BATTLE LAB PODCAST
Welcome to the Battle Lab podcast. This is August 19th, 2021. Our subject for today is going to be Afghanistan. My name is Shawn Swanson. I’m a former military contractor. I’ve been working in that field for the last 20 years and uniquely in a position to examine what’s been going on in Afghanistan, and glad to be your host today for the show. It’s important to note that what’s going on in Afghanistan is still a rolling problem. It’s a rolling debacle and it’s something that we won’t see a resolution to for quite some time. But we are going to tackle some of the issues and some of the things that we have seen happen in the last five days that are pretty stark, pretty amazing events that are probably going to reset the table for geopolitics for quite some time. As we all know, President Biden has called for the rapid withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. And that issue alone, has been a cascade effect to second and third order problems that many, many different organizations, many countries, many nation states are reeling from right now. As Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and General Milley from the Joint Chiefs have pointed out, we have seen the rapid collapse of the Afghan government and military in a short amount of time. What General Milley has been reporting is 11 days. In response to this, General Biden has had to put another four to 6000 troops back into the country to maintain order and stability, to try to get our civilian assets and allies out of the country itself as the Taliban rolls into Kabul and takes over the country.
Afghanistan is now solidly under the control of the Taliban. And we are scrambling to get our allies and ourselves out of the country. And it’s quite a mess. So to begin, I think the easiest way to break this down is to look in two different directions and just take it one by one and break it down. We have to ask ourselves what happened to Afghan leadership? And the second question we have to ask is what happened to American military leadership under the Biden administration? After the events of 9/11 2001, the attacks on the World Trade Center and our Pentagon, we found ourselves headed to Afghanistan. We found ourselves in Afghanistan for the next 20 years. The impetus and the reason for it given by our military was, quite frankly, that Osama bin Laden had trained and used Afghanistan as a staging ground for his terror attacks. It made complete sense at the time to disrupt the staging grounds for more terror being launched from towards the West and America. And so we took roost there. The problem was that instead of collapsing the mission after effectively killing Osama bin Laden and disrupting his network, we stayed and began nation building in Afghanistan. That’s where things took a different turn. Afghanistan became a huge recipient of billions of dollars in funds to stand up and train an army, as well as restructure that nation to effectively function with the central government in Kabul.
These efforts began under President Hamid Karzai and ended and finished under President Ghani here in 2021. Just yesterday, it was reported that Ashraf Ghani fled Kabul with 169 million dollars in cash and has now surfaced in the United Arab Emirates on humanitarian grounds. But what about the military? Their military was 300,000 man strong force backed by Western training and equipment, very advanced, given all that we’ve put in. There was an estimate that I heard that we have spent 83 billion dollars on training and equipment for the Afghans. And so how did how and why did we see that force fold so quickly? I’m sure that we won’t have the exact answers to that for quite some time. But there are some strong assertions that we can make. Even with all that equipment in the numbers that they had, leadership and command is critical to a desired end state and an outcome in the stability of an organization like that. I’m sure it’s safe to assume that many of the Afghan military leaders, when they saw that their Western backing was stepping out and it was on them, they decided to reevaluate their position and fall back into different parts of tribal society in Afghanistan. And herein lies the major problem, that we can assert, that Afghan identity has much more to do with their tribal affiliations than any kind of nation state identity. No matter what we think a nation state should hold and how Westerners look at participating in their governments and identify themselves as Americans or British or French or what not,
the Afghans don’t think of themselves in those terms as much. They think of themselves in terms of families and clans and tribes. So if you’re an Afghan, where are your allegiances to the newly born Afghani government in Kabul or to your home in your hometown and your your tribal leader and the local warlord? How we place value on that in our identities plays a huge role in why we saw such a rapid collapse of the Afghan forces and government. Human behavior is key, it always has been. And we at Battle Lab really stress that. When you’re looking for answers, start with human behavior. And that’s exactly what they needed to do here in Afghanistan, and that’s the lens and optic that we need to be looking through as well. So meaning making becomes one of the most primary tasks for human beings. And when you consider meaning making in the Afghan forces and their collapse, it’s important to see that taking a Westphalian model that is foreign in ideas and identity and dropping it into an Asian culture like Afghanistan, isn’t going to catch on in two decades. This is something that you have to build generationally and pulling out after 20 years and 20 years may seem as a long period, but it really isn’t. If the West had the will to stay into this long war and commit itself, they may have had a turnaround in Afghanistan and had an ability to shape identity and have more of a Westphalian outlook on the world than a tribal one.
