Bellum Romanum is all-out war without restraint as Romans practiced it against groups they considered to be barbarians. I came upon the term a few days ago listening to a Dan Carlin Hard Corps History podcast about my ancestors titled the Celtic Holocaust. He starts the podcast by asking “what are you willing to die for”? He then ups the ante by asking “what are you willing to sacrifice everything for? That question, although profound, is an alien concept in the western world today.
I recommend downloading the podcast, it’s a long one but fascinating. Although the topic involved the epic slaughter of my ancestors it is hard, these thousands of years removed, not to admire the Romans. Could you imagine going into battle, at hand to hand range, with a people who were 6 inches taller and commensurately stronger than your side? That had to be terrifying; as is the thought of being forced to take a stand where everything you know and love hangs in the balance.
Which brings us to Afghanistan. The Voice of America published a solid article recently which explains what an additional 4,000 American troops will most likely be doing when deployed to Afghanistan:
“We need guardian angels,” said Lt. Col. John Sandor, deputy senior adviser for the Afghan Army’s 201st Corps, referring to security forces that would protect U.S. training teams so they can work alongside Afghan brigades.
….Sometimes, said Maj. Richard Anderson, operations adviser for 201st Corps, the Afghan answer is: “Let the Americans do it.” In early spring, when U.S. forces asked the Afghan army to step up its pursuit of IS militants in Nangarhar province, they encountered resistance. Demoralized by an IS attack that killed 16 Afghan soldiers in April, Afghan commanders wanted the American and Afghan special operations forces to carry the fight. But ground units are needed to hold territory, so U.S. advisers were forced to spend weeks cajoling the Afghan Army to join the battle.”
It appears we are sending more American troops to protect their fellow American’s from the Afghan troops they are training and trying to get to fight. The Afghan soldiers apparently are not willing to die for a central government in Kabul that is not only corrupt but is also, in the eyes of most Afghans, not legitimate. How could they view it as anything else when it was installed and maintained by infidels from the west?
For American troops the question of what they are willing to die for is easily answered. Each other. That is the harsh reality of a military system designed to promote small unit cohesion by linking directly to unit histories, traditions, discipline and military virtue. The American military can fight effectively with or without the support of the American people. The support and appreciation of the military by the public helps mitigate the sacrifices soldiers are asked to make but it is not required. Most importantly soldiers know that if they are killed in battle their families will be provided for by the government who placed them in harms way.
Afghan troops do not enjoy the advantages of their western mentors. Afghanistan is not a cohesive country; it’s a disparate group of tribal peoples living inside an artificial boundary dictated by foreign colonialists over 100 years ago. Their army has no winning tradition, no lineage to draw upon, lacks competence at all levels and is unable to generate sufficient combat power to confront its internal enemies. The Afghan soldiers know if they are killed in battle their families are on their own. If wounded and unable to bribe the hospital staff to feed them soldiers will linger and die a protracted, agonizing, completely avoidable death.
The various groups that comprise the Taliban do not operate under the same circumstances as their countrymen in the Afghan military. They have built-in cohesion based on the tribal/clan structure from which they come. They often flock to successful commanders giving them rudimentary esprit de corps. The Taliban make an effort to look after the families of their fallen and although their medical capabilities are poor they are consistently applied. No Taliban fighter convalescing in a Pakistani or Iranian hospital is going to perish because nobody fed him.
Most importantly the Taliban are facing, in their minds, Bellum Romanum. They are fighting for their land, their families and their way of life. They view the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) as puppets of western infidel powers bent on their total destruction. What’s the counter-narrative to that? There isn’t one.
The only course of action that would make any sense is placing private military mentor/trainers at the battalion (Kandak) level and leaving them there long enough for those units to develop cohesion around their mentors. Add to that combat enablers in the form of indirect fire, some decent snipers, effective tactical air and the lift needed for dust offs (medical evacuation) and combat resupply and maybe, just maybe, you can develop a security force that has the cohesion required to generate and sustain combat power.
