Americans trust their military to keep them safe, but the last several months have raised serious questions about the quality of our “experts” in the senior ranks of the military and the intelligence community.
These senior officials are tasked with waging the war before the war. They must assess the strength of our own forces as well as those controlled by potential adversaries. When we enter a conflict, it’s our military intelligence officials who guide our decisions on where and how to fight, inform our military strategy and make critical decisions along the way in support of our victory.
Unfortunately, our intelligence officials have made the same blundering error twice in the last year, once in Afghanistan and again in Ukraine. This error cost lives and showed that the people we’ve put in charge of making these assessments don’t understand the factors that lead to victory or defeat.
The error was simple, yet it had devastating results. When assessing force strength, our “experts” only seemed interested in tallying up guns, tanks, bullets and other war materiel, but ignored will and morale, and discounted the strength, depth and power of the ideas that drive armies to wage war.
This misleading formula allowed U.S. officials to predict it would take months or even years for the Taliban to control Afghanistan since Afghan forces were better equipped. But Afghan forces crumbled immediately, even before U.S. personnel were evacuated, and this created a chaotic situation that led to the death of 13 U.S. service members.
A more accurate assessment would have allowed America to treat the evacuation more like a military operation instead of a State Department operation, which would likely have saved lives.
Counting equipment and ignoring the fighting spirit of a military force also led to a massive miscalculation in Ukraine. There, U.S. experts saw the line of equipment forming outside Kyiv as a sign that the capital would fall in a matter of days.
By early March, as Russia struggled to take Kyiv, top U.S. intelligence officials acknowledged that they misjudged the situation.
“My view was that, based on a variety of factors, that the Ukrainians were not as ready as I thought they should be,” Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the Senate on March 10. “Therefore, I questioned their will to fight. That was a bad assessment on my part.”
That mistake may have cost hundreds of Ukrainian lives. An early assessment that Ukrainians were able and willing to fight might have encouraged the U.S. to ship more weapons and put them in an even stronger position.
These miscalculations are even more unforgivable given that we just ran our own 20-year investigation into what happens when a better-trained and better-equipped military occupies a country with a deep and frequently hostile culture that doesn’t always want to cooperate. With no clear mission or objective, all the superior equipment and men the U.S. poured into Afghanistan wasn’t nearly enough.
Nostalgic sentiments tattooed on the arms of so many of our soldiers, like “Molon Labe” (Come and Take It) and “Until Valhalla,” expressed the dedicated views of our service members. But without a coherent vision to guide them, victory was out of reach.
For all its might, America too often fails to understand the power of ideas that give an army strength, and forgets that equipment doesn’t win wars – blood, heart and spirit win wars.
It’s a mistake we can’t afford to make any longer. Taiwan is already in China’s sights, and recent experience shows it would be a mistake to give up on Taiwan just because China can field a larger army. We need more than our current failed intelligence efforts to judge Taiwan’s ability to stand up to China and to use that information to strengthen Taiwan’s defense posture.
And whatever conflict is next for America, we cannot simply assume that our large wartime inventory automatically means success.
In his Senate testimony, Mr. Berrier admitted that making more accurate assessments of foreign military strength won’t be easy. “I think assessing will, morale, and a will to fight is a very difficult analytical task,” he said.
When America was born, it showed the world how a poorly equipped army fueled by a strong idea can defeat a superior force, and it’s discouraging to see how much we’ve forgotten since then. A good first step at repairing this problem would be to throw out the Pentagon bean counters and replace them with warriors who still remember.
This op-ed by Jason Beardsley appeared in the Washington Times on May 3, 2022.