US Strategy in Afghanistan
October 7, 2009
The last few weeks have done at least as much to reveal the critical weaknesses in US strategic thinking as they have done to clarify them. We have become embroiled in a largely conceptual debate over whether we should commit ourselves to more troops and a “counterinsurgency” strategy, use of special forces and UCAVs to attack Al Qa’ida and other key insurgent leaders in a “counterterrorism” strategy, or rely on building up Afghan forces in an “anything but us” strategy. There also is a cadre of thinkers who advocate a loosely defined range of “withdrawal,” “no more increases,” or “Pakistan instead” strategies.
In the process, three equally unproductive sub-debates have emerged. One is a sub-debate over domestic versus foreign policy priorities. This sub-debate focuses on reducing defense spending (which is some 3-4% of the US economy) rather than the steady growth of medical spending and federal entitlements – which could easily rise by the total cost of all US national security spending over the next half decade. The US does badly need to debate overall federal spending priorities, and how these impact the US economy, but it is not a debate that should focus on Afghanistan. It is a debate over national priorities which should examine all aspects of how federal spending and our economy are structured and shifting, not the marginal costs of a war.
There is another sub-debate over what defines the Obama presidency. This sub-debate is pointless. Every major policy decision defines the presidency. The success or failure of the US economy and domestic issues like medical care will be one factor, but so will the outcome of the Afghan and Iraq Wars, the broader struggle against terrorism, and the other aspects of foreign policy and national security. Memo to White House domestic policy staff: You haven’t a prayer of controlling this narrative: History will judge.
The third sub-debate is over whether the President should be able to make a choice in strategy without a serious public debate over the options. The President is the only person who can propose a choice to Congress and the American people, and is clearly the commander in chief. Nothing about the last half century, however, indicates that the US does not need a full Congressional, media, and public debates over options; or that tightly controlling the debate within the US national security community leads to better decision making.
Consider the list of cases where there was insufficient debate and transparency: Vietnam? Lebanon? Somalia? Failure to plan for conflict termination for the Gulf War? Failure to plan effectively for counterterrorism and nation building in 2002, or to examine the realities in Afghanistan from 2001 to early 2008? Failure to plan for stability operations in Iraq in 2003, and years of delay in reacting to that insurgency? Eight years of war since 2001 without creating an integrated civil-military approach to armed nation building and meaningful plans and measures of effectiveness? An equal failure to develop adequate tools and controls over wartime aid activities?
It will always be hard to find the right balance between the transparency Americans need to examine national security options and the President’s need for discretion. The fact is, however, that we do need a national debate to build as much understanding and agreement as we can over how we go to war, and then over every major change in our strategy that follows.
These debates should not be half-informed until the President is firmly committed to a course of action. They should not be shaped by officials who are distant from the scene, by ideologues and op-ed writers, or think tankers and academics who are only marginally better. We need to hear from our commanders and our ambassadors. We need to hear from experts who are actually there or have been there. If we stifle the informed, and cede the debate to the uninformed and over-opinionated, the results will be obvious. Discretion must not mean silence.
The Real Debate: Grand Strategy
Both the focus on US troop levels and these sub-debates have done little more than draw attention away from the range of issues that really do need to be examined in deciding on a strategy and building a consensus around it. One key example is the need to tie US strategy in Afghanistan to a much broader strategy for both counterterrorism and regional security. Any strategy for the Afghan war needs to be part of a broad strategy to deal with both the threat posed by global Jihadist international terrorism, and the need for regional security as it affects Pakistan, the Indian subcontinent, Central Asia, and Southwest Asia and the Gulf.
Pakistan is the most immediate case in point. A valid Afghan strategy cannot be separate from what happens in Pakistan. Afghanistan and Pakistan are so different that the US must effectively coordinate two different strategies to achieve common ends. At the same time, it is clear that Afghanistan’s future will play a critical role in defining Pakistan’s security and vice versa.
Focusing on either troop levels in Afghanistan or countering Al Qa’ida tactics in Pakistan ignores these realities. It also ignores the fact that today’s eastern Taliban, and Haqqani and Hekmatyar networks, are much more international and tied to Al Qa’ida than in the past, just as Pakistan’s Islamist extremists have broadened their goals and become linked to both Al Qa’ida and the Taliban.
More generally, a strategy for the war in Afghanistan cannot be separated from the need for a regional strategy to help ensure stability of the nations around Afghanistan and Pakistan, and one that deals with impacts on the broader range of jihadist movements. It is unrealistic to talk of nearby “dominoes” falling if Afghanistan does. At the same time, it is equally unrealistic to ignore the fact that a US, NATO/ISAF, and UN failure within Afghanistan – and the creation of a Taliban-dominated nation or region – will not affect Iran and the Gulf, India, Central Asia, Russia, and China. We also cannot afford to ignore the fact it will give a powerful boost to Jihadist movements that now extend from Morocco to the Philippines and spill over into Europe and the United States.
The US must develop a strategy that balances US commitments to Afghanistan and Pakistan with the need to finish the war in Iraq, to deal with the risk of new Jihadist sanctuaries in Somalia and Yemen, and to aid a wide range of other countries that face Jihadist cells. This may only require limited aid and small numbers of advisors, not trade-offs with a commitment to Afghanistan and Pakistan, but it does require a a global strategy to deal with a global threat and one that cuts across the boundaries of present US commands.
Moreover, those who talk of “exit strategies” -- and using a mix of global counterterrorism and homeland defense as options -- need to define precisely what they mean in regional and global terms. Every exit has a destination. In the case of Afghanistan, US forces will almost certainly then have to be redeployed to contain the threat in neighboring states, create a new balance of regional security, and check the expansion of Jihadism in other threatened states outside the region.
Dealing with the threat by boosting homeland defense is not an option. The US is a global power that cannot ignore its friends and allies or its dependence on a global economy. If anything, we should do a far better job of coming to grips with how homeland defense and international efforts can be integrated into strategy. The US has scored real advances in given aspects of counterterrorism, but it has not developed a strategy that firmly integrates international and homeland defense.
Many homeland defense efforts have made great progress since 2001, but there also are still many uncoordinated efforts, half-finished programs, failed contracts, and gaps in our capabilities. The question is not whether the US now can substitute its current homeland defense efforts for international action, it is how to create a more a successful mix of homeland defense strategies and programs and tie them more directly into a layered defense that begins as far from US territory as possible.
The Real Debate: A Meaningful Strategy for Afghanistan
At the same time, it is equally important to look beyond concepts for dealing with the Afghan conflict, and the narrow issue of US troop levels, and to focus on all of the issues that must shape a successful strategy in Afghanistan in ways that show whether there are accurate assessments, workable plans, the necessary resources, and credible schedules for actions.
One of America’s growing problems in public policy is that it increasingly confuses concepts with strategy to the point where this is becoming a social disease. In the real world, a strategy must include a clear assessment of what action is necessary and the goal to be achieved, an assessment of key options, and an assessment of cost-benefits and risks. The selected option must be supported by detailed implementation plans, a detailed description of the actions required and a schedule for taking them, a detailed description of the resources required and how to obtain them, and measures of effectiveness to show whether or not it is successful once implemented.
Far too much of the present debate ignores these realities. The search for bottom lines has become the rejection of complexity, and the fundamental reality that an idea is only as good as the ability to manage, resource, and implement it. In practice, this means that the present debate needs to be reshaped in the following ways:
- Define the mission objective more clearly and realistically: There is a clear need to define the mission if anyone is to assess strategies for achieving it. Rhetoric focused purely on Al Qa’ida and Bin Laden is as empty as rhetoric about how critical Afghanistan is to regional stability or the impossible dreams in the Afghan compact. The US needs honest cost-benefit analysis of the mission, not rhetoric.
It also needs to define the mission realistically The US may well be able to achieve its goals in the Afghan War if it is defines them in practical terms: This cannot simply be focused on containing Al Qa’ida and denying it the ability to carry out “international” attacks – important as this prime objective may be. Al Qa’ida is simply today’s symbol of a much broader, endemic, and enduring set of threats that are almost certain to emerge in new forms as any given movement is defeated.
The US needs to bringing broad stability and security to most of the Afghan population, to denying all Jihadists a new sanctuary, and help the Afghan government move towards economic security and functional levels of governance. Achieving less presents obvious, although not necessarily fatal, risks. If more is possible, it will be years before we can know this and raise our goals accordingly.
- Link all proposals and options to clear definitions of resources: Conceptual thinking is important, but in the real world, it is resource constraints that win in any clash between a given set of concepts and the ability to actually to implement them. It is only when programs are defined in terms of resources that they come to be defined in practical terms.
This is why it is absurd to try to decouple strategy from resources – particularly when one considers the complex range of resources that need to be involved in the Afghan conflict. They go far beyond US troop levels. They involve ISAF forces, US and allied civilians and aid workers, build-up and allocation of the Afghan national security forces, and the availability of credible Afghan civilian partners at the national, provincial, district, and local levels. They also involve the availability of such resources over a period of half a decade or more.
- Require all strategies to have detailed plans and schedules for implementations, and credible measures of effectiveness. Resources are a driving factor in determining whether a strategy is practical, but so are detailed plans and schedules for implementations, and credible measures of effectiveness are equally vital. The fact that so much of the current debate over Afghan strategy lacks these is deeply troubling. So is the fact that so many other US strategy efforts show an equal indifference to linking their concepts to force plans, procurement plans, schedules, and resources.
- Accept the fact that the Afghan government is years away from being an effective partner that success in building effective capacity, integrity, and presence is a major challenge. The elections have become a serious problem, but they are only a symptom of a far more serious disease. Afghans care far more about the quality of governance than how it is chosen and the corruption in the election scarcely came as a surprise.
No strategy can succeed which does not accept the fact that the Afghan central government is corrupt and lacks capacity, that even the best Afghan ministries and institutions require constant support and aid, that provincial and district government suffers from similar problems and chronic underfunding, and that there is no meaningful local Afghan government presence in as much as 40% of the country. This makes the Afghan government as much of a practical problem for the US and its allies as the Taliban and Al Qa’ida.
It may be possible to work around this in “shape, clear, hold, and build” by linking all funding of the central government to performance, direct funding of provincial and district governance, and direct funding of the local leaders and authorities in population centers and tribal areas. This, however, requires clear plans and proof that the proper mix of resources at each level of Afghan governance can be made available over time, that suitable fiscal controls and effectiveness measures will be present, and that a combination of civil and military advisors will be available.
At the same time, any lesser strategy – including variations on the counterterrorism strategy – must explain how they can really check the Taliban and Al Qa’ida with an Afghan government that is so weak, ineffective, and unpopular. The same is true of variations that are dependant on compromise or reconciliation. As has been all too clear from past efforts, successful insurgents have no reason to do more than exploit such initiatives to their own advantage.
- Focus on real-world plans to increase Afghan security forces and their effectiveness, and the level of US military mentors, trainers, and partners necessary to make them effective. US strategy must be become more realistic in facing the challenges in increasing each element of Afghan forces. It must explicitly assess the number/quality of trainers and mentors required and the funding of the forces involved. It is easy to generate large forces very quickly by compromising quality, ignoring the level of outside support required, and throwing forces into the field that can’t survive. It is equally easy to rate bad to mediocre forces highly simply by choosing the right rating system.
The Afghan Army is now virtually the only aspect of the Afghan government that has any popular respect and generally is free of corruption. It also, however, is already being churned out in ways that maximize numbers rather than quality; without adequate trainers, mentors, and partners; and with limited training at the level of integrated battalions – much less in ways that create larger and truly independent formations.
The Afghan Army is still a fragile structure and further rushing its expansion and the training process is dangerous. The US must not do so in ways that ignore Afghan custom as to leave and family contact. It must not push more battalion-sized elements into the lead without building up higher commands. In practice, Afghan forces have to learn how to be effective in combat in the field, and providing adequate numbers of US and ISAF embedded mentors, partner units, and enablers is critical. Some proposals for accelerating current efforts threaten to take a system that already emphasizes quantity over quality and break it. No strategy can succeed that ignores this risk.
As for the other elements of Afghan forces, the US and ISAF have wasted eight years creating an ineffective and corrupt mix of police forces that cannot survive and operate in hostile areas. As in Iraq, this effort was underfunded and lacked trainers relatively to the military. It has also been corrupted by organized crime, narcotics, and power brokers. There are effective elements in the police, but any strategy must deal honestly with the reality, not praise the latest fix – such as the Focused District Development program.
Equal caution is needed in with any local tribal or security forces such as the AP3. In this case, everything depends on local conditions and how well such efforts are resourced. One size does not fit all, and sweeping generalizations are dangerous whether positive or negative.
In short, the risks and uncertainties in any strategy increase in direct proportion to how much near term weight is given to the role the Afghan security forces must play and how quickly they are to be expanded. One thing is certain. They are not yet a credible substitute for adequate US and ISAF forces – and advisors and mentors.
- Address to real world problems in the NATO/ISAF/PRT effort. It has proved far easier to criticize the Afghan government than to honestly address the lack of unity of effort in the NATO/ISAF/PRT effort. It is important to note that these problems have only been NATO problems to a limited degree. They have been dictated largely by assignments to nations that often do not match the resources a given country can bring to the task and/or its domestic political willingness to fight. They have been shaped by national caveats and restrictions coming from capitals and not from the national military components on the ground.
The problems involved go beyond unity of military effort. National PRTs operate under different guidance with very different levels of resources and often different goals. Their relative level of military protection varies from country to country. As does the level of ISAF and PRT coordination and military protection of the PRTs. This is critical because effective local operations require tight civil-military coordination, and a successful strategy must see a functional unity of effort at the scale required – not limited and uncoordinated efforts that fall short of the requirement.
Improvements in the NATO/ISAF/PRT will be relative under any strategy, but the present tolerance for disunity of effort, and the problems inflicted by “stand aside” countries and uncoordinated regional and local efforts can do as much to lose the war as the problems in Afghan governance.
- Address the real world problems in the UN, national, and NGO aid efforts. The same is true of the failure to coordinate the international economic aid effort and make it relevant to the needs of the Afghan people and warfighting. Far too much of this effort acts as if it was post conflict development in spite of the fact it takes place in mid-war.
The goals set for mid and long term development are generally far too ambitious and unrealistic, and far too little of the effort actually reaches the agricultural population that is some 70% of the country or the Afghans in populated areas – particularly the poor. Counterinsurgency is local and counterterrorism requires popular support for the government side. The present effort is not tied to either strategy – or indeed any strategy that recognizes the realities that have developed since 2002.
The situation is made worse by a number of factors:
- High turnover and rotation rates and a constant effort in many elements of the aid community to quickly achieve national goals or “branding.”
- A UN failure to coordinate and manage aid efforts, produce coherent reporting, and act on its knowledge of corruption at the official and contractor level.
- A failure to develop meaningful internal audits and transparency.
- Lack of effort and focus in high threat areas and outside the areas where there is direct military protection.
- Failure to properly comply with Ministry of Finance reporting requirements, coordinate with Afghan ministries, validate the requirements for projects,
- Failure to ensure project completion and successful transfer to the Afghans.
Once again, improvements will be relative under any strategy, but perfection is scarcely required. What is needed is to reduce the present tolerance for disunity of effort, and for the problems inflicted by uncoordinated regional and local efforts.
- Demonstrate that there is a credible, integrated plan to bring together the civil and military effort. For all of these reasons, a credible strategy must provide a plan and resources for a truly integrated civil-military effort, and any strategy that separates the military and civil side of US and allied activity is fatally flawed. Resources need tight and effective management, not loose or general coordination.
This requires much tighter unity of effort and coordination within the US country team, and is a reason that Ambassador Eikenberry’s efforts to improve the civil side of US efforts are as important as General McChrystal and General Rodreiguez’s efforts on the military side. In fact, one of the major gaps in the present US debate over strategy lies in the extent to which it has focused almost exclusively on the military side of the problem.
It is equally important, however, to achieve as much unity of effort in the entire international effort as possible. Developing a strategy for doing so is a critical sub-component of choosing an overall strategy for Afghanistan.
- Create an integrated civil-military personnel plan and assess US troop requirements accordingly. Look realistically at the issue of US troop levels relative to real world civilian capabilities. Regardless of what strategy is chosen, it can only succeed to the extent that it can actually be properly manned with the proper mix of US forces and civilians. There are finite limits to how many qualified civilians the US can field, particularly in high-risk areas.
Empty talk about limited increases in civilians as “surges” cannot disguise the fact that US troops will often have to be used for PRT and civil-military roles in the “hold and build” phases of a “shape, clear, hold, and build strategy.” A valid strategy not only requires an integrated civil-military plan, it requires an integrated civil-military manning plan and acceptance of the fact that US troop levels may have to reflect the fact that adequate civilian partners will not be available for the foreseeable future.
- Properly characterize the threat and do so in a net assessment context: Until this spring, the US and its allies spent some eight years in denial and understating the scale of the threat. They focused on winning tactical battles and encounters while the Taliban and its affiliates focused on winning on a war of political attrition designed to make the US and ISAF leave, force aid efforts out of the country, undermine the weak Afghan government, and take control of the Afghan population and key territory.
Kinetics are important: they either kill the enemy or US and friendly forces. The political, security, governance, and economic struggle for the population, however, is what determines the outcome of this kind of war. The need to change the assessment of the threat to reflect this fact is clearly recognized in the McChrystal strategy document, and all other strategies must be based on similar judgments.
A strategy for Afghanistan should be based on a full understanding of all threat activity, particularly an objective assessment of its successes and failures at the ideological and political level, its tools for influencing and controlling the population, and its ability to combine kinetics with strategic communications and political warfare. A successful strategy must also look beyond the threat per se, and be based on a net assessment of how the population sees the Taliban, Afghan governance and forces, the role of the US and ISAF, and the role of the international aid community.
At least through the spring of 2009, the intelligence community failed in both of these areas, as did commands and policy planners. Even today, it is hard to impossible to make accurate comparisons of areas of threat influence and control versus Afghan government and ISAF influence and control in any given area, ranging from security to narcotics to who controls the local justice system and tribal leaders . With some exceptions, credible net assessment does not exist at the national, regional, or local level.
Accordingly, a strategy based on today’s knowledge must explicitly state what is and is not known about the threat, and create clear plans to improve analysis and do so in ways that include comprehensive net assessment. This will be critical to any evaluation of “shape, clear, hold, and build” – if this strategy is selected. It will be equally critical, however, to determining whether any strategy designed at destroying jihadist insurgent and terrorist networks is actually having broad, strategic success.
The Real Debate: Some Key Issues Each of the Options Must Address
Finally, a real debate over strategy should pay far more attention to how the various options now being advocated address each of these challenges. The Afghan troop build-up or “anything but us strategy,” does not realistically address any of the problems in actually developing and using Afghan forces. It does not address the cost of the build up and sustaining Afghan forces, the massive differences between the various elements of the Afghan forces, the levels of US troops required as mentors and partners, or how a build up in Afghan forces relates to any other element of an integrated strategy.
The public discussion of the “more troops and counterinsurgency” strategy has become decoupled from the civil effort. It focus on the size of the US military forces to the near exclusion of the need to cope with the weaknesses in the Afghan government, and deal with the problems in ISAF and the international aid effort. It is largely decoupled from the need to exactly define what a population-centric strategy really means in a country with over 33 million people divided into diverse sects, ethnicities, and tribes and divided into over 140 significant population centers. It is easy to talk about “shape, clear, hold, and build.” It is far from clear what this really means in operational terms, particularly the civil-military aspects that require tight coordination in “hold and build.”
The public discussion of the “counterterrorism” strategy is even more decoupled from every aspect of the civil side of operations -- coping with the weaknesses in the Afghan government, and dealing with the problems in ISAF and the international aid effort. It also is curiously ill defined. Versions vary from little more than using UCAVs and few special forces to “plink” at Al Qa’ida in Pakistan, to a mix of far more intense strikes on all aspects of Al Qa’ida and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan with something very close to the presently planned level of ground forces and aid efforts in Afghanistan, including the added troops that President Obama committed this spring.
It is difficult to discuss some of the most critical aspects of any effort to strike at Al Qa’ida and Taliban cadres, because such an depends so heavily on sensitive strike assets and aspects of intelligence fusion. It is far from clear, however, that such an effort can achieve enough scale to have a lasting impact without major forces on the ground or without expecting special forces to perform miracles and survive in the process. It is unclear why such strikes should be any more decisive than they have been over the last eight years in defeating Al Qa’ida and the broad threat posed by violent Jihadist threats. It is unclear how it can be applied to the insurgent networks that are now embedded in densely populated areas. Decapitation is wonderfully simplistic as a concept, but Tarantino will not write the script in Afghanistan.
Those who call for a “withdrawal or exit strategy” do not describe what happens after the exit. They often provide useful warning and diagnostics about the current strategy, but do not describe an actual strategy of their own. Once again, every exit has a destination. At the same time, however, the risks in any strategy are high enough so that advocates of both the “counterinsurgency” and “counterterrorism” schools need to be far more explicit about their limitations and risks, and describe their contingency options if they fail. Whether one walks out or is thrown out, one still has to find somewhere to go.