Afghanistan: Connecting Assumptions and Strategy

By Colonel T. X. Hammes, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired), Major William S. McCallister, U.S. Army (Retired), and Colonel John M. Collins, U.S. Army (Retired)

Six assessments and recommended replacements summarized here might serve as a useful model for executive and legislative branch reviews. Political factors dominate the first three critiques, and military matters the next two, while the sixth involves a slew of strategic influences. Cultural considerations overlap the lot.

Perceived Assumption One:

A democratic, centralized Afghan government is desirable and feasible.

Many outsiders have ruled territories that now comprise Afghanistan, beginning with the Indian Mauryan Empire (~250 BC), but no strong centralized Afghan regime has ever enjoyed enough popular support to weld disparate tribes into the nationally cohesive structure that proponents of assumption one visualize. The monarchy (1747-1973), which came closest, was able to administer major cities, highways, and national customs entry points, because its reign was based on consensus and power-sharing agreements. Zahir Shah, the last king, never was particularly effective but retained nominal control precisely because he exerted minimal influence over traditionally ruled areas.

Modernization initiatives, regardless of the source, have always met with stiff resistance in Afghanistan's cities as well as across the countryside if they radically challenged the status quo. Local coalitions that preserve patronage are exceedingly important, because competition for scarce resources eternally fuels discord. Attempts to project the central government into every district without first developing solid patronage relationships with the local elites therefore encourage rebellion. Resultant friction makes it extremely difficult for any central government to raise revenues, implement day-to-day programs, or manage the social transformation needed to modernize the nation.

The nation-state system equates controlling any capital city with possession of sovereign authority. Kabul is no exception, but that metropolis at this time is much less important as the seat of Afghanistan's government than as an administrative, commercial, financial, cultural, transportation, and telecommunications hub. Foreign aid concentrated there represents wealth from which to build patronage relationships and territorial control. By controlling Kabul, strategically located between the Tajik, Pashtun, and Hazara regions, ethnic strongmen have traditionally hoped to imply that they exert power far beyond their provincial territories. But that seldom has been so.

  • Recommended Replacement for Assumption One: Governance in Afghanistan must involve power sharing between the national and local governments.

Perceived Assumption Two:

Afghan President Hamid Karzai can form a government that most Afghans recognize as legitimate.

Two major obstacles undermine the legitimacy of President Karzai's government. Many Afghans believe that foreigners imposed themselves on his regime and that it represents their interests. Complaints about pervasive corruption within his government are commonplace, even in areas where he is most popular. Widely disputed results of the recent presidential election greatly magnified those negative impressions. The European Union's election-monitoring commission estimates that 1.5 million ballots may be fraudulent—more than one-third of them votes President Karzai received. The United Nations recommends recounting up to ten percent of the ballots, and the Afghan government is complying. Many Afghans will continue to challenge the legitimacy of Karzai's regime regardless of the outcome.

  • Recommended Replacement for Assumption Two: President Karzai must create a functionally legitimate administration before continued U.S. support is justified.

Perceived Assumption Three:

Public opinion will approve the commitment of sizable U.S. armed forces in Afghanistan for several more years.

Victory in Afghanistan was front-page news in October 2001, immediately after 9/11, when a few CIA agents, Army Special Forces A-Teams (aka Green Berets), and U.S. Air Force combat controllers coordinated the efforts of, supported, and advised four competitive, xenophobic warlords commonly called the Northern Alliance, whose forces rapidly routed Taliban troops. The Taliban thereupon retreated to sanctuaries where they rested without interruption, regrouped, rearmed, resupplied, and recruited many new members, then reentered the fray with increasing effectiveness.

Afghanistan remained the "forgotten war" until budgetary costs began to balloon and "faces of the fallen" substantially outnumbered those being killed in Iraq. U.S. and allied operations increasingly compete with expensive domestic problems and programs, such as ways to reverse economic recession and reform health-care practices. Popular support, which strongly influences presidential decisions, will have to survive an undetermined number of congressional and presidential election campaigns as long as U.S. military intervention lingers, a doubtful proposition.

  • Recommended Replacement for Assumption Three: U.S. presidential and popular support for operations in Afghanistan will continue to sag unless the Afghan government and security forces demonstrate substantial improvements within the next year.

Perceived Assumption Four:

Current counterinsurgency practices will win the hearts and minds of most Afghan people.

The late French military officer and scholar David Galula's little gem, titled Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice (Praeger, 1964), asserts that victory, however defined, demands permanent isolation of insurgents from the populace, maintained by and with the willing cooperation of common people. As it stands, however, many of the most sympathetic Afghan citizens remain passive, even supporting Taliban oppressors as long as their lives are at stake. Resultant requirements to win hearts and minds therefore are monumentally important.

In his 30 August 2009 report to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) commander Army General Stanley McChrystal nevertheless notes: "ISAF is not adequately executing the basics of counterinsurgency warfare. In particular . . . it must focus on protecting the Afghan people, understanding their environment, and building relationships with them." The notoriously corrupt Afghan police, courts, and prison system are parts of the problem rather than parts of the solution. In some respects, so is the increasingly capable Afghan Army, whose commanders often pledge allegiance to regional centers rather than the national government and arrogantly demand patronage from inhabitants within respective jurisdictions. Winning hearts and minds seldom commands a high priority.

  • Recommended Replacement for Assumption Four: Neither the Afghan government nor ISAF can win the hearts and minds of most Afghan people without first providing consistent protection, accompanied by effective, non-corrupt governance teams that establish locally acceptable governments.

