Small Wars Journal

Bringing Real Life to American Strategy in Afghanistan

Sat, 03/03/2012 - 11:26am

Anthony Cordesman’s “Afghanistan: The Death of a Strategy” provides a realistic analysis of the US problem in AfPak. It points to a sensible conclusion. Unfortunately, the conclusion it actually offers is of the classic “nothing-left-to-do-but-continue-to-muddle-through” variety. That too is realistic, in the narrow sense that this is almost certainly what the US Government will attempt to do. Nonetheless, it hardly seems like a sensible prescription, given that the patient—i.e., our strategy—is “not only merely dead, it's really most sincerely dead.”

It might be more useful to recommend an actual change of strategy. Or, perhaps, to recommend that we change to an actual strategy.

The underlying problem for U.S. strategy in the AfPak region is that the culture of its populations is fundamentally antithetical to ours. There is no meaningful constituency there—i.e., no native socio-political structure that actually wields any power to decisively shape events—that wants to see the region’s society, politics, and values evolve in any manner remotely similar to the fantasy we have been pursuing. Virtually every political force or actor actually driven by its own internal interests and vision (vice a mere desire to live lazily off of naïve Western largesse) is, in every practical and ideological sense, the enemy of everything we stand for. Our AfPak FantasyLand Construct (APFLC) can therefore be pursued only through a permanent commitment of energy and resources that A) keeps the region continually inflamed against us and B) we clearly are unwilling and unable to sustain.

We continue to chase this fantasy only because our poisonous domestic partisanship makes any genuine change in strategy a potential suicide pill for the party proposing it. In the meantime, ironically, the American public recognizes, in its uniquely semiconscious way, what our policy community evidently cannot. Despite our stay-the-course bravado, we are de facto changing our strategy, as Cordesman acknowledges. Unfortunately, we are doing so in an utterly incoherent manner driven by the electorate’s war weariness and the nation’s broken budget.

The correct strategy begins with calling a referendum in Afghanistan asking the Afghan people (a useful but essentially nonsensical term) whether they want us to remain or go. Once the “Go!” vote is in, we will demonstrate our deep respect for the Afghan people and our affectingly genuine commitment to democratic processes by leaving—lock, stock, and barrels of money. And take any genuine Afghan allies home with us. Who can complain about that?

The only real danger to this approach is that Afghan leaders and voters might suddenly wake up and recognize that the gravy-train is actually serious about leaving the station. Therefore the question must be artfully posed in such a manner as to guarantee a resounding endorsement of American withdrawal. It’s easy to envision us muffing it through clumsy word-smithing and our usual counter-productive propaganda efforts. One must of course concede the possibility, however unlikely, that Afghan voters will instead beg us to stay. If you agree that we would have a moral obligation to do that, then surely you will agree we also have a moral obligation to ask their opinion on the matter.

As a result of U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Pakistan will lose its ability to blackmail us by holding hostage our supply routes, leaving us free to treat it as the hostile state it is. (Insofar as it is a state at all.) Thus Pakistan will at last achieve its self-fulfilling nightmare of creating a solid Indo-American alliance against itself. Accomplished con-men that they are, Pakistanis who harbored bin Laden for years will whine bitterly that we are once again “abandoning” them. Experienced American victims of that con will reject this—the logic of the man who murders his parents, then claims the sympathy due an orphan.

But wait! Pakistan is a nuclear-weapons state. We must therefore remain closely allied so that we can offend them daily, face-to-face, with the presence of our infidel advisors and trainers. In real life, however, the fact is that we have a long history of dealing successfully with hostile nuclear-weapons states. (We will soon be gaining even more such experience by dealing successfully with a nuclear-armed Iran.) In such cases, good fences make for better neighbors.

The Pakistanis will also continue to meddle mercilessly in Afghanistan. That country will no doubt serve as the same bleeding sore for them that it has for us. Bereft of non-Muslim foreigners to sustain the flames of jihad, it’s just barely possible that the Afghans will finally succumb to exhaustion and make peace among themselves—if only to free up energy to wage war against Pakistani imperialism. More probably, all sorts of bad things will happen there, mostly done by Afghans to other Afghans.

True, when not too busy butchering each other, some players in Afghanistan may attempt to harm the United States. Such efforts will be unpopular among those parties who have learned that “waking the sleeping giant” is more trouble than it’s worth and seriously distracts from the struggle against “near enemies.” Fortunately, the United States has dropped the clueless strategic nudism that permitted 9/11. We have spent the last decade learning pretty well how to defend ourselves from people whose arsenal consists largely of painfully under-performing underwear bombs and violently defective Xerox toner cartridges. We will continue to kill those elements at every opportunity while getting on with our lives.

The most insidious objection to realism in the AfPak region comes from those ready to label it a “cut-and-run” strategy. This is the kind of logic that leads some folks to sleep with an unattractive date for fear of being labeled gay. Not that there’s anything wrong with that (as Seinfeld noted), but it’s not much basis for an enduring relationship. Far from being horrified at America's wanton abandonment of its faithful Afghan protegé, our real allies will heave a sigh of relief that their American protectors are capable of some common sense after all.

One has to expect politicians—elected, bureaucratic, and uniformed—to be decisively swayed by the short-term logic of the orphaned parricide and the “steady-as-she-sinks” cruise-boat captain. True national strategists (if such an animal really exists) need to think long-term. Our invasion of Afghanistan was fully justified and our experiment there has not necessarily failed. We simply need a longer perspective. Twenty or thirty years from now, a generation of Afghans will remember how much better life was when the Americans were there. At that point, they may seek to integrate themselves into the civilized world. We will respond by trying, once again, to locate Afghanistan on a map. 

