Small Wars Journal

Missteps in Afghanistan: Let Us Count the Ways

Fri, 05/25/2018 - 12:31am

Missteps in Afghanistan: Let Us Count the Ways

Donald C. Bolduc

“A man must be big enough to admit his mistakes, smart enough to profit from them, and strong enough to correct them.” -- John C. Maxwell

This article is in response to feedback on my previous article Going Back to the Future:  It is Time for Change in Afghanistan.  I want to thank all that took the time to comment and for their insightful thoughts and feedback.  The feedback ranged from:

  1. There is no political will or military patience to go back to bottom up constructs
  2. You cannot win in Afghanistan without Pakistan’s support in the sanctuaries
  3. What have we been doing for the past 17 years and where is the accountability
  4. A broken diplomatic approach
  5. Not setting conditions for reconciliation
  6. The detour to the Iraq War
  7. Inability to understand all politics is local
  8. Failure to understand how Afghanistan’s secures itself
  9. And an over investment in ministries that exacerbate corruption

All valid and great observations.  As in the previous article, I am not going into the minutia of the problems as there have been millions of dollars spent on studies diving into the deep end of the minutia pool and they have been largely ignored.  I will however, endeavor to point out critical missteps that we seem to keep investing in despite the negative consequences of doing so.

Before I start, I write about this subject because I care about the men and women we depend on to execute our plans.  What I say here, I have said before as a Major, Lieutenant Colonel, Colonel, and Brigadier General.  It was not popular then and will not be popular now.  In this regard, I follow the words of Winston Churchill, “You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life.”


Our senior civilians, policy makers and senior military leaders at the 4, 3, and 2-star level over three administrations are responsible for the failures in strategy and operational approach.  We did not stick to what was working, operated conventionally in an unconventional environment, endorsed failed operational constructs and have abandoned operational constructs that worked to go back to a kinetic, top down driven approach that has produced failure not only in Afghanistan, but in Iraq, Syria, and Africa.

Our tactical level units have performed admirably, but our policy makers and senior General Officers have failed them.  Good tactics never fix bad strategy. My observations in no way challenge the character, dedication, commitment, and sacrifice of our senior leaders as they serve with honor, but only serve to point out their thinking and approach in Afghanistan must change or we should leave. It is the lack of a consistent comprehensive strategy in Afghanistan that prevents the nation’s stability. Countering these negative trends requires a return to the comprehensive strategy approach, continuity of strategy, and better talent management at the senior leadership level.

As you know, the collapse of the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan in 2001 led to the challenges of creating and then maintaining a stable, safe, and secure environment for the people of that nation. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) and the International Security Assistance Force’s (ISAF) failure to organize and establish the unity of command and unity of purpose needed to implement an effective counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy has resulted in the ISAFs inability to gain and maintain security, prevent a resurgence of the Taliban, and develop an effective infrastructure development plan. There has been ZERO accountability on the senior leadership responsible for the missteps.  Further, poor diplomacy and administration, as well as poor organization of the political and military effort in Afghanistan, has resulted in a lack of unity of command and purpose, which created an unstable political and military environment which include ineffective Afghan ministries, military and police.

Misstep Number 1: Failure to Adopt the Right Approach in Afghanistan

“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” -- Sun Zu

“Unhappy is the fate of one who tries to win his battles and succeed in his attacks without cultivating the spirit of enterprise, for the result is waste of time and general stagnation.” -- Sun Zu

To support the invasion, Central Command (CENTCOM) deployed a Combined Forces Land Component Command (CFLCC), a Combined Forces Air Component Command (CFACC), and a Combined Maritime Component Command (CFMCC) to the Arabian Gulf. A Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force (CJSOTF) then invaded Afghanistan.  By the end of December 2001, the Northern Alliance and Afghan indigenous forces, backed by Coalition airpower and Special Forces, had removed the Taliban and its al-Qaeda allies from power and driven them into the hinterlands.  The success of these units is notable but, unifying the operational efforts of these multiple service components and their coalition partners was very difficult, as evidenced in Operation ANACONDA in March 2002. To improve command and control USCENTCOM established the Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan (CFC-A) as the joint operational level headquarters for Afghanistan, commanded by a three-star U.S. general.

