War Stories

Why the American Military’s Greatest Strength Wasn’t Enough in Afghanistan

The U.S. is unmatched at mounting complex operations like the Kabul evacuation. That’s not what Afghanistan has needed for the last 20 years.

A woman stands with her hands clasped in prayer next to a bus. A U.S. service member in fatigues stands in the foreground, facing her.
A woman prays as she boards a bus at a processing center for Afghan refugees at the Dulles Expo Center in Chantilly, Virginia, on Tuesday. Joshua Roberts/Getty Images

There’s a military adage, often attributed to Gen. Omar Bradley: “Amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics”—which may explain why America’s military strategies often fail, but our logistics succeed brilliantly.

Case in point: Afghanistan, where our strategy was ill suited to the country but our logistics—seen most vividly in the ongoing evacuation—have been stunning. Whatever President Joe Biden’s failings in planning the withdrawal, once it got going, the inflow of planes and outflow of passengers—more than 100,000 people evacuated since Aug. 14 (as of midafternoon Aug. 25)—have been impressive. (I’m referring simply to the speed and timing of planes landing, loading, and taking off inside the airport, not the violent mayhem going on outside the gates, which is another matter.)

Advertisement

This sort of inflow and outflow—moving troops, weapons, ammunition, as well as the food, water, fuel, and spare parts to sustain them for a long time from one place to another, quickly— has long been the United States military’s most formidable strength.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

The classic tale is the Berlin airlift of 1948. The Soviet Union blocked access to West Berlin by way of roads, rails, and canals, so the United States and Britain supplied the city by air—delivering 2.3 million tons of food, fuel, and other essentials in 278,000 airdrops over an 11-month span, at its peak landing one plane at the city’s airport every 30 seconds. (Finally, Josef Stalin lifted the blockade, though tensions over Berlin continued for another 13 years.)

Advertisement

Gen. Curtis LeMay was the U.S. commander of the airlift, and its success got him promoted to run the new Strategic Air Command, which was in charge of the U.S. atomic arsenal. It made sense. The Berlin airlift involved intricately plotting the movement of supplies to airplanes, airplanes across the Atlantic to Berlin, then back again after unloading the supplies. At the time, atomic war was seen in the same way: load A-bombs on the planes, fly them over the Soviet Union, drop the bombs, and fly back, without crashing into one another or running out of fuel on the way. The U.S. war strategy was to destroy as much, and as quickly, as possible. In other words, for many years, nuclear war planning was logistics planning.

Advertisement
Advertisement

America’s strength at military logistics predated the atomic age. In World War II, several German generals were master tacticians on the battlefield, but the Allies won mainly because of the United States’ superiority in stuff—tanks, planes, ships, weapons, troops, and the logistical planners who put them all together at the right times and places.

But the idea dates back further still. Conrad Crane, longtime historian at the U.S. Army War College, said in an email: “Beginning with the Civil War, our way of war has relied heavily on our industrial might and on waves of material and technology.” Like many military historians, Crane points to Russell Weigley’s classic 1973 book The American Way of War, which argues that U.S. military commanders have fought on principles of attrition or annihilation, or both, since the dawn of the republic. During the War of Independence, when resources were scant, Gen. George Washington drew the British into the interior of the continent, drawing them away from their fleets and attacking them in isolation. Later, commanders relied on large masses of firepower to destroy enemy forces—then, in the air and atomic eras, enemy cities.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Since the 1970s, there have been some attempts to alter this “American way of war.” In the “small wars” against Latin American guerrillas, and in the “counterinsurgency” wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, some commanders have adopted strategies relying more on securing the population than on killing bad guys for its own sake. But even then, the Americans have fallen back on the more tried-and-true tools of air power and artillery—more discretely applied versions of what Weigley called “annihilation”—to crush the enemy.

Advertisement

The temptation to pursue this course is alluring, in part because amassing firepower—or any other military asset in large quantities—is a matter of mathematics: how to deliver x tons of material (troops, airplanes, bombs, supplies) across y miles in z amount of time, given the resources at hand. You can calculate the answer with precision and certainty.

Advertisement

By contrast, strategy—how to best use your resources to win a war—is a more nebulous business. It requires knowledge not just of military tactics (which itself is less scientific than logistics) but also of history, politics, economics, and culture—about your own country and the country where you’re fighting.

The logisticians know how to get a job done, if it can be done. During the latter part of the Iraq war, the Air Force chief of staff, Gen. T. Michael “Buzz” Moseley, refused to use his scarce supply of planes to transport drones to the battlefield. Like most senior Air Force officers at the time, he believed bombs should be dropped from planes flown by pilots, not from drones controlled by remote joystick operators. Moseley also refused to airlift a new model of armored troop-carrying vehicle, saying it couldn’t fit in the planes. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates fired him and replaced him with Gen. Norton Schwartz, the head of the Air Force’s Transportation Command—the first time the job was filled by someone who hadn’t flown combat planes. Schwartz—the logistician—figured out a way to airlift the drones and the troop carriers.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

What we’re seeing inside Kabul airport right now are officers trained in the tradition of Schwartz, experts in the science of moving stuff around. But Schwartz wouldn’t have been better than Moseley, or anyone else, at figuring out how to win the war in Iraq. And the crews inside the airport don’t have any great ideas on how to keep disaster at bay, beyond their narrow mission, in Afghanistan, not even the deadly chaos just outside their gates. Nor does anyone expect them to. That’s the stuff of strategy. It’s a lot harder, and it goes against the spirit of “the American way of war.” That’s why American strategy sometimes looks like the work of amateurs.

Advertisement