At this point it has become a cliché. Everyone knows where he or she was when JFK was shot. The same goes for 9/11. Such moments forge historic waypoints for our lives and occasion us to ask broad questions: What does it mean to be an American? What is the state of U.S. power in the world? Or, more simply, are we truly safe? Recently, I’ve been thinking back to another milestone – May 2, 2011 - the raid in Abbottabad, and killing of Osama bin Laden. It has now been six years. For most Americans, May 2 lacks the emotional power of a December 7 or September 11. This may reflect a human tendency to internalize and remember tragedy over triumph. Nevertheless, I submit that we overlooked something in our collective response to the bin Laden killing. Furthermore, the national conversation failed to address some stark questions surrounding not only Osama’s death, but also its implications for the more general application of military force. As we trudge along with what will be the longest shooting war in our nation’s history – 15 years, 5 months – my thoughts drift back to that Monday morning.
I was in the heart of Taliban country. Pashmul sub-district of Kandahar province lies just a couple miles east of the movement’s birthplace. Mullah Omar’s home village of Sangesar was nearby. It was a morning like any other for a U.S. Army captain commanding an isolated outpost in southern Afghanistan. I left my trailer just before dawn, shuffled into the headquarters building, powered up a computer and read the overnight orders via secure email. After sending back a few responses and doling out routine orders to the night shift sergeant, I dialed my wife for our daily morning Skype call. Halfway through our conversation, a young soldier stuck his head in the trailer and yelled out, “Hey, everybody – we killed Osama!” In disbelief, I immediately pulled up the New York Times online. There it was, officially: bin Laden – dead. Killed by Navy SEALS in Pakistan. President Obama set to address the nation. Within minutes, most of my soldiers in the communications trailer were buzzing about the raid.
Bin Laden was dead. After a ten-year manhunt, that reality was actually difficult to process. But mine was a day like any other. This, after all, was Kandahar during the peak of the U.S. troop surge, and the heart of the spring fighting season. As always, I gathered my lieutenants and walked down the gravel hill to our ad hoc gym – a canvas tent filled with assorted weights. As per the routine, our workout was interrupted by a Taliban attack. We dropped the weights, ran up the hill, and I began directing the battle from my headquarters: coordinating for air support, shifting marksmen into over watch positions, and generally trying to kill these young men firing Kalashnikovs at my towers. Of course, like most days, the part-time local fighters who comprised the area Taliban escaped unscathed. We’d meet again later that day or early the next morning. The war was mostly like that – fought on their terms. The rest of the day was standard too: a few foot patrols, some short gun battles at mid afternoon, more sporadic attacks on our outpost that evening, and the resultant array of administrative reports I inevitably owed my superiors at the main Forward Operating Base. It was a day like any other during 2011, and – of course - we didn’t run into any Al Qaeda.
We never did, either. Deal with Al Qaeda that is. The war was nine years old by this point, and most estimates put the total number of true Al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan at less than two hundred. No, my enemy was the Taliban. That said, I preferred to spell it (small t) Taliban to the more formal (big T) Taliban. You see, we fought every single day at Combat Outpost Pashmul South, logging over 500 firefights of one sort or another in the course of a year. Three of my soldiers died, and a few dozen were wounded – some suffering multiple amputations. That’s about a 35-40% casualty rate for an undersized cavalry troop. So we had an enemy. That much was certain. But who were they, really? Oh, these were a mixed bag: a few dedicated, traditional (big T) Taliban leaders, some criminals or sociopaths, and probably a couple Pakistani operatives with connections to the ISI, but mostly hundreds of young, destitute, bored and nationalistic local farmers. No Arabs. No Al Qaeda. No one connected to Osama bin Laden. Just Afghan farmers with their ubiquitous AK-47s. That was our enemy; these were the men responsible for tying down the U.S. Army in a seemingly never-ending quagmire. But these tribal fighters weren’t the reason we went to Afghanistan in the first place, as I recall.
