Afghanistan and Strategy: A Perspective 16 Years On

Afghanistan and Strategy: A Perspective 16 Years On
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"No one starts a war – or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so – without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.”  Carl von Clausewitz

"There must be some way out of here, said the joker to the thief

There is too much confusion, I can't get no relief."  Bob Dylan

This Saturday, October 7th, marked the 16-year anniversary of the war in Afghanistan.  Early this year, during testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, General John “Mick” Nicholson, the theater commander in Afghanistan, candidly reported that the war there is a stalemate.  After 16 years of war, why do the Afghan and Coalition forces face a stalemate? Is there some way out of that war with a win, or even just a qualified success? 

There are several reasons for the state of the war in Afghanistan, but two are of primary strategic importance.  One reason lies in the United States’ strategic cultural propensity to focus on action and operations without being clear about how or what those operations will achieve at the strategic level.  America’s bent for tactics and operations over strategy dates back to its support for the Mujahideen during the Soviet-Afghan War.

The other reason and the principal cause for the strategic stalemate is Pakistan’s strategic cultural proclivity for exporting and supporting Islamist militants in South Asia generally and Afghanistan specifically.  This dates back to Pakistan’s inception in 1947 and has become a key part of its existential purpose.  Moreover, U.S. support of the Mujahideen against the Soviets compounded and helped intensify Pakistan’s propensity for promoting jihad.    

A strategic stalemate after 16 years of violence, loss, sacrifice, and costs is an unsettling predicament.  But, there is still reason for some forecast for relief.  This article explores those aspects of the current situation in Afghanistan that are good and warrant a modest degree of optimism.  It will then delve into the United States’ problem with strategy, and its corollary inclination for cultivating Pollyanna leader tacticians.  This is the bad.  The last part of this essay examines what is the ugly aspect of this war, and the single biggest obstacle to a successful outcome – Pakistan’s support for the Taliban and other Islamist groups.

The good – aspects of this war still argue in favor of the stated U.S. policy to persevere with a modest but sufficient effort to sustain the effort so that Afghanistan does not fail.  As examples, the Afghan government and its security forces do genuinely welcome our help.  The government and its security forces, though imperfect, are working with the American-led Coalition toward common purposes.

Afghanistan is also the best combat theater where there are American boots on the ground, striking at the very groups that helped start this war.  In fact, Afghanistan represents one of the better counterterrorism platforms in a combat theater from among those countries where the U.S. and its partners are advising and assisting indigenous efforts to combat Islamist terrorists around the world.

Moreover, General Nicholson is one of the best U.S. commanders of the Afghan theater since the war began.  He is very knowledgeable and exhibits strategic intuition.  He is the most experienced senior leader there, having served fours tours in Afghanistan. He is clear-eyed and candid about the state of the war and its risks. He is not the reason why there is a stalemate 16 years into the war.

Regarding senior Afghan leadership, General Nicholson and his team have also 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 tactical and operational overmatch the Taliban. 

A modest increase in advisor capacity will assist with this growth in the most capable Afghan forces.  This will build momentum at the operational and tactical levels.  It is not a strategy but overmatching Taliban capacity on the ground can build operational momentum that complements strategy.  Strategy must focus on the strategic center of gravity, Pakistan’s sanctuary and support for the Taliban.

The bad – the length of this war relates to the absence of a strategy and no long view for South Asia.  Over the last four decades, the United States approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan has exhibited a strategic attention deficit.  America has not been at war in Afghanistan for 16 years but has been involved or partly responsible, by neglect, for the wars there for almost 40 years.  Over those decades, the U.S. approach has at times been naïve, impetuous, unimaginative, maladroit, and tactical in its policies toward Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Beginning just before the Soviet invasion in 1979 and for 11 years or so, strategic epilepsy could describe the U.S. approach to the region. It was American policy to fund and support Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence in its support of Islamist insurgents to defeat the Soviets.  America provided plenty of weapons and money to the most virulently Islamist groups to attrite the Soviets and exhausted their capacity and will, without thinking through the long-term implications.

