Strategic Objectives in Afghanistan

Hat tip to Richard Fernandez for finding this useful bit of information. In a July 26 interview Sen. Obama said:

I’m not here to lay out a comprehensive military strategy. That’s the job of our commanders on the ground. I can tell you what our strategic goals should be. They should be relatively modest. We shouldn’t want to take over the country. We should want to get out of there as quickly as we can and help the Afghans govern themselves and provide for their own security. Our critical goal should be to make sure that the Taliban and al Qaida are routed and that they cannot project threats against us from that region. And to do that I think we need more troops. I also think that we need to deal with the situation in Pakistan and the fact that terrorists are able to operate with relative freedom of movement there right now.

As in the old saw about eating at a Chinese restaurant, fifteen minutes later I’m left wanting something more.

How do you ensure that “the Taliban and al Qaida are routed and that they cannot project threats against us from that region” without destabilizing the tenuous government of Pakistan and actually making Pakistan that much more of a safe haven for the terrorists? Indeed, how can you achieve any of those goals without installing a permanent force in the country? How many U. S. troops will be required, how long will it take, and at what cost? How does he plan to persuade the American people to bear that cost especially when his domestic policies require cost savings by removing our forces from Iraq and presumably not re-deploying them to Afghanistan?

Afghanistan has an even sketchier history as a cohesive country than Iraq does. Nation-building in Iraq has been daunting enough that Sen. Obama apparently thinks it impossible. Why will Afghanistan be easier?

21 comments… add one
  • Andy Link

    I have an immediate problem with the first two sentences you quote. Yes the military strategy is the job of the military commanders on the ground. But there are other kinds of strategy besides military. Deciding which strategies to allocate and where should not be left, in most cases, to military commanders on the ground.

    A big problem in both Afghanistan and Iraq IMO has been, and continues to be, the lack of a coherent overall strategy that serves our strategic goals. The military has been the only agency with any competence in executing a strategy, so our policy problems and solutions increasingly appear militarized. In short, it appears Obama doesn’t get the interagency thing either. I know I’m probably preaching to the choir here on this issue.

    This also scares me:

    A lot of it depends on not only our military actions but on our diplomatic initiatives with countries like Pakistan. And it also depends on how quickly we can get the Afghan government to cut down on corruption, take seriously the problem of the narcotics trade. So there are a lot of moving parts there. You don’t know until you know.

    No diplomatic initiative is gonna result in Pakistan policing the tribal areas. No diplomatic initiative is going to get the Afghan government to “take seriously” the problem of narcotics – they (The Afghans and Pakistanis) don’t view the “problems” the same way Obama does.

  • Basically, Sen. Obama is a tyro.

  • Basically, yes.

  • No diplomatic initiative is gonna result in Pakistan policing the tribal areas.

    Bingo. Anyone who thinks that we can “sove” the AQ/Taliban problem without invading the FAT/NWFP in massive force is demonstrating their ignorance of history, geography, and reality. The Pakis won’t do it (and I don’t blame them–it would result in massive civil war) and they’re sure as hell not going to give us permission to do so. Those who would ignore the Paki’s permission to do so anyway are forgetting other facts–like Pakistan having a nuclear arsenal and a bad attitude about invaders.

  • sam Link

    So, according to you guys, AQ/Taliban in Afghanistan problem is insoluble.

  • It depends on what you mean by solution, sam. If you mean what Americans have traditionally meant by victory, i.e. you go in, you get rid of the bad guys, you come home, you have a victory parade, then, no, I don’t believe that there’s a solution. I have never believed there was that sort of solution in Afghanistan (or in Iraq for that matter).

    What I think will need to happen is a longterm commitment of troops and development resources. For the foreseeable future.

  • sam Link

    “If you mean what Americans have traditionally meant by victory…” No, I don’t believe that Dave. This isn’t a “capture the flag” war. It’s really a counter-insurgency war. I don’t think Obama believes in that notion of victory, either.

    “What I think will need to happen is a longterm commitment of troops and development resources. ” Yes. And, I would point out, the Marine Corps knows how to fight these kinds of wars. I had a comment on OTB that outlined the Marine Corps CAP strategy in Vietnam–a strategy that was thwarted by the Army in favor of large scale ground combat.

    The Marines asked that they be redeployed from Iraq to Afghanistan, leaving Iraq to the Army. I believe that part of the reason they asked for the redeployment is that the Corps believes it’s way of fighting these wars would meet with success in Afghanistan. (See, The Small Wars Manual: Fleet Marine Force Reference Publication 12-25).

    Obama might a tyro, but he’s a pretty smart tyro. I have no idea if he is versed in the Marine’s small wars doctrine, but the remarks you quoted indicate he might be thinking along those lines. And, finally, I think the American people would be supportive of an effort to crush the Taliban and AQ in Afghanistan; after all, it is was AQ who attacked us.

  • sam, can you give me an example of a counterinsurgency that’s been successfully concluded while declaring half of the territory in which the insurgency is located off limits? I can’t think of one.

    Current COIN doctrine says that we need nearly a half million troops in Afghanistan. The cost of such a force would be nearly ten times the current cost of Iraq and Afghanistan combined. I see no political will on the part of the American people to engage in such an effort.

  • sam Link

    “sam, can you give me an example of a counterinsurgency that’s been successfully concluded while declaring half of the territory in which the insurgency is located off limits? I can’t think of one.”

    Nor can I Dave. But the Marines thought they could do it in Vietnam, even though the VC had out-counttry sanctuaries. Morevover, counter-insurgency has a diplomatic aspect. I don’t know that we cannot reach some agreement with the Pakistanis that will allow us to engage AQ in its sanctuaries. I know that it would be extremely difficult to do so. But I don’t know that’s it’s impossible.

