Small Wars Journal

Losing a Winnable War

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Losing a Winnable War


Tamim Asey


The Afghan government and its allies are winning battles in Afghanistan but not the war. The Afghan war started as the “good war” and as President Obama termed it later as “war of necessity” and was won in less than two months. Quickly the success of the Afghan war was termed as an international model for fighting global terrorism. It was hailed as a model of international cooperation but what has happened since then? Why is it now at worst a “lost war” and at best a “forgotten war”? Is this war winnable? Who is the enemy we are fighting? What are the costs of inaction and withdrawal and what are the costs of winning? What does victory look like? And finally, how we can achieve victory? Do we have the right means both on the Afghan side and on the side of the international community to win it and how long would it take to win this war? I don’t have a crystal ball, but firsthand experience and history tells me that the heart of the matter is that we have been winning battles and losing the war; short-term tactical successes over long term strategic win over the enemy. The crust of the failures lies in a halfhearted approach to war, zigzag policy making and the lack of a broad-based reform minded government in Kabul.


Essentially – the Afghan war still counts as the “good war” because it really hasn’t met its objectives: destroying Al Qaeda, prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for international terrorist organizations and ensure no terrorist plot is planned from Afghan soil against US and its allies.  On the contrary - Al Qaeda is not yet annihilated, there are more than 20 terrorist organizations active in Afghanistan and ISKP has managed to create a foothold in Afghanistan.  The question is why such a reversal? The answer is simple – a halfhearted and under resourced campaign under heavy scrutiny.


The war in Afghanistan is not a civil war no an insurgency as portrayed by some within the security and military circles. It started as a war against terrorism, which is now transformed to proxy war with elements of criminal economy, and terrorism. It is in this environment that terrorist organizations thrive thus making victory difficult to claim in the absence of a long-term strategy and commitment.


At the outset -everyone had a plan to win the war but not a strategy to win the peace in Afghanistan. It is important to note because if you look at the trajectory of war policy making you will find out that immediately after the Taliban regime was overthrown nobody knew what to do next post first Bonn conference in 2001. Former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, along with former President Bush did not want a major US presence in Afghanistan. Then they had to train Afghan forces to be able to maintain security and stability in the country and got NATO involved and subsequently we have witnessed a plethora of haphazard often-contested prescriptions for the Afghan war. Nobody defined victory and what does victory look like in a war as complicated and multifaceted like Afghanistan.  Since then we have seen a plethora of zig-zag policy making by the Americans and NATO allies often focused on short term results and under pressure from their parliaments aimed at achieving quick wins. Afghan experts and policy makers at times joke that the only country which had a consistent and robust policy towards Afghanistan is Pakistan – keep the war going on enough to hurt but not at a boiling point to recall for an international retaliation. This policy has not changed and as we can see is starting to pay dividend to GHQ in Rawalpindi.


On the other hand – the Taliban have transformed themselves from a regime hosting Al Qaeda who plotted the 9/11 tragic events to a terrorist group and subsequently now a full blown “insurgent group” who supposedly poses no risk to the west and its allies and are merely leading a national struggle and the Afghans need to reconcile with them.


The fact of the matter is that the Afghan war has been for many years in a stalemate but still winnable.  The NATO train and assist missions has failed to break this stalemate for many reasons, chief among them a lack of resources, political considerations in US and European capitals and finally geopolitical priorities in other parts of the world such as Syria, Iraq and nowadays Russia. But against all odds – the Afghan war is still winnable and a just war and one, which is vital for the national security interests of the west and Afghanistan. In fact – the war in Afghanistan symbolizes victory and defeat against terrorism. It all started here and will end here.


Afghanistan faces a proxy war imposed on its population from outside. Unlike Syria Afghanistan is not in a civil war or an insurgency as some may define this war. Afghanistan faces a full-blown proxy war imposed on its population thriving in an environment of criminal economy and international terrorism. The question remains how you win such a war?


What is the Afghan War and Who are We Fighting?


The war in Afghanistan is multilayered and multifaceted with deep regional and global roots. It is not a civil war like Syria and nor it is an insurgency whereas a group of dissidents with no freedom control large swaths of land and wage a war of national freedom. It is a proxy war coupled with elements of criminal economy and terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan. For the Afghans it is a national struggle and war of freedom from the reign of terror financed and provided safe havens outside of Afghanistan and for the international community it is the global war on terrorism. Afghan have suffered more than anyone and have been victims of this long war. According to the United Nations civilian casualties report – last year more than 4000 civilians lost their lives in Afghanistan and over the last 17 years more than 80,000 Afghan civilians were killed. This is the price Afghans are paying daily for this struggle.


