Small Wars Journal

Finding Petraeusism in Naglandia

Thu, 11/10/2011 - 7:12pm

Finding Petraeusism in Naglandia:

The U.S. Military’s Hyper-American “Can-do” Spirit and Utopian Ideals Found in Afghanistan


In 1928 Henry Ford set out to establish a carbon copy of an American town along with an industrialized rubber plantation deep in a Rhode Island-sized piece of Brazilian Amazonia.[1] After upsetting the natives with American ways of doing things and failing to grow sufficient amounts of rubber trees, Ford’s son ended the experiment by capping the losses of “Fordlandia” at $20 million in 1945.[2] Back in 1922, as if to explain this future debacle, the Washington Post had used the term “Fordism” to mean “Ford efforts conceived in disregard or ignorance of Ford limitations.”[3] Today, we could use the term “Petraeusism” to mean “U.S military efforts conceived in disregard or ignorance of U.S. military limitations.” Likewise, we could use the name “Naglandia” to describe Afghanistan, a place where, much like Ford had attempted to do in the Amazon, the U.S. has attempted to establish a “New America,” albeit with the modern and contradictory political correctness that comes with our current obsession with “absolute tolerance” and our culturally-biased interpretation of Galula’s population-centricity in counterinsurgent activities. As if in some kind of twisted Shakespearean comedic tragedy, the U.S. military, traditionally an organization filled with political conservatives and Peace Corps-doubting Thomas’s, has turned itself into an organization that believes there is a Thomas Jefferson inside every Afghan and the solution to jump-starting an economy is to throw money at it. If only our losses could be capped in another seven years at the similar $240 million (inflation-adjusted figure) of Ford’s Amazon experiment.

Regardless of what General Petraeus’ and John Nagl’s concept for countering an insurgency actually was when they wrote the Army’s Field Manual on Counterinsurgency, FM 3-24, the manifestation in the military was one that had tactics dictating strategy, gave nation-building as the only option, and forced upon us all an assumption that has since become dogma: that bad governance is at the root of all discontent, followed closely by disgruntlement at not having a job. In addition, instead of stressing supporting a government’s internal defense when they align with our objectives and a population centricity that means an understanding- and not a protection- of the people, the U.S. went the opposite direction: emphasizing our own objectives and a “for their own good” attitude towards protection of the people. This operational paradigm does not, in and of itself explain all of our failures in Afghanistan—the lack of a clear goal and plan in the beginning probably holds most of the blame for that—but in the absence of a strategy in 2009 and after the very public vindication of General Petraeus’ textbook execution of FM3-24 in Iraq, it makes sense that the military brass turned very quickly to something they like at least slightly better than no plan: a bad plan.[4]

From 2001 until 2002, the U.S. actually did attempt to hunt terrorists and it seemed as if the country would be turned over to the victors: the Northern Alliance. At some point along the way the terrorists left and for some reason the U.S. thought the other groups in Afghanistan should get a share of the power.[5] In 2003, the U.S. invaded Iraq and told the forces in Afghanistan to tread water.[6] In 2009, with victory in Iraq at least the dominant narrative if not a fact, the strategy that emerged in Afghanistan was one most in the military called “COIN.” At least in the American view, COIN was all about protecting people (also called “security”), giving them jobs (“development”), and providing services (“governance”).[7] Little attention was paid to local nuances or realities.[8] The regional power plays that influenced much of Afghanistan at the strategic levels were totally ignored or discounted.[9] And the U.S. decided that our national security hinged upon ensuring that the Taliban (a heterogeneous group if there ever was one) never again harbored terrorists in Afghanistan.[10]

The U.S. military is infected by and should shed itself of its Petraeusism.[11] This condition- our efforts in disregard of our limitations- is seen today in the overly-positive and naïve-sounding reports out of Afghanistan from the top Coalition commands.[12] It is apparent in the belief that pouring money and troops into places like the Afghan district of Nawa- General Petraeus’ example of progress- will result in anything sustainable.[13] Either the U.S. military believes what it is saying, which runs counter to most media coverage and CIA analyses[14], or it believes that they have to sell success back home because in a “Long War” like Vietnam or Afghanistan, that is what it takes for the military to win: selling the effort (an implication being that the military did not sell its successes in Vietnam well enough). [15] This inability to realize our limitations and either resultant blindness to reality or our intent to deceive in order to get to a preferred “end” has resulted in a heads-down charge towards building a utopia in the one area that even characters in children’s movies know to avoid.[16] We are left then, even in today’s environment of economic hardship, with the curious spectacle of the U.S. still looking to continue to build a Naglandia in Afghanistan. The spectacle is even more interesting considering that the average American military officer comes from a tradition of doubting how much effectiveness soft-power- a la the stereotypical Peace Corps and State Department effort- actually has in poor countries and a healthy skepticism towards government programs that build dependence (whether they are instituted in downtown Kansas City, rural Nigeria, or in Kandahar, Afghanistan).[17]


Henry Ford wanted to do two things in Brazil: find a solution to high-priced, foreign-owned rubber coming from Asia and re-capture an America he felt was rapidly becoming lost. The business side of things was relatively simple: copy the successful formula that had made Ford successful in the car industry: pay workers relatively high wages, force them to live the way he thought they should live (as much as he could), rely on the latest technology to overcome any obstacles (as well as brute effort), and maintain a healthy disdain for experts.[18] Ford did not, however, only want to establish another successful business venture, he also longed for an America he thought was rapidly disappearing. The changes that his factories, higher wages, and cheap products helped bring about in the fabric of American society ironically caused him to long for “the good ‘ole days.”.[19]

Re-capturing an America that was on its way out—in his eyes, at least—proved to be almost as difficult as countering high-priced, foreign-owned rubber. The people of the Amazon worked wild rubber trees, which meant they worked in the jungle on a seasonal rotation. They lived in the jungle during those times as well, and there was a system in place that was conducive—if not humane—to the rubber trade in that part of the world. Riots at Ford’s Fordlandia project broke out intermittently, but they weren’t because people were disgruntled over lack of governance or not getting paid.  Rather, it was because they felt they were being treated unfairly.[20] This feeling, mixed with the prohibition against alcohol, the non-conducive-to-the-jungle houses, and the war on prostitution must have been the spark that set off the proverbial powder keg.[21] Confident that they were going about the business of growing a rubber tree plantation the right way and taking many of their cues straight from Dearborn Michigan, the leadership at Fordlandia refused to adapt to the environment even when faced with obvious signs they were not having much progress.[22] Their “Fordism” forced them to believe they could accomplish anything with enough effort.

The first effort, however, was what doomed them in the end. Regardless of their efforts to purify the “savage” natives, if the plantation had made money and provided Ford with rubber there would have been no reason to abandon the effort. Unfortunately, the environment in the Amazon was not conducive to plantation-style cultivation of rubber like it was in Asia. The rubber trees in the Amazon had to contend with native threats. The only protection was to grow sparsely. In addition, paying workers in cash meant that they undermined the entire Amazonian system that underpinned everyone else in the area from the shopkeepers to the families to the local strongmen and politicians (not to mention there was nothing to buy with the cash).[23] The last, and perhaps greatest, challenge was that because the managers (on Ford’s insistence) did not rely on botanical or rubber tree experts, it was years before they even grew anything, and even then they could not avoid blights that killed off most of the trees.[24]

Ford believed in the superiority of the American culture, which, he reasoned, if exported would produce the same level of wealth and standard of living that he enjoyed. All he thought the Brazilians lacked was that most-loved of American concepts:  opportunity. Ford also believed in technology. He shipped the best and latest machinery down to Fordlandia and demanded that whatever was in use in Michigan should be in use in the Amazon. He also believed that he could shove money and effort into an area and that eventually it would “jumpstart” the economy. Lastly, he believed in centralized control. Many times his managers sent him requests based on local conditions and reality, but they were denied due to the worldview of those in Michigan.[25] Those same attitudes—that groups of people are pretty much the same, that American culture is self-evidently superior, that technology and sheer effort can solve any problem, that injecting money can jumpstart economies, and that one can micromanage strategy and operations from on-high—are all very similar to the attitudes found in the U.S. military in Afghanistan for the last ten years, and those attitudes do not seem to be close to being challenged.


