US’ Afghanistan Strategy: An Analytical Evaluation

A realistic discernment of the post-US withdrawal picture of Afghanistan is one of the aspects which retains priority attention of most of those who are linked with political and strategic policy analysis and planning, specially in the regional countries and the world powers. Obviously, for that purpose a number of related aspects and factors have to be taken into account and analysed. However, probably the most important requirement is that of a critical evaluation of the much pronounced US’ COIN (counter-insurgency) Strategy. This US strategy is dominating all US’ actions in Afghanistan; and its implications will certainly play a dominant role in defining the post-US withdrawal picture of that country. As for the US’ official instance, the COIN Strategy basically aims at defeating Al-Quaida and Taliban as a pre-requisite to ushering in an era of peace, democracy, respect for human rights, etc through internationally assisted reconstruction of Afghanistan; and that,  it is producing the desired effects towards achieving that aim. However, many a non-official publications emanating from US and Europe reflect facts to the contrary. Besides that, the emerging ground realities too clearly defy US’ claims relating to the actual aim of this strategy as also the results being achieved through its application. Obviously, that dichotomy is too alarming a threat for the peace and stability not only in Afghanistan, but in the entire region – thereby necessitating an in-depth analysis of US’ COIN Strategy. This paper presents an analytical appraisal of the identified realities related to US’ Afghanistan strategy.

In the outset, it may be pertinent to clarify certain conceptual and applied aspects related to the termstrategyas also the dimensions of strategy, so that a framework of the required analysis may be formulated based upon these clarifications. As for the term ‘strategy’, in general usage it has varying definitions because of the varying contexts in relation to which the definitions are coined like national, military, political, corporate, and business, etc. In the case of the analysis presented in this paper obviously the focus is on national strategy. It is worth noting that the concept of national strategy has undergone re-thinking and revision especially after World War II and that process still continues. In many such revisions the conceptual coverage of the term national strategy has generally been expanded to include new dimensions. For example Liddell Hart’s concept-defining phrase “the art of distributing and applying military means to fulfill the ends of policy”, subsequently gave way to the much wider concept of grand strategy which was introduced to cover those industrial, financial, demographic, and societal aspects of war that have become so salient in the Twentieth century. The definition given in US Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms 2005 even included the aspect of development of national power by mentioning, The art and science of developing and using the diplomatic, economic, and informational powers of a nation, together with its armed forces, during peace and war to secure national objectives”. Subsequently, with the experience of US’ war in Iraq and Afghanistan, US’ Army War College (USAWC) decided to study yet a newer approach to national strategy, i.e., an approach that takes the perspective of the other side using culture as a means to determine the what and the why of the others interests that could help in the formulation of U.S. strategy and policy, its implementation and a favorable outcome. That idea was in consonance with the already emerged and growing recognition that culture is an important factor at the policy and strategy levels. The USAWC therefore established a board of six directors in 2006 to undertake the study; and as result of that endeavour USAWC introduced the cultural concepts and framework as part of the Strategic Thinking course in 2009. Details of that study were published by USAWC paper titled ‘Cultural Dimensions of Strategy and Policy’ in 2009.

As for the fundamentals of strategy, a brief reference has to be made of the national interest / objective’, ‘assumptions (of the strategic environment assumed to be obtaining during the application of strategy), ‘ends (of strategy to achieve the objectives), ‘means (resources available to be devoted for the application of strategy), and ways (methods of organised application of resources).  It deserves emphasis that out of this list, if the national interest is realistically defined and the assumptions are correct, then the task of balancing the equation of ends – means – ways may be performed with considerable accuracy.

The afore-mentioned US / European publications, which bring to fore the flaws of US’ Afghanistan Strategy, also base their criticism in relation to some of these aspects of strategy, besides some other aspects. Out of these publications, at least three are of note. One is the prize-wining essay of Lieutenant Colonel Mark Schrecker, USMC, which won the Strategic Research Paper category of the 2010 Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Strategic Essay Competition. It deals in detail with the conceptual aspect of assumption in strategy. Second is the article titled Why COIN Failed In Vietnam, Iran and Afghanistan, dated 3 July 2012, presenting a chapter of the book authored by Peter Van Buren – a US foreign service official who worked for US’ State Department for reconstruction work with US occupation forces in Iraq. He provides insight in many of the serious ingrained dichotomies of US’ strategy. Third is the official US document of the Special Inspector General of Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), dated 30 July 2012. It brings to fore the problematic ground realities relating to US’ efforts for the reconstruction of Afghanistan, which is considered to be of critical importance to the success of US’ COIN Strategy.

