Thanks for your insightful questions, and for your careful reading of "A Failure in Generalship."
If I may, I'd like to challenge the underlying premise of your questions. Your focus on strategy after 2009 presumes that Afghanistan was "winnable" at a politically acceptable cost. I respectfully disagree.
The fiasco in Iraq (2003-2007) and the collapse of the US economy (2008-present) have exhausted the patience of the American people. Regrettably, a rigorous civil-military dialogue did not identify this limitation before the commitment of additional troops.
In Afghanistan, the die is cast. In Pakistan, state failure looms darkly on the horizon. It may be too late to change the former, but now is the time to address the latter.
I elaborate on these points below in "ISAF Exist Strategy: Neither International nor an Exit nor a Strategy."
I look forward to discussing these matters further and am grateful to SWJ and its readers for hosting this dialogue.
SWJ Editor's Notes:
A Few Questions for Colonel Paul Yingling on Failures in Generalship - Small Wars Journal
A Failure in Generalship - Armed Forces Journal
ISAF Exit Strategy: Neither International nor an Exit nor a Strategy
Colonel Paul Yingling, U.S. Army
Based on remarks delivered at
International Security Assistance Force, Afghanistan: 2001-2011-2014, the Roles and Capabilities of South-East Europe Countries
October 12, 2011
Willy Brandt famously said of the former German Democratic Republic that it was neither German nor democratic nor a republic. When I was asked to comment on the exit strategy of the International Security Assistance Force from Afghanistan, I had a similar reaction. The events of the next three years in Afghanistan cannot properly be described as international, an exit, or a strategy. The so-called transition to Afghan lead by the end of 2014 is a timetable driven largely by American domestic politics. When this timetable is complete, Afghanistan will still be at war.
Before going further, a few caveats are in order. First, I want to acknowledge that many countries have contributed blood and treasure to the war in Afghanistan, and that the Afghan people have suffered terribly during decades of nearly constant fighting. My argument that American domestic politics will drive the events of the next few years should not be interpreted as minimizing the contributions of other ISAF nations or the sacrifices and suffering of the Afghan people. Second, my argument is predictive, not normative. I will not describe what should happen in the next few years, but what will. What will happen in Afghanistan will largely be determined by ISAF’s largest contributing nation - the United States. As I will demonstrate, we passed up “should” long ago.
My argument consists of three parts. First, I will describe both the aims of American policy and its underlying rationale. Second, I will review the competing but deeply flawed ways to achieve these aims – a fully resourced counterinsurgency effort and a more limited counter-terrorism approach. Finally, I will describe the most likely outcome of events in Afghanistan and Pakistan beyond 2014.
The Aims of Policy
In December 2009, President Obama described both the ends of American policy in Afghanistan and the ways those ends would be achieved:
…to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.
To meet that goal, we will pursue the following objectives within Afghanistan. We must deny al Qaeda a safe-haven. We must reverse the Taliban's momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government. And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan's Security Forces and government, so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan's future.
The most striking feature of Obama Administration policy is the treatment of al Qaeda’s sanctuary in Pakistan and Afghanistan as a single and uniquely dangerous threat. This region is not uniquely dangerous because it is an ungoverned space. Large regions of Somalia and Yemen also fit this description. This region is also not uniquely dangerous because the population has ideological sympathy for al Qaeda. Pockets of sympathy for al Qaeda can be found elsewhere, including in the West. Finally, this region is not uniquely dangerous because it serves as a staging ground for attacks on the West. Indeed, al Qaeda’s affiliates in the Islamic Magreb and the Arabian Peninsula have in recent years proven more lethal than the core of al Qaeda’s leadership in Pakistan.
This region is uniquely dangerous because of the confluence of the two most dangerous phenomena of the 21st century – radical ideology and nuclear weapons. Pockets of radical ideology exist throughout the globe and at least nine states have nuclear weapons. However, only in southern Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan do we find deep sympathy for al Qaeda’s radical ideology less than a day’s drive from the world’s least secure nuclear arsenal. Moreover, sanctuary in Afghanistan is neither necessary nor sufficient for al Qaeda to achieve its goal of acquiring one or more nuclear weapons for use against the West. Even if Afghanistan were perfectly stable, the danger of al Qaeda acquiring nuclear weapons in Pakistan would remain. Even if Afghanistan were to return to civil war or Taliban rule, these conditions alone do not pose a unique threat to the West. Without the threat of nuclear terrorism, the insurgency in Afghanistan would be no more important to the West than similar threats Yemen or Somalia.
