On Strategy (specifically in Afghanistan)
Summary: This guest post by Bernard Finel discusses the nature of strategy in the context of the Afghanistan War. It’s timely, as there have been two important reports about the war this month, links to both in the for more information section at the end. Let’s hope this debate gets more policy traction than the debate last summer (in which the pro-war arguments were defenestrated, to no effect) — or the many Kabuki-like reviews done by DoD.
I think it is worthwhile to spend a little time discussing the issue of “strategy” as a concept because I think a significant source of tension and dispute in recent debates is due to a misunderstanding of some of the key elements of the term. I am leery of addressing this issue directly because it put me into something of a didactic mode (or should I say “even more didactic than usual”?). But regardless, here goes.
What is strategy?
From my perspective, strategy needs to be conceived of as an iterative framework connecting ends, ways, means, and risks in a way that allows for the development and comparison of various courses of action (among other things), but also allows for the generation of branches and sequels, consideration and testing of assumption, an analysis of time, and other factors. It isn’t just a plan of action. It is an analytical framework.
One key elements include the formulation of assumptions, which are necessary proposition used to bridge areas of uncertainty. Another key element is the concept of risk which is essentially the feedback mechanism use to judge whether a given course of action is acceptable.
There is a misguided notion that strategy must always flow in a linear fashion starting with a consideration of interests, followed by a the development of objective, and finally an allocation of means/ways to accomplish the desired end. This is one approach, and it is an approach that is useful under two conditions — when interests generate clear objectives and when means are unconstrained. Neither of these conditions holds in Afghanistan (but more on that later).
But because strategy is an iterative process, there is actually no reason to begin with interests. You could begin with mean or you could begin with a discussion of what kinds of risks you are willing to tolerate. As a practical matter, it is often best to ground a strategic discussion precisely on those element on which you have the greatest certainty.
About the Af-Pak War
Okay, so let’s revisit Afghanistan. Here are my certainties: Our irreducible interests in Afghanistan are relatively minimal. They are:
- reasonable security from attack emanating from its territory, and
- prevention of human rights violations that approach the level of genocide.
Based on that assessment, essentially counter-terrorism (CT) and human security, I cannot justify an expenditure of $100 billion a year and placing in jeopardy 100,000 American troops. Now, are those are only interests? Of course not. We have an endless series of interests in Afghanistan — regional stability, containment/defeat of radical Islamist groups, mineral resources, and so on. And these secondary interests, at the margins, can justify a greater expenditure of resources. But right now, I’d propose that out investment in Afghanistan is someone like an order of magnitude too high given the issues at stake.
In short, my starting point, based on an assessment of interests is that our expenditure of means should be limited to something in the neighborhood of $10 billion a year. The question for me, the becomes what can I buy in terms of objectives in support of my interests for roughly that amount? I don’t actually know the answer. But here is one thing I do know: It is not enough resources to defeat the insurgency. As a result, since I still have some value for stability in Afghanistan — both for human rights and CT purposes — it leads me to want to pursue some sort of negotiated solution. It isn’t necessarily that I think such an outcome is either optimal or possible.
But it is the only course of action that is consistent with the ”budget” I have established. The only assumption I require here, btw, is that some sort of negotiation and reconciliation is not impossible. And as an empirical matter, I think that is a sound assumption. If you look at the leaders of many of the key insurgent groups, you’ll note that they have arrayed in various shifting coalitions over the past 30 years. I see no reason to assume that we’re looking at a wholly intractable situation in that regard, though I am open to being convinced otherwise.
Now, because a consequence of my approach is a massive reduction of U.S. forces, I need to consider the risks to my approach, and they are substantial. But they are also tremendously uncertain. True, advocates of de-escalation tend to be overly sanguine about the ability of the Karzai government to contain the insurgency in non-Pashtun areas. But it is also true that advocates of a robust COIN campaign tend to overstate the ease with while the Taliban would return to power over the whole of Afghanistan were we to leave. I don’t know what would happen to the insurgency if we withdrew, but nor does anyone else. We’re all making a series of assumptions on this score.
Because the assumption on this score has a significant outcome — I would argue as a corollary assumption that if the Taliban does sweep to a rapid and decisive victory in the wake of a U.S. drawdown it would both put in jeopardy our humanitarian interests and probably make the re-establishment of an AQ safe-haven more likely — any course of action I propose must carry with it a risk mitigate component in case my assumption (that Karzai can hold on with minimal assistance) turns out to be wrong. And I have consistently including this sort of risk-mitigation element. Maintaining an off-shore CT capability able to strike at large, fixed AQ facilities is my main CT risk mitigation element; and I would propose the creation of a robust refugee management system and catchment areas to mitigate the humanitarian consequences.