Categories: strategy - Pakistan - COIN - Afghanistan

About the Author(s)

Christopher Bassford is Professor of Strategy at the National War College in Washington, DC. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.



Fri, 03/09/2012 - 1:21pm

In reply to by Bill M.

Agreed on the multi-national collaboration between various agencies. What concerns me, perhaps needlessly, is that many people don't see that because it is a bit complicated and often not that sexy and action packed. What I fear they see is spec ops conquers all and does it in a cinematic way. I think that is one reason among others we keep insist on continuing the night raids in Afghanistan.

I don't think Afghanistan can be saved from Taliban & Co and violent chaos now. There won't be a sudden dramatic change of moral character amongst the inside the beltway elites. I think it could have been saved, emphasis on the past tense. One reason it wasn't doesn't really have anything to do with strategy, it has to do with a series of lousy stupid decisions and actions that continued over an entire decade regardless of outcome.

There was no way we could avoid kicking Taliban out of Afghanistan entirely back then. They would not give up AQ. I don't see how we could have just beat them up a little and let them maintain control of the country. When Taliban was gone, we told the Afghans, most of whom were quite happy to see Taliban go, that we would stick by them and help them out. We broke our word intentionally, and unintentionally through sheer unbelievable incompetence.

The Army has a habit of learning and adapting slowly now. It didn't in the past, compelling need or no. If you look at what it did from 1812 on it went from constabulary work and insurgency to invading countries to constabulary work and insurgency to all out civil war to constabulary work and insurgency to conquering places an ocean away and doing more small wars to all out industrial war etc. That Army adapted pretty well and quite fast repeatedly, big existential war or small war. Then after WWII things seemed to change. Now we are at a point where after 10 years in Afghanistan we are almost as screwed up as ever. We have an ossified system that is hugely resistant to change, won't change. I have little confidence that a system that mostly failed to adapt over the past 50 or so years will suddenly become the adaptable system it was 70 years and more ago.

If the Army, or all of big military, had a clear goal, I fear it wouldn't make any difference because rigid and incapable of real change is a fundamental characteristic. I hope we aren't in a place the Prussians were after the death of Frederick. They did great and then hung out until Napoleon came and they got their clocks cleaned. Then they decided to reform. We haven't hung around but we haven't allowed that to get in the way of not adapting effectively.

Bill M.

Fri, 03/09/2012 - 12:16pm

In reply to by carl


Thanks for the clarification, now a quick attempt to address some of your questions.

It really doesn't matter what percentage of disruptions were conducted by intelligence, law enforcment and the military. I suspect the bulk of the credit belongs to law enforcement, but the reality since 9/11 is that a lot of these operations are enabled by the collaboration of all three. Military captures a terrorist, intelligence interrogates him and shares relevant information with law enforcement, which opens an investigation, which results in a terrorist cell getting rolled up. That is just one example.

Your argument about the importance of preventing Afghanistan from falling back into the hands of the Taliban to me appears to be more emotional than rational. Remember no Afghans attacked the U.S. on 9/11. The Taliban was definitely not likable, but they were not our enemy, but they did provide sanctuary to Al Qaeda, and for that reason we had the right (in my opinion) to use military force to go after AQ and anyone providing sanctuary to them. That limited objective was fine, it is when we took it upon ourselves to expand the mission to "liberate" Afghanistan from the Taliban that we broke our compass and now are drifting aimlessly. In order to justify the quagmire our public relations conflate this effort with the war on the terror. I suspect you're right that the Afghan people will suffer more (they're suffering now) when the coalition downsizes, and since they're not stupid this is one reason they're not on board with our grand vision for a better world. The debate now isn't tied to strategy, it is tied to what we believe to be morally right and is shaped more by emotion than rational thought.

There is no excuse for us giving Pakistan a pass on their behavior, but of course you'll find hundreds of them in the media. As for learning slowly, the Army has a habit of learning and adapting slowly when there isn't a compelling need to adapt. Our initial efforts in WWII were marked by serious errors and failures in leadership, but due to the levity of the threat and leadership from the President down committed to winning the war people were fired, and the right people were put in leadership positions who forced rapid adapation. The only folks getting fired today are those who speak out like the COL who criticized the waste of manpower in the ISAF staff producing meaningless powerpoint slides day after day that was completely disconnected from the fight.

If we had a clear goal, and buy in from the national leadership (even if it is nation building), and we put the right people in place we would adapt quickly. The current system encourages conformity, not change.


Fri, 03/09/2012 - 11:45am

In reply to by Bill M.

Bill M.: I can see how you figure I was illogical and will try to be more precise.

My comment applied to the kill/capture campaign as run in Afghanistan.

Various operations to prevent further 9-11 attacks on the US have been successful. The questions for me regarding those are, how many occurred in Afghanistan and how many were actually stopped by spec ops vs. the number actually stopped by the intelligence work combined with police work done by numerous countries around the world? I don't expect to ever know but somebody somewhere should have an idea and consider that.

I don't know if I have conflated destruction of AQ with nation building. In my mind I have not. I do think it important to prevent Afghanistan from falling to Taliban & Co to prevent the status quo ante belleum from returning but am not as sure about that as I once was, at least as that applies to AQ. I still feel as strongly that if Taliban & Co return the suffering of the Afghans won't be lessened and will probably be increased.