At the end of the day, on May 2, I called my mother on our satellite phone. She was at her apartment in Staten Island, New York. I knew she’d want to talk to me about the raid. Her brothers are firemen, so was her father, and many family friends were killed when those towers collapsed. My father, meanwhile, worked in a building across the street from the World Trade Center. He’d left just in time. So my mom congratulated me on bin Laden’s death, as if to imply that my own service in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last several years warranted such accolades. Then she asked the key question: ‘Danny, what does this mean for you, I mean, now that bin Laden is dead?’ There was, of course, only one answer: ‘Nothing, mom, not a damn thing!’ Deployments are angry times for me, and my response reflected this; but it was also the truth. Not a single detail would change during my final seven months in Pashmul. The Taliban didn’t skip a beat, and our game of cat and mouse carried on indefinitely. They’d lay homemade mines and ambushes, then we’d try not to step on them and use our rifles or air support to fight out of the kill zone. So it went. And that’s the point – the issue no one really addressed: What was the connection between bin Laden / Al Qaeda and this enemy? Furthermore, what was the war in Afghanistan really about by 2011, or for that matter, 2017?
Wars spin out of control. They suck us in and take on a momentum of their own. Clausewitz knew this, though each generation seems to learn the lesson anew. Army Rangers, Special Forces Teams, and CIA operatives jumped into Afghanistan in 2001 with the intention of destroying Al Qaeda, killing bin Laden, and toppling the Taliban regime. We only partially achieved mission #1, utterly failed in #2, and did pretty well on the 3rd item. I’d give us a C+ at best. But then it became about something else. The mission grew, and grew. Counter-terrorism became counterinsurgency, which by its very nature involves enormous resources and a ‘whole of government’ approach. Only we didn’t ever really have sufficient military or financial assets to commit to both Afghanistan and Iraq. Thing is, we never actually defined what our purpose was in Afghanistan, or what a realistic, and acceptable end-state might look like. We knew one thing for sure. We didn’t want to lose!
War takes on institutional momentum – it becomes about not losing, giving ground, or wasting the sacrifices of so many soldiers’ lives. Sometimes a place takes on value by virtue of the blood we shed on its soil. The military’s (understandable) propensity for naming its bases for dead troopers and then hesitating to close down these outposts is a symptom of the greater affliction. We hate to quit. Nothing is as sacred to an army as ensuring its soldiers didn’t die in vain. Optimism and a can-do focus are the lifeblood of military professionals. But that doesn’t make it sound strategy.
Success in Afghanistan – at least by the upbeat NATO definition – was doubtful from the start. To put it simply, we had a tough road and the odds were never in our favor. ISAF headquarters, in 2014 - the last official year of the American led war - defined its mission as follows:
In support of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, ISAF conducts operations in Afghanistan to reduce the capability and will of the insurgency, support the growth in capacity and capability of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), and facilitate improvements in governance and socio-economic development in order to provide a secure environment for sustainable stability that is observable to the population.
Stacked against that fanciful undertaking were some unpleasant realities. Here are a few: Afghanistan is landlocked. Its porous border of over 5000 kilometers leaks like a sieve. Enveloped by the Hindu Kush Mountains, Registan desert, and the Iranian plateau, its geography has always been less than hospitable for foreign occupiers. In fact, rarely in its history was any central government particularly successful at ruling the whole. More than 2000 kilometers of border straddles Pakistan. Ostensibly an American ally, elements in the Pakistani government have and continue to harbor, arm, train, and direct Taliban fighters. Remember old Mullah Omar – the head of the Taliban who was once one of America’s most wanted fugitives – he spent a dozen years safely ensconced somewhere in Pakistan.
Then add in the ethnic and religious divisions. Lacking any one majority, Afghanistan is approximately 42% Pashtun, 27% Tajik, 9% Hazara, 9% Uzbek, and 13% other assorted groups. About 80% are Sunni Muslim, but almost 20% are Shia. Also suffering from a linguistic split, about half the country speaks Dari (a form of Persian), while most of the rest speak Pashto. Many Afghan Army soldiers – who tend to hail from the Tajik north - need a translator just to operate in southern Afghanistan. One more thing: the country’s infrastructure was always among the worst in the world and only worsened during more than thirty years of sustained civil war. This was a shattered society. We learned the hard way in Iraq that such divisions make foreign military occupation particularly complicated. Maybe impossible. Geography and demographics – they still matter.