But that’s not what happened and definitely not what’s taking place. As kitschy as it is, and it’s attribution to the Taliban, the saying that’s that’s quoted again and again and again, I think really does have an impact. You know, when when it’s said that the Taliban have always said that “Americans all have the watches, but we have the time”. I think that’s very true. I think that’s exactly the kind of insight that we need to be looking at. How do the Asians and the Afghans in that part of the world look at life in meaning making in time versus the Western model? And I think once you start really considering those things, you can start to see where the breakdown begins for the West and their imposition of law and order in Afghanistan. So let’s look a little bit further into this issue and switch gears here. Let’s take a look at the West and what’s happened with their battle approach and their order of battle and where this may have gone wrong. At the outset, I need to say that this problem’s been mounting well before Biden’s missteps. While Biden has really brought chaos to fruition in Afghanistan with his policies, approaches and procedures, this problem did start well before President Biden and his present missteps in that nation. So, again, we have to ask, what were we doing in Afghanistan in 2021? We weren’t there due to the direct threat of Osama bin Laden and the al Qaeda network that was taken care of.
We were there nation building, and herein lies the problem… Mission creep. We took care of the problem that we were originally there for. But the mission kind of changed. We went into an aspect of counterinsurgency where we shape, clear, hold, build, handoff and started to nation build. That’s a completely different approach to mindset, thinking and outcome, than is go find the people that bombed New York City and the Pentagon in 2001. Make sure that we execute hard on that objective and then come home. We didn’t do that. We took care of the problem that created 2001 and the tragedies around the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. But then something else happened. Something happened with our approach to order of battle and what we were doing in Afghanistan all together. That being said, I personally am not against nation building, though it’s distasteful in many circles. However, we have to have the will and the authority and sense of longevity to pull that off. And let me say this about nation building. We tried in Iraq and it failed because we lacked the will and carry through there. We pulled forces out under Obama and then we ended up with ISIS. That’s another example of negative returns on counterinsurgency and nation building. However, Japan, South Korea, Italy, Germany, we still have troops in all of those nations from World War Two. It works out. The nation building that we did prior to these most recent debacles did profit us.
It did profit the West. And it was a sound improvement approach. However, what happened between then and now? And that’s something that we need to explore in depth and understand about the problem that we face today with politics, geopolitics and domestic politics included, and our national will to commit to battle or to nation building in our approach to being a superpower in the world. Make no mistake, what’s transpiring now makes the world much more dangerous than it was a week ago, a month ago, a year ago. This kind of consolidation of power with the Islamic State in the Afghan Taliban in Afghanistan is going to reset the table in Asia and strengthen the resolve of our enemies. China’s looking at us. Russia’s looking at this. Our allies are going to ask themselves again, what, what what kind of response can we have or see from America? I submit to you that fear and respect are important centers of gravity, that create our reputation. And if we give that ground up, what do we replace it with? We’re going to lose our national standing and international standing with our allies and our enemies. And that makes a terribly dangerous world, even more volatile. A world that doesn’t respect American capabilities is going to look for another challenger to come to supremacy. This is the threat that we face. This is the moment that nations like China are looking for. They want to step in. They want to control.
They want the opportunity to be a superpower. And these kinds of things that are going on in Afghanistan, in our policy missteps in our misuse of force and our military and our lack of will, set the stage for a dangerous decline of the West and the United States as a superpower. Let’s not forget that the Soviets only lasted two years after their withdrawal from Afghanistan. So I submit to you that right now this is the perfect environment for enemy action. A significant amount of our rapid reaction forces are bound up and floundering in the evacuation efforts in Kabul. This is not lost on any of our enemies. And this administration has gone to a near complete silence on the issue of an orderly evacuation, past holding the Hamid Karzai International Airport. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has even said that we don’t have the capability of going out and helping those Americans that are still behind the lines that the Taliban have redrawn. This this is a pretty deafening moment for a superpower like America to chew on. Our inability to project force and project our will into that battle space is telegraphing to the rest of the world that wants to compete with us that they’ve got a free hand to do what they want. So what happens with interests like Taiwan and China? You know, Taiwan is probably sitting there going, what can we expect in the next few months, a year in what’s happening with our major ally that’s helped us stay out of the clutches of China? You know, to this point where we’re at a dangerous point in this game and it’s brinkmanship that’s being played, whether it’s on purpose or by complete floundering error, that’s kind of where we’re at.
This situation that’s going on in Afghanistan has ripple effects. Second and third order of effects that we still can’t anticipate or imagine. And that’s really the danger of this moment. It’s important also to take stock that we’re roughly eight months into a 48 month term with the Biden administration. If we don’t consolidate and have our national will sorted out, our national objectives, our international objectives, our supremacy in the world is going to take a hard fall on its face. And I think that’s right where we’re at. I think that a lot of Americans out there are, and a lot of our allies are looking, going what’s really going on with America? Afghanistan is a moment where everyone should be taking a pause in the gap in considering what’s happening with America itself. The Biden administration owns this. Joe Biden’s happy to to share blame, cast blame or ignore. And even with all of the media being complicit with this administration in all the sweetheart moments that they’ve had to this point, I think this is a a come to Jesus moment for for the West and for America itself. I thank you for joining me, and I hope to see you for the next podcast. The Battle Lab, appreciates your time and support. Thanks again.