Small Wars Journal

Drawing Down to a Winning Strategy in Afghanistan?

Sun, 02/26/2012 - 7:27pm

Yesterday’s decision by General John R. Allen to separate NATO forces from the Afghans they train and mentor should be proof that the current advise and assist strategy is not working.  The coming drawdown may be our best opportunity in years to shift to a winning strategy in Afghanistan.  But this chance depends on Washington’s ability to stave off yet another bout of strategic narcolepsy where Afghanistan is concerned.  The signs this month have not been good: State Department officials announced that their staff will retreat to four locations in Afghanistan.  And, despite the now glaring problems with our ability to train and advise Afghan forces, the Pentagon
announced an early end to robust counterinsurgency operations in favor of simplistic buildup of Afghan National Security Forces.

The reason for war fatigue among our leaders is obvious. For the last ten years Coalition Forces have faced twin plagues: on the one hand, they have dealt with an Afghan problem set whose ever-increasing complexity outstripped their ability to understand it. And on the other, they have been hindered by a NATO bureaucracy that has ossified dramatically over time, despite some valiant efforts to fight it. Yesterday’s fratricide incident and the ones preceding it are a sign our troops are out of touch.  Rushed troop creation and increased apathy toward Afghan government and security structures do not pave the right path out of Afghanistan. Drawing down is the solution, but with a more embedded, less-bureaucratized approach.

Contrary to popular opinion, an economy of force strategy is actually more logical for counterinsurgency than a costly, manpower-intensive one.  For example, where partner forces are matched one-for-one with host nation forces - what ISAF calls “Shona ba shona,” or “shoulder to shoulder” - there is no incentive for Afghan soldiers to learn, or ISAF soldiers to teach, because they do not have to rely on each other for security.  Forces are close enough to resent, but not close enough to understand each other. By contrast, a low partner-host ratio and longer training and mentoring period would more likely develop an Afghan military with the ability and desire to deter threats to the nation.  Successful transition requires interdependence to build independence, and this may be seen by analogy in all aspects of the Afghan campaign.

A lower force ratio helps to surmount the gulf between allies in governance work, too, by allowing units to mentally detach from their parent institutions and take the part of those they advise.  A return to more rustic counterinsurgency techniques, of the kind that Special Forces began to employ in 2010, lets forces correctly diagnose and address problems of governance.  Maintaining such a locally embedded presence also provides the earliest intelligence of major problems in governance or security, and allows for rapid defusing of tense situations such as the recent Koran burnings.

All of these efforts are furthered by the reduction in friction from fewer units and echelons. ISAF's ability to sense the ground truth has eroded as staff numbers have swelled, witness the increasing importance of "battlefield circulation" visits as proof. Less bureaucracy allows the units remaining to make smarter, more adaptive decisions; for example, a unit operating in 2010 in a northern province with no other maneuver forces could keep track of needs, commitments and personalities. Similar units operating in crowded southern battle spaces often found de-confliction with fellow units to be time-consuming.  In these areas locals took advantage of poor communication to play foreign interests off of each other.

The cost is the same, the manpower is the same; the difference lies in priorities.  Walking the halls of the Pentagon today, I see a desire to be rid of the Afghan problem.  Our leaders have started down a path to create at best the trappings of success, rushing to arm as many Afghans as possible, while hunkering down behind ever-taller walls. But we can and should use our enduring presence as an opportunity – to ally with the Afghan population, understand its changing politics, and act to support stable governance.  If the fight was worth more than a decade’s investment of effort, surely it is worth a well-planned end: a drawdown in manpower without a drawdown in willpower.

Categories: COIN - Afghanistan

About the Author(s)

Rebecca Zimmerman is a doctoral candidate at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and a fellow with the Truman National Security Project. She has extensive field research experience in Afghanistan and the southern Philippines.



Tue, 03/13/2012 - 9:35pm

Though I've seen some good discussion on how to improve COIN, in the case of Afghanistan I keep returning to the fundamental question of why. I'd like to see the drawdown spur a logical turn to realistic and achievable CT goals. It may be too much to hope for.

