Small Wars Journal

The Gentile-Yingling Dialogue: ISAF Exit Strategy - Neither International nor an Exit nor a Strategy

Sat, 10/15/2011 - 8:11am


Thanks for your insightful questions, and for your careful reading of "A Failure in Generalship."

If I may, I'd like to challenge the underlying premise of your questions. Your focus on strategy after 2009 presumes that Afghanistan was "winnable" at a politically acceptable cost.  I respectfully disagree.

The fiasco in Iraq (2003-2007) and the collapse of the US economy (2008-present) have exhausted the patience of the American people. Regrettably, a rigorous civil-military dialogue did not identify this limitation before the commitment of additional troops.

In Afghanistan, the die is cast.  In Pakistan, state failure looms darkly on the horizon.  It may be too late to change the former, but now is the time to address the latter.

I elaborate on these points below in "ISAF Exist Strategy: Neither International nor an Exit nor a Strategy."

I look forward to discussing these matters further and am grateful to SWJ and its readers for hosting this dialogue.

Best Regards,


SWJ Editor's Notes:

A Few Questions for Colonel Paul Yingling on Failures in Generalship - Small Wars Journal

A Failure in Generalship - Armed Forces Journal


ISAF Exit Strategy: Neither International nor an Exit nor a Strategy

Colonel Paul Yingling, U.S. Army

Based on remarks delivered at

International Security Assistance Force, Afghanistan: 2001-2011-2014, the Roles and Capabilities of South-East Europe Countries

Zagreb, Croatia

October 12, 2011

Willy Brandt famously said of the former German Democratic Republic that it was neither German nor democratic nor a republic.  When I was asked to comment on the exit strategy of the International Security Assistance Force from Afghanistan, I had a similar reaction.  The events of the next three years in Afghanistan cannot properly be described as international, an exit, or a strategy.  The so-called transition to Afghan lead by the end of 2014 is a timetable driven largely by American domestic politics. When this timetable is complete, Afghanistan will still be at war.

Before going further, a few caveats are in order.  First, I want to acknowledge that many countries have contributed blood and treasure to the war in Afghanistan, and that the Afghan people have suffered terribly during decades of nearly constant fighting.  My argument that American domestic politics will drive the events of the next few years should not be interpreted as minimizing the contributions of other ISAF nations or the sacrifices and suffering of the Afghan people.  Second, my argument is predictive, not normative.  I will not describe what should happen in the next few years, but what will.  What will happen in Afghanistan will largely be determined by ISAF’s largest contributing nation - the United States.  As I will demonstrate, we passed up “should” long ago.

My argument consists of three parts.  First, I will describe both the aims of American policy and its underlying rationale.  Second, I will review the competing but deeply flawed ways to achieve these aims – a fully resourced counterinsurgency effort and a more limited counter-terrorism approach.  Finally, I will describe the most likely outcome of events in Afghanistan and Pakistan beyond 2014.

The Aims of Policy

In December 2009, President Obama described both the ends of American policy in Afghanistan and the ways those ends would be achieved:

…to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future. 

To meet that goal, we will pursue the following objectives within Afghanistan. We must deny al Qaeda a safe-haven. We must reverse the Taliban's momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government. And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan's Security Forces and government, so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan's future.

The most striking feature of Obama Administration policy is the treatment of al Qaeda’s sanctuary in Pakistan and Afghanistan as a single and uniquely dangerous threat.  This region is not uniquely dangerous because it is an ungoverned space.  Large regions of Somalia and Yemen also fit this description.  This region is also not uniquely dangerous because the population has ideological sympathy for al Qaeda. Pockets of sympathy for al Qaeda can be found elsewhere, including in the West.  Finally, this region is not uniquely dangerous because it serves as a staging ground for attacks on the West.  Indeed, al Qaeda’s affiliates in the Islamic Magreb and the Arabian Peninsula have in recent years proven more lethal than the core of al Qaeda’s leadership in Pakistan.

This region is uniquely dangerous because of the confluence of the two most dangerous phenomena of the 21st century – radical ideology and nuclear weapons.  Pockets of radical ideology exist throughout the globe and at least nine states have nuclear weapons.  However, only in southern Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan do we find deep sympathy for al Qaeda’s radical ideology less than a day’s drive from the world’s least secure nuclear arsenal.  Moreover, sanctuary in Afghanistan is neither necessary nor sufficient for al Qaeda to achieve its goal of acquiring one or more nuclear weapons for use against the West.  Even if Afghanistan were perfectly stable, the danger of al Qaeda acquiring nuclear weapons in Pakistan would remain.  Even if Afghanistan were to return to civil war or Taliban rule, these conditions alone do not pose a unique threat to the West.  Without the threat of nuclear terrorism, the insurgency in Afghanistan would be no more important to the West than similar threats Yemen or Somalia.

