This article was first published on the Stratfor website.
The author, George Friedman, is chairman and CEO of Stratfor, the
world’s leading online publisher of geopolitical intelligence.
The Afghan War is the longest war in U.S. history. It began in 1980
and continues to rage. It began under Democrats but has been fought
under both Republican and Democratic administrations, making it truly a
bipartisan war. The conflict is an odd obsession of U.S. foreign policy,
one that never goes away and never seems to end. As the
resignation of Gen. Stanley McChrystal reminds us, the Afghan War
is now in its fourth phase.
The Afghan War’s First Three Phases
The first phase of the Afghan War began with the Soviet invasion in
December 1979, when the United States, along with Saudi Arabia and
Pakistan, organized and sustained Afghan resistance to the Soviets. This
resistance was built around mujahideen, fighters motivated by Islam.
Washington’s purpose had little to do with Afghanistan and everything to
do with U.S.-Soviet competition. The United States wanted to block the
Soviets from using Afghanistan as a base for further expansion and
wanted to bog the Soviets down in a debilitating guerrilla war. The
United States did not so much fight the war as facilitate it. The
strategy worked. The Soviets were blocked and bogged down. This phase
lasted until 1989, when Soviet troops were withdrawn.
The second phase lasted from 1989 until 2001. The forces the United
States and its allies had trained and armed now fought each other in
complex coalitions for control of Afghanistan. Though the United States
did not take part in this war directly, it did not lose all interest in
Afghanistan. Rather, it was prepared to exert its influence through
allies, particularly Pakistan. Most important, it was prepared to accept
that the Islamic fighters it had organized against the Soviets would
govern Afghanistan. There were many factions, but with Pakistani
support, a coalition called the Taliban took power in 1996. The Taliban
in turn provided sanctuary for a group of international jihadists called
al Qaeda, and this led to increased tensions with the Taliban following
jihadist attacks on U.S. facilities abroad by al Qaeda.
The third phase began on Sept.
11, 2001, when al Qaeda launched attacks on the mainland United
States. Given al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan, the United States
launched operations designed to destroy or disrupt al Qaeda and dislodge
the Taliban. The United States commenced operations barely 30 days
after Sept. 11, which was not enough time to mount an invasion using
U.S. troops as the primary instrument. Rather, the United States made
arrangements with factions that were opposed to the Taliban (and
defeated in the Afghan civil war). This included organizations such as
the Northern Alliance, which had remained close to the Russians; Shiite
groups in the west that were close to the Iranians and India; and other
groups or subgroups in other regions. These groups supported the United
States out of hostility to the Taliban and/or due to substantial bribes
paid by the United States.
The overwhelming majority of ground forces opposing the Taliban in
2001 were Afghan. The United States did, however, insert special
operations forces teams to work with these groups and to identify
targets for U.S. airpower, the primary American contribution to the war.
The use of U.S. B-52s against Taliban forces massed around cities in
the north caused the Taliban to abandon any thought of resisting the
Northern Alliance and others, even though the Taliban had defeated them
in the civil war.
Unable to hold fixed positions against airstrikes, the Taliban
withdrew from the cities and dispersed. The Taliban were not defeated,
however; they merely declined to fight on U.S. terms. Instead, they
redefined the war, preserving their forces and regrouping. The Taliban
understood that the cities were not the key to Afghanistan. Instead, the
countryside would ultimately provide control of the cities. From the
Taliban point of view, the battle would be waged in the countryside,
while the cities increasingly would be isolated.
The United States simply did not have sufficient force to identify,
engage and destroy the Taliban as a whole. The
United States did succeed in damaging and dislodging al Qaeda, with
the jihadist group’s command cell becoming isolated in northwestern
Pakistan. But as with the Taliban, the United States did not defeat al
Qaeda because the United States lacked significant forces on the ground.
Even so, al Qaeda prime, the original command cell, was no longer in a
position to mount 9/11-style attacks.
