Andrew Rathmell’s view – Strategising Afghanistan: Getting the problem right

As scepticism about the Afghan campaign has soared on the US and UK home-fronts over the last couple of years, a common refrain has been that the International Community’s strategy is failing and that there is no coherent plan.  In fact there have been lots of strategies and plans since the removal of the Taliban in 2001.  The problem has been that many of these plans have involved the fatal combination of, first, mischaracterising the problem and, second, wilfully setting overambitious goals and over-reporting progress.

During 2010 and 2011, I was asked by the US and UK governments to provide periodic inputs into the campaign plans developed annually by ISAF (International Security Assistance Force).  Developing a campaign plan for a force made up of dozens of nations, integrating all aspects of civil-military operations, seeking to work in support of a sometimes recalcitrant national government, is a tall order.  It is no surprise perhaps that the process, which draws on millions of dollars worth of data and thousands of hours staff work by officers and diplomats, will always struggle to fit a complex reality into a simple approach which can be implemented across a sprawling mission.

In such an environment, the job of the applied strategist is not so much to come up with bright new ideas; it is much more about “working the system” to try to get the ideas accepted and turned into operational plans and policies that can be delivered.  There were three key insights in this period that I, and like-minded colleagues, tried to push through the system. 

First, that this was not a war of “us” (i.e. ISAF and the Afghan government) against “them” (the Taliban and al-Qaeda).  This was a multi-layered struggle for power and resources involving a myriad of Afghan and regional actors; ISAF’s job should be to shape the incentives and behaviours of these actors in ways that served ISAF interests.  Pretending therefore that the Afghan government was simply “part of the solution” was naïve; it was important instead to treat it as one of the conflict actors that needed to be influenced.

Second, many of ISAF’s methods were making things worse.  One aspect was the way in which ISAF funds were pouring into the pockets of local warlords in return for security, logistics and development services.  By empowering the very people against whom the Taliban had successfully led a rebellion in the 1990s, ISAF was driving a wedge between itself, the Afghan government, and the people.  Likewise, by pouring resources into the Afghan National Security Forces without understanding how these forces were in many places part of a war economy driving the conflict, ISAF’s simplistic model risked digging itself deeper into a hole.

Third, the International Community’s simplistic and overenthusiastic adoption of the counter-insurgency doctrine of “clear, hold, build” was based on the fallacious assumption that the Afghan government would be able to “hold and build” cleared areas. Everyone knew that this was unlikely to be the case at least on the scale and at the pace which ISAF demanded but planners seemed to wilfully ignore this reality.

Did we succeed in “working the system” to push through these observations?  In part we did, with ISAF adopting a new approach to funding contractors, refocusing attention on corrupt networks, and taking a more measured approach to its clearance operations.  But, by 2010 and 2011, many of the features of the Afghan campaign were set and there was little space for a radical reset.

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