Small Wars Journal

Ink Spots of Success: The Smart Power Approach to Our Endgame in Afghanistan

Mon, 05/21/2012 - 6:48am

Success in Afghanistan is not and cannot be achieved through the military defeat of the Taliban. It is the building of the viable positive alternative. But what is the alternative and how do we realise it?

  • Who? – the educated professional elite who have been working for the international community – they are the Afghan antithesis of the Taliban.
  • What? - the economy is centre of mass for success. The insurgents have access to sustainable funding through the taxation of opium. The Afghan government does not. Building the economy rapidly is critical.
  • Where? - the most peaceful areas of Afghanistan where the Taliban will have to overextend themselves to operate.
  • How? - focus strategic resources on the rapid development of Ink Spots of Success where our efforts will deliver the best return on investment, provide a tax base and deny vital ground to the advances of the insurgents.


Although the international community can legitimately claim steady progress in Helmand and other parts of southern Afghanistan it is progress delivered through $120 billion of military pressure (2011 US spend on military operations). This is more than six times the entire GDP of Afghanistan and equates to $3.4 million for each of the 35,000 members of the Taliban – (based on the 2010 US National Intelligence Estimate).

By focusing strategic resources on 0.12% of the population we are making them disproportionately powerful and forcing ourselves to respond to their agenda. The cost of military operations is more damaging to us than the Taliban themselves and we have willfully achieved Osama Bin Laden's objective of over extending ourselves and bleeding into the sand of Afghanistan.

If we redirected just 10% of that spending into helping our few remaining Afghan friends build the economies of the most peaceful parts of Afghanistan we would achieve greater strategic effect faster, Smarter and more sustainably than focusing all our resource on killing our enemies. If we can’t help moderate Afghans build a future to fight for and the tax base to achieve it nothing we have achieved in ten years will survive the transition.

The Concept and Rationale in Summary

Fundamentally I believe we have got ourselves into a difficult situation in Afghanistan because we've concentrated the vast majority of our resources on our enemies and not our friends. Success is not the defeat of the Taliban it is the building of the viable positive alternative. Our current approach is focused on Hard not Smart Power.

In 2001 a few hundred Special Operations Force personnel and air power helped the Northern Alliance defeat the Taliban. The Taliban were a spent, defeated and discredited force. The reason that they have become resurgent is because we did not fill the power vacuum with a viable alternative.

As we withdraw international money and military personnel we need to ensure that we leave something sustainable behind, or nothing that we have achieved in 10 years will survive the transition.

There appears to be very little international will to sustain the effort in Afghanistan over the long-term and therefore if any Afghan institutions are to survive the transition they must be resilient and self sustaining.

I believe for the transition in Afghanistan to have any chance of being sustainable we must now focus on three key areas; the first is the economy, the second is the educated elite - who have been working for us - and the third is the geographical areas where the Taliban are least powerful.

This is the who, what and where of my proposed strategy.

The intent is to create Ink Spots of Success which once established will spread and replicate in the areas where they have the best chance to grow.

We need to have an holistic view of the entire nation of Afghanistan and the factors that will deliver ultimate victory. By making the Taliban the focus of our main economic and military resources we have given them the initiative and allowed ourselves to fight them on their terms on their ground. Our uniformed forces operate out of fixed patrol bases amongst a wary population, which the Taliban blend into. Consequently the battle and maybe war winning advantage that we had in 2001 has been lost to our adversaries. Our military and economic superiority has been turned against us and the high cost of operations is strategically more damaging than the Taliban themselves.

I would propose using the ongoing but reducing conventional military operations as a strategic feint designed to tie up, expend, degrade and contain Taliban resources. At the same time discretely switching our strategic main effort to the areas where the Taliban will be at a strategic disadvantage. This means focusing our main effort on our friends in the most permissive parts of Afghanistan to build a new Afghan economy, ideology and power-base that will be the antithesis and nemesis of the Taliban.

This approach will deliver a better and more tangible return on investment and demonstrate most clearly to the Afghan and our own public that rapid progress is being made and normalisation is under way.

If we cannot build a tangible success that will survive the transition then the credibility of the US and its partners and NATO will be significantly diminished. Also the Islamists will claim the Afghan Mujaheddin have not only defeated but been the major cause of decline of both the World’s Super Powers thus vindicating Osama Bin Laden’s strategy.

Who - The Educated Elite

In 2002 I was on my first tour of Afghanistan as a soldier in the British Army. We employed five interpreters at the base; they were two engineers, a medical student, a trainee surgeon and a professor from the University.

As more international organisations arrived they employed more of Afghanistan's most educated elite. We effectively stripped Afghan institutions of their most critical staff and made it impossible for Afghan businesses and government institutions to compete with the wages we were willing to pay.

10 years on there's a whole generation of progressive, moderate Afghans who view working for the international community as a viable career. As spending in Afghanistan draws down thousands of them are losing their jobs. They are faced with some very stark choices either; they will have to accept up to an 80% wage cut in the real Afghan economy, or they will emigrate, or they will become engaged in nefarious activities, or they will become a new powerful voice of discontent.

An entire generation of highly educated, moderate Afghans whose expectations we have raised will be tossed aside and left to their fate. Currently there is still a sense of denial that the international community is going home and taking our money with us. But very soon that denial will turn to anger if we don't, as a matter of urgency, help these young men and women, who have taken huge risks to work for us, to build for themselves a hopeful future to fight for.

