Small Wars Journal

This Week at War: Powerless in Kabul?

In my Foreign Policy column, I discuss the fragile assumptions behind the new Strategic Partnership Agreement with Afghanistan and explain why U.S. policymakers should have a Plan B ready.


President Barack Obama's sudden appearance in Afghanistan on May 1, a calculated attempt to display his administration's foreign-policy expertise and showcase his plan for ending U.S. involvement in that country's war, was overshadowed by another drama in Beijing, the U.S. Embassy's fumbling of Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng. The global attention directed on the Chen affair showed that U.S. presidents sometimes have less power than they might presume to dominate the news. Obama and his advisors are similarly assuming that they will have the power to steer Afghanistan toward the slimmed-down objectives that remain for the U.S. campaign there. That assumption may be just as flimsy.

Obama and his advisors believe that a long-term public commitment to Afghanistan, combined with a steady drawdown of U.S. troops, will keep Afghan powerbrokers on their side, convince the Taliban and Pakistan to cooperate, and, perhaps most importantly, show the U.S. public that the troops are on their way home. What remains to be seen is whether Obama and his team will have as much long-term influence over events in the region as they assume they will. There are some reasons to expect that they won't. If that's the case, Afghanistan will remain a burden on the next administration and the U.S. Army for many more years.

While in Afghanistan, Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed a strategic partnership agreement, which outlines a plan for cooperation through 2024. Although vague and recognizing that future U.S. congresses and policymakers will make their own decisions regarding Afghanistan, the agreement, combined with a commitment of support from NATO at its upcoming summit in Chicago, may influence the calculations of allies and adversaries alike. In addition, U.S. policymakers are haunted by the chaos that descended on Afghanistan after the United States walked away in 1990 in the wake of the mujahedeen triumph over the Soviet army. Obama and his team apparently assume that if they do the opposite, they will also get an opposite, and more favorable, result.

In his speech at Bagram Air Base, Obama attempted to explain how modest, and therefore feasible, his objectives are for a country so famous at spoiling the designs of outsiders. Obama said, "Our goal is not to build a country in America's image, or to eradicate every vestige of the Taliban. These objectives would require many more years, many more dollars, and most importantly, many more American lives. Our goal is to destroy al Qaeda, and we are on a path to do exactly that." But sustaining this seemingly modest objective within Afghanistan's territory would seem to require a functional Afghan national government over the long term. A strong central government is a somewhat alien concept to Afghan history and U.S. plans based on such an assumption may prove fragile.

The success of the agreement is also entirely dependent on the quality of the relationships between the U.S. and Afghan leaders over the next decade. The recent trend in this regard is not encouraging. Karzai's behavior over the past few years reveals a man whose political survival seems dependent on ever-increasing anti-Americanism. Karzai's replacement, assuming the country can find one not objectionable to its ethnic factions, will very likely face the same internal pressure Karzai feels. The United States has other functioning transactional relationships with leaders from viscerally anti-American societies. But Afghanistan is now a higher visibility case inside the United States. The U.S. public and Congress, which will be asked to finance substantial assistance to an erratic and avowedly anti-American leader, may find their patience wearing thin in the years ahead. If Afghanistan's central government weakens or becomes too difficult to support, the strategic framework agreement's value will have expired. At that point, the United States will need a backup plan.

Standing up Afghan security forces has proven to be a tremendous challenge for NATO and the U.S. military. The Pentagon's latest semi-annual report on the Afghan army and national police describes both their achievements and ongoing struggles. Although the size of the Afghan army and national police has expanded rapidly (now numbering over 344,000), quality remains uneven and is especially dodgy among the police. Afghan security forces are responsible for leading security operations for half of Afghanistan's population. But armies and police forces require institutional support. Due to corruption and a lack of trained capacity, Afghanistan's government is far from being able to sustain its security forces on its own.

The long-term burden of keeping the Afghan army and police on their feet will fall most heavily on the U.S. Army (the Marine Corps is moving on to the Pacific). The campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan reminded policymakers and planners that a successful exit can happen only as fast as friendly indigenous forces are in place to provide security. Because of its poverty, illiteracy, and ethnic divisions, Afghanistan has been an especially tough mission for the Army's trainers and advisers. The murder of at least 78 coalition trainers since 2007 by their Afghan students has undermined public support for the campaign. The strategic partnership agreement is recognition that this work will not be complete by the end of 2014, even if the rest of NATO's combat troops are gone by that time. The U.S. Army's obligation to security-force assistance, not only in Afghanistan but elsewhere in the world, will remain large for many years.

