To ‘Win’ in Afghanistan, Devise a Strategy and Do Not Quit

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Pakistan’s sponsorship of the Taliban is the main reason for the continued stalemate in Afghanistan after almost 16 years.  To be sure, there are other ancillary factors that help explain the instability, but Pakistan is the key reason. 

The war in Afghanistan will not end, or it will end badly unless the U.S.-led Coalition and its Afghan partners compel Pakistan to cease its malign conduct. 

What a win looks like.

A ‘win’ in Afghanistan would not resemble the win in World War II where the Allies thoroughly defeated and then received the unconditional surrenders of Germany and Japan.  The end will be negotiated and conditional.

A ‘win’ would see the Afghan government and its security forces have sufficient capacity to secure Afghanistan’s future.

A ‘win’ would see a durable Afghan state, with the government, the security forces and the population aligned against a marginalized Taliban.

A ‘win’ is an Afghanistan that does not fragment and endures as a state that is inhospitable to al-Qaeda, the Taliban, the Islamic State-Khorasan (ISIS-K) and other Islamists groups.

The bar is not high, and the aim is not to remake Afghanistan into Arizona. There will still be violence, poverty, and underdevelopment, but relative stability, absent an existential threat, is a win.

However, a ‘win’ in Afghanistan would require a strategy that aligns political will, capacity and intellectual capital to attack and undermine the enemy’ s strategy.

A ‘win’ would require cutting off external support to render the Taliban irrelevant as an existential problem for the Afghan government and its population. 

Where a strategy should focus.

After almost 16 years of ground-hog war, it is time to get real about devising a strategy to remove the single biggest impediment to strategic success – the support and sanctuary that Pakistan provides to its Taliban proxies.  This support is what precludes the Taliban’s defeat.  Devising a strategy to undermine that strategic center of gravity will bring strategic momentum. 

The strategic stalemate is of Pakistan’s design.  Pakistan has sustained the stalemate by its use of Islamist proxies in the form of the Taliban and the Haqqani Network.  Pakistan’s strategy has imposed a strategic paradox on the Coalition through an asymmetry of will and means.  It uses its means – a deep pool of zealous Islamist militants – to prevent the Taliban’s defeat, to protract the war, and to erode the will of the West and its Afghan allies, to make their means irrelevant.

From its inception, Pakistan’s existential postulation was to oppose India and to revise the regional status quo through the export of Islamist militant proxies. This pathological tendency provided meaning and purpose for Pakistan’s political elites and its security establishment.  Its civilian populace cohered behind it.  Pakistan’s preference for Islamist terrorists is now a strategic-cultural attribute. 

Six decades of experience in cultivating and using Islamist militants have deepened this propensity.  The export of jihad is central to Pakistani strategy, but in the six decades that this proclivity has intensified, it has made Pakistan less secure by losing wars, losing territory, and creating a number of indigenous Islamist groups that have come to threaten Pakistan itself. 

The international community must help convince Pakistan to change its long-held notion that its raison de être is to employ Islamist terrorists to oppose India and revise the status quo. This notion is bankrupt and harmful to all, including Pakistan.  Pulling all the stops, by coercing and levering alliances to impinge on Pakistan’s fear and interests, to modify Pakistan’s malicious strategic behavior, can break the stalemate and make a ‘win’ possible.  

Why quitting is not a good idea.

Afghanistan has been the good war of this post-9/11 era:  in the justness for going to war, in the way the Coalition tried to prosecute it and in the sense that the U.S.-led Coalition has an ethical commitment to not quit on to its Afghan allies in their fight against externally directed Islamist proxies.

The purpose of strategy is to fulfill a political object.  That purpose should relate to an end condition that is better than the condition before the war began.  The instruments of a state’s power and the ways they are employed should align to achieve the political object sought at the costs and duration that state is willing to bear.  If war achieves stalemate, strategy is flawed. 

The value of the political object, the morality of the war, and the perception of victory or defeat comprise the most compelling logic of the interaction of wills in Afghanistan.  The political object, and its perceived value, guide war. The value of the political object for the Afghan War – to dismantle, defeat, and deny al-Qaeda sanctuary in Afghanistan – derived from the terrible consequences of the 9/11 attacks.

The political object was, and is, to prevent a 9/11-like event, or something even worse, by disrupting and denying Afghanistan as a sanctuary for al Qaeda and other Islamist militants.  With Pakistan’s support, the Taliban took over most of Afghanistan and willingly provided al Qaeda sanctuary.  Al Qaeda benefited from that sanctuary to prepare and execute the 9/11 raids.