This is a relatively straightforward thing to do. We know exactly who they are and we know exactly how to communicate with them. With relative ease we can help them build a positive vision for the future of Afghanistan and commit the appropriate resources to help them realise it.

The Taliban have absolutely nothing to offer these people. They are interested in a unique modern Islamic Afghan lifestyle full of personal development and new freedoms. If the Taliban ever did return to power they would deny these ambitious men and women everything they care about and probably kill a large number of them.

This gives these elite Afghans a very real reason to fight the Taliban and make sure they never return. However they currently don't have any power. They don't trust the government and they are starting to mistrust us because we are going home.

They need to be empowered and enabled to discuss, articulate and communicate their own positive vision for Afghanistan in 2018 and beyond and then helped to gain the resources to achieve it. We need to recognise that counter insurgency is a battle of ideologies and that currently our side doesn't have one, only policy.

Right now if you talk to these young men and women about their positive vision of the future it is inevitably of leaving Afghanistan and starting a new life, ideally in the West. If Afghanistan's most educated,  most moderate and most experienced elite leave so will all hope for the future.

For too long we have made them help us implement our policy for Afghanistan. Now it's time for us to help them implement their vision for Afghanistan. They are a movement in waiting and it is time for us to empower them.

What? - The economy

The elephant in the room in Afghanistan is the economy and it is only now that we're starting to talk about it. Currently the economy is made up of two things; opium and international spending. As international money draws down the only real economic opportunity that most businessmen will have is investing in opium.

The current cornerstone of our exit strategy in Afghanistan is the building of the Afghan National Security Forces. However without an economy there will be no tax base to pay for them and therefore they will not be the Afghan National Security Forces but ours and the insurgents will be able to use this as a rationale for continuing their violence. Further it is only a matter of time until the international commitment for paying for the Afghan National Security Forces wanes.

Conversely opium is a multi-billion dollar business that is taxed by the insurgents and provides a sustainable source of funding for their campaign of violence. As international spending continues to draw down so too will the licit economic opportunities for Afghanistan's business and political leaders and therefore they will be tempted to return to investing in opium which increases instability and corruption. We are already seeing signs of renewed poppy planting in the north of the country which could signal the return of Northern Alliance commanders to their bad old ways.

Huge amounts of money have been spent on economic development initiatives in Afghanistan. However the international community's spending has increased the cost of skilled personnel, real estate, goods and services and built a false, unsustainable economy that has seriously undermined real Afghan businesses.

Most of the economic development money has been spent on helping the Afghans make more of what they can produce not what they can sell.  If there is no market we are unfairly raising expectations and creating huge disappointment as more and more Afghans become skilled in areas where there are no long-term prospects.

There is a patronising view that Afghans do not know how to run vertically integrated businesses or establish value chains. However the opium industry demonstrates that the Afghans are very capable of establishing complex vertically integrated supply chains to meet international demand for a product.

What is needed is new international demand for licit Afghan goods and services.

One of the fundamental problems we have created is that we have provided plenty of short-term ways for international and Afghan businessmen to generate huge amounts of profit but we have not generated long-term incentives to invest in the country. Currently most of the money that is made in Afghanistan is invested abroad and there are plenty of media reports of Afghan businessmen fleeing the country with suitcases full of money.

What we need to do as a matter of extreme urgency is to rapidly build reasons to invest in Afghanistan and  create a real sustainable Afghan economy. This won't be easy because Afghanistan is a landlocked country surrounded by neighbours with a vested interest in keeping the centre weak. And let us be sensible and realistic about encouraging investment; no one is going to invest in the most dangerous parts of the country so let's focus our efforts where we have the best chance of success.

Where? -  the most peaceful & potentially prosperous areas

The international community has been committing the vast majority of its resources to the parts of Afghanistan that are the most violent and where the insurgency is strongest.

We provide huge contracts for construction, security, and logistics companies owned by Afghanistan's politicians and business leaders to support our counterinsurgency efforts in the south and east of the country. This provides them with a perverse incentive to ensure that the insurgency continues. There is no financial incentive for them to support the peace.

A U.S. Congress report found that insurgents, criminals and warlords were getting huge payouts  indirectly from the US military via local companies who are paid to provide logistic support to US military bases. The local companies pay the insurgents and criminals not to attack their convoys. The report also provided evidence that a lot of attacks attributed to the Taliban are actually turf battles between the various stakeholders in the US supply line racket. Therefore the more we spend on counterinsurgency in the south and east the more money we give to the insurgents and criminals to continue their violence.

There is also a financial incentive for the local people to embrace the insurgency. We are focusing the vast majority of our development budget on the areas where the insurgency is strongest in an attempt to win the hearts and minds of the local people away from the insurgents. Therefore it is the areas where there is the most violence that get the roads the schools and the development projects.

I have spoken to a number of consultants and development workers working in the most peaceful areas of Afghanistan such as Bamiyan and Badakhshan who report that the local people are asking if they should start blowing things up so they can get money for schools, irrigation and hydroelectric.

We are in effect saying to the Afghan people if you allow insurgency in your area you will get development funding, if you reject insurgency and live in peace you get almost nothing.

I believe that the counterinsurgency ink spot strategy is the best approach but I believe that we should stop pouring our ink into the fires of Helmand, Kunar and Kandahar where it evaporates and begin to start dropping it into the areas where it is most likely to spread.

This means committing more of our strategic resources to areas such as Herat, Mazar and Bamiyan so that we can rapidly build and grow strategic Ink Spots of Success. With this approach we can create large zones of peace and economic growth that will first contain and then encroach upon the insurgency.