Naglandia, or Operation Enduring Freedom, did not start out too badly and, in fact, could almost have been called “New Grenada.”[26] After being told to go back to the drawing board on their plans for a 9-11 retaliation, U.S. Central Command offered up a more unconventional approach: teams of Special Forces aligned with CIA teams already in-country would link-up with Northern Alliance forces and lead them against Taliban forces, calling in air strikes when the enemy massed. SOCCENT had a relatively limited and easily-understood goal: overthrow the Taliban and kill or capture Al-Qaida leaders. Taking Osama Bin Laden was an obvious goal, but the overthrow of the sanctuary-providing and extreme fundamentalists who controlled the country was the main objective, and that was accomplished within months.[27] At this point, in early 2002, although the hazy notion of a democratically-elected government in Afghanistan emerged, most of CENTCOM’s attention turned very quickly to the preparations for an invasion into Iraq.[28]

Although the forces in Afghanistan from 2002 until 2009 performed admirably at the tactical level, the effect of their sacrifice and hard work from the 2009-2011 perspective appears to have been minimal.[29] From 2003 until 2004, the international community made a democratically-elected government their focus. By 2004, “Naglandia” arguably started to emerge.[30] With coaxing from the altruistic West, Afghanistan boasted democratic elections, a president, and gender and ethnic balances in the legislature. Between 2003 and 2006, however, the Taliban did not stay put. They ran into Pakistan in order to recruit and rearm. The showdown would come in 2007. NATO now had full control and a large amount of British forces arrived in Southern Afghanistan to do battle with the reemerged Taliban.

There are different views on what the American strategy was from 2002-2008. In this author’s view, there really was no deliberate strategy (see Rhyne's and Grossman’s papers). A strategy emerged that can be characterized as schizophrenic: Special Ops Forces conducting Counter-terrorism missions, some National Guard units conducting what could best be called Foreign Internal Defense as they attempted to train and assist the Afghan security forces, and active-duty forces that attempted to loosely follow what COIN lines of operation they could with limited resources- none of these individual efforts seemed to be synchronized and, indeed, many could have been counterproductive to each other. Others have argued that we did not really start our COIN efforts until 2009. Even if this was true, the fact that the U.S. attempted to work on COIN lines of effort (security, governance, and development) from 2002 and a priority was establishing, as quickly as possible, a democratic government, is this author’s argument as to why “Naglandia” began from almost the beginning. Whether it began in earnest right away or in 2009 does not, in this author’s view, matter as to the greater points contained herein.

The greatest change to the strategy, or the lack of one, happened in 2009. First, Iraq provided a vindication in the eyes of the military in the Counterinsurgency Field Manual, FM 3-24, and its tactics of protecting the people, its lines of operations of security, governance, and development, and its strategy of…tactics.[31]  Secondly, there was increased political will to send more troops and money to Afghanistan.[32] Although Naglandia had been emerging due to NATO’s focus on establishing a democracy, this effort got a tremendous boost when the U.S. unleashed its seemingly endless amount of money (indeed, it was difficult to spend it all) and its seemingly endless amount of troops.[33] Still, every commander wanted more than what NATO could send and the U.S. could politically support.[34]  McChrystal even wrote a memo stating the need for 500,000.[35] Regardless of the numbers eventually sent, compared to the NATO contributions- especially in terms of equipment- the U.S. contribution was immense. This Petraeusism- the feeling that the U.S. military could accomplish anything if given enough time, people, and money, led directly to the feeling that we could indeed build a Naglandia- a perfect society with jobs, democracy, women’s rights, economic development, free health care, ethnically diverse political institutions, tribally diverse security forces, and a literate populace.

A strategy of tactics and vastly more resources combined to bring Naglandia to reality. Units now started working on gender equality, literacy, economic development, district and village-level governance, police force establishment and development, a health care network, a complex logistical and personnel system for the army and police, Western-supplied equipment, systems, and processes, centralized judicial system, Western planning and decision making tools and processes, an end to corruption, and ethnic “norming.”[36] The idea was not just to set up a sovereign nation and then support that nation; the idea was to change the culture and usher in a country with all the values and norms that a Western country would have. Many of the efforts the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) pushed in Afghanistan were things that many progressives noted we did not enjoy in our own countries. In that sense, Naglandia was very similar to Fordlandia:  a chance to “do it right” and establish the idealistic society that its proponents felt was lacking at home.

The failure to establish a sustainable Naglandia rested on two very important realities: the fact that Afghans were not ready to usher in a more progressive society than even Western countries had and the fact that much of the unrest in Afghanistan had to do with regional power politics.[37] This second reality (that the unrest had a regional source) was one in which NATO got just as wrong as they did the first (that most Afghans do not support many of the Coalition’s social efforts).[38] Pakistan fears India; Afghanistan fears Pakistan. Iran fears a strong Afghanistan aligned with the U.S.; China wants access. Russia wants access and stability. These foreign influencers (and others, to include the northern “Stans” and many Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE) result in unrest and power struggles in Afghanistan. It is an understatement to say that NATO has ignored these influences. But what can NATO do? Since the 1980s the U.S. has gutted its diplomatic corps and neutered its spy capabilities.[39] To play the “New Great Game”, the U.S. has to have more and savvier diplomats and the will to use them to further our national security.[40] To even know what to do in this game we must have intelligence on what is going on and how we can affect things, and we must have enough spies and the will to use them to give us that intelligence. Today we do not have these two paramount tools and rely mainly on our military might.[41] Unfortunately, as Ford found out in Brazil, brute force does not solve problems of broad scope and time.

The political realities in 2010 were such that they conflicted with the strategy at the time in several ways. Military leaders acknowledged that the President had chosen to send the lesser amount of troops of the three choices he was given by the Secretary of Defense, but instead of the military concluding they needed to change the strategy to reflect political ends and the means available, the military leadership within Afghanistan chose to ignore the growing economic hardships and the lack of political will within the population and politicians.[42] Instead, the military leadership inexorably devised their own ends, their own ways with which to get to those ends, and attempted to get the means with which to carry out their preferred strategy through several efforts.[43]

These efforts rested on a fervent belief in three overriding assumptions that governed everything we were doing in Afghanistan. These overriding assumptions- going back to at least as early as 2009 and carrying into 2011 (and to some extent still exist) are: 1) that if the U.S. left Afghanistan the Taliban would take over, invite Al-Qaeda back in, and we would be attacked again like 9/11; 2) that the only way to keep this from happening was to build a strong, democratic nation with a robust economy and principled government structures at the local, district, provincial, and national levels; and, 3) that if NATO showed short-term progress in these efforts, the money and “surge” troop levels would remain indefinitely. The first assumption was based on simplistic thinking and an overly naïve understanding of the Taliban, the insurgency and Afghanistan. The second assumption flowed from our COIN doctrine: to defeat an insurgency you had to set up a good government, provide jobs, and protect the people. That this particular way of approaching an insurgency seemed to have worked in Iraq did not make it just as valid in Afghanistan by a long shot, but although many generals acknowledged the differences, no plan to address those differences was ever called for. The most obvious sign that the third assumption was invalid was the stated goal of the Obama administration to begin pulling troops out in the summer of 2011 and the plan to have all combat troops out in 2014.[44]

The understanding of Afghanistan—or the lack thereof—contributed to efforts that ignored the uniqueness of each village and each district in Afghanistan.[45] This resulted in the deployment to Kandahar of Tajik gendarmes, the involvement of NATO troops in inter-district tribal feuds, the equipping of all Afghan police in the same uniforms, the centralization and standardization of all police training in Afghanistan, and the pressure for all police to get involved in domestic disputes—an area usually reserved to families and tribal elders. This resulted in anti-corruption efforts that ignored the possibility that those who followed the law ended up weaker as a result due to a lack of supportive infrastructure.[46] Lastly, this resulted in attempts to build a security force that was standardized across the country, multi-ethnic and balanced, co-ed, and expeditionary: able to be deployed anywhere and defeat a conventional threat due to its standardized and disciplined processes and structures. Unfortunately, the security force that Afghanistan needs is arguably different: one that was more locally-oriented, manned, resourced, and focused.[47] In two or three generations, a more national focus might emerge, but to force it down from above too quickly is a recipe for disaster. For some reason, the "Naglandanistas" believe that all humans think like Westerners and that all Westerners think rationally. It is recommended military officers read and practice Kaplan’s Warrior Politics and his conclusions:  leaders should get rid of Christian morality when it comes to foreign policy and this idea of American exceptionality and go with a pagan morality focused on ends rather than the morality of the means.[48]  This “pagan morality” would be comfortable with the seemingly hypocritical U.S. practice of valuing foreign populations over foreign individuals, using spies and proxies, and engaging in cunning and complex diplomacy to gain influence. We could even take a cue from many Afghan tribes: we should engage in the practice of switching sides constantly as it favors us.

