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How Washington misunderstood ‘Strategy’ in Afghanistan

USAF C17 facing us from the furthest end of a runway in Afghanistan

The decision by President Biden’s Administration to withdraw from Afghanistan received strong criticism and opposition from many military veterans, former decision makers and policy analysts from Capitol Hill. While the basis for criticism is diverse, one common feature that emerges from the commentary is a strong sense that the US was unable to achieve an integrated civil-military strategy to underpin decision making in Afghanistan, and that the same fault beleaguered operations in Iraq and Syria.

The term strategy encompasses more than simply the means by which policy objectives are implemented.  It comprises a well-considered Plan of Action (POA) with clearly outlines objectives/goals, means to achieve them, allocation of tasks/sub-tasks, logistics availability, resource allocation/distribution and their employment, rate of availability of such resources, budgetary estimates, and evaluative mechanisms to measure operational success. The way that the US conducted operations in Afghanistan suggest strongly that the Administration’s pursuit of strategy was subordinated in favour of its rhetoric around the ‘need for more ground forces’ or demands that the ‘number of troops on the ground should be more’. The fall of Kabul reminds us as to how Washington misunderstood the word ‘strategy’ in Afghanistan.[i]

A Strategy Based on Civil-Military Integration

It is not uncommon for policy decisions to be heavily informed by military leadership.  In the case of Afghanistan, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs would have been advised by analysis provided by regional/theatre commanders, and informed by (among other things) recommendations from members of the diplomatic community (ie. ambassadors serving in respective nations). Such information would have been subject to detailed analysis by the State Department laying out specific recommendations highlighting politico-economic ramifications.[ii]

Missing in the US strategy for operations in Afghanistan, however, were considerations of civil-military integration with the objective of elevating the host nation as a strategic ally with stable politico-economic parameters. Instead, there was an evident tendency to correlate short term military tactical victories with strategic outcomes. Regrettably, any number of tactical operations cannot deliver regional stability. They may achieve short term tactical outcomes that support the broader strategy, but they do not represent strategic victories in themselves.

Re-defining Train, Advice & Assist

In Afghanistan, US strategy hinged on the deployment of US military operational, mentor, and liaison teams (OMLTs) in order to increase the size of the Afghan National Security Defence Force (ANSDF). Regrettably, this strategy was not supported by clear analysis of the size and force structure required by Afghanistan.  Indeed, none of the key US decision makers in Afghanistan could produce an estimate of the necessary strength of the ANSDF, its roles and responsibilities, its objectives, or a policy concerning its deployment. Further, the potential effectiveness of the ANSDF as a fighting force was fundamentally undermined by the absence of strong command and the flexibility to manoeuvre troops during unconventional tactical challenges.

Tasking military advisers to provide basic firearms manoeuvre, equipment support/handling, logistics, within a re-structured organisation does not, of itself, generate an effective fighting force. What was required of the US OMLTs was the ability to build the confidence and combat capability of host nation forces to take on a fire-fight. But the tactical courses conducted by US advisors were simulated in a non-contact environment, mitigating the capacity of even the best advisers to assess the force’s reactions to contact with an adversary. In Afghanistan, as well as Iraq and Syria, newly minted Afghan troops demonstrated their inexperience in an operational setting, even after the support from some of the finest advisers.

OMLTs were effective in sharing their on-the-battle-experience but their capacity to build Afghan military combat capability was laced with following challenges:

  1. Inadequate topographical understanding of the area of operations (AO) and lack of cross-cultural training;
  2. Combat experience was largely combat driven, not training centric;
  3. Intelligence collection, assessment and management relied on coalition partners (primarily the US);
  4. Support assets such as artillery and reconnaissance were predominantly provided by the US;
  5. No communication channel existed to enable advisers to reach out to the diplomatic corps or civil agencies (State Department) to assess cracks in confidence building mechanisms;
  6. No structure to address challenges to operational effectiveness such as corruption within host nation politico-civil leadership and military establishments;
  7.  No policy to normalise relations/tensions within civil society and inadequate mechanisms to interact with the shuras following loss of civilian lives during fire missions.