During the Bush administration, U.S.
goals for Afghanistan were modest. First, the Americans intended to
keep al Qaeda bottled up and to impose as much damage as possible on
the group. Second, they intended to establish an Afghan government,
regardless of how ineffective it might be, to serve as a symbolic core.
Third, they planned very limited operations against the Taliban, which
had regrouped and increasingly controlled the countryside. The Bush
administration was basically in a holding operation in Afghanistan. It
accepted that U.S. forces were neither going to be able to impose a
political solution on Afghanistan nor create a coalition large enough
control the country. U.S. strategy was extremely modest under Bush: to
harass al Qaeda from bases in Afghanistan, maintain control of cities
and logistics routes, and accept the limits of U.S. interests and power.
The three phases of American involvement in Afghanistan had a common
point: All three were heavily dependent on non-U.S. forces to do the
heavy lifting. In the first phase, the mujahideen performed this task.
In the second phase, the United States relied on Pakistan to manage
Afghanistan’s civil war. In the third phase, especially in the
beginning, the United States depended on Afghan forces to fight the
Taliban. Later, when greater numbers of American and allied forces
arrived, the United States had limited objectives beyond preserving the
Afghan government and engaging al Qaeda wherever it might be found (and
in any event, by 2003, Iraq had taken priority over Afghanistan). In no
case did the Americans use their main force to achieve their goals.
The Fourth Phase of the Afghan War
The fourth phase of the war began in 2009, when U.S. President Barack
Obama decided to pursue a more aggressive strategy in Afghanistan.
Though the Bush administration had toyed with this idea, it was Obama
who implemented it fully. During the 2008 election campaign, Obama
asserted that he would pay greater attention to Afghanistan. The
Obama administration began with the premise that while the Iraq War was a
mistake, the Afghan War had to be prosecuted. It reasoned that unlike
Iraq, which had a tenuous connection to al Qaeda at best, Afghanistan
was the group’s original base. He argued that Afghanistan therefore
should be the focus of U.S. military operations. In doing so, he shifted
a strategy that had been in place for 30 years by making U.S. forces
the main combatants in the war.
Though Obama’s goals were not altogether clear, they might be stated
- Deny al Qaeda a base in Afghanistan.
- Create an exit strategy from Afghanistan similar to the one in Iraq
by creating the conditions for negotiating with the Taliban; make
denying al Qaeda a base a condition for the resulting ruling coalition.
- Begin withdrawal by 2011.
To do this, there would be three steps:
the number and aggressiveness of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
- Create Afghan security forces under the current government to take
over from the Americans.
- Increase pressure on the Taliban by driving a wedge between them and
the population and creating intra-insurgent rifts via effective
In analyzing this strategy, there is an obvious issue: While al Qaeda
was based in Afghanistan in 2001, Afghanistan
is no longer its primary base of operations. The group has shifted
to Pakistan, Yemen,
Somalia and other countries. As al Qaeda is thus not dependent on any
one country for its operational base, denying it bases in Afghanistan
does not address the reality of its dispersion. Securing Afghanistan, in
other words, is no longer the solution to al Qaeda.
Obviously, Obama’s planners fully understood this. Therefore,
sanctuary denial for al Qaeda had to be, at best, a secondary strategic
goal. The primary strategic goal was to create an exit strategy for the
United States based on a
negotiated settlement with the Taliban and a resulting coalition
government. The al Qaeda issue depended on this settlement, but could
never be guaranteed. In fact, neither the long-term survival of a
coalition government nor the Taliban policing al Qaeda could be
The exit of U.S. forces represents a bid to reinstate the American
strategy of the past 30 years, namely, having Afghan forces reassume the
primary burden of fighting. The creation of an Afghan military is not
the key to this strategy. Afghans fight for their clans and ethnic
groups. The United States is trying to invent a national army where no
nation exists, a task that assumes the primary loyalty of Afghans will
shift from their clans to a national government, an unlikely
The Real U.S. Strategy
than trying to strengthen the Karzai government, the real strategy
is to return to the historical principles of U.S. involvement in
Afghanistan: alliance with indigenous forces. These indigenous forces
would pursue strategies in the American interest for their own reasons,
or because they are paid, and would be strong enough to stand up to the
Taliban in a coalition. As CIA Director Leon Panetta put it this
weekend, however, this is proving harder to do than expected.
