An Endgame for the Endless War

By Ed Timperlake

The Forever War in Afghanistan can have an end-game path to victory just like President Trump has just done in defeating ISIS. He delivered on his campaign pledge when he was a candidate through forceful direct Presidential leadership engaging to do just that.

President Trump treated ISIS as a real threat and in doing so had the US military and our allies engage and focus on destroying the enemy

On January 19 2017 before the Trump Administration assumed power, we asked a simple yet powerful question in a Breaking Defense article:

What does victory over ISIS look like?

How does one declare victory or in military speak what are the end game “metrics” against a fighting force with a deeply religious ideological murderous  “brand?”

We argued: It is about dramatically stopping their influence and impact from a force which claims to be a state and reducing them to an impoverished band seeking refuge, and having nowhere to go on the globe where they are welcome.

The fight against ISIS specifically in Syria/Iraq, remember Kurdistan is part of Iraq, was a key part of the endless wars and now can be focused upon in terms of an end game.

Mark Perry accurately underscores the importance of Presidential leadership in getting to this strategic point: Trump’s ‘Eyeball-to-Eyeball’ Orders to the Generals on Syria

Despite the storm and fury, the Syria withdrawal policy is unambiguous and going forward.

The author has a very insightful conclusion:

In truth, it’s nearly impossible to ignore the obvious: that those who whine on about Trump “turning Syria over to Iran” or “betraying the Kurds” are the same people who got us into this mess in the first place.

But what does the end game in Afghanistan look like?

War termination in Afghanistan is not only important in terms of redirecting out efforts to protect core American interests and to deter adversaries investing and building for the high end fight, but also in demonstrating that the U.S. can actually do war termination effectively.

Stability operations simply requires no clear war termination strategy.

Crisis management with peer competitors clearly does.

The Afghanistan “warfighting school” is simply teaching the U.S. very bad strategic habits.

It is time to learn a new set of habits.

The past can provide a prologue to the end game.

In the end game in Vietnam, we had a “Hammer” and then stopped using it.

A fundamental principle of airpower is the ability to mass and concentrate firepower over great distance.

It is a perfect doctrine for use for Afghanistan as the early engagement in that war actually proved.

A lesson learned from my serving as a Marine Fighter pilot with USMC “Task Force Delta” bombing the Khmer Rouge in 1973 from Nam Phong Thailand, known as The Rose Garden was the great strength of U.S. airpower in stopping truly evil forces from overrunning a country.

An F-4 Phantom andA-6 Intruder of the Marine Corps, and an Air Force F-4, conduct electronic, Loran-assisted bombing over Cambodia. The U. S. set up a Loran transmitter site in Phnom Penh to provide close air support to the Cambodian government troops.

Engaging  appropriate  airpower platform as a residual Afghan war tipping battlefield component then our past must be looked on as  prologue because we had a “Hammer” and then stopped using it.

The threat of the return of American airpower as strategic and tactical battlefield “hammer” was very real in keeping South Vietnam free while President Nixon was in office.

Unfortunately, that option after August 15 1973 did not exist for the Cambodians.

Out of sight and out of mind, Cambodia turned into the killing fields when American airpower left.

That sad tragic country had been quickly overrun by the Khmer Rouge a band of pure fanatical ideological killers.

The liberals who advocated “get out! get out now!” turned a blind eye to the death of a country and resulting carnage that the withdrawal of airpower allowed to happen.

I was there and for me this is not an abstract second order strategic point.

It was American death from above over the skies of Phnom Penh that was the key to holding back the Khmers and not troops on the ground

With Cambodia lost in an evil dark tragedy, the next chapter was struck by the North Vietnam Army in South East Asia in the Spring of 1975 in the fall of South Vietnam.

With President Nixon having been driven from Office, and his airpower intervention guarantees rendered moot and morally blind liberal Democrats in Congress cutting off all aide to the South Vietnam Army, it was a perfect storm of defeat and the inevitable end was ordained.

The US powerful bombing response to stop the NVA Easter Offensive in 1972 nor going downtown in Hanoi with the ’72 Christmas Bombing to drive the North Vietnamese to negotiating table was no longer a viable and credible threat.

The simple take away that I personally lived through is that brutal and effective war fighting fact is that airpower is a real game changer when made consistent and real.

Moving red lines do not work.

From pushing the Khmer Rouge back from Phnom Pen in the summer of 1973 or as true hammer in enforcing the Nixon/Kissinger  negotiated settlement in trying to  keeping South Vietnam as a separate country, it was the reliance on ready airpower that made a difference.

Enter shaping an end game Afghanistan.

To do so, requires a “Viceroy” to coordinate the end game.

Plans to privatize the war proposed by two businessmen with ties to the White House have become a linchpin of the debate.