Our current strategy of trying to defeat the insurgency in the south is like smashing a military fist into the insurgent jelly. The harder we pound the more the jelly spreads into areas previously unaffected. Whilst it may take us millions of dollars and thousands of troops to retake an area like Marjah, a dozen Taliban can ride into a village in the north of the country on motorbikes and bring the villagers under their control in a matter of minutes. There was almost no insurgency in the north before NATO went to secure the south.

With the Ink Spots of Success approach we begin to deny large areas of the country to the insurgents by providing local people with the motivation and resources to repel them. By placing these Ink Spots strategically we can cut-off insurgent supply lines until the insurgency can be contained in isolated pockets which can be managed by a limited number of troops.

The Hindu Kush mountains are a formidable natural barrier, by concentrating our efforts in strategic areas we could create the conditions where we could deny all of the north of Afghanistan to the insurgents. There are only half a dozen or so ways over or round the Hindu Kush, if we can deny these to the insurgents we can cut-off and suffocate the pockets of insurgency in northern Afghanistan. The fact that the Taliban has been able to gain a foothold in the north amongst the people that gave their lives and limbs to defeat them in 2001 is a terrible travesty and shows how badly our former allies have been let down.

If we can create major Ink Spots of Success at Herat and Mazar-e Sharif we could create a single zone of peace and prosperity that covers the entire west and north-west of Afghanistan. If we create Ink Spots at Takhar and Faizabad and along the route through the Salang Tunnel we can isolate and suffocate the insurgency in Kunduz and turn the entire north of the country into an area of peace and prosperity. The north of the country is where the normalisation of Afghanistan can begin and an area that can provide the tax base required to sustain the Afghan National Security Forces.

We would also have to maintain the expensive efforts in Lashkar-Gah and Kandahar plus develop plans for Jalalabad, Gardez and Ghazni to stop the Ink Spots of Success initiative exacerbating the potential for civil war.

Currently the people in the north of Afghanistan are looking at the people in the south of Afghanistan and asking 'why are they receiving all the development money?' The answer we give them is 'because there is an insurgency in the south.'

If we turn that round then the people in the south of the country will look at the people in the north of the country and ask 'why are they receiving all the development money?' The answer we can give them is 'because there is an insurgency in the south.' This will provide the people in the south with a very powerful motivator to reject the insurgents and develop their own Ink Spots of Success.


The actual strategy for how to implement the Ink Spots of Success concept is beyond the scope of this document. However the overarching principle is “Reinforce success and starve failure.” We need to starve the insurgents of the ideological, material and financial resources they need whilst nurturing and reinforcing the power of a new successful Afghan ideology.

This should be achieved with a lightness of touch by the international community to ensure the successes are truly Afghan and truly sustainable.

Here I will expand briefly on just a few of the suggested components:

Place Branding – is similar to corporate branding but applied to specific geographic locations. Building strong city brands for Herat, Mazar and Bamiyan that align cultural, natural, economic and human resources to develop a brand identity that can increase investment, trade and international cooperation is relatively straight forward.

Air Bridges – dovetailed subsidies should be provided for national and international air cargo to connect Afghan producers with their markets.

Marketing & Public Relations – I have identified over 170 shops in the UK alone that sell Oriental carpets, most sell Afghan carpets. It would be relatively simple to increase the overall sector and the market share for Afghan carpets through public relations and point of sale promotions. E.g. Vogue magazine runs a front page story of Angelina Jolie visiting an Afghan women's carpet weaving business then showing off the rugs at home. The same could be done for other sectors especially fruit for the Indian middle class market.

Personal Development – some of the best personal development and business books translated into Dari and Pashtu and made available as audio files under licence.

Strategic Communications – sponsoring of new business, lifestyle and personal development shows on TV and radio and new online resources to reach the 1 million Afghan internet users who are our target market.

Infrastructure Building – provide Afghan businessmen with contracts to build appropriate infrastructure within the Ink Spots of Success – e.g. micro-hydroelectric or irrigation – using their own money as capital. Once the project is complete they are paid a fee which includes significant profit. These scheme will encourage businessmen to keep reinvesting profit back into Afghanistan rather than taking it to Dubai.

Military Operations – Afghan Special Forces to cut off insurgent supply routes to the north and take high value targets. Afghan Commandos to clear the insurgent strongholds in Konduz. Afghan conventional forces to hold key terrain south and east of Kabul and south of Herat.

In conclusion I believe a tangible, recognised and sustainable success in Afghanistan is still achievable but only by focusing remaining resources on a Smart Power strategy will we be able to achieve it at an acceptable cost.

I would welcome any opportunity to further develop this or similar Smart Power approaches to complex interventions.

Categories: ink spots - COIN - Afghanistan

About the Author(s)

David James lived and worked amongst the Afghan people in the Hindu Kush mountains providing marketing and public relations support to economic development initiatives. He has also worked as the Senior Strategy Manager for the strategic communications division of Afghanistan’s largest media group, providing communication services to the British and US embassies and other strategic customers. Prior to returning to Afghanistan as a civilian he served on two tours of the country with the British army being awarded the QCVS for the second. He has also served in Baghdad and Basra. He believes we should have ‘won’ in Afghanistan and maybe, just maybe, we still can.  Visit or for more information.


Vitesse et Puissance

Wed, 05/23/2012 - 1:32pm

In reply to by Fulcrum Strate…

Let me put it like this. When it comes to soft power - or "smart power", whatever, ignore current NATO and US policy. We are rapidly making ourselves as irrelevant as possible - COL Gentile should be so pleased - and why ? Because we want it that way. Because we think that the easy way out is the only way out. Because we are just plain quitters. How many days did it take the newly elected Socialist government of France to declare its deadline for the withdrawal of combat troops ? Answer: No time at all.

