While our tactical-level units have performed admirably in Afghanistan, our political leaders, policymakers, and senior general officers have failed them. It is the lack of a consistent and comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan that prevents the Afghan nation’s stability. Three administrations have mishandled the war in Afghanistan. And, after nearly 20 years in the country, we have little to show for our efforts.

As a retired general officer, I include myself in these failures. We have lionized the generals when we should have lionized our men and women that did the work under poor policy and strategy and an inadequate operational approach. They have taken the Afghan government, military, and police as far as they could. It is now up to the Afghans. Good tactics never fix bad strategy.

I give credit to President Trump for promoting our withdrawal. It is way overdue. Unfortunately, it was two secretaries of defense and two chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that did not provide him with a withdrawal plan. In addition, four CENTCOM commanders, three SOCOM commanders, and four American ISAF commanders failed as well. For quite some time now, the filling of bodybags and hospital beds has not been justified, and nobody is being held accountable for that.

We have two choices.

The advocates that say we should stay need to commit to countering the Taliban, AQ, ISIS, and return to a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy approach (this would require the right people). Otherwise, we should leave.

Our departure would need to be an international effort and focus on economic and diplomatic support underwritten by political. The military would leave a small regional counterterrorism capability to support the Afghan government in targeting AQ and ISIS. Those that lament that the Taliban will take over need to know that the Taliban have been a part of the Afghan government since the first election in 2004. The Taliban are Afghans. AQ and ISIS are not.

I have many friends in Afghanistan and have lost colleagues in combat. I do not take this lightly, but after nearly 20 years, 2,218 Killed in Action, 20,093 Wounded in Action, and three trillion dollars spent, the Taliban still control 90 percent of the country, AQ has resurged, and ISIS has joined the fight. We are not getting the strategic results we need for the investment. Thankfully, the acting secretary of defense is moving forward with ending the forever war.

As I write this article the following observations come to mind:

  1. There is no political will or military patience to go back to a bottom-up approach.
  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. We have been following a broken diplomatic approach.
  5. The conditions for reconciliation have not been set.
  6. The detour of the Iraq War was harmful.
  7. There was an inability to understand that all politics is local.
  8. We failed to understand how Afghanistan secures itself and we over-invested in ministries that exacerbate corruption.

Additionally, a number of missteps have been made which continue to plague our efforts in the country. I highlighted these missteps while on active duty as I do now in retirement. They were not received well by the establishment and I am sure will not be received well now. Despite learning lessons over and over we continue to muddle through at the expense of life, resources, and credibility. As the poet Archibald MacLeish put it: “There is only one thing more painful than learning from experience and that is not learning from experience.”

Misstep Number 1: 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 the country. This is evident in the lack of consistent strategy and in the 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, and infrastructure development remain 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 relevant: First, NATO has not adequately provided the necessary strategic direction, unity of purpose, or unity of effort to build a stable Afghanistan. Second, 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. Third, NATO has not correctly identified the threat, did not adequately assess the operational environment, and did not take the appropriate steps needed to gain the initiative and shape the political environment and military battlefield. Fourth, 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. International Security Assistance Force’s (ISAF’s) military operations had 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 Operation Resolute Support is conducting effective counterinsurgency (COIN) operations.

General Patraeus in Afghanistan in 2011
General Petraeus visiting the Village Stability Platform (VSP) in Kunar Province in 2011. Notice that he is walking with no protective gear.

An American four-star general commands Operation Resolute Support and reports through NATO channels. Currently, the 19th NATO commander in Afghanistan is setting conditions for a 20th commander who may be no more successful than his predecessors unless something drastically changes. Since December 2001, the U.S. had divided its forces between Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and the NATO/ISAF mission (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.

Good Tactics Are No Fix For Bad Strategy in Afghanistan

Read Next: Good Tactics Are No Fix For Bad Strategy in 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 has become fragmented, and 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 (U.S. Army Ret.) highlighted the following in an after-action report a decade ago. The report still rings true today: “A sensible coordination of all political and military elements of the Afghan theater of operations does not exist.”