I disagree that we could not have prevented the situation that exists now- Taliban & Co on the verge of victory and us on the verge of getting chased/bugging out leaving the country in as big a mess as when we arrived-from happening. We could have. We could have long ago recognized that the Pak Army/ISI was the enemy, long ago decided not build mega-bases, changed convoy procedures long before we did, long ago decided that night raids were helping Taliban & Co not us, long ago put the squeeze on Karzai and the other kleptocrats etc etc etc. We could have done all of that but we didn't. The decisions that should have been made but weren't didn't have anything to do with nation building and had everything to do with looking at a situation and doing what was sensible. Nation building or no, the things we persisted in doing were stupid regardless of our strategy or lack thereof.

Bill M.

Fri, 03/09/2012 - 1:05am

In reply to by carl


Your comments are out of character and illogical. The course of the conflict in Afghanistan is largely irrelevant, we went to Afghanistan to seek justice for the 9/11 attacks. Subsequent operations under the then Global War on Terrorism were meant to be focused on Al Qaeda and its friends, with the highest priority going against disrupting attacks against the homeland. The intelligence types and special operations types have done a very good job of doing that. Some advisors subsequently convinced the Bush administration that the only way we could win decisively was to nation build and transform the culture of these outlier nations. Obviously that hasn't worked out, and now many like yourself have conflated the effort to protect the homeland and our allies from terrorist attacks and defeating AQ with nation building. I agree that our raids in support of "that" mission are not accomplishing much, and may be making the situation worse, but that gets the complete lack of logic in our strategy to begin with.


Thu, 03/08/2012 - 2:22pm

In reply to by av8trr911

From my forever a civilian, never been to Afghanistan point of view, kill/capture is a feel good program that produces lots of impressive numbers for power point presentations. Since it appears to have no influence on the course of the conflict, it seems its primary purpose is to provide adventure for spec ops, something interesting to do for intel types and give the inside the beltway elites the warm and fuzzys when they look a all those impressive numbers. Continuing the program that all the Afghans seem to hate more than any other is nuts.


Thu, 03/08/2012 - 2:06pm

As a participant ,Afghan,Pak,Iraq adventures since 2006 your article makes emminent sense.Afghanistan and its people are voting as evidenced by ongoing fraticide,opium trade,complete corruption and ineptitude of coruptocracy in power."Country" is/was a mistake of history and we/USA has more pressing engagements both domestically and abroad.If you paint a turd gold,it remains a turd and the paint has begun to peel.Continue kill/capture programs ,rest is a farce.

Bill C.

Wed, 03/07/2012 - 4:16pm

In reply to by Bill C.

Let me clean-up that "bottom line" paragraph a little bit:

Thus, the bottom line:

a. We cannot "reach" (convince/compel) the populations of the AFPAK region via our culture and

b. We cannot "reach" (convince/compel) the populations of the AFPAK region via the capabilities of our army.

Thus, our strategy (or should I simply say our ambition) would seem to have no "legs" on which it might stand.

Shinobi No Mono

Wed, 03/07/2012 - 3:26pm

In reply to by Bill C.

Check your premises. Just because Stalin said something doesn't mean it's true. This is an "argument from authority" and is a common logical fallacy in the liberal arts, particularly in education. (INSERT REVERED TEXTBOOK AUTHOR HERE) said that (INSERT CRACKPOT ASSERTION HERE) therefore (INSERT ERRONEOUS CONCLUSION HERE).
"Whoever occupies a territory also imposes on it his own social system as far as his army can reach. It cannot be otherwise." is a hypothesis and can be tested by the scientific method. Either it is true, or it is false, no matter who said it. NATO successfully occupied Bosnia without imposing our own social system on it, and it was much more successful than the Stalinist occupation of Afghanistan. All it takes is one counter-example to prove a hypothesis false.

From the author: "The underlying problem for U.S. strategy in the AFPAK region is that the culture of its populations is fundamentally antithetical to ours."

From Stalin: "Whoever occupies a territory also imposes on it his own social system as far as his army can reach. It cannot be otherwise."

Thus, the bottom line:

a. We are cannot "reach" the populations of the AFPAK region via our culture and

b. We are cannot reach (in any meaningful sense) the populations of the AFPAK region via our army.

Thus, our strategy (or should I simply say our ambition) has no "legs" (to wit: neither the appeal of our culture nor the capabilities of our army) on which it might stand.


Wed, 03/07/2012 - 11:09am

As someone who does fear that things will get worse for Pakistanis when "Pakistan" wins ( I am clinging to the hope that naked self-interest may provide a very tiny window of opportunity to actually focus minds in Pakistan before things go downhill more decisively.
There were three factors preventing such focus: 1. The impression that the Western world is about to collapse economically (believe me, this was seriously believed/is seriously believed by many senior "strategic geniuses").
2. The impression that Uncle Chin will be ten times more generous and understanding than Uncle Sam.
3. Serious stupidity that made 1 and 2 possible.
My thought is this: the geniuses are not deep thinkers. Beliefs 1 and 2 can be changed (probably not by that woman who used to sell Uncle Ben's rice and whom Bush selected to sell American greatness to the unwashed Muslim masses). Number 3 makes it harder, but not impossible. Diplomats who know what they are trying to do can change minds about 1 and 2.
Diplomats who know what they are doing.
As you can see, I am clutching at straws.


Sat, 03/10/2012 - 4:05pm

In reply to by Mark O'Neill

I don't know how much lunch-box soldiering in 19th century Melbourne helped command a Corps of 200,000 men (eventually including two divisions of Doughboys!) but Monash's full-time job building railways, bridges and docks in Melbourne was the key difference he enjoyed over the thousands of Generals on both sides of the Western Front. I dare say every last one of them had endured decades of Clausewitz,Jomini and Von Moltke being professionally drummed into their heads.