Given that, I think that the grounding of Afghan economic development, such as it is and such as it can ever be, in an export-driven approach is flawed. You have to generate a domestic economy robust enough to thrive on its own internal demand. If all it took was gobs of cash, we'd be where we wanted today. Don't think in terms of months and years. Think in terms of decades and centuries. Otherwise, your nation building exercise ends up looking a lot like - the Sioux Nation. And Vietnam is no poster child, unless one imagines that a light layer of export-driven manufacturing over a lot of subsistence farming is an acceptable approach to economic development. And Afghanistan is even cursed by an abundance of natural resources that have significant value on the world market - have we not seen enough of what commodity-based wealth does to developing countries ? Of course you want to build on what the local culture has to offer the world. But it can't stop there. Eventually, this society, like any other society, will have to come to grips with modernity and globalization. In fact, Afghanistan has retrogressed ever since the Soviets went in.

Reading through Bernard Lewis's "Faith and Power" it would appear that we are simply operating with a flawed model when we of the West speak of the "rule of law" as well as a constitution based on some sort of "social contract". For Islamic society, Shariah is the only recognized "constitution" and the social contract, such as it is, lies between the ruler and God, not the ruler and the people. You can have political accountability in a society like that, you can even have a form of democracy. What you cannot have is a legal system grounded in positive law and documented in the form of a written constitution. It is simply a waste of time imposing such things. The best I think we can do is to resource education at all levels, and then step back and let this society sort itself out. But I disagree with all those who want to just wash their hands of the situation and walk away. That is morally irresponsible. Irrespective of our future basing and strategy, we should keep in mind the possibility of having to return someday, to return in force, and to do this all over again. No other stance is truly realistic or does justice to our ideals, to boot. And we should not be silent when the opportunity arises to say so. Speed and Power.

Fulcrum Strate…

Tue, 05/22/2012 - 4:14pm

In reply to by Vitesse et Puissance

The synchronization of guns and butter comes from building the economy rapidly in the areas you can best defend, or are vital ground.

Basically wherever the Taliban struggled most or never successfully took ground up to September 2001 is where we should start building the Inkspots.

This is because these are the most easily defended or best resourced and motivated areas to repel Taliban and other armed groups. We need to ensure these areas never fall again and are the powerhouse of an economic revival.

If in the 18 months we've got left we can help the people of these areas create a positive vision of 2018 and beyond and the SUSTAINABLE economic means to achieve it and defend it, there's a chance that these areas might flourish post 2014.

In terms of supply chains and routes to market I'd reinforce success and not worry about the catalogue of failures, we just don't have the time.

I've found at least 170 shops in the UK selling Oriental carpets, most sell Afghan carpets. Rather than us mess about trying to figure out new supply chains we just increase demand for Afghan carpets within the sector and ideally grow the sector too. If we increase demand the Afghans will figure out the supply side like they have with opium. There's plenty of our money in the pockets of Afghans looking for profitable ways to invest it and right now Dubai would still appear to be the place of choice so we need that money going back into Afghanistan. If we help build specific brands for carpets from Herat or Mazar then carpets from these Ink Spots will come to dominate in the sector and drive more revenue to these areas.

If anyone reading this with a budget thinks there's even a ten percent chance I might be onto something I urge you to support a working pilot scheme. I can dramatically increase the awareness of and demand for Afghan carpets in the UK and begin to build trade links that will support specific geographic areas.

If we focus on economic development based on sustainable business then the business community will gain in stature and once they start paying enough tax they will hold the government to account and run for office themselves.

No taxation without representation and all that...

Vitesse et Puissance

Tue, 05/22/2012 - 1:31pm

In a perfect world, "smart power" would mean the synchronized use of guns and butter to achieve a common goal, not a more clever way to substitute butter for guns. That having been said, I think the author makes a strong case for getting on with the development job in Afghanistan, a job that has been underfunded and largely ignored. And this is not all about buying the loyalty or good opinion of Afghans. I defy anyone here to tell me how you are going to build an Afghan economy with workable supply chains where the roads needed to move supplies are lacking, and those roads that do exist lie under the threat of attack. The notion of localizing the problem makes enough sense that this article should be given serious attention - but I would point out that the history of development aid is littered with Third World governments that could not get out of the way of progress. You have to deal with the sovereign government of Afghanistan in some form or fashion - or is the article really trying to make the case for taking "soft power" covert - a kind of Robin Hood mission for the Intelligence Community. That might indeed raise some eyebrows. As far as the necessity of narcotrafficking - that is an entirely rebuttable assertion, since it is demonstrably the case that Afghan soil is capable of growing a number of worthwhile cash crops. But you do have to find a way to perserve, store and transport the goods from place to place. Of interest is the fact that none of the countries neighboring Afghanistan use the same gauge track - unfortunate from the standpoint of economic railroad investment.

Fulcrum Strate…

Tue, 05/22/2012 - 12:25am

"we do not have a strategy in Afghanistan that you can articulate or achieve"

The PowerPoint that changed Obama's approach to Afghanistan

“We had been at war for eight years, and no one could explain the strategy.” Obama's National Security Advisor

Mr. Obama concluded that the Pentagon had not internalized that the goal was not to defeat the Taliban. He said he “believed that we had a more limited set of objectives that could be accomplished by bringing the military out at a faster clip,”…

Fulcrum Strate…

Mon, 05/21/2012 - 9:37pm

Thanks to everyone who has joined the debate so far, I really appreciate you taking the time to write.