Misstep Number 2: 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 and the insurgents’ critical vulnerability in a COIN environment, 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 population, and for legitimizing the government.

The Taliban are more effective at information warfare than Operation Resolute Support because they are decentralized and located in villages. They are thus able to better influence the rural Afghan population. NATO must develop an information operations system that assists the Afghans in being more effective in influencing the population. NATO must provide the support required to disseminate the messages through all types of media to counter this strength of the insurgents. Possessing Public Affairs personnel and assets is not the same as effectively communicating. 

Misstep Number 3: Failure to Adopt and Stick to the Right Approach in Afghanistan

The expansion of U.S. forces and the introduction of large conventional units was misstep number one. We had achieved our military goals by June 2002. Instead of leaving we stayed and created a government, military, and police that was based on western models and not on the Afghan way of governing and fighting. Our policy and effort should have transitioned to an economic and diplomatic effort underwritten by international support to promote the “Afghan way” not the “Western Way.” We essentially took all the lessons learned by the Russians and threw them out of the window. By removing the responsibility of the fight, the problem, and the 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. We forgot that Afghans welcome help but if you stay too long you become their 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, create a national level military and police and build from the top down. We decided to build the house from the roof down. And that never works. 

Misstep Number 4: Allowing the Taliban Resurgence to Occur in Afghanistan in 2003-2009 and 2014-2019

“Know the enemy and know yourself.”

— Sun Zu

An inevitable outcome of the ineffective U.S. and NATO-led coalition was an inadequate organizational structure and an ineffective strategy to combat 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 the inaccurate assessment that the Taliban had been defeated led to their 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 population. During that time, the Taliban took advantage of the opportunity to organize a government in exile based in Pakistan, but they still fought inside Afghanistan in separate and independent groups. By 2005-2006 the Taliban and other organizations had a foothold across Afghanistan. The Taliban gained momentum and continued to operate effectively in Afghanistan through 2009.

The only period in Afghanistan where there were unprecedented security gains was between 2010 through the end of 2013 under Generals McCrystal, Petraeus, and Allen’s comprehensive COIN strategy. This strategy combined top-down approaches with emphasis on bottom-up population-centric operations called Village Stability Operations (VSO). These operations took place in rural areas in order to take time, space, and opportunity away from the insurgents. During that timeframe, there were unprecedented security gains through the creation of Afghan Local Police (ALP) to which the insurgents had no answer and thus declared it 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.

It was assessed, in the period between 2011-2013, that if we had stuck to the above strategy the Afghan government, at all levels, would be able to govern with little international boots on the ground. The Taliban and other organizations that posed a threat would have been sufficiently disrupted, degraded, and neutralized by 2016. Unfortunately, due to a change in policy and strategy from the end of 2013 to the present, we have lost all the security gains, have witnessed the introduction of ISIS into Afghanistan, and the proliferation of other violent extremists.

Misstep Number 5: 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 were on 10 September 2001. In his July 2008 assessment, General Barry R. McCaffery (U.S. Army 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.”

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, to threats posed by 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 against the security of the Afghan people.

Further, these three major threats are carried out by different groups. The Taliban (TB), al-Qaeda (AQ), 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 the 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 from Iran. “Al-Qaeda and Taliban leadership inside Pakistan remains [sic] a very significant problem,” Lieutenant General Eikenberry testified before the Armed House Services Committee where he warned of the “growing threat of Talibanization in Pakistan.” The control of borders in Afghanistan was handled initially by “outposts.” Yet, these were constantly attacked. Furthermore, the Afghan Security Forces ineffectively fortified static traditional border crossings that were easily circumvented by walking around them or bribing their guards. Cross-border incidents were many and resulted in tension with the Pakistani 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 adjoining Afghan provinces. The question is what is the best way to secure these areas. The 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 an SF major and an SF Team, which was 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 (VSP) secured the Kunar Province and the 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.

General Miller in Afghanistan in 2010
General Miller visiting Afghan Police and Afghan local police in 2010. Notice that he has no protective gear.

Misstep Number 6: 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. In turn, this hinders the stability and security of many provinces. Afghanistan’s enormous poppy production also casts the country as a narco-state.

