July 5th, 2012

Tactics, Strategy, and Afghanistan

Douglas Ollivant has a must-read over at Battleland on Little America:

It is an open question whether there is sufficient human capital in Afghanistan to accomplish the reforms that United States policy calls for—particularly given the demand for educated Afghans as a) military translators, b) diplomatic translators, c) drivers/translators for contractors, whether private military or construction, and d) “fixers” for journalists that leaves very few to actually do the work of administering the country.

As they say on the Interwebs, Read The Whole Thing. As Ollivant says, the book (or at least the plentiful excerpts I’ve seen) largely misses the point. Yes, the civilian surge was bungled. Yes, the military, diplomats, and aid elements of national power did not play too well together. These are all failures that should be corrected. But Ollivant writes “[i]t is an open question whether there is sufficient human capital in Afghanistan to accomplish the reforms that United States policy calls for.” The focus should be on policy.

In war, examples can be found of numerous tactical deficiencies, some which of very serious import. Abraham Lincoln, for political reasons, had to give militarily inexperienced political bosses military commissions to lead troops on the battlefield. Air-ground fratricide killed many American soldiers and even a general in the Normandy campaign. A civil-military fracas worse than anything in Afghanistan nearly derailed the Korean War. But in each case, we got the politics, policy, and strategy right—even if it took some time to calibrate those strategies or match them with appropriate tactics and operations.

There have been, for sure, gross failures with the “whole-of-government” approach to warfare in Afghanistan. But there also have been innovations with strategic effect, such as threat finance and collaborative warfare targeting. Had our goals in Afghanistan been more realistic, the failures described in Little America might have only been (like the failures of planning and execution in the Gulf War and Kosovo) only popularly recognizable in retrospect. It is better to “win ugly” than to not win at all.

We have not yet achieved our political object and there remains significant uncertainty over whether the goal will be achieved. We are beginning a process of re-evaluation, and the beginnings of such revisions sadly focus on tiny tactical pieces of the whole. Unlike Gian P. Gentile (who quotes Sun Tzu’s famous aphorism about the “slow road” to victory without tactics) I think strategy without at least “good enough” tactics is impossible. But a reading of Gentile’s op-ed also demonstrates another useful point: bad tactics also can flow from bad policy or strategy.

Peter Munson gets at the wider problem here:

Unless we are ready to take on a neo-colonial or mandatory level of responsibility for governing a foreign land, we will have to accept the Afghan legitimacy of flawed actors.  Actors like Sher Mohammed Akhunzada, Abdul Rahman Jan, and the Karzais are surely unsavory, but we have forgotten the Charles Tilly reading (see also Giustozzi) of the history of western state development in that states arise from warlords and organized crime.  Even in America, politics of our recent past were far more unsavory than we are willing to admit.  Thus, we shouldn’t be so surprised at the lack of success in rooting corruption, for example, with what a friend of mine in Kabul calls the “Anti-Gravity Task Force.”  When you look at the troubled transitions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt, is one of the biggest problems with COIN perhaps our misunderstanding of the messy process of building state capacity and institutions to the point at which democracy can have more constructive outcomes?

Munson gets at the real problem. It’s not that Afghanistan is too exotic to fix, or that a “graveyard of empires” exists. Afghanistan’s problems are actually mundane but it has been a very long time since a Western state has dealt with prolonged civil war, entrenched corruption, feudal warlordism, and persistent lethal subversion from a neighboring state. The civilian surge was a set of tactics intended to implement a policy idea:  the key to making Afghanistan stable was to ensure it was at least governed in a “good-enough” fashion. But the United States—with the set of resources realistically available to it at the time—could not realize such a policy aim.

Comparisons are often made to Korea and postwar Germany. But nation-building is much easier when political consensus exists about what kind of order should the nation be built-upon. Alice Hills makes this point in regard to policing: police in post-conflict societies are constructed by order. Police, development aid, etc does not construct order. How does order form in countries like Afghanistan? When one side achieves a preponderance of force. Empirical research on warlordism, like Kimberly Zizk Marten’s work, has teased out the process of when warlordism ends. Outsiders executing civilian surges do not figure much into the process of order-building.

This doesn’t mean that the US shouldn’t have used civilian power or devoted energy to carrying out activities different from warfighting. In my own writing I fear I have sometimes unnecessarily downplayed such elements. Strategic failures also doesn’t excuse failures in the whole of government or mean that the US shouldn’t devote energy towards making all parts of the government work together on the ground in war. But force is the dominant coin of the realm in war precisely because political actors want to dispute the existing political order with violence and subversion. Nations may be built, in short, when no one with a gun feels like he can disrupt the process because he disagrees with the order behind the nation-building.

Outside of regional analysts, I have not seen very much attention at all to the politics of Afghanistan and state formation/consolidation. This—and how it relates to American interests—should be central. Little America should be the beginning rather than the end of the conversation.

(Note: my Abu M post for today touches on similar ground).

  1. barefootstrategist reblogged this from rethinkingsecurity and added:
  2. rethinkingsecurity posted this
Loading tweets...


A blog on states, communities, and organizations in conflict by Adam Elkus.

Portrait photo: Marshal Liu "One-Eyed Dragon" Bocheng