Thanks to Peter for the opportunity to publish in SWJ. I've been overly engaged in Afghanistan since my first tour in 2002 and this article and the Afghanistan Lessons Learnt project gives me some sense of closure on a very rewarding and frustrating time.

I've had to accept that I'm not going to change the world this time but at least I've had a bloody good attempt.

I hope some of the ideas will be of use to those still involved.

Fulcrum Strate…

Wed, 05/23/2012 - 3:11am

In reply to by gian gentile

That's true enough Gian. Since the Arab Spring, Iran's continuing nuclear programme, AQAP gaining momentum and the crisis in the Eurozone Afghanistan has dropped from top priority to some significant way down the list. You could easily argue it is not strategically significant anymore other than as a powerful symbol of NATO/US/UN/EU impotence and a rallying call for the Jihadists.

However, I believe the current strategy will not deliver anything positive that will survive past around 2018. Maybe that doesn't matter strategically. But if we can leave just a few areas of Afghanistan that have been permanently improved and transformed that can remain resilient in face of whatever may come, then at least we'll have something to show for all those lives and all that money.

And maybe, just maybe, those Ink Spots could provide the safe haven and economic resources for a new progressive, Islamic Afghan movement that through it's own vocation challenges and maybe, just maybe defeats the hate filled ideology of the Taliban.

I absolutely don't think we should 'stick it out' I think we have to get out. I think the Afghans have to take the lead but in the restive south and east there is no Afghan group or ideology that can stand up to the Taliban. So a new Afghan ideology has to have a chance to form and grow in the most conducive environment and that means away from the Taliban in an area where it can develop economic resources.

You are right that there will be no end of the world if we just walk away from Afghanistan, apart from for the Afghans, but why accept 'defeat' as it will be portrayed if we could have a 'win' even if it is just symbolic.

I don't think the Ink Spots of Success concept has to be massively expensive or involve much international intervention. But it has to be focused on key geographic areas, on business and on the young moderate Afghan entrepreneurs who can take the country forward.

Angelina Jolie has already visited Afghanistan with UNHCR. If she came again and visited some beautiful sites in Herat where some carpets made by local women were laid out you would have pictures that every news desk in the world might run. Suddenly Herat is famous for amazing architecture and fabulous carpets made by Afghan women which just happen to be available in stores across the US and Europe and Dubai etc. "To find out more visit this website" which also has information on all the other fabulous things the people of Herat make and the amazing historic sites.

Suddenly there's one city in Afghanistan that is famous for something other than the Taliban, opium and IEDs. And all we did was set up a photo opportunity, a website, a Herat business association run by young professional Afghans who speak perfect English and maybe fly one container of carpets to the US in a C17 - although the Afghans are pretty good at getting carpets to the US already.

OK one photo opportunity isn't going to deliver strategic change but it will deliver more tactical success than 100 clear and hold operations.

We can still come away from this OK if we play to our strengths and not the Taliban's.

gian gentile

Tue, 05/22/2012 - 3:59pm

In reply to by Fulcrum Strate…

Well Dave it all came crumbling down in Vietnam in 1975 and the dominos did not fall, and the greater world did not crumble.

You are applying the same argument some people were making in 75, and still do today, that we should have stayed there forever if that is what it would have taken to maintain the efficacy of the South Vietnamese government.

Your argument seems to me to be basically a "sunken cost" one tied to a doomsday scenario that the world will nearly come to an end if we dont stick it out in Afghnastan with armed nation building.

But what if the effort is simply no longer worth it?



Tue, 05/22/2012 - 10:43am

In reply to by Fulcrum Strate…

I find it revealing that the Taliban and Haqqanni movements are often referred to as Islamic rather than radical Hard-Right political movements. The intolerance, the random killing of women and children, the bombing of places of worship, the murder of minorities etc are so removed from any form of traditional Afghan religious and societal observance I have to ask on which hellish planet is this considered Islamic society let alone Afghan?

The total absence of such criminal acts by the anti-Soviet mujahedeen during the 10 years of Soviet occupation (which was infinitely more brutal) suggests you are looking at a completely different movement in terms of political and religious intent. The suggestion that a neo-fascist political movement which persecutes women (in much the way the Nazi’s persecuted Jews) can be described in a manner of “apples and oranges” suggests there is a fundamental breakdown in understanding the very foundation of Afghan society.

But then again it's only been ten years and 300 billion dollars.


Fulcrum Strate…

Mon, 05/21/2012 - 9:12pm

In reply to by Mark O'Neill

Hi Mark,

I would agree the mission and desired end state has got very confused and we don't know exactly what it is we are trying to achieve. The Taliban however are pretty clear - they want the foreigners driven out and Afghanistan to become a 'proper' Islamic state again.

So I think having very clear direction and leadership from the top with the strategic actions that align with a clear strategy would make everything much easier for all of us. However, the international community has made so many actual and perceived promises to so many different stakeholders we have set ourselves up to fail on so many levels.

I open by saying success is not and cannot be achieved by the military defeat of the Taliban because we militarily defeated them in 2001 and yet the perception is that we are on the cusp of strategic defeat.

However we paint it most of the world, including our own public are going to perceive that the Afghan mujahideen have humbled both of the world's super powers and been a major contribution to their global decline.

