Children chased plastic bags floating in the pockmarked road but never approached the dusty compound we had been watching for the past two days. Men in black shawls entered and exited the gate, idling their motorbikes in the courtyard before approaching one of the two mud-roofed huts. One male always traveled flanked by bodyguards; the other men kissed his hands when he approached and hugged him as he departed. Sources indicated the compound we watched through our grainy drone feed was a Taliban operational center used to store improvised explosive devices. A plume of smoke and dust erupted from the compound as two Hellfires rocked the target. As the dust began to clear and bodies emerged in the rubble, it was time to move on. The drone camera slewed to the next target to prepare another strike. I switched screens on my computer and began scouring intelligence reports for the night’s raid. Tempo. Being faster. Doctrinal publications taught in stuffy classrooms harped on these tenets in training, but now I understood their implications in a combat zone. While the flat screen TVs, remote controlled drones, and treadmills on our base in Helmand, Afghanistan, might have been sharp departures from the woods of northern Virginia, competing with a thinking, breathing enemy was my first and only opportunity to experience the ethereal “nature of war” I had heard so much about in training.
In addition to promoting U.S. counterterrorism and humanitarian goals, maintaining forces in Afghanistan provides invaluable combat experience and morale support to U.S. conventional forces at a relatively low cost. As America hastily plans for future wars before concluding current conflicts, Afghanistan provides one of the last opportunities for conventional U.S. troops to fulfill vital command, control, and advise functions in a combat zone. As the U.S. begins a full-scale withdrawal from Afghanistan, this vital experience will already be lacking among the bulk of conventional forces when the next war — whether in the Pacific, Eastern Europe, or the Middle East — erupts. Removing our troops from Afghanistan eliminates the last vestige of combat experience at the company grade level and below, where most fighting (and dying) would occur in a future war.
While espousing continued deployments in pursuit of experience might be perceived as warmongering or immoral, it is important to recognize that this combat experience is a positive byproduct, rather than the sole desired end, of keeping U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Numerous government officials and foreign policy experts have already expounded upon the benefits of staying in Afghanistan: preventing an al-Qaida or Islamic State resurgence, keeping the Afghan government afloat, maintaining and advancing women’s rights, and countering other powers like Iran, China and Russia. In an environment in which U.S. decision makers are divided between fully withdrawing or maintaining a prolonged military mission, every factor — including the long-term benefits to the U.S. military — should be considered in the calculus. Increased combat experience within U.S. ranks is certainly not the only reason we should stay, but that does not mean its benefit should be overlooked.
“The nature of war doesn’t change. The nature of war…[is] imposing your will and friction and the human functions of war,” stated Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Milley in a recent talk with the Brookings Institution. In the confines of the classroom and the training area, “the nature of war” is an abstract concept. But even on a relatively protected base in Afghanistan (where the bulk of conventional troops deploy during Operation Freedom Sentinel), the veracity of “friction” and “exploiting the advantage” becomes clear. Friction is the uncertainty when an unaccounted Afghan Army vehicle approaches the gates of your compound and the chassis is weighted down like a car bomb. Exploiting the advantage and imposing your will is striking a Taliban command center after 10 hours of observation and immediately shifting to front line fighters because the enemy will retaliate within hours with a rocket attack on your base or a bomb targeting civilians in a district center. While these instances may seem trivial to what U.S. special operations forces face on nightly raids or what Marines encountered in 2011 in Sangin, these human factors will undoubtedly reverberate beyond America’s war in Afghanistan and will be staples in the wars to come, regardless of the evolving technological character and instruments of warfare.
As the Marine Corps and other services make large-scale changes to force structure in anticipation of “great power competition,” we must also consider our fallibility in predicting future conflicts as we consider Afghanistan. As Gen. H.R. McMaster infamously admitted: “We have a perfect record in predicting future wars — right? … And that record is 0 percent.” If the U.S. has not reached a conditions-based solution for withdrawal, blindly pivoting assets in preparation for a different war is illogical if U.S. forces can still contribute, and benefit from, an ongoing war.
Of course, a residual presence in Afghanistan must also be examined in terms of costs in blood and treasure. As of FY2020, the United States had spent at least $978 billion dollars; other estimates range as high as $2 trillion dollars. Meanwhile, over 2,400 Americans have died in Afghanistan. The costs have been astronomically high. But in emotionless economic terms, the money we have already spent is a sunk cost and therefore, should be discarded from our calculus. What then are our variable costs?
Between February 2020 and January 2021, the U.S. did not lose a serviceman or woman in a combat death in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the U.S. budgeted for just $14 billion throughout 2021 for Operation Freedom Sentinel funding in Afghanistan. While $14 billion may not account for every dollar spent, as a means of comparison, the U.S. budgeted for $114 billion under similar estimates in 2011. Relative to the heights of the Afghan war between 2009-2011, the variable costs of keeping a residual presence in Afghanistan have plummeted. The risks of death, injury, and trauma have not been eliminated for conventional troops, but they have been mitigated.
Lastly, and most importantly, the opinions of the men and women being sent to fight a war should be considered. While veterans and family members have been critical of a continued presence in Afghanistan, deploying and going to war is what every combat arms serviceman or woman has been trained and yearns to do, even among conventional forces. This desire is difficult to understand, but as Mark Bowden notes in “Black Hawk Down,” it would be like being on an NFL team that endured brutal training sessions 12 hours a day, but never played in a game. While my experiences were more analogous to being a role player in the defunct XFL than that of an NFL star at his prime, I still wanted to contribute and was fortunate to play my part in the game. When conventional troops are not given the opportunity to prove their mettle in any capacity, they often do one of two things: leave the military or self-select into special operations/Special Forces. Both actions further dilute conventional forces of experience and talent, hollowing out a critical U.S. military contingent in a future great power competition.
Pundits have written hundreds of articles poring over the costs and benefits of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. Blunting international terrorism is often the center of the conversation. But the strength of the Afghan military, and the impact our departure will have on its survival is usually a close second. However, rather than a parasitic or commensal union, the U.S. needs to realize that our military presence in Afghanistan is mutualistic. As the debate rages over the implications of a withdrawal on the future of U.S. national security, perhaps we should also be considering the impacts a full-scale withdrawal will have on a different military: our own.
Nathaniel Lowry is a former Marine ground intelligence officer with deployments to Afghanistan with TFSW and Africa/Spain with SPMAGTF-CR-AF. His writing has recently been included in Task and Purpose, The War Horse, and Army War College’s War Room. Lowry currently serves as the co-director of JD operations at Service to School and will be starting at Harvard Law next fall.
Editor’s note: This is an op-ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, firstname.lastname@example.org.