As for US’ COIN Strategy, its essence may be drawn from the speeches of President Obama in March and later in December 2009, as quoted by Lieutenant Colonel Mark Schrecker. He mentions that Obama emphsised that the US’ national interest to be supported by this strategy would be The security and safety of the American people [are] at stake in Afghanistan”; that the objective was to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and prevent its capacity to threaten America and its Allies in the future”; and to achieve this objective, The tasks specified by the President—defeat of the Taliban, training Afghan security forces, improving governance, and growing the Afghan economy—are critical elements of a COIN operation”. Before going into the analysis of the thus officially stated national interest of US in Afghanistan war, and the objectives and tasks of COIN Strategy, it may be worth noting as to how Eliot A. Cohen a Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies commented on this. He mentioned in his article dated 6 December 2009, It is impolite, but probably true, to say that when President Obama announced in March that he had a “comprehensive, new strategy” for victory in Afghanistan, he had no precise idea what he was talking about. In Washington parlance, the word “strategy” usually means “to-do list” or at best “action plan.” As for “comprehensive” and “new,” they usually mean merely “better than whatever my predecessors did”. Professor Cohen might have sounded a bit abrasive in these comments. However, the subsequently available knowledge relating to COIN Strategy did prove at least one facet of Professor Cohen’s observation that whatever rationale and strategy President Obama gave about Afghanistan war was far from reality. Now, was that distancing from reality a mistake, or was it intentional to cover up hidden US’ motives, is a matter to be resolved by humanity at large.

When a realistic examination of the various interwoven features of COIN Strategy is undertaken, it becomes very clear that this strategy suffers from textural flaws due to many basic differences between its announced and latent features. Taking first the stated US’ national interest which was the announcedreason for US’ war in Afghanistan. According to President Obama it was/is for providing security and safety to American people whose lives were threatened by Al-Quaida group in Afghanistan’. According to him that national interest was based upon the threat that Al-Quaida was fully organised, equipped, and had the capability of attacking and devastating anywhere even in the US homeland. However, prudence clearly highlighted that it was simply a dubious concoction based upon the projected false alarm, like the falsehood of the alarm of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to temporarily conceal US’ actual motives of attacking that country. This falsehood of President Obama has also been confirmed in many of the afore-mentioned publications. Otherwise too, even then it was a common knowledge that Al-Quaida did not possess any capability even closer to those announced by President Obama – a fact which has also been acknowledged by Lieutenant Colonel Mark Schrecker who quoted John Brennan, President Obama’s most senior counterterrorism expert, who suggested that [al Qaeda] has been consumed with trying to ensure its security and stay out of the way in northern Pakistan”.

As for the assumptionsuon which US’ COIN Strategy is based, a number of very serious flaws are evident. From the tone and tenor of the pronouncements of US officialdom linked with US war in Afghanistan it is apparent that in the context of the strategic environment, US’ war makers were very confident that with its immense high-tech military might and the ‘sole supper power’ dominance in international politics it wouldn’t be difficult for US to conquer Afghanistan and reshape the country to serve US’ interests. That assumption was very probably made under the influence of US’ power arrogance’. However, by doing so the US’ war planners just ignored the critically important cultural aspect related to strategic planning. The afore-mentioned USAWC paper dilates in detail on this aspect. It highlights three cultural features or dimensions that drive political and strategic action and behavior of not only the attacker but also the side being attacked. Those are identity’, political culture’, and resilience’. The implied importance related to strategic planning of the ‘identity’ and ‘resilience’ of a particular nation is well-known and does not require further elaboration. Regarding ‘political culture’, however, it may be elaborated that USAWC paper highlights two instruments of its expression, i.e. political system(including the examination of the role of history, class, religion, race, ethnicity, gender, geography (physical, social, and cultural), demography, and power fault lines that determine power centers, connections, and operations), and strategic culture(a new term that entails the understanding of the effect of cultural factors on strategic behavior). In that context, US’ planners made the mistake of disregarding two critically important realities. On the one side, they disregarded the historically proven national identity, resilience and strategic culture of Afghans, who through the passage of centuries have repeatedly shown their proven capability of bearing the utmost miseries but not allowing even the mightiest invaders (Greek Empire, Moghal Empire, British Empire, USSR) to finally occupy and reshape their country. And on the other side, they disregarded the much known fact of the US’ public’s incapability of bearing such miseries, specially the loss of lives of even their soldiers. These violations of the realities have led US to its current dilemma of desperately finding a way to disengage from the war to answer the mounting clamour of US public for a ‘safe’ return of their soldiers back home.

Peter Van Buren, with his inside knowledge of US’ State Department, in his aforementioned publication has even credibly negated US’ claim that it is fighting counterinsurgency (COIN) operations in Afghanistan for the betterment and reconstruction of that country. He quotes his colleague who asserted, “The problem is that one can only counter an insurgency if a legitimate government, supported by the majority of the people but opposed by an insurgency, exists”. Then he goes on to elaborate that in the case of Afghanistan, as was the case of Vietnam and Iraq, It was US which planted illegitimate government of its choosing with superficial trappings of democracy and when some segment of the population rose in arms against the illegitimate government they were dubbed as insurgents.    