If in 2002 we had just kicked the Taliban out and not overly interfered in the Loya Jirga that selected the Transitional Authority. And let the Afghans sort themselves out with a little bit of development and military capability development where absolutely necessary. And only retained a counter terrorism capability to stop AQ returning. Then yes all my well meaning Ink Spots of Success would be a lovely humanitarian gesture but in the grand scheme of things not strategically very important.

However we are willfully up to our eyeballs in the Afghan mire. The global reputations of NATO, the USA, the UK and many other major stakeholders hangs in the balance of how do we get ourselves out of this mess. We also have to look our armed service men and women and our tax payers in the eye and show them that all those shattered limbs, disemboweled comrades and financial pain was actual for something.

There's another couple of points about my opening statement. The first is that much better soldiers than me have been saying for many years that there is not a military solution to Afghanistan. What I'm trying to offer to these extraordinary soldiers is a concept of what that non-military solution might look like. It might not be the best solution but I've been studying Afghanistan for ten years and I've not come across a better one. The other is that the Taliban weren't our enemy until we declared them so. The military defeat of the Taliban was kind of strategically irrelevant although very therapeutic in 2001. The real goal was and in the back of our minds still is denying Afghanistan as a strategic space to AQ plus a healthy dose of revenge for 9/11. Let's just imagine that in the next 18 months we can strategically defeat the Taliban for a second time. When we withdraw we are still going to create a massive power vacuum that will suck a whole range of detritus into the wound, including AQ. What we need to do as part of an intelligent transition is to start to balance the power in Afghanistan so that there will be some form of positive equilibrium that can be achieved sometime around 2018.

So if our political leaders had not got involved in nation building like they said, then yes my approach would be a nice to have option for the pinkos. But you can't build ministries, banking law, telecommunications infrastructure, national armies, national and local police forces, electoral bodies, major roads, dams and services infrastructure and then say we're not into nation building. And when it all collapses 24 months after you shut the door on the way out you have to suffer the loss of face that that failure brings with it.

We did this to ourselves, we've just got to make the best of it.

Mark O'Neill

Mon, 05/21/2012 - 7:42pm

What is the problem we are trying to fix?

Quote: Success in Afghanistan is not and cannot be achieved through the military defeat of the Taliban.Unquote.

Let us think carefully about the counter-factual. Who believes that if the Taliban (or more broadly, the loose grouping of armed, violent and subversive groups who are fighting the GIROA and NATO at the moment) were not 'fighting' that we would have a 'problem'?

Think about. If the Taliban et al were 'militarily defeated' and instead engaged in normative, legal political discourse in accordance with the constitution of Afghanistan, why should we care?

I would contend that if 'we' still care - that is, we still want a say in the sovereign affairs of the 'legitimate' government of Afghanistan, then our interest is something other than counterinsurgency. I am not sure what that could or should correctly be called, but terms like regime change, imperialism or neo-colonialism come to mind. Either way, if that is the case, counterinsurgency is the incorrect approach.

Anticipating 'push back' from some folks who may argue that 'our' endgame is nation building, let us consider how successive POTUS has described as their desired ends:

George W. Bush in late 2001:

Quote On my orders, the United States military has begun strikes against al Qaeda terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. These carefully targeted actions are designed to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations, and to attack the military capability of the Taliban regime. Unquote.

Barack Obama:

Cited in Woodward's book 'Obama's Wars':

quote. This is neither counterinsurgency nor nation building.unquote.

The rationale that the desired strategic ends of the Afghanistan adventure is nation building is illogical. People need to stop confusing the selection and pursuit of a contentious 'way' - armed nation building , with what 'we really' want.

I would bet London to a brick that all the political leaders of the ISAF contributing nations would gladly accept the 'military defeat' of the 'Taliban' (and, implicitly therein, AQ in Afghanistan) as 'victory'.



Fulcrum Strate…

Mon, 05/21/2012 - 7:30pm

In reply to by Bill C.

I think there is some relevance to compare but there's a lot of apples and pears too...

Both Israel and South Korea have stronger economies than their neighbours which allows them to have a tax base to pay for their armed forces which allows them to exist.

Afghanistan in 2018 is going to have no tax base because the $1.5 billion received in revenue in 2011 was largely dependent on international spending driving the economy which will have largely disappeared.

In South Korea and Israel the educated elite are engaged in genuine business and the affairs of the state. In Afghanistan the educated elite are working for us and we're going home leaving them unemployed and no plan as to how to get involved in either business or the affairs of state.

In Israel the Israelis have focused on containing the insurgency and defending their economic base from threats. In Afghanistan we're not containing the insurgency it is spreading into all the areas that used to be peaceful and could have provided economic growth.

I wouldn't hold up either Israel or South Korea as an example of good practice but I think it is fair to say the economy is vital for their continued existence.

Not sure whether this is "apples and oranges," offers good examples and/or is well-stated but here goes:

Has the idea of using Israel as an "ink spot" example and bridgehead -- with which to favorably influence, build upon and transform the rest of the Middle East -- has this worked out for us or proven to have more of a negative rather than a positive effect -- and proven to be something of a liability to us as much as an asset? Likewise has the example set by South Korea worked to positively influence and "transform" North Korea?

Same negative or mixed results likely with an ink spot / enclave approach to Afghanistan?

Fulcrum Strate…

Mon, 05/21/2012 - 8:31pm

In reply to by gian gentile

What I am arguing is that the way we have attempted to do our armed nation building has been undermining our own objectives and could have and still could be done more effectively and efficiently.

There is a lot of talk of winning the hearts and minds of the local people. In 2002 the coalition had won the hearts and minds of the local people.

