Small Wars Journal

This War Can Still Be Won

This War Can Still Be Won - New York Times Op-Ed by Fernando M. Lujan. Bluf:

“Winning” is a meaningless word in this type of war, but something is happening in the Afghan south that gives me hope. Rather than resignation, America should show resolve - not to maintain a large troop presence or extend timelines, but to be smarter about the way we use our tapering resources to empower those Afghans —to lead and serve.


Robert C. Jones

Sat, 10/01/2011 - 8:52am

In reply to by Bill M.

While I agree that a lighter footprint in Afghanistan may well be better at dealing with the resistance insurgency we fight there than the massive approach applied now that is so focused on siezing and holding key terrain and that has pushed violence to all time highs; I think both approaches miss the critical point.

This Captain provides a great, informed tactical assessment of the tactical situation. But our problems are not the fault of our bad tactics, but rather of our bad strategy; Of our bad understanding of insurgency in general and of this insurgency in particular. To think that we can take a collection of TTPs for COIN derived from centuries of securing colonial possessions against challenges from the populaces the West was exploiting; or the lessons from decades of manipulating governments in Southeast Asia in an effort to contain Chinese Communist influence; or efforts in Africa where the West and the Soviet Union sparred at each other in a form of pawn warfare, exploiting poor governance there to seek to gain some strategic influence advantage over the other; or caziest of all, lessons learned from a single campaign in Iraq; and craft into an approach for actually resolving insurgency is insane.

Before we let the convntional force hand the baton to SOF and scramble home to recover and brace for the pending budget cuts we must first take head on the problem of our highly flawed operational design. Ironically, at a recent highlevel meeting, the only thing everyone could agree on was that the operational design was great, and that other things were somehow frustrating us. Crazy.

Most of this is a matter of subtle context. But as anyone knows who has ever engaged in human social interactions at any level, subtle context is often the difference between success and failure.

I accept his comments as valid and in a way his points support the argument we should downsize U.S. forces so Afghans can build upon this growing sense of nationalism without the U.S. getting the way. I find it amazing that people still refer to downsizing as leaving or quitting. SF teams embedded with locals are not offensive as conventional troops marching into their villages, and clogging their roads with long convoys with nervous and trigger happy guards. SF ODAs with appropriate GPF fire support and other enablers is probably the right size element for U.S. combat forces in the near future. A smaller U.S. presence may actually allow the Afghan people to change their government which may be the biggest obstacle to an acceptable level of stability. Like the author said, there is no winning in the traditional sense, but if take an appetite suppressant on what we hope to influence in Afghanistan, then we can leave Afghanistan a better place (not a perfect place), which over time will improve. That will give some meaning to all the brohers and sisters we lost there.


Thus, the more correct and more to-the-point question becomes:

a. Not: Can we still "win" the war in Afghanistan?

b. But: Do we still believe that we can cause the Afghan population and the Afghan government to throw off their old way of life and their old way of governance -- and cause them to adopt and sucessfully incorporate a foreign way of life and a foreign way of governance in the place of this "old order" -- considering:

(1) Our present constraints (time, money, public support, other priorities, etc.) and

(2) Those other constraints presented by the "enemy" (those individuals, groups and leaders [those both in and out of "government"] who are either unwilling -- or unable -- to make such dramatic and radical life/governance changes as we require)?

In addition, so as to better understand the potential difficulty in and peril of what we are attempting, should we not also consider other cases of forced state and/or societal change, such as: re: the American Indians and the American South in the 19th Century, and re: the Shah of Iran and the Sandanistas in the century just past?

Bill C.

Fri, 09/30/2011 - 11:32am

Question: From our perspective, what has -- and still does -- accurately describe "significant progress," and "a win," in 20th and 21st Century contests and conflicts?


a. Significant movement toward (= progress) or outright success in (= a win) having a people and a government give up their present way-of-life/way of governing and

b. Having these (the population and the government) adopt specific political, economic and social models which we feel will better provide for their individual wants, needs and desires; those of their regions; and those of the modern world at-large.

It is within this general context (having/causing populations and governments to shed their old way of life/way of governing and having them/causing them to adopt our way of life/way of governing instead), that we evaluate such things as governments (for example: the Karzai government) -- and populations (for example: the Afghan population) -- and determine if we are (1) making "progress" and/or (2) "winning;" per the need, priority, time and other factors that we must consider in these matters.

Thus, "progress" and/or "a win" is determined by whether we are successful -- per our design -- in transforming (modernizing) outlier states and societies and/or helping such outlier states and societies transform/modernize themselves; regardless of the strategy that is employed (for example: "containment" re: the former USSR or "engagement and enlargement" re: lesser entities).