The only other alternative to this is a strictly consistent Christian morality. The problems with this approach are that the rest of the world does not operate in this way (and thus more times than not those vying for power will use our morality against us and we’ll be the only ones punished) and that the U.S. is not very likely to ever get political backing for actual action: Christian morality-backed actions are very expensive, time-consuming, difficult to link to the national interest in the long-term (and almost impossible to in the short-term) and require short-term (and possibly long-term) sacrifice. Although many Christians and liberals may enjoy the challenge of taking the second issue on (one of little will to act), to this author the first issue of effectiveness is a much greater problem. [49] After a decade of sacrificing American soldiers and taxpayer money it is arguable what- if anything- we have done that can be termed effective or sustainable with respect to increasing our national security. At some point even Fordlandia was closed up for being ineffective, it follows that Naglandia will also one day shut-down (all signs point to 2014 as being the start of this).

While the U.S. is engaged in building Naglandia, it makes no sense for U.S. troops to be engaged in fighting all of the disparate groups it is fighting. The Coalition fights HIG, HIK, the Hakkani network, the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban, Pakistani ISI proxies, Iranian Quds forces, incensed Pashtuns, offended Balochs, and enraged Aimaqs because the connection between solving all of those groups’ issues and American policy objectives are shaky at best, absent at worse. If we were really limiting ourselves to securing our country from Afghanistan and Pakistan-based Al-Qaeda operatives we would increase our intelligence, diplomatic, and proxy efforts in Pakistan, while keeping some intelligence assets (mostly native proxies) in Afghanistan and supporting in a small way their security forces development.  We would also engage in the same game that is played by Pakistan and others: playing all of the insurgent and other groups off onto one another in order to gain some kind of national security objective. Building Naglandia, just like Fordlandia, will ultimately be too costly, may never happen even if given generations of time, and is not linked to our national security interests. It is a massive stretch to argue that building a strong nation-state in Afghanistan- and all the blood and treasure that implies- is the key to ensuring Al Qaeda does not attack us from there again. Instead, it is more likely to posit that we have already made ourselves secure from an Al Qaeda attack emanating from Afghanistan and now we must focus our soft power on Pakistan and other places to ensure the same.

A Different Way: American Limitationism

There is an alternative to this, which I call “American limitationism.” Even with all of the technology, money, and sheer effort we can muster, we still cannot affect radical cultural change on the scale that our counterinsurgency doctrine implies we can and should (as translated by our military), especially when we are limited to the tactics of protecting the people. Surely there have been examples wherein massive social change has been forced on groups of people throughout human history, but normally that has been gained by using such horrifying means that our Western populations today would rather put up with the  long-term instability that the more humane approaches usually result in.[50] Because of the inability to support drastic action to change populations, we should acknowledge that there are limitations to what we can accomplish with our “kinder, gentler” ways. Even if we had the diplomatic and intelligence capabilities, there probably are limitations to how we can use them that are directly tied to our notions of fairness, transparency, and distaste for underhandedness. Again, it would be nice if we had the will to use Kaplan’s Machiavellian methods, but the reality is that we do not. Maybe, one day when our way of life is truly on the brink of extinction we may change our minds, but for now we need to accept that we can only accomplish so much, and establishing democracies and developing economies are not ones we can.

To the extent possible, if we are to get involved in an area, we must play the regional power political game as best we can, or we will be chasing our tails fruitlessly. The Chinese, Indians, Iranians, and others are all gaining from our efforts in Afghanistan.[51] It is doubtful if we are gaining much in Afghanistan simply because of the lack of Afghan products reaching America and lack of American products reaching Afghanistan—with no foreseeable change in that situation no matter if peace breaks out or not. Worse, , we construct strategies that are bound to fail by ignoring the realities in Iran and Pakistan. Every pro-Indian event that happens in Afghanistan from Afghan police traveling to India to be trained to Indian companies and consulates opening in Afghan cities is viewed as a direct and dire threat to Pakistan and is countered by growing ISI contact with insurgents in Afghanistan. In fact, one could argue that any small effort we could have initiated towards improving peace between India and Pakistan would have been much more fruitful to building stability in Afghanistan than anything we’ve done the entire time we’ve been in Afghanistan.[52]

The entire U.S. government- but especially the military- must stop trying to establish governments and hold quick, so-called “legitimacy-building” elections in countries we involve ourselves in. If we establish a government that the people then do not like, we either have to leave or we have to back the insurgents and overthrow the government- assuming we really are “population-centric.” The sad fact is, holding to our “limitations” theory, that we cannot establish a quick government no matter how hard we try. Governments must come from the people, and holding quick elections ensures that the elites are the only ones that buy-in to the government. Democratic governments must emerge with the populace’s consent, and this cannot be rushed or it will be short-lived and weak. Governance, contrary to popular ISAF belief, is not the root of all stability (and bad governance is not the root of all insurgency). Governance is an emergent entity that gets stronger over time, must come from the people, and cannot be supported much from external parties (unless, of course, one is talking about autocratic “governance”- but that is NOT what ISAF defines as governance).

We should end the practice of injecting tons of money into the countries we are trying to change. Money did not help out Fordlandia, and it is not helping Naglandia either. Money has contributed to corruption. It has undermined emergent development and empowered local strongmen. And if a country is one day expected to be self-sustaining, the systems and infrastructure we help set up must be self-sustaining, or they will continue to arrest development and only build dependence in our hosts. Spending does not create wealth, becoming more productive creates wealth, and one cannot become more productive if they are relying on charity from the beginning.[53] People are not altruistic, as much as we would like to think they are, and free money only corrupts faster.[54]

We must stop trying to protect the people in Afghanistan as a blanket policy, both for practical reasons (it rarely results in sustainable positive effects and because it gets us involved in internal problem areas that are best handled internally. It should be noted by most of those who have fought in Afghanistan and Iraq in the past few years that most people do not start supporting you if you protect them. In fact, most will be non-committal—until, that is, they get attacked.  Then, they will blame you if you in any way have postured yourself as an official entity in the region, especially one engaged in judicial (ad hoc or not) proceedings. Unless you are going to bribe them forever and are very close to them culturally and physically, it is possible that people actually do not want a foreign army protecting them, and the result is that there will not be much in the way of a quid pro quo for that protection.[55] In terms of getting involved in local issues, trying to protect the people invariably leads one to protect them against someone else. That someone else many times—especially in a place like Afghanistan—is not the ‘evil insurgents’ who are supposedly affecting your national security.  Instead, they are people who have some sort of grievance against the people you are trying to protect. If we think we can protect “all” people, then we must be getting ourselves confused with a domestic police, judicial, and penal/ rehabilitative system.

In other words, population-centric COIN should only mean you understand the people—not that you necessarily do anything for them.[56] Moreover, it does not mean that the foreign, visiting force should do anything “for” the native countrymen that the foreigners think they would like themselves.  The U.S. military should stop thinking that they can win hearts and minds by engaging in any kind of activities, there is a strong possibility that there is no logical linkage between what Afghans think and how U.S. forces act. The perception of the Afghans, a culturally-influenced abstraction, is perhaps beyond our best efforts to effect. Motivations, moreover, not only often are inconsistent, but oftentimes are dictated by a confluence of factors unable to be predicted beforehand. Ignoring the possibility that others’ perceptions of our efforts could be one-hundred and eighty degrees from ours, even helping people does not guarantee anything.[57] We must become more realistic and, if we cannot or will not become more ruthless, we should at least understand that others will be, and we should not let our unwillingness to be ruthless to hurt us in our efforts to defend our national security interests. In other words, if the reciprocation for “population-centric” action is not very apparent and material, then we should abandon population centricity for other methods or disengage if our population does not support those methods or see a link between military actions and national security.