The expansion of US Forces and the introduction of large conventional units was misstep number 1.  We essentially took all the lessons learned by the Russians and through them out.  By removing the responsibility of the fight, problem, and solution from the Afghans we inherited the problem and chose to ignore thousands of years of history.  We forgot why Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires and that Afghans welcome help, but if you stay too long you become the enemy.  Instead of investing in the traditional Afghan local security and governance and building from the bottom up we choose to grow the national government and create a national level military and police organizations and build from the top down.  WE decided to build the house from the roof down and that never works.  The military and police are not getting the job done.  There are significant, recruiting issues, retention issues, AWOL issues, pay issues, medical issues, infiltration issues, training and standards issues, and a huge literacy problem.  All we do is propose growth in military and police areas that costs the Afghans over 100% of their GDP to sustain and maintain.  The foundation remains weak and we keep putting stuff on the roof.

Misstep Number 2: The Problem of Unity of Command and Unity of Purpose

“There's a sense of desperation in Afghanistan because of the lack of funding and the fact that the U.S. only has a one-track military strategy. It doesn't have an economic and political game plan.” -- Ahmed Rashid

NATO is a key component of the international community’s engagement in Afghanistan. It is supposed to be assisting the Afghan authorities in providing security and stability to promote reconstruction and effective governance.  There is no question that NATO is committed to its goals in Afghanistan, but NATO has failed to orchestrate and synchronize political and military efforts for success in Afghanistan. This is evident in the lack of consistent strategy and desperate security situation in the provinces across Afghanistan. NATO’s political and military effort has not led to a permanent improvement in security; therefore, security, governance, infrastructure development remains a daunting challenge. If NATO is going to succeed it cannot focus on tactical adjustments as a method to compensate for strategic deficiencies in organization, direction, and continuity of effort in Afghanistan.  Four deficiencies are germane. NATO has not adequately provided the necessary strategic direction, unity of purpose, or unity of effort to build a stable Afghanistan. NATO has not sufficiently resolved the competing requirements of policy and strategy, and as a result has not properly organized its limited military and civilian assets under an effective strategy.  Additionally, NATO has not correctly identified the threat, did not adequately assess the operational environment, or take the appropriate steps needed to gain the initiative and shape the political environment and military battlefield. Lastly, NATO has not effectively countered the external support for al Qaeda and the Taliban from Pakistan and Iran and has not developed a sound regional approach to stabilize the political environment.

Even so, NATO has made progress in Afghanistan. But its lack of strategic direction and control has left the Afghans as dependent on external support in 2018 as they were in 2001. NATO has not developed an effective, holistic program that achieves reconstruction, civil and defense reform, and sound defense institutions including security sector reform. Consequently, NATO has not effectively assisted Afghan authorities in extending and exercising their authority and influence across the country to create the conditions for stabilization and reconstruction.  ISAF’s military operations have worked at cross purposes with its use of a conventional approach in an unconventional environment.  Despite the number of small operations and military support to nation-building, the occurrence of large-scale military operations and the increased use of close air support challenge the idea that ISAF is conducting effective counterinsurgency (COIN) operations.

An American four-star general commands ISAF and reports through NATO channels. Currently the 14th commander in Afghanistan is setting conditions for a 15th commander who may  be no more successful than his predecessors unless something drastically changes.  Since December 2001, the U.S. has divided its forces between OEF and the NATO/ISAF mission and now Operation Resolute Support. U.S operations in Afghanistan have labored beneath numerous chiefs of mission and different military commanders.  Successive military and civilian leaders have held differing views on how to operate in Afghanistan; their differences have adversely affected the development of a cogent counterinsurgency COIN strategy, which is essential to creating a secure and stable Afghanistan.

Since there is no effective COIN strategy to guide NATO’s international effort to stabilize Afghanistan and fight the Taliban, unity of purpose has suffered; unity of command is fragmented; tactics in some areas have reverted to earlier practices, such as the aggressive use of airpower, sweep and clear operations, and an enemy-targeted strategy. General Barry R. McCaffrey (USA Ret.) underscored in an after-action report a decade ago which still rings true today, “a sensible coordination of all political and military elements of the Afghan theater of operations does not exist.”