Perhaps they did not have Monash's unnatural intellect but most of them were intelligent men who had inflicted unbelievable slaughter on each other's armies without a single decisive victory in 4 years of war.

Monash designed, trained and deployed a 200,000 manned state-of-the-art wrecking ball which he was able to manoeuvre at will and demolish any defensive position that got in it's path.

Interestingly it was probably Lundendorf's Clausewitzian mindset that told him the Battle at Amiens represented a strategic breakthrough in every sense; and as such any operational or tactical response was pointless.


Mark O'Neill

Thu, 03/08/2012 - 6:08pm

In reply to by RandCorp

I think that your point about the advantages of being trained in both the liberal arts and sciences is spot on.

However, the 'no military service' idea for Monash is more than a bit wide of the mark. By the time that the first AIF was raised in 1914, Monash had 27 years service in the Militia. He had been made a Brigade Commander in 1912. Noting that the Australian Army was not formed until 1 March 1901, there were not a great deal of 'professional' Australian born Army officers anywhere in 1914. Which, upon reflection, makes the achievements of the 1st AIF (and Monash) seem quite remarkable.

I am not sure about your observation 'a good strategist needs as much good technology input as he can'. Perhaps if one takes a very Jominian view of what strategy is, one can ascribe to that. But if you favour Von Moltke or, more contemporaenously, someone like Colin Gray, the technology side (how) is perhaps not as important as the 'why' .




Thu, 03/08/2012 - 4:27am

In reply to by Mark O'Neill

'Troll' is a bit harsh. General Monash would no doubt recognize the argument Shinobi is presenting here and you'd have to admit there is a great deal of 'Art of War' commentary on this site. Nothing wrong with that but a good strategist needs as much good technology input as he can get - even if it only gives the insight as to what is a piece of junk. Monash had the unfair advantage of a Law degree as well as an Engineering one and no military background whatsoever.

Mark O'Neill

Wed, 03/07/2012 - 5:22pm

In reply to by Shinobi No Mono

OK Mate , so you are a troll, and a not particularly nuanced one.

Being a liberal arts scholar or scientist or engineer are not mutually exclusive.

Though you might want to watch out, bigotry is ignorance, and ignorance is , well, quite unscientific...

The point I was making about strategists was when they get their job right, we do not need MRAPs...

And thanks for the gratuituous point about decades of war. I had noticed while going about my work for the last three decades.

Feel free to come out from behind the nom de plume. Helps people understand who you are and where you are coming from. You know, the credibility thing.

Shinobi No Mono

Wed, 03/07/2012 - 12:19pm

In reply to by Mark O'Neill

The real strategists have made the engineers' products unnecessary? Maybe in your alternate dimension; here in the fourth dimension we've been at war for decades, secular Middle Eastern governments are falling one by one to Muslim fundamentalists, the price of oil is sky-rocketing, Western governments are going bankrupt...

Meanwhile our computers and smart phones work just fine. Life expectancy is longer than ever thanks to scientific medicine. Food is bountiful thanks to agricultural machinery, fertilizers, pesticides, and genetic engineering.

Mark O'Neill

Tue, 03/06/2012 - 4:21pm

In reply to by Shinobi No Mono

Not sure what the point of the rant here is.

Clausewitz was all for 'reality':Quote.‘the primary purpose of any theory is to clarify concepts and ideas that have become, as it were, confused and entangled.' Unquote.

And he was, quite obviously, 'anti' dodgy theorists: Quote. Perhaps it would not be impossible to write a systematic theory of war, full of intelligence and substance; but the theories we presently possess are very different. Quite apart from their unscientific spirit, they try so hard to make their systems and coherent and complete that they are stuffed with commonplaces, truisms, and nonsense of every kind. Unquote

And to your final question, what is it that strategists give us?

Real strategists make the 'dependable'(MRAPs...really????) products given to us by engineers unnecessary.....



Shinobi No Mono

Tue, 03/06/2012 - 11:36am

Mr. Bassford was prescient in calling his article "Bringing Real Life to American Strategy in Afghanistan", because the commenters have replied with a bunch of artificial imaginary cognitive schema like "Mearsheimers and Baceviches and Bassfords" and arguments about how our AfPak strategy isn't Clausewitzian enough. Instead of seeing the situation as it is, you attempt to make it into some artificial construct you learned from your crackpot unscientific professors in school. Perhaps the problem American strategists have is too much liberal arts education and not enough "real life". Real life obeys only the laws of physics, maybe that's what you should be studying. But physics involves math, and math is hard, best left to those socially inept engineers who don't know "how to think" eh? Isn't that the mantra? So while the engineers dependably give us UAVs and MRAPs that work every time, you all give us...what is it you give us again?

How dare the Afghans not have an easily defined center of gravity for us to attack! How dare they not have a large central government that controls their every action from how many guns they can have, to how much sugar they can eat. How dare they look to Imams for moral guidance instead of Ivy League secular humanists.

Vitesse et Puissance

Mon, 03/05/2012 - 1:31pm

Two comments here:

First - this piece ought to find a place as an exhibit in my historical collection on the death of power realism as a meaningful school of international politics and policy. To the Mearsheimers and Baceviches and Bassfords of the academic world - a plague on all your houses ! You are blind guides, and no true followers of Kissinger or H. Morgenthau, to say nothing of Clausewitz. Every one of you has gone soft, under the pressure of public opinion, the very thing that power realism forewears. You might as well all be Kantians.