At Bagram, Obama once again invited Pakistan to play a positive role in helping Afghanistan achieve stable sovereignty. His plea will again almost certainly fall on deaf ears in Islamabad. As the Pentagon's report mentioned countless times, the existence of Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan and the support by Pakistani intelligence of groups like the Haqqani network mean there is no foreseeable end to Afghanistan's war. The report notes that violence has declined for several years. But we have no way of knowing whether the Taliban are merely waiting in their sanctuaries for NATO's departure in 2014 before reaccelerating their military operations.

As predicted, the U.S. raid a year ago on Osama bin Laden's compound resulted in the collapse of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. After a mistaken cross-border clash in November that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, little remains; Pakistan has closed the NATO supply lines into Afghanistan while the United States has suspended its aid to the Pakistani military. Talks to repair the relationship failed this week.

Leaders in both the Bush and Obama administrations have been fully aware of Pakistan's support for the Taliban and its preference for a weak Afghanistan. Yet these policymakers have assumed that they could achieve their goals in spite of these facts. The open-ended slog in Afghanistan reveals the flaw in these assumptions.

Obama's plan to withdraw U.S. combat troops by 2014 may be a nod to the intractable nature of both Afghan culture and Pakistan's unflinching obstinacy regarding Afghan sovereignty. If Obama is serious about destroying al Qaeda, the Abbottabad raid showed that U.S. military power will continue to be required. Diplomacy and aid, especially to very dubious partners like Pakistan, will be insufficient and often unwarranted.

Obama and his successors would be wise to double-check their assumptions regarding their relationships with Afghanistan's future leaders, the stability of its national government, and the fragility of its security forces. If any of those assumptions collapses, there won't be much left of the new strategic partnership agreement. If the U.S. government still wants to keep al Qaeda dead, it will then need a whole new plan.



Robert C. Jones

Sat, 05/05/2012 - 6:31pm

In reply to by Bill C.

If a Pashtun state formed, I suspect the Baluch would be right behind them, and that within a decade the remnant of Pakistan would clash with India in a major way. I can't see much good come from that.

Perhaps a lesser included, semi-atonomous homeland for the Pashtuns that spans across the Durand line with unhindered passage across the same. Neither Pakistan nor Afghanistan have much interest in governing either that region or those populaces and never have.

Any solution would have to be theirs though, we need to get over the idea that we can draw lines on maps in Paris, New York, London, etc and expect them to mean much to the people they affect.

The title of Mr. Haddick's piece "Powerless In Kabul" is exactly right. We are. We are because everybody knows we are leaving, Taliban & Co., the Afghans, the Pak Army/ISI, everybody. So who cares what we want, seem to do or think.

We know it too, best of all. That is plan A and that is the only plan. All the agreements and understandings are only PR ploys meant to cover the bug out. There is no plan B, so Gian's fears of the nation building boogey bear stalking unseen in the night and Mr. Jones' romantic fancies of Taliban & Co. as so many doughty fighters for freedom don't mean a thing. We're out.

I went through the report cited by Mr. Haddick, the one that says that violence has declined for several years. It doesn't make clear how they define "violence". Is it violence directed by Taliban & Co at the ISAF, the ANSF, the ISAF and the ANSF, Afghan civilians or various combinations of all of the above? Unless that is defined it is meaningless. The Afghan Analyst Network has noted that in the past the ISAF stopped counting overall violence in the country and just counted things involving the ISAF. They did that (lied) to make their numbers look better. There is no way of telling if that lie is continued in the report Mr. Haddick cited.

gian gentile

Sun, 05/06/2012 - 8:08pm

In reply to by Westhawk

Thanks Robert for the response.

I am not so sure about Cohen since he was one of the fathers of the "Paradoxes" section of FM 3-24 which essentially sought to refight the Vietnam War with better coin tactics. :)

Alas it has been the search for better and better coin wars in Afghanistan that has kept American strategy from imagining any other possibility than Plan A.



Sun, 05/06/2012 - 10:39am

In reply to by gian gentile

Yes, Gian, you're reading me wrong here.