Competing and Equally Flawed Ways to Achieve These Ends

While the ends of American policy in Afghanistan have been remarkably consistent since 2001, the ways to achieve those ends have not. The strategic blunders of the Bush Administration from 2002-2008 are well documented and need no elaboration.  The first opportunity to reassess our strategy in Afghanistan occurred in the Obama Administration’s policy reviews of 2009. During this period, two broad strategies were considered.  The first was a fully resourced counterinsurgency strategy and the second was a more limited counter-terrorism strategy. 

The first approach was based on the tenets of COIN doctrine – protect the population, develop the capabilities of Afghan security forces and most importantly strengthen the legitimacy of the Afghan government by improving its capacity to provide security and other essential services to the population.  This approach would have required ISAF troop levels of approximately 140,000 or an increase of 40,000 over 2009 levels.  Most importantly, changes to future troop levels would be based on battlefield conditions.

This approach would have been a fine idea in 2001, but was politically infeasible by 2009.  Consider an ideal alternative history beginning in 2001.  With broad domestic and international support, a robust U.S.-led military coalition could have toppled the Taliban, captured or killed Osama bin Laden and other key al Qaeda leaders and provided post-conflict security to the Afghan people.  The U.S. military could have reformed its doctrine, organization, equipment and personnel policies to focus on irregular warfare, including the vital task of developing host nation security forces.  A robust civilian component could have assisted in the development of a legitimate Afghan government capable of providing essential services to the population. Skillful diplomacy could have convinced Pakistan that a stable Afghanistan was in its interests.  Enlightened security assistance could have assisted Pakistan in denying sanctuary in its northwest territories and discrediting extremist ideology nationwide.  Even in this ideal alternative history, denying sanctuary and support to al Qaeda and other extremist elements in Afghanistan and Pakistan would have been the work of a generation.

Alas, these events did not come to pass.  The U.S. low-balled troop estimates, allowing bin Laden and other key al Qaeda figures to escape to Pakistan and security within Afghanistan to deteriorate.  The U.S. squandered credibility at home and good will abroad with a disastrous unnecessary war in Iraq. The U.S. military failed to adapt to the challenges of irregular warfare until late 2006, and still does not devote adequate resources to security force development.  The civilian component to this day is unequal to the challenges of assisting in the development of a legitimate Afghan government.  Most importantly of all, elements within the Pakistani government continue to foster chaos in Afghanistan.

Those advocating a robust COIN effort in 2009 behaved as if these events either didn’t happen or don’t matter.  The reality is quite different; a decade’s worth of blunders and misrepresentations has exhausted the patience of the American people.  For nearly a decade, American political elites insisted that our Afghan policy was succeeding.  They did not ask the public to fight the war or pay for it, and did not tell the public of the deterioration in security on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border.  The plausibility of these policies collapsed at approximately the same time as the global economy.  In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, unemployment is the public’s top policy concern. Even more importantly, public trust in the U.S. Government has all but evaporated. Devoting hundreds of billions of dollars into an open-ended conflict in Afghanistan would have been difficult even in 2001.  By 2009, such a policy was politically impossible.

However, the alternative counter-terrorism approach was scarcely better.  This approach called for an increased emphasis on capturing or killing key insurgent and terrorist leaders and accelerating the development of Afghan security forces.  However, this approach is better described as a collection of tactics to disrupt al Qaeda than a strategy to defeat it.  It does not address the corruption and incompetence of the Afghan Government or Pakistan’s explicit support for the Taliban or its tacit support for al Qaeda.  Worst of all, it does nothing to address the political conditions inside Pakistan that fuel the growth of extremist ideology.

The policy that emerged from the Obama Administration’s 2009 debate was worse than either of the alternatives proposed.  It increased troop levels through the summer of 2011, with a transition to Afghan lead set for the end of 2014.  It failed to take into account that al Qaeda was all but gone from Afghanistan, and that the overwhelming majority of those fighting ISAF in Afghanistan were locals with very limited ambitions beyond the country’s borders. Increased troop levels allowed for increased fighting but time limits prevented that fighting from producing enduring political results.  It left largely unchanged the military’s failure to focus on security force assistance and the civilian component’s inability to address the corruption and incompetence of the Karzai Government. It relied on drone strikes to disrupt al Qaeda in Pakistan but did not address the toxic political conditions within Pakistan that make it a danger not only to itself and its neighbors, but much of the world.

