Small Wars Journal

Not Losing in Afghanistan

Not Losing in Afghanistan - Washington Post op-ed by John Nagl.

Americans haven’t lost a war in so long, we’ve forgotten what doing so looks like - and what it costs. The only war that we undeniably lost was the Vietnam War; thrown out of the country literally under fire, we abandoned our allies to a horrific fate and left behind a legacy of terror in the region, breaking our Army in the process.

Despite the miasma of discontent with the effort, the United States and its many allies are not losing in Afghanistan. The spate of “green on blue” killings of U.S. soldiers by members of the Afghan security forces - some Taliban infiltrators, but mostly disgruntled or frustrated Afghans after a decade of foreign occupation - is a serious threat to our partnership strategy. After a temporary stand-down, to allow reactions to cartoons and videos caricaturing the prophet Muhammad to pass, joint patrols have resumed. We are proceeding with our plan to hand over primary responsibility for security to the Afghans by the end of 2014...


(I have modified my original comment somewhat.)

The nature of the conflict:

A conflict between:

a. Those -- inside and outside of Afghanistan -- who wish to see the state and society(ies) of Afghanistan (and other countries) run more along modern western lines.


b. Those -- inside and outside of Afghanistan -- who wish to see the state and society(ies) of Afghanistan (and other countries) run according to a very different model/models.

Thus, for strategic purposes, should we see the nature of the conflict in Afghanistan from the, seemingly, much too narrow perspective of a simple insurgency/counterinsurgency?

Or, for strategic purposes, would it be more correct to characterize the conflict in Afghanistan in other, more-broad and comprehensive terms?

If the latter is correct (for strategic purposes the conflict in Afghanistan cannot be viewed simply as an insurgency/counterinsurgency), then what proper characterization -- and what proper and corresponding tactics, metrics and indicators of strategic success -- actually apply?


Tue, 10/23/2012 - 12:08am

There are two strategic reasons the Wahhabis and the Muslim Brotherhood are in Pakistan – both very different but both share a vital interwoven dependency which is unique to Pakistan. Oddly enough, though the implications are completely different, the same two reasons shape the strategic necessity for the US and its Allies to not only remain but succeed in the region.

The first reason is that currently Pakistan is the only place on earth one can obtain a Nuclear Improvised Explosive Device (NIED). Unconventional Warfare (UW) is very near going nuclear. (Literally the Pakistan Taliban reached within a few hours drive from the Pakistani nuclear arsenal.) It stands to reason that the Art of Unconventional Warfare, which has proved so singularly successful since the end of WW2, is about to morph into its ultimate power form.

The second is a Pakistani based delivery system that is perfect and – unlike the NIED – has been proven hundreds of thousands of times to work flawlessly. The heroin industry can deliver a 40 to 50 kg payload outside any doorway in any city in Israel or the US within a few weeks – if not days. If the payload is several hundred kg then it may take a few months but it is perfect and any country, any city, any address, day or night can be reached.

And as the DEA will tell you 90% of the world’s heroin comes from Pakistan.

Unhappily for us this unique NIED club is about to get a second member (which has an even more deranged leadership) which not only doubles the threat but will give the NIED bomber plausible deniability. The Pak’s will say it’s an Iranian NIED and vice-versa or in a triple bluff a third unknown attacker may finger one or the other or both! The ten million degree heat of the fusion will vaporise any evidence and the West will be faced with the dilemma of killing several million citizens of a country whose government may have had nothing to do with the NIED attack.

One would think that abandoning a strategic military foothold between Pakistan and Iran would be the last thing the West should be contemplating.

Some folks advocate that in order to prepare for a AirSea Battle in 20 to 40 years time the US must pull out of just about everything else. The implication is that a crystal ball has told someone there will be a war with China. I believe there will be a war in China but it will be a civil war. Though the near term Israel and the US are the most likely to suffer a NIED attack the real danger is for the Chinese.

For 5000 years the Chinese ruling urban elite cocooned in their fabulous palaces have succumbed to corruption, greed and nepotism (much like now). The disenfranchised and exploited masses have without exception declared all of China’s past rulers as having ‘lost heavens mandate to rule’ and been ruthlessly massacred by the vengeful masses and their palaces and tombs ransacked and destroyed.

However the next time this cleaning of the slate occurs it will be with NIEDs and it will not be in 20 to 40 years.

The Chinese are considered the greatest exponents of UW – indeed many believe they wrote the book. It should surprise no-one they have the potential to be the masters of NIED UW as well.

