April 1, 2009  

The Afghan mistake

Why sending more troops won’t work

Before we double our combat forces in Afghanistan in an attempt to “win the war,” there are some unpleasant facts we must face and hard questions we must answer. Failure to do so could perversely result in paying more to lose; a willingness to consider an alternative could salvage the entire operation.

Senior leaders, military experts and now President Barack Obama are arguing that we need to surge our troop level in Afghanistan to more than 60,000. We are told to be ready for hard fighting, that the Taliban has resurged and we must be prepared to continue fighting for years to come. But is a surge of troops in Afghanistan the best solution to this deteriorating situation? I argue that the answer is not simply “no,” but “absolutely no.”

The issue isn’t the willingness or tactical ability of our armed forces to fight; it’s just that sometimes the most appropriate and effective military strategy the U.S. could pursue is to reject combat, as Douglas MacGregor argues. Compelling evidence suggests that our previous troop increases have served only to increase the number of casualties we’ve suffered while witnessing a concurrent rise in enemy capability. MacGregor posits that military action ought to be avoided unless the probability of success outweighs the cost to achieve it, and even then only if our vital national interests have been sufficiently threatened. The main tenets of this concept, if applied properly, can provide a blueprint for an effective resolution to this complex and volatile war.

To understand why the introduction of additional combat troops may not bring about the desired outcome, we must first look at three critical components that greatly affect the conduct of the war. We have been at war in Afghanistan, a region where the Soviet Union fought and lost a counterinsurgency in the 1980s, for seven and a half years. But few realize that the Afghani people have been fighting one type of war or another for more than 30 consecutive years. One of the U.S.’s goals in this war has been to create “a stable democracy” in Afghanistan. But there has been no political stability under any form of government — including a democracy instituted in 1964 — since the reign of King Nadir Shah, who ruled from 1933 to 1973. Here’s the timeline:

å 1973: King Nadir Shah deposed in coup, replaced by Mohammad Daoud.

å 1978: Daoud assassinated and replaced by a communist-leaning party, which violently suppressed all religious opposition.

å 1979: The U.S.S.R. invades.

å 1989: After 10 years of counterinsurgency warfare, the U.S.S.R. withdraws.

å 1992: The government left in place by the Soviets is overthrown in a coup by Islamic radicals, but age-old tribal conflicts explode and civil war results.

å 1994: The Taliban emerges and captures its first city, Kandahar.

å 1996: The Taliban consolidates its control over major urban centers with the capture of Kabul and proclaims itself ruler of the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.”

å 1997-2001: A small-scale civil war continues smoldering between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance.

å 2001-present: The U.S. retaliates for Sept. 11, destroys the Taliban and occupies the country.

The political instability in Afghanistan over the past four decades has been remarkable. Various individual leaders, secular and religious groups and major powers have tried to subdue the tribal and ethnic-based country, and all have failed. So the first real question we must ask when considering the expansion of American and NATO military operations is whether it is possible to create a stable democratic government in Afghanistan by using military force to destroy all opposition (the Taliban and others). Evidence suggests it is not. But a history of violence and warfare is not the only factor working against us. We are also battling against culture.

One of the favorite sound bites we in the Army use to promote our understanding of complex military problems is “you have to be culturally sensitive and aware in today’s operating environment.” Unsurprisingly (given the years of training and focused study necessary to obtain a thorough understanding of a target culture), the level of cultural knowledge we possess is very shallow and rarely scratches the surface of genuine understanding. This condition doesn’t just affect soldiers at the tactical level, but also extends to a troubling degree to our senior policymakers. I asked one of Europe’s leading experts in cross-cultural management, Gert Jan Hofstede, to comment on some of the more critical aspects of Afghani culture as it impacts on America’s mission there. His responses were not encouraging.

To the question of whether he thought NATO could successfully import the “Sons of Iraq” concept into Afghanistan (where the U.S. would “hire” various tribes and ethnic groups to defend their local areas against the terrorist elements, thus reducing violence), he said: “This is utterly unrealistic. This implies making a social cut between the ‘people of Afghanistan’ and U.S. Army on one side and ‘terrorists’ on the other side. The group boundaries today are tribal and Qawm-based and have been so for centuries,” rendering any clear differentiation between the two sides impossible. French scholar Oliver Roy, writing in the Third World Quarterly in 1989, defined the Qawm as a “segment of society bound by solidarity ties, whether it be an extended family, clan, occupational group or village. Qawm is based on kinship and patron-client relationships.”