Secondly, I think you will find in Clausewitz's letters and small articles a much nuanced understanding of civil conflict. In Peter Paret's wonderful compendium, "Carl Von Clausewitz: Historical and Political Writings" one finds Clausewitz dealing - in time of peace - with local populations in the Rhineland and in Poland - populations inimical to the values and interests of the Prussian monarchy that Clausewitz served. So indeed, towards the end of his life on the Polish border - not for his participation in the post-1806 Prussian Reforms, not for his role in the Convention of Tauroggen, not for his actions at Waterloo, and not for his long tenure with the Kriegsacademie that Clausewitz finally found the recognition from his king that he craved and was for so long denied. An exercise, one might say, of "smart power".

If we apply the Clausewitzian measure of success, therefore, this discussion is not worthy of its contributors. By equating realism and rationality with the most craven impulses of American foreign and national security policy, the proponents of "traditional" strategy make it completely useless for any policy goal other than the mere defense of US territory - in a world in which political boundaries are becoming ever more irrelevant. Clausewitz recognized the lack of affinity of Rhinelanders and Poles for the Prussian government - WITHOUT conceding the legitimacy of Prussians claims or Prussia's national interest. In the final analysis, it DID NOT MATTER what the locals thought or felt. One way or the other, they would have to yield - until a latter time, when the conflict would erupt again - as it did tragically in 20th century Poland, less so in the Rhineland. (That said, one of my favorite historical works is David Blacbourn's "Marpingen: Apparitions of the Virgin Mary in Nineteenth-Century Germany" which describes the plight of the Catholic Rhinelanders subjected to Bismarkian Prussia's Kulturkampf.)

In a sense, we are in fact committed to Kulturkampf, whether we like it or not. Now the Afghan peasant, with his donkey and wife in a burkha is hardly a threat to our national existence. But the continued repression of civil and religious rights across the Islamic world is no matter of indifference, especially when the oppressors wield the most advanced weapons, and show no scruples towards the use of violence from the least to the most advanced forms, in complete disregard for the laws of armed conflict. You need a reason to fight ? There it is. The tension that Clausewitz poses is that his work is not quite "pure reason". Passion is part of the subject he studies, and passion is not irrelevant to the matter at hand. Without consideration of passion, "On War" would be a very different sort of work.

Bill C.

Mon, 03/05/2012 - 9:42am

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

"... our failure to understand AQ for the movement that it has always been; leveraging nationalist insurgency energy from dozens of populaces that all share a common belief that US foreign policy in the Middle East is an obstacle to populaces of the Middle East getting better forms of governance in their own respective country."

Is it not as likely, or indeed more likely, that what concerns these populaces presently and what has concerned them for years (and what moves them toward AQ accordingly) is the commonly-held belief that US foreign policy in the Middle East is -- and has been -- directed toward transforming these states and societies along western lines.

Herein, these populaces are dissatisfied with this prospect and disgusted with the knowledge that their respective governments are being used by the United States to achieve this (from their point-of-view) odious purpose.

(The United States, for its part, also being dissatisfied with these governments because we believe that they are not doing this "transformation to the western system" job as quickly and efficiently as is required.)

Thus, the issue which causes the population to seek to overthrow their standing government -- and which causes them to be vulnerable to the call of AQ accordingly -- specifically being that the "better" political, economic and social systems that we seek to impose on these populations, via their (understandably reluctant) standing governments (or, lacking cooperative governments, via our armed forces); these are not necessarily the "better" political, economic and social systems that many of these populations desire?

Bill C.

Tue, 03/06/2012 - 10:39am

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

As an example or as a/the case-in-point: The strained relationship between:

a. Those governments who are determined to transform states and societies along western lines and

b. Those population groups who disagree with this decision/course-of-action?

Herein, these governments taking the side of those population groups who desire the transformation of states and societies along western lines -- and acting against the interests and wishes of those population groups who want to retain the status quo or achieve more culturally-familiar ordering models.

(Note that I have intentially framed this issue as an international rather than as a local problem because, as the fact of international terrorism and 9/11 seems to suggest, that may be what it is.)

Robert C. Jones

Tue, 03/06/2012 - 5:53am

In reply to by Bill M.


Nice post, and a lot of important thoughts there. If asked a few years ago I would have argued that yes, "the populace" is the COG. Primarily because the official US position at that time was that "the ideology" was the COG; a point I continue to disagree with very much.

If asked now, I would take a more holistic approach, but also recognizing that Clausewitz barely mentioned COG in his works, and certainly he has no patent on the only way to think about such constructs. So, for those who excessively adhere to what they believe Clausewitz meant, or equally to what the Joint Pub says, I simply suggest, "relax". This is the art of war, and there is no right answer, but some are indeed more helpful than others.

It is not really about "the populace" or "the government," but rather about the nature of the relationship between some distinct elements of the populace and the governments that they believe to negatively impact their lives. That can be domestically (driving insurgency) or foreign (driving transnational terrorism). It is a fair debate as to what pushes such populace groups to act out. Certainly it is a mix of how they feel about such governments and how motivated they are through the application of dynamic leadership and some cohesive ideology. One must address the whole.

But at the end of the day, these are civil issues. Matters of domestic and foreign policies and the nature of the relationships between distinct populace groups and the governments that affect them. If COG analysis helps one get at such problems in a manner that brings stability, then by all means, do COG analysis. As often it simply serves to focus too much energy on a single part of the equation. That may serve to break the Prussian lines at Jena, but such focus might well be counter productive to developing or restoring strained relationships between governments and the people affected by their policies and actions.

Bill M.