Of course, policy makers must set priorities in domestic and foreign affairs and evaluate military advice through the prism of domestic politics.  Effective civil-military dialogue assists in this process by identifying gaps between the ends of policy and the means available to achieve them.  Civilian leaders have the final say in this unequal dialogue, but the product of such dialogue must be a coherent strategy – one that reconciles ends, ways and means.  It’s unclear that such a dialogue took place during the policy reviews of 2009.  If our goal is to end the war and focus on domestic priorities, then no additional forces were needed in Afghanistan.  If our goal is to prevent the Taliban from seizing power in Afghanistan, then time limits on troop commitments undermine our efforts.  If our goal is to defeat al Qaeda, then we’re focusing our resources on the wrong country.

A Return to Strategic Thinking After 2014?

Over the next three years, the U.S. and other ISAF nations will continue to withdraw forces from Afghanistan.  This withdrawal will be driven largely by American domestic politics and fiscal constraints.  No matter which political party prevails in the 2012 U.S. elections, the domestic political calculus will be the same: spiraling costs for entitlements and interest on the debt, deep divisions about what mix of spending cuts and tax increases will solve the problem, heavy pressure to cut defense spending and foreign aid, and little political will to continue the war in Afghanistan beyond 2014.  The best case scenario is that ISAF’s transition to Afghan lead will occur according to the timetable ending in 2014.  However, another financial shock in the West or further political dysfunction in Washington could accelerate that timetable appreciably and unpredictably.

The war in Afghanistan will continue to rage long after 2014.  Combined security operations, drone strikes and special operations raids will continue to take their toll on insurgent and terrorist networks until then.  Afghan security forces can continue to fight even without foreign combat troops, but it’s uncertain how the Afghan government will pay for its army and police without substantial external assistance.  Other regional actors such as India and China will continue to jockey for influence in Afghanistan, but are unlikely to assist the Afghan government on the scale required. More importantly, the Afghan government is unlikely to address the incompetence and corruption that makes such assistance necessary.

Pakistan’s future is more difficult to predict.  It could limp along as a failing state indefinitely, or fail suddenly with little warning.  The West knows so little about Pakistan’s internal dynamics that virtually any significant change will come as a surprise.  The safest prediction is one that would eliminate the best case scenario – that Pakistan will develop into a functioning state that will deny sanctuary and support for extremist organizations. 

While the exact timing and extent of state failure in Pakistan is difficult to predict, the consequences of such failure are not.  Partial or total state failure of a nuclear Pakistan would pose a grave threat to the United States.  In such a scenario, the United States would not know who controlled Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.  A nuclear armed al Qaeda, Lashkar e Taiba or another extremist group would be difficult if not impossible to deter.  The nightmare scenario of a nuclear armed terrorist group would be upon us.

When we ask about ISAF exit strategy, we are asking the wrong question.  ISAF’s exit from Afghanistan has much more to do with American domestic politics than coalition strategy. American fiscal constraints and political paralysis set this course in motion long ago and corrective measures are unlikely in the absence of a crisis.  ISAF will transfer the lead for security to Afghan security forces in 2014, on or ahead of the political timetable driving this outcome and with little regard for security conditions. 

However, the crisis of Pakistan as a failed nuclear state looms darkly on the horizon. Those of us charged with strategic thinking need not wait for a crisis to think clearly about this challenge. 

The example of the U.S. military in the 1920s provides a helpful example.  In the aftermath of World War I, military planners recognized that the U.S. lacked the capabilities to defend America’s possessions in the western Pacific.  Led by the Navy, the U.S. held wargames and constructed war plans to understand this challenge and the capabilities necessary to meet it.  Throughout the 1920s, the U.S. military had neither the equipment nor the money nor the manpower to solve this challenge.  Rather than prevent clear strategic thinking, these conditions enabled it.  When war in the Pacific came, the U.S. had already imagined the capabilities necessary for victory – including carrier aviation, amphibious assault, strategic bombing, and close air support for ground forces.  When the crisis came, these ideas needed only money and political will to become reality.

Those of us charged with strategic thinking ought to heed this example.  Imagine a failed Pakistan that results in a terrorist organization acquiring one or more nuclear weapons.  What would our response be in the aftermath of such a crisis?  What intelligence capabilities do we need to locate compromised nuclear materials?  What civil security and law enforcement measures might disrupt or minimize the impacts of such a threat?  What counter-proliferation capabilities are required to seize and render safe compromised nuclear weapons or materials?  Imagine further the capabilities required to avoid such a crisis.  What diplomatic measures might change the Pakistani strategic calculus that lends support to extremism?  What broader engagement with Pakistani civil society might render this troubled country less amenable to radical ideology?  Now imagine still further back to the institutional arrangements that generate national security capabilities.  Do we have the right priorities?  Are we buying the right equipment?  Are we selecting the right leaders?  Are we making the best use of increasingly scarce tax payer dollars?

