Tactics versus strategy in Afghanistan

October 11, 2008

Reading the latest spate of news reports about U.S. policies in Afghanistan, one thing strikes me as troubling — the failure to distinguish between tactics and strategy. Military boffins argue about the exact meaning of those two words, but for the purposes of argument, let’s say that tactics are a means to an end, while strategy contains within it an understanding of the end to be attained.

Dust storm in Kabul/Ahmad MasoodU.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates gave us an idea of the end earlier this week when he talked of reconciliation with the Taliban, while excluding anyone belonging to al Qaeda. “There has to be ultimately, and I’ll underscore ultimately, reconciliation as part of a political outcome to this,” Gates said. “That’s ultimately the exit strategy for all of us.”

Now let’s look at tactics.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the United States is considering training up Afghanistan’s tribal militias to fight the Taliban.  “The plan is controversial because it could extend the influence of warlords while undermining the government of President Hamid Karzai in Kabul,” the newspaper says. It adds that, “by focusing on tribal militias and local security, the approach resembles the U.S. campaign in Iraq, where former Sunni insurgents are paid to guard their neighborhoods.”

The New York Times picks up the same theme in its own story about the forthcoming National Intelligence Estimate — a report by American intelligence agencies due to be finished after the November presidential election — which it says concludes that Afghanistan is in a “downward spiral” and casts serious doubt on the ability of the Afghan government to stem the rise in the Taliban.

Displaced Afghan children from Helmand in Kabul/Ahmad Masood“The administration is considering whether the United States should devote more effort to working directly with tribal leaders in far-flung provinces, and possibly arming tribal militias, to fight the Taliban in places where Afghanistan’s army and police forces have been ineffective,” the New York Times says.

“The Bush administration had long resisted making tribal elders a centerpiece of American strategy in Afghanistan. American officials had hoped instead that strong national institutions like the Afghan Army could protect the Afghan population, but the escalating violence this year has forced a reassessment of the value of the tribal system for counterinsurgency operations.”

As a tactic, training or arming tribal militias does not contradict an overall strategy of forcing the Taliban into peace talks, presumably after they have been suitably weakened by their fellow Afghans. Even the 19th century Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz argued that one of the objectives of war was to destroy the effective strength of the enemy.

But it does beg the question of the kind of Afghanistan the United States wants to leave behind. Does it want a strong central government, in which a tamed Taliban, minus al Qaeda, has a share of the power and a stake in the prosperity of a unified country? Or a decentralised Afghanistan in which tribal militias hold the power — potentially recreating the tensions that led to the outbreak of civil war after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989?

It’s a question that needs to be asked. What is the strategy for Afghanistan — not just for the United States getting out, but also for the fate of the country after western troops leave? Only when you know that, can you judge which tactics make sense. 

And there is all the more reason to ask that question given that the jury is still out on the sustainability of U.S. gains in reducing violence in Iraq, which Washington attributes partly to its policy of arming Sunni insurgents there.  According to this McClatchy story, a nearly completed National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq warns that unresolved ethnic and sectarian tensions could unleash a new wave of violence, potentially reversing security gains achieved over the last year.

Arming one group of people to fight against their countrymen may or may not be a useful tactic.  But it’s not nation-building. So how does it fit into the overall strategy for Afghanistan? Or is the main objective of this war, seven years after the U.S.-led invasion, now to find an “exit strategy”?



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the main objective of the PNAC project is to control energy.

according to neocon dogma, control of oil will lead to “benevolent global hegemony”, and nevermind that this supposed “benevolence” has already led to the deaths of maybe a million people.

according to neocon hubris, they are an empire now, and when they act, they create their own reality.

according to neocon theory, “creative destruction” is the basic tactic…

…a prime example of “creative destruction” being, the 9/11 operaton.

too bad it looks like the project is failing, and “absent another catastrophic and catalyzing event —like a new pearl harbor”— the neocons and their fellow travelers wont have the wherewithal to rebuild the things they’ve destroyed…

…which leaves them in their default mode: looting.

Posted by wadosy | Report as abusive

to put it in simple words – strategy is to work out a plan & tactics are merely it’s implementation tools to put it into practice, your failure in understanding lies in your attempt to differentiate them or tell apart, whereas tactics are contained in strategy as butter in milk, waiting to be churned,
Yet your argument & insight into the strategy is a Bulls eye,
The essence of your article, – the tactics of Gates exit strategy for the western troops is-
“The United States is considering arming & training up Afghanistan’s tribal militias to fight the Taliban, the United States wants to leave behind a decentralised Afghanistan in which tribal militias hold the power as it concludes that Afghanistan is in a “downward spiral” and casts serious doubt on the ability of the Afghan government to stem the rise in the Taliban.”

Posted by Indian | Report as abusive

Clausewitz certainly has a place in the conduct of counterinsurgency, as do strategy and tactics. However, your explanation appears to lead one towards a more conventional approach and also infers an approach of decisive military action. In counterinsurgecny this is the paradox that, we, in the US military have forgotten.
The strategy and tactics for a counterinsurgency are not the same and a political arrangement of some kind is required for a counterinsurgency to come to an end. Certianly, the type of arrangement may help predict how long that arrangement remians in place. It has neve been really clear who decided that a single unitary centralized government would work for Afghanistan. The history of Afghanistan seems to dictate the opposite approach. The entire failure in this whole thing is a matter of timing and a lack of precision in wording and approach on behalf of the US and the military.
Tha Taliban will probaly view this as weakness becasue of the timing of the recent news events you described; and, additionally, the distinction bewtween militants and ideology should have been understood and articulated before the bombs started flying.
I fear this is too little to late in terms of the timing and the recent global financial crisis. Any arrangement will be much more transitory because it will be seemed to have been made under duress and in a fit of weakness.