In Afghanistan, the Qawm manifests itself in ways that are not immediately obvious to the Western eye. Hofstede said that although the various tribes and families have sometimes lethal feuds with each other, when it comes to external forces, it’s “me against my brother, but me and my brother against a stranger.” If a stranger such as a Russian or American comes in with military forces, “the locals will either lie low or fight out the strangers. When the strangers are gone, as they are bound to [be] some day, then tribal vying for power and fighting can resume.”

Former Afghan Interior Minister Ali Jalali echoed this cultural predisposition in the preface of his book, “Afghan Guerrilla Warfare,” when he explained that historically “the collapse of the central government of Afghanistan or the destruction of its standing armies has never resulted in the defeat of the nation by an invader. The people, relying on their decentralized political, economic, and military potential have always taken over the resistance against the invaders.”

In a Feb. 15, 2007, news release, the White House explained that American policy had “a clear goal in Afghanistan. We will help the people of Afghanistan defeat the terrorists, and establish a stable, moderate and democratic state that respects the rights of its citizens, governs its territory effectively and is a reliable ally in the War on Terror.” These objectives go against centuries of culture in Afghanistan to a remarkable degree. Predictably, then, since our arrival in 2001 our military and policy efforts have been characterized by frustration and failure.

The first few years after we ran the Taliban out of Kabul, we enjoyed a relatively stable security environment. But as time passed and Afghan citizens saw no improvement in the quality of their lives, the Taliban returned and violence increased. In response to the Taliban’s increasing capabilities, the U.S. military began in 2004 to deploy greater numbers of ground combat troops. But each annual increase in troop strength resulted only in increasing the number of American casualties, an escalating Afghan casualty rate and a troubling rise in Taliban strength and effectiveness (see table, Page 17). One could reasonably ask why doubling the number of combat troops in Afghanistan, absent a game-changing course correction in policy, is going to alter the cycle of: increased troop strength = increased casualties = strengthened Taliban? We are fighting an uphill battle against history and culture. Unfortunately, there is a third element standing in the way of success: an accurate identification and understanding of our enemy.

Sun Tzu’s famous saying — “Know thy enemy and know thyself and you need not fear the outcome of a hundred battles” — is very much at play in Afghanistan, but unfortunately, so is the next part of that dictum: “Know thyself, but not thy enemy, and you will lose as many battles as you win.” Since Sept. 11, 2001, we have come to regard Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida and the Taliban as synonymous and therefore believe they represent an equal threat to the U.S. They are not and they do not. As Peter Zeihan, vice president of analysis for the geopolitical intelligence company Stratfor, said, the nature, composition and threat represented by each is very different. These differences have significant implications for American policy in Afghanistan.

The threat represented by al-Qaida adherents is transnational in nature, and therefore regardless of where they operate or train, they pose a threat to the U.S. However, because their senior leadership is security conscious in the extreme — coupled with the extraordinary efforts of state security apparatuses across the globe to hunt them down — Zeihan believes al-Qaida’s ability to plan, orchestrate and conduct major terrorist operations at present has been severely curtailed. He contends al-Qaida is therefore presently unable to risk recruiting many new “transnational operators” to carry out international attacks. As a consequence, he believes al-Qaida is “no closer to achieving their goals now than they were on 9/11.”

That doesn’t mean it doesn’t pose a threat to the Western interests.

“There are a number of what I call ‘franchise’ groups using the al-Qaida brand name” operating around the world, Zeihan said. “But they are associated in concept only. Their efforts and operations are not directed by the actual al-Qaida leadership or even by its doctrine. They use the name al-Qaida as a rallying cry and little else, and are instead absorbed into and by their own national causes. These ‘franchise’ groups represent a security threat to local governments but not a transnational strategic threat to the United States.”

If al-Qaida represents a strategic threat — albeit one curtailed — does the same hold true for the Taliban? According to Zeihan, the Taliban “is not and has never been a transnational threat.”

This isn’t to suggest they are benign, of course. The Taliban has proven over the years to be a repressive, brutish and violent organization trampling on the rights of those under their power, particularly women. But the question that must be answered by American leaders and policymakers is: What threat does the Taliban represent to American citizens, our freedom and our way of life — and what level of effort is appropriate to address that threat? Using this criteria, and based on the disposition and capabilities of the Taliban, we must conclude the threat to America is negligible. A change in policy and new course of action is therefore required.