But the biggest challenge was Pakistan, and its provision of nearly unlimited safe haven for Taliban fighters. This single salient fact defined the war in Afghanistan. And in many ways, demonstrated its futility. Still does. Consider the life cycle of our typical opponent. ‘Terry’ Taliban was usually young, poor, rural, and Pashtun. His parents and grandparents fought the Soviets, and he grew up idolizing this mujahedeen legacy. Many were themselves long-term refugees as a result of Soviet occupation or the follow-on civil war and thus grew up in Pakistan. Most were comfortable in the rugged borderlands that bridge the two countries. Some were highly religious, others less doctrinaire. Almost none could read. Nearly all believed themselves to be nationalist heroes, fighting to rid their country of foreign occupation. Most importantly, they possessed one advantage that mitigated all their inferiority in technology and weaponry– a safe haven in Pakistan.
Each winter, when the leaves withered, fell and consequently transformed southern Afghanistan into a barren wasteland, the Taliban was denied the concealment necessary to close with and ambush our patrols. This combined with inhospitable cold weather, led the enemy to call a seasonal time-out from the war. In the meantime, most fighters left behind an array of buried IEDs as a parting gift for U.S. soldiers and then rode their motorbikes south to the border town of Chaman, Pakistan. Here they would rest, refit, and re-equip in peace. Southern Pakistan, unlike the Northwest tribal areas, was never a priority target for U.S. drone strikes, and the Pakistani government exerted negligible pressure on our opponents in the region. This is interesting but not unexpected. Pakistan’s ISI and army leadership have long molded the Taliban as a compliant client regime and ally in what Pakistan has always consider its existential struggle – impending war with India. Our government knew this, recognized its limited ability to change Pakistani policy, and did little. But thousands of American troops died, and an equal number lost their legs on account of this new ‘Great Game.’ That ought to matter.
Afghanistan was, once we swept out Al Qaeda, the wrong war against the wrong enemy. Furthermore, the essential question is whether military occupations actually can execute regime change and reconstruct democratic societies given America’s limited resources? And yet there never seemed a sensible exit. Mission creep is real, and it goes something like this: we were attacked on 9/11; the culprits were in Afghanistan; the Taliban regime harboring bin Laden wouldn’t give him up; he and they, thus had to go; at that, we sort of succeeded. Then what? Well, the government collapsed and someone had to stabilize the country while an interim government formed. To do less would seem irresponsible. In order to stabilize affairs, we needed to track down the last elements of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Then again, was that really going to be enough? After all, someone needed to address the root causes of extremism, to eliminate that which attracted young men to the Taliban. Who was going to accomplish that doozy of a task? The only sizeable army in town, really, was American – so that was that. And combating the societal foundations of extremism meant providing enough local security for the new government to reach the people. That translated into population-centric counterinsurgency, and thus – after a six-year delay induced by the strategic folly of Iraq – over one hundred thousand troops on the ground. It also meant bases, development money, and an on-again off-again counter-narcotics campaign. Then there was local police training, road building (we’ve got to connect all those bases), jobs programs (idle hands are the devil’s workshop), and on and on and on.
It’s all rather sensible when such decisions are taken in sequence or isolation. But viewed with a wide lens you see some major structural flaws. First off, back in the 1980s, 120,000 Soviet soldiers, willing to bombard Afghan villages from the sky, never managed to impose their power in the countryside. Afghanistan was simply too large and Soviets resources – as least those they were willing to expend – insufficient. Second, we, like our Soviet forebears, had no viable solution for the Pakistani sanctuary. Vietnam might have taught us the importance of military geography, nationalism, and porous borders. It did not. Finally, it is unclear whether a democratic, fully stable Afghanistan ruled from Kabul was ever truly a vital national interest. Or, for that matter, whether such an eventuality was within our military capabilities.