Directly destroying the sprawling poppy crops seems to be an obvious solution. Yet, this is not practical. Successful poppy eradication must be executed in secure locations that enjoy 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. Destroying the poppies without compensating the farmers for their loss will enable the Taliban to recruit many of these farmers to become fighters. In areas where they have a strong presence and freedom of movement, the Taliban have successfully organized resistance towards the Afghan government’s and the coalition’s poppy eradication attempts. This resistance has caused Afghan casualties and provided a public relations victory for the enemy thereby boosting their recruiting in these areas.

Poppy eradication must also be applied fairly and uniformly. Otherwise, the Taliban will exploit perceptions of tribal favoritism. Poppy eradication should be conducted exclusively by the Afghan government. It must be, however, a lower priority than gaining security, neutralizing, and controlling the insurgency, and 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 and logistical support to Afghan counter-narcotics teams, and assisting with an effective counter.

A practical solution would have been to legally commercialize a portion of the poppy industry in partnership with pharmaceutical companies. This would create research, jobs, and revenue. It would aid in the development of alternative crops where appropriate. It would also help establish a payoff system for farmers and train them in another trade. This would have avoided violence, illicit drug trade, and funding to the insurgency. No plan will be perfect, but the one we have been executing is a disaster.

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 out.”

— 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 first identify their common strategic interests with these regional players. 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. Further complicating regional stability are the destabilizing activities of China and Russia.

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 include ISIS militants, is strengthening the Taliban insurgency and is gravely threatening the Afghan government. No troop surge, strategic bombing campaign, Mother of All Bombs (MOABs) will fix this external support problem. The border between Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran is too vast and too rugged to seal off. The solution will be primarily diplomatic. At the same time, it has to be supported by an effective operational construct that brings the tribes together against the Taliban and other groups. It requires old-fashioned, hard-nosed diplomacy based on a sound regional strategy that supports the security interests of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and India, which, nevertheless, 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 Afghan efforts, but the Afghans must win the counterinsurgency war themselves. NATO must build the Afghans’ capability to win so NATO can become an 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 ability and capacity to govern and provide security to the Afghan people.

To avoid the fragmentation of authority and creation of a weak central government, NATO must ensure that security is gained 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 as national police at district and provincial levels. Connecting village elders with district and provincial leaders, and layering police security and law enforcement duties will facilitate security within the vast Afghan provinces. NATO must not create Afghan security forces along western lines. Instead, it must allow the Afghans to use the strength of their 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. Operation Resolute Support’s 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 population and 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 population’s support. Reconciliation plans will only work from a position of leverage and power. None of these conditions have been met in Afghanistan.

The first plan was called “The Program Takhim-E Solh,” which translates to “Strengthening Peace.” This plan was updated and revised in 2010 and we now sit with the “Plan A” reconciliation program. To date, the reconciliation program has produced mixed results due to the fluctuating security environment, the program’s misrepresentation by the coalition forces, not letting the Afghans take the lead, and NATO confusing reconciliation with bargaining and negotiations.

General Miller in Afghanistan
General Miller in 2019. He now has to go everywhere with his M4 and heavy security.

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

To have an effective reconciliation program, NATO must ensure that the following conditions are met:

  1. Reconciliation is an issue that the Afghan government should lead.
  2. There must be an effective civil government and Afghan National Security Forces at the village, district, and provincial levels to administer the program.
  3. There must be an effective reconciliation program strategic communications plan.
  4. Reconciliation must be part of a balanced COIN strategy that aims to create an environment that has the support of the population and is inhospitable to the insurgent.
  5. 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. This will be a tough business for them since they are limited due to a lack of security and by a government that is perceived as weaker than the Taliban.
  6. 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.

In Conclusion

“Our strength is in our Soldiers.”

— DCB

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 more educational, 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 leaders’ efforts to portray the war as an American victory, the United States is not going to defeat the Taliban, other insurgent groups, and ISIS anytime soon. We witnessed the relationship between the United States and the previous Karzai government worsen; yet, 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 that same year. 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.

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