Too often, what passes for strategic thought in the United States is actually a struggle among self-interested elites seeking political, commercial or bureaucratic advantage.  Such behavior is the privilege of a country that is both rich and safe.  However, a pattern of such behavior is self-correcting: no country that behaves this way will stay rich or safe for long.  Strategic thought will be in high demand in 2014 or upon the collapse of Pakistan, whichever comes first. 


Madhu (not verified)

Tue, 06/17/2014 - 1:59pm

In reply to by Madhu (not verified)

And if you don't believe me, look at Patrick Lamb's piece at the CSIS website which almost entirely a Nixon era plea for retaining Pakistan as a strategic 'operationalizer' of the US in that part of the world; as a hedge against China, India, Russia, Iran, whatever you will.

That's the subtext and always has been. You need nothing else to understand how we paid for the Taliban indirectly and by we, I mean NATO. The need to fulfill our strategic desires via a long time client state overrode practicality, IMO. Without understanding this, none of the questions asked in this piece can be successfully answered.

Madhu (not verified)

Tue, 06/17/2014 - 1:46pm

My last comment should be read with this piece in mind:

<blockquote>Tensions and imperfect alliances are, of course, common in foreign policy: Every country maintains cordial or even close diplomatic ties with others despite significant disagreements. There are numerous examples of countries maintaining a trade relationship even when their foreign policies clash. Washington’s relationship with China is a prime example. But countries that can be considered allies, adversaries and enemies (AAEs) simultaneously are different from the kind of conflicted relationships to which the U.S. is accustomed. We consider the AAE phenomenon important enough that we edited a recently published volume for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies focusing on this problem.</blockquote>…

It's finally dawning on some in the US foreign policy establishment (those that have blocked and tackled for our long standing "Sunni" alliance in that part of the world and I am not singling any one group out, it's a widespread phenom) that they themselves have helped to set the very precedent that worries them today in Iraq; that the US can work with who it will to achieve an objective.

Paul Pillar and the Leveretts in the same magazine are entirely on point and the very people arguing against them now seem to realize what precedent they helped to create.

About the military, I don't know. The idea that the military can change fundamental strategic realities of entire nations seems to remain within the military mythos.

Madhu (not verified)

Tue, 06/17/2014 - 1:51pm

So anything that counters an insurgency is counterinsurgency, right?

But even before thinking about any of that, the context of the situation matters and the how the US thinks about context depends on what we want, what our policy is and how it relates to strategy

In a previous comment, I had laid out the confusion in the United States strategic thinking in South Asia, a confusion that goes all the way back to 1947.

It has always been Af-Pak because the US chooses to "operationalize" its desires in that part of the world through its favored Pakistani elite. Afghanistan has always been subordinate to this process. Af-Pak is nothing new.

<strong>If the US has long been confused, security elites in Pakistan--those really in charge--never have been.

The point is to raise money to fight India.</strong> Every bit of cooperation with the US is filtered through this lens and the US and the UK and Saudi Arabia have always thought they could ride this tiger. They generally fail, mythologies of the Cold War aside.

The "get Iran" and "get Russia" crowd are always realists, whether they be neoconservatives or liberal internationalists because for their interests, any regime that can be shoehorned into an opposing alliance is good enough. Aid will have to suffice for democracy promotion regardless of the facts on the ground.

In that light, this piece in </em>The National Interest</em> is on point:

<blockquote>America’s turn to jihadi proxies did not start with Bush’s strategic malpractice in Iraq. It was born on July 3, 1979, when President Carter signed the first directive to arm jihadists in Afghanistan, before Soviet forces invaded the country. For U.S. policymakers, collaborating with Riyadh to launch transnational jihad in Afghanistan seemed a clever way to undermine the Soviet Union—by goading it into a draining occupation of Afghanistan, which Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, hoped to make Moscow’s Vietnam. Ultimately, Red Army garrisoning of Afghanistan contributed only marginally (if at all) to the Soviet Union’s dissolution. But U.S. support for the mujahideen and cooperation with Riyadh contributed critically to al-Qa’ida, the Taliban, and 9/11—which opened the door for Republican neoconservatives and Democratic fellow travelers to unite behind attacking Iraq.</blockquote>

When I was still blogging, I posted about our "forever" Saudi alliance and how it hurts us because some of the reasons for our alliance are no longer as valid as they once were, and even when they were, the specific policies we followed were more about domestic sensibilities than practicality.

