Small Wars Journal

After the Afghan Surge: Rapid Exit or Better Peace?

Tue, 07/15/2014 - 11:00am

After the Afghan Surge: Rapid Exit or Better Peace?

Joseph J. Collins

In his first year in office, President Obama inherited a war in Afghanistan on the brink of failure. Afghan and coalition forces were inadequate, and the reinvigorated Taliban was making gains on and off the battlefield against the troubled Karzai government.  In December 2009, after months of deliberation, the President announced at West Point his intention to surge US military forces and civilians to Afghanistan, and to build up the Afghan Army and police with all deliberate speed. 

When he entered office, allied troop strength in Afghanistan was at 68,000, and less than 60 percent of that was American. After the Obama Administration’s two troop increases, at the height of the Surge, US troop strength rose to nearly 100,000 and total coalition strength to 140,000 uniformed personnel.  The average annual US expenditures for Afghanistan went from 48 billion dollars (2007-09) to 109 billion dollars (2010-12).[i]  Much to the surprise of some of his advisors, the President restricted the time period of the Surge, decreeing an arbitrary start to the drawdown in the summer of 2011.  American generals who thought that they could talk the President into extending the Surge were sadly mistaken.[ii]

On May 27, 2014, the President, holding to his 2009 schedule, announced the end of the Surge in Afghanistan. Beginning in January 2015, he described the new tasks of what will be called Operation Resolute Support as “training Afghan forces and supporting counterterrorism operations against the remnants of al Qaeda.”[iii]  The President noted his desire to turn over a new leaf:  “In addition to bringing our troops home, this new chapter in American foreign policy will allow us to redirect some of the resources saved by ending these wars to respond more nimbly to the changing threat of terrorism, while addressing a broader set of priorities around the globe.”[iv]

Today, less than 30,000 US combat troops remain in Afghanistan.  By December 2014, assuming agreement with Afghanistan on the long-delayed Bilateral Security Agreement, the Obama administration will reduce troop strength to 9,800 advisory, training, and counterterrorism personnel. They will be reinforced by a few thousand allied trainers and advisers.  At present, the Administration plans to reduce that force by half by the end of 2015, fall back on Kabul and Bagram, and then remove all US forces by the end of 2016.   The exit of all US military personnel by the end of 2016 has become the guiding objective of American strategy but does this objective comport with the conditions on the ground in post-Surge Afghanistan?

The Surge

To assess the Surge, one must begin with its objectives.  President Obama was very clear in his 2009 speech at West Point what he wanted to do. He said that “the overarching goal remains the same: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.”  He then outlined three objectives:

We must deny al Qaeda a safe haven.  We must reverse the Taliban’s momentum and deny its ability to overthrow the government.  And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan’s security forces and government so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan’s future.[v]

The first objective has in the main been accomplished.  Al Qaeda in the Afghanistan–Pakistan (Af-Pak) region has been severely damaged.  Not only did the US find and kill Usama bin Laden in 2011, but his deputies and senior commanders have been decimated, as have hundreds of senior Afghan and Pakistani Taliban figures, the former by night raids on the ground, the latter by attacks by Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).  Under President Obama’s leadership, the United States drastically increased the use of UAVs, commonly called drones.  Of the total of 370 UAV strikes in Pakistan, 320 strikes came during the Obama years.  While the cross-border use of UAVs pose significant strategic, ethical, and legal questions, the strikes during the Obama Administration resulted in over two thousand militant deaths. [vi]

The positive effects of these strikes were in part offset by the negative reactions among elites in Pakistan to violations of their sovereignty and hundreds of civilian casualties.[vii]  The al Qaeda presence in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region has been drastically reduced, but careful observers remind us that the rump of al Qaeda Central and its master of mayhem, Ayman al- Zawahiri remain in the Af-Pak region.[viii]

The second objective was to reverse Taliban momentum and deny its ability to overthrow the government.  Progress here has been mixed, especially if one were to compare the Afghan Surge to the Iraq Surge.  In Iraq, from the summer of 2007 to 2008, the surge of American and Iraqi troops and the US diplomatic offensive, when coupled with the Sunni awakening reduced violence by nearly 90 percent.[ix] The results in Afghanistan have not been so positive.  Violence peaked in the first summer of the Afghan Surge but has generally returned to pre-surge levels. On the positive side of the ledger, the ANSF have been in the lead for 18 months.  They are carrying the fight to the enemy, often without US or coalition advisors. 

