Home inFocus U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan: The Lessons of History

U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan: The Lessons of History

Sebastian Gorka Spring 2010

It is hard to recall when a war document as topical as General McChrystal’s confidential report on the chances of stabilizing Afghanistan was last leaked – and so soon after being published. Yes, there were the infamous Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War, and after 9/11, the Rumsfeld memo asking how the U.S. can measure success in the Global War on Terror, but this lengthy official assessment by the NATO and U.S. commander in Afghanistan was leaked within just weeks of it being sent to the White House and at the time when the future of America’s involvement in Central Asia was the hottest issue in the news outside of Obama Care.

The 66-page report obtained by the Washington Post and available in redacted form on-line contains no substantive surprises. The message from the commander on the ground is that he is underresourced and that corruption is rampant among his Afghan governmental partners. What is shocking, however, is the repeated call made by McChrystal for a strategy that will change the situation – a strategy that will address the drastic shortfalls in men and finances and cleanse the host nation structures of undesirable elements. In layman’s terms, this means that America today does not have a strategy.

Choosing the Right Strategy

Eight and a half years after the 9/11 attacks and more than a year after the arrival of a new administration, the U.S. has deployed its men and women in harm’s way without providing a clear strategy to explain why they should risk their lives for those back home. Lest one thinks this is an exaggeration, the Washington Post quoted President Obama not long before the report was leaked as saying that he will not commit any more troops to the operations in Afghanistan until he has “absolute clarity about what the strategy is going to be.” It is difficult to explain away this lack of strategy. Yet if you talk, as I have done, to those brave men and women who have served and continue to serve in Afghanistan, it is obvious that no one has convincingly explained to them why America has deployed to a part of the world that has bested more than one empire in recent centuries.

Strategy is not a mysterious activity that can only be done behind the closed doors of the White House or the Pentagon. Every sentient human does it every day. Strategy is simply another word for how one connects what one wishes to achieve with the tools and resources available. But first, one question must be answered: What is the ultimate goal? In Afghanistan the answers have ranged from making sure al-Qaeda cannot attack the United States again, to creating a representative and effective government serving the Afghan people. These are two very different aims, each at the ends of a very broad spectrum. It is for the president to decide which end of the scale is to be used to justify putting more uniformed American lives in peril.

The White House now has General McChrystal’s full report and soon the new U.S. National Security Strategy should be released. Therefore, one can reasonably expect the president to explain which end of that spectrum most informs American actions in Afghanistan – whether the goal in fighting there is to destroy al-Qaeda or to create a radically new political, economic and social reality for the country. Until then, the American people should be reminded of the basic facts, and a recent and very relevant case study.

The bare statistics are daunting. Afghanistan is 150 percent bigger than Iraq, physically as large as Texas but with terrain that is far more challenging than that of the Lone Star State. Although accurate census data is challenging to obtain, it has a population comparable in size to California’s but with more than 30 spoken languages. Of the almost 40 million Afghans, 10 percent – more than 3 million people – are involved in Afghanistan’s world-beating drug trade. At the same time the Afghan National Police force stands at 51,406 uniformed officers. For comparison NYPD stands at almost 40,000.

These characteristics make Afghanistan one of the most difficult, if not the most difficult, counterinsurgency scenario a modern state has ever faced. Nevertheless, it should be recalled that just over a generation ago another Superpower became embroiled in its own Afghan counterinsurgency: the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Experience

Although the USSR was a despicable totalitarian regime that used vicious methods to suppress its own people as well as the people of countries it invaded, the fact that it too recently attempted to stabilize Afghanistan and subdue a low-tech insurgency should be studied rather than ignored. While recently teaching a course on strategic thought to members of the armed forces and other government agencies, I gave my students the seemingly simple task of answering the question: What would the Russians have had to have done in order to win in Afghanistan? Obviously, numbers and brute force alone did not work. Washington has more than 60,000 troops already deployed, whereas in the 1980s the USSR had up to 104,000 in theater. Military might was not the yardstick by which success could be measured. How then could the Russians have defeated their own Afghan insurgency?

Three factors led to Russia’s defeat and any outside actor will have to deal with these factors should they wish to drastically change the Afghan reality in a lasting way.