Americans, as a people, seem to lack all sense of irony. When the Russians attempted a military occupation of Afghanistan they were seen as fools – a hubristic empire unable to grasp that geography, tribal culture, and national pride guaranteed the Afghans would never surrender. Remember Rambo III – that awesome example of a Reagan-era blockbuster – a film officially and unapologetically dedicated to “the gallant people of Afghanistan.” Twelve years later (our historical memory has a short half-life) our own quest to occupy and transform the very same country seemed completely rational. After all, we’re Americans. We can accomplish anything. When soldiers flew into the war zone we’d first make a brief pit stop and spend a few nights at Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan. On the other side of the city of Bishkek, mirroring our own installation, was a Russian military base, and I often wondered whether these soldiers laughed at our own Afghan expedition. What did they make of our shortsightedness? Perhaps Putin’s actions in Ukraine provide us some answer.
Which speaks to our inherent limitations. Despite all the rhetoric of unlimited growth and unprecedented military might, constraints on American power remain real as ever. In a sense, our very limits define national policy, if not in stated strategy then most certainly via the outcomes. The uncomfortable reality is this: our all-volunteer, professional military is capable of only one major war at a time. Despite all the previous rhetoric about waging two regional wars, the fact remains that in 2008 there were only 35,000 troops in Afghanistan compared with 160,000 in Iraq. And the military was tapped out in order to sustain even that gross imbalance. Our ground forces ran full throttle for a decade, and even at the war’s presumptive climax – the Iraq ‘surge’ – few Americans were lining up to join the struggle. Nor were taxes raised in order to fund a military expansion. In fact, this era sported some of the lowest income tax rates in over seventy years. This suited everyone just fine. What we never mastered, though, was a balance between these undeniable constraints and suitable foreign policy. Yet despite this shocking refusal to match means and ends, those who knew where to look saw our limitations in action.
For proof, consider the typical counter-argument leveled at anyone questioning the worth of a long-term occupation in Afghanistan. We’ve long been told that our national strategy must – for the safety of our populace – hinge on ensuring that Afghanistan never again becomes a terrorist safe haven. A worthy sentiment indeed, but in practice not one that any policymaker apparently takes seriously. How so? For starters, we already had a terrorist haven of epic proportions in Pakistan – one that compromises our military’s operations across the border in Afghanistan and served as the genesis for attacks in London and an attempted strike in New York City.
Here we see our limitations quite plainly. Pakistan is a nation of 190 million Muslims, with a large professional army, and nuclear weapons. It seems no one in our government ever seriously considered large-scale military action against Pakistan. How could they? Despite all the triumphal optimism after Baghdad fell, military and civilian leaders quickly learned the resource-sucking tendencies of prolonged, contested foreign occupations. If we couldn’t provide the proper manpower to conduct simultaneous counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, then how would we manage a major expansion into Pakistan?
Of course, terrorism – specifically the Islamic extremist variety – is not restricted to Central Asia. In fact, Yemen, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon, and North Africa also boast an array of fundamentalist groups. Does that require a conventional military response from the United States? Or does deploying American soldiers in the Middle East actually further enflame extremists and place a red, white and blue bull’s-eye on the ground? The results of fifteen years at war indicate no and yes, respectively, but that’s not my particular point here. Once again, the key question is whether conventional military occupation to stabilize a toppled regime and reconstruct a democratic society in any of these locales was even possible given the size of our military and the structural limitations of an all-volunteer service model? Again, recent evidence indicates the answer is no. In the real world of power constraints and diverse threats, national policy must more appropriately weigh American goals with military means. Our track record for more than a decade has, unfortunately, been abysmal.