Old habits and friendships--and money making schemes--are hard to break, for many in our security, military and foreign policy establishments.

COL Yingling, you are correct when you say "policy makers must set priorities in domestic and foreign affairs and evaluate military advice through the prism of domestic politics."

Even if the alternative historical starting point did occur, and there had not been the GFC, how long would the electorate in the US and other nations such as Australia, Canada and the UK, tolerated the expense and the lives lost to completely rebuild Afghanistan? Once the ability for trans-national terrorist groups to use Afghanistan as a launching pad for terrorism against our foreign and domestic interests, then would our taxpayers have continue to support the enormous cost? There are many failing or fragile nations with similar economic, corruption, tribal and ethnic issues, that do not pose a terrorist threat to us.

Proponents of modern day nation-building in Afghanistan may be surprised to learn that the same issues were discussed in the correspondence of British officials during the First Afghan War as they have been during the current conflict. Questions were asked about whether foreign troops should “promote the interests of humanity” and champion social reform by banning traditions like the stoning of adulterous women? Should they try to reform blasphemy laws and introduce Western political ideas? Or should
they just concentrate on ruling the country without rocking the boat? As with many of today’s humanitarian warriors who believe the acceptance of generous development funds and projects by locals equals their support for modernisation, they were sorely mistaken.

From the period of the first Anglo-Afghan War until its final foray into Afghanistan in 1919, Britain’s foreign policy towards Afghanistan oscillated between two contrasting views, ‘masterly inactivity’ and the
‘forward policy’. For thirty years following the disaster of the First Anglo-Afghan War, Britain applied the policy of “masterly inactivity.’

The masterly inactivity period involved what Winston Churchill termed
‘butcher and bolt’. This meant launching one-off punitive attacks to remove Tribal trouble causers, rather than embarking on costly military interventions.

It was the policy of Lord Curzon, Britain’s former Viceroy of India who implemented a cunning combination of tribal patronage with multiple agreements that as long as the Tribes did not interfere with India, Britain would leave the tribes to conduct their own affairs. Should we have considered a similar policy? What if the US-NATO and other allies determined that following the overthrow of the Taliban Government, as long as Afghanistan did not allow al Qaeda to set up shop again, we would not interfere in Afghanistan?

Im also interested in the idea that a stable Afghanistan is in Pakistan's interests. Are Pakistan's interests in relation to Afghanistan more about India. It does not matter if Afghanistan is stable or not, as long as it does not have a formal or informal alliance with India.

But you are right with your inference that Pakistan is and has been a bigger and more significant geo-political risk than Afghanistan.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Madhu (not verified)

Fri, 06/06/2014 - 2:05pm

Dr. C Christine Fair in a talk about her new book at the Hudson Institute (moderated by Hussain Haqqani) answers a question during the question-and-answer period that basically outs the tendency for DC analysts to pull their punches because they don't want to "lose access" or visas. I am too hard on these two in comments sometimes. It can't be an easy area to study. China must be worse in some ways, how to study when speaking up loses you access?

If only I had found a way to make this point clearer earlier on, but I am completely unschooled in some of this stuff and had to learn on the fly. I didn't realize that a lot of analysis is simply to grease policy wheels and that this goes on for everything in DC. I honestly used to think analysis was strictly a scholarly affair. Whether one agrees or not, she did attempt to go through all those green books which is the way it is supposed to work. I am surprised this doesn't happen more often.

Madhu (not verified)

Wed, 05/14/2014 - 2:58pm

I have posted the following from The Telegraph (Edelman and MOD hold Pakistan roundtable) before:

<blockquote>2.(C) In a wide-ranging roundtable discussion on May 30, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Eric Edelman, UK counterpart Ministry of Defense Policy Director Desmond Bowen, and their staffs discussed their current engagement and strategies in Pakistan. (Full list of participants in para 6.) After Edelman outlined current U.S. thinking on Pakistan, Bowen described Pakistan as "vital strategic ground" for the UK, both for Pakistan's influence in the region and on the nearly one million Britons of Pakistani descent. Bowen outlined the MOD's four aims for Pakistan: 1) a partner in counter-terrorism; 2) economic self-sustainability, including food security and infrastructure development; 3) putting the Pakistani military "in the right place" as a force of stability; and, 4) a strong partner in democracy. </blockquote>

In Col. Gentile's book on the dangers of pop-COIN, he says, rather flatly, that Pakistan will "never" close the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. It isn't a big part of the book, most of it traces what he calls a sort of Vietnam mythology combined with mythologies about the Malayan imperial policing model.

