Random Thoughts

The Logistics Of War

“An army marches on its stomach” are words attributed to the great military strategist and general, Napoleon. Yet, intoxicated by his string of victories, he committed his greatest blunder when he invaded Russia and was lured deep into Russia by the Russian army’s strategic retreat and then marooned far from his supply lines to face the punishing Russian winter. 


Prior victories give rise to invincibility, which leads to hubris. Waiting unfailingly around the corner to administer defeat, ruin and destruction to every hubris, there is its Nemesis. Hitler, knowing well the above history, but intoxicated by hubris and convinced that he was different, fell into the same trap and suffered similar consequences. Interestingly, bull market bubbles have an identical life cycle despite mass public hysteria that this time it is different.

Afghanistan invasionstell the same sorry tale starting with Alexander. At the end of the first Afghan war, the entire British garrison and retreating Indian army was wiped out except for a single solitary survivor. Britain still fought two more further wars, failed to control and conquer Afghanistan and achieved a peace by bribing various factions to create a neutral buffer between the British and Czarist empires. The Soviet Union was lured into its own Vietnam like quagmire by the Carter administration. After a decade the Soviet Union collapsed and broke up partly due to the misadventure. The US orchestrated the trap and then after 9-11 fell into the same trap itself with the hubris that it was different and immune to the blowback from its folly.

America had failed to win the Korean war, seen France lose in Vietnam, but still plunged into Vietnam and lost despite extending the war into Laos and Cambodia. It ignored the cost in blood and treasure of fighting wars in distant Asian lands, the difficult logistics of supplying its troops and jumped into prolonged wars and occupation in Afghanistan and Iraq. Its objectives of controlling the oil wealth of Iraq and central Asia have come to naught. As Paul Samuelson is supposed to have said about highly leveraged trading in commodities and derivatives, the unspoken thoughts are those of a mouse caught in a trap–Never mind the cheese, just please let me out of the trap.

Obama the candidate, was critical of the Iraq war, but to avoid being labeled as weak on defense by Republicans and his Democratic opponent Hilary acting belligerently (as if on steroids) to dispel being tagged as a woman and hence weak, made loud proclamations about the Afghanistan war being one of necessity and just. Now those words have painted him into a corner and haunt him incessantly. He wants to withdraw, but that would lead to Pakistan making up with the Taliban and Al Qaeda; and over time Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal falling into their hands as the Pakistani state fails.

If the US doubles down or increases its troops in Afghanistan, each extra 10,000 troops will require an additional ten billion dollars a year and increasing casualties. Afghanistan is a landlocked country with the only access to it being from Pakistan via its seaport Karachi and then more than thousand miles overland through hostile territory controlled by Taliban insurgents. The other routes are through Iran and Russia and its former Muslim republics.

At present the US pays 400 dollars per gallon of gasoline to get it to the bases in Afghanistan. This large sum includes the bribes and ransom paid by the Pakistani transport Mafia to the Taliban for safe passage and to free its drivers held hostage. It is very likely that the returning trucks bring in heroin from Afghanistan that is exported illegally to Europe and which the Taliban once again tax. Thus significant percentage of the US war expense goes to support its enemies Taliban and Al Qaeda.

Even US arms, ammunition, uniforms and food rations find their way to the enemies via some recruits of the Afghan police and national army. The US bases have to be supplied from Bagram by helicopter to avoid IED related casualties on unsafe roads for ground transport. The US also pays some of the warlords to protect many of the base perimeters and rare convoys on the roads. The recent killing of British soldiers by an Afghan member of their own team highlights the futility of depending on an Afghan army with uncertain loyalty.

The US is thus unable to increase its troop levels without ruinous extra expenditure and unable to withdraw totally without losing Pakistan and Obama losing face and any chance of re-election. That is why Biden and many Democrats opt for a long stay of lesser visibility and counter-terrorism by drones and bombing and letting the Pakistani army do the fighting to the end of the war, just as the Northern Alliance did during the beginning of the war. There is no hope of winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan population with the corrupt inept Karzai government and its warlords. So Obama’s option is to bide time till some lucky fluke gives an opportunity to exit. Under these circumstances only a mad idiot would extend the war to Iran. But as they say, to keep on committing the same strategic mistake again and again after Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Afghanistan and hoping for a different favorable outcome is the earliest definitive sign of insanity. 


More by :  Gaurang Bhatt, MD

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