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American mistakes in Afghanistan

Did America and its policymakers misunderstand the Clausewitzian notion of politics? Did they mistake it for policy? This seems true because the United States overemphasised on the military component of its war in Afghanistan and based the success of its policy and strategic win in Afghanistan not on achieving a political end, but for a very long time, on fighting a war that would guarantee the success of its military operations.

The American failure in Afghanistan may have many reasons but the most striking one may be its inability to create a political Afghanistan parallel with the military Afghanistan. If there was a political strategy in Afghanistan it was dominated and overshadowed by the military strategy. All US force commanders in Afghanistan looked at the country not as a political but as a military problem. These generals remained very passionate about the military strategies they introduced and implemented — promoting the military culture of receiving and giving orders and following orders. These generals knew only one reason of fighting this war, the military reason to win it.

General David Howell Petraeus, when he took over as the American force commander in Afghanistan in 2010, introduced the concept of protecting the population — but by then it was too late. In president Obama’s first tenure the Situation Room in Washington hardly ever discussed politics and how to bring peace in Afghanistan. The review process that he initiated after taking over the presidency to evaluate the Afghan policy and the many meetings that he presided over centred entirely on how to win the war in Afghanistan.

The overemphasis on the military as an instrument of power to achieve the American objectives in Afghanistan hurt the political objective — the very objective for the attainment of which, war was being fought in Afghanistan. When Clausewitz defined “war as an act of politics” or as “an instrument of policy” or “continuation of policy by other means” he was reminding policymakers to never fight a war without setting a clear political aim. If the political aim of America’s war in Afghanistan was to create a politically stable and a self-reliant Afghanistan that showcased a functional parliament, a running democracy and the restoration of civilian authority, than the achievement of that political aim didn’t get the American policymakers’ attention and priority.

It is pertinent to mention here that behind every US effort in Afghanistan a military mindset was always focused on how to win the war. Influenced and dominated for its five initial years by defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s “light footprint doctrine” of fighting the war only with speed, agility and precision, the American war effort sought to pursue with vigour only the military aims.

The deployment of a heavy massed force which in fact was US secretary of state Collin Powell’s doctrine was rejected by Rumsfeld on the grounds that “it was an outdated Cold War imperative that was no longer necessary in the age of proxy forces, smart bombs and armed drones that could find and kill the enemy without any troops at all”. On the contrary, when Gen Stanley McChrystal took over the command of US forces in Afghanistan in 2009, he recognised that he lacked sufficient troops to root out the Taliban, secure the border with Pakistan and hold the villages that have been cleared. US vice president Joe Biden (2009-2017) on the other hand considered the policy of “Counterterrorism Plus” which focused mainly on hunting down al Qaeda’s leaders in Pakistan and Afghanistan, more appropriate as opposed to far more counter insurgency operations.

However, General David Petraeus, after taking over the command of US forces in Afghanistan in July 2010, changed the Tactical Directive (a document that provides detailed guidelines on the use of force in combat) and instructed the combat troops that, “we must avoid the trap of winning tactical victories — but suffering strategic defeats — by causing civilian causalities or excessive damage and thus alienating the people”.

The three big ideas that General Petraeus communicated to his under command, the US Embassy, NATO Headquarters and even Joint Staff at Pentagon were “one — the military couldn’t fight and win this war alone, civilian counterparts Afghans as well as international were critical. Two — we are here to win and three — we are not transferring but transitioning and that we are not pulling out but thinning out.”

Ultimately, it was after nine years of war in Afghanistan that an American general not only highlighted the importance of winning the war but also the important role of civilian counterparts in the success of the Afghan campaign. He actually called this overall approach as the “Anaconda Strategy”. This approach featured seven categories of activity: “kinetic operations, intelligence, detainee operations, information operations, international engagement and non-kinetics by which he meant programs for jobs, education, rule of law and development.”

Interesting to note here is that only one of the above-mentioned seven operations involved predominant military action. General Petraeus tried to implement a strategy that was quite opposite to the advice given by former US deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes who once said, “the [American} military can do enormous things. It can win wars and stabilize conflicts. But the military can’t create a political culture or build a society.”

The real question that comes to mind is that why didn’t US military change its course sooner? Why did the US continue to implement its failed strategies of winning the war, giving little or no importance to the political component of the war?

After 18 years of war, the US today is trying very hard for a political settlement by negotiating peace with the Taliban which could have been the way forward right at the beginning.

The whole American misadventure in Afghanistan can be summarised in the words of Stephen M Walt, who famously wrote that , “a long series of military commanders [who} kept promising success to the American Presidents instead of telling the commander-in-chief that they have been given an assignment that wasn’t necessary and that they could not accomplish it at a reasonable cost”.

The Express Tribune