Misstep Number 3: Allowing the Taliban Resurgence to occur in Afghanistan-2003-2009 and 2013-2018

“Know the enemy and know yourself.” -- Sun Zu

An inevitable outcome of the ineffective NATO-led coalition, an inadequate organizational structure and an ineffective strategy is the Taliban’s resurgence. The 2001 Taliban consisted of large units organized under a tribal military chain of command driven by a religious ideology. In 2002 and 2003, the Taliban remained haphazardly assembled in numerous independent groups that shared the same fanatical Islamic extremist ideology. The diversion of the Iraq War and an inaccurate assessment that the Taliban was defeated led to the resurgence.  By 2004, the Taliban began organizing themselves into an insurgent force by co-opting village elders and soliciting and gaining the support of the populace. During this time, the Taliban took advantage of the opportunity to organize a government in exile based in Pakistan, but it still fought inside Afghanistan in separate and independent groups. By 2005-2006 the Taliban and other organizations had a foot hold across Afghanistan.  The Taliban gained momentum and continued to operate effectively in Afghanistan through 2009.  Due to a change in strategy from 2010 through the end 2013 covered in my previous article, the Taliban and other organizations lost their foot hold and unprecedented security gains were achieved.  Unfortunately, due to a change in policy and strategy from the end of 2013 through the present we have lost all the security gains and have witnessed the introduction of ISIS into Afghanistan.  

Taking advantage of this the Taliban united many of the formerly independent groups of fighters under a common cause with the objective of driving “the infidels” out of Afghanistan. The Taliban’s more effective organization has restored confidence in its ability to rise again to power and rule the country. Their renewed unity of effort also enabled the group to intimidate the populace effectively.  The Taliban use night letters (letters delivered at night to intimidate village elders, government officials, and Afghan citizens) mullahs, radio, television and the internet to spread their messages. During their rule of Afghanistan, they outlawed television. But now they use this technology adeptly to disseminate videos of the be-heading of Afghans who work with ISAF or the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA).

The Taliban was organized effectively to conduct “information warfare” against ISAF and the wider international community.  They use propaganda, contact with local leaders, and visible local assistance to the local population to influence the populace. Their messages support its objectives and are effective in countering ISAF and GIRoA messages. Taliban actions are also aimed at influencing, national and international audiences as well as national and international media.  The Taliban broadcast their messages to the media within 60 minutes of a major event. This is considerably faster than ISAF can counter the Taliban’s messages, because ISAF leaders are required to investigate, confirm, and gain approval for their messages through the chain of command before they can release press statements. From 2006 through 2009, the Taliban staged a dramatic comeback by relying on the insurgent tactics that have been perfected with deadly efficiency in Iraq.

Thus, the Taliban, other threat organizations and now ISIS have shown the flexibility to adapt and change their ways and means to win. They appeal to the fundamental Islamic beliefs when it enables them to inspire their base-fighters, but the key factor in their recent success has been their adaptation to ISAF’s tactics. The Taliban has transformed from operating as guerilla fighters in the mountains to establishing safe havens, controlling lines of communication, occupying villages, and conducting assassinations and suicide attacks in the population centers.

Time has also been a significant factor in the Taliban’s resurgence by providing them the opportunity to reorganize and adapt to NATO and ISAF operations.  The longer the conflict drags on, the more chance they have to “sell” their message or ideology, and the greater possibility it will have of success. The Taliban say, “ISAF has got the watch, but we have got the time.”

Perhaps their greatest asymmetric advantage, and the technique most at odds with our own war fighting principles, is the Taliban’s ability to withdraw and blend into the populace.  Unlike its host nation forces and her allies, the enemy wears no uniform has no standard equipment and does not require any personal accountability.  Hidden in plain sight, they rely on their greatest ally, time, and waits for the next opportunity to take up arms. Thus, these insurgent fighters can be best described as combatant civilians.

Further, Taliban fighters truly believe in their cause. Their strength of commitment compensates for their lack of military capability. They are waging total war, not limited war.  Coalition soldiers await the end of their tours; Taliban tours only end in death, which the Taliban believe is an entry into paradise.  Thus, the enemy’s use of extremist religious ideology offers another advantage. Its impact on the populace is significant and can prevent legitimizing the Afghan government.  Our approach of destroy and defeat will not work.  The quote, “bombing them into the stone age and giving them no place to hide and driving them to reconciliation” will not work and is no way to neutralize an allusive enemy.  Plus, Afghanistan is already in the stone age and there are plenty of places to hide effectively.  We must disrupt, degrade, and neutralize through a comprehensive COIN strategy.  We will not defeat the ideology, but with the right strategy we can disrupt and degrade their leadership and neutralize (render ineffective) their organizational networks.  This is the best we can do.