As for what Plan B should be, I'm not smart enough to know. But I think I have a good idea how to start working on that. I would use Eliot Cohen's strategy formulation model, step one of which is Assumptions. After nearly eleven years, I still don't think there has been an honest and thorough scrub of assumptions for Af-Pak. At least that seems revealed by the results thus far.

Robert Haddick


Mon, 05/07/2012 - 1:05pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

I find it unnerving when people describe the Taliban, MB or ALQ as a 'Islamic Movement'. What planet have these people been on in the last 50 years?

I have to imagine that in all other places where Islam is the dominate faith the trouble-makers, insurgents, revolutionaries whatever you want to call them are completely different to our adversaries in the Af/Pak region. Even stranger is when individuals come to Af/Pak from the Gulf, North Africa etc they somehow shake off their piety, go native and become violent politicised radicals.

Was there ever a time when the Muslim Brotherhood was driven by religious ideology? Why would it be? The notion that the Wahhabi believe the House Of Saud is not Islamic enough is difficult to imagine. After the Soviet withdrawal did the Muj tear the country apart in the name of Islam? Do the Taliban blow up women and children in a mosque during Eid because the good book says so?

The only significant change from their formative state I can ascertain in any of these groups is the Taliban have added drug smuggling to their hard-right political agenda. Needless to say not in the name of Islam.

Which of course is very bad news. It means that unless the West is willing to address the one big political grievance, things are going to get much worse. The relatively simple task of giving the Taliban political power or eliminating the dependence on oil from the House of Saud will change nothing. Compared to the sense of humiliation and loss of life since 1948, 9/11 is a bad joke to the MB/Wahhabi. The fact that the US has spent incredible amounts of treasure in retaliation does little for their sense of humour.

The MB/Wahhabis will never forgive the West for their support of Israel and despite the fact that the Afghans and the Paks don't give a damn about Israel and the Palestinians the MB/Wahhabis are willing to put the region in a grave in order to get what they want.

And we all know what Pakistan has that no other place has. Furthermore some claim the House of Saud paid for it and the MB/Wahhabis are determined to plant it smack-bang in every Americans face.

RCJ is right "..smarter, not harder..." but time is running out.

Happy Days,

Robert C. Jones

Sun, 05/06/2012 - 5:34am

In reply to by Bill M.


All fair points, but we exaggerate the "islamist movement" much as we exaggerated the role of "communism" in shaping the insurgencies of an earlier era. Populaces were revolting against government that had either grown illegitimate over time, or that were created illegitimately by foreign colonizers. Land reform was often the largest grievance, and communism nests well with a concept of a fairer redistribution of land. (Great case study is when Che went to Bolivia, map spotting the center of South America to start a communist revolution that would spread to the entire continent. It fizzled, and his little UW team was easily hunted down. A revolt 12 years earlier had already resulted in land reform, so his ideology fell flat, just as coummunist ideology fell flat in Malaya once the Brits removed the political drivers tied to their earlier colonization).

The movement that became AQ was formed of arab nationalists who primarily wanted political change at home, but had no means to make those changes, and many were in fact exiled by the Saudi government to take their ideas elsewhere. Helping fellow Muslims in Afghanistan was a logical place to gather, not unlike why so many of these nationalists rallied to Iraq to fight under the AQ flag against the US. If you can't fight your primary problem at home, at least go and fight external aspects of it abroad.

Islamist radicalism is a response to perceptions of poor governance among populaces across the greater Middle East. As governance is addressed, the "radical" aspect of such movements will fade as well. Just as "radical" Christianity reformed Europe, we don't think of Presbyterians as particularly radical today, in fact the opposite is true, they define conservatism. But they began as a radicals every bit as dangerous to the status quo, more so, than AQ and their ilk.

We've mischaracterized this from the start, as it is challenging positions and governments that we support. We believe the stability of the status quo is best, but it is the status quo that is driving instability, not Islamist ideology. We need to help the status quo evolve to be more in tune with evolving populaces, not simply help autocratic regimes cling to forms of governance that are no longer seen as legitimate by the people they affect.

Simply put, we need to work smarter, not harder.

Bill M.

Sat, 05/05/2012 - 8:56pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Generally agree, but then again the global Islamist movement that we're struggling with now formed largely in response to USSR's invasion of Afghanistan. The Saudis and U.S. funded the movement to get after the Soviet threat, and AQ was the son of that conflict (and as you stated before a conflict that goes back decades prior).