Essentially – this war is as much about the region and global security as much as it is about the national security interests of Afghanistan. More than 20 terrorist organization operate under various outfits in Afghanistan and fight Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) whose primary objective is to plan and execute deadly terrorist attacks in the capitals of the region and the west.  The security of Afghanistan is tied to the security of Tehran, Delhi, London, Berlin and New York.


Therefore – the war in Afghanistan is not only the war of Afghans but also the war of the west against its original motto of global terrorism. This consensus is unfortunately broken. When the global war on terrorism was launched it was due to broad-based consensus inside Afghanistan and the region that the Taliban regime was toppled in a matter of days and it is precisely due to this the lack and breakdown of such a consensus that Taliban are now stronger and more terrorist groups are operating in Afghanistan. Taliban provide the umbrella for many of these regional and global terrorist groups to operate in Afghanistan. The Taliban and these terrorist organizations enjoy a symbiotic relationship and mutually feed on each other.


This is why it is crucial to debunk the myth that Taliban are no more a threat to the west and the region because they are waging an insurgency against the Afghan government. This will only be true if they have truly broken ranks with Al Qaeda and other groups. WE still have not seen evidence of such a breakaway in ranks.


What is Victory and How Do You Win the War?


The ultimate end of the Afghan war comes with a political settlement but through a decisive military win on the battlefields. We should search for peace on the battlefields and not European capitals and the capitals of Afghan neighbors. Victory against Taliban and terrorist co-conspirators is a decisive military win in the battlefield no matter at what cost followed by a political settlement with the remnants of the Afghan Taliban. This is not the case now. The war is in a painful stalemate taking lives of dozens of Afghans on a daily basis and Taliban feel they have the upper hand in view of the waning support for an unpopular war in the west. What the western politicians have failed to convey to their populations is that winning the war in Afghanistan against terrorism is directly related to the security on the streets of Europe and the United States.


Meanwhile – one third of the fighters in the Afghan battlefields are foreign fighters from Pakistan, Central Asia and Europe. They are transit fighters whose ultimate aim is to hurt the region and the west. For them the only option should be leave to your countries of origin, surrender or get killed. 


This victory requires a long-term commitment; resources and a decisive military win in the battlefields with a broad-based and credible Afghan partner.


What is Needed for Victory?


To achieve victory we need a 3D approach. On the Defense side we need to crush the Taliban military machinery by targeting their command and control structure, sources of financing and safe havens. We are now killing the expendable soldiers and at best mid level commanders. The leadership of the Taliban and their foreign collaborators do not pay any cost and are comfortably planning operations and killing Afghan and NATO service members in Afghanistan from their safe havens in Pakistan and increasingly now Iran and some Central Asian states.


On the diplomacy – the Afghan government and its NATO allies need to patch up and bring back the much needed but broken consensus of fighting terrorist as a collective security threat. This consensus of security for all as opposed to privatizing the war on terror needs to be restored.


And finally – Afghan and the Afghan government should start long term planning for an economic renaissance and increasingly taking responsibility for its economic revival and funding of its security forces. The short-term sources of finance are agriculture, transit and water while long-term economic development of Afghanistan to bring much needed revenues can rely on mining and natural resources development.


About the Author(s)

Tamim Asey is the former Afghan Deputy Minister of Defense and Director General at the Afghan National Security Council. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D in Security studies in London. He can be reached via twitter @tamimasey and Facebook @Tamim Asey


Bill M:  My argument -- in my comment immediately below -- possibly stated another way:

Much as with the case of the Soviets/the communists' invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s -- and their (the Soviets/the communists) attempts, during that period, to transform Afghanistan more along alien and profane Soviet/communist political, economic, social and value lines --

Likewise with the case of the U.S./the West's invasion of Afghanistan in the 2000s -- and our (the U.S./the West's) attempts, during that period and continuing today, to transform Afghanistan more along alien and profane U.S./Western political, economic, social and value lines.

In both such cases, the "underlying cause of the conflict" -- this would not seem to be "economic" -- nor would it seem to be "various groups vying for personal power."

(These two such "causes of the conflict," in truth, not being what frustrated and stopped the Soviets/the communists in Afghanistan back-in-the-day, and not being what has frustrated and stopped the U.S./the West in Afghanistan currently?) 

Rather, in both such instances, the "cause of the conflict" (and, indeed, the reason for a lack of legitimacy), this would seem to be (a) the invasions by these foreign great powers and (b) these foreign great powers' attempts to "transform" Afghanistan more along alien and profane political, economic, social and value lines.

Given that neither the Soviet/the communist "leopard," nor indeed the U.S./Western such cat, was/is likely to "change its spots" (to wit: to completely abandon its determination to, shall we say, "change the world"),

Then all such "transformative-driven"/"change the world" great power's COIN doctrine, it would seem, MUST  be adapted to:

a.  Acknowledge that "legitimacy" -- for foreign invading/foreign transforming great power -- this will not be present (just the opposite).  And that, accordingly,

b.  "Resistance to foreign invasion" -- and "resistance to alien and profane political, economic, social and value change" -- this will be the invading/transforming great power's "order of the day."

