On the Laws of Engineering
A mere four days after the first part of this article was published, the tally of Afghan provincial capitals taken by the Taliban has tripled to nine—a full quarter of the total—and some 65% of the country admitted to be in their hands. Press releases about “special forces” and “B-52 strikes” and “dozens of Taliban dead” may all be true. But they are ineffectual. This is an end game, with only weeks to run.
The prime reason for this is relatively simple to grasp. There is a cod ‘First Law of Engineering’, much used by bodgers, rather than craftsmen: “When in doubt, use a bigger hammer”. Unfortunately, this also appears to have been the principle applied since WW2 to most overseas interventions by Western democracies—especially the USA. This is the nub of the second point made at the end of the first part: a belief that “shock and awe”, liberally applied, is the answer to perceived threats to Western democracy.
Ever since the Axis were overwhelmed by massive conventional armies deploying boundless materiel, massive military force has been applied to solve even diplomatic problems. Post-WW2 Western democracies, other than the USA, realise this was an expensive game they could no longer play. After the French lost Indochina in 1953 and the British were humiliated at Suez three years later, only the USA had both financial and military muscle to continue this tack.
In Korea, the weight of US materiel both drove back the North Korean invaders and managed to halt the Chinese PLA when they crossed the Yalu River. The fact that the US 2nd Division came close of being wiped out was lost in the cease-fire.
As a result, escalation in Vietnam barely a decade later was predicated on over 500,000 troops, backed by profligate expenditure of munitions and copious use of air power. Applied with little subtlety and even less analysis of effectiveness, almost pure military engagement by troops with scant understanding of the people, their culture, or their language, triggered a resentment that spawned Mao’s “sea through which the guerrilla fish could swim”. The Americans repeated the same mistakes that had made Indochina untenable to the French two decades earlier, but with more firepower.
Whether it stemmed from hubris, or macho culture or the sales skills of Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex”, both the Pentagon and successive administrations bought into engineering’s First Law. The one-dimensional aspect of raw military power applied to a different culture was lost on them. Minor successes against trivial opposition in Grenada and Panama reinforced the “night is right” school, such that setbacks in Lebanon and Somalia were discounted. Deployment of massive force in both Gulf Wars served to further reinforce the belief that cruise missiles, stealth bombers, advanced electronics etc., justified the bottomless budget required. They were the tools to solve international problems.
At first, this even seemed to work in Afghanistan. But once awesome forces, with their awesome equipment were sitting isolated on bases with PXs, ESPN on TV and regular rotation home, it became Vietnam-in-the-desert. An alien occupation force in the midst of a resentful population provides no long-term solution. The use of local interpreters and the training of local forces was undercut by imposing Western values seen as alien: emancipating and educating women; pouring in aid administered by contractors. Afghan women who embraced opportunities offered were outnumbered by men and women holding traditional beliefs. Billions of dollars in aid boosted corruption, as well as contractor profits. Imagine if Salt Lake City were taken over by muslims who built a Grand Mosque, encourages all to attend and converted all schools to Madrassas so the next generation would..
Like the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the Balkans, or the Soviets in Eastern Europe, military force won’t hold if the population resists. Even in Iraq, after one of the most swift and decisive military victories the world has seen, the low-level chaos there now derives from having removed the dictatorial glue that held that fractious country together. The West has provided nothing credible to replace it.
Two decades of costly Western effort in Afghanistan has achieved only a regime that is corrupt, ineffectual and likely to be short-lived. As the Americans pull their last forces out, the chance Ahmandzai will last any longer than Diem did in Saigon at the equivalent point seem slim.
(For a military view on this from the Royal United Services Institute, see🙂