And what is the only country in the world which has a border with Iran, Pakistan and China? The one we are about to pull out of?

Bombs Gone,


Robert C. Jones

Sun, 10/21/2012 - 8:26am

Dr. John Nagl knows a great deal about this topic. I would defend that position in any audience. The problem, is that like so many possessed of great knowledge, it becomes an obstacle to obtaining equally great understanding. He is so blinded by the certainty of what he knows that he cannot get to what it is he does not understand.

The result is that this is an analysis of actions and the first order effects of those actions. That is tactics. I've come to a position where I appreciate that a net sum of tactical victories can indeed add up to strategic success in a fight that is largely conventional and waged between states. But applying this type of thinking to populace-based fights leads to the type of frustrated analysis that we saw post-Vietnam and that we see today in Afghanistan.

You get smart, experienced senior leaders making assessments on Vietnam like "we won every battle, but later the Vietnamese lost the war." or more recently in vogue is the odd perspective that "we defeated the insurgency, but later, after we left, the state of North Vietnam defeated the state of South Vietnam." Those are tactical assessments of conventional leaders to an unconventional conflict that we never understood as an institution and as a nation while we were in it, and that we never grew to understand in our post-mortem analysis either.

Today we have smart, experienced senior leaders making very similar assessments of Afghanistan. They recite numbers of villages cleared, number of wells drilled or markets opened, numbers of "high value" (the average Marine Lance corporal would qualify as a Taliban HVT under the criteria we have applied for several years now) targets killed or captured. Yet at the same time they either ignore or write off as some anomaly beyond their control the growth of violence following every year of such "successes," or the growing instability in Pakistan, or the growth of green on blue attacks, etc, etc, etc.

This is because we attempt to deduce strategic assessments from tactical actions and first order tactical metrics. Who is measuring the 2nd and 3rd order effects of our actions? Who is attempting to understand the linkage between tactical successes and strategic set-backs? More importantly, who is seeking to apply such understanding to develop the nuanced refinements of our approaches necessry to move strategic metrics in positive directions as well? Not Dr. Nagl.

This assessment is largely accurate in its facts. This assessment is well within the "beaten zone" of how the establishment thinks about and understands these conflicts. But this assessment is dead wrong all the same, because it lacks strategic understanding of the nature of the type of conflict it seeks to assess.


Bob Jones


Sun, 10/21/2012 - 2:52am

Winning in Afghanistan is relativly simple. (I will go just a bit off topic by saying that this will work in any conflict). A number of military stratagy manuals and books take care of that end. Where we have been coming up short since WWII is in the following areas:

1. WILL: We must have the will to win. We must have the will to do whatever it takes to succeed and accomplish the mission. If this is killing the enemy, we must have the will to do it. If it is destroying his infastructure, we must have the will to do it. We must put the winning of the conflict before all else. This WILL has to come from both military and civilain leadership. Once it is won, we can build governments, etc. But the lesson must be clear to the surviors... We have and will always have the ability and the will to conduct war, from a one-time small unit action to Total War. WILL includes taking whatever amount of time we need, be that days, weeks, months, years or decades to reach our desired endstate. And our endstate is NOT ever a timehack.

2. SETTLING: Any time we settle for less than 100% of our initial stated goals, and objectives,(which isn't to say we cannot adjust them) we come off as a paper tiger and less than committed. Our allies don't like it, the fence sitting nations take notice and the enemy exploites this.

3. COALITIONS: We should bring as many freinds as we can to any shooting match we are going to be in. But they have to make a worthwhile contribution and without getting crazy amounts of economic aid, favorable trade agreements etc, within reason is one thing, however spending a billion for a rifle company, so we can say we are a "Coalition" . Allies mean just that.

4. TECHNOLOGY: Reliance and spending on tech stuff isn't bad... As long as long as we don't rely on it to much. GPS is great and needed... But it suppliments the compass and map, it dosn't replace them. additionally the amount of money we spend on tech R&D has got to drop to something reasonable. Spending 45%-55% on RD is out of line. As is the time it takes to build and feild equipment. The P-51 Mustang went from drawing board to a ready to fly war bird in 100 days or so during WWII. The Bradley IFV took almost twenty years. We also need to buy what we need, not what is manufactured in some congressman's district.


