Strategy and Reality in Afghanistan

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It is time to admit what is self-evident: the strategic foundation of NATO’s campaign in Afghanistan is so fundamentally flawed that it cannot be won. America’s longest war, which endures as a deeply troubled nation-building venture, continues to apply a fatally flawed theory of military victory to a maelstrom of Afghan political, social, and economic problems that Western intervention cannot solve. While war advocates speak of endless “fragile progress,” the truth is that the costly effort is not worth the thousands of lives lost or trillions of dollars spent in pursuit of a failed strategy.

The once laudable effort to create a democratic, sustainable and secure Afghanistan has consequently lost intellectual and moral credibility. The NATO command seems bankrupt of any idea that does not cost more American lives and conflate tactical strikes with strategic progress. Always more troops, more bombs, and more taxpayer-funded giveaways. The leadership’s optimism rings increasingly hollow as they promise that another coalition commitment, a few thousand more advisors, an expensive contract for sophisticated equipment, or tired anti-corruption measures will make the difference.

This leads to the conclusion that it is past time for a dramatic shift in strategy that acknowledges the diminishing value of continued investment in Afghanistan. Instead of seeking to control military and political outcomes in fractious and endless social war, the United States and NATO should rapidly adapt to a far more narrow and achievable focus on containing transcontinental terrorism in South Asia. This kind of limited strategy, while not without risk, would prioritize covert and diplomatic means to manage and isolate Afghan turmoil. The resulting freedom of action would ultimately increase American leverage—regionally and globally—by creating new opportunities and divesting liabilities.

Doubling-Down on Failure

The problem in the Afghanistan campaign, as always in such murky interventions, is that it comes back to the Afghans. The NATO mission focuses mostly on military concerns while pretending that training Afghan soldiers and modern technology will somehow achieve broader political and cultural transformation. Western advisors and U.S. firepower cannot create the national unity to combat an externally-enabled insurgency. No amount of NGO support can manufacture a democracy based on liberal values and legitimate governance. And foreign instructors cannot eliminate cultures of corruption that cripple any chance for a modern economy.

It’s not as if the American people have no experience with this kind of strategic malpractice. The champions of the Resolute Support Mission—though certainly well intended—sound exactly the same as those who promised success in Vietnam, Iraq, and previously in Afghanistan. They strangely mimic their Russian predecessors who learned the great cost of importing artificial government in the shadow of the Hindu Kush. Further clouding the situation, the reality is subordinated to amazing command narratives that perennially excuse Afghan weakness and downplay Taliban success.

Yet the expensive NATO mission continues, impervious to the lessons of history and the complexity of importing Western ideology into ancient lands. Endless nation-building disguised as military support is justified by stale arguments that invoke the holy grail of counter-terrorism. War advocates seem to believe that the only solutions for defeating distant Islamic extremists include gifting billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars to the dysfunctional Afghan government and sending more American soldiers to be maimed and killed in a vicious civil war.

This dissonance is further complicated by competitive dynamics across South Asia that create an almost comical expectation of return on investment. When considering the ability of proximate powers like Russia, China, Iran, and Pakistan to forever disrupt the nascent Afghan project, it is unclear how the United States can ever create a stable and prosperous client state. Aside from airfields and unrealized lithium, what can Kabul offer Washington that justifies the monumental investment? Can anything but imperial hubris explain such lavish support for an imported Afghan president who is seen as illegitimate by many of his own people?

This last point, the Ghani Administration’s credibility gap, has received little scrutiny while undermining efforts to unify the country. As a former American citizen who taught at UC Berkley and worked in the World Bank, the current President of Afghanistan—who was anointed by a U.S. Secretary of State following a disputed election in 2014—lacks the cultural legitimacy to lead his tribal nation and is beholden to foreign soldiers and cash. His perceived acquiescence to the U.S. military’s every demand further dilutes his standing and buttresses the Taliban narrative of enduring American occupation.

These challenges lead to the conclusion that the so-called “roadmap” to Afghan success is largely a fiction. Despite almost two decades of American-led intervention, the government in Kabul remains chronically divided, challenged by the most basic functions of governance, and unable to safeguard its citizens. Reconciliation with the Taliban—a key requirement for lasting stability—remains elusive and improbable. Furthermore, the coalition relies upon the ill-fated idea that supporting a nation’s military can somehow translate to political harmony across a fractious tribal landscape after the deluge of foreign money inevitably departs.