The enemy is resilient and active, but they have not had major successes against Afghan or coalition forces.[x] The Taliban factions --- the Quetta Shura, the Hizb-e-Islami Gulbuddin, and the apparent Pakistani favorite, the Haqqani network --- have failed to accomplish their major objectives.  They could not disrupt the Presidential election, and they have been unable to seize and hold capitals in any of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces or its nearly 400 districts.  As this article was being written, however, the Taliban were making a major effort in Helmand, the epicenter of its strength in southern Afghanistan. The Taliban is also not good at winning hearts and minds.  Nationwide, by ISAF survey, only 12.2 percent of Afghans have a favorable opinion of the Taliban.[xi]  All elements of the Taliban have integrated smuggling, kidnapping, and other criminal activities into their repertoires.

The Haqqani Network, a faction of the Afghan Taliban, is the toughest element of the Taliban, and it is capable of rigorous insurgent activity, as well as what we would recognize as commando operations.  It reputedly has assistance from supporters in the Pakistan ISI and, like the Quetta Shura Taliban, probably maintains links at the highest levels to al Qaeda.[xii]  The Haqqanis also are well wired into regional extremist groups.  The Haqqani Network centers of strength are in Paktia, Paktika, and Khost provinces in eastern Afghanistan. 

The Taliban have a secure sanctuary in Pakistan and remain well funded, not only from Gulf benefactors but also from the drug trade from Afghanistan.  While most believe that narcotics is their best source of revenue --- up to 70 percent of their financing --- others, including former US Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP) Richard Holbrooke believed that revenue from the Gulf was more important than the proceeds from the narcotics trade or “taxes” thereof.[xiii]  If anything, Taliban skills at subversion, information operations, and underground governance have improved. To date, there have been attempts by the Taliban to pose as peacemakers, to include setting up offices in Qatar, but there has not been any serious Taliban effort to negotiate a peace with Kabul.  Indeed, in Kabul in September 2011, a member of an alleged Taliban peace delegation used a turban bomb to assassinate former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, the head of the Afghan High Peace Council.[xiv]  

Pakistan itself has lost more than 53,000 people in the war on terrorism, including approximately 6,000 members of its security forces.[xv]  While numerous acts of terrorism have taken place, since 2007, Pakistan has been at war with its own Taliban forces, centered in the tribal areas of western Pakistan.  It remains to be seen how the Pakistani Army’s June 2014 offensive into North Waziristan against the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) will affect Afghanistan and Pakistan’s desire for peace.  At present, some TTP elements are operating from bases inside the remote mountains of northeast Afghanistan, and the Pakistani Army is angry at this ironic reversal of fortune.  In a fit of what some Afghan observers would call Pakistani chutzpah, a general officer spokesman for the Pakistani government said: “So far, there has been no action on the part of the Afghan government to dismantle [Pakistani Taliban] hideouts.  We want them to take action.”[xvi]  Perhaps both nations can find a way to work together to eliminate extremist sanctuaries and hideouts in the future.

The third objective of the Surge was to strengthen the Afghan national security forces and the government as a whole.  The strongest accomplishment of the Afghan Surge was setting the conditions for raising the Afghan army and police to a strength of over 340,000, improving their operational proficiency, and giving them the logistical and command and control systems to take over the fight.  They have done well in combat over the last 18 months.  Backing up the Army and Police are over 26,000 Afghan Local Police who are transitioning from coalition special operations forces supervision, to ANP supervision.

On the downside, Afghan soldiers and police fight and have taken many casualties.  From 2010 to June 2013, best estimates are that Afghan military and police deaths have exceeded 7,400. This represents a number more than three times all US fatalities since 2001.  US casualties in 2013 were only a quarter of what they were in 2010.[xvii] The dreaded green-on-blue insider attacks declined by two-thirds from 2012 to 2013 and are likely to decline further as US forces fade out.[xviii]

While the Afghan military and police are generally performing well, they still have weaknesses in logistics, air transport, close air support, medical evacuation, vehicle maintenance, and in many combat support activities.  Personnel attrition --- aside from casualties --- remains slightly higher than the goal.   The Afghan Air Force’s development was slowed by the United States in the early days of the Karzai regime.  It is still virtually an “infant industry” compared to the Afghan Army. The ANSF continues to rely on international funding for salaries and nearly all material support.[xix] Still, the Army and Police hang together, and they fight.