Q:  What about the idea of (a) NOT attempting transformation immediately upon -- or soon after invasion -- and, instead, [b] only attempting to achieve our enduring transformative political objective some period of time AFTER basic order has been restored?

A:  Not likely to fool anyone; this is given that EVERYONE, it would seem, (a) knows that "a leopard really cannot change its spots" and that, accordingly, (b) what actually still is at stake (to wit: their preferred ways of life, their preferred ways of governance and their preferred values, attitudes and beliefs) this must be stood and fought for.

(To understand the uselessness of a "restore basic order" approach, one only need consider whether -- if the Soviets/the communists had attempted this such more-clandestine "transformative" approach -- [a] anyone would really have been fooled and, because if this, (b) lessened their resistance?)

Bill M.  Above you said:

"Our COIN doctrine has taken us down the wrong path with wrong headed ideas on legitimacy and assuming the underlying cause of the conflict was economic, instead of various groups vying for personal power. We need to go to that fork in the road when we started pursuing a faulty COIN doctrine and take the other path."

If I may be so bold, the problem with your thought here would seem to be in failing to identify that the cause of the conflict was/is:

a.  The U.S./the West's invasion of Afghanistan?  And:

b.  Our attempt, via this invasion, to transform Afghanistan more along modern western political, economic, social and value lines? 

If this indeed is the case (the underlying cause of the conflict was/is neither "economic" nor "various groups vying for personal power" but -- instead -- was/is the U.S./the West's invasion and state and societal transformation attempts), then might we consider that the problem with our COIN doctrine was that it was developed from the premise that:

a.  Legitimacy for the U.S./the West would immediately be achieved/would immediately become manifest; this,

b.  Given the "universal appeal" of our way of life, our way of governance and our values, attitudes and beliefs? 

Re: our COIN doctrine, is this (see my "a" and "b" immediately above), in fact, the wrong path/the wrong fork in the road that we actually went down?

If my thought here is correct, then what does the acknowledgement of this such "cause of the conflict" (to wit: the U.S./the West's invasion and state and societal transformation efforts); what does this tell us -- as to what it will take to achieve a decisive victory (military or other) over the Taliban?

(Our COIN doctrine, thus, needing to be revised:

a.  Not to suggest that "economic" -- and/or "various groups vying for power" -- will be the problem that the U.S./the West routinely will have to deal with but, rather, that: 

b.  Various individuals and groups -- wishing to retain (or to regain) their own way of life, their own way of governance, their own values, attitudes and beliefs, etc. -- THIS, in fact, will be the problem that our COIN doctrine must be designed to [1] stand against and [2] overcome?)

If the author is arguing for a decisive military victory over the Taliban, then I agree. We have failed to put and then sustain enough military pressure on the Taliban both in Afghanistan and outside its borders since they were ousted from power in 2002.  There is currently no compelling need for the Taliban to seriously discuss peace, especially on terms favorable to the Afghan government and the coalition. 

Our COIN doctrine has taken us down the wrong path with wrong headed ideas on legitimacy and assuming the underlying cause of the conflict was economic, instead of various groups vying for personal power. We need to go to that fork in the road when we started pursuing a faulty COIN doctrine and take the other path.    If we seek to be humane, then we must aggressively pursue and destroy the Taliban until they are compelled to seriously discuss reintegrating into the new Afghanistan so the Afghan people can begin to rebuild "their" country.  If we fail to do this, we'll continue to expend resources to no end for another 20 years, causing more harm to those we claim to be helping.  Not to mention harming ourselves by continuously bleeding out blood and treasure for no discernible end.   

The best way to understand the Afghanistan war, I believe, is to understand it:

a.  In the context of a much longer -- and indeed a much larger -- worldwide battle; a much longer and much larger worldwide battle between:

a.  The forces pushing for "modernization and change" and

b.  The forces rejecting same and pushing, instead, for "stagnation and/or reversal."

Thus, I suggest, we can see the Brexit vote and the election of President Trump -- and, indeed, the war in Afghanistan -- from the exact same perspective; this being: 

a.  As a clear rejection of U.S./Western policies (importantly, both our foreign AND our domestic policies); 

b.  Policies which were designed to achieve -- both at home and abroad -- necessary "modernization and change."  (For example, to better accommodate globalization/globalism/the global economy?)

It is in this regard, I suggest, (see my thoughts immediately above) that we might best consider:

a.  How we lost a "winnable war" (to achieve necessary "modernization and change"), importantly, 

b.  Both at home and abroad? 

(Terrorism?  Simply a "rejection of modernization and change" response -- used by certain populations who prefer "stagnation and/or reversal?")