Misstep Number 4: Lack of Effectively Understanding Threats to Security and Stability

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” -- Sun Zu

If the current theater strategy was effective, then the threats to Afghanistan’s government would be decreasing, not increasing and the Taliban would be running to the reconciliation table.  Today, the Taliban and associated groups are as strong as they have been since 10 September 2001. In his July 2008 assessment, General Barry R. McCaffery (USA Ret.) stated, “The year 2009 will be the year of decision. The Taliban and a greatly enhanced foreign fighter presence will: strike decisive blows against NATO units; will operate effectively between Afghanistan and Pakistan; will try to sever the road networks and stop the construction of new roads (Route # 1 Ring Road from Kabul to Kandahar is frequently now interdicted); and will try to strangle and isolate the capital.”

I assess that 2018 is the new year of decision, change the strategy or get out.  If you decide to change the strategy get the right people to lead the effort and let them do it.  Afghanistan currently faces three major threats: threats to socio-economic development; threats to governance and justice; and threats to a safe, secure, and stable political and social environment. The threats to reconstruction range from tangible disruption to the construction of bridges, roads, schools, and clinics to intangible threats against enlightened cultural education and the ongoing influence of the Taliban’s religious ideology.  Threats to governance and justice include tangible and prejudicial actions that sustain Islamic law and prevent a legal system based on due process and individual rights consistent with Afghan cultural traditions. Threats to a stable, safe, and secure political and social environment include direct action by insurgents to the security of the Afghan people.

Further, these three major threats are carried out by different groups. The groups are typically categorized as the Taliban (TB), al-Qaeda (AQ), and Hezbi-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG), other three letter groups and now ISIS and are responsible for the threats to a safe, secure, and stable political and social environment. The groups associated with threats to development of good governance are those involved in the drug trade and organized crime (smugglers and corrupt village elders conducting illegal checkpoints, hijacking, etc.). The threat to reconstruction is a result of the lack of stability and a poor economy reeling from the violence that exists among various tribes, families, and ethnic groups in Afghanistan.  An additional threat that cannot be overlooked as contributing to the deteriorating security situation comes from the growing numbers of well-trained foreign fighters from Pakistan and materiel support coming from Iran into Afghanistan. “Al Qaeda and Taliban leadership inside Pakistan remains [sic] a very significant problem,” Lieutenant General Eikenberry in testimony before the Armed House Services Committee warned of the “growing threat of Talibanization in Pakistan.”  The strategy in Afghanistan to control the borders was handled initially by “outposts” that were constantly attacked, and ineffective stationing of Afghan Security Forces fortified in static traditional border crossings that were easily circumvented by walking around or bribing their way across. Cross border incidents were high and resulted in tension with the Pakistan government.

As stated by Lieutenant General Eikenberry there is no question that the border areas in Pakistan and Iran are key to maintaining stability in the Afghan provinces that border these countries.  The question is what the best way is to secure these areas and that answer came in the form of tribal and village elders connected by traditional tribal relationships that reached across the borders.  Once again, the solution was local and was best handled by traditional Afghan long standing methods of gaining security in the rural areas.  The sanctuary areas in both Pakistan and Iran were significantly disrupted by VSO and ALP.  We realized that the focus on tribal elders and village elders transcended the borders.  The support that the villages received was felt across the borders and many of the tribal and village leaders in Pakistan supported their tribal members in Afghanistan.

An example of this was the securing of the Kunar Province through VSO and ALP led by a SF Major, an SF Team, thickened and enhanced by an infantry squad, Civil Affairs, and Information Operations Teams.  In six months, this small team in a single Village Stability Platform secured the Kunar Province and adjacent areas across the border.  It is important to note that under the previous strategy brigades of infantry units could not secure these areas.  General Petraeus during a visit to the VSP was so impressed that he doubled down on his support for VSO and ALP.  This allowed us to expand our VSO and ALP platforms to Paktia, Paktika, Logar, and Ghazni Provinces with the same result in security gains and effects across the Pakistan border.  During this time frame there was unprecedented security gains that the insurgents had no answer for and declared the largest threat to their operations.  Mullah Omar was quoted as saying, that we cannot beat what the Americans are doing in the villages and declared the Afghan Local Police the number one priority target.