If anything, the mantra of “fighting to create space for political progress” has been shown to be tragically flawed in previous counterinsurgency campaigns. Time and again the United States has advised and assisted a host nation’s military to the point of defeating the insurgents, only to find that the domestic politics and culture remained corrupt and divisive. The seminal years 1975 and 2014, when U.S.-supported client states in Indochina and Mesopotamia respectively devolved into chaos, suggest the coalition will have to remain in Afghanistan for generations to prevent dismembering of the country by rival ethnic factions.

In a moral context, the commitment to massive spending on the flagging Afghan campaign defies understanding. While infrastructure atrophies at home, the U.S. military drops hugely expensive bombs on insurgents in caves and mud-huts. While American children attend aging schools, the U.S. government constructs enormous command centers in Kabul. Millions of dollars are provided to modernize the Afghan army with suites of technologies and aircraft that they cannot hope to independently maintain. This contractor bonanza—the most lucrative in history—reveals a major propellant for the intervention.

The worst part of the American commitment to Afghanistan is that any military victory over the insurgency will prove tragically hollow. After immense sacrifice, the United States is fighting to be the guarantor of an exceedingly fragile client state—the weakest in a competitive region—that will drain its prosperity. Even after defeating the Taliban, Afghanistan will endlessly consume U.S. resources while lacking meaningful political or economic capacity to further American interests. More ominously, the project will continue to destabilize American relations with Pakistan and India as they prosecute their zero-sum game of frontier influence.

A More Dynamic Approach

Looking towards the future, NATO and the United States should immediately transition to a realist strategy that dramatically narrows involvement to diplomacy and counterterrorism. Instead of wasting billions on controlling social and political outcomes, allow Afghanistan to revert to its natural state of decentralized power-sharing while managing tribal competition. Instead of sending young Americans to fight the Taliban who are fighting ISIS, employ covert means to eliminate trans-continental threats. And finally, instead of forming strategies around hope and narrative, recognize the futility of using military power to transform foreign cultures and adjust strategic aims towards a more flexible concept of threat containment.

While war advocates would decry the risk of military and financial retrograde, the fact is that the United States could adroitly manage counterterrorism concerns in Afghanistan just as it does in numerous other ungoverned spaces across several continents. Protecting the homeland does not require endless occupation and replication of Western institutions and military formations in tribal lands. A more nuanced and economized approach—similar to current covert efforts to contain, but not control, emerging threats in Syria, Libya, Yemen and Somalia—is far more preferable than owning Afghan infighting and funding massive corruption.

This new approach would likewise allow an additional benefit to the United States: greater focus on peer competition in Eastern Europe and East Asia and increased attention to events in Central and South America. Rather than expending finite resources in an unwinnable civil war in Kabul, the United States could apply its impressive, though ultimately limited, resources to improving high-end readiness, assuring useful allies, and deterring actual threats. Furthermore, the shift would empower American diplomacy and economic efforts by sending a clear message that the hegemon has moved past its Middle Eastern blunders and emerged resolved to prosecute a muscular global agenda. 

Any dramatic recalibration in the Afghan campaign would doubtlessly face severe institutional resistance due to combinations of sincere altruism, hegemonic pride, sunk-cost bias, and most importantly, vested interests who will lose funding and relevancy. However, a pragmatic approach to containing Afghan turmoil instead of controlling and coercing would remove America from its position of strategic disadvantage in the Hindu Kush and compel regional adversaries—who also fear Islamic terrorism—to invest locally. While certainly not without risk, a more sophisticated strategy could enmesh Iran, Russia, China, and Pakistan in South Asia while leaving the United States poised to balance and seize opportunities.

Despite these evident truths, America’s expensive sacrifice continues. The NATO coalition’s mistaken application of military solutions to ancient political and social problems finds it doubling down on a bloody stalemate that favors the insurgency and regional spoilers. Even as some argue for increased support to an incredible regime, they neglect the most basic questions: how many more young Americans must die in Afghanistan before enough is enough? And how many more billions in cash should America give to Kabul while infrastructure decays at home? The way some have avoided these questions will prove telling in days and years to come.

Nathan Jennings is a U.S. Army Strategist who served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He taught history at West Point and is a graduate of the School of Advanced Military Studies. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the United States government.

Nathan Jennings is a Cavalry officer serving as a history instructor at the United States Military Academy, West Point, N.Y. He holds a Master of Arts in American History from the University of Texas at Austin with a focus on warfare in 19th century Texas.

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