It has been fashionable to contrast the progress of the Afghan security forces with the lack of progress by the government.  While low capacity, widespread corruption, and endemic ineffectiveness remain problems for the civil government, it is important to note that the Karzai regime has had greater longevity than any regime during Afghanistan’s 36 years of war.  President Karzai, for all of his difficulty and erratic statements, has been the maestro of Afghan politics.  The success of three presidential elections ---warts and all---and the runoff election for the next President are ample proof that there has been a growth in civil operational capacity.  Both current presidential candidates, Drs. Ghani and Abdullah, are staunchly pro-Western.  Assuming a resolution of problems in the runoff election, this bodes well for the West.

Thanks to foreign aid, the Afghan economy has grown rapidly. As the following chart shows, progress in Afghanistan has been significant. In many ways the country has been rehabilitated since 2001, with much credit to the Afghan people, the UN mission, USAID, and its international partners.  Afghanistan has a solid base for future development.


Afghanistan Comparison [xx]

2001-2                        2013-4

Adult Life Expectancy                       42 yrs                         64 yrs

Maternal Mortality                             1,600/100K births       327/100K births

Children in Schools                             800,000                        >10 million, 36% girls

Access to Health Care                                    9%                               60%

within One Hour’s walk

Reliable Electricity                            6% of population        18%

Television                                           None                           >100 channels

Mobile Phone                                     None                           19 million


Internet Coverage                               None                           5 to 10% of the population                                                       

Afghanistan has adequate pledges of foreign aid for the next decade, but donor fatigue is setting in, just at the coalition forces are departing.  Afghan economic growth has slowed from many years of double-digit growth to only slightly more 3 percent in 2013 and 2014.  y.  Also, from 2010 onward, Afghanistan has begun to exploit over a trillion dollars of iron, copper, and other strategic minerals.  The initial contracts have been signed, but rapid exploitation here will not come until the end of major conflict.  In all, Afghanistan remains among the world’s poorest nations and half the nation lives in abject poverty.  Less than 40 percent of adults are literate and that fact will continue to retard progress. If the next Afghan President were able to drastically increase tax and customs revenues, the economic picture could brighten quickly.

In all, the objectives of the Surge have not been fully accomplished.  Moreover, the gains made in the Surge are --- in General Petraeus’s oft-used phrase --- fragile and reversible.  To accomplish fully the objectives of the Surge, the United States and its allies will need to provide significant economic and military aid, continue to advise and assist the Afghan security forces, and help to pressure the Taliban factions to come to the table.  In private conversations with Pakistani generals, they agree that there will never be another Taliban government in Afghanistan.  At the same time, beset with trouble from their own Pakistani Taliban and a growing conflict in North Waziristan, the epicenter of radical activity in Pakistan, the government of Pakistan has not pushed the Afghan Taliban residents to make peace. 

One reason for reluctance to pursue peace is uncertainty over US intentions.  US impatience and lack of persistent support for Pakistan has been obvious in the past.  Americans can forgive Pakistanis for believing that we are fickle and short of breath.  It is fair for Pakistani strategists to ask:  If the United States will pull out soon, why enter into negotiations at this time?  Why not wait and see what happens when Afghanistan has to go it alone with almost no US forces?  Despite US rhetoric, removing all coalition forces will not end the war; it will help to extend it. 

US future interests toward Afghanistan and Pakistan are obvious. A stable, developing Pakistan is essential to US policy in the region.  A major, non-NATO ally, Pakistan has a population six times larger than Afghanistan’s, is a nuclear power, and is locked in a potentially deadly security competition with India, an important partner of the United States and a key player in the Asian balance of power.  As a matter of vital interest, the United States must prevent the reestablishment of an al Qaeda-type safe haven in the Af-Pak region.  Al Qaeda and its peers made a rapid come back in Iraq.  They could do the same in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

To block the reappearance of al Qaeda and its associates, the United States must strive to build a solid and reliable partner in Afghanistan and support stability in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the internal conflicts feed on one another.  Ending the wars in the region will require concerted US efforts to create peace and reconciliation, bringing an end to the conflict between Afghanistan and the three factions of the Taliban, reconciling Afghanistan and Pakistan, and helping Pakistan bring the costly war with its Taliban to an end.  A new level of political and economic cooperation among the nations in the region could easily be an offshoot of ending these conflicts. 