General Petraeus Visiting the VSP in Kunar Province

Misstep Number 5: Mishandling of the Afghan Drug Trade

“The Americans created this drug-saturated hell, and their occupation is now doomed by it. Unfortunately, they have also doomed millions of Afghans in the process.”  -- Unknown

Poppy production remains one of the most pressing domestic issues in Afghanistan. Afghan government officials recognize that the drug trade finances the insurgency, which then hinders the stability and security of many provinces. Afghanistan’s enormous poppy production also casts the country as narco-state.

Directly destroying the sprawling poppy crop seems to be an obvious solution but is not practical.  Successful poppy eradication must be executed in secure locations with a sound security situation. Additionally, replacement crops and financial compensation are crucial components of the eradication process. Farmers rely on their crops to earn a living and feed their families and tribes; destruction of poppy without compensating the farmers for their loss will enable the Taliban to recruit many of these farmers to become fighters.  The Taliban have successfully organized resistance towards Afghan government and coalition poppy eradication in areas where they have a strong presence and freedom of movement. This resistance has caused Afghan casualties and provided a public relations victory for the enemy thereby boosting their recruiting in the area.

Poppy eradication also must be applied fairly and uniformly. Otherwise the Taliban will exploit perceptions of tribal favoritism. Poppy eradication should be conducted exclusively by the Afghan government. Poppy eradication, however, must be a lower priority than gaining security, and neutralizing and controlling the insurgency.  It cannot be accomplished until the Afghan government promotes an alternative crop or develops an economic compensation plan for the farmers.  NATO’s role in poppy eradication should be one of sharing alternative crop technology and resources, providing intelligence, providing logistical support to Afghan counter-narcotics teams, and assisting with an effective counter.

A practical solution would have been to commercialize a portion of the poppy industry into pharmaceutical companies that would create research, jobs, revenue, develop alternative crops where appropriate, and develop a payoff system to farmers and train them in another trade.  This would have avoided many of the problems of violence, illicit drug trade, and funding to the insurgency.  No plan would be perfect, but the one we have been executing is a disaster.

Misstep Number 6: Failure to Inform and Communicate Effectively

"The two words information and communication are often used interchangeably, but they signify quite different things. Information is giving out; communication is getting through." -- Sydney Harris

Recognizing that people are the strategic center of gravity in a COIN environment and the insurgents’ critical vulnerability, it is important that an aggressive information operations and public affairs plan is developed to influence all strata of society. Achieving this starts with something as simple as base location, force placement, and task organization. Getting these fundamentals right, the first time (and being prepared to adjust when a miscalculation occurs) is critical for achieving the desired effect on the enemy, for positively influencing the populace, and for legitimizing the government.

The Taliban is more effective at information warfare than NATO and ISAF because they are decentralized and are in the villages to influence the populace.  NATO must develop an information operations system that assists the Afghans in being more effective in influencing the populace. NATO must provide the support required to disseminate the messages through all types of media to counter this insurgent strength.  Possessing Public Affairs personnel and assets is not the same as doing it.

Misstep Number 7: Failure to Gain External Support

“[Barack Obama] is sending more troops [to Afghanistan], but they have also realized that we are not going to win that war through guns and tanks. We have to engage the neighbors, and it is good that there is a non-military strategy in addition to a military strategy. It is, at least, encouraging. Whether it will work or not, the jury is still put.” -- Khaled Hosseini

This is one region in the world where terrorism, extremist Islamic ideology, traditional nation-state conflicts, and confirmed weapons of mass destruction all come together. Given the overriding imperative to keep dangerous weapons out of the hands of terrorists, NATO and the United States must identify their common strategic interests with these regional players and then craft the necessary bargains to protect those interests. NATO and U.S. leaders must understand that stability in Afghanistan runs through Tehran, Islamabad, Delhi, and Kabul.

