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On Afghanistan and Strategy

Most of you have followed the series on the Afghanistan strategy debate at Abu Muqawama that was prompted by the Andrew Bacevich article or read the exchange I had with Dr. Bernard Finel or at the many other defense blogs talking Afghanistan. So many at once, that Dave Dilegge of SWJ asked everyone to chill out and lower the “noise”. Dilegge later explained on Dr. James Joyner’s OTB Radio program that he wasn’t trying to stifle debate so much as point out that the staff working for Gen. McChrystal that are trying to put together a strategic plan were feeling overwhelmed by the blizzard of contradictory expert and not-so-expert advice that was suddenly flying furiously in the blogosphere.

When we consider that a lot of the recent debate was of a “should we be there?” character rather than “what should we do now?”, Dave had a reasonable point. The military leadership in Afghanistan doesn’t have the luxury of asking the former question or any control over regional or national policy as it should be designed at the level of the NSC – they have to answer the second question. 

In that spirit, I’ll try to offer a few concise thoughts on relating strategy to what should come next in Afghanistan.

1. Is there a strategic American interest in Afghanistan?:

Many anti-war and anti-COIN writers have pointed out that the U.S. does not have any intrinsic interests in Afghanistan. In a narrow sense, this is correct. Afghanistan has nothing we need and no economy to speak of. We abandoned Afghanistan after the end of the Soviet War and are there now only because al Qaida happened to be based there at the time of 9/11. Why not just leave again?

Afghanistan could properly be fitted into national strategy from two angles. A regional strategy for Central Asia and the Subcontinent or as part of a global strategy in the war against al Qaida. As the former task would be too complicated and slow to finesse from an interagency perspective, we should view Afghanistan in the context as a part of a global war against al Qaida. We need Afghanistan’s proximity to al Qaida in Pakistan’s border provinces in order to attack al Qaida effectively and to put continuous pressure on Pakistan’s government, elements of which which still sponsors the Taliban and, at least indirectly, al Qaida.

Can we do the same things from aircraft carriers? No? Then we need to be in Afghanistan, at least for a time.

2. Why is al Qaida so important and how will we know if we”win”?:

What makes al Qaida distinctive from all other Islamist terrorist-insurgencies is their transnational, strategic, analysis and commitment to struggle against the “far enemy” ( i.e. the US) and for the unification of the “ummah”. That’s really unique. Every other violent actor in the jihadisphere is really dedicated to their own particularist Islamist project of struggle – nationalist or secessionist – against the “near enemy” of their home country regimes.  Like Lenin and Trotsky working for world revolution, Bin Laden and Zawahiri try to plan and make AQ an independent player on an international level, unlike HAMAS, Hezbollah, Salafist Call to Combat and various other Islamist armed groups. They have also, from time to time, managed to operationalize these ambitions and “project power” through major acts of terrorism around the world.

We “win” when Bin Laden, Zawahiri and their small cohort of “global revolutionary” jihadists are dead and their paradigm discredited in favor of “localist”, “near enemy” jihadists – who have always composed the vast majority of violent Islamist extremists. The latter are no threat to us, it is the commitment of Bin Laden and co. to their vision that represents a threat. When they are gone al Qaida is likely to be seen among Islamic radicals as a grand failed experiment.

3. What are America’s objectives in Afghanistan?:

Our goal should be that Afghanistan’s government and populace are hostile towards the return of al Qaida to their territory. That’s it.

4. How should we accomplish this objective?:

My perception is that we have tried three interrelated, interdependent but also competing policies in the last eight years in Afghanistan.

1. Counterterrorism


3. State Building

Counterterrorism has been the policy that we have been most effective at – disrupting al Qaida organizationally, keeping its leadership on the move and in flux, squeezing it financially and grinding away at it’s primary local ally, the Taliban. We should keep doing this and even become more aggressive as this is the policy closest to American national interest.

COIN is vital in Afghanistan – but not as an end in itself. If the US embarks upon some kind of 25 year Roman Legionary version of COIN on steroids, then we have gone badly astray. We need intelligence. We need cooperation and support from Afghans. We need Afghans to see the U.S. as a benefactor and al Qaida and the Taliban as bringers of woe and misery. That requires COIN with local U.S. and NATO commanders being given great flexibility – including with discretionary expenditure of funds and alteration of policy, without a mountain of red tape and second guessing in far distant capitals by bespectacled lawyers wearing silk ties and gold cuff links.

COIN is – like Afghanistan – a means to an end.