My framework is not perfect. But it is grounded in what I think is a credible assessment of the reasonable burden we should be willing to bear in Afghanistan as well as a realistic assessment of what we might actually be able to achieve with a fraction of the current resources we expend. Of course, it has more risks than a $100 billion a year campaign. That is like noting that a Ford Escort has less pick-up than a Ferrari. Yeah, but the Ferrari costs ten times as much.
Possible critiques to this view
The obvious response to my argument is that “you can’t put a price on national security.” But while a lot of people say that, it is obvious a silly argument. Obviously we can and do put a price on national security. We have to because we need to balance various national security priorities and we need to balance national security against other priorities. Unless a threat is wholly existential, you have to put a price on national security.
So yes, a lot of the draw-down argument begin with a preference for reducing the commitment and the seek to build the more plausible possible framework around that preference. But that is okay. You are allowed to do strategy than way, and in Afghanistan where uncertainty is the rule rather than the exception grounding a strategic framework in precisely that kind of analysis is more than okay, it is a good idea. I don’t know how to stabilize Afghanistan, but I know I don’t want to spend $100 billion a year doing it, so for me the key strategic question is what can I accomplish for what I am willing to spend — which is roughly $10 billion a year.
Now, there are a lot of other element here. And I while my reader may not believe it, I am perfectly capable of walking through all the elements of the strategy. In the interests if saving my readers’ eyeball, I won’t do it here.
As an aside, though I am a signatory to the Afghanistan Study Group, I think their approach is too robust if anything. I’d like to see an even smaller footprint, but $30 billion a year is better than $100 billion a year, and I think their proposal for what you ought to try to buy with that $30 billion is about right.
About the author
Bernard Finel currently serves as Associate Professor of National Security Strategy at the National War College. His views are his alone and do not represent the position of the National War College, National Defense University, or the Department of Defense.
Before that he was senior fellow at the American Security Project, a non-partisan think tank located in Washington, DC. Previously, he was an Associate Professor of Strategy and Policy at the National War College and Executive Director of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University.
At his website he writes about politics, national security, crime and justice, and social commentary. He holds a BA in international relations from Tufts University and an MA and Ph.D. in international relations from Georgetown.
For more information
Background: two important new reports the Afghanistan War:
- A New Way Forward – Rethinking American Strategy in Afghanistan by the Afghanistan Study Group, 16 August 2010
- Strategic Survey 2010, International Institute for Strategic Studies, February 2010 — This introduction by Dr John Chipman summaries their findings about the Afghanistan War, and is a must-read for anyone interested in the war.
Other articles on this topic by Bernard Finel:
- Doubting Afghanistan, Foreign Policy, 25 August 2009
- A Substitute for Victory, Foreign Affairs, 8 April 2010
- Revisiting Modernization Theory: Feudalism and Afghanistan, 6 July 2010
- Few Non-Idiotic Criticisms of ASG, 13 September 2010
- Radicalization and Negotiation in Afghanistan, 13 September 2010
- Defending the Afghanistan Study Group, 13 September 2010
- Regional Expertise and Comparative Politics , 15 September 2010
- “Defending the Afghan Study Group Report“, Stephen M. Walt, blog of Foreign Policy, 14 September 2010
Other posts about these things on the FM website
About strategy and grand strategy:
- The Myth of Grand Strategy , 31 January 2006
- America’s Most Dangerous Enemy , 1 March 2006
- Why We Lose at 4GW , 4 January 2007
- America takes another step towards the “Long War” , 24 July 2007
- One step beyond Lind: What is America’s geopolitical strategy? , 28 October 2007
- ABCDs for today: About Blitzkrieg, COIN, and Diplomacy , 21 February 2008
- America’s grand strategy: lessons from our past , 30 June 2008 – chapter 1 in a series of notes
- America’s grand strategy, now in shambles , 2 July 2008 — chapter 3
- America’s grand strategy, insanity at work , 7 July 2008 — chapter 4
- The world seen through the lens of 4GW (this gives a clearer picture) , (10 July 2008 — chapter 8
- The King of Brobdingnag comments on America’s grand strategy, 18 November 2008
- The US Army brings us back to the future, returning to WWI’s “cult of the offense”, 13 February 2009