Ending US participation in a conflict, in and of itself, is not a proper goal for a great power.  We should raise our sights.  Sir Basil Liddell Hart said that “the object in war is a better state of peace.” [xxi]  That’s a good place to aim.  To hit that target, the United States must first revise its policy and shift from a schedule-dictated withdrawal to a conditions-based withdrawal of its new advisory, training, and counterterrorism force. 

The Coalition can achieve a better peace, but not on the rapid-exit timetable. The new, rapid-exit US policy is encouraging the Taliban and its supporters to defer peace negotiations, partially blocking a better peace.  The US withdrawal policy will also hamper the further development of the ANSF and create uncertainty for our coalition partners.  NATO is willing to hang tough, but it is not willing to hang alone.  Uncertainty in Washington toward Afghanistan will ripple through Europe, leaving policy paralysis in its wake. Finally, the absence of an advise and assist force after 2016 will work against the security and administration of economic and military assistance.  The absence of advisory “boots on the ground” will also retard confidence among donors and harm stability in economic assistance programs.

Some budget hawks in the United States are worried about the expenses of a stay-behind force.  A coalition force for a few years could be denominated in thousands of troops, and tens of billions per year.[xxii]  This is a relatively modest investment when you consider that we have been spending over 100 billion per year to support a 100,000 soldier combat force, whose strength has now been replaced by the Afghan National Security Forces. 

Second, the United States needs to help Pakistan in its offensive in Northern Waziristan.  Aiding Pakistani forces as they take apart the most radical element of the TTP can help to win their support on peace negotiations.  At the same time, the United States should encourage cooperation between the ANSF and the Pakistani Army to ensure that TTP forces do not cross over into Afghanistan to elude the Pakistani Army.  The TTP and the Afghan Taliban are kin and kindred spirits. One hates Kabul for the same reasons that the other hates Islamabad. Both have links at the top to al Qaeda. Afghanistan will gain nothing from turning a blind eye to Pakistani Taliban crossing into its territory, and vice versa.[xxiii]

Third, early in 2015, to facilitate negotiations, the United States, Afghanistan, India, Iran, China, Pakistan, and selected Central Asian republics should hold regional talks to discuss their interests and outline preliminary measures to facilitate negotiations between Kabul and the Taliban.   If nothing else, the parties --- especially India and Pakistan --- could clarify their future intentions and build trust among the conferees.  Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, and India live in a common space and clearly can benefit from talking about future security and economic cooperation.  Once peace arrives, there will be billions to be made especially in energy and cross-border trade. 

Some in the United States might object to holding talks with Iran.  Iran has important interests in western Afghanistan, not the least of which are border control and counter-narcotics.  While Iran has aided the Taliban and bought influence in Kabul, it is no ally of the Shia-killing Taliban and wants stability on its western borders.  If the United States can cooperate with Iran in negotiating a nuclear accord and helping the Iraqis fight ISIS in western Iraq, talking about Afghanistan --- where the Iranians were helpful in 2001 --- should be a piece of cake.[xxiv]

Fourth, at the end of the regional talks, the conferees should urge Afghanistan and the Taliban to meet on neutral ground and negotiate a settlement, which could include the eventual, voluntary repatriation of Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran.  In all likelihood, such a settlement would be a partial one, but a rump group of Taliban “dead enders” would be easier to deal with than fighting all three factions.

Fifth, the Administration should empower its Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan to do all that is necessary to bring about the regional conference and to begin negotiations between Afghanistan and the Taliban.  In the past, SRAPs have been hampered in talking to India and other states in the region by bureaucratic obstacles at Foggy Bottom and in the Pentagon.  It is time to empower our senior diplomats on the ground to make peace in Afghanistan and in South Asia.

Sixth, the United States needs a blue ribbon commission to review Af-Pak military and economic assistance programs with an eye toward rationalizing them, and ensuring that the aid provided is up to the task now and into the future.  These programs may not need more money, but they will definitely need a new guiding policy.  Measures that made sense in wartime need to be recalibrated for the long-run.  Many military aid programs could be converted to economic assistance, if peace is achieved. Organizations like the American University in Afghanistan that feature private-public partnerships and focus on Afghan entrepreneurs should be favored in such a scheme. Aid to both of these countries focuses on urgent security matters; it needs to be refocused on important economic and social needs.

