The New Afghanistan Strategy: Some Questions
“A course of action that integrates ends, ways and means to meet policy objectives.”
While this definition of strategy might be improved by the addition of the phrase “…while considering risk,” it is still as clear, concise, and functional a definition of strategy as there is. It provides a useful guide for both the development and the analysis of strategy.
An analysis of the current U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, using this definition of strategy as an analytical framework, would be an interesting academic exercise. However, Afghanistan is a wicked problem – one that is not simply complicated but also complex and with no clear solutions – and wicked problems tend to defy strategies. Wicked problems are best addressed through leadership, and one of the core leadership skills necessary to address wicked problems is to ask a lot of questions.
The Afghanistan strategy suggests a lot of questions. So, rather than an analysis of the strategy, the following is a small subset of questions that the strategy brings to mind:
Is pride an appropriate national interest? The first conclusion President Trump arrives at about national interests is to “…seek an honorable and enduring outcome … .” This brings to mind President Nixon’s goal of “peace with honor” in ending U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War (http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=3808). Nixon certainly ended U.S. involvement, but the war continued, and the U.S. side lost. Significantly, the base assumption that U.S. policy had been based on for two decades did not come true: the dominoes of Communist domination throughout Southeast Asia did not fall. How did the U.S. get that assumption so wrong? Are base assumptions about Afghanistan just as questionable?
To what degree should past efforts be relevant in crafting a new strategy? President Trump goes on to say “…outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made, especially the sacrifice of lives.” In crafting a new strategy, is it appropriate to identify past efforts as a national interest? U.S. service members take an oath to support the Constitution, and sometimes that means losing their lives. Service members should only be required to risk, and sometimes sacrifice, their lives to protect the U.S., “to die for” national interests – national interests that a nation is willing to sacrifice its sons and daughters to protect.
Are the consequences of a rapid exit predictable? Are they unacceptable? The second point about fundamental interests begins by ruling out any imminent withdrawal from Afghanistan: “…the consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable.” The statement goes on to say that the predictable result would be a vacuum that would be filled by terrorists, presumably terrorists that would strike at America. The failure of the South Vietnamese government was predictable, and the “unacceptable consequences” (the spread of Communism throughout Southeast Asia) just as dire, if not more so – but while the first happened, the U.S. was forced to accept the situation, and Communism did not spread beyond Vietnam. It is just as likely that an Afghanistan controlled by a mixture of government forces, warlords, ISIS, Al Qaeda, and the Taliban will be far too busy fighting one another for decades to come to worry about striking the U.S. That is just as likely a result as the certainty of dire consequences for the U.S.
What does history have to teach us about fighting in Afghanistan? “But to prosecute this war, we will learn from history.” Any reading of Afghanistan history would suggest that conducting military or counterinsurgency campaigns in that country is a losing proposition.
What are the conditions that the strategy is based on? “A core pillar of our new strategy is a shift from a time-based approach to one based on conditions.” “Conditions on the ground – not military timetables – will guide our strategy from now on.” These conditions – the end states that make up the “ends” of the strategy – are never specified. How do we know that the strategy has been successful? One of the most important purposes of a strategy is as a strategic communications tool – to tell the American people what burden they must bear, to reassure our allies that shared interests will be protected, and to clarify to our enemies the seriousness and import of our commitment.
Is the U.S. seriously considering a negotiated settlement with the Taliban? “Someday, after an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan, but no one knows if or when that will ever happen.” The Taliban knows what U.S. policy goals are in Afghanistan: “We must stop the resurgence of safe havens that enable terrorists to threaten America…” What would happen if the Taliban were to agree to work with the U.S. to ensure that outcome? The U.S. policy goal is silent on the question of who shares power in Afghanistan, and after 16 years of effort, the U.S. has demonstrated little ability to dictate who controls Afghanistan, as the central government, independent warlords, the Taliban, ISIS, and Al Qaeda all continue to control portions of the country.
Finally, why does the term “counterinsurgency” not show up in this strategy? The U.S. is not engaged in a war; it is fighting an insurgency. Insurgencies last for decades, often generations. As noted previously the strategy lacks a description of desired ends or any indication of how long it might take to achieve those ends. A condition-based rather than a timetable based strategy may be appropriate, even laudable, but the American people might like to know that it will likely take generations to achieve these conditions. After all, the U.S. has been engaged in this effort for close to a generation already…
Captain Anthony Cowden, USN, is a Surface Warfare Officer, Joint Qualified Officer, and Naval Strategist. The views expressed in this article are his alone and do not represent those of the U.S. Navy.
 The Royal College of Defence Studies, Getting Strategy Right (Enough) (2008: RCDS, London), 6
 It is certainly superior to the Joint definition of strategy: “A prudent idea or set of ideas for employing the instruments of national power in a synchronized and integrated fashion to achieve theater, national, and/or multinational objectives. (JP 3-0)”
 “To die for”, “to kill for”, and “to pay for”: as good a rubric for categorizing the importance of national interests as any.