Reinforce local Troops-in-Contact (TIC)

It is fair to say that nation building efforts are likely to deliver limited to no-results if a host nation’s military capability is weak. Military reinforcement by coalition partners, regional institutions/allies may be necessary in order to secure logistics support and to hold ground. For example, the active presence of military air assets may build confidence to local populations and to deployed troops alike. In regions with adverse topography, a strong military may be required to counter the influence of non-state actors (with access to neighbouring sympathetic nations). Further, in the absence of a viable military capability, the risk exists that a conflict will take on characteristics of attrition, where control of the population becomes the prize. Population centres are the centre of gravity, which must be controlled under all circumstances.

In the case of the US intervention in Afghanistan, developing the host nation’s military was a necessary but not sufficient political objective.  Specifically, a strategic mindset that conflated an increase in the number of ground forces and short-term tactical successes with strategic victory was doomed to fail. Short term military objectives do not cater to considerations of community development, or create the conditions for a secure and economically prosperous region. It is all the more difficult to hold a region, if civil administration does not deliver expected the initiatives that generate moral support and that deny adversaries influence. A successful strategy relies on the ability to hold as well as the consistency to build.

The success of US efforts in Afghanistan was further undermined by an undue emphasis on discrete regions, or areas of influence, to the exclusion of many vulnerable tribal populations in the east, south-east, and south of Afghanistan.[iii]  Indeed, roughly all battles were fought in the major cities in the final eighteen months before the US capitulated. Alternative options existed.  For example, Special Operations Forces could have been deployed across a broader geographic area, reinforced by fixed/rotary wing air assets. Such a presence would have helped increase confidence within local populations and deployed troops alike. By exhausting its resources in discrete geographic locations, coalition partners temporarily halted ethnic-based sectarianism.  At the same time, however, the coalition lost the confidence and trust of many within the host-nation population. 

Revisiting the policy of ‘more troops on the ground’

In Afghanistan, concerns surrounding the rising number of US military casualties dominated media coverage, forcing decision makers to debate on the future deployment of troops instead of on the objectives attached to them. By 2014, it was clear that Washington would not expand its US presence on the ground. Focus instead turned to nurturing the ANSDF as a capable force and increasing its numerical strength.[iv] Washington then adopted a strategy in Afghanistan which was conditional, without alignment with military expectations and achieved objectives.[v]

Successful strategy depends upon clear priorities and objectives calculated to deliver maximum benefits. Policy makers must understand that strategy will not achieve a win, if it is unable to hold on to allies, support and build confidence among them. In the situation of Afghanistan, Washington could not support regional allies and build host nation’s security architecture as the host nation population perceived it as the adversary, and in some cases as a greater threat than ISIS-KP or Al Qaeda itself.[vi]

In its decisions concerning operations in Afghanistan, Washington allowed the media to exercise undue influence on its strategic and military decisions-making. Washington could never achieve victory based on a strategy focussed on tactical military wins and superior technological capabilities.  In Afghanistan, the nation’s fabric was woven around a tribal culture of trust, friendship, and deceit too, going back as far as history itself. The strategy that was needed in response was not one focussed on short term tactical victories against ISIS-KP or Al Qaeda. Instead, the strategy needed to bring long term stability, economic prosperity and peace to the region, something which even the Afghans themselves looked upon as aspirational.

What Washington needed in Afghanistan was the ability to win the hearts and minds of local Afghans. In short, it needed an integrated civil-military approach in its strategy which was not focussed solely on winning.


[i] Cited from the excerpts of an interview with a retired Afghan Special Forces Commander on the request of anonymity

[ii] Cited from the excerpts of an interview with a retired senior military professional on the request of anonymity 

[iii] Excerpts from an interview with a former UNAMA official

[iv] Interview with a former SFAB Commander

[vi] Interview with a former US State Department Official

[vii] Interview with a former humanitarian worker then deployed at The Liaison Office (TLO)

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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