Finally, neither India nor Pakistan wants our help in peace talks with the other nation.  Without violating trust, however, the United States --- perhaps with the help of the UN or third parties --- should work harder on peace between these two nuclear powers, who are also natural economic partners.  Working together on peace in Afghanistan may help the two regional powers build the trust needed for larger peace building tasks, and help to prevent proxy war over Afghanistan.[xxv]  In all, compared to peace between India and Pakistan, peace between Israel and the Palestinians --- complex and important as it is--- is relatively small potatoes. Future generations will puzzle over our sense of priorities and the extent to which we have ignored peace in South Asia.

Rapid exits from conflicts may increase our sense of well-being, save some money, and be politically popular, but they have not had good long-term payoffs. When we quickly walked away from our Afghan friends after Soviet forces withdrew in 1989, disaster was not far behind.  The advent of the Taliban government, a safe-haven for al Qaeda, and the 9/11 attack on the United States all owe much to US impatience and its pennywise, pound foolish policy toward Afghanistan.  In Iraq, regardless of blame, the absence of a stabilizing US presence in Iraq after 2011 has contributed to disastrous consequences. Virtually free of al Qaeda three years ago, a third of Iraq is now in the hands of radical terrorists.  In Afghanistan, maintaining a force posture that matches conditions on the ground can help us prevent the sort of reversal that we had in Iraq.  The guiding US goal in Afghanistan should shift from an expeditious exit to a deliberate search for a better peace. 

Joseph J. Collins, a former Army colonel, teaches strategy at the National War College.  He served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Stability Operations, 2001-03.  He has been writing on war in Afghanistan since 1980.

End Notes

[i] For details, see Amy Belasco, The Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Global War on Terror Operations Since 9/11 (Washington, DC:  Congressional Research Service, March 2011), pp. 3.  Note: Belasco’s 2012 numbers are based on budget request, not an appropriation.

[ii] Paula Broadwell with Vernon Loeb, All In: the Education of General David Petraeus (New York: Penguin Press, 2012), pp. 290-99.   

[iii] Barack Obama, “Statement by the President on Afghanistan,” May 27, 2014, at .

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President in Address to the Nation on the Way Forward in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” December 1, 2009, at .

[vi] For the drone strike data base, see New America Foundation, Drone Wars Pakistan: Analysis, at .   As this article was being written, a study directed by GEN John Abizaid and Rosa Brooks highlighted the complex issues associated with this new and complex weapon.  See Recommendations and Report of the Task Force on US Drone Policy (Washington, DC:  Stimson Center, June 2014), at .

[vii] For an analysis of the complex and often exaggerated state of Pakistani public opinion on drone strikes, see C. Christine Fair, Karl C. Kaltenhaler, and William Miller, “You Say Pakistanis All Hate the Drone War?  Prove it,” Atlantic, Jan 23, 2013, at .

[viii] Correspondence between the author and Dr. Thomas Lynch, a South Asian specialist in the National Defense University’s Institute of National Strategic Studies, July 3, 2014.

[ix] Peter R. Mansoor, Surge:  My Journey with General David Petraeus and the Remaking of the Iraq War (New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press, 2013), pp. 261.  

[x] Dept. of Defense, Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan, a report to Congress in accordance with sections 1230 and 1231 of the NDAA for FY 2008 (hereafter, the 1230 Report), pages 3-12; and Ian Livingston and Michael O’Hanlon, Brookings Afghanistan Index, May 14, 2014, pp. 4-12.

[xi] 1230 Report, p. 12.

[xii] For information about Taliban links, past and present to al Qaeda, see Joseph J. Collins, Understanding War in Afghanistan (Washington, DC: National Defense University Press, 2011), pp. 104-07 ;and Hassan Abbas, The Taliban Revival:  Violence and Extremism on the Pakistan-Afghanistan Frontier (New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press, 2014), pp. 78, 171, 187, 203.  Critics of my argument note that the sources behind al Qaeda-Haqqani network connection tend to be old and may no longer be valid.  I am indebted for this observation to Dr. Thomas Lynch of the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies.  In all, on terrorist linkages, it may be prudent to quote Donald Rumsfeld: “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”  In any case, it has always been a mystery why the Afghan Taliban have never disavowed al Qaeda, even when they have so much incentive to do so.

[xiii] An important investigatory text on the drug trade is Gretchen Peters, Seeds of Terror: How Heroin is Bankrolling the Taliban and Al Qaeda (New York:  Thomas Dunne Books, St Martin’s Press, 2009).  DEA estimate of 70 percent is on page 14.  See also, Matthew Rosenberg, “Taliban Run into Trouble on the Battlefield, but Money Flows Just the Same,” New York Times, June 13, 2014 at .  On conflicting estimates, see Hassan Abbas, The Taliban Revival, p. 185.  This author twice heard Amb. Richard Holbrooke say that Gulf “charity” outweighed drugs in Taliban financing.  He seemed quite sure of his estimates. 

