Small Wars Journal

Tell Me How This Ends: Military Advice, Strategic Goals, and the “Forever War” in Afghanistan

Tell Me How This Ends: Military Advice, Strategic Goals, and the “Forever War” in Afghanistan by Mark F. Cancian – CSIS

When the United States invaded Afghanistan after the attacks on September 11, 2001, and then overthrew the Taliban regime, senior military officers were not predicting that the United States would be militarily involved 18 years later. Yet, after expending nearly $800 billion and suffering over 2,400 killed, the United States is still there, having achieved at best a stalemate. This CSIS report concludes that the mission in Afghanistan expanded from a limited focus on counterterrorism to a broad nation-building effort without discussion about the implications for the duration and intensity of the military campaign. This expansion occurred without considering the history of Afghanistan, the Soviet experience, and the decades-long effort required in successful nation-building efforts. The report makes a series of recommendations: improving the dialogue between senior military and civilian officials about desired goals/end states and the implied intensity/duration of a military campaign; continuing the development of military strategists; revising military doctrine publications to include discussion of choices about goals/end states; and taking more seriously the history and experience of others.

Read the entire report and watch the launch event.


From the executive summary of our report above:

"One key element at the root of this frustration has been the inability of successive administrations to recognize that their nation-building goals require a long and intense commitment of forces and resources. The initial narrow focus on counterterrorism against Al Qaeda limited the ambitions and commitment of the U.S. in the region. However, between 2002 and 2004, U.S. goals expanded to include a fundamental transformation of Afghan society, politics, and culture—in other words, nation-building."

I think that the main problem we have here is in failing to acknowledge:

a.  Who we are (an empire) and, in this mode,

b.  What we are doing (revolutionary warfare in the name and cause of imperialist expansion).


First, given the clear "transformative" nature of our endeavors (see the last sentence of my quoted item above), let me offer -- in place of the term "nation-building -- the term "revolutionary warfare:"

"Revolutionary warfare is never confined within the bounds of military action. Because its purpose is to destroy an existing society and its institutions and to replace them with a completely new structure, any revolutionary war is a unity of which the constituent parts, in varying importance, are military, political, economic, social, and psychological."  (See Page 7 of the Introduction.)

"Conventional war rarely challenges the political system; even "unconventional" partisan war usually seeks the preservation of that system or restoration of the status quo ante -- revolutionary war aims at the liquidation of the existing power structure and at a transformation in the structure of society." 

file:///C:/Users/svcjcplpublic1/Downloads/R940.pdf (See the bottom of Page 54 and the top of Page 55.)

Next, given the such "revolutionary"/"tranformative" nature of what we are doing, I believe that we must also come to except and understand that these such activities have been undertaken in the name of "empire" and, thus, of "imperialism"/"expansion." terms.  For example, as described by C.E. Callwell and David Kilcullen here:


"Small wars are a heritage of extended empire, a certain epilogue to encroachments into lands beyond the confines of existing civilization and this has been so from the early ages to the present time. The great nation which seeks expansion in remote quarters of the globe must accept the consequences. Small wars dog the footsteps of the pioneers of civilization in the regions afar off."… (See Chapter II: The Causes of Small Wars.)


"Politically, in many cases today, the counterinsurgent represents revolutionary change, while the insurgent fights to preserve the status quo of ungoverned spaces, or to repel an occupier — a political relationship opposite to that envisaged in classical counterinsurgency. Pakistan’s campaign in Waziristan since 2003 exemplifies this. The enemy includes al-Qa’ida (AQ) linked extremists and Taliban, but also local tribesmen fighting to preserve their traditional culture against 21st century encroachment.  The problem of weaning these fighters away from extremist sponsors, while simultaneously supporting modernization, does somewhat resemble pacification in traditional counterinsurgency. But it also echoes colonial campaigns, and includes entirely new elements arising from the effects of globalization." (See the top of Page 3.)

Bottom Line Thought -- Based on the Above:

Based on my explanations and supporting items above, should we not come to understand our "forever wars" -- which are designed to bring "civilization" (our way of life, our way of governance, our values, etc. -- see our article above) to other states and societies --

a.  More in "transformative" and, thus, more in "revolutionary warfare" terms?  And, thus, 

b.  More in terms of "empire?"

(And, given that "policing" of an "empire" -- much like "policing" of one's own country -- is a continuous and never-ending thing -- especially in times of government-sponsored and required political, economic, social and value "change" -- then "victory," in this "domestic"-like setting, this is something that never really happens.  Yes?)