On Tuesday, the United States lost the first U.S. general killed in a combat zone since 1970, when Maj. Gen. George Casey died in a helicopter crash while commanding the famous 1st Cavalry Division in Vietnam. Troops of the Vietnam era gradually learned that airmobile combat also meant enduring the wider range of things that could go catastrophically wrong in helicopters. Their grandsons in Afghanistan have had to learn that “green-on-blue” casualties characterize an agonizing guerrilla conflict, where clan, tribal and family loyalties easily trump any notion of national identity.
Sadly, that same grim scenario played out again. The high-ranking American officer, identified as Maj. Gen. Harold Greene, was killed while inspecting Afghan cadets at their military academy outside Kabul, the equivalent of being assassinated while visiting summer training at West Point. In information-age warfare, symbols are often a substitute for victory. When an unguided rocket landed a mile away the main runway at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport, the Federal Aviation Administration suspended U.S. landing rights — and promptly handed Hamas its biggest “victory” in its profoundly suicidal war. Killing a U.S. major general provides the Taliban with their biggest triumph in the history of the 13-year Afghan conflict.
Why? Warfare in Afghanistan has never been about inflicting shock and awe, about installing puppets and saluting another victorious intervention. Those hard lessons of prevailing over a profoundly warlike tribal society have been learned and relearned many times — from Alexander the Great to the Soviet general staff. Our lasting national hubris was evident yesterday as well, with the Pentagon replaying its traditional role of always being the last to know. How else to understand the hapless Pentagon spokesman who asserted, against all evidence and common sense, that American trust for their Afghan counterparts remained unaffected. Wanna bet, admiral?
The irrefutable historical fact is that Afghan loyalties cannot be bought — but renting them is rarely a problem. Even when green-on-blue attacks peaked in 2012, the American command reacted by strengthening its “vetting” of Afghan soldiers, particularly those operating close to U.S. troops. Having spent the better part of an intelligence career running exactly those types of reliability investigations, I can attest that the potential unknowns are simply mind-boggling. What bonds of trust could even serve as a beginning baseline? “Well, has your cousin Abdul ever tried on a suicide vest? And if he had the chance, would he knock off an American general?” The fact is that we have no frame of reference remotely capable of bridging the vast cultural gap between our two societies — or distinguishing the good from the bad and truly dangerous.
The result is that our diplomatic-military establishment often operated blind, making great pronouncements about reversing the tides of Afghan history — but constantly being forced to recognize the intrusion of timeless realities. In “Little America,” his classic study of the Afghan war, Rajiv Chandrasekaran writes, “For all the grand pronouncements about waging a new kind of war, our nation was unable to adapt.” That failure extended across many institutions — diplomats who knew little about Afghan languages or customs, generals concentrating on their own agendas rather than those of the enemy, and development experts interested only in “making a buck.” His devastating conclusion: “For years, we dwelled on the limitations of the Afghans. [Instead], we should have focused on ours.”
One of those weaknesses is overestimating our ability to reform Afghan society while underestimating the ability of the Taliban to hang on long enough to thwart American will. President Obama chose to follow a strategy aimed only at withdrawal, camouflaged by the fig leaf that we would first train the Afghans to stand up for themselves. (You may recall that he promised something similar in Iraq, and just look how well that’s turned out.)
There should be no mistaking that yesterday’s attack was aimed with great audacity at the canonical symbol of Afghan self-reliance. The Taliban had the actionable intelligence and the operational savvy to place their agent at the prime time and place where he could inflict the most damage. The real targets: American hubris and Afghan compliance. If we can kill an infidel general, then which side should you be on?
For those of us who belong to the 1 percent of all Americans who have worn the uniform, those news bulletins arrived like a gut-punch. One of the cadets I trained is now a high-ranking leader of the U.S. contingent in the Afghan combat zone. The son of another now serves there as a platoon leader. The common factor for both of them is that combat is a daily reality and that their country owes them far more than a simple, “Thanks for your service.”
The Taliban understand the real value of that exceptional general: Do we?
Ken Allard, a retired Army colonel, is a military analyst and author on national-security issues.