Afghanistan and logistics

I see a number of political blogs saying that Afghanistan is impossible to conquer, or impervious to outside control; and they cite the British, the Russians, and (in the better-read cases) Alexander. I think they are making a mistake. Just for starters, they are cherry-picking the data; what about those tribes from the southern part who did manage to hold the place together as a moderately coherent kingdom? Just being from Afghanistan isn’t magic pixie dust that makes the mountains go away, or cause the other tribes to like you any better. Rather the opposite! And similarly for the Taliban, who were doing a pretty good job of ruling the place to their tastes until they ran foul of the invasion; it’s not as though they were a dearly loved regime.

Then, consider that the British campaigns were fought with literal muzzle-loading, black-powder rifles (the British ones not substantially better than the Afghan), with logistics tails limited to horses and camels, and backed by a military-industrial base that was either nonexistent (India) or three months’ sail distant (Britain) and minuscule by modern standards. Although Afghanistan is no poster child for infrastructure, there certainly has been some improvement since 1851! And besides that, just how many of the lessons of a pre-mechanisation army (pre-railroad, even!) can you really apply to one with trucks, aircraft, and satellites? It was always logistics that was the limiting factor; I think it’s safe to say that the imperial powers’ logistic ability has improved rather more than the fighting power of the tribes. The AK-47 is not as large an improvement on the jezail as a truck convoy is on camels.

What of the Russians? They weren’t doing so badly as all that, holding the place down; certainly they controlled the main valley corridor. Which, while it doesn’t look so impressive on a map, contains most of the population and most of the productive capacity, such as it is. The Americans didn’t supply the Taliban with SAM missiles out of the simple goodness of their hearts; they were worried that the Soviets were winning. And this was in the 80s, with the Soviet economy moribund to the point of near collapse and the empire fraying at the seams.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that these same predictions were made back in 2001; “Afghanistan is unconquerable”, it was said. And then the Taliban’s armies in the field collapsed under a hail of precision bombs, and the campaign ended in three months. There’s nothing magic about mountains.

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14 Comments

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14 responses to “Afghanistan and logistics

  1. Richard Campbell

    1) In the modern era (which I hand-wave vaguely as post-WWII), every proto-state is impossible to control given a sufficiently determined nationalist proto-regime.
    2) Even before the modern era, mountains were painful. Witness the Balkans, and to a lesser extent the Hatfields-and-McCoys of Appalachia. Mountains make people weird.
    3) Coalition troop deaths in June exceeded those in Iraq.

  2. Blayne

    I argued that no democracy can ever conquer an unwilling nation. Totalitarian dictatorships have little long term problems, eventually terrorist attacks stop after you killed 100 of them for every 1 of us killed sufficient number of times.

  3. Richard Campbell

    Afghanistan (USSR), Chechnya (Russia), Xinjiang (China).

  4. kingofmen

    And conversely, the Boer republics (Britain), the Philippines (United States), Malaysia (GB again.)

    Why do you say proto-states are impossible to control? There may or may not be some endemic level of violence you can’t get below short of genocide – and yes, genocide is a bit impractical, what with the way the European ambassadors will snub you at all the good parties – but that’s not the same as not having control. After all, many modern states have high homicide levels and frequent bank robberies, not to mention city areas where the police patrol in pairs if that, but we don’t generally consider them uncontrolled for all that.

    My point about mountains was that technology makes them less painful. So I don’t understand why you say “even before the modern era”. The idea is that it’s especially before the modern era.

  5. Richard Campbell

    “the Boer republics (Britain), the Philippines (United States), Malaysia (GB again.)”

    Re: Boers – predates the modern era I defined above (ended 1902 or 1914 depending on your choice)
    Re: Philippines – predates the modern era I defined above (ended approximately 1913).
    Re: Malaysia – Britain lost with Malaysian independence in 1957.

    “many modern states have high homicide levels and frequent bank robberies, not to mention city areas where the police patrol in pairs if that, but we don’t generally consider them uncontrolled for all that”

    Re: high homicide levels – Not buying it. In the US, Detroit and Baltimore had the highest murder rates of any cities > 250K (2006). Those rates were still < 50 murders per 100K population per year. Estimates from the Brookings Institute for Baghdad were for over 230 murders per 100K population per year, among civilians…not even counting any insurgent or coalition casualties.