Why are counterinsurgency and the military occupation of foreign lands so hard? The reasons are too numerous to count, but here’s one: when we insert ourselves in other people's’ neighborhoods – in this case southwest Asia – we inherit their ages-old problems. That includes, just to name a few, the historic competition between Tajiks and Pashtuns west of the Hindu Kush, and Pakistan’s obsessive security paranoia on the other side of the mountains. An entire society – like that of Afghanistan or Iraq – is a complex, adaptive system and once our military enters the fray we permanently change and become part of the social organism. Similar to the observer effect in applied science, we alter the society by virtue of being there. In practice, this means that military interventions fought among and for the people are extraordinarily difficult – probably all but impossible – to predict, plan, and control. Let alone win.
With that in mind, we must recognize the limits on ground military power and our national resolve that would not and will not allow the U.S. to take direct military action in Pakistan, or to successfully occupy and transform Yemen, Somalia, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, or Saudi Arabia. Therefore, other approaches – perhaps something more akin to counter-terrorism, international police manhunts, and an aggressive intelligence campaign – while certainly imperfect, are not only more appropriate but likely the only sustainable options available.
Which brings us back to May 2, 2011. I sat on my bed that night on a dusty hilltop surrounded by about ten thousand sandbags. As another day successfully ticked off our yearlong countdown, I had one nagging thought. There weren’t any Afghans on those Pentagon or World Trade Center-bound planes. Not a single one. Five months of daily, often excruciating local interactions had reinforced for me the utterly provincial outlook of most Afghans. This was a land where even the most esteemed village elders couldn’t read or write, and extreme Taliban fighters had little notion of a global jihad or any agenda outside of Afghanistan.
Yet it was these local insurgents who had killed some of my soldiers and maimed many more. That same enemy would inevitably attack our base during tomorrow’s workout. And should we be lucky enough to shoot one of them, a motorbike would quickly whisk the wounded across the Reg desert to a famed ‘Taliban hospital’ in Quetta, Pakistan. Meanwhile, only one day earlier, Osama bin Laden himself slept peacefully across the border, just a few dozen miles from the Pakistani capital. Even today, most senior Taliban leaders remains at large, and hundreds of Taliban fighters will rest and refit in their secure sanctuary.
Strategy, by its very nature, and given the inevitable constraints of our finite power, must involve a realistic assessment of national means and desired ends. It is precisely because our government, and the distracted public that enabled it, never balanced its strategic checkbook, or crafted a sound policy, that my life – and those of 100,000 other professional soldiers in Afghanistan – didn’t change one bit when those Navy SEALS shot bin Laden. We muddled through, soldiered on, and fought the wrong war to the best of our ability – the one against Afghan farmers. It continues still. So far that war cost us 2,392 American lives. And counting.
Major Danny Sjursen is a U.S. Army strategist and former history instructor at West Point. He earned his MA in history from the University of Kansas and is working on his PhD on the subject of Civil Rights in New York City. His recent book, a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War: GHOSTRIDERS OF BAGHDAD: SOLDIERS, CIVILIANS, AND THE MYTH OF THE SURGE, was released by University Press of New England in October 2015. The views expressed are those of the author alone, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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Header image: The U.S. national security team gathered in the White House Situation Room to monitor the progress of Operation Neptune Spear.
 My unit was Blackheart Troop, 4th Squadron, 4th Cavalry, an armed reconnaissance squadron in the 1st Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, out of Fort Riley. We weren’t in Kansas anymore.
 Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, Pakistan’s CIA – which has a history of ties to the Taliban and other militant Islamic groups.
 International Security and Assistance Force – the NATO (American predominated) headquarters in Afghanistan.
 CIA World Fact Book, Afghanistan page, ‘People and Society,’ accessed on 12 May 2014, at
 Our nickname for the enemy – not unlike the VC or ‘Charlie’ designation popularized in the Vietnam War.
 The reference, of course, refers to the original 19th century ‘Great Game’ waged between Imperial Russia and the Britain for control of Central Asia. Afghanistan was then a pivotal pawn in that contest, sitting as it did on the geographical divide between both empires.
 Think the failed Times Square car bombing.
 Population estimate courtesy of the CIA World Fact Book, accessed on 12 May 2014, at https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/pk.html.