The perceived value of that object has now diminished because of the duration and costs of the war.  Moreover, the political will to persevere has waned because many are unclear about the continued salience of that purpose.  The last DoD report on Afghanistan makes this salience clear:  “Afghanistan faces a continuing threat from as many as 20 insurgent and terrorist networks present or operating in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, including the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, ISIS-K, and al Qaeda, in what is the highest concentration of extremist and terrorist groups in the world.”  Pakistan is an incubator for Islamists, and the region is the epicenter for Jihad, Inc.

Quitting could see the Taliban eventually overwhelm and undermine the Afghan government and its security forces. And, if the Taliban were to revive an Islamist emirate in Afghanistan, there is reason to suggest a future with more attacks against the West, planned and prepared, with increasing scope and intensity, from both Afghanistan’s and Pakistan’s tribal areas. 

What the good factors are in Afghanistan.

There are other practical factors that argue in favor of persevering with a modest presence to sustain the war effort and ensure that Afghanistan does not fail. 

The Afghan government and its security forces do genuinely welcome and need our help.  The government and its security forces, though imperfect, are working with the American-led Coalition toward common purposes.

Afghanistan is also the most permissive theater of war where the U.S. has boots on the ground.  Forces there are striking and countering the very Islamist groups that helped start the war.  Afghanistan represents the best counterterrorism platform among the places where the U.S. and its Coalition partners are advising and assisting indigenous efforts to counter al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

The theater commander in Afghanistan, General Nicholsen, is the best U.S. commander of that theater since the war began.  He is smart, intuitive and knowledgeable.  He is a senior leader with experience there, having served four tours in Afghanistan. He is also clear-eyed and candid about the state of the war and its risks.  Firing the best commander the U.S. has produced in this war would not be helpful.  He is not the reason for the 16-year stalemate.

Together with Afghan senior leadership, General Nicholsen and his team have helped design an operational approach that will invest in and build the most capable indigenous forces – the Afghan Special Security Forces and the Afghan Air Force – to build a tactical and operational overmatch vis-à-vis the Taliban.  A modest increase in advisors can assist with this growth in the most capable of Afghan forces.  This will build momentum below the strategic level.  It is not a strategy but overmatching Taliban capacity on the ground can complement a strategy.

The U.S. and its partners cannot kill their way to victory in Afghanistan, but they have fought their way to a draw.  The Taliban take a village or district center, and the Afghans and their Coalition advisors take a village or district center back. The war in Afghanistan has seen momentum shift at the tactical and operational levels, but it has not witnessed marked momentum at the strategic level.   

The Coalition and its Afghan partners are not winning in Afghanistan, and the Taliban are not losing.  The Afghan War is a protracted stalemate.  That does not typically augur well for those prosecuting counterinsurgency, not without some big change.  A strategy that focuses on the center of gravity in Pakistan would be a big change. 

Stop the collusion between Pakistan and the Taliban.

If the U.S. and its allies devise a strategy that can undermine the Taliban’s center of gravity – Pakistan’s support and sanctuary – this will bring a ‘win’ within reach.

To win, revisit the meaning of and need for a strategy, and devise one that attacks the strategy of Pakistan and not just the Taliban capacity.  To defeat the compound enemy in Afghanistan would require a strategy to undermine both the will and capacity of the Taliban, al Qaeda and the main sponsor that provides material, ideological, and sanctuary support.  Pakistan is that sponsor, and its sanctuary and support constitute the strategic sine qua non of the Taliban.

Until the U.S.-led Coalition gathers the will and the strategy to shut down the sanctuary and incubators for the Taliban in Pakistan, operational forces will continue to capture and kill Taliban, who will regenerate with the benefit of a deep pool of Islamist militants in Pakistan, in perpetuity. 

A ‘win’ strategy in Afghanistan would have Pakistan alter its malicious strategic behavior by ceasing its support for its proxy Taliban and Haqqani militants.

Robert Cassidy, Ph.D., is a retired U.S. Army officer who has written a number of books and articles about irregular war and Afghanistan. He has served in Afghanistan four times, in Iraq, and elsewhere in the Central Command area.  The views herein are from the author’s studies and service in the region and do not reflect the views of any of the institutions with which he affiliates.

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