Sun, 03/04/2012 - 4:56pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones


After following Dave’s advice and reading Antulio Echevarria’s essay on centers of gravity I think you are also falling into the COG trap to some degree, and indirectly promoting the COIN theory that the people are always the COG, which like any other proposed COG can be intellectually limiting. Overall I agree with your assessment of Afghanistan, but disagree with your comment about ideology. Definitions would be helpful, because it is my understanding that political movements are based on ideology, and in the case of AQ their political and religious ideology are one in the same. In that case the ideology is a central component of the movement, and poor governance you reference (among other factors you don’t address) is a condition that makes people receptive to the message. AQ only supports groups/movements with likeminded ideologies. They wouldn’t support the MEND (a non-Muslim movement) in Nigeria for example, but may support the Boko Haram.

One perspective that may be helpful is realizing that many young Americans fighting this war today were just kids during 9/11, and while it seems like it was yesterday to us it was more than 10 years ago. In Afghanistan most people were not even aware of the attacks, and the majority of resistance fighters now were probably too young to be aware of it even if they were globally aware. The war on terror rhetoric still exists in political circles, but for those fighting it has little to do with the WOT. The Afghans have a very different perspective on it. They see it as a struggle against another foreign occupation force, and because they use Islam to inspire their fighters we over simplify and conflate resistance with global terrorism.

As we have both suggested in hindsight, if we limited our post 9/11 response to a strategic raid to seek and kill AQ and those who defended them that would have been understandable by those in the region, and would have a message to the world that would have influenced other states to think twice before harboring AQ. Instead here we are 10 plus years later pursuing a strategy that really has little to do with defeating AQ, and most likely is delaying their ultimate defeat because as the author points out we’re inflaming the region against us.

Echevarria’s COG essay helpful, because he intelligently explained what I have been ranting incoherently about for years. First, the COG theory has never been seriously challenged, and it has been interpreted differently by each military service based on their view of war (based on their means and way of war). Second, the search for a COG in many, if not most, situations undermines intellectual creativity and limits the number of potential actions (I would add inaction also) we should consider. Third it artificially conflates critical vulnerabilities with COGs, when in reality they’re two separate operational concepts, with CVs having much more utility when separated from the COG concept. Fourth, searching for COGs is unnecessary and often counterproductive (yet is key component of our Joint Doctrine that our force is held hostage to despite claims to the contrary). I would add that once we identify (or create the myth) of a COG we marry it and until death to we part, to include the populace is the COG in COIN.

It appears that our strategists have identified two opposing COGs for Afghanistan, the first being the government and the second being the people, and both of these ignore the threat of transnational terrorism to the U.S.. Instead they’re tied to the fantasy of denying safehaven my transforming societies and building governments, which is extremely effective, doesn’t work, and it makes the problem worse by promoting anti-U.S. views due to our persistent interference in “their” internal affairs. Afghanistan was never was a physical center of gravity, it was just a place where senior AQ leaders resided, but the movement was not confined to Afghanistan. Furthermore, AQ didn’t enjoy mass support in Afghanistan, they were merely offered sanctuary based on relationships with the former Muj who fought against the Soviets. The detriment of continued pursuit of a fantasy based strategy is more strain on a fragile economy, generate more anger in the Muslim world, demonstrate U.S. inefficacy to the world which weakens our position a global leader, and focuses our efforts on a strategically unimportant country to the detriment of more important locations.

The bottom line is we cannot decisively defeat Islamic based terrorism since it is a cultural and ideology issue facilitated by a range of conditions. I suspect that Muslims will eventually reject this behavior over time, and there are some things we can do quietly (to include promoting, but not forcing, good governance) as their ideology, objectives, and strategy evolve. In the meantime we are obligated to find and neutralize those who seek to do our nation harm. That is a government responsibility, and in fact we have doing a fairly good job of it worldwide and could continue to do the same in Afghanistan without occupying it. Not everything is intelligence and drones, but good intelligence and drones have neutralized a number of real threats to the U.S. We’re spending billions in hope of denying safe haven in Afghanistan, which will work only if we continue to endlessly occupy the region. Meanwhile AQ is spreading it tentacles globally and important other security challenges are emerging around the globe. Instead of spending billions tilting against windmills, let’s spend millions on intelligence and special operations (to include other agencies) focused on neutralizing those who actually threaten us, improving our diplomacy, and developing a more realistic (humble) and interagency approach to helping other nations who are willing to improve governance do so.


Mon, 03/05/2012 - 10:35am

In reply to by Bill M.

Bill, I agree with all you said. If we are in the realm of fantasy, I would like to see WIKILEAKS get a massive dump of intercepts from a strangely anonymous source. These intercepts would all be of various high and low level Pak Army/ISI people discussing with each other how to kill more Americans using American money. We have those, years worth.

But short of our anointed leaders suddenly developing moral character and courage, I propose issuing rather a lot of visas and green cards to people who have helped us so they won't get murdered after we bug out. That is about the only way to salvage even a tiny bit of honor out of this. Of course we could keep hoping for a moral epiphany inside the beltway...

I responded to Mr. Jones as I did because I like a bit more precision in expression (even though I'm not as good at it as I would like to be). Saying "Afghan people" in the context used is a romantic fiction. It lets us off the hook for a decade worth of lousy and stupid actions by suggesting that the effort was doomed from the start. It wasn't. We blew it. I think it is important to acknowledge that we, by our conscious actions, failed.

Bill M.

Sun, 03/04/2012 - 10:25pm

In reply to by carl


More than the Pashtuns are tired of our presence, the constant combat operations, the long convoys, and assorted other behaviors that simply become increasingly bothersome over time to people trying to get on with their lives wears our welcome thin, despite our good intentions. Obviously we're foreign to them, and we're not assimilating well. We're a foreign body and naturally there is resistance to it. Of course you'll find those who benefit from our presence and they'll be given media time to support our fantasy.