Long before John became part of a team that developed our new COIN doctrine in response to our challenges in Iraq and Afghanistan the US military concluded that winning was better than losing. The Powell Doctrine was specifically focused on achieving decisive victories and avoiding the quagmires we now find ourselves in. The Powell doctrine was well thought out and if followed would facilitate decisive victories, but its critical shortfall was it didn’t conform to our national security strategy and foreign policy. We can assume the military will be employed in the future on missions where victory remains elusive for multiple reasons. I don’t think the Army was broke because we lost Vietnam. It was broke due to the social backlash at home against the war. The British have lost several wars without breaking their Army, so I think we need to look beyond losing as the sole factor. Hitting fast forward to today, we implemented a strategy in Afghanistan that is largely based on our COIN doctrine that will not permit the US to win, but as John correctly points out we're not losing either. I’m not sure what he is promoting in this article, but he seems to promote a strategy where the US deploys US troops around the world to occupy other troubled countries and stay there forever neither winning or losing to pursue national security objectives that often don’t stand up to scrutiny. This strategic approach is neither sustainable (fact), nor desirable (opinion).
In my opinion the article loses credibility when John argues that Afghanistan being the center of global terrorism. This argument is false, the Afghanistan-Pakistan region is home to the AQ core, but the AQ resistance movement is global. Due to effective counterterrorism (not COIN) the AQ core’s capabilities have been seriously degraded, but the fight is far from over and will not be won in Afghanistan or Pakistan alone. I agree that our intelligence services and SOF will likely remain in the region for years continuing to disrupt AQ, but that doesn't justify a large occupation force that simply results in more antibodies against the US and the West as a whole. I agree with John that we're not losing, and that right sizing in Afghanistan to focus on our core interests and enabling the Afghan people to determine their own future instead of imposing it upon them is a good course of action compared to staying in force and pursuing the current strategy. In sum, Islamic terrorism no longer has a geographical center of gravity if it ever did, and Pakistan is not the only state sponsor of terrorism we need to be concerned with. It didn’t take long for AQ to become a credible force in Iraq after we occupied it, and they didn’t require assistance from AQ Core in Afghanistan. AQ affiliates linked more to AQ in Iraq are now active in Syria, which has little to AQ in the AFG/PAK region. Iran continues to sponsor its affiliates around the world, and of course there is array of other threats, both state and non-state, that have nothing to do with Islamic terrorism, much less AQ. As for stabilizing Pakistan and I’m asking because I don’t know, didn’t they become more unstable after we invaded Afghanistan? The bottom line is we have more important interests elsewhere when you assess the impact of other security concerns on our global influence and our economy.
I find it odd that as a historian John compares our invasion and occupation of Italy, Germany and Japan to our robust military assistance mission in S. Vietnam. We also won a number of FID efforts against communists in places like El Salvador and we don't have a large presence of US troops there. As a matter of fact we actually reduced our presence in Central America by withdrawing from Panama. Central America in many ways may be a basket case, but deploying BCTs there won’t resolve their issues. By the way the US military does limited military exercises with Vietnam now, and if Vietnam decides they want a closer relationship with the US, then I suspect we'll warm up to them, but we're not going to impose our bases on them like we did on Italy, Germany, and Japan who we were at war with and successfully defeated and occupied. As an author of a book that focused narrowly on one aspect of the Vietnam conflict, John must realize that the primary driver of the conflict was nationalism, so I'm not sure how establishing US bases there would have addressed that? Vital interests in some areas can actually be undermined by putting US troops there. While John makes many valid points, they're undermined in my opinion by his indirect cheer leading for our COIN doctrine and strategy.

Dave Maxwell

Sat, 10/20/2012 - 12:00pm

An interesting argument and measure of success comparing Afghanistan with Germany, Italy, Japan, Korea, and Bosnia. With all due respect to Dr. Nagl, if I were looking to spin this for anti-American propaganda I would say that the US's real intention is to ensure it occupies foreign lands for its own interests (this is not to say that I disagree with US troops in allied countries at all – just trying to point out how the analogy might be spun) . Also by this analogy we might have to say we "lost" in Iraq since we do not have troops stationed there (though we do deploy some forces to conduct training with Iraqi forces)


QUOTE U.S. forces continue to perform similar functions in countries around the globe where we have fought and won our wars; they remain stationed in Germany, Italy, Japan, Korea and Bosnia. They will remain in Afghanistan as a sign of our continued vital interest in the region, which remains ground zero for global terrorism and nuclear proliferation, the most dangerous threats to U.S. security in this century.

There are no U.S. forces stationed in Vietnam. We lost that one. END QUOTE