Erik Prince is proposing to send private contractors to Afghanistan instead of U.S. troops, and have the entire operation overseen by a “viceroy.”

Prince calls his proposal “A Strategic Economy of Force.”

It entails sending 5,500 contractors to Afghanistan to embed with Afghan National Security Forces, and appointing a “viceroy” to oversee the whole endeavor.

Historically, US airpower has been a powerful war fighting option and hopefully soon can be an effective tactical and strategic option in ending as President Trump accurately calls out “Endless Wars” in his State Of the Union address this year.

His insightful declaration was one of his most important points inside of his significant Presidential State-of-the Union speech.

“As a candidate for president, I loudly pledged a new approach.

“Great nations do not fight endless wars.”

Full Stop: this is a solid and clear statement and commitment Mr. President.

Any successful negotiated settlement in Afghanistan needs a residual “hammer”  to be a real tool in the end game.

Airpower on call as ready air  “death from above” is a critical element.

But for airpower to be effective it needs to be informed by an unfiltered strategic vision of communicating events on the ground in using that awesome power.

Having someone on the ground to call in air is often the stuff of legends.

Then-Staff Sgt. Robert Gutierrez Jr., Air Force Special Operations Command combat controller, was awarded the Air Force Cross for coordinating air support after being shot with an armor-piercing round. (U.S. Air Force)

As the negotiations proceed to end the war in Afghanistan, there is a residual ground dimension to continuing to fight by the Afghan Army and a modest Air Force that is essential for tactical and strategic success.

But they cannot do it alone.

Once again the past is prologue on learning from a brilliant move made in the negotiations with regard to the Vietnam War Paris Peace accords whereby the US created a Joint Military Commission of on the ground observers serving alongside South Vietnamese troops and village officials at all levels.

  • A cease-fire in place in South Vietnam followed by precise dilineations of communist and government zones of control.
  • The establishment of “Joint Military Commissions” composed of the four parties and an “International Commission of Control and Supervision” composed of Canada, Hungary, Indonesia, and Poland to implement the cease-fire. Both operate by unanimity.

Both sides agreed to the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Laos and Cambodia and the prohibition of bases in and troop movements through these countries.

It was agreed that the DMZ at the 17th Parallel would remain a provisional dividing line, with eventual reunification of the country “through peaceful means.”

An international control commission would be established made up of Canadians, Hungarians, Poles, and Indonesians, with 1,160 inspectors to supervise the agreement.

However, with the removal of President Nixon and the promise of airpower intervention taken off the table and because of war weariness of the American people reflected in a majority control of Democrats in the House and Senate who decided to morally walk away South Vietnam fell to both an indigenous uprising and a 17 Division North Vietnamese Army invasion.

This dynamic is often pointed to as the reason for the American defeat.

But the real story is more complex in sowing the seeds of defeat from 1973-to 1975.

Embedded in the Paris Accord was a brilliant strategy but poorly executed.

As described in the history of the war, there were 1,160 advisors throughout South Vietnam to supervise the agreement.

But the call to supervise was fatally flawed because all they could do was look and report.

Taking nothing away from their presence being “eyes on ground truth” throughout South Vietnam, it was the lack of a “hammer” or actionable combat penalties that made their mission strategically pointless.

Taking a page from the structure of how the US decided to end our involvement in South Vietnam is important for Afghanistan.

First the very good news — airpower will not go away.

South Vietnam had an air force and it did help slightly in the interim between August 15 1973 and April 1975, but it wasn’t enough.

America should never again never walk away from an ally still engaged in combat without a residual US airpower hammer as the situation requires.

The real lesson learned on war termination is the need for on the ground trusted eyes to call in airpower wither Afghan AF or US/Nato on call or both.

Facing a brutal fact of a 17+ year American/NATO engagement in Afghanistan, many troops have died or were wounded in combat but the butchers bill of killed and wounded apparently was not dramatic enough for the citizens of counties and especially the families of the fallen to ask the Generals: Do you have a realistic and effective plan to end this war?

Just one example of failure in buy-in the most precious commodity in war, time, the fact that a rapid combat request for Light Attack Aircraft was made in 2004 and the Pentagon took over a decade to even effectively respond is a point of  everlasting shame.

That epic failure is directly attributable to General Mattis who as Secretary of Defense did nothing to accelerate indigenous air platforms in the Afghan AF.

When have you read a positive review of our combat experience in Afghanistan from the Pentagon’s Inspector General?

Not a common experience for sure, but very recently, the IG underscored a significant advance in how the battle in Afghanistan is going forward.

“Less than two years after flying its first combat mission, the Afghan Air Force’s A-29 Super Tucano aircraft are playing a key role in supporting Afghan soldiers on the ground.

