Conflicting Objectives for U.S. in Afghanistan

President Obama’s political objectives for Afghanistan are limited and feasible, says military historian Gian Gentile, but the military’s counterinsurgency strategy and "maximalist approach of nation-building" could take a generation to achieve.

August 17, 2010

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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General David H. Petraeus, in his first extended public interviews as chief U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, made news over the weekend when he argued against a hasty withdrawal of U.S. troops in July 2011 and expressed optimism that an achievement of the U.S. objectives there is possible. But Colonel Gian P. Gentile, a visiting CFR fellow who heads West Point’s military history program, says there is a mismatch between U.S. President Barack Obama’s limited political objectives in Afghanistan, which could be accomplished in some eighteen months, and the U.S. military’s "operational objectives." These objectives are "euphemistically called counterinsurgency," he says, and could take a generation to achieve. "We have the means to tactically and operationally achieve success in Afghanistan," says Gentile, but "we become mired in the tactics and operational methods of doing counterinsurgency."

How do you see the current situation in Afghanistan, and how long will the United States have to remain there?

Thinking historically, the war in Afghanistan is stalemated somewhat like Vietnam was after the Tet Offensive [in 1968]. We can stay there for a long time. Certainly the Taliban, our chief enemy there, doesn’t have the capacity to throw us out. We can accomplish President Obama’s political objectives to disrupt, disable, dismantle al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. But for us to accomplish our military’s operational objectives--which is nation-building, euphemistically called counterinsurgency--that’s not going to take eighteen months. And I don’t think it’s going to take only three to four years. It will be a generational effort. History shows the kind of commitment that’s required to accomplish that kind of objective. The problem in terms of strategy is that we have a mismatch. The president’s political objectives are actually quite limited, but his military has offered up really a maximalist operational method of nation-building to achieve those very limited political objectives. That’s the stalemated nature of the situation in Afghanistan.

The American army has convinced itself if it just tries a little bit harder, if it gets a better general or two, gets a few more brigades, then it really can make counterinsurgency, aka nation-building, work.

When General Petraeus says he’s now got enough resources to do what his mission calls on him to do, what is he talking about? What does he think he can do?

There’s a recent history published by the Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. It’s written by a bevy of historians but led by Donald P. Wright, who also, a couple years ago, came out with an excellent book on the first three or four years on Iraq. In this newly released history on the first five years of the U.S. Army’s war in Afghanistan, he argues that in late 2003, beginning of 2004, the army started what’s referred to as a classic counterinsurgency campaign, in which the American army under Lieutenant General David W. Barno (PDF) started practicing correct counterinsurgency tactics and operations.

The counterargument that would be made by many today is that there weren’t enough troops then like we have now. But arguably, the Taliban enemy was also much smaller. So the question that arises is if that’s right, that we’ve been doing counterinsurgency correctly in Afghanistan from late 2003 until now, or at least until a year ago, what do we make of those three or four intervening years?

Timeline: U.S. War in AfghanistanWhat the history of counterinsurgency shows, especially as others have practiced it: the French in Morocco and Algeria, the United States in Vietnam, and especially how pundits of counterinsurgency have remembered those sort of cases or campaigns, is that in order to make counterinsurgency work, you have to construct a narrative around it. One of the pillars to doing counterinsurgency, at least the way the American army sees it, is that when you do a counterinsurgency, you have to start screwed-up and then either you get a better general in charge or you get better methods, tactics, rolled-up indoctrine, or a few more brigades of troops or some combination of all those things. Then, once you get those things in place, then things potentially can get better.

But it’s the same narrative that keeps circling over and over again. We have the means to tactically and operationally achieve success in Afghanistan. The problem is we’ve become mired in the tactics and operational methods of doing counterinsurgency.

You’ve now forced me to ask: What is your strategic plan for Afghanistan?

If you think of the different levels of war, you have tactics and operations, and you have strategy, and then you have policy. If strategy is supposed to be that critical level of war that links tactical and operational methods to achieve political objectives, then we have no strategy in Afghanistan. All we have is counterinsurgency tactics and operations.

The Chinese historian Sun Tzu said that "tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat." He said, "Strategy without tactics is the slow road to victory." The point he was making, thousands of years ago, is that if you can do anything right in war, it should be strategy.

