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.

Andrew Rathmell’s view – Syria: how to build a coherent opposition?

One of the reasons why the Syrian civil war has dragged on so long and bloodily under the noses of the international community is that the opposition has been fractured, quarrelsome and struggled to organise itself.  The weakness of the opposition is not surprising given the brutally effective repression exercised by the Asad regime ever since it obliterated Muslim Brotherhood opponents in Hama in 1982.  Nonetheless, without better organisation, tight connections between the “inside” and the “outside”, and the ability to deliver tangible assistance to besieged communities in liberated areas, then the opposition will be unable to prevail in the fight and will be unprepared to pull Syria out of its current death spin.

My task therefore has been to find ways to help build the capability of opposition groups.  Our Syria assignments have focused on working with a range of local councils from across Syria’s “liberated” areas and with Syrian NGOs, some of whom can operate from regime held areas.  The job is to use detailed research to identify the most credible players, to build trusted relationships, and to help them develop plans and strategies through which they can deliver assistance more effectively on the ground to embattled communities.  In anonymous meeting rooms in Turkey and in smoke-filled cafes in Arab capitals, the process of bringing together opposition activists can lead to surprising results.  The “loyal opposition” activists looking for a compromise solution may at first not be accepted by the Sunni Islamist activists who arrive with fresh tales of horror from the front; but with expert facilitation and empathy, they can find some common ground.

These small efforts are hardly even a sticking plaster on the conscience of the West which is strong on rhetoric concerning Syria but weak on delivery. Nonetheless, clear thinking, facilitation and good planning can go some way to helping Syrian activists seeking a way out of this spiralling tragedy to become more effective.

The itinerant strategist; or, what does an applied strategist do when not in the classroom?

Andrew Rathmell, an Honorary Visiting Professor with SSI, when not lecturing on strategy at Exeter, has a day job as a strategy adviser to governments seeking to end conflicts and to build more stable states.  His company, Aktis Strategy, is commissioned by donors, foreign ministries and private companies to analyse knotty strategy problems and help to design and implement solutions to some of the world’s most troubled states and societies.  Andrew has picked up a few things along the way since having tried to come up, post-facto, with a plan for the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq a decade ago, but he notes that each new crisis does not get easier to solve.

In this occasional blog series, Andrew gives some insights into just what an applied strategist may do outside the classroom. Read more here: Building Our Strategic Capabilities