Henry Ford thought that, regardless of the situation, if given the right systemic conditions, humans would behave the same and respond to stimuli in the same manner. He thought they would strive to work hard and not indulge in self-destructive (as defined by him) behavior. He must have imagined the Brazilians would value health care (even strictly enforced mandatory health care), education (even Western-style education), consumer products, and other Ford “gifts” in such a way that the locals would change their cultural norms and be happy for the assistance. He thought he could bring enough effort, people, and money to bear on a problem and realize success no matter the situation. In many ways, in Afghanistan we are repeating this hubristic example.

The U.S. military leadership should instead encourage a healthy skepticism towards transformation of cultures and complex social problems. Let us stick to military objectives and stop attempting to build economies and democracies. Let's ensure we are linking our means-ways-and ends to the political objectives and synching them with the will of the nation (instead of trying to intentionally influence it). We should advocate the view that counterinsurgency is not about fighting other people’s counterinsurgencies for them, but assisting them in fighting their counterinsurgencies.[58] If others don’t want to do the fighting themselves then we must choose to leave, change our fighting partners, or go with whatever strategy the government prefers. Everything we do must be caveated with a bold statement of our limitations. I recommend we stop trying to oversell every program that the military is working on as a "silver bullet" (pick any effort in Afghanistan: Afghan Local Police, Village Stability Operations, Reintegration, women’s rights, FETs, Rule of Law, anti-corruption, literacy training, “independent operating units”, etc. ) assuming that will get us more resources. Let's under-promise and, if possible, over-perform, all the while being as transparent and brutally frank about what we are doing.

We can’t turn Afghanistan into a progressive European-like society. We shouldn’t build an exact replica of our own Army for them, and we shouldn’t attempt to establish a Western-style police force. We definitely don’t need to be fighting their insurgents for them. Let’s train some of their army and police as the local conditions merit for a few years, and that’s all. We can concentrate the rest of our power in that region towards Pakistan, knowing that we’ll have to play a little dirty, build up our intelligence capabilities and grow some more diplomats. And we can still be “population-centric”, but let us redefine that to mean that we understand the people better, not that we are attempting to protect them from something they might not wish to be protected from even if some of them sometimes say they want to be. Surely we must be as unconventionally savvy in our thinking and dealings with people in an unconventional environment as we talk about needing to be in a tactical manner. In other words, instead of trying to get everyone to enjoy cookies and milk while watching Leave it to Beaver, let’s play some poker.

The author is an active-duty Army officer.  The views herein are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of Small Wars Journal or the Department of Defense.

[1] Most references for Ford’s adventure into Brazil come from Greg Grandin’s book: Fordlandia, (NY: Metropolitan Books, 2009). There is also a short write-up and some very intriguing pictures found on the Scott Chandler website:, accessed 31 OCT 2011.

[2] Damn Interesting website,, accessed 31 OCT 2011.

[3] Grandin, 73.

[4] Patton’s quote, "A good plan implemented today is better than a perfect plan implemented tomorrow,” is a concept that in this author’s experience has been translated by many in the military into a paradigm that favors immature action at all times as opposed to a more cautious approach when the situation might dictate one.

[5] 2005 interview with U.S. contractor who worked in Afghanistan in 2003 assisting the U.S. military in advising the nascent Afghan government to get rid of many Northern Alliance ministers who came into power in 2002 due to the spoils of the initial win over the Taliban- in favor of putting more Pashtuns and those less corrupt into the government.

[6] MAJ Richard G. Rhyne, U.S. Army, “Special Forces Command and Control in Afghanistan”, (MMAS thesis, CGSC, Fort Leavenworth, KS, 2004), 45 and Elaine Grossman, “Was Operation Anaconda ill-fated from the Start?”, Inside the Pentagon, 29 July 2004, 1.

[7] Sebastian L.v. Gorka and David Kilcullen, “An Actor-centric Theory of War: Understanding the Difference Between COIN and Counterinsurgency”, JFQ, JAN 2011, volume 60. Gorka and Kilcullen make an excellent case as to the improper use by the U.S. of COIN templates based on limited and incongruous historical examples.

[8] In 2009 and beyond the conventional wisdom at ISAF was Afghanistan needed a centralized government, security force, and economic development policy, and European and Kabul interests supported these efforts at effectively undercutting local solutions. One great example is the Afghan Local Police (ALP)- an effort that was and is still fought by European Union elites, NGOs, and Afghan politicians.

[9] In the author’s experience (working at and with the major commands of ISAF), the highest level commanders were determined to push Pakistan to support Coalition efforts in Afghanistan and to act against insurgents along the border with Afghanistan without any discussion about the negative implications to the Pakistani government of supporting the Coalition. Rarely were the concerns of Pakistan ever brought up as an issue, indeed, obvious causes of concern- like Afghan police going to India to receive training and Indian consular offices opening in Afghanistan were hailed as positives in the same meetings that commanders showed frustration at the lack of Pakistani action against insurgents within Pakistan. The U.S. commanders were fixated on focusing on defeating the Taliban and routinely ignored the second and third order effects to the region of this narrow objective. The phrase “you’re either for us or against us” seemed to be the logic of our narrow focus.

[10] “Fighting the Taliban” was problematic due to its heterogeneous nature: 2) the Afghan Taliban were different than the Pakistani Taliban, 2) many “Taliban” were people who fell into fighting with them at some point in the last twenty years- either against the Soviets, against corrupt Afghan politicians, against drug lords, against warlords, or against tribes or sub-tribes that had run afoul of the Taliban at a time that an alignment proved positive in the short-term for some, and, 3) adding to that, many of the other insurgent groups had on-off relationships with groups of Taliban when it suited them. There were many instances in the author’s experience wherein members of the Afghan security forces were drawn into supporting one insurgent group of “Taliban” (or other insurgents) because they were fighting another group of “Taliban” who the Afghan forces thought were more dangerous. The Coalition was pressured many times into arming one or more of these groups and calling it a “reintegration” event.

[11] Interestingly enough, General Petraeus often advised his subordinate commanders to "under-promise and over-perform." Unfortunately this advice was rarely followed in this author's experience.

[12] For a good example of a too-rosy picture being painted in the press by a U.S. military commander see LTG William B. Caldwell IV’s article on the “Unnoticed Surge in Afghan Security”, Chicago Tribune, 15 FEB 2011,, accessed 31 OCT 2011.

[13] Scott Dempsey, “The Fallacy of Coin: One Officer’s Frustration”, SWJ,, accessed 31 OCT 2011 and Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s article “Afghan Strategy’s Proving Ground”, The Washington Post, 12 DEC 2010,, accessed 31 OCT 2011.

[14] Kimberly Dozier, “CIA to Fuse Troops’ Opinions In War Analysis”, AP, 14 OCT 2011,, accessed on 1 NOV 2011.

[15] COL Robert H. Risberg, “Improving the United States’ Strategic Communications Strategy”, USAWC Strategy Research Project, 15 MAR 2008,, accessed 1 NOV 2011.

[16] In the movie, The Princess Bride (20th Century Fox, 1987), one of the characters says: "You fell victim to one of the classic blunders. The most famous is 'Never get involved in a land war in Asia’…”

[17] Prior to 9/11 it was difficult to find anyone in the military in this author’s experience who would argue that the State Department or the Peace Corps were effective organizations. Any kind of foreign aid, domestic welfare, food stamp program, free health care, etc.- were looked at by most military officers as short-term Band-Aids that were ineffective at fixing long-term problems and actually made things worse by creating dependencies. After the Counterinsurgency Field Manual, FM 3-24, was written, the attitude of officers changed to one of acceptance that those kinds of programs would be effective against insurgencies, though most still held that they would be ineffective in urban America. The example this author found most prescient was, after one afternoon of pushing hard during planning meetings for a centralized and free health care system for all Afghans provided by the Afghan Army, several American colonels working at ISAF shared their opposition to President Obama’s health care initiatives because they were “against the concept of government health care.”