The American strategy is, therefore, to maintain a sufficient force
to shape the political evolution on the ground, and to use that force to
motivate and intimidate while also using economic incentives to draw
together a coalition in the countryside. Operations
like those in Helmand province — where even Washington acknowledges
that progress has been elusive and slower than anticipated — clearly
are designed to try to draw regional forces into regional coalitions
that eventually can enter a coalition with the Taliban without
immediately being overwhelmed. If this strategy proceeds, the Taliban in
theory will be spurred to negotiate out of concern that this process
eventually could leave it marginalized.
There is an anomaly in this strategy, however. Where the United
States previously had devolved operational responsibility to allied
groups, or simply hunkered down, this strategy tries to return to
devolved responsibilities by first surging U.S. operations. The fourth
phase actually increases U.S. operational responsibility in order to
grand strategic point of view, the United States needs to withdraw
from Afghanistan, a landlocked country where U.S. forces are dependent
on tortuous supply lines. Whatever Afghanistan’s
vast mineral riches, mining them in the midst of war is not going
to happen. More important, the United States is overcommitted in the
region and lacks a strategic reserve of ground forces. Afghanistan
ultimately is not strategically essential, and this is why the United
States has not historically used its own forces there.
Obama’s attempt to return to that track after first increasing U.S.
forces to set the stage for the political settlement that will allow a
U.S. withdrawal is hampered by the need to begin terminating the
operation by 2011 (although there is no fixed termination date). It will
be difficult to draw coalition partners into local structures when the
foundation — U.S. protection — is withdrawing. Strengthening local
forces by 2011 will be difficult. Moreover, the
Taliban’s motivation to enter into talks is limited by the early
withdrawal. At the same time, with no ground combat strategic reserve,
the United States is vulnerable elsewhere in the world, and the longer
the Afghan drawdown takes, the more vulnerable it becomes (hence the
2011 deadline in Obama’s war plan).
In sum, this is the quandary inherent in the strategy: It is
necessary to withdraw as early as possible, but early withdrawal
undermines both coalition building and negotiations. The recruitment and
use of indigenous Afghan forces must move extremely rapidly to hit the
deadline (though officially on track quantitatively, there are serious
questions about qualitative measures) — hence, the aggressive operations
that have been mounted over recent months. But the correlation of
forces is such that the United States probably will not be able to
impose an acceptable political reality in the time frame available.
Thus, Afghan President Hamid Karzai is said to be opening channels
directly to the Taliban, while the Pakistanis are increasing their
presence. Where a vacuum is created, regardless of how much activity
there is, someone will fill it.
Therefore, the problem is to define how important Afghanistan is to
American global strategy, bearing in mind that the forces absorbed in
Iraq and Afghanistan have left the United States vulnerable elsewhere in
the world. The current strategy defines the Islamic world as the focus
of all U.S. military attention. But the world has rarely been so
considerate as to wait until the United States is finished with one war
before starting another. Though unknowns remain unknowable, a principle
of warfare is to never commit all of your reserves in a battle — one
should always maintain a reserve for the unexpected. Strategically, it
is imperative that the United States begin to free up forces and
re-establish its ground reserves.
Given the time frame the Obama administration’s grand strategy
imposes, and given the capabilities of the Taliban, it is difficult to
see how it will all work out. But the ultimate question is about the
American obsession with Afghanistan. For 30 years, the United States has
been involved in a country that is virtually inaccessible for the
United States. Washington has allied itself with radical Islamists,
fought against radical Islamists or tried to negotiate with radical
Islamists. What the United States has never tried to do is impose a
political solution through the direct application of American force.
This is a new and radically different phase of America’s Afghan
obsession. The questions are whether it will work and whether it is even