In 2002 I went on lots of foot patrols around the villages near Kabul airport. The people welcomed us and when we asked them what they needed most they said 'deeper wells and jobs'. We didn't deliver either.

Last year I walked round those villages I used to patrol and guess what those water pumps still don't work, the streets are still open sewers and the people have very few economic opportunities. But at least they can watch billions of dollars of money go through the airport at the end of their streets.

We made a number of big mistakes in 2002. The first was not talking to the Taliban and getting a signed peace agreement that allowed them to reintegrate. The second was the international community separating themselves off from the Afghan people behind blast walls and losing the chance to retain the hearts and minds of the people. The third was spending all our money on expensive consultants who set about trying to externally build a nation from the top down rather than the bottom up.

If we'd concentrated the available resources on building the grassroots economy and improving the quality of life of the man in the street in 2002 we would be in a very different situation today.

I did my second tour in 2004 and I, along with the Afghan people were shocked about how little progress had been made in such a conducive environment. It was the year Karzai asked when the $4.5 billion promised at Bonn was going to be spent. There was a national intake of breath when he was told we'd already spent it. As the BBC and other investigations found out we'd spent most of it on expensive consultants, their life support and poorly managed infrastructure building. That was the end of the unconditional goodwill of the Afghan people and the moment Karzai went rogue.

On my second tour I was engaged in a counter narcotics role. It quickly became apparent that opium was an economic not law enforcement issue. The prisoners questioned by the Counter Narcotics Police always asked, 'what else do we do?' I spent a lot of effort on that tour trying to get an answer out of our development people about the right answer to that question. The inability to answer that question is the root cause of 80% of Afghanistan's problems. I became convinced that not only narcotics but also a significant part of the insurgency problem had an economic basis.

In 2005 whilst we Brits were planning to go to Helmand I wrote a paper called the Fulcrum Strategy (hence the name of my organisation) which argued that the big opium dealers where basically entrepreneurs investing in what gave them the best and safest return on investment. I further argued that alternative livelihoods and interdiction efforts should focus on the top 20 big narco-traffickers and not the peasant farmers. Basically you should triage the big traffickers and provide the narco-entrepreneurs who weren't funding the Taliban or undermining the government with alternative investment opportunities. That would allow interdiction efforts to focus on hammering the infrastructure of the narco-traffickers who were funding the insurgency and destablising the government.

What I was also warning about in the paper is that us Brits were about to turn a small scale insurgency into a fully blown drugs war. We desperately needed to separate the drugs money from the insurgency or the narco-entrepreneurs could throw their considerable resources into defeating the COIN effort. We made a complete hash of the information ops on entry into Helmand where the Taliban won support with a simple message - they are here to destroy your opium crops, support us and we'll stop them.

In 2008 I moved out to Afghanistan with my family to live in the Hindu Kush mountains in the Wakhan Corridor to promote the area as a viable destination for experienced mountaineers and trekkers. The intent was to set up an Ink Spot of Success to prove the concept that if we build the economy and engage with the Afghan people and focus on and communicate success we'll actually achieve something sustainable.

The project was hugely successful but I hadn't counted on two key factors.

1. Despite the stories of US soldier being told they weren't spending development money fast enough and that they needed to distribute $1 million a day. I hadn't counted on how difficult it would be to get funding for something that was working so well. Nobody wanted to spend money in the peaceful, successful parts of Afghanistan, everyone wanted to spend money on the most dangerous parts.

2. The surge in 2009/10 rapidly accelerated the dispersal of the insurgency into previously peaceful parts of Afghanistan. I had counted on the Wakhan being a safe haven long enough to build something strong enough to counter the gradual wave of insurgency that was washing into Northern Alliance areas.

In 2010 I had to shelf my plans to do a major public relations campaign showing how there was hope in Afghanistan powerfully demonstrated by mountaineers from around the world climbing with Afghans in an act of peace and goodwill. The expeditions continued I just couldn't tell anyone without putting them at risk.

From my own experience in the Wakhan with almost no funding I know for a fact that a valley by valley approach to securing the peace and building the economy can work. With such mountainous terrain and limited ingress / egress routes whole areas of Afghanistan can be secured, sustainably if we also build the local economy.

We can still, just about, 'win' this but we have to focus on reinforcing success not failure.

gian gentile

Mon, 05/21/2012 - 1:57pm

I have done the research both in terms of operations and overall strategy. For example if you read what senior military and civilian leaders from Afghanistan are saying to the HASC in testimony on Afghanistan, they were saying from as early as 2002 that we were doing nation building in Afghanistan. One never sees testimony that states in Afghanistan say during the early years from 2002 to 2006 that american military forces were only trying to kill the Taliban. No, in fact killing the Taliban was always a part of a larger effort to rebuild Afghanistan as Duncan Hunter (chairman of the HASC) said in 2004 from "scratch" and from the ground up and build it into a functioning "democracy."

Now to be sure as I said in my first post there has been increased emphasis, adjustments and modifications but the fact remains that American strategy from the start has been armed nation building.

Mike Few

Mon, 05/21/2012 - 11:13am

In reply to by Fulcrum Strate…


Keep in mind that the next round of units will be deploying this summer for the 2012-13 fight, so they will be asking questions similar to mine in order to figure out the best course of action to complete this mission.

I hope that my pushback will help you to strengthen your argument. My biggest question remains how you do this without the promotion and agreement of the existing government and all the corruption and misuse of funds that entails?