[18] Grandin, 8-18. Also see pages 317-320.

[19] Grandin, 73.

[20] Grandin, 228-235.

[21] Grandin, 220-228.

[22] Grandin, 316-330.

[23] Grandin, 264-293.

[24] Grandin, 346.

[25] Grandin, 272-275.

[26] U.S. forces did not stay long in Grenada after they overthrew the government: after the two months it took to set up a new government, combat forces redeployed home.

[28] Rhyne, 45 and Grossman, 1.

[29] It is arguable whether the strategic effect of our continued presence in Afghanistan has actually been negative since Pakistan is much more unstable today.

[30] See the next paragraph. Bottom line: this author argues that whether or not Naglandia started in earnest right away or not until 2009, the intent to start it was there from almost the beginning and either way does not change the conclusions of this paper.

[31] Gian Gentile, “A Strategy of Tactics: Population-centric COIN and the Army”, Parameters, Autumn 2009, 5-17. As Colonel Gentile and others argue, the U.S. has relied on very effective tactics and a strategy that is defined by its tactics (the strategic HQ even issues tactical directives- see below). Therefore, when the President of the United States asks for options on how to best keep Al Qaeda in Pakistan from threatening Americans, the military has only one option: counterinsurgency (COIN), and the military only has one option in conducting COIN: population-centric. The population-centric method of conducting COIN is a method that is described through the use of specific tactics that revolve around protecting the people, establishing governance for them, and developing the economy. These “lines of operation” and the resultant tactics, published publicly as the ISAF Commander’s Tactical guidance (, were the doctrinal methods for meeting the President’s political objectives- i.e., the strategy that linked what we did on the ground to the President’s policies. The doctrine allows no other choice but one set of operational lines and related tactics and this results in a lack of strategic flexibility.

[32], accessed 6 NOV 2011. The timeline found at that link describes the atmosphere post 2008 wherein President Obama and NATO pledge and send more troops, money, and equipment and pledge more effort. Afghanistan, at the time, was still seen as a “good” war, since Iraq at that time was viewed as a “bad” war to many, and this allowed President Obama to campaign on a promise to end the war in Iraq and focus on our real enemy in Afghanistan-Pakistan (Al-Qaeda).

[33] Jason Motlaugh, "Exclusive: $5 Billion for Afghans still unspent", Washington Times, 25 MAR 2009,, accessed 9 NOV 2011. In terms of troops this was more a European attitude than a reality- reflected in comments like, "you have more troops deployed here than we have in our entire military," or, "we can't increase our troops, we have half of them here."

[34] Many insisted they needed the "Counterinsurgency" ratio- a magic ratio of troops to population that was supposed to enable success; others did their own troop-to-task studies and concluded they needed more. Some officers even tried to interpret President Obama's cap of 30,000 for the surge to only mean combat troops (see Bob Woodward, Obama's Wars, (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2010), 303). Even more egregious, troops were deployed for smaller timeframes and under different authorities which allowed CENTCOM to unofficially send more troops at any given time. Lastly, some troops from Europe deployed under the auspices of NATO and were not counted as part of the surge force number.

[35] Andrea Mitchell, Morning Joe, MSNBC, 23 SEP 2009.

[36] The author worked on or was privy to most of the planning done at ISAF from late 2009 until early 2011.

[37] Another significant source of instability, and only indirectly related to the Taliban, were local grievances between tribes, sub-tribes, and families. Call it a “West Virginia feud”, but this author will never forget an interpreter telling him about the yearly killings of cousins between two sub-tribes- one cousin each- that kept them in relative peace throughout most of the year.

[38] In 2010, during a meeting between members of ISAF and an Afghan female security training center commander, the unmistakable look of confusion came across the Afghan commander’s face as the lead ISAF representative attempted to make the argument for immediate integration of women into men’s training. The only thing more interesting than the commander’s facial expression was the apparent total lack of realistic expectations in the ISAF representative’s mind.

[39] John C. Wobensmith & Jeff Smith, “Reinvigorating Intelligence”, The Journal of International Security Affairs, Spring 2007, No 12,, accessed on 7 NOV 2011. Donald F. Herr, “Changing Course”, International Policy Report, SEP 2008: 6-7,, accessed on 7 NOV 2011. These are but a few articles that point out that since the 1970s our intelligence and diplomatic capabilities have been severely gutted. It is this author’s belief that the reason the military has taken on so many non-military tasks is that the military is the only organization capable of even attempting them.

[40] Hawkins and Love, The New Great Game, Foreign Military Studies Office, Ft. Leavenworth, KS 2006.

[41] Many, including CNAS ( have noted our continued lack of capability in the intelligence arena. This author’s opinion is that in order to support intelligence collection, savvy diplomacy, and the related use of proxies, a nation-state must have a moral and political homogeneity in the basic priorities and direction of the country, and the willingness to compromise treating everyone fairly in the short-term in order to gain leverage for the long-term. Instead, Americans are divided in terms of the country’s vision, are very ignorant as to how most people outside of the U.S. live and how they think, and are complacent about sacrifices that are needed for future generations. All of these things, in this author’s view, keep us from supporting (funding, establishing, and utilizing) a robust intelligence, diplomatic, and proxy capability, thus forcing us to rely on our military more often- invariably facilitated by having a relatively small and professional force.

[42] In a conversation with one of the leaders of the U.S. operations during the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993, commonly referred to as “Blackhawk Down”, the gentleman admitted they were wholly ignorant (and also did not think it part of their responsibility) of the latest political environmental changes with respect to their mission (even a small amount of contact between the U.S. ambassador and/or National Security staff at the White House would have revealed to the military that their mandate was quickly becoming null and void in the eyes of their political masters- and that the specific mission that led to the Blackhawk Down incident might not have been approved at the highest levels; also see David Tucker and Christopher J. Lamb's book, United States Special Operations Forces, (NY: Columbia University Press, 2007), 107-142, for their portrayal of the disconnect between the politicians and the military in Somalia. This author holds that a similar ignorance of (or, worse, a total disagreement with) the political climate from 2009 on seriously hampered the strategic planning for Afghanistan.

[43] For an excellent description of the military's disagreement with the Obama Administration on Afghan strategy and their attempts to influence the debate see Bob Woodward's Obama's Wars, (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2010). General McChrystal's leaked memos, his firing, Petraeus' public and leaked comments about Afghan requirements, LTG Rodriguez's and LTG Caldwell's public and private comments about requirements, the need to sell short-term progress, and the comments to ignore politically-motivated tasks all support Woodward's basic premise that the military was at odds with the civilian leadership on how to prosecute the war in Afghanistan.

The most public of these efforts was an unofficial campaign to argue that ISAF was making clear progress and that this progress justified both the U.S. and the Coalition sending more troops. More private efforts were made to start the work on establishing systems and infrastructure projects that would only show success if the U.S. kept personnel in place and funded the projects and systems in perpetuity. Both the public and the private efforts ignored both the very public campaign the President was running to start the drawdown by 2011 and have combat troops out by 2014 and the less public efforts of the President to refocus American strategy away from Afghanistan. To assume that funding and personnel support would remain was a dangerous assumption (that assumption didn’t work for Vietnam) and to think it was the military’s place to engage in lobbying for its means seems a risky precedent.

[44] The three assumptions marked the logic of most, if not all, of the planning efforts this author was involved in while in Afghanistan, and yet were presented as facts (the author was closely involved with the 2009-2011 ISAF campaign plans and many of the supporting subordinate planning efforts). The third assumption mentioned- that money and personnel would be maintained- may have been a similar one that undermined our efforts in Vietnam: if the assumption had been instead that U.S. support was not going to last, then maybe the way we assisted the ARVN would have been different.