Where the lives of Americans are concerned, there is no room for political correctness in the search for effective policy. Consequently, I offer the following pragmatic, sustainable and effective recommendations for a new, game-changing policy to address the stagnant situation under which we languish in Afghanistan.

First, the bulk of all combat forces must be withdrawn from Afghanistan. We aren’t going to abandon Afghanistan as we did after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, but we are going to transition the nature of our support to something that is culturally acceptable and at least has a chance to be sustained over time.

Instead of maintaining large combat formations that are viewed by most of the population as foreign occupation troops, we will change the focus of our military forces to a support role.

The U.S. and NATO must continue to make appropriate investments in the Afghan government at the State Deparment/Foreign Ministry level, support Afghan economic ministries and non-governmental organizations in their efforts to spur economic development, continue to provide military advisers and trainers for the Afghan security forces, provide logistics and air support, and cooperate in the areas of human and electronic intelligence. Afghan security forces will be responsible for their own internal security. When transnational threats are identified, American and NATO Special Forces units could be mobilized, and in conjunction with American strategic assets, these terrorist targets would be destroyed. But when we take such action in the future, we must not do so half-heartedly as we have done in the past.

On Aug. 12, 1998, the U.S. launched a cruise missile attack against the Taliban, hitting six training camps in retaliation for bin Laden’s terror attack against the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania five days earlier — and because the Taliban gave bin Laden sanctuary. After the retaliatory strikes were completed, then-Defense Secretary William Cohen said, “We recognize these strikes will not eliminate the problem. But our message is clear. There will be no sanctuary for terrorists and no limit to our resolve to defend American citizens and our interests.” Unfortunately, there was indeed a limit as this strike represented the only real price the Taliban paid, and as evidenced just three years later in New York and Washington, D.C., bin Laden was not constrained in his preparations to strike again. Let us then learn from our 1998 mistake — as well as from the past seven years — and chart a new security course.


It is evident that in war there is no policy choice or course of action that does not come with negative consequences. But current American/NATO policy is working against our interests, and we are incurring an unacceptable level of negative consequences as a result. However, I am aware that these recommendations carry their own set of potential negative consequences.

If we redeploy the bulk of our military forces — even if we provide advisers, logistic, intelligence, air and other support — it is possible that the Afghan government might eventually prove unable to stand on its own and could collapse. Zeihan went so far as to suggest this is inevitable because, as he put it, “geographically speaking, Afghanistan is ungovernable. It is a recipe for a failed state.”

But the hard question must be asked: Would the collapse of the current government after the withdrawal of our main combat troops, however undesirable, be better or worse than increasing the number of American combat forces in Afghanistan and possibly keeping the government afloat — but at the cost of a continually strengthening Taliban and increasing the number of dead American soldiers and Afghan civilians?

We can’t lose sight of the fact that there were 23 consecutive years of warfare before our arrival in 2001. The Qawm-based culture of Afghanistan considers us — regardless of how altruistic our motives — invaders and “outsiders.” Unless we are prepared to bring in overwhelming numbers of combat forces (likely in the 200,000-plus range) and commit to waging an existential battle to exterminate the Taliban from both Afghanistan and Pakistan, adding another 12,000 or 30,000 troops will amount to trying to put out a house fire with a garden hose.

As it is, we’re fighting against the Taliban, against remnants of al-Qaida, against provincial warlords, against drug kingpins, against common thugs, against Afghan culture and against history. This is a fight we can’t win given the current or projected level of commitment, and while this galls our Patton-esque passion for a clear-cut “victory,” changes are clearly required.

It is vitally important, then, that we reorient our effort in Afghanistan and throughout the region in a way that acknowledges cultural and historical realities and postures the U.S. and NATO to deal effectively with transnational terror groups that pose legitimate strategic threats. In so doing we will play to our advantages, diminish the ability of our enemies to conduct future terrorist attacks and increase the security of our citizens. If we fail to do so, we play to the strength of the enemy, plunge ourselves deeper into a fight that is potentially unwinnable, and for all our effort, find ourselves more strategically vulnerable than we were before we accepted battle. AFJ

MAJ. DANIEL L. DAVIS is an Army officer currently deployed to Baghdad as a military trainer. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Army or Defense Department.