Perceived Assumption Five:

The International Security Assistance Force will provide the resources necessary to conduct population-centric counterinsurgency (COIN) campaigns.

Failures to provide reasonably adequate resources have been routine since 2002. Despite the recent infusion of 17,000 U.S. troops, ISAF senior officers contend that the grand total on site remains hopelessly insufficient to implement current Afghan security force training programs, much less rapidly build the force to 400,000 while concurrently securing the population. The so-called "civilian surge" in March 2009 provided ISAF far fewer advisers than necessary to support population-centric COIN plans. Three full-time civilians, for example, assisted several thousand Marines during the recent offensive in Helmand Province.

Plans call for the Afghan National Police to expeditiously double in strength from about 80,000 to 160,000, although ISAF provides far too few advisers for the current contingent. Afghan courts and prisons also need many additional civilian advisers, because the populace consistently complains about the corrupt justice system. Taliban programs and propaganda use every opportunity to exploit that deficiency. Some Taliban leaders, for example, sponsor "Islamic courts" that provide swift resolution of commonplace legal conflicts in areas they control.

In his 30 August memo, General McChrystal asserted that mission failure seems probable without more U.S. boots on the ground, but decisions to provide how much of what and how fast are still pending. Although they clearly will be needed to mentor additional Afghan National Security Forces, the numbers of foreign troops assigned to ISAF seem certain to decrease rather than increase. Canada has reaffirmed its intention to withdraw 2,500 soldiers in 2011. Holland is set to follow suit. And the German and Italian governments find it increasingly difficult to justify their troop contributions.

  • Recommended Replacement for Assumption Five: ISAF civilian and military personnel totals will decrease during the next two years. U.S. military reinforcements will arrive less rapidly than planned. U.S civilian personnel strengths will remain static during the next year.

Perceived Assumption Six:

Afghanistan is significantly more important to American security than Pakistan.

Isolated, impoverished Afghanistan was strategically important to the United States and its allies in 2001 mainly because al Qaeda's transnational terrorists used that territory as a basic training base and springboard from which to launch global as well as regional attacks on targets of their choosing, including those they hit on 9/11. Threats to international security that emanate from Afghanistan have been less intense since U.S. and allied troops made Osama bin Laden and his henchmen head for hideouts in Pakistan.

Then, in a classic example of mission creep, U.S. policy-makers decided to create a viable government, a national army, competent police, and jump start that country's primitive economy. Every measurement, from dollars spent to troops deployed to time dedicated despite mounting casualties, indicates that U.S. leaders still believe Afghanistan is strategically more important than Pakistan. This is despite the persistent presence of al Qaeda's terrorist bases in and near Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province and Federally Administered Tribal Areas that feed regional as well as local instability. Potential scenarios that could dangerously damage U.S./allied security interests include another governmental takeover by the Pakistan Army, a coup by Islamist extremists within the Army, and economic collapse, any of which could magnify prospects of nuclear warfare between Pakistan and India, accompanied by adverse implications for many other countries.

Even so, some strategic thinkers claim that a psychological defeat of gigantic proportions would ensue if the United States fails to stay the course in Afghanistan, thereby encouraging mischief by Muslim radicals everywhere. Those seers could be correct, but public support almost surely would dissolve if this great nation pursues present political, economic, and cultural objectives in Afghanistan with no end in sight. The future would look much rosier if U.S. policy-makers transferred top priority from Afghanistan to Pakistan. Actions needed to prevent al Qaeda or any other transnational terrorist cell from using Afghanistan as its base after U.S. armed forces withdraw would become far less expensive in terms of required forces (which are rapidly wearing out), resources, and time, plus missed opportunity costs in Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere. Savings used to help Pakistan safeguard itself would be more rewarding in every respect, but only if strict monitoring replaces currently lax oversight. Success in such regard awaits renegotiation of U.S. terms that one Pakistani source describes as "insulting and unacceptable" interference with national sovereignty. The Taliban's humiliating assaults on Pakistan's heavily fortified military headquarters in Rawalpindi on 10 October may help expedite that process.

  • Recommended Replacement for Assumption Six: Pakistan is much more important than Afghanistan from the standpoint of threats to U.S security interests around the world.

We Need A New Set of Assumptions—Now

Assumptions, which are presumed to be true in the absence of contrary proof, fill informational chasms when facts are unavailable. Seasoned planners, in an endlessly iterative process, assemble and scrutinize a carefully selected list, then adopt those that seem best suited for particular purposes. They routinely replace favorites that subsequent events invalidate, because fallacious assumptions, whether tacitly or consciously stated, can sabotage national security strategies just as surely as enemy actions.

The six assumptions assessed here collectively promise prodigious expenditures of U.S. national treasure during an unpredictable number of years with scant assurance that U.S. and allied security interests will ever be well secured. Precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan would by no means be advisable, but realistic replacements for current plans are urgently required. Now is the time for President Obama and his trusted advisers to consciously articulate a new set of assumptions and subject them to constant scrutiny so conjectures will correspond with facts as closely as possible while events unfold.

Colonel Hammes, a counterinsurgency authority and author of The Sling and The Stone: On War in the 21st Century (Zenith Press, 2004), is a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University.

Major McCallister is the intelligence analyst for a U.S. construction company that supports military operations in Regional Commands North, East, and South Afghanistan.

Colonel Collins conceived, recruited, and steers a national security e-mail forum called the Warlord Loop.




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