Lieutenant Colonel Mark Schrecker has also criticised US’ COIN Strategy due to serious flaws in its basic assumptions. He notes four of those: “The first is that al Qaeda is still a threat to the United States and its citizens; the second, and perhaps most important, is that Afghanistan is of vital importance to al Qaeda; the third significant assumption is that a favorable outcome requires a COIN strategy; and finally that the United States has sufficient popular support and resources (and a willingness to commit them) to conduct a counterinsurgency and that it can be brought to a successful conclusion before the required support and resources are exhausted”. He then examines those in detail, leading to the conclusion that all of those assumptions are basically flawed. Very briefly, for the negation of the first assumption, he has quoted the credible observation of President Obama’s most senior counterterrorism expert (above-mentioned); for the second he examines three of its sub-assumptions and concludes, Given the fallacies in these sub assumptions, it follows that the overarching assumption— that Afghanistan is of vital importance to al Qaeda—is not valid; having examined the third, again in detail, he concludes quoting Sageman, Unfortunately, a COIN strategy in Afghanistan is at best irrelevant to the goal of disrupting, dismantling and defeating al Qaeda, which is located in Pakistan”; and for the fourth, he asserts, “Sustainment of COIN operations in Afghanistan will likely face at least three significant challenges: maintaining the support of the American people, maintaining funding from Congress in the face of the ongoing budget crisis, and maintaining the support of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and other coalition partners”. Besides that, he also cautions, “To accurately assess this strategy, it is necessary to add up not only hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of American lives, but also the social disruption at home, damage to the Nation’s financial stability, injury to the Nation’s prestige abroad, and opportunity costs of other foreign and domestic policy goals that were not achieved because of the ongoing struggles in Afghanistan”. And, in the context of the cost of this US’ war, it is also worth noting that Molly Moorhead in her article dated 7 August 2012 has quoted Harrison (a defense budget expert) who has provided the calculation that in military related expenditure alone this war is costing US an amount of $1.2 million per troop per yearand the overall expenditure, quoted by Joshua Foust in his July 2012 article titled, ‘Five Lessons We Should Have Learned in Afghanistan’, is $570.9 billion since 2001 till May 2012.

This way of strategic planning by US’ planners is so much away from even the basic norms of professionalism that Joshua Foust likens it to the ‘magical rain dance’ (a ritual of some people who believe that a particular dance by them brings the desired rain). His comments are worth noting: “The US government has engaged in significant magical thinking in Afghanistan. For the last ten years, military and civilian leaders have promised that if something was built, or a certain area of the country was “cleared” of militants, or if some other singular event like a presidential election took place, the war would be won. It was the political equivalent of a rain dance – rather than understanding the complex reasons why bad things happened in Afghanistan, policymakers chose to assume that simple fixes could produce victory”.

Even relating to the ways (methods of organised application of resources) for the reconstruction and development of Afghanistan, there are considerable flaws in US’ COIN Strategy. Joshua Foust has also dealt in detail regarding some of the major reconstruction/development projects like the much pronounced Kajaki Dam in Helmand province and Tarakhil power plant built outside of Kabul, highlighting the data of the actualities of these and terms these as perfect example of magical thinking”. The clearly ‘unpromising’ state of Afghanistan’s reconstruction – considered as the key to success of US’ COIN Strategy, has also been highlighted in the afore-mentioned latest official US document of the Special Inspector General of Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), dated 30 July 2012. It brings to fore the actual state of Afghanistan’s infrastructure construction/development projects including water, power, transportation, and other projects in support of the COIN strategy in Afghanistan. It highlights considerable delays and mismanagement in the ongoing projects. Regarding energy sector projects, it mentions, “Our reports have found that the U.S. government’s efforts to execute large-scale energy sector projects in Afghanistan have frequently resulted in cost and schedule over-runs, contractor default, questionable or undefined sustainment methods, and wasted U.S dollars”; and mentioning overall, it also cautions, “the scale of most projects means that these agencies will not achieve the planned contributions to the COIN strategy—–”; and in some instances, these projects may result in adverse COIN effects because they create an expectations gap among the affected population or lack citizen support.  

Grasp of these realities of US’ Afghanistan Strategy thus attained leads to a final and somewhat perplexing question; as to why after all US’ strategic planners formulated and are still perusing such a flawed strategy? Is it that they were mistaken, being naïve; or is it that they intentionally concocted this contraption of the announcedelements of US strategy to conceal, albeit clumsily, the latent elements of their actual strategic design? The opinions relating to this question are likely to differ. And, for no surprise, many of the US’ analysts etc quoted in this paper who have pointed out such flaws in US’ strategy, obviously prefer to term it as a mistake of the naive. Prudence, however, clearly highlights the much higher probability that it was/is intentional; concealing the actual US’ design (supported by NATO) to ‘blitzkrieg’ and bulldoze its way to attain its geopolitical objectives for politico-economic gains in this region at all cost, irrespective of the resulting massive human and material devastation in Afghanistan and Pakistan in particular. That is so, because the ethical aspects of humanity have no place in the mindset of the power- arrogantwar maker cliques of US and other powers. And as for the billions of dollars of US’ taxpayers money spent on this war, again the point to understand is that those billions of dollars extracted from US’ public are continually enriching the coffers of these very war makers including US tycoons of military industry, oil industry, security contract agencies, and other industries involved in the reconstruction etc work.

(Published in The Frontier Post Peshawar, in two installments, on 26 and 27 August 2012.)