To change Afghanistan, an outside power must do the following:

  • install a national leader who is a Pashtun but who is recognized by, and able to make lasting deals with, the Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara ethnic groups;
  • effectively co-opt the most significant tribal players;
  • cut off sanctuary to any insurgent element exploiting the porous border with Pakistan.

The Soviet Union failed on all three counts. After a decade in the country, they withdrew in 1989 after almost 20,000 of its soldiers were killed and 500,000 were wounded. Regardless of the exact political and economic reality that America desires to realize in Afghanistan, it too must accomplish these three tasks.

America’s Scorecard

How is the United States faring so far? Yes, President Karzai is a Pashtun and in the recent elections he managed to reassert his position. Does he have the momentum to cut the necessary deals with other important political actors? It is too early to say, but the signs are less than positive. Has America co-opted the most important tribal leaders and warlords? In the beginning, millions of dollars were distributed to people identified by the CIA and State Department as leaders who could stabilize the most dangerous regions in the South and East. The trouble was that often they were not the right people and in most cases they did not remain “bought.”

Here, there is a cultural obstacle from an American standpoint. Americans do not generally like the idea of having to buy the favor of political actors, especially when attempting to establish a representative government. Nevertheless, the U.S. military went from actively seeking out those to co-opt and keep on its side, to making sure that material transported inside Afghanistan has an extra 20 – 30 percent packed in each convoy by American logisticians, in order to pay the local warlords when the convoy is intercepted. This is not the U.S. co-opting the locals but rather the U.S. being co-opted by the locals.

The last requirement is, of course, strongly connected to the second. The lifeline of any insurgency, be it the drug-running FARC in Columbia or the Neo-Taliban in the Federally Administered Tribal Area along the Afghan border, are the lines of retreat and sanctuary. By definition, all insurgencies start small and must choose their battles with the government until they have adequately built a counter-state and are in a position to challenge federal forces openly. This is the natural progression of a “people’s war” as designed by the master of irregular warfare, Mao Tse Tung. As long as entry and exit into and out of the Tribal Areas is not controlled by U.S. forces, the Afghan National Army, or Pakistan, American soldiers and innocent people will continue to be killed in Afghanistan.

This is exactly the same trap the United States fell into in Vietnam. Cambodia and Laos were never fully removed from the equation as enemy sanctuaries and as a result the insurgency could always recruit, regroup, and resupply. In Southeast Asia, for political reasons, the U.S. enabled a war of attrition to be implemented against American forces. And it is happening again. In the words of Dr. Thomas A. Marks, the world renowned authority on counterinsurgency and author of half a dozen award winning books on people’s war: “Most Afghans may indeed not be members of the Taliban. But that is irrelevant if sanctuary remains available to the insurgents.”

Means and Resources

As America waits for the president and the White House to define the plan for Afghanistan, the U.S. should reflect on the last triad of strategy: the means and resources. Since the first units were sent there in the weeks after 9/11 to hunt down and destroy al-Qaeda, this war has been shaped by the philosophy of the Special Forces of the United States. Always emphasizing quality over quantity, the world of Special Operations achieves what it does by working “by, with and through” the host-nation’s forces with which it partners. As a result, any mission on the scale of Afghanistan – and even Iraq – will eventually stand or fall on the basis of how good America’s partner is at doing what needs to be done. Yet today in Afghanistan, the United States is asking the local population to trust the Afghan National Army and police units that the U.S. itself does not trust. Once more, Professor Marks illuminates: “We are again facing the same conundrum as in Vietnam: as long as your partner, the host-nation, does not stand up for itself, then the actions of U.S. forces are largely irrelevant.”

Unless the U.S. is prepared to have its soldiers provide security to the Afghan people in perpetuity, the end-state of the mission may have to be reconsidered. Did America deploy to Afghanistan to create a nation-state in a region that knows neither nation nor state? Or did the U.S. send Americans into the Hindu Kush to make sure another 9/11 never happens again? These strategic end-states are not the same and they require different tools and methods. Hopefully, the president will soon decide which goal the U.S. is fighting for.

Sebastian L. v. Gorka PhD is a military affairs fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a member of the Strategic Advisers’ Group of the U.S. Atlantic Council. An internationally recognized expert on national security and democratic transition, he advises at the highest levels to government and international organizations. His views do not represent the views of any U.S. government department.