Agree wholeheartedly the Afghan people are not homogenous, and some may lose when we leave, but the question is it worth the financial costs to sustain the fight for that reason? There is no right answer, only opinions, but we're not going to defeat the Taliban unless we deny them their safe haven and it doesn't appear we're prepared to do that. I think the officer that made the comment that only 1% of the Afghan Army is prepared to fight on its own after we leave exaggerated the problems, but it is safe to say that the bulk of their Army that we spent billions on is next to worthless (as much our fault as theirs). The Afghan government we tried to reform falls in the same category, again as much our fault as theirs because we refused to let the government fail and be replaced. If those are our two major efforts to get to an end game and they're failing and we're not changing strategy, what do you propose?

When the Soviets left the Muj continued to fight for a few more years to over throw the communist government the Soviets installed, and then terrible internal fighting broke out within Afghanistan that killed thousands. Pakistan sponsored Taliban came in and established control. At first they were welcomed (like we were), and then they over imposed themselves (like we did, but obviously in a much different way) and were dispised. We were initially welcomed as liberators by those in the Taliban controlled areas (the Taliban didn't control all of Afghanistan), but now not so much.

We don't know what is going to happen after we leave, but part of me would love to see an agreement in place with Afghanistan, that if Pakistan sponsors an attack on Afghanistan after we depart we agree to bomb appropriate targets within Pakistan to help defend Afghanistan. Of course this is unlikely to happen, but is fun to dream that we would actually attack a true state sponsor of terrorism, instead of giving them millions in aid and pretending they're our friends when everyday they're responsible for more and more dead ISAF members. I forgot, they have nukes, so we give them respect and then wonder why other rogue nations want to get nukes. It is madness, complete madness. Our founding fathers would string up the idiots responsible for this strategy.


Sun, 03/04/2012 - 7:23pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Not to fear, my bubble remains intact. It needs something sharp to burst it.

I am not sure I believe that many Afghans don't know who we are seeing as we have been there for over 10 years. And Taliban propaganda probably, I am not sure, but probably doesn't say much about kicking the Russians out and probably does say a lot about kicking the Americans and their buddies out. If they haven't heard of our presence because of what we say, they know because of what the Taliban says.

Nor do I buy that most Afghans are apolitical. I suspect they are extremely acute politically at all levels but perhaps more active on a local to regional level rather than a national one. They have to be since who gets to cultivate that field or use that section of woods is decided through local politics and all the jockeying for position that goes with it. That belief that the simple farmer folk know little and care less about politics is a western conceit that is left over from the Vietnam war. Somehow because people don't have cable news and internet access they aren't interested in politics is bunk. They are interested in politics because they are people and people are interested in politics. I suspect there are many more interested in politics than not or who would be doing the insurgency or opposing it for that matter?

I believe the Hazaras, the Uzbeks, the Tajiks and the Pashtuns who oppose Taliban & Co. are all Afghan people. Unless you have decided that they are not Afghans, it is incorrect to say the "Afghan people" have been doing insurgency. From what I've read the Afghan people in the north are rumored to be preparing to violently resist Taliban & Co once we bug out. That indicates that the "Afghan people" are not doing insurgency, a segment of them are.

You often speak of the Afghan people as being some kind of homogenous (sic) group with a unified political outlook and set of goals. That is just not true and never has been.

I have a question. I gather that you think Taliban resistance to "Northern Alliance" presence in Pashtun areas something that is legitimately resisted. Fair enough. After we bug out if Taliban & Co attempt to take the areas from which the "Northern Alliance" originates, would resistance to that be legitimate?

Robert C. Jones

Sun, 03/04/2012 - 3:11pm

In reply to by carl


Not to burst your bubble, but most Afghans don't care why we are there, only that we are there. Many don't even know who we are and assume we are Russians as we work with the same crowd the Russians worked with in large part. Most Afghans are largely apolitical and self-governing, and prefer to simply to be left largely alone to live their lives as they have for centuries. It is a classic resistance within Afghanistan, not just against us, but also against Northern Alliance presence in Pashtun areas as well. The revolutionary aspect of the insurgency is the key to overall stability, and those leaders are the ones taking sanctuary in Pakistan and largely untouched by our counter-resistance efforts in Afghanistan proper.

While people are quoting Clausewitz, (who while a go to guy for insights on war, is not much help for insights on the internal political turmoil that defines revolutionary insurgency); it is most important to know what kind of war one is in. We have never gotten that first step right as it conflicts with our self image and the understanding of AQ that we have applied to date.


Sun, 03/04/2012 - 1:15pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Why do you say the "Afghan people" have been waging a resistance insurgency? Taliban & Co. are mostly Pashtun and the leadership is mostly Pahstun. They are strongest in areas where there are a lot of Pashtuns and even in those areas they have had to use quite a bit of terror to maintain support. A lot Afghans seem to dislike Taliban & Co. and have actively fought against them. It is misrepresentation of the situation to say that the "Afghan people" have been waging doing insurgency.

And you use the fact that the anti-Taliban Afghans have been supported by the US as something to discredit them; yet Taliban & Co. are absolutely dependent upon the Pak Army/ISI for their survival and success and you don't seem to find that discreditable. That seems inconsistant.

Robert C. Jones

Sun, 03/04/2012 - 6:43am


Why do you recommend we "ask the Afghan People"? This is a question for the American people. The Afghan people have already answered with the long, durable resistance insurgency they have been waging against our presence in their homeland since about the time we started working to convert the Northern Alliance into a "Made in the USA (and sustained by the US military)" formal, national government.