[xiv] Alissa J. Rubin, “Assassination Deals Blow to Peace Process in Afghanistan,” New York Times, September 20, 2011, at .

[xv] South Asian Terrorism Portal, Inst. for Conflict Management, New Delhi, India, at

[xvi] Tim Craig and Shaiq Hussain, “Tensions up Between Pakistan, Afghanistan,” Washington Post, June 27, 2014, p. A13.

[xvii] Brookings Afghanistan Index, pp. 10 and 13.  In the Brookings document, Afghan police statistics do not include 2013.  US fatalities noted in the text are through May 2014.

[xviii] 1230 Report, p. 15.

[xix] 1230 Report, pp. 23-33.  I have seen these weaknesses firsthand in 2011 and 2012, and have previously reported on them in “No Time to go Wobbly in Afghanistan,” Armed Forces Journal, September 2012, at .

[xx] Various sources including the CIA’s World Factbook; USAID Afghanistan ; the Brookings Afghanistan Index,  pp. 20-23; and Internet Stats, Afghanistan, 2014 at .  For an interesting look at progress with a Kabul-centric focus, see Jonathan Foreman, “Good News from Afghanistan,” Commentary, July 1, 2014, at .

[xxi] B. H. Liddell Hart, Strategy, 2d Revised Edition (New York:  Meridian Books-Penguin Group, 1991), p. 338.

[xxii] My personal estimates of the shape and costs associated with a 15,000 person, advise, assist, and counterterrorism force can be found at Joseph J. Collins, “Post-ISAF Afghanistan: The Need for a 15:20 Program,” Small Wars Journal, January 8, 2012, .

[xxiii] For a broad-gauged examination of the Taliban both in Afghanistan and Pakistan up to 2013, see Hassan Abbas, The Taliban Revival:  Violence and Extremism on the Pakistan-Afghanistan Frontier. 

[xxiv] James Dobbins, After the Taliban:  Nation-Building in Afghanistan (Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2008), pp. 82-4. At the Bonn Accords in 2001, Dobbins credits the Iranians with insisting on democratic elections in Afghanistan and Afghan cooperation on counterterrorism.

[xxv] For an analysis of the danger of a proxy war between India and Pakistan over Afghanistan, see Thomas F. Lynch III, “The 80 Percent Solution:  the Strategic Defeat of bin Laden’s al Qaeda and Implications for South Asia Security,”  National Security Studies Program Policy Paper, New America Foundation, Washington, DC, February 2012, pp. 13-16,  at .


About the Author(s)

Joseph J. Collins, a retired Army Colonel, served DoD in and out of uniform for four decades.  His decade plus in the Pentagon was capped off by service as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Stability Operations, 2001-04. He taught for 25 years at West Point and the National War College, and for more than two decades in Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program. He is an author in and co-editor (with Richard Hooker) of Lessons Encountered: Learning from the Long War, NDU Press, 2015. Collins is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations and holds a doctorate in Political Science from Columbia University.


Bill C.

Wed, 07/16/2014 - 7:54pm

In reply to by Bill C.

Question: Given the understanding provided above re: a better peace, a worse war, etc., what to do in Afghanistan and other places where we have made the grave mistake of eliminating or compromising governance?


1. Forget about/give up on the idea of achieving a "better peace" -- as defined by me in my initial comment above. Thus, give up, for the time being, on the idea of transforming the subject state and society more along modern western political, economic and social lines.

2. Opt, instead, on re-achieving effective governance, along whatever lines is possible/practical (for example: via another oppressive/odious, non-western-looking regime). (Note: This is the likely outcome of current events anyway?)

3. Thereafter work, over time, by, with and through this much-less-than-perfect regime, to achieve the transformation of the state and its societies more along modern western lines.

(This is, after all, the way that these things were done before the erroneous and extremely dangerous ideas of "universal values" -- and the "dawning of a new era" -- came into being.)

Bottom line: When effective governance is missing, then the achievement of effective governance -- by whomever and by whatever means -- is what, in truth, a practical "better peace," in these critical circumstances, might look like.

How does one define a better peace?