Then, from the fall of 1990 to the fall of 2001, strategic narcolepsy characterized the U.S. approach to South Asia. This meant that America generally ignored Afghanistan while Pakistan continued to direct various movements of Islamist fanatics and condoned or collaborated with a malign alliance between al Qaeda and the Taliban.  The 9/11 attacks returned the U.S. to strategic epilepsy, and since October 7th, 2001, America and its Coalition partners have been fighting some of the very same Islamist fanatics that American policy had helped empower during the Soviet War.  So, with no strategy and no viable long-term plan for a post-war peace, the U.S. and its partners went to war 16 years ago using small numbers of Coalition forces and Afghan warlord militias to chase the Taliban and al-Qaeda to Pakistan, only to see the Taliban reconstitute with Pakistan’s complicity.

Missteps early on in the war on the part of the Coalition and its Afghan partners, for example – the absence of a strategy, the reliance on warlords, the use of indiscriminate air power, an initial unwillingness to help rebuild, and a toleration of venal Afghan leadership – all created grievances among the Afghans.  These grievances helped garner some support among the populace while Pakistan helped regenerate the Taliban in the Pashtun belt during the critical first five years of the war.  Without the full support of Pakistan and its sanctuaries, the Taliban revival would have been impossible.

Compounding the strategic deficit is the inclination of Western militaries for producing too many Pollyanna tacticians and their disinclination for producing sober strategists. The U.S. military, in particular, excels at turning out optimistic tacticians but does not excel at developing critical strategists.  During several tours in Afghanistan, candid reporting of bad tactical news was seldom apparent.  

Throughout multiple years of my observations, while attending periodic theater or battle update briefs, the hallmark for these types of updates was the consistency in slides that were filled with green traffic light circles combined with maps with many areas colored in green. For military briefings, green is good and red is bad. 

Reports of everything in the green, successful, good, all the time, in the context of a prolonged stalemate, are conspicuous clues to overly optimistic filters. In Afghanistan, this was manifest weekly, monthly, and yearly in the form of reporting and updates from the one-star and two-star commanders.  Regular updates are consistently showing everything green testify to the Pollyanna tendency. 

The emphasis on “can do,” “decisive victory,” “the big win,” and “pushing the ball across the goal line” are so ingrained in military culture that reporting failure, setbacks, or even just a lack of progress with indigenous forces, is seldom evident.  Freshly promoted one-star generals, in particular, seem to be the most enthusiastic briefers, profuse with great news in mean places. 

U.S. military institutions need to start valuing and bearing ruthless candor and bad news. This Pollyanna problem stems from cultures that value and reward only unqualified success, victory and hyper-optimism. This combines with a focus on tactics and science over strategy and helps explain the part that Pollyanna junior general leaders play in prolonging these wars. 

The unfortunate reality is that few U.S. leaders transcend tactics when they advance to general officer ranks.  The art of strategy is more complex and heuristic than the science of tactics.  The United States military continues to excel at creating captains of infantry companies and commanders of battalions, but it continues to fail at developing captains of war and strategy. 

Encouraging heterodoxy and brutal candor, while learning from and embracing failure will better serve the causes in these wars than the orthodoxy and conformity will help these causes. It is imperative to educate leaders to think more critically and strategically. 

Institutions with cultures that produce Pollyanna junior-general-officer leaders who are seemingly incapable of countenancing failure or thinking strategically, contribute to a deficit in strategy.

The ugly – nominal major non-NATO ally Pakistan supports and sustains the Taliban.  This is the main reason for the stalemate in Afghanistan after 16 years.  This war will not end, or it will not end well if the Coalition and its Afghan partners cannot undertake a strategy that sees Pakistan stop support. 

