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Strategy vs. Tactics in Afghanistan

Ann Marlowe

Gen. Stanley McChrystal has embraced Hamid Karzai as part of the Obama administration’s startling about-face on the Afghan president. Until recently, the Obama team seemed to understand that Mr. Karzai was “not an adequate strategic partner,” in the well-chosen words of our ambassador (and former general) Karl Eikenberry. Mr. Karzai’s refusal to name cabinet ministers in the wake of the August 2009 election (as required by the constitution) so angered his own parliament that for several days last month they refused to conduct any business, instead sitting silent in protest.

Mr. Karzai and the American commander are both following what Col. Gian Gentile, head of military history at West Point, has called “a strategy of tactics“—by which he means ground-level measures pursued on an ad hoc basis without an overall objective.

Mr. Karzai has no vision of his country’s future. But he’s adept at playing off all the actors, including the U.S., against each other in the hope he will be the only one left standing. His strange lack of urgency about the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, according to Abdullah Abdullah, the leader of the Afghan democratic opposition, stems from his underlying belief that the U.S. decision to gradually withdraw next summer is a bluff. Many Afghans think the U.S. is there for ulterior motives (Afghanistan’s small oil and gas reserves, coal, taking Afghan farmland) and will stay forever.

Gen. McChrystal of course wants the best for his country and for Afghanistan. But he has a constituency in the military to serve as well. To avoid being tagged as a “knuckledragger” (the military’s term for an unreconstructed commander who “doesn’t get it” about counterinsurgency), he constantly states that we’re fighting a “war of perceptions” and that winning over the Afghan population is the key to victory. His tactics are those enshrined in his boss Gen. David Petraeus’s Counterinsurgency Field Manual.

The manual, which draws upon French counterinsurgency theorist David Galula and other military thinkers of the 1950s and ’60s, urges stationing troops in small outposts close to the people, using the military to do armed social work, and measuring success in perceptions. The idea is that if you execute process correctly at the local level, you create spots of security that eventually grow to cover the disputed area. The population refuses to help the insurgents and allies itself with the government.

The press has bought Gen. McChrystal’s line that now, finally, the American military will follow best-practice counterinsurgency and that now, finally, we will see good results.

I’ve seen our military do what the Field Manual says is right over the course of six embeds from the summer of 2007 onward, long before Gen. McChrystal took command on June 15, 2009. I’ve seen successes at the local and even provincial level—but nothing that has lasted even a year. In nearly every province and district of Regional Command East and Regional Command South, the security situation is either the same as it was in 2007 or significantly worse. The reason is that counterinsurgency is a set of tactics, not a strategy. It tells you how to persuade the population to embrace a good government, but it can’t make a government acceptable to the people.

Anywhere counterinsurgency has worked there has been a good government in place. The Karzai government has become more egregiously corrupt and incompetent in the last three or four years. Fraud in the Aug. 20, 2009, election soured large segments of the population on the government and even the democratic process. Cynicism has replaced hope among young people, and conspiracy theories about American motives have gained ground.

Now Mr. Karzai and American leaders are pushing negotiations with the Taliban, a terrible idea for many reasons, practical and moral. It’s part of the same confusion of process with vision that we’re seeing from American leaders. Mr. Karzai and the Taliban aren’t the only alternatives in Afghanistan. We have stupidly refused to show the Afghans that we take good governance seriously. Talking about the “war of perceptions” is not enough. We need a political strategy before we, and the Afghan people, lose.

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