State Building is a cardinal part of COIN doctrine. I suggest that in terms of Afghanistan, we throw that premise out the window and just accept dealing with provincial and local elites who have real power (i.e. – armed men with guns, respect of local population, a clientela network of officials and notables). Afghanistan has rarely ever had a strong, centralized, state in its history and Afghans do not have high expectations of what Kabul can do for them. Trying to swim against that current, the sheer cultural and historical inertia it represents, is a waste of our time and money.  While state building as an objective fascinates diplomats and the academic-NGO set, it is actually the least of our priorities and if we ever did build a strong state in Afghanistan, it’s first order of business would be to interfere in our making war on al Qaida and second, to kick us the hell out of their country.

If we have to build a state apparatus, let’s build them locally with a heavy emphasis on their stimulating economic activity and financing local, private, production of goods and establishing security forces composed of residents. That way, someday, if Afghanistan ever has a functioning national government, it will at least have a stream of revenue from levying taxes in relatively orderly provinces.

5. These seem like “minimalist” goals:

Yes. But in practice, quite large enough.

The problem with the asymmetric mismatch between the U.S. and it’s foes is that we bring so astronomical a flow of resources in our wake that we end up “growing” our enemies. Like parasites, they manage to feed off of our war effort against them. Afghanistan is so miserably poor that nearly everything we bring in to the country has relative market value. If you remember CNN clips of the U.S. retreat from Somalia, the last scene was the local warlord permitting  impoverished Somalis to swarm over our abandoned base, the mob was gleefully seizing scraps of what most Americans would consider to be worthless crap. 

That market differential inevitably breeds corruption when it comes to US. aid. It cannot be waved away any more than we can pretend supply and demand does not exist. While it is counterintuitive, less is more. Keeping our clients on bare sufficiency is more functional for our purposes then generosity. 

That’s not just being pragmatic, its’ cheaper too. It makes no sense to spend a trillion (borrowed) dollars in a country whose GDP will not generate that kind of wealth in a thousand years.

6. What about “destabilizing” Pakistan?:

The primary destabilizer of Pakistan is the Pakistani government’s schizophrenic relationship with the extremist groups it creates, subsidizes, funds and trains to unleash on all its neighbors. When the Islamist hillbillies in FATA or their Punjabi and Kashmiri equivalents try to menace the interests of Pakistan’s wealthy elite, the “ineffectual” Pakistani Army and security services can move with a sudden, savage efficiency.

Anyone who thinks the Pakistani Taliban can come down from the hills and take over Islamabad has a very short historical memory of what the Pakistani Army did in Bangladesh before the latter’s independence.

7. When can the troops “go home”?:

Right now the estimates range from our needing to accomplish everything in 2 years (David Kilcullen) to 40 years (Gen. Sir David Richards).

To be blunt, we are not staying for four decades; it is not in American interests to make Afghanistan the 51st state. We stayed in Germany after WWII for 50 years only because it was Germany – the industrial and geopolitical heart of Europe. Afghanistan is not “Germany” to any country on earth except Pakistan (their “strategic depth” against an invasion by India). If we dial down our objectives to the simple obliteration of al Qaida, I suggest that our departure could take place within the few years time it would take to convince/squeeze Islamabad into seeing that path as the fastest, cheapest, way to get rid of a very large American presence in their backyard. Right now, Islamabad sees us setting up shop for generations to come and Pakistan’s generals are acting to frustrate that perceived goal as much as they dare.

Strategy involves making choices and accepting costs. What costs do you think the U.S. should be prepared to shoulder in solving the problem of Afghanistan ( either by staying or leaving)?


In the comments section, Slapout and Lexington Green have recommended some very good links that I would like to offer below.

Col. John Warden –  Strategic Options: The West and Afghanistan

Dr. Stephen BiddleIs It Worth It? The Difficult Case for War in Afghanistan

20 Responses to “On Afghanistan and Strategy”

  1. historyguy99 Says:

    Holy S*%t Mark!

    Your post has the effect of dumping a super tanker’s worth of crude to calm the roiling waters of this debate. A truly brilliant post from my humble perspective.

  2. T. Greer Says:

    A very astute post. Still, I think we are starting too small- it is difficult for me to accept any strategic rationale for our being in Afghanistan absent a larger grand strategy. This has been the real lesson I have gained from this debate. I have seen a hundred reasons we should stay and a hundred reasons we should go, and the irrevocable conclusion I find is that we Americans are no longer sure of what role we should be playing in the world. Until we can develop a larger strategic framework for the use of American power, debating individual cases of statecraft seems quite silly. We are like the crew of an aimless ship, concerning ourselves with the rigging before we have set a course.

    (As far as half-thought out similes go, how did that one fare?)

  3. Vonny Says:

    Well done, my friend.  Your gift for efficiently cutting to the point is on display.