I read the article and all the comments. And as is so often the case, not a word about the Pak Army/ISI sponsorship, direction and support of Taliban & Co. That is not an obscure thing. The members of Taliban & Co. freely acknowledge this. They don't like it much but they know they would not have gotten where they have nor will they get where they want to go without Pakistani support. All the other Afghans know it too. Yet we can have long discussions about esoterica involved in combating the insurgency and not see what the people in Afghanistan and in the border areas of Pakistan plainly see. No matter if we were to recruit from the halls of eternity a committee consisting of Mao, Sertorius, Lawrence, Magsaysay and Pershing to direct our efforts, it would avail us nothing because won't see what is. It is like we have decided that solid leads ball can float and now will put our best minds to figuring how to make that happen.

The most prescient thought in the article is about how our leaders have started down the path toward creating the trappings of success. That will be done. Everyone will feel proud and nothing will have been learned. Facts will not be permitted to stand in the way.


Mon, 02/27/2012 - 4:14pm

In reply to by Bill C.

BillC., that is an excellent explanation of how Globalization really works and the true costs associated with it, as opposed to how most people think it works.

Bill C.

Mon, 02/27/2012 - 12:49pm

Question: What are our goals re: Afghanistan and other such "outlier" states and societies and why do we have these goals?

Answer: Our goals are to modernize these "outlier" states and societies along western lines and incorporate these states and societies into the global economy; this, so that these states and societies might come to cause the modern world fewer problems and come to offer the modern world instead greater utility and usefulness.

Question: Those sound like reasonable, intelligent and logical goals -- and reasonable, intelligent and logical reasons to have such goals -- but how does one go about achieving these goals given the limitations imposed by such things as time and other resources?

Answer: That is what we are trying to figure out. However, one very, very expensive lesson that we have learned of late is that these "outlier" states and societies WILL NOT -- as we expected -- readily embrace modernization (along western lines) and incorporation (into the global economy) if we -- or they - simply remove the current ruling regime.

Question: So the primary obstacle, re: our goal of transforming and incorporating outlier states and societies, is not the standing regime?

Answer: No. As we should have understood from the very beginning, our primary obstacle would be/is human nature. Herein, we should have known that -- not the standing regime -- but rather the normal, natural human concern with, general lack of interest in and consistent intollerance for dramatic and difficult "change;" THIS would be what we would have to work to overcome.

Question: What if we add "nation-building" to "regime change;" so as to make these transitions easier?

Answer: This (nation-building) only seems to "compound the felony" and make matters worse. "Nation-building" is often seen as Part II of a process ("regime change" being Part I) wherein unwanted "change" is shoved down the throats of those who have not, as yet, (1) decided whether they want such change and, if so, (2) at what pace.

Question: So, based on our new understanding that "liberated" populations will not, as we previously believed, readily, automatically and immediately embrace the dramatic and fundamental state and societal changes that we desire, time for us to back track, get out, re-group, go back to the drawing board and start over?

Answer: Yep. That would seem to be the proper course of action; given what we have learned over the past decade.

Robert C. Jones

Sun, 02/26/2012 - 10:33pm

Actually current events are a gift, if we are wise enough to act upon it.

The President of Afghanistan wants the US to relinquish control over the prison where this Quran incident began, and to either stop or relinguish lead of the night raids used to populate this prision. The US refuses to comply (though also proclaims the Afghan government to somehow be "sovereign" at the same time?).

Now the resistance movement waged by the Taliban across the countryside as a violent insurgency spreads to a much broader segment of the populace where less "war-like" tactics are being applied in the urban areas.

To me this looks a great deal like an "exit strategy." Certainly not the one we planned, but when I plan to take a taxi that does not arrive for over a year, why not take the bus that pulls up today?