With regard to Afghanistan the president’s political objectives are to disable, disrupt, dismantle al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, to prevent it from using Afghanistan and Pakistan as a base to attack the United States. Then why, as a matter of strategy, do we have to embrace such a maximalist approach of nation-building to achieve those rather limited objectives?

We can set things up to where the government will retake control in certain areas, but in other areas the Taliban will have control. But that doesn’t mean that the Taliban will ally itself with al-Qaeda again. There’s plenty of evidence that it’s not in their interest to do so.

If the determination is made the best way to achieve those objectives is to build a functioning Afghan government that can secure its populations, protect its borders, keep al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan, then strategy also demands a clear and reasonable assessment of the cost of doing that. The costs don’t involve a couple of years; it requires a truly generational effort. That’s what it would’ve taken to make Vietnam work. If that’s the cost of it--a generational effort of hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops doing nation-building in that part of the world--it gets you back to this question of strategy, and linking operations and tactics to policy. If the political objectives are limited, then is it really worth that kind of effort to achieve those limited political objectives?

If the policy is simply to make sure al-Qaeda can’t get back into Afghanistan, why do generals favor more grandiose approaches?

That’s a question that I’ve been trying to tackle. One of the ongoing criticisms I have made over the last couple of years of the American army is that it has convinced itself if it just tries a little bit harder, if it gets a better general or two, gets a few more brigades, then it really can make counterinsurgency--aka nation-building--work. It’s really come to believe in the promise of counterinsurgency. It’s become such a tightly wrapped straitjacket that it prevents us from seeing alternatives, especially in a place like Afghanistan.

In Vietnam we didn’t say we were fighting counterinsurgency, did we?

There was an element of counterinsurgency. General William Westmoreland knew what he was facing. This whole idea that Westmoreland was some bumbling buffoon and didn’t understand the nature of the war he was fighting is absurd. If you look at the primary documents, Westmoreland knew exactly the problem that he faced. Within the context and with an appreciation and understanding of the political constraints that Westmoreland had and accepting the failed strategy and policy that led the United States into Vietnam in the first place, the operational method that Westmoreland chose of attrition actually made sense. But since the end of Vietnam in the 1970s and the rise of the counterinsurgency experts in the 1980s like John Nagl, even General Petraeus as a young scholar at Princeton and a teacher at West Point, [there has been] a core group in the American army and defense circles who started to believe that the Vietnam War could’ve been won by better tactics and operations, which seems to be what we have consumed ourselves with in Afghanistan: Can the failed policy and strategy be rescued by better counterinsurgency tactics and operations?

What gives General Petraeus credibility is the impression that his policy worked in Iraq.

Certainly violence was lower in Iraq, starting in the very late summer, early fall of 2007 and then into 2008. The surge brigades that General Petraeus and General Raymond T. Odierno commanded certainly played a role in the reduction of violence, but the idea was just fanciful that the reduction of violence that started in late ’07, early ’08 was brought about primarily as a causative factor by a reinvented American Army under better generals doing correct counterinsurgency tactics and operations because it hadn’t done that before the surge.

It was a number of other conditions that came together: the Anbar Awakening that began in Anbar Province with Marines and then built on by the Army with Sean MacFarland’s brigade (USAToday) in 2005/2006, spreading into Baghdad; the co-opting of our former Sunni insurgent enemies, who allied with us to fight against al-Qaeda. All that combined with the fact that Baghdad becomes sectarian-separated in 2005/2006 as a result of the civil war, and with the Shiite militia’s decision to stop attacking civilians and government forces--those conditions came together, which produced ultimately the lowering of violence,

The president’s overall policy, which he set out in his speech in December, was to begin a withdrawal by next July. Is there going to be a lot of blood on the floor as we get into next spring?

It might be, but there was blood on the floor before we even got there. A number of senior defense officials are, at least now, making the case that that eighteen-month timeline should be a condition-based timeline. Your question gets at what happens if we leave Afghanistan too early, too early being premised on the notion that we have to stay there a long time to do nation-building. We can set things up to where the government will retake control in certain areas, but in other areas the Taliban will have control. But that doesn’t mean that the Taliban will ally itself with al-Qaeda again. There’s plenty of evidence that it’s not in their interest to do so.


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