A Lack of Strategy

by Joshua Foust on 6/9/2011 · 6 comments

For PBS, I wonder why both pro- and anti-war people seem to have no sense of strategic or long-term thinking:

It is so hard to talk about the end state in Afghanistan because it’s hard to say why we are still there. The original goal of removing the Taliban from power and preventing al Qaeda from launching another attack on our homeland was achieved in 2002. Since then the goal has shifted shape and become indefinable: the creation of a state with “good-enough governance,” in the words of Ambassador Crocker, with a military that can defend itself and prevent the reemergence of al Qaeda sanctuaries in the country. In many ways, it is a strategy that has failed to define itself affirmatively. Rather, it is one defined by the absence of corruption, the absence of al Qaeda. It is not a strategy for anything, which makes it confusing.

It is unclear how we are meant to achieve this strategic negation. The Obama administration has vacillated on whether it wants to defeat the Taliban or negotiate an end to the worst of the fighting with them. For years, the civilian and military personnel who serve at the highest levels have insisted the war cannot be won militarily, yet we spend 97 percent of our resources on the military mission. We can be forgiven for being confused about what we’re trying to do.

There’s more to it, obviously, so read and then (and only then) comment. It almost goes without saying that I didn’t even bring up what Afghans might want, except as an aside. We can’t even figure out what we want; why should we expect our leaders to follow whatever the Afghans might have in mind?

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– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Caomengde June 10, 2011 at 6:10 pm

Read it. Quite lengthy rant about lack of strategic vision. Why doesn’t the article simply answer the question it poses “DOES the U.S. has a vital national security interest in Afghanistan?”

DOES the U.S. has a vital national security interest in Afghanistan?

Did we idiotically threw away blood and treasure in last decade in Afghanistan because we could?

Ummmm…. Yes.

Would US military expenditure will have to be so drastically reduced in next 5 years as to render any discussion about projection of American Power into Central Asia totally irrelevant?


M Shannon June 10, 2011 at 7:47 pm

There is no one strategy because there is no single “aim”. Taking about “a” strategy assumes we want to “win” (by which I mean having the enemy call it quits so we can pack up and go home).

Does Karzai, the Afghan leadership and business classes want to win. No a stalemate with billions pouring in is probably fine with him. Even their kids, employed as translators, don’t want the war to end before they get their green card. Without the war the Afghan economy would drop by 90%.

Do foreign contractors want to win? Obviously not. Closing the mega FOBs and RTCs would be a financial catastrophe for the companies and their employees.

NATO? Not really. Yes they’d like fewer casualties but without a small war what would they do to justify themselves. What would happen to the cash they’ve been given for the war? Where would they try out the new weapons developed for Afghanistan? What would the generals do without packs of journalists hanging on every word?

Politicians. All of NATO except the US and Brits don’t really care or believe it’s a lost cause- if they didn’t they would have far more troops and no caveats. Their aims are all external to Afghanistan- keeping NATO afloat, who’ll control NATO, increasing defence spending, or get goodies from the US. All but the British would be happy to leave now if they could find a way to do it without raising the ire of the US (in itself an exaggerated threat).

The Brits care but only in order to save the reputation of their army and the politicians who’ve spent years telling British voters how crucial Helmand is when they know it’s not. They’re simply waiting for permission from the US to leave.

I believe Obama thinks it’s a lost cause or not crucial but is constrained by the need to “be tough on terror” until after the 2012 US election. He may even have come to the conclusion that although the US can do little good it can do harm by staying. With that in mind there’s no reason to really care what DOS, USAID and DOD do as long as he can get Petraeus to spin success and cut costs.

Caomengde June 10, 2011 at 10:53 pm

On the bright side of things, at least we are not injecting Syphilis bacteria into hapless under-aged orphan girls anymore like we use to do in 40s (Well at least not for the purpose of medical experimentation).

I guess that’s progress! Yay!

Faisal June 11, 2011 at 7:09 am

Winning a war in a situation where the host nation and its population is increasingly hostile to NATO is not possible. Over the past few years, Afghans have continued to see NATO as an invading force. More so Karzai has openly stated such for the media and for NATO officials. While US and NATO media ignored it, Al Jazeera and regional news agencies at the field day with it.

Also one must say that the western media has played a very active role in stating that this war is winnable. It wasn’t winnable from day one. Removing the Taliban great idea. Establishing ISAF a bad idea. A NATO force over a UN force is a bad idea in general for peace-building initiatives. Anybody with a remote background in Peace-building or even Peace-keeping knows that it only works when the local population is willing to accept the intervention as in the case of Darfur and South Sudan. While the Government in Khartoum may hate such interventions, the local populace loves it.

There was no true victory in Iraq and i highly doubt you shall have one in Afghanistan. Why? Because there is no such thing as good Taliban or bad Taliban. They all functioned under the same structure from 1996 to 2001. If ISAF is going to negotiate they will do so with the same people you were bombing back to the stone age a few days ago.

Any negotiated settlement will be a victory.

Faisal June 11, 2011 at 7:10 am

Sorry the last sentence should read: Any negotiated settlement will NOT be a victory.

Mike Blair June 12, 2011 at 2:33 pm

The fact that no “prominent” or “credible” media icons havent taken strong positions on what to do in afghanistan shows how far up the influence for an endless afghan war goes. The post-vietnam powerbrokers at langley have more tools in the shed than ever to prevent petty issues like public opinion (in which upwards of 60% of americans support isolationist and libertarian ideals) clear up the muddy water that is afpak. Truth is that NATO wants continued hegemony, and the world hegemony is enforced through central asia.

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