We have not had an effective strategy for Afghanistan from the very start. We have never understood the nature of Al Qaeda or the nature of their relationship with the Taliban. We have never understood the nature of the sanctuary that truly protects Al Qaeda in AFPAK (and dozens of other places around the globe). And we have converted a task to defeat AQ in the region into an operation designed to create and preserve a Northern Alliance-based government; defeat any Taliban-based challenge, and increasingly disrupt and manipulate governance of Pakistan as well. At some point someone needs to recognize that digging harder and faster is not getting us out of this hole.

As I type I am listening to Paula Broadwell advocating for our approach to Afghanistan. She is just one more of a long list of smart people who are so trapped by what they know, that they cannot grow to appreciate what they do not understand.

My advice to the President? Don't apologize for the Qurans, but rather simply concede that Mr. Karzai is right, he should have full sovereignty and responsibility for the country of Afghanistan, and pack up our people and bring them home. The mission regarding AQ and similar organizations will continue, but a war in Afghanistan is no better than a war in Iraq for getting after it. Even now loud voices argue that it is war with Pakistan and Iran that we need. More, not less. "Intelligent fools," all of them. Take the gift Mr. President, we have more important things to focus on to secure our nation. Extending or expanding conflicts in the Middle East and South Asia are not on that list


Sun, 02/26/2012 - 10:25pm

The idea that we can bring Afghanistan out of the middle ages and transform it into a functioning, reasonably democratic state is foolish. I do not think a force ratio of 10 westerners to each Afghan could solve what we consider to be the problem. What we call Afghanistan is not a nation in the modern sense. It is nothing more than a collection of more or less hostile tribes encompassed in lines drawn on a map by colonialists of a bygone age. I think the initial operations against those associated with the 9/11 attacks were justified; however, our open ended commitment to nation building was a terrible mistake. Sadly, we've spent thousands of lives, killed and maimed, and billions of dollars for nothing. Doubling down on variations of bad decisions to somehow save Afghanistan from itself is foolish - perhaps criminal. Michael Yon is right - it is time to depart Afghanistan. In addition, it is time to abandon the idea we can save the world for democracy and stop these endless adventures in the Muslim world and elsewhere.

Our strategy in Afghanistan has existed in clear form since 2005.

The Bush-Karzai Joint Declaration of the United States of America and Afghanistan on Strategic Partnership (23 May 2005)- e.g.,

That happens to be a binding Executive Agreement which is equivalent to a treaty.

The Obama Administration has not repudiated that strategy.

The strategy has three main headings: Democracy and Governance; Prosperity; Security.

Text on WH Letterhead at

Damned if each strategic sub point in that .pdf document doesn't have a $ sign in front of it (at least in my Adobe Reader X).

How would you all grade each subpoint as to its "success-failure" ?



Agree with the overall message Rebecca promotes in this short post, but take issue with a small, but important, point she makes in the last paragraph.

"But we can and should use our enduring presence as an opportunity – to ally with the Afghan population, understand its changing politics, and
ACT TO SUPPORT STABLE GOVERNANCE. If the fight was worth more than a decade’s investment of effort, surely it is worth a well-planned end: a drawdown in manpower without a drawdown in willpower."

The CAPs are mine to emphasize that comment. If the problem is the government, then we shouldn't step between the people and its government, but allow the people to determine who should govern, and then and only then assist the government. Downsizing our forces is right sizing if we're really doing COIN. With or without large numbers of NATO troops, we can't stop the trend if the people want change, at best we can only delay it by implementing control measures through force that are expensive to maintain, and shortly after we remove them the people will pursue their vision for "their" nation. If we want to them to be our friends, we have to help them enable that change, and quit insisting on the status quo which simply further angers the people.

Robert C. Jones

Mon, 02/27/2012 - 10:07am

In reply to by ceg1000

While SOF approaches are by design a "lighter footprint" than those of conventional forces, one must remember that this entire incident is a spin off of a major SOF operation built around night raids and the unilateral facility where intelligence is collected from those picked up in those operations. SOF can also do the wrong thing with incredible effectiveness due to their own misunderstanding of the nature of the conflict.