A few terrorists having the idea for the 9/11 attacks in Afghanistan, doesn't make Afghanistan responsible anymore than the Hamburg cell makes Germany responsible, or the AQ members living in training in Florida and Arizona making those states responsible. The attackers were not state sponsored by Afghanistan, and as far as we can determine not by any other state.

We had every right to go after them in Afghanistan, or anywhere else for that matter if the government there wouldn't. What perplexes me still is how we allowed the fight to morph into our nation's longest war not against AQ, but against the Taliban. Then we set aspirational goals of building democracy in Afghanistan as though that would defeat the global movement of AQ.

However, since we set ourselves up for failure by saying would transform Afghanistan, any failure to do so will be perceived as a victory by the extremists and used by them worldwide for propaganda purposes. To a large extent we added unnecessary complexity and put ourselves between rock and hard place. We have to deal with being in that place, it is too late to re-write history, but we need to learn how to avoid quagmires due to poor strategic reasoning in the future.


Sat, 05/05/2012 - 5:25pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

"Just dumb back luck they leased office space to bin Laden; and a reality of Pashtunwali that Mullah Omar could not simply give them up."

You have that wrong. If what you say were true, it would result in the life course of any family being placed into the hands of whatever stranger turned up on the doorstep. Sanctuary and protection are given to the guest but the guest is required not to use the place as a base for raiding. AQ violated that principle and therefore there was no longer any requirement that they be protected. Also if a guest stays and stays, they transform from a guest into a client and a client has to obey. AQ paid a lot of money for the privilege of staying so they might be better viewed as an ally than a client. In any event Pashtunwali had little if anything to do with Taliban not giving up AQ. Reference to Pashtunwali however has proved to be a very useful casuistry (I've been dying to use that word) and is a marvelous help in pulling the wool over the eyes of foreigners.

Robert C. Jones

Sat, 05/05/2012 - 4:00pm

In reply to by Bill M.

What happened in the 90s happened. We were not attacked on 9/11 by AQ because we ignored Afghanistan in the 90s; we were attacked by AQ on 9/11 because we failed to update our Cold War-based approach to the Middle East during the 90s.

The disentegration of the Soviet threat was indeed a cause for celebration, but at the same time the removal of that threat caused the US approach to manipulating the governance of the Middle East to pop to the top as a point of concern for the populaces of the region much like a piece of candy in a Pez dispenser. We didn't turn evil, its just that the greater problem went away and we failed to adjust. Accentuating the problem was the corresponding revolution in information technology that allowed the populaces of the region to evolve at an unprecedented rate.

Arab Spring should surprise no one (though I know it surprises most). This is a movement that began over a hundred years ago, but was disrupted by WWI, and then held frozen by the subsequent decades of European colonization (ironically in the name of self-determination) and US Cold War containment. A lot of social pressure can build up in 100 years. Don't blame the internet or the I-Phone, blame local and Western governments that were all quite happy to simply work to sustain the status quo.

This was never about Afghanistan, and certainly never about the Taliban. Just dumb back luck they leased office space to bin Laden; and a reality of Pashtunwali that Mullah Omar could not simply give them up. Time to regain a little strategic perspective and get on with our lives.

Bill M.

Sat, 05/05/2012 - 2:21pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones


Good comments, and I don't think you implied what Gian wrote above about our disengagement in the 90s (which has been an enduring urban legend). We can't re-write history, we're where we're at, but what we can do is explore this issue more deeply to discern the real lessons and what we need to do in the future to avoid these mis-steps, mis-steps that seem so obvious in hindsight.

Is it possible for us to conduct a whole of government approach to first gain understanding before we commit to strategic decisions that are extremely difficult to back out of later? I accept I may be wrong, but it seems that all to often the CIA or the State Department defaults to the easy way out, by embracing anyone willing to work with us to help us with our immediate problem. Almost always these are self-serving individuals who see an opportunity, and we see them as a surrogate that we can control (at least initially) with money and promises of power in order to achieve our objectives. Yet again and again, we "seem" to fail to notice (or disregard)that these individuals don't have legitimacy with their own people. I realize it is overl simplistic, but big picture, I think we can do better on gaining understanding (PMESII factors and beyond), and thus make better decisions, and maybe somehow make decisions that don't overly commit to one course of action. These are just some random thoughts on the topic, but what is is in Afghanistan now. I really think we need to focus on how to do better in the future.


