Avoiding the same mistakes: the international strategy for Afghanistan

As President Obama announces his plans for Afghanistan, there is palpable consensus within the international community that the whole enterprise is now staring strategic defeat in the face. The next eighteen months represents the last good opportunity to put right the neglect and the mistakes of the last eight years and avert a worse crisis for us all.

By Professor Michael Clarke, Director General RUSI

Coalition forces have not been in Afghanistan for eight years. They have been there for one year, eight times. Groundhog year after groundhog year, they have rotated and refreshed their forces, consulted and strategised, but they have continually struggled to shape the political agenda in Afghanistan, let alone dominate it. With inadequate forces at their disposal and questionable political will backing them up in their home countries, Coalition forces have become as much a part of Afghanistan's problems as their solution.

But the military operation in Afghanistan is intrinsic to the solution and President Obama's announcement should be the start of a process that kicks the clock off its groundhog setting and creates a trajectory for progress and some genuine stability for the country.

Commentators will judge the success of Obama's stated policy on a range of important details, such as whether four or five new combat brigades are sent to the country; enhanced training schedules for the Afghan National Security Forces; counter-insurgency tactics and regional engagement with the problem. But the underlying issues are dramatically simple and his policy announcement should be judged against a bigger picture and more stark questions. The challenge for the Coalition's political leaders will be to explain them - simultaneously - to their electorates at home and their allies and friends in Afghanistan.

The Perception of Winning

The first test against which the Obama/McChrystal strategy will be judged is the degree to which it changes the perceptions surrounding the war in Afghanistan and creates a credible image that the campaign is heading for success. All wars like this are unwinnable in a strictly military sense. What is at issue is the perception of victory and this applies in the Afghan case more than most. Afghans are natural survivors. They have survived the palace coup of 1973 and the Khalq uprising of 1978, the Soviet invasion, the civil war between the Mujahideen after 1990, the rule of the Taliban, and now a new civil war with foreign intervention. Afghan society survives because Afghans pragmatically back a winner and adjust to whatever new realities they bring.

Western politicians have talked about staying involved in Afghanistan 'for as long as it takes', but their actions in backing coalition forces have not lived up to the rhetoric. Renewed US leadership and a military plan from General McChrystal that begins to make a real difference on the ground (and outside Kabul), will be judged on whether the reality and the rhetoric can be better balanced. A 10 per cent improvement in objective security conditions in key areas can produce a 40 per cent or 50 per cent change in public perceptions. The task is to create the perceptual tipping-point that makes the coalition-backed Karzai government look like the eventual winners in this struggle. And the reverse is also true. The pendulum of public perception, in Afghanistan no less than our own country, swings in both directions. A decisive swing in the direction that indicates the Coalition will prevail in some way meaningful to ordinary Afghans, is the essential stake in this game of military poker.

The consensus for action

The second test of the Obama/McChrystal initiative is whether it mobilises a growing consensus for the strategy behind firm US leadership. In truth, there is nothing particularly new about the McChrystal plan. It is a predictable counter-insurgency strategy, putting the role of the Afghan government first, identifying the special objectives that counter-insurgency must pursue and arranging available forces in a cost-effective way. Most Coalition partners have been thinking the same way for some time. But McChrystal brings to the strategy a drive to tame the forty-two tribes of the Coalition and dragoon them into getting on with it. More than enough time has been spent discussing strategies. The time has come to implement the single broad strategy on which all essentially agree and to bring the Afghan government, the military, the civilian agencies and the non-governmental organisations into a vanguard of action that can make a difference in the key regions of Afghanistan.