Competing and Equally Flawed Ways to Achieve These Ends
While the ends of American policy in Afghanistan have been remarkably consistent since 2001, the ways to achieve those ends have not. The strategic blunders of the Bush Administration from 2002-2008 are well documented and need no elaboration. The first opportunity to reassess our strategy in Afghanistan occurred in the Obama Administration’s policy reviews of 2009. During this period, two broad strategies were considered. The first was a fully resourced counterinsurgency strategy and the second was a more limited counter-terrorism strategy.
The first approach was based on the tenets of COIN doctrine – protect the population, develop the capabilities of Afghan security forces and most importantly strengthen the legitimacy of the Afghan government by improving its capacity to provide security and other essential services to the population. This approach would have required ISAF troop levels of approximately 140,000 or an increase of 40,000 over 2009 levels. Most importantly, changes to future troop levels would be based on battlefield conditions.
This approach would have been a fine idea in 2001, but was politically infeasible by 2009. Consider an ideal alternative history beginning in 2001. With broad domestic and international support, a robust U.S.-led military coalition could have toppled the Taliban, captured or killed Osama bin Laden and other key al Qaeda leaders and provided post-conflict security to the Afghan people. The U.S. military could have reformed its doctrine, organization, equipment and personnel policies to focus on irregular warfare, including the vital task of developing host nation security forces. A robust civilian component could have assisted in the development of a legitimate Afghan government capable of providing essential services to the population. Skillful diplomacy could have convinced Pakistan that a stable Afghanistan was in its interests. Enlightened security assistance could have assisted Pakistan in denying sanctuary in its northwest territories and discrediting extremist ideology nationwide. Even in this ideal alternative history, denying sanctuary and support to al Qaeda and other extremist elements in Afghanistan and Pakistan would have been the work of a generation.
Alas, these events did not come to pass. The U.S. low-balled troop estimates, allowing bin Laden and other key al Qaeda figures to escape to Pakistan and security within Afghanistan to deteriorate. The U.S. squandered credibility at home and good will abroad with a disastrous unnecessary war in Iraq. The U.S. military failed to adapt to the challenges of irregular warfare until late 2006, and still does not devote adequate resources to security force development. The civilian component to this day is unequal to the challenges of assisting in the development of a legitimate Afghan government. Most importantly of all, elements within the Pakistani government continue to foster chaos in Afghanistan.
Those advocating a robust COIN effort in 2009 behaved as if these events either didn’t happen or don’t matter. The reality is quite different; a decade’s worth of blunders and misrepresentations has exhausted the patience of the American people. For nearly a decade, American political elites insisted that our Afghan policy was succeeding. They did not ask the public to fight the war or pay for it, and did not tell the public of the deterioration in security on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border. The plausibility of these policies collapsed at approximately the same time as the global economy. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, unemployment is the public’s top policy concern. Even more importantly, public trust in the U.S. Government has all but evaporated. Devoting hundreds of billions of dollars into an open-ended conflict in Afghanistan would have been difficult even in 2001. By 2009, such a policy was politically impossible.
However, the alternative counter-terrorism approach was scarcely better. This approach called for an increased emphasis on capturing or killing key insurgent and terrorist leaders and accelerating the development of Afghan security forces. However, this approach is better described as a collection of tactics to disrupt al Qaeda than a strategy to defeat it. It does not address the corruption and incompetence of the Afghan Government or Pakistan’s explicit support for the Taliban or its tacit support for al Qaeda. Worst of all, it does nothing to address the political conditions inside Pakistan that fuel the growth of extremist ideology.
The policy that emerged from the Obama Administration’s 2009 debate was worse than either of the alternatives proposed. It increased troop levels through the summer of 2011, with a transition to Afghan lead set for the end of 2014. It failed to take into account that al Qaeda was all but gone from Afghanistan, and that the overwhelming majority of those fighting ISAF in Afghanistan were locals with very limited ambitions beyond the country’s borders. Increased troop levels allowed for increased fighting but time limits prevented that fighting from producing enduring political results. It left largely unchanged the military’s failure to focus on security force assistance and the civilian component’s inability to address the corruption and incompetence of the Karzai Government. It relied on drone strikes to disrupt al Qaeda in Pakistan but did not address the toxic political conditions within Pakistan that make it a danger not only to itself and its neighbors, but much of the world.
Of course, policy makers must set priorities in domestic and foreign affairs and evaluate military advice through the prism of domestic politics. Effective civil-military dialogue assists in this process by identifying gaps between the ends of policy and the means available to achieve them. Civilian leaders have the final say in this unequal dialogue, but the product of such dialogue must be a coherent strategy – one that reconciles ends, ways and means. It’s unclear that such a dialogue took place during the policy reviews of 2009. If our goal is to end the war and focus on domestic priorities, then no additional forces were needed in Afghanistan. If our goal is to prevent the Taliban from seizing power in Afghanistan, then time limits on troop commitments undermine our efforts. If our goal is to defeat al Qaeda, then we’re focusing our resources on the wrong country.
