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A Winning Strategy for Afghanistan
Stephen B. Young
The United States intelligence agencies and military commands can’t agree on whether to be “cautiously optimistic” or “cautiously pessimistic” on prospects for Afghanistan.
What both do agree on, however, is that the United States and its Afghan partners have not defeated the Taliban either on the battlefield or by bringing them to negotiated terms of living in peace with other Afghans.
The reasons for our failure are simple to understand but unacceptable for a great power.
First was the eager rush to forget our Vietnam experience – even the successful CORDS counterinsurgency program in the villages of South Vietnam after 1968.
Second was a narcissistic myopia at the level of strategic planning. In the 1990s our foreign policy and national security elites fixated on only two kinds of unilateral power – hard and soft. We suffered from the conceit that, after the fall of the Soviet Union and with the peaceful rise of China under Deng Xiaoping, the world was uni-polar, and we Americans were that single pole of international power with no need to cultivate other nations in alliances.
Thus, we could expect others to do what we wanted them to do out of fear of our bombs and bullets – hard power – or out of love for our values (democracy and human rights) – soft power.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban concluded that they could outlast our application of hard power and we had no soft power to deploy against the Taliban. They don’t like us and they don’t want our democracy or our permissive cultural codes.
Our substitute for a successful counterinsurgency strategy is still largely an endless process of playing “whack a mole.”
When neither hard nor soft power could carry the day for our side, we have no third alternative way to win.
We conveniently overlooked the reality that most people do what they want for their own interests and values. This is especially true in situations of low intensity conflict, small wars, and failed states, where coordinated political/military programs partnering with local communities are the only road to victory.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis testified last year that the United States was still in a “strategy free zone” and noted that we are not winning in Afghanistan where the Taliban control some 40% of the country. Nothing has occurred to cause us to challenge his conclusion.
Retired Admiral Stavridis correctly concluded that “You can't kill your way to success in a counter insurgency effort. You have to protect the people, get the civil military balance right, train the locals, and practice effective strategic communications.”
Carl von Clausewitz gave us a good clue to the right strategy when he wrote “War is the continuation of politics by other means”, confirming that human conflict is a continuum stretching from peaceful politics and incentives through escalating degrees of violence from riots, local uprisings, terrorism, small insurgencies, and limited wars on up to conventional wars and, finally, to nuclear annihilation at the far end.
A very important modern corollary to Clausewitz was provided by Mao Zedong: “Guerillas are the fish which swim in the sea of the people.” As long as there is a sea, the guerilla fish can still swim here and there as they like.
In Afghanistan we have not yet dried up the sea which sustains the Taliban and other insurgents. Terrorist attacks there continue with no end in sight.
An effective strategy to win a guerilla war must therefore combine the political with the military to “dry up” the sea and leave the guerillas to flounder about on dry land and die.
In a successful counter-insurgent strategy, the people must provide the front-line troops against the enemy.
Everyone else – police, salaried and uniformed local forces, central government battalions, air forces, artillery, tanks, ministries of health, education, agriculture and justice, district officers, NGOs and all foreign forces – is rear echelon support for the people.
But how are the people to be organized? In their traditional and local communities.
But why should they agree to stand up and fight against the insurgents or the terrorists?
Giving them a reason to do so is the heart of any successful counter-insurgency strategy.
I call it finding “associative” power.
The deployment of “associative” power is forming alliances, joint ventures, and partnerships with local communities. Once you have an alliance with the local people, you have power relevant to that community. The bigger and more energetic the alliance, the smaller the pond sustaining the “fish” you want to catch and remove from the “sea of the people”.
Associative power requires fighting the insurgents from the bottom up, not from the top down.
Associative power also protects the people against government corruption and other abuses of bureaucratic and military power.
Oddly enough such a strategy was successfully used by the United States during the Vietnam War.
Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in October 1966 admitted to President Lyndon Johnson that he could devise no strategy effective enough to defend South Vietnam from Communist aggression. Johnson then turned to two civilians – Walt Rostow and Robert Komer – and they quickly proposed the use of associative power to change U.S. strategy in the war.
Johnson adopted their recommendation and improved U.S. war aims to build up the cultural, political, economic, and military power of the South Vietnamese nationalists from the villages on up. Once the South Vietnamese people had been so empowered, U.S. forces would withdraw from combat.
This program began in 1967 using elections nationally under a new constitution and the funding of village self-defense units, self-government councils and self-development projects. This program was supervised by Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker. The rural components under a new organization reporting through General William Westmoreland to Bunker – Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support or “CORDS” – were fine-tuned first by Komer and then by William Colby. Improving the combat capabilities of the South Vietnamese military was guided by General Creighton Abrams.
As a result, by 1972, Hanoi’s southern followers, organized as the National Liberation Front or Viet Cong, had collapsed as an effective insurgent force.
As a mid-level CORDS strategist working for William Colby, I was an eye-witness to the success of these efforts. In particular, I worked with the Tan Dai Viet Party of Vietnamese nationalists which had been given special responsibility for implementing village programs.
The right kind of strategic instincts were also used by H.R. McMaster and several other local US commanders in Iraq when they formed partnerships with the Sunni tribal leaders to jointly fight the fundamentalist insurgents in Anbar Province.
A similar program can still be undertaken in Afghanistan. It is never too late to trust the people.
As President Trump stated last year, “Ultimately, it is up to the people of Afghanistan to take ownership of their future, to govern their society, and to achieve an everlasting peace” adding “Afghans will secure and build their own nation and define their own future.”