I look at the "CT-lite" option presented during the 2009 debate as basically trying to find an option based on various contradictory realities for the US in South Asia. The US is confused because it has taken on so many responsibilities, some of which directly contradict one another.

1. We want to get closer to India because of China, but....
2. We don't want to alarm China, but....
3. We would like to keep Pakistan as a strategic asset, but....
4. Our relationship with the UK given its Pakistan heritage population makes our own relationship with the Indians and Afghans and Russians difficult, and so on....

It was an attempt to provide an option that realized these contradictory realities. They would not change within the next year or two so it provided President Obama with one military option to obtain one military goal.

It is not meant to change the fundamental realities of the region. It is a acceptance that the military can only do so much, the policy is what it is, and it seems, to my eye, to be more understanding of the history of the place and the very strange relationship between the US and Pakistan. We absolutely did not ignore the region in terms of Pakistan during the 90's, we outsourced our bin Laden hunt through them at times and, at times, engaged them and sanctioned them, and it was all very much a lot of string pulling behind the scenes, such as when Bhutto cashed in DC chips to prevent Pakistan from being placed on a terrorism sponsor list.

This was the history that might have helped but a very stereotyped history was peddled about the period by a group of DC types--analysts and politicians and influence agents fair and foul--that white washed out these difficulties and basically created a blank slate which is what I see in this article. To ask "how can we change" a regional calculus without discussing all of these things seems odd to me but there is no reason for me to continue on this path. You all know I think the intellectual work on some of this was sloppy.

In fact, what is frustrating about this piece is that it does not acknowledge that our very desire to help is the reason so many will not change behavior.

I realize I am being slightly unfair to the author because the American military has never been interested in its history in Pakistan outside of a stereotyped version which requires American engagement to prevent disaster without acknowledging how much this desire itself leads to regional aggression and adventurism. It is interpreted as, "we can do anything we want, no one will touch us."

I've posted over the years probably closed to a hundred or more links to papers, books, newspaper articles and blog posts that carefully dissect the relationship between American and Pakistani elites and how the desire to work with one another usually backfires.

Hussain Haqqani wrote such a book (many others have too, but he's connected in DC so his voice "took" while others were ignored) and, yet, its very introduction reveals a characteristic neediness of a sort of Western South Asian elite that can think of no other way to improve his nation's situation that to beg outside help.

Has any other group of elites been more connected with the international development community over the decades? So asking what we can do to "help" without recognizing this error-and the problem with have with our UK connection in this regard, and Saudi too--is basically spinning wheels and making the same error, IMO.

But it's not an uninformed opinion. Even if not necessarily in an academic way, I have been watching this relationship my whole life from afar. Decades. It is the most curious thing, the most curious mental block. One interesting point is that if I post a piece by an Australian or a Canadian saying the same thing (they having an nice outsider Anglospheric viewpoint on Atlanticism) as an Indian or Pakistani or Afghan, it "takes" better in argumentation. Curious and curiouser.

PS: I'm sorry if this is harsh. I honestly don't mean it to come across that way. But what other way can I say these difficult things? I empathize with Hussain Haqqani and others that thought at one time a "Marshall Plan" was needed but what I don't understand is why so much literature was ignored, as well as the mechanics of the thing. It simply would not work.

PPS: I am such a school marm scold. I meant to address the 'engaging the larger civil society' part of this article, the rest is good in the questions it asks.

Robert C. Jones

Thu, 10/20/2011 - 5:30am

Gian's voice is an important one in an important debate, and I agree with much of what he advocates for.

However, Gian also needs to take a long, hard look in the mirror of his own community and recognize that there is a "failure of military historianship" that is every bit as great, if not more so, than any failure of generalship.

U.S. history of insurgency in general, and military history of insurgency in particular, is horribly biased in terms of Western Colonial and Containment-based perspectives; is far too focused on the violent aspects of insurgency and the "warfare" waged to deal with that violence; and has contributed mightily to the perverse twisiting of "COIN" to being the efforts of a foreign government to protect and preserve some government that they have either installed or co-opted to serve the interests of said foreign power over those of their own nation against challenges rising to this illegitimate situation from the affected populace.

Most generals are pretty conservative and rely heavily on history and doctrine to base their decisions on. Personally, I think General Franks was the wrong man in the wrong job at the wrong time. But I also think he acted IAW his training, education and experience. Personally I think LTG Barno was the primary factor in setting the conditions for the current mess in Afghanistan, but he also acted IAW his training, education and experience. I don't excuse these guys, but I understand why they made the decisions that they made.

