Saturday, August 28, 2021

After Leaving Afghanistan to the Taliban, Where Do We Go from Here?

     By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

The wreckage the U.S. is leaving in Afghanistan should be a reminder of the dangers of promoting American exceptionalism with military power.  We should have learned that painful lesson of legitimacy in Vietnam, but we have a short memory.  America had no exit strategy in Vietnam or Afghanistan, making those withdrawals a fiasco and jeopardizing U.S. foreign policy.

Where do we go from here?  After evacuating over 100,000 Americans and Afghan asylum seekers in the largest airlift in history, America must now reshape its national security strategy.  Radical Islamist terrorism continues to be the greatest threat to America and its allies, but massive interventions with U.S. combat forces have proven to be an unsuitable deterrent.

During the Cold War, with the exception of Vietnam, the U.S. had a containment strategy to deter communism in low intensity conflict (LIC) with the training and advisory missions of Special Operations Forces (SOF).  After 9/11, U.S. strategy shifted from containment to intervention, but SOF continued their training and advisory missions around the world.

America must now shift its strategic priorities from large deployments of conventional combat forces in military interventions to smaller and more specialized military forces that work closely with U.S. and foreign civilian and military personnel.  SOF provide that capability, along with a separate and better known capability for attack and raid capabilities.

Most Americans are familiar with the attacks and raids of Delta Force and Seals, but not with low-profile SOF advisory and training missions that enable local forces to counter terrorist threats around the world.  SOF advisors and trainers are quiet professionals who are language qualified and culturally oriented to enable them to achieve mission success through their indigenous counterparts.

Unlike the quick and dirty missions of direct action SOF forces, SOF trainers and advisors must remain in the area of operations for extended periods to develop the trust and confidence of their indigenous counterparts.  The direct and indirect missions of SOF are quite different; and while they require different skill sets, they complement each other.

SOF trainers and advisors serve on the country teams of U.S. embassies as well as under military commanders in potentially hostile cultural environments.  They are a unique military capability that can bridge the formidable gap between diplomacy and military operations, and should be considered diplomat-warriors.  


The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are over.  The U.S. should reorient the priorities of its military strategies from intervention to containment.  If it does, then it’s back to the future for SOF advisory and training missions. That would avoid the pitfalls of large deployments of U.S. combat forces that compromised the legitimacy of U.S. military interventions in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.  But have Americans learned that lesson of legitimacy?     



Phil Klay described the initial exuberance of Americans to strike back at the Taliban after 9/11.  As a Marine who served in Afghanistan, he experienced the frustration of soldiers who were told that they were champions of the rights of mankind, and then left by three presidents to flounder in a hopeless war.  The U.S. military has long known the importance of exit strategies from such entanglements, but in Afghanistan our national leader forgot the painful lessons learned in Vietnam.  See

Brian Klaas has asserted that America should support democracy--but we have to be smarter about it. See

On Back to the Future: Human Rights and Legitimacy in the Training and Advisory Mission, see Special Warfare (May 2013), posted in Resources at and

On A containment strategy and military legitimacy (August 27, 2016}, see

On The Legitimacy of Engagement and Containment National Security Strategies (September 2, 2017), see


On The Diplomat-Warrior: A Military Capability for Reconciliation and Peace (September 3, 2016), see

On Religion, Law and Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy (November 11, 2014 and April 4,2016), see and PDF, Google Docs) 

On the relationship between Human Rights, Freedom and National Security (April 4, 2017), see

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