Even today physical geography is a key factor determining military games.
In the west, at an age when most security threats are theoretical, it is easy to lose an understanding of what war is. Killer drones and terrorism dominate recent analysis of war in the US, but the classic determinants of military strength have not changed. Geographical scale, terrain, and rural landscape still determine the outcome of many modern conflicts. As political science professor Stathis N. Kalyvas at Yale has argued, we are subject to an urban bias when it comes to reporting on and appreciating this fact.
In Vietnam the persistence of guerrilla warfare is forever associated with the image of the jungle. Two agents of the U.S. government offered their superiors two conflicting reports about the progress of the war – one positive and one negative – and their explanations were clear: the former had focused on urban informants, whereas the latter had gathered information from rural hamlets.
Likewise today in Afghanistan the Taliban is impervious to attack, nestled in the Kush mountains. Rough terrain makes a landscape more impassable, the poppy fields more undetectable. But the true power of rebellion lies in spatial scale. Insurgency is unique from terrorism because the insurgents control or draw support from the local population, whose culture is relatively unaffected by the national capital. It is nearly impossible to cast a full net of psychological control on the whole population unless we were to come at them with ten times the normal troop size (which in Afghanistan is 100,000×10).
When America entered Afghanistan, its objective was to root out Al Queda. Intelligence has helped bring that victory within reach. For all the criticism of America’s world policing as the vernier of democracy, the Weekly Standard reports that a UN report last year found 76% of all civilian deaths were attributable to the Taliban. America’s impact is increasingly ambiguous. War continues for the Afghan people, though many are happy for America to leave them to their own devices. One wonders how the exit from Afghanistan will be portrayed. Will we declare victory, or acknowledge the ambiguity of our exit?