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A previous article asked some critical questions about the current U.S. strategy for Afghanistan.[1]  Some of the questions that are still worth asking – and answering – include the following:

Is pride an appropriate national interest?  No – but it is an unavoidable one and will always be considered.

To what degree should past efforts be relevant in crafting a new strategy?  Past efforts should not be central in crafting a new strategy; however, they do require addressing, if for no other reason than to garner support for the new strategy.[1]

What does history have to teach us about fighting in Afghanistan?  Any reading of Afghanistan history would suggest that conducting military or counterinsurgency campaigns in that country is a losing proposition: since Alexander the Great, no outside power has been able to bend Afghanistan to its will, and the U.S. is no exception.

Is the U.S. seriously considering a negotiated settlement with the Taliban?  We know the answer to this question now. The negotiations took a path eerily similar to that taken by the U.S. in negotiating with North Vietnam: negotiate with the Taliban without the Afghanistan central government (ACG), and then dictate the terms to them. 

So what strategy should the U.S. pursue to assuage its pride, leverage past efforts, avoid imposing its will from outside, and counter the presence of the Taliban (not to mention ISIS and Al Qaeda)?[2]  Keeping in mind a working definition of "strategy," “A course of action that integrates ends, ways and means to meet policy objectives, while considering risk,”[3] the ends, ways and means of a new Afghanistan strategy would be the following:

Ends: 1. Terrorist organizations are unable to launch attacks against the U.S. from Afghanistan, and 2. A stable, viable, democratically elected ACG.  While 1. has always been the goal of U.S. policy regarding post-9/11 Afghanistan, students of strategy will note that a democratic ACG is now an end, where it had been considered a means in the past.  Previously the U.S. had pinned its hopes on creating a strong central government that could maintain internal Afghanistan security.  That goal has been an abject failure.  In this new strategy, a goal of policy is to create a democratic ACG, underscoring the traditional support of U.S. policy for democratic rule.

Ways: Taking lessons learned from Lawrence of Arabia and the Sunni Awakening in Iraq, the U.S. agrees to directly pay any tribal leader who will agree to support U.S. interests in Afghanistan.  Those interests would be: 1. Support democracy: allow tribal members to vote independently for whatever national government representatives they choose, 2. Support the ACG: recognize the authority of the ACG under the Afghanistan Constitution; and 3. Prevent the Taliban, ISIS, and Al Qaeda from having a presence, wielding influence or conducting operations in tribal territory.  During World War I, Lawrence of Arabia was principally a bag man, paying Arab tribal leaders to fight the Ottoman Empire.  During the Sunni Awakening after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the U.S. government paid Iraqi Sunni tribal leaders to conduct counterinsurgency operations.  In a deeply tribal nation like Afghanistan, it should be possible to convince tribal leaders, through monetary and possibly other incentives, to support U.S. interests; fail to support those interests, and the U.S. would drop them from the payroll.  For its part, the ACG would be responsible for countering Taliban influence in tribal areas, not part of the program, until tribal leaders in those areas can be convinced to join the strategy.

Means: Money!  How much money?  No idea – but likely much less than the roughly $50B+ per year Afghanistan has cost the U.S. since 9/11.  For example, the current per capita GDP of Afghanistan is roughly $2000.[4]  Assuming the U.S. can convince tribal leaders representing 70% of the population to become part of this program, and the tribal leaders use the money to hire security forces to combat the Taliban, ISIS and Al Qaeda, they should be able to field at least 250,000 soldiers – all of whom would be serving in their own tribal areas, protecting their own families, and beholden to their traditional tribal leader.  As such, they should be far more effective than foreign soldiers or even soldiers employed by the ACG.  250,000 soldiers represent less than 1% of the participating population and would cost the U.S. approximately $500M.  Assuming an equal amount in direct aid to the ACG, total U.S. investment in this strategy would amount to $1B per year.  There would be direct U.S. costs to be born, such as the infrastructure necessary to distribute the money and monitor tribal compliance, likely, as U.S. security forces to aid tribal and ACG efforts, but this should be small compared to the past U.S. efforts in Afghanistan.

Risk: All strategies entail risk.  One risk is the fact that once you stop making these payments, the tribal leaders will no longer support your interests; this happened in both the historical cases cited above.  Therefore, the U.S. would need to commit to annual payments for a long time.  Another source of risk is the amount of money to be paid: too little may not provide the tribal leaders with enough resources to be successful; too much, and it will be wasted on inevitable corruption.  Also, in the "too much" category is the affordability of the program given fiscal constraints and competing obligations at home.  There is also the risk that tribal leaders will take the money but not adequately support U.S. interests; the counter to this risk is a careful monitoring program and the willingness to drop an offending tribal leader from the payroll.  Finally, there is the risk that Afghanistan's tribal leaders cannot adequately counter the Taliban, ISIS and Al Qaeda. The counter to that concern is the desire of the Afghan people to not live under Taliban rule – if that isn’t true, then no U.S. strategy will ever work – period.

A note on the employment of military power to achieve national objectives.  There are three levels associated with the use of military power: "to die for," "to kill for," and "to pay for."  "To die for" is associated with putting forces, usually ground forces, at significant risk of being killed while in direct combat with the enemy.  Obama's "surge" policy in Afghanistan is an example of a "to die for" use of military power.  "To kill for" involves the kinetic use of military force, but with little risk to U.S. forces.  Obama's later approach in Afghanistan, and the one he initiated in Iraq, are examples of "to kill for" uses of military power, where the U.S. focused on intelligence and fires operations, while someone else provided the at-risk ground forces.  "To pay for" involves getting someone else to do the fighting and dying, for you; the Sunni Awakening and this proposed strategy are examples of a “to pay for” use of military force.  The trick to making a “to pay for” strategy work is to ensure that the non-monetary interests of those who are paying are aligned with the interests of those who are doing the fighting and dying; otherwise, you have just hired mercenaries.

The strategy outlined above has certainly been painted with broad strokes, providing a level of detail that is open to question and criticism.  But current U.S. strategy is surely on a path to precipitously leave Afghanistan and watch the ACG crumble in the face of Taliban aggression, just as South Vietnam succumbed to North Vietnam.  It is time to think out of the box and turn to old solutions for a new strategy.

CAPT Anthony Cowden, USN, is a naval officer.  The views expressed in this article are his alone and do not reflect those of the Department of the Navy or the Department of Defense.


[1] https://www.realcleardefense.com/articles/2018/01/07/the_new_afghanistan_strategy_some_questions_112866.html

[2] Another goal would be the continued influence of the U.S. in Afghanistan, a country which has become the locus of a new "Great Game" competition among regional powers – but that is the subject for a different article!

[3] The Royal College of Defence Studies, Getting Strategy Right (Enough) (2008: RCDS, London), p. 6

[4] https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/af.html

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