Fulcrum Strate…

Mon, 05/21/2012 - 10:36am

In reply to by Mike Few

Thanks for the comments.

Mike Few

Mon, 05/21/2012 - 9:55am


Unfortunately, you might have nailed the problem. All of these "new" ideas may have worked early on and as late as pre-Surge 2009, but that does not mean that they will now work giving the existing environment and conditions.

Fulcrum Strate…

Mon, 05/21/2012 - 1:38pm

In reply to by Entropy

Re: Afghan desire to change; that's why I'd focus on the elite, especially those who have been working for the international community because change is coming whether they are ready or not. You just need a few bright sparks to start making some serious money from licit, sustainable business and the few can lead the many.

Re: wishful thinking - absolutely. We had won the hearts and minds of the Afghan people, I still remember those wonderful patrols in 2002 when people used to stop us and thank us for getting rid of the Taliban. In 2011 as a civilian I still went for walks among the hospitable Afghan people, wish others could experience the other side to Afghanistan which I have.

Re: military para - thought it inappropriate to be too specific.

Re: tension between sentences; 'A stand can be made against the invasion of mighty armies, no stand can be made against the invasion of an idea.' Victor Hugo

Madhu, Gian,

We have not been doing the same things since 2002. The focus for the US and NATO in Afghanistan from 2002 to about 2005 was getting a government formed, demining, and disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR). The Taliban were considered largely defeated except for some pockets in the east and south. There were a lot of economic initiatives during that time as well, mostly focused on rebuilding critical infrastructure. Again, around 2005 the US shifted to more kinetic action in response to the growing insurgency.

Anyway, I think the problems with this essay lay in the tension between these two sentences:

<blockquote>We need to starve the insurgents of the ideological, material and financial resources they need whilst nurturing and reinforcing the power of a new successful Afghan ideology.

This should be achieved with a lightness of touch by the international community to ensure the successes are truly Afghan and truly sustainable.</blockquote>

If the Afghans are going to change, they have to <em>want</em> to change. I see little evidence that Afghans, outside of a small elite, are ready or willing to drop patronage for some new ideology. Afghans have their own agendas and a "light" touch likely won't be any more successful than a heavy one. Afghans ultimately need to figure things out for themselves.

There is, IMO, a lot of wishful thinking is the essay (see the "Military Operations" section for example), but there are a few good suggestions too. Focusing development aid and assistance on "safe" areas is probably a good idea even though it comes much too late.

Fulcrum Strate…

Mon, 05/21/2012 - 12:33pm

In reply to by Mike Few

Mike, you are right about the omission. The approach, if actually tried, could lead to some thorny issues about where would an empowered youth movement take Afghanistan? Would they be content with economic and social change or would they go for political change? How would the USA and her allies be involved in a movement for change? At what point would it become unethical or our influence ineffective?

So yes a lot more thinking about the unintended consequences to be done and how it works with the international community's relationship with the Karzai administration. Bypassing the Afghan government and doing things unilaterally would appear to have a well established precedence. However I would suggest that working with Dr Ashraf Ghani and building the Ink Spots of Success concept into his transition strategy would be entirely feasible.

In terms of delivery I would suggest that most of the enabling functions could be carried out through existing mechanisms, it is just a matter of aligning those mechanisms to function together for a common purpose. As COL Gentile did point out we are doing many of these things in small measure already, but what I'm trying to point out is that these things are ad hoc and not part of a strategy and are undermined by main effort.

If most of the enabling is done through the facilitation of business to business connecting then once those connections are made and become profitable the business community will take responsibility for the Ink Spot.

I recognise I'm getting a bit wishy-washy so I'd like the chance to write up a specific strategy. If someone would like to sponsor the writing of a detailed plan it would be appreciated. If not I'll put some detail together when I get the chance.

Mike Few

Mon, 05/21/2012 - 9:12am

Hi David,

What strikes me as missing in this article, and goes to COL Gentile's earlier point, is any mention of the Karzai government.

We've pushed significant amounts of money to the A'stan government. How much more should we give them?

Who's responsibility is it to build within the peaceful, prosperous areas?

Are you suggesting that we bypass the existing government and unilaterally develop in areas of our own choosing?

Fulcrum Strate…

Mon, 05/21/2012 - 12:47pm

In reply to by gian gentile

Gian, I'm going to apologise for the flippant tone of my response to your comment.

Fulcrum Strate…

Mon, 05/21/2012 - 8:10am

In reply to by gian gentile

So since 2002 we've been encouraging the most talented Afghans to stay working in the Afghan public and private sector rather than working for us?

We've been focusing the bulk of our strategic resources on building the economy rather than killing our enemies?

We've focused more resources on building the great opportunities in Herat, Mazar, Bamiyan than we have in thorny issues of Helmand, Kandahar and Kunar?

I will assume you've not been to Afghanistan, but what have you been reading to think what I'm suggesting is anything like current US policy?

gian gentile

Mon, 05/21/2012 - 7:08am

But we have been doing these things since 2002. To be sure the intensity and emphasis of the effort has grown over the years, but the broader strategic approach for the US in Afghanistan has remained largely unchanged since 2002.

I fail to see how Mr Jones's recommendation is any different from what came before. And if we have been trying this strategy for 10 years and still going maybe instead of the same thing, albeit trying just a bit harder, perhaps we need some real disruptive thinking about what to do in Afghanistan.

My suggestion, bring Colonel (retired) Bob Jones (an original disruptive thinker to be sure) out of retirement and put him in charge of US efforts in Afghanistan with plenipotentiary powers.