The Afghanistan Campaign: Can We Win?


During the last month, I have been a member of General McChrystal’s Strategic Assessment Group. That experience, and my prior work on Afghanistan, has led me to develop my own personal recommendations for US and NATO/ISAF strategy in Afghanistan. They focus on one key conclusion about our mission in Afghanistan and several key considerations for decision making.

There are no certainties in war, and NATO/ISAF’s task in Afghanistan goes far beyond the normal limits of counterinsurgency. It is, in effect, armed nation building at a time when Afghanistan faces major challenges from both its own insurgents and international movements like Al Qa’ida, and must restructure its government and economy after 30 years of nearly continuous conflict.

It is also a war that must be won after years in which member countries, particularly the Untied States, failed to react to the seriousness of the emerging insurgency, failed to provide the proper level of resources and coordination, and let the enemy take the initiative. Compounded with the weaknesses in the Afghan government, this has created a situation where the war now has five, not one, centers of gravity.

Nevertheless, I believe that that the war can be won if the US and its allies act quickly and decisively by:

  • Defeating the insurgency not only in tactical terms, but by eliminating its control and influence over the population during the course of the next few years; and then systematically eliminating its networks, any ability to operate as a shadow government, and its remaining ability to carry out significant violence over as long a period as is necessary to succeed.
  • Creating an effective and well-resourced NATO/ISAF response to defeating the insurgency and securing the population.
  • Building up a much larger and more effective ANSF to first support NATO/ISAF, then take the lead, and eventually replace NATO/ISAF forces or limit the mission of the remaining forces to an advisory role.
  • Giving the Afghan government the necessary legitimacy and capacity at the national, regional/provincial, district, and local levels; reducing perceived and real corruption and abuses by senior officials power brokers to levels the Afghan people can accept; and creating a level of actual governance that can ensure security and stability.
  • Creating an effective civil-military effort where civilian partners – and aid efforts in governance, economics, and rule of law – directly support or complement NATO/ISAF efforts to defeat the insurgency and create effective and legitimate levels of governance in the field. At the same time, it is necessary to implement longer term development efforts to help the Afghan government and people move towards lasting security and stability.
  • Dealing with a de facto “sixth center” of gravity outside NATO/ISAF’s formal mission. This is dealing with Pakistan, Iran, and other states that may be formally outside of NATO/ISAF’s area of operations, but that are critical to its success.

My suggested strategy for implementing these actions is set forth in a new paper entitled, "The Afghanistan Campaign: Can We Achieve the Mission?" This paper is available here.

I should make it clear, however, that I was part of a group of experts that actively debated every issue in this paper. We did not develop any “party line,” and we were actively encouraged to challenge every aspect of current thinking and conventional wisdom – something every member of the group vigorously did. As we worked together, we agreed on many points, although almost always with nuanced differences. We disagreed on many others.

Accordingly, many – if not most – of the ideas in this paper are not original, they are merely my personal views. They draw on both the thinking of my colleagues and many other discussions over the years.  It would be unfair to attribute any specific ideas to them. They are more than capable of speaking for themselves, but it would be equally unfair not to recognize that I learned far more from them than they learned from me.

I should also stress that this is neither an endorsement of the views of any official or officer in Afghanistan nor a dissent. Once again, I learned a great deal from the officials and officers of many countries during my work in Afghanistan. It was a time when most were re-examining the strategy and actions we should take, and one where progress was being made in many of the areas discussed in the attached paper. It was also, however, a time when almost everyone recognized that major changes were needed, and one of intense debate on many issues.  As a result, this paper in no way reflects either the view of any officer or official or any kind of consensus.  It also was never submitted for review by any official or officer and no attempt of any kind was made to influence or restrict what I might say in public.

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy