The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense, the United States Army, or ISAF.
Recently, NATO Defense Ministers approved, in theory, the concept of operations for the next NATO mission in Afghanistan, Resolute Support, to train, advise, and assist the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and associated government entities post-2014. “That concept will guide our military experts as they finalize the plan in the course of the coming months,” says NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. This approval represents important and necessary political and military guidance at this stage of operational planning. However, before further detailed planning occurs and, more importantly, before NATO and US policymakers decide on ISAF military recommendations for troop levels for this next mission, it must be recognized that the current and future military missions in Afghanistan are at a turning point. The only military objective and national policy interest is limited and simple: to ensure Afghanistan cannot once again be used as a safe haven or launching pad for terrorist attacks on the United States or our allies. This limited goal, however, is at risk due to continued mission creep and strategy which again strays from policy. Military planning efforts are underway; efforts which are too prepared to take the advice and recommendations of contracted and well-connected think tanks over and above the political requirement necessitating a limited strategy. As with the President’s strategic review in 2009, a mission is being crafted right now for which there is no political requirement, national interest, or military necessity. A mission is being planned around the false assumptions and anachronous recommendations of contracted think tanks resurrecting the same tired, dangerous, and failed promises.
In order to meet US and NATO military objectives for shared political interests, one course of action is suitable, feasible, and acceptable: 1) force the Government of Afghanistan to deal with the causal factors (political, legal, and economic) of their war; 2) if that is unachievable, cease funding to underwrite and support the government and military, as the result will directly contravene our remaining strategic goals (which this paper will fully explain); and, 3) continue with post-ISAF counter-terror operations with or without the approval of the Afghan government (as with Yemen, Pakistan, etc.). Yet largely because of flawed assessments and bad policy/strategy recommendations generated by contracted think tanks like CNAS, this is not what we are poised to do. Strategy can still be set on a better course but only if we cut loose from a particularly enduring, yet unsound logic. This paper will show that the current direction of strategy development for the next US/NATO mission is contrary to long-term national and coalition goals. Ultimately, the experience of recent ISAF and Afghan government cooperation and, in fact, the past 12 years, should force a wholesale reassessment of a future NATO mission in a contrary direction to that recommended by the latest report from CNAS.
The CNAS report ‘Voices From the Field: Towards a Successful Outcome in Afghanistan’[i] is yet another ‘Better War’ argument trying to snatch victory out of the clutches of defeat. If anything, what can still be achieved is ‘something resembling victory’ from the jaws of US think tanks and paid consultants who make hollow promises that drive policy and resultant strategy. What strategic success now looks like, contrary to the CNAS report, is keeping the US and NATO from falling into one final and very similar trap again in Afghanistan; to not extend this effort any longer or grander than it needs to be…by our definition, not the Afghan government’s. At the very least, the ‘bridging strategy’ called for by the report is a solution to neither a problem the US can affect nor one that is even supported by political goals; i.e., it is not strategy at all. Ultimately, strategy should follow policy. The CNAS report follows a standard Better War template; it provides strategy recommendations wildly out of sync with political requirements and continues tying the US/NATO coalition to past failure; a strategy by ‘sunk costs.’ A never-ending morass of false promises, a widening black hole devouring political and financial capital, and a course of action which still fails to respect the environment and the goals military forces operate under is a bridging strategy to nowhere. This will be the result of the Better War myth if recommendations like CNAS’s are executed.
The military-centric limited approach based on Afghan Army corps headquarters as outlined in “Voices from the Field” defines the grandiosity of what this think tank recommends; it is above and beyond vital necessity. This scope will feed into the calculus for further military planning efforts. Yet what must finally be considered are realistic goals and vital national interests; what is needed out of Afghanistan and not what Afghanistan needs from the US or NATO. That is not what this report provides. In contrast, it makes an entire argument out of wrong assumptions and furthering flawed logic; if the US only applies better counterinsurgency techniques and training and more money and time, even at this late hour, the coalition and the corrupt Afghan state can still ‘win’ this war. Arguably, this is wrong and will be a further and inexcusable waste of blood and treasure.
Forming the entire foundation for the report’s thesis is the authors’ claim that the coalition is considering accelerating disengagement or under-resourcing commitments to Afghanistan due to “frustration with Karzai or domestic budgetary pressures.” If it was this simple the claim might be warranted. The reality is that the coalition is considering disengagement and limiting the astronomical resourcing current and future proposed Afghan strategy requires simply because the truth of the past twelve years is unavoidable. It was necessary over time to roll back our strategic objectives from the scope and grandeur they promised due to reports like “Voices From the Field.” The US has had to realize that, in opposition to assessments like CNAS’s, we cannot affect our policy with uncoordinated and unmatched military strategy which does not address political objectives, operational realities, or a consideration of the environment. In a counterinsurgency, as in all war, the politics of the host nation form the crux of that operating environment. Vietnam (or a study of any insurgency) should have taught this. The past twelve years should have taught a lot more but, apparently by the thesis in this report, it has not. Disengagement is finally being considered because the insurgency is waiting foreign forces out. Because previous strategies have arguably only superficially addressed the political and cultural causes of Afghanistan’s insurgency, the government of Afghanistan is unlikely to bring it under control after our withdrawal. In 2013 this fact must be realized.
Disengagement and ‘the zero option’ must be considered because the insurgency has no political incentive to stop fighting either the coalition or the host nation. This insurgency, like all insurgencies, will only cease when the host nation addresses the underlying political and legal causes. However, as strategy has not been tied to policy, coalition actions have had the effect of institutionalizing and protecting the very system that keeps the Taliban in business: the framework and inefficiencies of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) itself and especially its sub-national governance policy. Because planners and strategists looked at the insurgency and its mitigation through one lens, an enemy-centric one, we generated and executed one solution: militarily. But this insurgency and civil war arose from something more fundamental, deeper, and more political – as all insurgencies do – and will require a more holistic approach to dealing with it. The ANSF will not crush the insurgency just as the US Army has not. As a recent Afghan military official has said, “We don’t fear the enemy. We don’t need better equipment and technology, because those are things they don’t have. What we need is a stronger and better government,” “People are dissatisfied with all the corruption…”. That is the crux of the failure of the CNAS and Better War thesis (and, to be frank, the entire 12 years of the ISAF campaign plan) but we look the other way and intentionally focus on the wrong factors. Since the false logic and premises of FM 3-24 and hollow strategy recommendations from paid consultants to ISAF and the DoD (CNAS, AEI, Institute for the Study of War, et al), the convenient myth of the Better War thesis forced the US military to entertain delusions of grandeur forcing the misapplication of resources and efforts.
What has solidified over the past twelve years while military planners selectively chose to focus elsewhere (in order to protect the myth and perception of Afghan sovereignty) is a dangerous fault line between the strong central state Kabul wants to maintain (that is, after all, where all the money siphons upwards to), and the bottom-up traditional processes that can, up to a point, provide effective political governance. That point is at the District level where the people’s first encounter with the State occurs; this is where the State reaches its farthest downward point through political appointments, patronage, and direct, centralized control of policy and budgets. It is at this level where the population loses control of their political fates as all accountability flows up to Kabul, not downwards to the people (Chiefs of Police, governors, and development councils work for the Ministries in Kabul or the President, or their own gain, and not the people; the population recognizes this). It is from this level that all transparency, participation, and connectivity starts to evaporate. This is where the insurgency begins and this is why the insurgency is resilient, even more so the further out from Kabul or other major metropolitan centers one travels. This has never been seriously addressed and, if anything, CNAS’s report only exacerbates that fault line.
Yet the authors of the report and a clouded enemy-centric mindset would wash that away. ‘If we just spend a little more,’ the reasoning goes, ‘if the focus remains on training the ANSF a little harder for a little longer at the same things we have been trying,’ and even if something militarily different could be endeavored, ‘we and GIRoA can still win.’ That is the ‘Better War myth’ perpetuated by Pollyannaish contracted advocates trying to rescue previous illogical proposals with more of the same thinking. Our policymakers should follow through with their intent and demand strategy that matches policy; they should demand accountability. Contracted think tanks and defense leadership is too wedded to past planning mistakes, have too much ego and political capital wrapped up in sunk costs, and can do nothing else but continue to provide the same failing recommendations as if it could result in any other end. Limited policy goals demand limited strategies and operations; not wholesale nation building, forced cultural and political sea changes, and an unlimited war on ideological enemies that in some respects our occupation created.
In order to match current and future tentative Resolute Support strategies with policy, I would plead with the military planners of the coalition to “focus on the illness, not the symptoms” even this late in the game. Centers of Gravity affecting resources and foci of effort need to be adjusted to reflect true critical factors. Up to now they never have because it would entail forcing an inconvenient realization; current US/NATO efforts have the unintended consequence of helping to enable the very insurgency they are meant to fight. Yet doing this would break the counter-productive cycle of the Better War myth in Afghanistan. This war will never be won by killing insurgents and GIRoA or the ANSF cannot be trained, advised, and assisted to win their war by killing insurgents after ISAF stops with the end of the mission in 2014. The next Resolute Support mission will similarly not achieve this goal because it leaves the cause and fuel of the insurgency (corrupt, self-serving, and ineffective GIRoA governance itself) up to GIRoA to solve. Twelve years shows that this is the last thing they wish to address.
The insurgency exists because of the dynamic between the centralized government’s relationship with sub-national governance and, in turn, its relationship with the people. Even Afghanistan’s own government entity responsible for sub-national governance policy, the Independent Directorate of Local Governance (IDLG), acknowledges that laws are conflicting, disjointed, and written in seclusion from the overall governance context they are supposed to sustain. The insurgency feeds off this entrenched disconnect. Even if the coalition could militarily pound the insurgency into the ground over time, it will sit there, below the surface, smoldering until foreign combat power leaves. And insurgents and other anti-GIRoA forces know it will leave; it must. This is not the coalition’s war. What took the United States arguably over 180 years to accomplish (with respect to rule of law, human and individual rights, states’ relations with the federal center, etc. between our Revolution to the signing of the Civil Rights Act) is impossible to build and sustain in a foreign culture in the finite time allotted.
Since the underlying political issues have never seriously been addressed, the insurgency will always have a ready supply of fuel for their fire while the US military focuses on recommendations of reports like “Voices From the Field” – bridging strategies concentrating on the wrong areas and the wrong efforts. Because of the pervasive “Better War” myth, the conditions-based war has turned into a timeline-based war that can just barely transition security responsibility to the Afghans by 2015. That is why a fallback bridging strategy is necessary in the first place. Not only have conditions become unachievable, they always were. A classic case of policy-strategy mismatch. The superficially simple logic saying it is critical to continue the training, advising, and assisting effort would be sufficient if the ANSF were being trained and resourced to fight a conventional war from within a stable nation-state. But that is not the environment the coalition is dealing with. Because the population is not politically satisfied with GIRoA governance or provision of services (to the point of enabling an insurgency), because GIRoA cannot and will not govern effectively, the insurgency will continue to live and feed on the governance failure and misallocation of resources of the system the coalition defends.
What does it say that the strongest military in the history of the world cannot defeat a decentralized, ill-commanded, under-resourced militia using tactics (and in some cases, weapons) beyond generations old? What does it say that the United States Army, the same army that beat back fourteen Nazi divisions across the Hürtgen Forest in three months, could not hold ground against the Taliban over twelve years? It says that GIRoA gets a vote in how this insurgency ends. To date, they have not voted in good faith and the US has not executed good strategy. What that should say too is, unless this situation radically changes as the US plans to transition into the next NATO mission, coalition efforts in Afghanistan have culminated. The ‘Golden Hour’ of fighting the Afghan insurgency and civil war is, for the West at least, over.
If addressing Afghanistan’s polity is a bridge too far in the time it can still be funded (or for the period in which we can convince our own populations that the prize is worth the effort), then forces and resources should be disengaged now, ANSF funding and all. Keeping an incapable, and in many cases corrupt, rentier state afloat with a strong Praetorian Guard will be worse for the people of Afghanistan and its overall stability in the long run than ceasing this course of action with the end of the ISAF mission. If, as the report states, the most the West can hope for is to enable the ANSF to be that Praetorian Guard, keep Kabul or the major metropolitan centers protected, and Afghanistan’s form of predatory centralized government barely hanging on, the U.S. will fail in achieving its last remaining strategic objective.
The goal of the report’s bridging strategy and ultimate end state is incapable of providing the long-term requirements and criteria for success for long-term policy objectives. The course of action this report calls for will likely become the very conduit shaping catastrophic consequences for US goals and interests. In order to survive with the insurgency intact, GIRoA will be forced to cede much autonomy to the provinces and rule via patronage networks. That strategy has worked well for Afghanistan in times past. Yet if that occurs again, US policy will have failed: at that point GIRoA will not be able to secure its country and provide stability in order to ensure it cannot once again be used as a safe haven or launching pad for terrorist attacks on the United States or our allies, the last positive goal. Cutting deals and proffering large swaths of autonomy to the provinces is, by definition, antithetical to that goal. This could be the best outcome to hope for according to CNAS. When GIRoA and the ANSF cede territory to the Taliban, local powerbrokers, warlords, drug kings, and tribal structures (as they must to maintain any semblance of stability after coalition combat power leaves) they will not control and secure the territory the US and NATO have determined necessary to preclude al-Qaeda’s return. At this point military and political realities in Afghanistan will dictate that US strategic aims have been wasted and any further large- or small-scale train, advise, and assist effort is for naught. The US does not need to train the ANSF and GIRoA to secure the major cities and the Ring Road (which will always be the extent of their capacities); they must be trained to secure the rural areas and places GIRoA and the ANSF have no intention of extending the writ of governance or security to; that is where insurgency started and that is where it will still live after the ISAF mission.
The United States and willing partners will still most likely continue with an effective counter-terror role in the region in some way, shape, or form post-ISAF and post-2014 (under the Authorization for the Use of Military Force mandate of 2001). So why then continue with the counterproductive façade of training, advising, and assisting GIRoA to provide security and stability when, by CNAS’s own logic, this is untenable and counterproductive to longer-term strategic objectives? As long as the US and ISAF planning efforts maintain the direction the report calls for, strategic goals will be unreachable. As long as the West allows the political causal factors of the insurgency to be ignored and allows GIRoA to continue to ignore them, ultimately achieving what is collectively necessary in any future timeframe becomes impossible.
The CNAS report is full of assertions and arguments that are simply wrong, misleading, or a misinterpretation of insurgency theory and Afghan history or law. But when the report’s fundamental thesis is so fatally flawed, the rest becomes minutia. The thesis itself would be minutia if it were not so close to current planning efforts (as evinced by ADM (ret) Stavridis’ article “The 15,000 Troop Option”[ii] ). Possibly as a result of Iraq and Afghanistan our nation will realize that our political and military leadership should once again think for themselves. The DoD maintains organic “think tank” capacity which must be further resourced and expanded with the relevant expertise and experience as necessary. GEN Odierno’s Strategic Studies Group, the Army War College’s Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute, and the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies and Center for Technology and National Security Policy feature on this list, among others. The US Army has also separated out an entire functional area career track devoted solely to Strategy development and Strategic Planning professionals. The DoD has the skillsets and experience to work together with civilian leadership to develop rational strategy from national policy. Military professionals working with civilian policymakers are fully capable of dealing with the tasks of policy and strategy development while working within the civil-military relationship that has gotten us this far over the past 237 years. If we use Iraq and Afghanistan as metrics of the DoD’s incestuous relationship with closely partnered for-profit think tanks, the US has gotten exactly zero return on investment.
The NATO Secretary General recently continued, “Over the last 11 years we have given the Afghans the space to build their future.” What we have actually done and what we are prepared to continue to do, in no small part because of contracted advice like this report’s, is fight a holding action for a government who literally chooses not to govern effectively. Strategy can still right that course but the behemoth of Western political inertia and military planning is already rolling ahead and deciding a course of action the only way it knows how, in no small part because of advice like CNAS’s: fight the insurgency militarily, ignore the causes, and hope to maintain a “decent interval.” Because of thinking like this, the coalition is planning on a size and scope for the future mission without any basis in political requirement or national interest. What this report, entrenched in the “better war” myth proposes, is nothing more than appeal to assumed (and hollow) counterinsurgency tradition and agendas driven by validating sunk costs of previous failures. In reality it is an exercise in logical fallacy. By this advice, to get from where GIRoA is now to where NATO needs them to be according to defined end states is pure and unsupportable non sequitur logic; the conclusion does not follow from the premise. In lieu of a new direction at the eleventh-hour, disengagement should be the word of the day and for reasons which the CNAS report’s authors apparently have no comprehension.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense, the United States Army, or ISAF.
[i] Center for a New American Security, “Toward a Successful Outcome in Afghanistan”, (31 May 2013). Available at: www.cnas.org/towardasuccessfuloutcomeinAfghanistan
[ii] Constable, Pamela. “Taliban Surge Expected to Continue.” The Washington Post, 10 June 2013. Web. 24 June 2013
[iii] Stavridis, James. “The 15,000 Troop Option.” Foreign Policy; National Security. Foreign Policy, 13 August 2013. Web. 14 August 2013