    And if you suddenly increased the murder rate in a major US city by an order of magnitude (for most non-Detroit cities) or at least quadrupled it (Detroit), they would be declared uncontrolled. Doubly so if you added an entire separate low-intensity conflict to the model.

    Re: mountains – mountains have always made people crazy, is my point.

  6. kingofmen

    Re: Boers – predates the modern era I defined above (ended 1902 or 1914 depending on your choice)
    Re: Philippines – predates the modern era I defined above (ended approximately 1913).

    Yes, but I was responding to Blayne’s suggestion that democracies cannot conquer other nations, which he did not limit to the modern era.

    Re: Malaysia – Britain lost with Malaysian independence in 1957.

    Britain pulled out of Malaysia, yes, but they crushed the Communist guerillas first and left behind a capitalist, reasonably friendly government, which was their aim. They weren’t forced out by an insurgency.

    And if you suddenly increased the murder rate in a major US city by an order of magnitude (for most non-Detroit cities) or at least quadrupled it (Detroit), they would be declared uncontrolled.

    Yes, if the increase was sudden, ok. But these things do exist on a continuum. Certainly there are more dangerous cities than Detroit in the world – what’s the murder rate for Mexico City, or for Beijing? (Or, God help us, Harare.) You wouldn’t say that those respective governments aren’t pretty firmly in control.

  7. Richard Campbell

    Fair enough re: democracies. I think we have now established that
    1) sometimes democracies have conquered other nations and
    2) sometimes totalitarian states have failed.

    Re: Malaysia: my reading suggests that Britain was able to neutralize a nationalist insurgency by negotiating independence, rather than first crushing it and then leaving just for fun.

    Mexico City (more technically, the coterminus Distrito Federal) had a 2005 reported murder rate of 17.55 per 100k people, more like Pittsburgh and Indianapolis than Detroit. Even if you factor in a three times underreporting rate for corruption, still just on par with Detroit. No clue re: Beijing, but yes, the African continent is kind of the lead standard as far as deplorable statistics.

  8. kingofmen

    Perhaps a better metric is the ability of the government to extract taxes and protect productive capacity. It takes a pretty large civil war before a government can’t at least pay its own soldiers. I think both Iraq and Afghanistan are pacified to that level.

  9. Richard Campbell

    Well…which government?

    I mean, yes, the US government can pay the soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Could the Iraqi government pay enough to keep 600,000 soldiers (roughly 1 soldier per 50 citizens, which is the US Army Field manual recommended number to pacify an insurgency) in the field if the US was not keeping in at least 150K soldiers in place?

  10. Richard Campbell

    And also, didn’t the Northern Alliance hold about 30% of Afghanistan from 1996 until 2001?

  11. kingofmen

    If the Iraqi government didn’t insist on tanks and body armour, I don’t see why not. AK-47s are cheap, oil is expensive. Let’s also keep in mind that at least half the insurgents would go away if not for the US Army conveniently providing them with a target.

    The Northern Alliance had the support of Russia and Iran, and didn’t hold anything very productive anyway – poor, wrong-culture provinces, as it were.

  12. Blayne

    I’ld argue the USSR’s ability to hold down and control the entirity of western Europe in an iron grip for the better part of 50 years with the odd occurence would be credit to my hypothesis.

    The USSR pulling out of Afghanistan was more about the collapse of the political will of the USSR and its collapse from a socialist totalitarian state to a proto democratic one had alot more to do with its failure then the military situation if what I read about Spetsnaz is true.

    Also I’ld consider American support of insurgents by the billions of dollars as a considerable non trivial contamination of the model.

    Take for example Nazi Germany in areas where its firepower and political collaboration were most felt its control was tightest in areas where it was thinly spread (like most of rear area ostland) partisans ruled the forest republics.

  13. kingofmen

    Russia’s success shows that it is possible to maintain control of vassal states for some decades. It does not demonstrate that it was Russia’s particular political organisation that led to such success. Control groups, Blayne! Don’t they teach you comp-sci types anything about experimental design?

  14. Blayne

    flow charts?

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