No, this is not about applying too much of the wrong force (though we have), nor is it about having a series of poorly conceived operational designs (though we've had those as well); this is about misframing the problem that brought us here in the first place leading to an odd concept of "sanctuary denial" that fails to recognize that AQ can find the sanctuary they require virtually anywhere. This was then compounded by the belief that we can still "make kings" and establish friendly despots under a writ of foreign legitimacy to represent our interests in places like Afghanistan as an effective tool of foreign policy. Such approaches are, IMO, obsolete.

Time to retire the playbooks of the past few centuries and craft a playbook for the century we live in now. Senior leaders and policy makers don't want to hear that, as it challenges the very foundation of their professional existence. When one is endlessly rich and powerful they can fritter around doing what they "like" to do, or what they "want" to do. For the rest of us, we have to get up every morning and focus on what we "need" to do. Fall down 7 times, stand up 8. By my count the US has merely stumnbled a couple times, so we are doing ok. But we can do much better.


Mon, 02/27/2012 - 7:20am

In reply to by gian gentile

I think you assume that we've been trying to ally with the Afghan population for the last ten years. If you listen to and swallow the Big Army and Marine Corps lie without question I guess you would fall into that trap.
It takes more than saying you are doing something for it to actually be reality. The results on the ground (if you are knowledgeable enough on how to read them) will point to the ground truth. I do not believe either organization (USA and USMC conventional forces) are manned, organized,trained, and led for this type of fight based on my observations in the last 6 years and the results in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I do not believe either organization is stupid, simply extremely ignorant and slow to adapt to this type of fight.
Further, I agree with your statement that we've never had a workable strategy. What do you expect when you have conventional army in an unconventional fight?

Bill M.

Sun, 02/26/2012 - 9:28pm

In reply to by gian gentile

We were posting near simultaneously, so I didn't see your post before I hit send on my comment above. I think you and Bob both miss the point, she wrote that downsizing will allow us (I will add force us) to adapt a "new" strategy.

Second, we have not been allying with the Afghan people for the past 10 years. That is a relatively new line of effort, previously we have been focused mostly on the inept Afghan government and building inept security forces. The PRTs and others attempted to extend governance, but the problem was it was tied to a bad government, and I would add those efforts rarely tied into any overall strategy other than the mindless clear, hold, and build mantra we push in our COIN doctrine. Mass forces, push into an area (allegedly clear it), build fire bases (but don't patrol too much, because that is dangerous), and then build civil infrastructure and the people will love the government and reject the enemy. Great theory, but one major flaw, it doesn't work.

Only in recent years have SF and to some extent the Marines really been focused on the population. The Marine strategy is too aggressive because they insist on one on one partnering to speed the transition, which as Rebecca correctly pointed out only slows progress.

gian gentile

Sun, 02/26/2012 - 8:28pm

Agree Bob,

also this sentence from the piece befuddled me:

"But we can and should use our enduring presence as an opportunity – to ally with the Afghan population, understand its changing politics, and act to support stable governance."

How do we ally with a population, have we not been trying that for the last 10 years? And so what if we understand the place's "changing politics." Is the author saying that we are stupid in that in the last ten years we have not? And for us to "act" to support a stable government, well shoot, have we not also been trying to do that for the last 10 years?

Bob is right, this is not a strategy, and we have never really had a workable one in Afghanistan. Michael Yon is right in his post on Prine's blog about what to do in Afghanistan.


Peter J. Munson

Sun, 02/26/2012 - 9:23pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

The choice of title was mine, not the author's. I don't believe she thinks that drawing down is a strategy, but she sees an opportunity for a meaningful strategic shift in the act of drawing down. The title was an attempt to capture that in a phrase.

Robert C. Jones

Sun, 02/26/2012 - 8:11pm

"Drawing Down" is no more a "strategy" than "the surge" was. Size matters, but it is not strategy.