The next phase of the strategy will be explicitly US-led, and that has a downside after so many American mis-steps in the diplomatic and military spheres. But what President Obama and General McChrystal have going for them is a palpable consensus within the international community that the whole enterprise is now staring strategic defeat in the face. Many past mistakes are being recognised and though the operation will continue to be controversial, the political objectives have been quietly scaled down to a level that is achievable and Coalition partners know that their political route out of Afghanistan lies not only through Kabul, but through Kandahar, Lashkar Gah, Herat, Mazar-e Sharif and Kunduz. The paradox the Coalition must accept is that their military forces will go home all the quicker by committing to stay indefinitely. Deadlines on when the Coalition must leave the country give the adversary a huge advantage and virtually guarantee either an extended stay or an explicit defeat. A wholehearted commitment is more likely to be the shorter commitment. It is not clear that all the major Coalition partners - certainly not their publics - accept the force of this paradox. It will be a major test of US strategy to make it part of the international consensus.

The Crisis in South Asia

The third test of the strategy will be whether it is has some dampening effect on the increasingly heated crisis of Central and South Asia. Afghanistan is at the centre of regional instability. It should be the trading cross roads of Central Asia; the historical basis of its previous wealth and independence. But for the last forty years it has been the ring road of Central Asia; the place everyone skirted round or avoided altogether. So now that Afghanistan is 'open' again, Pakistan-Indian competition is played out in the South. China invests heavily in Afghanistan's badly managed mineral reserves. Traditional Iranian influence in Herat is growing once more, and the crisis in Pakistan makes a mockery of the Durand Line which formally demarcates the border between both countries.

The crisis in the region, particularly in the Afghan/Pakistan border areas, is getting worse and the Al-Qa'ida presence in the region is one of the less important elements of it. The Coalition did not go to Afghanistan to get involved in this crisis, and is shocked to find that its eight groundhog years have left it in this predicament. But the fact is that the Coalition in Afghanistan is holding down one important front in this regional crisis and it cannot afford to walk away without tipping the whole balance into a more chaotic hole. There is an argument that it is the very presence of Western forces that drives the crisis in the region. It is undeniable that they are part of the problem, but it is hard to see that they are the root cause and they are in too deep now to withdraw without making the situation worse.

That is why the Coalition, despite government claims, is not fighting in Afghanistan to keep terrorists off the streets of our cities. It is fighting for something more important than that: to prevent a regional meltdown that would pull major powers into serious conflict, leave a nuclear-armed Pakistan in a state of anarchy and likely create ripple effects in all our countries from the sheer human misery that an even worse crisis will create.

The Obama /McChrystal approach must therefore be subtle enough to have an effect on Afghanistan while not exacerbating tensions in the wider region. This is easier said than done. Overt collaboration between American and Pakistani military forces makes the political crisis in Islamabad worse. Indian development projects in Afghanistan are as much a device to keep Pakistan distracted as they are to help the Coalition, and so on. Conflicting trends cannot all be balanced and the trade-offs may be severe. But if Afghanistan can be stabilised over the next couple of years and economic development stimulated in the Afghanistan/Pakistan/India matrix - a tall order in the light of the current economic crisis - then the heat of this regional crisis might still be mitigated.

One way or another, there is no sensible alternative to the present politico/military strategy. The great unknown, and the weakness of it, lies in the ability of the Afghan government itself to live up to all the support the international community may now be prepared to put into the enterprise. But the Afghan government will certainly fail to deliver on competence and transparency if such support is not forthcoming. The next eighteen months represents the last good opportunity to put right the neglect and the mistakes of the last eight years and avert a worse crisis for us all.

Further Analysis

Michael Clarke on Channel 4 NewsAssessing troop numbers in Afghanistan

What General McChrystal asked for was five more brigades - five more brigades that he can use in Kandahar, in Helmand, a couple in the north east and a training brigade. So if he gets those five brigades then he's got backing for his plan whatever the final number turns out to be





Federation of Malaya Police 1949Extracting Counterinsurgency lessons: The Malayan Emergency and Afghanistan

An analysis of the general principles underlying British success in Malaya can nevertheless still provide important policy implications for Afghanistan.


The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI


Professor Michael Clarke

Distinguished Fellow

View profile

Explore our related content