    “Current COIN doctrine says that we need nearly a half million troops in Afghanistan.”

    In the RAND Occasional Paper (2008), “Doctrine of Eternal Recurrence — The U.S. Military and Counterinsurgency Doctrine, 1960-1970 and 2003-2006,” the author, Austin Long writes,

    “An examination of COIN doctrine and operations in the 1960s reveals that operations seldom matched written doctrine. Instead of winning hearts and minds, improving civil-military relations, conducting small-unit operations, and gathering intelligence, most Vietnam War commanders and units attempted to defeat the insurgency through large-scale operations and overwhelming firepower. Modern U.S. COIN operations in Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrate a similar preference for high-intensity warfare and a similar inability to adapt technologically and mentally to the requirements of COIN.”

    The first sentence simply recaps the abandoment of the Marine’s CAP program in Vietnam and the subsequent large-scale warfare. The second says, we’re following high-intensity warfare path in Afghanistan. Maybe it’s time for a new(old) COIN strategy. I think Obama would be more receptive to this than McCain.

  • Andy Link


    I’m saying that our goals and priorities need to be adjusted. So far, in both the Afghanistan and Iraq, the US has adopted a policy of nation-building – the idea being that a national central government would have authority and power over its territory along the lines of most nation-states.

    History in these regions have shown time and again that this approach does not work, particularly in Afghanistan/Pakistan.

    The US should instead focus on the local level and build relationships and allies with the local leadership structures that actually do control the territory they’re responsible for. Not coincidentally, it was exactly that strategy – bypassing the nascent central government – the led to the Anbar Awakening. Perhaps, in time, these locals can be “evolved” into recognizing a central authority, but that will likely take generations, even if it’s possible.

    On the Pakistani side of the border, I think the Pakistanis should be encouraged to operate in a similar vein. Pakistan’s army cannot control the area through force – what they should do is make deals with key local leaders – you help keep AQ out and we’ll let you go about your business and provide you support. The US might be able to help this effort, but perceptions about Pakistani sovereignty mean that help will have to be largely covert.

    And let’s be honest here – such a strategy is no guarantee of success. It is possible to do everything right, make no mistakes and still fail. So, in the end, the AQ/Taliban problem may be insoluble, but we won’t know until it becomes so.

  • sam Link

    Andy, I agree with your last post, and I think my previous post was heading in your direction. As for the concluding paragraph of your last post–absolutely.

  • I basically agree with Andy’s last comment, too, but I don’t think it’s what either candidate is running on.

    sam, I hope you recognize that you’re making a circular argument. Look at the quote in the body of my post. Sen. Obama is specifically avoiding advocating tactics (or even strategy). He’s just setting strategic objectives. Might he do something else? Sure. But he isn’t and we can’t speculate on what he might do.

    We can only discuss counter-insurgency tactics and strategy that’s in use or being discussed. Predicating our judgements on counter-insurgency tactics and strategy that might be used under some unspecified set of circumstances is just wishful thinking.

    One final point: if you think I’m a particular fan of John McCain’s you might want to read my posts more closely. I’m very distrustful of the sort of national greatness grand strategy he seems to advocate.

  • Afghanistan has an even sketchier history as a cohesive country than Iraq does.

    This can be stated simply: Afghanistan isn’t a nation-state, it is a geographic designation.

    And Sam, is AQ even still in Afghanistan? I keep hearing and reading about Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan. I may have just missed it but I don’t hear anything about AQ in Afghanistan now. What’s left of them appears to be in Pakistan and a few remaining spots in Iraq. As the Iraqi forces seem to be eliminating the last few pockets of AQ in Iraq that only leaves those members in the Pakistani border region. Frankly I don’t think they are anywhere near the menance that the ISI represents, and THAT problem can’t be addressed without invading Pakistan – which isn’t going to happen even if Pakistan didn’t have nuclear arms.

  • sam Link

    Dave, I know you’re not a McCain fan, and I didn’t mean to imply that you are. When I wrote that I think Obama might be more receptive to a change in strategy than McCain, I was thinking just of McCain’s national greatness bent and how that leads, I think, right to the kind of high-intensity warfare I think we’d all like to avoid. As for arguing in a circle, I don’t see that, but…

    Ah, hell, I just went back and read my posts. I might be right on the facts, but the sum is a fatuous display of armchair generalship. Sorry for wasting you folks’s time.

  • You’re definitely not wasting our time, sam. We like the discourse and everything has been quite respectful.

  • sam Link

    Thanks, Dave.

    Folks, in my wanderings around the web, I’ve found three sites that you might find interesting on the topic we’ve gone over here, They are:

    Abu Muqawama

    which bills itself as “a blog dedicated to following issues related to contemporary insurgencies as well as counterinsurgency tactics and strategy. Abu Muqawama aims to be a resource for students, counterinsurgents, academics, and the general public.”

    The Capitan’s Journal

    (Not my politics over there, but the reportage is looks pretty good.)

    And finally,

    Small Wars Journal

    which I can’t praise highly enough.


  • Two of my favorite sites, sam (Abu Muqawama and SWJ Blog). I’l check the other out.

  • Hear hear.

    I would add that while “solving” the AQ/Taliban problem is not physically impossible, I cannot foresee any political and/or diplomatic circumstances in the near future in which it would be possible. Including the political will on the part of America to so engage in the FATA/NWFP at the level of commitment required even if Pakistan was amenable.

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