    One comment, though, about your point that "localist" jihadists pose not threat to us.  Perhaps not directly, but when their ultimate goal is to eliminate Israel, this brings the U.S. into the fray.  Also, any smaller jihadist movement becomes an immediate international threat if they obtain any type of WMD.  We still need to be concerned with those groups.

  4. George Singleton Says:

    Afghanistan is so primitive and religiously unfriendly to "Western" interests, riddled by years of Pak ISI, Taliban, and related groups…full of extremists..but the majority of the population is Pakhtun, not Arab.  Dealing with the "Umah" is complex and it’s purpose is a restored Caliphate which would threaten Israel and the Western world, let along much of the Asian world, including Mainland China and Japan, if they but could.

    The best thing going now is not our views and opinions but the over anticipation fact of greedy, self serving, blood sucking Islamist terrorists are splintering into factions and starting to war with each other.  This is good, not bad news.

    The West literally bombed the Taliban out of Afghanistan using a few hundred CIA and Special Ops folks on the ground comingled with the local tribal fighters.

    Where we as a nation and as a Western coalition, I think, continue to mess up is to think only we can do what needs to be done with our forces, who are of course the best conventional fighters in the world.

    But, others are good fighters too.  We don’t have to train up fighters if we back the best locals who are good at what we want and need, which is to suppress and get rid of AQ and the Taliban.  We start by economically converting the Taliban to our team and go from there, one raw thought.

    Maybe someone else would like to jump in here?

    I do "sense" some interservice immature rivalry with a barb or two thrown at US Navy carrier air ops.  Those air ops, combined with drones, are very effective.

    Also, addressing psy ops via better and more native languages/dialects radio and TV broadcast (about 88% of Afghans are totally illiterate, can’t read) is a huge undiscussed by at least 50% variable when used properly.

  5. Tyrtaios Says:

    The problem with the asymmetric mismatch between the U.S. and it’s foes is that we bring so astronomical a flow of resources in our wake that we end up “growing” our enemies – an astute statement!

  6. Lexington Green Says:

    Similar analysis to Stephen Biddle’s:
    I will note that there are even more "maximalist" goals being floated which would go beyond nation building, which are impossible, e.g. liberating Afghan women so they are more or less at developed world levels of personal autonomy.  As laudable as that may be in theory, it is not worth doing at gunpoint and at enormous cost, and it would generate enemies we don’t need and should not make.   
    I like your bottom line very much:  "Our goal should be that Afghanistan’s government and populace are hostile towards the return of al Qaida to their territory. That’s it."  That seems like a sane, achievable, moderate goal.  It will be difficult, but it is not pie-in-the-sky.
    If we achieve that, we will have added a significant increment to our security.  At least we will then have something to show for the sacrifice and expense. 

    Another reason we could stay in Germany for all these years is that no one is shooting at us there, and no one ever has been, since 1945.  That is not and would not be the case in Afghanistan.   The American people will tolerate their troops being anywhere, for any length of time, so long as they are not getting killed, since it is not in the news and they pay no attention to it.  We are unlikely to have that level of "quiet" in Afghanistan.  
    Perhaps we can break the cycle of invaders who are driven out, by setting limited, achievable goals, and then leaving on our own schedule. 
    That would be a historic milestone.  Let’s hope it happens. 

  7. slapout9 Says:

    Hi Zen, thought you might like this. Here is a link to Colonel John Warden’s blog page from Oct. 2008 on A’stan and some of his Strategic guideance. later Slap                                       

  8. Shlok Says:

    Thinking aloud –

    Couldn’t you lessen pressure on Pakistan by withdrawing, giving AQ a safe haven in A-stan, and then hiring tribes by buying poppy to keep AQ busy? Build poppy processing plants throughout East and Southeast Pakistan and turn it into a source of cheap and plentiful medicine. Or whatever.

  9. Chris Says:


    Thanks for bringing some clarity to the debate.

    One problem though with the way that Bacevich/Exum framed things to begin with  is that it elides the domestic politics which, it seems to me, are fueling Obama’s policy in the first place. The financial and strategic value of our operations in Afghanistan have long been ambiguous even to their proponents, yet Obama came out strongly and unequivocally in favor of them as soon as he announced his candidacy. Why would he double down on Afghanistan, so to speak, when he had to have known its strategic value was so uncertain?

    The reason seems fairly obvious–he knew it would create daylight not only between him and Clinton, but between him and an entire generation of Democratic leaders who lacked credibility when it came to national security. Without that daylight he probably wouldn’t have won last year, and he knows that unless he retains it he won’t win in 2012 either.

    We can debate what the policy should be all we want. But until he gets reelected I fear these debates are just a sideshow, a kind of wonk theatre that he’s running CNAS through so he can claim due diligence. Obama is going to continue to manage Afghanistan as he always has: with more of an eye toward electoral politics than  strategic interests.