[45] General (ret.) McChrystal recently stated that ISAF still does not understand the Afghans:, accessed 6 NOV 2011. This was very similar to what he stated in 2009:, accessed 6 NOV 2011. Also see this article: CPT Andrew Feitt, “The Importance of Vertical Engagement in VSO”, Small Wars Journal, 1 NOV 2011,, accessed 6 NOV 2011. The author makes the argument that ISAF has mistakenly taken certain policies that worked in some areas- VSO for one example- and attempted to apply them in all areas, ignoring the places in which concentrating on “the village” is much more ineffective than concentrating at the district or tribal levels.

[46] These efforts, in the end, targeted symptoms (corruption) and not the systems which encouraged the corruption. Without an infrastructure that supported honest brokers, anti-corruption efforts tended to weaken leaders and even made them rely even more on ISAF due to ISAF being the only funding source for non-corrupt officials. For an excellent resource for the phenomenon and possible solutions please see Michael Johnston's "First, Do No Harm- Then Build Trust: Anti-Corruption Strategies in Fragile Situations,", SEP 2010,, accessed on 9 NOV 2011.

In a society with little trust and infrastructure (due to the fighting since the 1970s) to ensure fair and objective treatment, patronage and family-tribal ties are sometimes all one has to ensure security and trust. ISAF possibly undermined that primitive stability mechanism in Afghanistan due to its blind-to-the-consequences assumptions about corruption and governance.

Specific examples include an attempt by Karzai to follow ISAF standards and require all District and Provincial governors to pass a reading test in 2010. This effort was tied to anti-corruption efforts because it was thought that it would cut down on nepotism by making public office more about merit. One such governor who was illiterate, but a strident ally of Coalition efforts against insurgents, was forced out- not due to failing the test, but because he refused to take it out of a sense of honor (he was embarrassed to fail). His replacement was anti-Coalition and much more corrupt. Another example was the police chief in one district who was forced to stop taking bribes. He was then unable to pay his police force out of the bribery system's funds, and thus his police force's loyalty turned to the drug lord in the area who paid them to protect their drug crop. They had already been protecting the drug crop- but now they followed the orders of the drug dealers- who were also “local” Taliban- and not the orders of the police chief- who was attempting to assist the Coalition in at least hunting IED facilitators- if not their drug overlords as well- and target “ISI-sponsored” Taliban. The end result was that the police chief eventually was assassinated and his replacement more in line with the Taliban than he was.

[47] For instance, police in Helmand required more training in counterinsurgency tactics and knowledge of how to work within the judicial systems they might find in the localities they were likely to work in. Their uniforms, equipment, ethnic backgrounds, language training, battle drills, procedures, and many other things would need to be very different than those police that were to be stationed in Kabul. Kabul’s judicial system, for instance, was more structured its police force more traffic and domestic law-oriented than Helmand’s. The equipment and uniform requirements were much more different, and yet ISAF continually strove to bring more standardization of police training, organization, procedures, and equipment.

[48]Stephen M. Walt, “The Myth of American Exceptionalism”, Foreign Policy, NOV 2011,, accessed 6 NOV 2011.

[49] There is, of course, another option, and that option is to stop playing the game of strategic struggle over resources and influence, but it is beyond this paper to discuss whether or not that is the way to go.

[50] In answer to the question, ‘what would happen to Africa if the West pulled out and let them “go at it”’, a former U.S. Ambassador once remarked in a non-attributive forum: “They would most likely mirror much of 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th Century Europe: they would hack each other to bits for a few hundred years until a peace emerged through balance and the consolidation of power and then there would be relative peace.” The takeaway from that point is that Western countries cannot abide by too much bloodshed, but they also cannot abide by involving ourselves in meaningful ways. In the end, our people would rather have a relatively low level of consistent bloodshed in unstable areas than genocidal activities- even if the genocidal activities results one day in greater stability. Again, relying on Christian morality to run foreign policy has not seemed to help most countries we have involved ourselves in. If, however, we think this is too heartless- we must at least admit the possibility that the alternatives are either too expensive or too ineffective.

[51] Humu Yusuf, “The China Factor in Afghanistan”,, 10 OCT 2011,, accessed 6 NOV 2011 and David Rohde, “Iran is Seeking More Influence in Afghanistan”, New York Times, 27 DEC 2006,, accessed 6 NOV 2011.

[52] Michael O’Hanlon, “Afghanistan, Pakistan and the U.S.: Repairing relations”, The Baltimore Sun, 11 OCT 2011,,0,7084912.story.

[53] Burton W. Folsom, Jr., New Deal or Raw Deal, (Threshold Editions, NY, 17 NOV 2009), 2. FDR’s Treasury Secretary, Henry Morgenthau testified to Congress in 1939, when unemployment stood at 20%, "We have tried spending money. We are spending more than we have ever spent before and it does not work."

[54] Peter Spiegel and Matthew Rosenberg, “Afghan Aid on Hold as Corruption is Probed”, Wall Street Journal, 28 JUN 2010,, accessed on 6 NOV 2011. Also see Andrew Higgins, “Officials puzzle over millions of dollars leaving Afghanistan by plane for Dubai”, Washington Post, 25 FEB 2010,, accessed on 6 NOV 2011.

[55] Matthew Yglesias, “Protecting People Who Don’t Want Protection”,, 4 JUN 2011,, accessed on 6 NOV 2011. Yglesias raises the question that if Mao’s concept of protecting the people had been applied by the British in South Carolina that it would not have made much sense: the insurgents weren’t harming most of the people and therefore the people did not need protecting. Going further, however, if one read’s Mao’s quote (and ignores the possible issues of comparing Mao’s “people’s war” with what is going on in Afghanistan) it doesn’t seem to stress protecting the people as much as it is an afterthought or maybe “icing on the cake.” Instead, what is stressed is knowing the people- knowing them in order to identify, find, fix, and ultimately kill the insurgent. This author submits that in Afghanistan’s style of “people’s war”, it is important to know the people in order to understand one’s limitations and what one can reasonably expect to accomplish and what one must rely on the local forces to accomplish.

[56] This is not to say that helping people is NEVER done in “pop-centric” COIN, but that we should reject the term altogether and replace it with: a principle of COIN should be to understand the people. Sometimes this will mean we help them. Other times it will mean we don’t help them.

[57] If anything should point to this possibility it is our ten-year quest to curry favor with the Afghan people. There is very little, if any, proof that Afghans think any better of us today than they did in 2001. Some possible reasons: perhaps we only talk about caring for the people and instead really just want to hunt insurgents, perhaps our way of caring does not translate well in Afghanistan, perhaps we don’t have enough "caring" due to low levels of troops, perhaps foreigners- especially Western and mostly Christian foreigners- can never be seen as caring for the people in any meaningful way, or perhaps we just do not understand the people. Of those reasons, this author would argue that it is a combination of all of them and possibly more- more being that winning over the people towards us is not the answer anyway, we should be supporting (not actively engaged in) the Afghan government winning over the people.

[58] Every plan for the use of Afghan forces and for major combat operations that the author participated in was born in the bowels of a U.S. or coalition planning section. Recently Afghan ministers and generals have briefed ISAF’s plans as if they were theirs, but make no mistake: most ministers and commanders would not prosecute the war in the same way we are doing so if they were in charge.


About the Author(s)

LTC Grant M. Martin is a Special Forces officer in the U.S. Army. He has served in Korea, Afghanistan and South America. He graduated from The Citadel, has an MBA from George Mason University, and an MMAS from the School of Advanced Military Studies. He is a Ph.D. candidate at North Carolina State University’s Public Administration program with special interest in researching the organizational obstacles within SOCOM and DoD to effective Irregular Warfare. He has been published in the International JournalMilitary, and the Small Wars Journal, in addition to contributing to chapters in two textbooks on Design Thinking.


Madhu (not verified)

Wed, 06/12/2013 - 10:11am

In reply to by Madhu (not verified)

Er, which is why I really like this article even while disagreeing with parts of the analysis. It's good to talk this stuff over.

