Note #19. Afghanistan: The Need for Strategic Agility, Not Missteps.

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Agile strategies are able to change in all three definitional dimensions—ends, ways and means. Missteps are changes without strategic advantage.
What’s the Biden administration’s strategy for Afghanistan?

Operational Excellence, Strategic Missteps

Three weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US, US-UK airstrikes and 1000 troops/operatives leveraged local militias in toppling Taliban jihadists who harbored al Qaeda. The original US goal was to “disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations and attack the military capability of the Taliban regime.” 

As Taliban dispersed to organize an insurgency, US-led coalition operations proliferated into democratization. This was a huge step. Some would say it was a misstep. For over a decade, NATO led a United Nations-mandated International Security Assistance Force in major combat operations, counterinsurgency, institution-building, and developing defense and security forces. 

As Afghans transitioned to lead (2014), the coalition continued to train-advise-assist, and shifted to “full-spectrum” counterterrorism (CT). Targeting focused on “kill or capture,” a process that lacked agility for non-lethal influence such as counter-radicalization and capacity-building. Counterinsurgency (COIN) was undercut by divisiveness in the Afghan government and deficiencies in the national police. 

Given US goals at the time, CT without COIN was a strategically significant misstep.

By 2020 Taliban extremists influenced most provinces, al Qaeda was a global network, and the Islamic State vied for territory with other terrorist groups. 

Opportunity for Strategic Agility

The 2020 US Presidential election presented opportunities for agile strategy. The US might have reduced its goals to their short-lived original limit or continued conditional support of the Afghan government. Neither option was articulated by outgoing President Donald Trump or incoming President Joe Biden. Depending on which goals we attribute, Taliban persistence either persuaded or coerced the US into: (a) withdrawing nearly all troops; and (b) compelling its Afghan ally to negotiate a Taliban role in governance. 

In contrast, Taliban agility pivoted around a clear goal – no foreign forces and an Islamic emirate that enforced Sharia. To the extent that goal continues to affirm Taliban identity and moral authority, religious clerics are central to changes in strategy. 

The failure of Taliban, a loose confederation of tribal networks, to live up to the bilateral deal with the Trump administration fits a pattern of protracted guerrilla war. The path is to attrit US will and isolate the Government of Afghanistan. Mao ZeDong’s standard approach was to wage defensive guerrilla warfare from remote or locally embedded bases, progress to a stalemate of military parity, and culminate in decisive offensives against enemy strongholds. Max Manwaring’s study of modern asymmetric warfare reveals more adaptations and new patterns with transnational and local networks, similar to David Kilcullen’s “accidental guerrilla.”

With complexities in mind, the Biden administration has the opportunity to work a NATO consensus of conditional support that does not cut out its Afghan ally.

Author: TD
Tom Drohan is Director of the Center for International Security and Leadership at JMark Services, Inc. and a retired US Air Force brigadier general and professor emeritus of military and strategic studies, USAF Academy. His 38-year military career included duties as a pilot, commander, division chief, permanent professor, academic department head, and vice commandant of cadets. His education includes a B.S. in International Affairs from the USAF Academy, an M.A. in Political Science from the University of Hawaii, and a Ph.D. in Politics from Princeton University. He has served as Council on Foreign Relations Fellow in Japan, Curriculum Advisor at the National Military Academy of Afghanistan, Visiting Scholar at the Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies (Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies), and Dean of the National Defense College in the United Arab Emirates. His publications include two books - A New Strategy for Complex Warfare, and American-Japanese Security Agreements - and articles on defense strategy, Asian security, and military education.

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