We do well not to minimize the failure of historianship.



(Oh, and truer words never written than this quote by COL Yingling: "If our goal is to defeat al Qaeda, then we’re focusing our resources on the wrong country." This has been the case since 9/11, but its just so hard to have an honest discussion about Saudi Arabia...

Perhaps once we escape from the inertia of our historical perspectives we can get serious about looking at today's challenges in a more holistic light that is less focused on the symptoms and the places those symptoms take temporary refuge, and shift our focus to the root causes in tired, dated US policies and relationships with governments across the Middle East; with Saudi Arabia being at the epicenter of that conversation. These are not military problems and they do not call for military solutions, but then that is a failure at a level far higher than "generalship."

Bill C.

Thu, 10/20/2011 - 9:59am

In reply to by Paul Yingling

If I might inject the following here, which may constitute the crux of our problem:

It may be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for a local government -- and/or an "assisting" ("directing" may be the more appropriate term) foreign force -- to be perceived as "legitimate," when the clear purpose and objective of these entities (the supervising foreign power and the subordinate local government) is seen to be:

a. To radically, dramatically and fundamentally transform the subject state and society (for example: to both "modernize" and "Westernize" a "tribal" and "Eastern" society) and

b. To use the "opportunity" presented by various state and societal difficulties (for example: insurgencies, civil wars, natural disaster, etc.) as an excuse to intervene to achieve these goals.

Yet such is United States foreign policy and strategy. With our "instruments of power" being adapted to (1) seize such opportunities and (2) pursue such goals.

I can think of NOTHING that is more likely to "destabilize" (further destabilize) a country, a society, and/or a region than to try to force these to (a) give up their time-honored political, economic and social structures (to wit: their way of life) and to force them to (b) adopt a completely foreign/alien way-of-life in the place of these; this to be forced on the population during a time of crisis.

This, I believe, may be the fundamental flaw in our thinking.

In such circumstances as I have described above, neither the local government nor the "assisting" (supervising/directing) foreign force, I would suggest, has very much chance of being seen as "legitimate."

They are more likely to be seen, instead, as (1) exploiting the difficulties being experienced by various populations to (2) pursue and achieve their own selfish goals.

Paul Yingling

Thu, 10/20/2011 - 7:16am

In reply to by Bill M.


I agree that our current approach will only delay the inevitable, and that our large conventional footprint in Afghanistan isn't making matters better.

However, I don't agree that foreign forces are necessarily destabilizing. When foreign forces assist a legitimate government in providing security and other essential services, the host-nation population is unlikely to object. In Afghanistan, neither pre-condition applies.

CT in and of itself is a military operation, and not a strategy to accomplish our political goals. At best, it will disrupt and delay the growth of terrorist movements. Absent a political dimension, the same criticisms you make of COIN apply to CT as well.

I'm all for a more intelligent and sustainable approach, but have yet to read or hear one articulated.



Bill M.

Thu, 10/20/2011 - 1:33am

In reply to by Paul Yingling


I agree it could have turned out different if we pursued a different strategy. I get frustrated when the solution to the problem/challenge is reduced to two choices, which are generally get out (or ignore the reason) or surge more forces and money. Our response took the initiative away from the Afghan people, and we imposed our version of national building upon a nation without understanding the historical context (which I don't claim to understand, but like many others can see the major mistakes very clearly in hindsight). It may be true that we if didn't impose our form of order there would have been more bloodshed internal to Afghanistan, but it appears our approach is simply delaying that instability and costing us too much politically, economically and militarily based on elusive and idealist objectives. The objective has exceeded its value in costs.

I suspect there were multiple approaches available that wouldn't have ignored the region and would have resulted in greater stability. Our national leadership at that time wasn't exactly the greatest strategists our country has produced.

As for Pakistan, it is our actions in Afghanistan (now and in response to the USSR occupaton of Afghanistan) that has contributed to their instability, but ultimately the blame clearly falls on the shoulders of Pakistan. Given two decisions they always seem to choose to the wrong one for their nation and their people.

That is all history now, and while history informs future decisions, we have to move on. However, do you really think maintaining a large foreign footprint in Afghanistan contributes to real (rather than a temporary forced stability) regional stability?

Do we really need more time to train the Afghan forces? How can other nations mobilize and form Armies in response to crisis in a matter of months and the Afghans can't put together security forces that can effectively fight insurgents after 10 years? I suspect the answer isn't the training, but other factors tthat we're ignoring.