Doing that would not take many men; it would take the right men, which could have proved difficult to find, incentivize, and retain. For now that option appears dead in the water so the point is moot. What is not moot is what it will take to achieve a military solution in Afghanistan. It would take some form of Bellum Romanum; a zero sum campaign that matches the zero sum attitude of the other side in this conflict. The American military cannot and will not fight that kind of war. We have fought like that in living memory and here is a story about what that looks like from my Dad, MajGen J.D. Lynch USMC (Ret).
When I was a first classman at USNA (somewhere around 2 centuries ago), during an aviation class, an instructor reminisced about WWII and his time as a carrier pilot flying Hellcats. When asked by one of the guys what he considered his most dangerous and for that matter, frightening experience during the war. His response was that, early in the war he was Admiral Nimitz’s pilot. After the Battle of Tarawa, the admiral was so concerned about the casualty figures that he was flown to Tarawa to see for himself (he traveled by sea planes in those early days of the war). In any event, the pilot, now an instructor at Navy, said that he left the plane with the admiral’s party and walked the Tarawa battlefield …. he said that was his most frightening experience of the war … the Marines just stared at everybody and seemed ready to kill anybody at any time with little or no reason.
Could you imagine front line troops so formidable that they scared a pilot (from their own side) who made his living landing on aircraft carriers? I can’t and we’re not going to see that kind of infantry anytime soon. We’re not going there because we don’t have to go there. The ANSF security forces aren’t going there either although they need to. In our enlightened modern world where history is little known and often twisted to fit the political narrative of the day we believe that war can be fit inside of some magical box that excludes butchery, savagery, hatred and slaughter. We believe we are above Bellum Romanus even in the face of Islamic terrorist who fight with the same methods and ferocity of the barbarian tribes that contested Roman rule.
Those who believe the arc of history will deliver us to an enlightened state where Marines in contact will always be tame enough to make senior naval officers comfortable inside their lines are deluded. Granted front line American infantry today does not resemble the Marines on Tarawa; it doesn’t have to as we’re not fighting an existential threat (yet). Our divided country, with its fractured culture and forgotten history, will be tested again. Most likely by a unified culture fighting under the banner of Islam. When that happens we will fight like the Roman’s fought, like the Vietcong fought, like we fought on the hellish islands in the Pacific or we will be vanquished. Then we will learn what the Romans knew; Vae victis (woe to the vanquished).
Sending more trainers to Afghanistan to watch over the trainers already there so the trainees don’t kill them is not a viable military strategy. It is, however about the only option available to the Axis of Adults given the the fiscal and manpower constraints the Pentagon operates under today.
The only diplomatic effort that could possibly break the current stalemate would involved way outside the box ideas like advocating for a Pashtun and Balouch (and a Kurdish while we’re at it) homeland that would erase the artificial lines drawn on the world map (by the west) over a hundred years ago. That would cause enough disruption in the status quo to get Pakistan, Turkey and Iran worked up to the point of hysteria while aligning ourselves with the insurgents goals. I like the idea of turning the insurgents back on their creators while we occupy the moral (these people deserve their own homeland) high ground.
It would also be sticking our thumb in the eye of the UN, an organization for which I have little use. But that’s not going to happen, outside the box thinking like that is no longer accepted by the ruling classes. It is a threat to their grip on power and prestige despite its practicality. They will fight to the last American to defend a system that is collapsing right in front of our eyes.
America can sustain the deployment of 10 to 15 thousand troops into Afghanistan indefinitely but we have a critical center of gravity. We will not tolerate excessive casualties. If the Taliban are able to do what Afghans have always done; if they isolate and destroy in detail a military unit, our adventure in Afghanistan will come to a rapid end. If they are not able to inflict large numbers of casualties on us then maybe we can run the clock on them to the point that even the Taliban are tired of fighting. Maybe….but betting on the Taliban growing weary of war, when all they know is war and they seem to be winning said war, is like financial planning via buying lottery tickets. It could work but the odds (and reality) are against it.