Pakistan’s and Iran’s external support to the Taliban is contributing to the troubled security situation in Afghanistan. The increase of well-trained foreign fighters which now includes ISIS in Afghanistan is strengthening the Taliban insurgency and is gravely threatening for the Afghan government.  No surge, strategic bombing campaign, Mother of All Bombs (MOABs) or additional number of troops will fix this external support problem. The border between Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran is too vast and too rugged to seal off. The solution is primarily diplomatic supported by an effective operational construct that brings the tribes together against the Taliban and other groups.  It will be solved by old-fashioned, hard-nosed diplomacy based on a sound regional strategy that supports the security interests of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and India, which differ tremendously.  As mentioned earlier VSO and ALP were making significant gains in this area.

Misstep Number 8: Undermining the Afghans “Will” to Own the Fight, Problem, and Solution

“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times” -- Bruce Lee

NATO can support the Afghans efforts, but the Afghans must win the counterinsurgency war themselves. NATO must build this Afghan capability to win so NATO can become advisor and supporter. President Karzai told NATO that more than anything else the Afghans need to rebuild their human capital and their institutions, their army, their police force, their administrative structure, and their judiciary. Unfortunately, NATO has not developed these Afghan capabilities and the Afghan government does not have the capability and capacity to govern and provide security to the Afghan people.

To avoid the fragmentation of authority and a weak central government, NATO must ensure the gaining of security is done in the context of an Afghan government constructed by balancing the roles and missions of the police and military with civilian leaders. As discussed earlier, the development of a bottom-up civil defense plan that trains, organizes, and equips the security forces is the most viable option. Working in conjunction with village elders, young men would be hired to work as police at the village level and national police at district and provincial levels. The connecting of village elders, district and provincial leaders, and the layering of police security and law enforcement duties will facilitate security within the vast territory that constitutes a province. NATO must not create Afghan security forces along western constructs, but instead, must allow the Afghans to use the strength of its tribal system to create Afghan security forces that serve the needs of the people, work towards the common good, and promote nationalism over tribalism.

NATO must let the Afghans do as much of the security and nation-building work as possible. Where they are weak, NATO should supplement and build capability and capacity. Where they are strong, NATO should advise and assist. ISAF security and nation-building activities must immediately be conducted through, with, and by the nation’s military, government, police, and citizenry. Afghans must stabilize their social structure and build their own government, military, and police. The Afghan government must establish legitimacy in the eyes of the populace, the Afghan government must be seen as leading the political and military effort. 

Misstep Number 9: Failure to Set Conditions for a Reconciliation

“To fight and conquer in all our battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting.” -- Sun Zu

Reconciliation plans are necessary in this type of environment.  All counterinsurgency strategies have a reconciliation program. These programs are prudent, demonstrate a democratic process to resolving security issues, and can serve as an effective political tool in gaining the support of the populace. Reconciliation plans will only work from a position of leverage and power if the plan is adhered to, and if the plan actually works.  None of these conditions have been met in Afghanistan.  The first plan called “The Program Takhim-E Solh,” which translates to “Strengthening Peace Program.” This plan was updated and revised in 2010 and we now sit with “Plan A” reconciliation plan.  To date, the reconciliation program has produced mixed results due to the fluctuating security environment, coalition forces misrepresenting the reconciliation program, not letting the Afghans take the lead, and NATO confusing reconciliation with bargaining and negotiations.

The intent of the program is to offer insurgents, former insurgents and other supporters the opportunity to renounce violence and peacefully join with the government.  Reconciliation programs are not designed to be a “get out of jail free card” or to bargain or negotiate with the insurgents. Reconciliation requires capitulation, assimilation, and denouncing insurgent ideology. Bargaining and negotiating, however, does not require capitulation, assimilation, and denouncing of insurgent ideology, and is a dangerous approach with serious stability repercussions.

