Although our country is mired in political drama at the moment, we must not ignore a story of the utmost importance from last week. This story was broken by the Washington Post, which obtained blockbuster documents admitting to military failure — and deception of Congress — across nearly two decades of war in Afghanistan. In subsequent interviews, major policymakers toward Afghanistan from past administrations admitted basic ignorance of “Afghanistan, understanding the politics, the economics, the neighborhood.” They ignored Sun Tzu’s most basic dictum on the art of war, ‘to know thy enemy and thyself.’
During the mid-late 2000s under David Petraeus and David Kilcullen America developed a universal counterinsurgency strategy. The basic strategy is twofold. First, raise the costs of being an enemy so fewer people want to do it. This is called attrition of your enemies. Second, raise the benefits of going along with us, so that more people want to do it. That is, bring prosperity to your friends. If you can do that, you will have fewer enemies and increasing numbers of friends. It is straightforward, simple to grasp, and functional as long as you can make both parts of the equation work. Success = attrition plus prosperity.
The problem is that you cannot always make both parts of the equation work. The reasons why it might not work turn on exactly those particular facts about ‘politics, economics, the neighborhood.’ In those cases, a different strategy is necessary if victory is to be obtained. Afghanistan was a clear case in which the strategy could never work, as explored here at the Security Studies Group.
In explaining why our long-running strategy in Afghanistan is fatally flawed, we pointed out that the universal counterinsurgency strategy at work in both Iraq and Afghanistan runs into particular difficulties in the ‘Stan.
If you put the American counterinsurgency strategy into plain English, it would be this: We stop insurgencies against approved systems of government by raising the costs of being an insurgent, while also raising the benefits of participation in the system high enough that former insurgents have too much of a stake in that system to rebel against it. In other words, it is not just about killing people who are fighting the system. We also do good for people so that they have a positive reason to want to be part of the system. We might build them improved water pumps or treatment facilities, roads, factories, or get them jobs. They need a stake in the system that is better than what they can get by fighting.
In Iraq, that strategy had every potential for success… because it had a number of things that Afghanistan lacks. Iraq has a seaport, for one thing, from which its goods can reach global markets. Iraq has developed highways that lead directly to relatively rich countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Jordan. Iraq has oil, which is not a small matter. Iraq has Mesopotamia, which produces rich agricultural trade goods like oranges. Iraq had an industrial base including factories and power plants that were at or near function, although some needed work after the Saddam era. Iraq also had a fairly highly educated population that could take a factory job, or learn to keep up and repair industrial machinery. Iraq could thus be tied into the global economy, and that would provide the big benefits — the stake — that would ensure former insurgents had too much to lose to go back to war….
Afghanistan lacks all the necessary conditions for that strategy to work. Even now, there is almost no infrastructure on which an industrial economy could depend. There will never be sea ports. Highways lead not to wealthy neighbors, but to Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Iran and Pakistan. Only the last two of those have wealth, and both of them use that wealth to encourage parts of the insurgency.
It is not that the universal counterinsurgency plan lacks transcultural appeal. The ideal of access to prosperity and safety in return for political support is nothing other than the establishment of justice in order to craft security. It is exactly what I was talking about in universal terms at the beginning of the Basic Requirements of Nationhood.
Rather, it is the failure to grapple with the particular that dooms the Afghan mission. These particular challenges complicate our universal strategy. So does Afghanistan’s tribal culture, which puts the values of ‘equality’ and ‘liberty’ in conflict. So does Afghanistan’s intensely patriarchal culture, which puts the values of ‘justice’ and ‘equality’ in conflict. The particular American take on our values aligns those values with each other. Maybe that’s the best particular way to realize these values, because the alignment of the values strengthens them. If so, that’s a good reason for an American to feel patriotic. But it doesn’t mean that Afghanistan is a fertile field for the particular American take on these universal values.
There are places where our universal strategy lines up well with particular conditions on the ground. In those places, it may work well. Syria may prove to be one of those places, as we have the capability to effect both prosperity and attrition. Attrition is relatively easy in Syria as great power interests are broadly aligned now, and the remaining forces we are committed to opposing are irregulars who are fairly easy prey to our well-developed Special Operations Forces. Prosperity is not so hard either. Syria has developed rail lines, albeit in need of repair after years of war, that tie her directly to Europe via Ankara. There are developing rail lines through Jordan that, when complete, will give her access to markets in Jordan, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. Since both Europe and these other states stand to gain in prosperity from helping to repair and complete these rail lines, America has an opportunity to act in Syria with some hope of success and at minimal cost in either blood or treasure.
By the same token, unhappily, a different strategy will be needed if any gains at all are to come out of Afghanistan. It is understandable that America’s military leadership does not want to walk away from what is literally their lives’ work. All the same, we must be realistic about what our strategy can and cannot accomplish — and where that strategy cannot accomplish victory, another approach must be found.