In all cases, the desired ends would seem to be the same (see "a" and "b" above). Leaving us only to adapt our strategy -- and our instruments of power -- as is needed to accomplish the mission.

That is, unless we wish to questions and address, at this point in time and in this new century, whether our desired ends should remain the same.

Peter J. Munson

Wed, 09/28/2011 - 7:47pm

I agree wholeheartedly that tactical success does not a win make. The thing is, I've heard the same sort of logic from a far, far more senior officer. He touted all of the tactical level successes to cheer us, briefly said that he wasn't quite sure how those would be aggregated at the operational level, but seemed confident that we would persevere anyway. This is the same sort of logic that has the enemy losing because they're "desperately" refusing to go toe-to-toe with us as Kotkin says. It is also an heir of the famous Harry Summers exchange. Will we ever learn?


Sun, 10/02/2011 - 12:50am

In reply to by kotkinjs1

Great comment. Quick thought.

Nationalism is not a new concept in Afghanistan. Since the Durrani Empire, the country has been a unified nation-state (longer than say Italy) and through now thirty years of war and ethnic balkanization, I can't think of a single group at any point that has advocated for secession. Even the Taliban go out of their way to appear pan-Afghan and not just Pashtun or Kandahari

The country is divided because of scarcity and basic economic theory. As long as you have to compete for every scrap of every resource - from land, to water, to development aid, to weapons --- communities will bandwagon against each other.

Development and security go hand in hand.


Wed, 09/28/2011 - 2:28pm

My first comment would be 'yes, agree that a nascent idea of Afghan nationalism might be forming and will have good effects within the ANSF vis-a-vis AWOL rates, esprit de corps, and possibly even competency. But too bad this war won't be won on the battlefield.'

I'd also attempt to couch my cynicism of painting a foregone conclusion as the author suggests (I too have just returned from over a year in Afghanistan). As MAJ Lujan rightly points out: "<i>For all our technology and firepower, we will succeed or fail based on what happens after we bring our troops home.</i>" Yet we will in no way control or largely even effect that string of possible outcomes for all our tactical/operational military training for the ANSF, anti-corruption efforts, state institution building, underwriting their entire economy, etc. Because at the end of the day the insurgency is about politics and as long as the national ponzi-scheme that is Afghanistan exists because of an ill-fitting, imposed, and exclusive Constitution protecting political elites and appointees, our military gains (which are debatable) in the south won't count for squat. We also never lost a battle in Vietnam.

The overall point is, is MAJ Lujan's point enough? I say, while commendable on the efforts of CFSOCC, it's not. Enough when there are still few to no ANSF brigades that are capable of independent ops, enough when the central government is incapable or unwilling to provide basic governance to large portions of the populace, when Pakistan still pulls the strings on how, when, and if reconciliation will occur, and enough when basic political issues causing the insurgency go unresolved? The military outcome and 2014 withdrawal of combat troops is moot.

To me, the op-ed piece is a look up from the small gains at the military tactical level and out of sync with the larger issue at hand. We're losing this war not because we're failing on the battlefield or even failing to get the Afghans to take pride of ownership of the military operations. The ANSF could be the most competent, professional, and well-equipped force in Central Asia and we'd still have every right to consider it "resigned to failure." We're losing it because we've tied our outcome and definition of success to a host-nation political system which is corrupt, decadent, withering in the face of political capability (and drive), and unable and/or unwilling to solve domestic political issues. Of course where you stand depends on where you sit. MAJ Lujan was at the tactical level in the field and he sees the goodness and effect in what he was charged with doing; I was at the strategic level with Afghan government civilians in Kabul and often saw the futility. Help to change any of Afghanistan's endemic ills or internal rot can never come from without; it must come from within if it is to be enduring.

And finally, a personal pet peeve- I don't understand our own propaganda that because the Taliban are refusing to go after hardened targets, fight us mano-a-mano like 'proper' soldiers, and choose to get all assymetric on us, that this means we're winning. Is that really believed outside the Pentagon? Has our logic trail gotten that superficial? Protracted War theory isn't "owned" by Mao and Giap only. What we're looking at is clearly in Phase II of a protracted war, almost by definition according to ISAF's explanation of the Taliban's current tactics. Do we think they can't keep it up forever until Phase III? That is unless, of course, the political issues are addressed and settled completely regardless of military gains at the tactical/operational level as described in the article. Granted, nationalism and nation-state building is a first step, but it will be a wasted one if the political status quo remains in Kabul which it is completely poised to do.