Warner with Afghan men and women who voted in the country's 2014 election.It was the first time women were permitted to vote.
Warner with (daughter) Captain Lisa Warner Miller, wife Debbie and (son) Capt. Steven Warner at a ceremony at the WV State Capitol (2017) where WV Congressman David McKinley presented Steven with a Purple Heart for injuries received in Afghanistan
"Purple fingers" - Warner with Afghan men and women who voted in the country's 2014 election. It was the first time women were permitted to vote.