Madhu (not verified)

Wed, 06/12/2013 - 10:07am

<blockquote>In the author’s experience (working at and with the major commands of ISAF), the highest level commanders were determined to push Pakistan to support Coalition efforts in Afghanistan and to act against insurgents along the border with Afghanistan without any discussion about the negative implications to the Pakistani government of supporting the Coalition. Rarely were the concerns of Pakistan ever brought up as an issue, indeed, obvious causes of concern- like Afghan police going to India to receive training and Indian consular offices opening in Afghanistan were hailed as positives in the same meetings that commanders showed frustration at the lack of Pakistani action against insurgents within Pakistan.</blockquote>

The basic problem is that Afghan sovereignty and independence is viewed as a threat, so understanding one party means trampling over another.

COIN was never going to square that circle.

While there is truth to this and it is an asute point (Pakistan and India and Afghanistan will do what they will), at the strategic level worries about Pakistan's security elites and their support for non-state/state actors has long been a large part of American and NATO security thought about the region. Assuaging fears toward India in order to coax better behavior has been tried decade after decade after decade by a variety of outside powers. The AfPak White paper from 2009 or so is quite explicit about this, and when then Candidate Obama stated that Kashmir was important (based on the advice of his South Asia advisors, I have that 2008 article somewhere, can't find it now), he was expressing exactly what you are saying and what generations of diplomats have stated, that the regional competition was viewed as a problem for the US and we were going to go about solving it. The history of policy toward this region shows an acute understanding of what you are saying, and some scholars say, too much of this goes on. We have contradictory goals toward the region and never send the correct messages.

Again, for sixty odd years, assuaging fears in this regard has been a sort of bedrock of thinking in the American diplomatic community and is one reason various presidential administrations suggested selling arms to Pakistan. The author isn't the first person to think the above; it's a rich vein of thought that runs through decades of American policy in that region.

In fact, arguments were made that selling American conventional arms might help stem nuclear proliferation because it would assuage fears. While making sense on paper, I suppose, and helping American arms manufacturers (which, to be fair, do create manufacturing jobs), it never really worked out as planned.

Pretty much anything you can think up has been "tried", and, in the end, people do what they perceive as in their best interests. Our ability to coax different behavior by understanding certain fears is as limited at times as attempting force.

It's true that Pakistani security elites will react badly to attempts at Afghan sovereignty and this goes beyond the simplistic "fears of India" and "strategic depth" narrative of the American military and American diplomats. It's a complicated world filled with internal domestic battles for prominence and funding, access to Central Asian markets, and so on, along with a security and economic competition with India taking place in the background of Chinese and Indian regional competition. So Afghan sovereignty will always be viewed with suspicion in this environment with or without Indian involvement. Money from the international narcotics trade has also polluted the region and makes control of some parts of Afghanistan attractive for a variety of actors which isn't really about regional security competitions as traditionally understood.

When the Taliban took over in the 90s, it afforded maximum strategic depth at that point. Fears were not assuaged.

Some things have to play out and we can do our best to understand the situation, realize we have limited ability to change certain realities, and then plan accordingly. Working dedicatedly with civilian governments in the region (and not undermining them because of close traditional mil-mil ties between the American military and other militaries in the region) was probably the best and policy possible. We seem to be coming to that realization now after hard experience.

I keep going on and on about this because I think the main lesson learned is nothing specific about the region but about not understanding these various narratives and or knowing them.

A million articles on Galula instead of writing and thinking about the American military or diplomatic history in the region beyond what is traditionally written by the small South Asian analyst community probably didn't help.

Madhu (not verified)

Tue, 06/11/2013 - 10:00am

In reply to by Madhu (not verified)

This doesn't mean I don't think the US shouldn't try and be helpful in this regard, but a little more humility and a little less "our State Department Politicos will design a Grand Plan!" sort of business.

You know, the vibe in my diaspora and other family was always, "the Kashmiris deserve their autonomy," which probably surprises people that read my comments around here (all two or whatever :) ). For me it's not about the issue specifically but the way in which the military viewed the larger South Asian context and then designed a plan for the Afghan campaign. Could a different understanding of regional context have helped? I don't know.

Madhu (not verified)

Tue, 06/11/2013 - 9:49am

<blockquote>The Chinese, Indians, Iranians, and others are all gaining from our efforts in Afghanistan.</blockquote>

In many instances yes, but in some instances no. The fungibility of aid contributing to increased nuclear arsenals in the SA region is likely a net negative.

<blockquote>In fact, one could argue that any small effort we could have initiated towards improving peace between India and Pakistan would have been much more fruitful to building stability in Afghanistan than anything we’ve done the entire time we’ve been in Afghanistan.[52]</blockquote>

Actually, this is exactly how I think we get into trouble in that part of the world and it taps into the authors argument on American limitationism versus an overly confident attitude toward shaping foreign situations.

We have done nothing for sixty odd years but view the situation in that way and every administration thinks entirely of the India Pakistan diad and completely misunderstands the causation of violence.

<blockquote>The president-elect is said to believe that a peace settlement over Kashmir holds the key to unlocking co-operation between the two South Asian neighbours in the battle against al-Qa'ida and the Taliban.

Leading Indian commentator C. Raja Mohan last night quoted Senator Obama as describing Kashmir as one of the "critical tasks" for his administration, adding that he had discussed the possibility of the former US president playing a role in "redefining" relations between nuclear-armed neighbours India and Pakistan.</blockquote>…

Admiral Nimitz was sent back in the 50's before even attempting to be an envoy, and Madeleine Albright's father wrote an entire book based on his experiences at the UN in trying to do just that.

It always fails and that is because a lot of what is going on in the SA region is domestic and related to very complicated domestic realities. There is a funny lampooning of a certain Indian, Pakistani, and American cluelessness on the subject in this admittedly India-centric article:

<blockquote>In the last fifty years, the United States has applied different labels to the Kashmir issue from 'self- determination' to 'aspiration of the Kashmiri people' to being 'a nuclear flash-point' endangering international security'. The constantly changing stand of the United States is reflective of the fact that the United States stand on the Kashmir issue is flexible and can be said to be dependent on two factors at a given point in time: (1) Tenor of India-United States relations and; (2) The strategic utility of Pakistan for any intended United States strategic moves in South West Asia.</blockquote>

And, of course, there are diaspora in the UK and US and depending on the decade, one or the other is listened to more often.

When I was a kid, India was the bad country because it was pro-Soviet and we used to joke that people were listening to our conversations back then!

To be fair to the military, its planners only reflect the status quo thinking of a small and connected group of civilian analysts on South Asia which harms our ability to do a 360 degree review of the situation and look at the issues in a fresh way.

It doesn't help that a certain percentage of people involved in all of this lobby for various countries when not in government service. The Indian and Pakistani papers cover this religiously and the diaspora papers too. The knowledge is quite detailed, in some instances, better than papers written by SA analysts at a variety of think tanks.


Sun, 11/20/2011 - 8:42pm

All- thank-you for the valuable feedback.

Addressing a few points in order:

- Sappeur: I agree with your last statement: "<em>Best work within the nature of the current groups rather than overlay an American ecology over the native social ecology".</em>

To me, we get the flexibility part at the tactical level. Where we fell/continue to fall short IMO is at the operational and strategic levels. For some reason we demand our tactical-levels to be flexible (or they are in spite of the institution), but we keep banging our head against the same staid operations and strategy.

- Vitesse eP: agree with your comment: <em>If the US has made any mistakes in Afghanistan, I would say that it is due to our willingness to compromise, to let the Afghan government sentence people to death for exercising religious freedom, to aid and abet corruption, to forget the common sense that would tell us what material things these people really need.</em> That, to me, is what makes this an impossible task: attempting radical change, but doing it through the "let's get them to like us" lense. Radical cultural change in my mind doesn't come through being nice- throughout history it seems to have come at the tip of a sword. Because we can't stand the sight of anyone's blood- we have effectively hamstrung ourselves to being ineffective AND spending tons of money.

