Small Wars Journal

How to Lose in Afghanistan

How to Lose in Afghanistan - Anthony H. Cordesman, Washington Post opinion.

The United States cannot win the war in Afghanistan in the next three months - any form of even limited victory will take years of further effort. It can, however, easily lose the war. I did not see any simple paths to victory while serving on the assessment group that advised the new US commander, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, on strategy, but I did see all too clearly why the war is being lost.

The most critical reason has been resources. Between 2002 and 2008 the United States never provided the forces, money or leadership necessary to win, effectively wasting more than half a decade. Our country left a power vacuum in most of Afghanistan that the Taliban and other jihadist insurgents could exploit and occupy, and Washington did not respond when the US Embassy team in Kabul requested more resources...

More at The Washington Post.

Also see The Afghan War: A Survey of "Metrics" by Anthony H. Cordesman and Nicholas B. Greenough at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The Afghan-Pakistan conflict is a complex conflict that covers two countries and has ideological, political, governance, economic, military, and security dimensions that are extremely difficult to measure and portray in summary form. NATO/ISAF, the United Nations, the US Department of Defense, and various polls and nongovernmental organizations have, however, gradually developed summary metrics and maps of the conflict. Whilke these data have serious gaps, and often attempt to "spin" the war in political directions, they stil provide a useful overview of developments in the conflict and are beginning to go beyond the military dimension to the political and economic dimensions and to show how Afghans and Pakistanis perceive the conflict...

Full Reports and Subreports at CSIS.


Nick M (not verified)

Thu, 09/03/2009 - 4:21am

How to lose the war in Afghanistan?

a. pretending it's still "our" war; and

b. just keep doing what we've done.

Failure assured! (although you need a clear definition of success to measure failure).

When the history books tell the story of our self-defeat, I'm sure they will say Mission Creep.

Ken White (not verified)

Tue, 09/01/2009 - 3:49pm

Sigh. I did it again. Anonymous I'm not..

I'll get you for this, Bill Nagle. ;)

Anonymous (not verified)

Tue, 09/01/2009 - 3:45pm

Sadly true...<blockquote>"...By micromanaging the war with a flawed strategy to begin with, were faced with exactly the same path which we went down and failed in Viet Nam."</blockquote>It, as they say, is the American way...

The broader message is that the American people operate on the Rule of Thirds, 1/3 each approving, disapproving (ideologically based) and the remainder swaying as the wind blows. Congress does not operate on that rule, it acutely senses where that swayable third is finally headed -- and if that is for the exit, Congress will invariably be ahead of them.

We can commit to these things but we have a maximum of about two to four House of Representative elections cycles to finish them. Even Anthony Cordesman ought to be able to discern that...

Though George might not have done so. Good saddle, though.

Jeremy Kotkin (not verified)

Tue, 09/01/2009 - 3:26pm

I would have used Helmuth von Moltke as the classic example of straying beyond Clausewitz' precepts of civilian control over the military, but McClellan is a good case study too. ;o) History, luckily enough, isn't too replete with instances of this type of dynamic, but when they are, Bismarck, Lincoln, and Truman have all showed us how to handle it. The point we can hopefully glean is that we don't make the same mistake here.

However, I don't think Cordesman (as much as I still disagree with his basic premise) is calling for a total military thought-out and delivered grand strategy in Afghanistan without the need for a civilian control; I think hes saying Washington should set the overall course (and nothing else) and leave the military to come up with the ways and the means. As you point out sir, he is taking the McClellan-esque view, but because of the necessity to work with NGOs and Dept of State/USAID in-country, a view trending towards a Moltkeian total view: "Yet they can win only if they are allowed to manage both the civil and military sides of the conflict without constant micromanagement from Washington or traveling envoys." Hes dangerously saying the military needs time, resources, and DC off its back, and the total control over all military and civilian aspects of the 'war on the ground to win.

Then, he wraps up his thoughts stating that "Unfortunately, strong elements in the White House, State Department and other agencies seem determined to ignore these realities. They are pressuring the president to direct Eikenberry and McChrystal to come to Washington to present a broad set of strategic concepts rather than specific requests for troops, more civilians, money and an integrated civil-military plan for action." In reality, the POTUS and the overall military commander during a war *are* on tap to provide "a broad set of strategic concepts" and leave the tactics to the tacticians. I dont remember reading about Roosevelt telling: a) Eisenhower how to skin the cat ("You will enter the continent of Europe and, in conjunction with the other United Nations, undertake operations aimed at the heart of Germany and the destruction of her armed forces") or b) through the Cairo Conference telling Nimitz how to conduct amphibious landings. Thats the way military strategy works - from USG policy, through Grand Strategy, to military strategy to CONPLANs and OPLANs; not the reverse.

Finally, Cordesman is definitely wrong in that better tactical and operational execution is all which is necessary. In Viet Nam, as BG McMaster points out, the war was lost "not in the field, in the newspapers, or on college campuses, it was lost in DC - among the President, his Cabinet, and the JCS." By micromanaging the war with a flawed strategy to begin with, were faced with exactly the same path which we went down and failed in Viet Nam.

gian p gentile (not verified)

Mon, 08/31/2009 - 8:25am

Dr. Cordesman's didactic lecture reminds me of General George McClellan during the American Civil War and his rants and raves against the intrusions by President Lincoln and other pesky politicians and civilians who had the temerity to tell him how to conduct war. As McClellan in so many words might have thought then, it seems many experts think now; "hey you American public and non-believers, trust us, leave us alone, we know what we are doing, we are the experts, give us what we want and then shut-up about it." It also sounds a lot like Walt Rostow in the latter years of Vietnam frustrated by the skeptics who dared to challenge the experts. The United States lost the Vietnam War not because its Army failed at counterinsurgency tactics and operations, but because it failed at STRATEGY. Sun Tzu said that "tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat." When I read lectures like this one by Dr. Cordesman, I just hear noise.

Readers of SWJ blog should pay attention to a below post titled "Is the War in Afghanistan in the Interests of the United States and Its Allies" by Major Jeremy Kotkin. You see the good Major is talking strategy, and Cordesman (like Rostow and McClellan before him) is so mired in the world of tactics and operations that he cannot see the level of noise that he is creating to the detriment of good strategy.