Podcast: Afghanistan and Asynchronous Warfare

Bird and Lee explore the idea that asynchronous -- not asymmetric -- warfare contributed to the overall US strategic failure in Afghanistan...


You’ve likely heard the term “asymmetric warfare” used in the context of the Global War on Terror at some point in the last 20 years. It’s something of a buzzword. Asymmetric warfare refers to a military engagement where there’s a significant difference in capability or tactics between belligerents; uniformed militaries vs. guerrilla troops, infantry vs. cavalry, conventional warfare vs. insurgencies.

Being effective against asymmetric fighting was important to us. The US military even had a special unit tasked with analyzing and countering the asymmetric advantages our enemies had on the ground. The Army’s Asymmetric Warfare Group was responsible for rapidly implementing changes to the tactics, techniques, and procedures of US combat units to adapt to such threats.

But asymmetry is implied in all warfare. War by nature is a contest to most effectively leverage asymmetries. And in the case of Afghanistan, the Taliban’s low-tech, decentralized approach was not particularly effective at causing US casualties, disrupting support efforts, or denying freedom of maneuver of US combat forces.

Put simply, our enemies in the Middle East were overmatched by the kinetic ability of US ground forces. The enemy’s asymmetric advantages didn’t actually enable them to stop the US from broadly doing what it wanted in Afghanistan, and American direct action units were routinely able to engage the enemy with precision and lethality. Classic “win the battle, lose the war” situation.

So why didn’t we win?

On this episode, I invite Bird on to explore the idea that it was not asymmetry between fighting units that caused the US policy failure in Afghanistan, but rather the inability of the US political class to correctly identify an overarching strategic problem. The problem? That between Western and non-Western powers, there exists an asynchronous relationship as it pertains to social systems of control and political power. One cannot “spread democracy” without these institutional systems of control taking root, no matter how mighty one’s tanks or armor.

The Western methods of controlling a population simply exist in a separate, asynchronous timeline from that of the Taliban — and our designs to implement these systems were rendered inert by the enemy’s own, more effective systems of control, which the US vastly underestimated.

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About the Guest

Bird is a known yankee and host of the Timeline Earth podcast, and also the Into the Cave podcast. Follow Bird on Twitter @TLEbirdarchist and find TLE on Twitter @timelineearth.