Economic development programs don't need more U.S. tax dollars, but rather they need to be well conceived in concert with the Afghans to develop sustainable solutions that simply improve their lives over time.

Our objectives and our approach to this conflict in my opinion has guarunteed a long term and largely unsuccessful nation building effort. On the other hand our CT efforts were rather effective.

Very few people are advocatng ignoring the region, but rather pushing for a more intelligent and sustainable approach that is less disruptive (destabilizing).

Paul Yingling

Wed, 10/19/2011 - 6:56am


Thanks for the terrific questions and comments. This level of dialogue is one of the many reasons to love SWJ.

Jaylemeux, no other nuclear power has Pakistan's record of proliferation and support for terrorism. Its role in the A.Q. Khan network and its support for Lashkar e Taiba, Haqqani and possibly al Qaeda make it far more dangerous even than the DPRK.

Thomas and Bill M., while I share your concerns, AfPak could have turned out differently. Denying sanctuary to al Qaeda in Af-PAK through some combination of CT, FID, COIN, diplomacy and economic aid would have been difficult in 2002, but not impossible. We cannot safely ignore this region of the world, as we tried to do in the 1990s. The "lost years" of 2002-08 will one day be viewed as a terrible tragedy, not least of all for the peoples of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Lalit, I share your hopes but don't know that any one person or office can reliably vouch for Pakistan's nuclear surety. While I agree with Carl Prine on many issues, he is wrong to be so sanguine about Pakistani assurances about its nuclear weapons. Carl's usually brilliant skepticism appears to have failed him on this important case.

Best Regards,


We can hope that the post 9/11 era of hubris is coming to a close, but I have my doubts that it will be followed by a period of strategic thought. There are multiple supporting systems, both informal and formal, within our government bureaucracy, the think thanks, the industrial complex, and politicians who will generate and push populist positions that only support shallow short term political goals instead a long term strategy that is in our national interest.

Al Qaeda leaders failed due to the ambition of their goals and the failure to generate the degree of support needed from the global Muslim community, but they still get credit for thinking more strategically than we did. They succeeded in causing us to waste a considerable portion of our wealth and misuse and exhaust our our military in pursuit of extremely grandiose, liberal and idealistic goals of forcing nations with no history of democractic institutions (as we know them) to adapt modern forms of governance, under the assumption this would somehow prevent future terrorist attacks. This approach not only wasted billions of dollars, but diverted our attention from other threats, and inappropriately focused our general purpose forces on what should have been a CT mission that could have largely been addressed effectively (not decisively) by SOF and the CIA. Instead the CT mission morphed into nation building under fire requiring a large number of occupation forces. During this time the military cut its investment in developing needed future capabilities to fight future wars, and now with the economic crisis and pending cuts we'll continue to further delay funding needed upgrades and developing needed capabilities.

I hope COL Yingling's analogy about our nation in the 1920s being forced to adapt a more strategic view is precedent for the era we're entering, but I think it is unlikely.

Thomas Buonomo

Tue, 10/18/2011 - 3:21am

Colonel Yingling,

I am concerned that the large-scale U.S. presence in Afghanistan is contributing to the destabilization of Pakistan by providing content for insurgent propaganda on the Pakistani side of the border. Pakistani leaders also appear to be very concerned that the United States' aggressive posture toward insurgent groups in Pakistan- and its very public attempts to push Pakistani officials to follow suit -is provoking a domestic backlash that could end up resulting in the very thing the United States wishes to prevent: the collapse of the Pakistani government. If the vast majority of these militants possess only local territorial ambitions rather than a hellbent desire to establish a global Islamic Caliphate, can we not afford to withdraw most of our forces from Afghanistan and focus primarily on targeting Al Qaeda, allowing Pakistan to sort out its own internal problems? It seems to me that whatever involvement we have in Pakistan's internal affairs should be focused primarily on neutralizing Al Qaeda, moderating the ideological influence of the madrassas, and promoting economic reforms to address grievances concerning corruption and social justice. I see anything beyond this as probably too heavy-headed and counterproductive.

Thomas Buonomo


Mon, 10/17/2011 - 10:37am

COL Yingling, how do you quantify Pakistan's as the least secure nuclear arsenal?

Lalit Ambardar

Sat, 10/15/2011 - 3:43pm

Question is not whether Pakistan as a state is sinking or not,Islamabad falls first or Rawalpindi,is the only matter of speculation.If Pak's nukes aren't under its mentor US's surveillance yet,then US better rethink its geo-strategic policy & fast.US can't afford a jihadi version of North Korea.And what about the hapless masses in Pakistan in a situation of eventuality?