Small Wars Journal

Defining our Policy in Afghanistan in the Midst of a Civil War

Tue, 01/10/2012 - 5:05am

The public debates regarding United States’ policy in Afghanistan have largely focused on the differences in defining our objectives and the best possible means to achieve these objectives. The objectives debate relates to the range of options between whether we should just focus on ensuring that Afghanistan does not have safe havens for terrorists and terrorism to the much more ambitious aim of ensuring a democratic and stable Afghanistan. The means debate has primarily focused on whether counterinsurgency or counterterrorism is the best approach to achieve our key objectives.

Unfortunately, these debates on objectives and means have not been informed by an adequate consideration of the the domestic balance of power in Afghanistan prior to, during and after the United States invasion. Interestingly, at the onset of the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan considerable attention was given to identifying possible allies against the Afghan Taliban. This involved reaching out to and working with warlords and factions who had fought against the Taliban including the Northern Alliance. While our efforts to oust the Afghan Taliban were aided by whatever support we received from their (Taliban’s) rivals, this support was not without consequence. Most significantly, by working with certain factions who were active during Afghanistan’s civil war, in addition to achieving our objective of ousting the Taliban, we too became entangled in the Afghan civil war.

The Bonn Conference held immediately after the overthrow of Taliban resulted in the Northern Alliance demanding and receiving “the most important ministries.”[1] This essentially meant that while we succeeded in accomplishing our mission to get rid of the Taliban, willingly or unwillingly, we helped bring their rivals into the Afghan government. The shift in the balance of power and the Afghan government thus formed were more a reflection of a particular outcome in a civil war, albeit aided by external support, rather than being a consequence of what we in the west typically understand and accept as legitimate political processes.

Interestingly, save for a few exceptions, the mainstream discourse post Bonn 2001 has been characterized by an insufficient acknowledgement of the civil war perspective, despite the widespread use of this concept to understand Afghanistan prior to the U.S. invasion.[2] Introducing the civil war lens to understand Afghanistan since 2001 is necessary as it brings to fore certain considerations that must inform how we define our key objectives and the means to achieve them. Following are just some of these considerations:

  • Understanding the emergence of post 2001 governments in Afghanistan as representing a particular outcome and shift in the balance of power within an ongoing civil war cautions against any ahistorical formulations that fail to associate the history and context of conflict in Afghanistan and its impact on the politics and conflict post Bonn 2001. It also requires us to remain wary of being used by one or more of the contending parties to the civil war to further their objectives, especially if they do not coincide with and/or contradict our objectives.
  • A recent survey by an Afghan media company “linked almost every minister or serving member of parliament to one of the former warlords.”[3] Viewing the last ten years through a civil war lens can not only help us assess and understand the nature of the present day conflict it can also provide us insights regarding the possibility and nature of conflict in a post U.S. Afghanistan and thus help us plan, prepare and devise our policy accordingly.
  • The civil war lens can help us understand the motivations and aspirations of the various actors within Afghanistan from a perspective other than our own, which after all is an external perspective informed by our own objectives and logic of necessity. This in particular can help us avoid committing the fallacy of projecting our own aspirations and objectives and mistaking them for what the population of Afghanistan wants as well.
  • Lastly, the idea that there is a civil war in Afghanistan is an important factor to be considered in our domestic public opinion arena and the debates regarding the future of our policies in Afghanistan.

Given the considerations the above approach brings to bear, it is also important to ask as to what accounts for the general absence of references to civil war in public discussions and debates on Afghanistan. The lives and resources we have committed to this effort are far too precious for us to ignore or insufficiently consider any of the dimensions of the war in Afghanistan. Thinking of the Afghan conflict in civil war terms may not provide us everything we need to know about this conflict, but it does highlight certain considerations without which any discussion and debate regarding our objectives and the most appropriate means to achieve these objectives is both incomplete and irresponsible.

[1] Karzai in his Labyrinth, Elizabeth Rubin, New York Times Magazine August 4, 2009.

[2] U.S. Media Bury Story of Afghan Civil War: ‘Combating extremism’ - or intervening in an internal conflict?, Robert Naiman, December 2009.

[3] Afghan Factions Vie For Position Amid Civil War Fears, Quil Lawrence, September 30, 2011.



Dave Maxwell

Tue, 01/10/2012 - 12:06pm

In reply to by SteveMetz

Your comment could not be more right and it illustrates a frustration that I have with most of the debates we have on these subjects. We spend more time trying to decide what call something than we do trying to understand it. We can argue until we are blue in the face whether something is a civil war, an insurgency or asymmetric conflict or hybrid or irregular but those arguments do not get us any closer to understanding the nature and character of the conflict. Take away the naming convention and focus on the description and understanding and maybe then we could develop the strategy and campaign plans to deal with the conflict.

And of course the same goes for trying to name our "strategies" (e.g, CT, COIN, Stability Operations, UW, FID, PKO, etc) when we should focus not on naming but on developing and describing a stratgey that very well have to encompass capabilities from multiple doctrinal missions.

Bottom line is we spend more effort trying to name things than we do trying to understand things.


Tue, 01/10/2012 - 11:02am

When the debate raged about whether Iraq was an insurgency or a civil war, I argued loudly and longly that the question made no sense. Insurgency (and counterinsurgency) are types of strategies which are normally used in civil wars, but can be used in transnational wars. Civil wars are predominantly internal and can be characterized by a variety of strategies, to include conventional warfighting and insurgency.

So of course Afghanistan is a civil war albeit one with important transnational characteristics. That alone does not tell us whether counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, peacekeeping. or something else is an appropriate strategy.