Today this would be: The successful transformation of the subject state and it societies more along modern western political, economic and social lines; this, so that these states and their societies might (1) become less of a drag on/threat to world economic activity and (2) become more of an asset to/supporter of this activity.

The next question becomes: How best to do this?

Recently our actions -- to achieve a better peace as defined immediately above -- were based on the post-Cold War idea of "universal values" and the corresponding belief in the dawning of a new era; one in which populations, liberated from their oppressive regimes would, uniformly, quickly and mostly on their own (1) shed their old, outdated ways of life and ways of governance and, in the place of these, (2) adopt modern western ways.

Based on these specific beliefs (shall we say of a easy, quick and cheap "victory"?), regime change came to be seen as the key way to achieve a better peace. Thus, the United States and its allies acted -- via various ways and various means -- to overthrow/help overthrow the regimes of certain outlying countries (ex: Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Syria, etc.).

Now reality reared its ugly head. The overthrow or compromising of these standing regimes did not bring about a better peace (as defined in my second paragraph above). Rather what was achieved by these decapitations were "worse wars."

In these "worse wars" these now essentially "ungoverned" (via our actions) states and societies disintegrated, divided and otherwise descended into chaos; allied themselves with our enemies; and/or adopted ways of life and ways of governance which were even more detrimental to global economic activity.

With these drastic and devastating events providing us with 20/20 hindsight, we can understand (for what now seem obvious reasons) that "regime change" does not provide us with a "better peace."

Based on this learning, we should -- today and in the future -- expect to operate to achieve a "better peace" via other ways and other means, such as, by:

a. Using our instruments of power and persuasion to

b. Convince the oppressive regimes (as in the case of China, Russia and Vietnam) over time,

c. To transform their states and societies themselves and, thereby,

d. Better provide for the global economy.

And in this old/new -- tried and proven manner -- achieve "a better peace."

An interesting and well written article (one was pleasantly surprised after first seeing the false dichotomy of the subtitle). The surge, predictably, missed the issue of longer-term strategic success (counting temporary territory held is a poor metric along the lines of body count from the Vietnam era). The insurgents needed to simply lie low and wait for the predictable terminus of the surge in order to either reinfiltrate or to move from 'civilian' mode to insurgent mode. The pre-announced surrender of the US, irrespective of theater conditions, was a strategic error. The insurgency need simply wait out the US to see the bulk of its troops removed. The prescience of Abu Bakr Nadji is prescient indeed:

"O people! The viciousness of the Russian soldier is twice that of the
American soldier. If the Americans suffer one tenth of the casualties the
Russians suffered in Afghanistan and Chechnya, they will flee and never
look back. That is because the current structure of the American and
Western armies is not the same as their structure during the colonial era.
They have reached a stage of effeminacy that makes them unable to sustain battles for a long period of time, a weakness they compensate for with a deceptive media halo."

The BSE represent a catch-22 for both the domestic regime and the successor to the Karzai regime. To keep US forces in Afghanistan is to not meet the primary stated concern of the Quetta Shura - the removal of all foreign forces from Afghan soil. To remove US forces from Afghanistan is to invite a replay of the situation in Iraq. While the Quetta Shura has failed to live up to its claim of no negotiations before troop withdrawals, the assumption of plasticity of position is a dubious one. The negotiators for the Quetta Shura, thus far, have come out well ahead at the negotiating table.

While the US has been successful in eliminating some leadership elements of AQ (UBL's functional role being limited at the time of his death), the 'success' has been overblown. AQ has proven to be remarkably adaptive in switching from a centralized hierarchical organization to a decentralized franchise model. The 'fractioning' of AQ has created a hydra in multiple geographic areas. In the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater, AQ has adapted by moving from a discrete organizational entity into an embedded paramilitary unit model (Lashkar al Zil), across the operative insurgent groups. The biggest strikeout for the US government, however, has been in dealing with AQ as an ideology. Falling for one's own propaganda of 'extremist' and 'radical' (with a few far- and ultra- thrown in for good measure) fails to meet any objective criteria for understanding 'why they fight.' With the nebulous nature of 'US interests' and now with an Afghan government to prop up, the 'near enemy' v. the 'far enemy' argument, as a point of ideological distinction, becomes less important.

The final issue, which requires further elucidation given the spectrum of opinions present and the lack of primary source information, is the mechanistic aspects of implementation of the strategic view of the elements within the Pakistani ISI that support the Quetta Shura Taliban.