A Return to Strategic Thinking After 2014?
Over the next three years, the U.S. and other ISAF nations will continue to withdraw forces from Afghanistan. This withdrawal will be driven largely by American domestic politics and fiscal constraints. No matter which political party prevails in the 2012 U.S. elections, the domestic political calculus will be the same: spiraling costs for entitlements and interest on the debt, deep divisions about what mix of spending cuts and tax increases will solve the problem, heavy pressure to cut defense spending and foreign aid, and little political will to continue the war in Afghanistan beyond 2014. The best case scenario is that ISAF’s transition to Afghan lead will occur according to the timetable ending in 2014. However, another financial shock in the West or further political dysfunction in Washington could accelerate that timetable appreciably and unpredictably.
The war in Afghanistan will continue to rage long after 2014. Combined security operations, drone strikes and special operations raids will continue to take their toll on insurgent and terrorist networks until then. Afghan security forces can continue to fight even without foreign combat troops, but it’s uncertain how the Afghan government will pay for its army and police without substantial external assistance. Other regional actors such as India and China will continue to jockey for influence in Afghanistan, but are unlikely to assist the Afghan government on the scale required. More importantly, the Afghan government is unlikely to address the incompetence and corruption that makes such assistance necessary.
Pakistan’s future is more difficult to predict. It could limp along as a failing state indefinitely, or fail suddenly with little warning. The West knows so little about Pakistan’s internal dynamics that virtually any significant change will come as a surprise. The safest prediction is one that would eliminate the best case scenario – that Pakistan will develop into a functioning state that will deny sanctuary and support for extremist organizations.
While the exact timing and extent of state failure in Pakistan is difficult to predict, the consequences of such failure are not. Partial or total state failure of a nuclear Pakistan would pose a grave threat to the United States. In such a scenario, the United States would not know who controlled Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. A nuclear armed al Qaeda, Lashkar e Taiba or another extremist group would be difficult if not impossible to deter. The nightmare scenario of a nuclear armed terrorist group would be upon us.
When we ask about ISAF exit strategy, we are asking the wrong question. ISAF’s exit from Afghanistan has much more to do with American domestic politics than coalition strategy. American fiscal constraints and political paralysis set this course in motion long ago and corrective measures are unlikely in the absence of a crisis. ISAF will transfer the lead for security to Afghan security forces in 2014, on or ahead of the political timetable driving this outcome and with little regard for security conditions.
However, the crisis of Pakistan as a failed nuclear state looms darkly on the horizon. Those of us charged with strategic thinking need not wait for a crisis to think clearly about this challenge.
The example of the U.S. military in the 1920s provides a helpful example. In the aftermath of World War I, military planners recognized that the U.S. lacked the capabilities to defend America’s possessions in the western Pacific. Led by the Navy, the U.S. held wargames and constructed war plans to understand this challenge and the capabilities necessary to meet it. Throughout the 1920s, the U.S. military had neither the equipment nor the money nor the manpower to solve this challenge. Rather than prevent clear strategic thinking, these conditions enabled it. When war in the Pacific came, the U.S. had already imagined the capabilities necessary for victory – including carrier aviation, amphibious assault, strategic bombing, and close air support for ground forces. When the crisis came, these ideas needed only money and political will to become reality.
Those of us charged with strategic thinking ought to heed this example. Imagine a failed Pakistan that results in a terrorist organization acquiring one or more nuclear weapons. What would our response be in the aftermath of such a crisis? What intelligence capabilities do we need to locate compromised nuclear materials? What civil security and law enforcement measures might disrupt or minimize the impacts of such a threat? What counter-proliferation capabilities are required to seize and render safe compromised nuclear weapons or materials? Imagine further the capabilities required to avoid such a crisis. What diplomatic measures might change the Pakistani strategic calculus that lends support to extremism? What broader engagement with Pakistani civil society might render this troubled country less amenable to radical ideology? Now imagine still further back to the institutional arrangements that generate national security capabilities. Do we have the right priorities? Are we buying the right equipment? Are we selecting the right leaders? Are we making the best use of increasingly scarce tax payer dollars?
Too often, what passes for strategic thought in the United States is actually a struggle among self-interested elites seeking political, commercial or bureaucratic advantage. Such behavior is the privilege of a country that is both rich and safe. However, a pattern of such behavior is self-correcting: no country that behaves this way will stay rich or safe for long. Strategic thought will be in high demand in 2014 or upon the collapse of Pakistan, whichever comes first.