To have an effective reconciliation program, NATO must ensure the following conditions are met. First, reconciliation is an issue the Afghan government leads.  Second, there must be an effective civil government and Afghan National Security Forces at the village, district, and provincial level to administer the program. Third, there must be an effective reconciliation program strategic communications plan.  Fourth, reconciliation must be part of a balanced COIN strategy that has created an environment that has the support of the populace and is inhospitable to the insurgent.  Fifth, the reconciliation plan must be coordinated with Pakistan to influence cross border insurgents. NATO cannot navigate the maze of Afghanistan’s ethnic politics. Only the Afghans can do this effectively and this is tough business for them and even they are limited due to a lack of security and a government that is perceived as weaker than the Taliban. NATO must not allow a reconciliation program to diverge into bargaining and negotiating with the Taliban. The reconciliation program must be closely monitored and judiciously administered until the conditions mentioned above are met.  Unfortunately, none of the conditions have been met and therefore, it is unlikely that the Taliban will desire to reconcile.


“Our strength is in our Soldiers.” -- Donald C. Bolduc

Despite missteps in the overall policy, strategy, and operational approach in Afghanistan there has been progress.  Segments of the Afghan population, including women, children, and religious minorities, enjoy expanded, education, religious, and constitutional rights than they did before.  The bottom line is that despite the dedication and sacrifice of our service members America’s long war in Afghanistan is not likely to end well.

Despite our senior leader’s efforts to portray the war as an American victory, the United States is not going to defeat the Taliban, other groups, and ISIS anytime soon. As we witnessed our relationship between the United States and the previous Karzai government go from bad to worse, we have not set a new course with the Ashraf Ghani government to achieve a different outcome.

This unfortunate outcome is not what most Americans expected following the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the rapid toppling of the Taliban back in 2001. It is therefore important that we draw the right lessons from the experience, if only to partly redeem the sacrifices made by the service members who fought there.

Donald C. Bolduc


Going Back to the Future: It is Time for Change in Afghanistan, Small Wars Journal, Donald C. Bolduc, May 2018

Understanding War in Afghanistan by Joseph J. Collins

Top 10 Mistakes Made in the Afghan War, Stephen M. Walt, February 2014


CNA: Summary of Independent Assessment of the Afghan National Security Forces, Jonathan Schroden • Catherine Norman • Jerry Meyerle • Patricio Asfura-Heim • Bill Rosenau • Del Gilmore • Mark Rosen • Daniella Mak • Nicholas Hutchinson with Mary Ellen Connell • Nilanthi Samaranayake • Sarah Vogler • Michael Markowitz • Jim Gavrilis • Michael Connell

Can the Afghan Security Forces Stand Up to the Taliban?  Observations from the Field Say “Yes”, Jonathan Schroden, Patricio Asfura-Heim, Catherine Norman, and Jerry Meyerle

Congress Asked for an Assessment of the War on Al-Qaeda. Here’s What We Told Them, Jonathan Schroden and Julia McQuaid

Afghanistan will be the Trump Administration’s First Foreign Policy Crisis, Jonathan Schroden

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My Leadership Journey and other Observations, Small Wars Journal, Donald C. Bolduc, March 2018

4 Keys to Successful leadership, Small Wars Journal, Donald C. Bolduc, April 2018

A Practice in Agility: Force Sustainment in the Special Forces Battalion Task Force, CPT John A. Hotek Service Detachment Commander 1/3 SFG(A)

Afghan Local Police, By Chris Hensley and BG Donald C. Bolduc, September 2016

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The Gray Zone in Africa, Brigadier General Donald C. Bolduc, Commander, Special Operations Command Africa Master Chief Petty Officer (SEAL) Richard V. Puglisi, Senior Enlisted Advisor, Special Operations Command Africa Mr. Randall Kaailau, Foreign Policy Advisor, Special Operations Command Africa

Headquarters, NATO Special Operations Component Command – Afghanistan/Special Operations Joint Task Force – Afghanistan Camp Integrity, Afghanistan Village Stability Operations and Afghan Local Police Bottom-up Counterinsurgency, 28 March 2013

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Special Operators at Work, Training the Afghan Local Police, Willy Stern, May 13, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 33

TF-31 COIN operations in southern and western Afghanistan, COIN operations in southern and western Afghanistan

Categories: Afghanistan War

About the Author(s)

Brigadier General Bolduc is a former commander of U.S. Special Operations Command Africa. During his 33 years of active duty, he received 2 awards for valor, 5 Bronze Stars and 2 Purple Hearts and survived numerous firefights, a bombing, and a helicopter crash.  He is a self-described leader who admits his mistakes, learned from his many mistakes, and keeps the faith with the people, family, and organizations he serves.