“When they show up overhead, the Afghan National Army have the confidence to continue attacking on ground,” the deputy commander for Train, Advise and Assist Command-South said in a new Defense Department Inspector General report.

Absent sufficient air coverage, Afghan security forces who had grown reliant on coalition air power suffered a series of defeats to the Taliban.

Building a native air strike capability within the Afghan Air Force is the key to Afghan success in the future, Army Gen. John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee in February 2017.

“Close air support and aerial mobility are the most critical remaining gaps that need to be addressed,” Nicholson said. “At the tactical level, the [Afghan National Army] needs to improve its integration of fires and air power.”

In its report, the DoD IG praised the Afghan Air Force for the progress it has made…

This is surely good news, but one can ask why did this take so long?

It has been clear for a number of years, that close air support is a decisive factor.

This is what I wrote in 2010:

General Mattis then Commanding Joint Forces Command (JFCOM) testified about a special forces effort called operation Imminent Fury II. The Department of Defense supported the effort and sent a request to Congress to act.

The entire action from testimony to request took just a month, which is relative light speed.

But nothing occurred.

If there were tens of thousands of causalities every year the political class would have thought much harder on ending the war, and demanded during the Forever War journey a quest for better tactical and strategic visions by the Generals in charge.

It took the election of President Trump to say stop your business as usual war plans and give me a way to end this war.

There is one take away from endless wars is that America has a battle hardened military.

We have a military that has combat warriors at all ranks who know how to fight on lethal “fields of fire.”

We also know very well how to command airpower strikes.

The question on the table in Afghan end game negotiations will be the consideration of a specific number and type of US uniformed troops on the ground, because direct “eyes on” the Taliban is also essential to use airpower effectively.

Taliban, just like ISIS, Khmer Rouge, and  Vietnam re-education camps take your pick are all very bad.

Learning from the strategic mistake of the Paris Peace Accord, on the ground with powerless advisors telling a neutered  UN, then  the Erik Prince plan has a strategic contribution that can lead to victory for the Afghan Army with the appropriate force structure.

His vision for embedded boots on the ground has in it the ultimate “top cover” a check and balance over CENTCOM through the use of the concept of a Viceroy.

A feature of Prince’s plan that is very attractive is the information network created by trusted observes on the  ground embedded with Afghan fighting forces.

This is so so important because after the Vietnam negotiated settlement, we did not leave behind a force to engage militarily and with residual and expanding NVA/VC left in place in South Vietnam, the US did nothing.

Not only can Erik Prince’s embedded contractors call in “death from above” with his proposed indigenous air fleet being contemplated  but also as the glide path to a really successfully ending of the “Forever War.”

The kind of team he has envisaged can be the honest real time combat intel “eyes on” to tell President Trump’s Viceroy and thus the President and his National Command Authority, how everything is going on the ground.

No more endless command post “quad charts” that all is going well and as appropriate direct consultations with the President to ensure that a strategic air-power strike capability is real and always  ready to augment as necessary ground progress, empowered with Afghan TacAir and Erik Prince’s air fleet  in support.

Real time dynamics — no BS ground truth — reaching the President as appropriate for a the contemplated three years of Prince’s plan is  a very powerful the ongoing negations.

Essentially it provides an insurance: “How goes it -Are the Taliban adhering to any negotiated settlement” is critical?

With regard to Vietnam, we followed the path identified in Animal House: You fucked up you trusted us!

Well not again.

One final point: we have an emerging leadership class of wariers who earned the right to lead our nation.

As I wrote in 2010, we have a new generation of vets coming who every right to lead the nation.

It has been reported that the most dangerous rank in Iraq and Afghanistan combat is a USMC Lance Corporal (E-3). Those wearing that stripe on their Marine Dress Blues have the highest probability of being killed or wounded. A Marine Lance Corporal makes around $1,300 per month.

The Marines’ brothers and sisters in arms serving with the Army, Navy, and Air Force are also paying a heavy price.  In the opening engagement the US Naval Academy had the most graduates killed on 9/11 of any institution. West Point graduates have paid the highest price of all US officers serving in combat today.

It is not my intention to dwell on just the sacrifice of all but to send a message to America that a new generation of veterans is coming. This generation of veterans has truly earned the right to lead America into the future.

A few soldiers raising their hands today to support and defend the Constitution will still be making national security decisions in 2060.

However, not just for our national security, but throughout America there is now a tremendous force for good in our society.

A new generation is with us who believes despite the risk of their own life that their service in a Nation at war is bigger than just a sense of self.

They deserve an end to the endless war.

The featured photo shows a U.S. Navy EA-18 Growler refuelling from a 28th Expeditionary Aerial Refueling Squadron KC-135 Stratotanker during a mission in support of Operation Freedom Sentinel over Afghanistan, Dec. 14, 2018. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jordan Castelan)