  10. onparkstreet Says:

    I second a lot of the other commenters: this is astute and you’ve done a good job.

    "So many at once, that Dave Dilegge of SWJ asked everyone to chill out and lower the “noise”. Dilegge later explained on Dr. James Joyner’s OTB Radio program that he wasn’t trying to stifle debate so much as point out that the staff working for Gen. McChrystal that are trying to put together a strategic plan were feeling overwhelmed by the blizzard of contradictory expert and not-so-expert advice that was suddenly flying furiously in the blogosphere."
    Okay, I get it now. I retract my earlier negative comments about the post – I didn’t understand. I don’t want anyone to feel overwhelmed, certainly not people doing an important job.

  11. zen Says:

    hi everyone!
    Thank you all for the very kind words! I was just trying to shift my own gears in light of Dave’s post.
    Chris – the "eye toward electoral politics" is a continual problem with US foreign policy and one that keeps us from making strategic moves over the long haul. It would be better, if we had a recognizable grand strategy, as T.Greer suggested to provide a rough framework for our ad hoc tactical moves, but we do not and have not since 1991.
    Shlok – Pat Lang suggested buying up poppies and it strikes me as simple and easy to implement. I think the idea of US military personnel collecting metric tons of opium gives some wonks/activists in DC the heebie-jeebies but we need to get over our entire self-injuring drug war policies ( fixing that would undermine 90% of the insurgencies on earth as the price of contraband plummeted)
    Slapout & Lex – see the addendum. Lex, getting the USG to be satisfied with acheivable goals is very hard. It almost requires a lack of public  interest to effect.
    George – Sorry, no disrespect meant to USN pilots but using the Indian ocean as a platform raises the issue of  sending warplanes into Pakistani airspace on a regular basis in a manner that aggravates regional tensions ( sure we violate airspace from the north and drones themselves are a violation, but it is a "quieter" violation andthe Pakistani military can be pretty sure it isn’t India. Coming from a carrier requires more overt cooperation from Islamabad).
    – I still think local jihadist groups will be problematic but they will be problematic for America in the "one step removed" way that Hamas and Hezbollah are. We are not their primary targets and they do not want a direct conflict with the US military if they can help it.

  12. A. Scott Crawford Says:

    Zen,I think there’s another point worth including in this thread, namely the continued existence of NATO and viability of maintaining our current (very expensive) position in Europe if the liabilities outweigh the benefits.  When the U.S. was attacked, Article V of the NATO treaty was evoked and accepted by the NATO members, requiring specific obligations be met according to Treaty terms between Nations.  Otherwise, assuming (and observing) that those Treaty terms between the United States and the NATO member Nations are openly violated, ignored, acted upon in bad faith, and etc., the U.S. military and diplomatic corps and Atlanticist faction of U.S. policy in general would then be reasonably expected to defend the United States continued commitment to NATO, constitutionally, materially, and otherwise, in it’s current form, and would be hard pressed to do so in relation to the liabilities this entails.   Whereas the finale of the UN and US/UK’s misadventure in the Gulf spanning almost twenty years was a proof, or disproof, of the United States ability to rely on the UNSC to resolve disputes the U.S. (and some other Nations) are willing to go to war over, Afghanistan is proof, or disproof, of the value of the continuation of the NATO Treaty to the United States in it’s current form given the current eras geo-political and strategic challenges.  Bluntly put, if Article V of the Treaty is no longer a zero-sum mandatory commitment to jointly engage in war against a non-member aggressor, which judging from the other members actions is the case in their polity’s view, then the sooner the United States disengages itself likewise, the better (in my personal opinion).  Yet this exact prospect, of the Atlanticist set having to justify the budgets, strategic value, liabilities, and etc. of maintaining our one directional commitment to Europe, to an American electorate already over-taxed and committed elsewhere, threatens the entire post-cold war patchwork military industrial systems status quo… as it’s an argument they’ll certainly lose, fiscally and strategically.  Tragically for the Afghani’s, but happily for the beltway and Atlanticists, whilst Afghanistan and the Taliban/AQ have the sheen of a NATO ‘war’, the issue can be put off a while longer.  (God forbid Congress has to actually formally declare war, rather than cynically deferring to this or that international Treaty!  lol).

  13. zen Says:

    Hi A. Scott Crawford,
    You bring up many valid points regarding NATO, which has been searching for a durable raison d’etre since 1991 and the elephant in the room is that NATO is in reality a political alliance that functions as a sharply stratified two or three tier military alliance. This was justifiable during the Cold War but not so much now but leaders of all the NATO states have other priorities beyond reforming NATO as an institution ( most of them like the status quo as contributions are far from equitable).

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