After 16 years of groundhog war, the U.S. seems to be getting serious about a strategy that can remove the single biggest impediment to strategic success – the support and sanctuary that Pakistan provides to its Taliban proxies.  This is what precludes the Taliban’s defeat.  A strategy to undermine this, the Taliban’s strategic center of gravity, will bring stalemate breaking 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 been to impose 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 export of jihad as strategy provided meaning and purpose for Pakistan’s political elites and security establishment.  Its civilian populace cohered behind it.  Pakistan’s employment of Islamist terrorists is a trait of its strategic culture. 

Six decades of experience nurturing and deploying Islamist militants beyond its borders 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 more insecure by losing wars, losing territory, and creating homegrown Islamist groups that have come to threaten Pakistan itself. 

It is necessary to employ all means, with coercion and alliances, to impinge on Pakistan’s fear and interests, to modify Pakistan’s pernicious strategic behavior.  States in the region and the international community need to help convince Pakistan that its long-held perception of its purpose – employing Islamist terrorists to oppose India and revise the status quo – is a bankrupt purpose that is harmful to all, including Pakistan. 

Afghanistan has been the good war of the post 9/11 wars.  It was good in the justness for going to war, in the way the Coalition tried to conduct it, and in the context that the U.S.-led Coalition should not quit on a moral commitment 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 also align to achieve the political object sought at the costs and duration that state is willing to bear.  If war brings 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 permeate war. The value of the object for the Afghan War – to dismantle, defeat, and deny al-Qaeda sanctuary in Afghanistan – derived from the 9/11 attacks’ horrible consequences.

The political object was and is to prevent an event like 9/11 or something worse from happening again by disrupting and denying Afghanistan as a sanctuary for al Qaeda and other Islamist militants.  With Pakistan’s support, the Taliban took over large swathes of Afghanistan in 1996 and provided al Qaeda sanctuary.  Al Qaeda benefited from that sanctuary to plot and carry out the 9/11 attacks.

The last U.S. Defense Department Afghanistan report made the current gravity of the object 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, IS-K, and al Qaeda, in what is the highest concentration of extremist and terrorist groups in the world."

Quitting might see Pakistan’s Taliban proxies 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 Afghanistan’s and Pakistan’s tribal areas.

U.S. stated policy is now to win in Afghanistan. The senior leadership has opted for victory over defeat.  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 and other Islamists groups.

There will still be violence and poverty, but stability without a continuous existential threat is a success.  Success and the way out of there, then, is a relatively resilient Afghan state, with the Government, the security forces and the population aligned against an irrelevant, or reintegrated Taliban. 

The refreshing candor about Pakistan in the U.S. Afghanistan policy statement in August should mean that the United States is dropping the pretense that Pakistan, one of the foremost ideological and physical incubators of Islamist militants, is an ally and a friend.  Pretending that Pakistan was an ally in the war against Islamist militants, one that would act in ways to help defeat Islamist groups in the tribal areas, made the West complicit in Pakistan’s malign conduct.

A policy to win in Afghanistan requires a regional strategy that aligns political will, intellectual capital, and capacity to defeat the enemy’s strategy. This means undermining the Taliban’s strategic center of gravity.

Defeat requires a strategy to undermine both the will and capacity of the Taliban, al Qaeda and the state that provides material, ideological, and sanctuary support.  Pakistan is the state that provides the sponsorship, sanctuary and support that equates to the strategic center of gravity of the Taliban. 

Until the U.S.-led Coalition strategy shuts 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, with no good way out of there and no relief. 


Robert M. Cassidy, Ph.D., is a retired U.S. Army colonel, who teaches at Wesleyan as a fellow.  He has served in Afghanistan and has published work about Afghanistan’s wars.  The term ‘strategic narcolepsy’ is from a RAND study.  The views in this are informed by his experience, study, and S. Paul Kapur’s work.  These are not the views of the institutions with which he affiliates.



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