The Retreat From Kabul

The Taliban is on the run, say the headlines. The war, it would seem, is nearly won.

As a matter of military reality, this is not necessarily correct.

Given the superior military strength of the nations allied against the Taliban, it would be utterly foolish for the Taliban to defend fixed points on the map. Over the long term, the prospects for the Taliban are better out in the mountains. Of course, this is known to the Taliban: it is the strategy which was used to defeat the Soviets after more than ten years of brutal war.

It is not necessary, however, to consider Soviet history, or even recent history, in evaluating the likelihood of a quick American victory in the war in Afghanistan. We can look back to the War of Southern Independence, which the south, of course, lost. (A note on terms: although you may know it as the “Civil” War, or the War Between the States, it is properly conceived of as a war over the question of southern independence. The southern states, you will recall, seceded from the United States, and thus argued that they were independent states; some of them formed a new union, named the Confederate States of America. The military defeat of the South, however, denied the Southern states the ability to realize in practice their claims of independence).

Why did the South suffer defeat in the war? Authors such as Jeffery Rogers Hummel, Charles Adams and Bevin Alexander contend that the South “died of West Point,” to quote a famous Confederate, which is to say, the Southern leadership fought the wrong kind of war.

Fighting a traditional war is much the same as fighting a war against terrorism. Recall that the federal authorities have assured the citizens that they are now ready to combat utility knives as a means of hijacking an airliner. Notice, however, that they were not ready when it mattered. There is a reason for this: the human mind is finite, and we cannot conceive of, let alone prepare for, every imaginable gimmick by which a dedicated and evil mind seeks to cause harm.

It is much the same on the battlefield. There is an inertia to tactics. There is a given way of doing things, a war-fighting doctrine, if you will. The South suffered from its desire to hold certain key cities, such as Richmond, when the South could have instead used its vast territory to wear down Federal troops who would have been dependent upon tenuous supply lines, as detailed by Charles Adams in When in the Course of Human Events and by Jeffery Rogers Hummel in Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men. Bevin Alexander’s book Lost Victories: The Military Genius of Stonewall Jackson, similarly casts light on what might have been, if those in command of the Southern war effort had possessed better insight. (A cynic might note that hindsight is 20/20. Anyway.)

The South was greatly outnumbered, and was an agricultural nation. Northern industry, in contrast, was able to supply plenty of food, uniforms, rifles, cannons, and other such items as are needed to keep an army in fighting shape and able to win a war. Men of military wisdom, such as General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson recognized that the South was doomed in a European-style war, where grand armies clashed in the open field. Much as the grandfathers of the Confederate troops, the original rebels, i.e., the men who fought the Redcoats in the American War of Independence, did not rely upon British tactics to defeat the British.

As a general rule, if you fight the war the way your enemy wants you to fight it, you will lose. The same holds in football. If your strength is the run, but your opponent forces you to pass, well, Notre Dame is 3-5, and there is a lesson in that.

In Jackson’s Shenandoah Valley campaign, he repeatedly inflicted significant losses and humiliating defeats upon numerically superior Northern troops. Other Confederate generals, however, sent men headlong into deadly rifle fire, in the process losing large numbers of troops. Because of its numerical inferiority, the South could not afford to lose even the same amount of troops as the North, and yet, in some battles, the South lost more.

And so a failure of strategic thinking made the outcome, well, understandable. Although men on both sides, in blue and in gray, fought with valor, courage, and skill, the Confederate armies were defeated, in part, by matters not decided on the field of battle.

And so it may be for the United States in Afghanistan if we are not careful. The Taliban is not retreating because it is run by cowards. The Afghans fought the Soviets for roughly a decade, and they are combat veterans. They are retreating to the South, presumably, because they wish to take advantage of superior, more mountainous terrain, farther away from the allied supply bases.

It may yet be a long time before we will know the outcome of the war and the fate of the Taliban. It will be an even longer time before we are able to gauge the lasting effects of the war, both at home and abroad.