Friday, July 8, 2011

The Right Way to Leave Afghanistan

By Theodore L. Gatchel, The Providence Journal:
Withdrawals are widely recognized as being difficult operations. During a withdrawal, your forces are getting smaller while those of the enemy are remaining constant or growing. At some point, the ratio becomes such that it is very tempting for the enemy to attack in order to claim credit for having driven you out. Exceptional discipline is required to prevent a withdrawal from turning into a rout.

Withdrawals also pose psychological challenges. Individual soldiers may become more risk averse than usual. Who wants to be the last soldier to die in a war, the outcome of which has already been determined?

As is always the case in war, predicting how the withdrawal from Afghanistan will play out is fraught with uncertainty. Although there are an unlimited number of possibilities, three are particularly worth considering.

The best possible outcome, for example, might be similar to that of the British-French evacuation of the Gallipoli peninsula in World War I. Following an abortive campaign there in 1915, designed to break the stalemate that had developed in France and Belgium and to open a supply line to Russia through the Turkish Straits, the Allies decided to withdraw.

By the end of 1915, the Allies had more than 100,000 troops at Gallipoli spread between two widely separated beachheads. The problems associated with evacuating such a large number of troops who were in close contact with the enemy were so overwhelming that some experts predicted the operation would end in disaster. Nevertheless, during December 1915 and early January 1916, the entire force was withdrawn with the loss of only one man.

Historians still debate the reasons for this success. The Allies, on one hand, took exceptional care in preparing for the evacuation, slowly reducing the size of the force at night while using a variety of deceptions to hide their moves.

Because available Turkish records are limited, determining why they did not actively oppose the evacuation is more difficult. Although they conducted some limited attacks, the most logical explanation is that, given the need for troops in other theaters, they were unwilling to take more casualties in the process of forcing the Allies to do something they were already doing.

In contrast to the evacuation from Gallipoli, the worst-case situation is illustrated by a British withdrawal in Afghanistan during the first of three wars the British fought in that country during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Having installed and supported an unpopular Afghan leader on the country's throne, the British faced a deteriorating military situation during the winter of 1841. As a result, they decided in 1842 to withdraw their force of 4,500 troops and 12,000 family members and camp followers from Kabul to the relative safety of British-held Jalalabad, a distance of approximately 100 miles through difficult terrain.

Afghan irregulars harassed the force for the entire journey, capturing a number of British officers and their families. With the exception of some deserters, the remainder of the force was almost entirely killed by either the cold weather or enemy action. Only one man, Dr. William Brydon, survived to reach Jalalabad.

As the date for withdrawing significant numbers of U.S. forces from Afghanistan approaches, Americans can hope that the process mirrors that of the Allies at Gallipoli. At the same time, we should also hope that the administration is prepared to take whatever measures are necessary to prevent the type of catastrophe the British endured in Afghanistan in 1842.
Col. Theodore L. Gatchel (USMC, ret.), is a military historian and a professor emeritus of operations at the Naval War College. The views here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Naval War College, the U.S. Navy, or the Department of Defense.


  1. just bring our troops home,war is a waste!
    By the way I can't post with my name for some reason.

  2. Sorry, Big Mac! I can't find the problem!