Agreed our strategy from the start has been illogical; with illogical and unattainable ends, inappropriate ways, and an ever increasing volume of means in a desperate effort to make this broken strategic equation somehow balance out. This, in many ways, is a mirror of our foreign policy as a whole for the past 15-20 years. Ways rooted in our fantasy of what the post Cold War world was all about, pursued in a manner based in our Cold War lessons learned; and ever increasing means poured into the hopper in an equally desperate effort to make the equation balance out until here we are. Keeping our military at war in an effort to keep our nation at peace. What better metric that one's strategy is broken?

Much of our rationale to race down this dead-end path in Afghanistan has been due to our failure to understand AQ for the political movement that it has always been; leveraging nationalist insurgent energy from dozens of populaces that all share a common belief that US foreign policy in the Middle East is an obstacle to populaces of the Middle East getting to better forms of governance in each of their own respective countries. Never about ideology, it has always been about empowered and evolving populaces seeking more control over their respective destinies. Also this has been about our inability to move past tired cliché’s regarding insurgency. We believe we can somehow "deny" a physical sanctuary in AFPAK to AQ and have a significant effect on a global, networked, adaptive system tied to no state and linked to every people. AQ Sanctuary in the FATA and across AFPAK comes from the people, not the terrain, and it comes from the same people who support the Taliban movement. Yet we attack the very people who hold the keys to our primary purpose for being there.

There are many "Experts" on insurgency, ideology, terrorism, and warfare who have led us to this place. Each guards their mistakes jealously and rationalizes that to come to smarter perspectives would be to "admit that terrorism works." Getting smarter is not recognizing the success of one's opponent. Getting smarter is recognizing the failure of one's self.

Each, apparently, is an equally bitter pill to swallow.

Well, said, well written, and should be emblazoned in letters of fire across the wall of every office and conference room in the DC area. Possibly tattooed on a few foreheads as well, in case somebody fails to notice.

I hope it reaches a wider audience, and that somebody pays attention.

Bill M.

Sat, 03/03/2012 - 5:59pm

In reply to by Dave Maxwell

I was running off to work out and should have reviewed my above post more carefully, I intended to add that the author's description of why it is so hard to change the strategy (because strategy tied to political posturing)is correct. All the politicians, and the senior officers that support the lack of strategy, have to do is find cheer leaders like Nagl, Friedman, Boot, etc. to circulate among the talk shows and publish popular books that misrepresent the truth, but clearly support a political agenda. Fortunately, and better late than never, the American people are waking up to the reality they have been misled.

I'll gladly look up the author's article on COG's, it will be refreshing to see an alternative view. We currently use COGs to the extreme to shape our strategy and plans, and all too often get them wrong.

Dave Maxwell

Sat, 03/03/2012 - 1:41pm

In reply to by Bill M.


I thought you might respond. But those who study Clausewitz do not blindly follow him. I would also call your attention to another great Clausewitzian scholar, Antulio Echevarria and his essay on Infinity Journal and how centers of gravity have been misused and misunderstood. You really should read it. And it is not an exaggeration to say Chris' essay is a good example of using Clausewitzian thought for critical analysis of strategy. But I do agree with you in that anyone who does blindly try to apply Clausewitz as some kind of doctrine instead of what he intended (both for himself to try to understand the nature of war and conflict) and for the rest of us ON War as a tool to develop critical thinking and ultimately coup d'oeil) is plain wrong. But as you note few really study and understand.

It is an exaggeration to drag Clausewitz into this discussion, but I suppose love is blind and those who love Clausewitz will see him everywhere. As an occasional Carl basher, or more accurately challenging those who embrace his ideas blindly, it seems to me that our interpretation of his thoughts on centers of gravity and massing forces against those COGs is at least partly what has facilitated the development of the poor excuse of a strategy we have for Afghanistan.
The author’s point about our AfPak fantasy vision and associated strategy that keeps the region inflamed against us is locked in stone due to our domestic partisanship making any genuine change in strategy political suicide. While our military leaders certainly had a role in this ill-conceived strategy, they were given an unrealistic mission based on political rhetoric and idealistic views promoted by self-serving populous authors like Friedman and Boot.
Most Americans work hard to make a living and don’t have time to develop an informed understanding of the situation, so their initial perceptions are shaped by simple political rhetorical sound bites in the media that our politicians promote. The scenarios are over simplified and sound bites are developed to facilitate political competition between the two parties, and have little to do with reality or what is best for America. It started off with you are either with us or against us, then we were fighting the forces of evil, and then the Afghans and Iraqis want to be like us, so we’re liberating them and helping them build free nations where women and kids have more opportunity, and the rhetoric just keeps coming.
The author is right, especially in an election year, that any honest discussion of what is best for the U.S. is political suicide, but fortunately the American people are waking up and realize that challenging a non-functional strategy is actually patriotic supports the troops. It isn’t “cut and run”, it is about determining the way forward that promotes U.S. interests, and not getting bogged down by pride. We got it wrong, and there is nothing wrong with that, as long as we as recognize it and have the moral courage to adjust. We can’t honestly discuss strategy unless our politicians have the moral courage focus on what is right for the country, which means being willing to weather the unreasoned attacks from the left and right that will come with this reexamination of our strategy.

Dave Maxwell

Sat, 03/03/2012 - 12:02pm

Thanks to SWJ for publishing this. Only one of America's great Clausewitzian scholars could have written such a piece! I think he has touched on key major points in Book One, Chapter One with insight and wit not usually found in writings on strategy and without mentioning those points or Clausewitz directly (so as not to incite the Clausewitz bashers who have never really studied him anyway!!) (and who else could include a Seinfeld reference when talking about strategy!) Thanks, Chris.