In terms of this quote <em>"Protect the people. Build roads. Bring murderers to justice. These are simple things. No amount of ideological fluff can argue against them. No amount of moral cowardice and expediency can excuse this nation from the condemnation it deserves if we just quit."</em>, however, I have to respectfully disagree. Protecting people, bringing justice, and building roads- these things are only "simple" if one does them unilaterally without a systemic and sustainable piece. That second part is what is so difficult.

And I disagree that if our people have decided what we are doing isn't in our national interests and decide to stop- it is somehow reflecting cowardice. I would argue that staying due to being guilted into staying is worse.

Well, this is really interesting. It seems that there is a lot of history that we don't learn in school nor do we read about as adults but I am grateful that sites like this allow us to see the past.

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Fri, 11/11/2011 - 7:55pm

I spent a significant period of my childhood growing up on a rubber plantation so I was intrigued by your description of Henry Ford's efforts to create a little bit of America in the Amazonian jungle and its natives. The draw of the analogy was to illustrate the failure of 'Petraeusism' & 'Naglandia' in Afghanistan as a consequence of their alien nature.

You mentioned Ford's lack of understanding of the seasonal nuances of traditional rubber tapping, migratory slash and burn subsistence and his insistence that the natives attempt to embrace other 'Christian' morals and sensitivities which doomed the costly project to failure.

As you highlighted Ford's reasons for embarking on this folly was a consequence of the US's reliance on European owned rubber plantations in Asia and the western Pacific. Prior to the invention of synthetic rubber these plantations were a vital strategic industry and were an extremely important and profitable industry.

What you seem to be unaware of is that thousands of successful rubber plantations were run on very autocratic and unbending formula. They were nearly all hacked out of the jungle some of which is the toughest in the world. The industry had training colleges to maintain what was a successful/sustainable managerial ethos. A significant proportion were owned by European churches with splendid chapels which were splendidly attended. Ex-military managers were very much in demand for the non-mission plantations and discipline was rather severe up to and including the 'cooler' ( a left over from the Japanese occupation) and floggings. Pre-dawn 'bello' and 0700 inspection of you tools was 6 days a week. Fines for blunt or lost tools were vigorously enforced and all payments were on a basis ie. no sap no pay. Barracks accommodation was universal, mess hall, no women, no alcohol ( a rare transgression meant instant dismissal). Despite what to the workforce was a totally alien existence the industry flourished and played a critical role in the global industrial economy.

The tribalism and vendetta mindset of the work-force made my later encounters in Paktia, Kunar, Pansjhir and Nuristan seem like dealing with the Brady Bunch. The point I am making is are you certain it is the 'Petraeusism' & 'Naglandia' doctrine that is the problem rather than the calibre of the people who we are expecting to carry it out. From your description of Ford's efforts he seemed to be copying the successful colonial model but it was his own shortcomings which caused the problems.

You mention the Peace Corps and the well deserved derision their efforts attract. I think you should also mention the British VSO, Canadian CUSO, AVA, Medicine sans Frontier, Swedish Committee etc. etc. to illustrate the universal nature of their ineptitude. However what you fail to highlight is that most of these very young people would struggle to run a hot-dog stand in their home town simply because of their youth and total lack of experience. The few older retiree volunteers I have encountered were extraordinary in their ability to mentor and inspire their local charges. In other words the 40 years of experience(even if it was as a mechanic from Detroit who could barely speak English let alone Pashto) was the critical factor.

I dare say much of the Afghan village life you have experienced has been in villages effected by warfare at one time or another since 1978. I have spent long periods in Afghan villages which were totally unaffected by war. I was struck how similar the problems were to the villages of my childhood. Death and sickness lurked everywhere. TB, diabetes, malaria, death from tonsillitis, ear infection, tooth infection and child-birth constantly stalking every family. Cataracts causing blindness in your forties and the constant drain of dysentery and disease aged people dramatically. In other words, traditional life generally sucked big-time. Most people, especially the young, were desperate for change. As the war progressed and destruction became widespread I found the desire to embrace change to be even more apparent not less.

You suggest a different way, a ' American Limitationism ' as a possible solution. Very much 'less is more'. It may indeed be the solution - it certainly looks a lot cheaper. The only problem is if you hand over this strategy to the same type of people who made a dog's dinner of 'Fordism','Petraeusism' & 'Naglandia' the whole place may unravel.


Vitesse et Puissance

Fri, 11/11/2011 - 1:47pm

I'm going to argue here on behalf of good ole' American exceptionalism and even a touch of imperialism here. We didn't ask the Afghans to live in our world. They didn't ask us if it would be okay to provide aid and comfort to our enemies. The very fact that we have invaded their country, intruded on their culture, killed their neighbors and wish to revolutionize their economy ought to tell them something about the United States of America - these are the kind of people you don't mess with.

Clearly the adherents of Petraeusism and Naglandia are sending mixed messages. But it really doesn't matter, because those messages are our messages. They reflect the things we hold dear and the values we uphold. If the US has made any mistakes in Afghanistan, I would say that it is due to our willingness to compromise, to let the Afghan government sentence people to death for exercising religious freedom, to aid and abet corruption, to forget the common sense that would tell us what material things these people really need.

A little mirror imaging isn't a bad thing. If we were trying to bring West Virginia out of scofflaw behavior and internecine feuding, one would think we would know what to do. Well, Afghanistan is really a bigger and more brutal West Virginia, with larger mountains and more vicious clans. One hears a lot about economic development in Afghanistan. One hears nothing about building roads. And the lack of secure roads is the one thing tht prevents the Afghan government from establishing control over the Afghan equivalents of Tug Fork. Those who worry about cross-border conflict may reflect that the Governor of West Virginia once threatened to invade Kentucky at the height of the feud. The one task facing ISAF, even as much as the Afghan government, is to bring the murderers to justice. Or as we call it in Petraeusism, "protecting the people".

Protect the people. Build roads. Bring murderers to justice. These are simple things. No amount of ideological fluff can argue against them. No amount of moral cowardice and expediency can excuse this nation from the condemnation it deserves if we just quit.

We end with a quote from Jomini, which is followed by a section entitled "Double Wars, and the Danger of Undertaking Two Wars at Once":

Civil Wars, and Wars of Religion.

We can understand how a government may find it necessary to use force against its own subjects in order to crush out factions which would weaken the authority of the throne and the national strength; but that it should murder its citizens to compel them to say their prayers in French or difficult of conception. Never was a king more to be pitied than Louis XIV., who persecuted a million of industrious Protestants, who had put upon the throne his own Protestant ancestor. Wars of fanaticism are horrible when mingled with exterior wars, and they are also frightful when they are family quarrels....To give maxims in such wars would be absurd. There is one rule upon which all thoughtful men will be agreed: that is, to unite the two parties or sects to drive the foreigners from the soil, and afterward to reconcile by treaty the conflicting claims or rights. Indeed, the intervention of a third power in a religious dispute can only be with ambitious views.

This article reads like a sharp cutlass, yet it had my interest at every sentence and even with the notes. It should serve as a timely call to support a concept called strategic ecology. I first came across this term in Mr. Y's article from the Woodrow Wilson School lamenting the lack of a strategic narrative for our Nation.

Back to strategic ecology... I think this is import because, as this article points out, we as a nation are inserting our national power into ecologically sensitive areas (and here, please think as ecology beyond that of environmental, and include the social aspects of the area.)

As the author astutely points out, Ford had both the natural ecology AND the social ecology wrong for his vision of Fordlandia. Much the same may be said of Afghanistan. In Iraq, it was initially wrong, but was corrected over time. We need to continue to adapt in Afghanistan – our enemies certainly know this as well. Perhaps Ford could have made Fordlandia work if he modified the levers controlling the natural and social ecology -- after all groups can and MUST learn in order to evolve and succeed. John Nagl knows this and captures it well in his book "Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife." In truth, this book is as much about groups adapting and learning as it is about COIN. General Petraeus is also keenly aware of this as can be seen the significant amount of effort he put toward developing the "CAC Engine of Change" that was a required foundation prior to beginning the COIN manual effort.

But this is really tough to do as the author infers. Just by the fact that you are introducing a new group into a delicate social ecosystem, you (by nature) disrupt it. Best work within the nature of the current groups rather than overlay an American ecology over the native social ecology.