Sat, 05/05/2012 - 12:48pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Your contention that only Taliban & Co can deny AQ sanctuary rings especially false considering that Mr. AQ himself was found and killed in very heart of Pak Army/ISIstan just about a year ago, with no Taliban in sight.

Your suggestion that the American support of any Afghan gov depend upon the conducting a truly diverse reconciliation is useless in one way and very useful in another. A reconciliation loya jirga wouldn't stop the conflict. The Pak Army/ISI wouldn't let it work unless they could dictate the terms and if they did nobody else would let it work. Everybody knows that so it won't happen. Because of that it is a good idea in that it would help legitimize the impending bug out. We'll come up with something along those general lines.

Robert C. Jones

Sat, 05/05/2012 - 10:31am

In reply to by gian gentile

We really need to stop thinking of "The Taliban" as something the US needs to dedicate itself to the political containment of. Not unlike "The Puritans" the Taliban are a radical right-wing religious movement born of larger political upheaval and revolution. And like the Puritans, while their actions now are outside the norm of larger society, such extremes of religious politics will naturally settle to within acceptable parameters once exposed to the light of day and to competing perspectives and influences. Bottom-line, a re-legitimized Taliban influence in Afghan governance would be nothing like what existed in that short "dark age" period following the Russian retreat when no one cared about what happened in Afghanistan.

The condition precedent to any commitment of continued US support of any sort to the government of Afghanistan should be conduct of a truely diverse reconciliation and constitutional loya jirgas by GIROA. Not the shams that the Northern Alliance has conducted previously, like in 2003 when Karzai had a private, hand picked Northern Alliance team pre-write the Constitution in terms that ensured a Northern Alliance monopoly built around an insanely powerful executive. The subsequent Jirga may or may not have been truly diverse, we really don't understand who is who well enough to assess. Loud objections to having so much patronage power vested in the executive were brushed aside, and the constitution was ratified.

That was the turning point. The Revolution went into a higher gear, and as we began to flow in more forces to "defeat" the revolution, our very actions and presence began to feed the growing resistance among the Afghan populace at large. A populace that cares little about politics, but one that cares very much about what they reasonably see as an inappropriate foreign military presence seeking to exercise its dominion over them.

Our actions ever since have both fed and attacked the resistance in equal parts, while we have protected the very monopoly of governance that feeds the revolutionary ferver with the exiled Taliban. We misread this from the start, and misread it still. This 10 year commitment with no such condition precedent locks us into an insurgency that no amount of military action or nation building can resolve. But a little bit of dedicated effort on that 4" of key terrain between Karzai's ears would do wonders.

It is in GIROA's interest to sustain the status quo. We need to appreciate that. They fear reconciliation and are satisfied with being a welfare state protected by foreign armies. What are our interests? To deny AQ sanctuary? Only the Taliban can do that. (governments can grant sanctuary to such groups, but cannot deny the same). We cut the wrong deal with the wrong team. And we did it in secret in the dark of night.

This was another in a long line of strategic errors. We play the wrong game, and grow frustrated why we cannot seem to win or even make much progress. We simply need to start playing the game at hand, and not the one we imagine.

gian gentile

Sat, 05/05/2012 - 9:40am


In your view, what should plan B be? Reinforce with more US troops and money to keep the government afloat, or leave, and completely?

You offer up an assumption by the administration that they believe if the US had done something more in Afghanistan in the early 90s (after the Soviet departure and the Muj victory) then the ensuing chaos and Taliban takeover might have been avoided. But in your own mind and within this counterfactual what should the US have done in the early 90s to prevent this? In my view in order to prevent a Taliban takeover and to inject itself into what Bob Jones rightly characterizes as a revolutionary insurgency among other things by emplacing a government friendly to US interests the United States would have had to do West Point Surge version 1991 in Afghanistan, yes?

In short, and i may be wrong in reading your post, but i see a closet nation builder in what you have to say here, implying that the only way to achieve what everybody from the president down to his military state as the core political objective--destruction of al Qaeda--but with a maximalist operational method of armed nation building.

Am i reading you wrong here?