Posted by Terry.Tucker | Report as abusive

Al Quaeda and the Taliban goverment in Afghanistan had a contingent relationship, i.e. a shared commitment to what we in the West call Islamic fundamentalism, a hatred of perceived American imperialism, especially in the Islamic Holy Places, a commitment to the values of the Uma, the Islamic community, and a determination not to bow to brute force. Since the invasion of Afghanistan, both the Taliban and Al Quaeda have transformed themselves, but the fact remains that the former are an ousted government force and the latter no more than a non-governmental organisation.
The military actions in Afghanistan have transformed a contingent relationship into something far more coherent: the expressed values of Al Quaeda have been articulated by a much greater community of fighters, and the Taliban’s image has become more nuanced among an greater community.
What American wants, either tactically or strategically, is today of little import; their behaviour has strengthened their enemies and made the world a far more dangerous place for all those who do not worship according to Islamic lights.

Posted by Alan Reeve | Report as abusive

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Posted by Tactics versus strategy in Afghanistan « Did You Know | Report as abusive

Ms. MacDonald of Reuters: “Military boffins argue about the exact meaning of those two words, but for the purposes of argument, let’s say that tactics are a means to an end, while strategy contains within it an understanding of the end to be attained.”

As a retired military officer, former noncommissioned officer and 3-time commander of army ground units…I’m at a loss as to how the term “boffin” relates to the term “military”.

That forgiven, however, Ms. MacDonald is reasonably accurate in her interpretation of military strategy v. military tactics. If I was asked to describe the difference between the two, I would simply say that strategy is the plan and tactic(s) is the execution. Between S&T is sandwiched operations. Applying these brief definitions to levels of command–army, corps and division commanders (i.e., general officers) and their staffs are on the planning end. Maneuver commanders (brigades & battalions/task forces, i.e., full colonels & light colonels) and their staffs are at the top of the tactical pyramid.

Battalions are made up of companies. Therefore, taken to its logical conclusion, tactical maneuver is the province of companies, platoons, squads and fire teams, i.e., the captains, lieutenants, sergeants/corporals and privates that make up the foundation of the tactical pyramid. Tactics are carried out down where the rubber hits the road. Tactical battles, firefights and skirmishes are where strategies (plans) are proven successful or unsuccessful. Said another way, Our Best & Finest sacrifice their lives or limbs, sight, hearing and mental & physical health to carry out the plans of strategists who are themselves not present on the field of honor when the bullets start flying.

The political strategist has to be extremely careful that he doesn’t place the military strategist in an untenable situation. Unless purposely withdrawn very soon, American military forces could conceivably remain in Iraq and in Afghanistan in perpetuity. Why? Because history shows that the last man standing is an insurgent. Therefore, tactical forces can win battles, firefights and skirmishes indefinitely (and at great long-term human and financial costs)…but strategic victory in the conventional sense will always be a series of illusions just over the next hill.

The members of the U.S. congress who presently don’t understand the disconnect between political and military strategy are now in the minority. But the president will never admit that he was wrong to embroil our most precious resource, i.e., Our Best & Finest, in conflicts of attrition…counterinsurgencies that will never result in strategic victory like that achieved by America and her allies at the conclusion of World War II.

OK Jack

Posted by OK Jack | Report as abusive

OK Jack –

My Oxford English Dictionary defines boffin as “a person engaged in scientific (esp military) research”. It also says it’s a British usage, so maybe it doesn’t mean the same outside of Britain?

Otherwise thanks for your very interesting comments, particularly in making the distinction between political and military strategy — it’s one where perhaps we should pay more attention.


Posted by Myra MacDonald | Report as abusive

Hello Ms. MacDonald…

Thank you for your response…very kind of you, I must say.

Before making my remarks this morning, I went to my usual source to see just what exactly a “boffin” might be. Until that moment, I was not familiar with the term…it not being one used in the (U.S.) army field elements in which I served and commanded over the period of a quarter century.

Of course, it could be that the overabundant strategists residing at the Pentagon (and at MacDill) refer to themselves as scientific experts and technological researchers. I don’t know.

Incidentally, generals T. Franks and R. Myers are the 4-star military strategists whom I referred to as having been pressured by (and as having caved to) the political strategists (a.k.a. would-be military strategists) at the Pentagon and at the White House prior to the invasions of both Afghanistan & Iraq, i.e., Messrs. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz et al.

There is only one 4-star strategist coming out of the planning for the Iraq invasion that I have any real personal and professional respect for. He is General Eric Shinseki…a fellow soldier who I would accompany into battle should he ask me to do so.

As for (U.S.) military operations in Afghanistan (your article’s counterinsurgency of focus), ma’am…said operations should have been concluded by the summer of 2002. Said operations should have never been allowed to reach the counterinsurgency stage [the reason for which was the then (and still ongoing) diversion of finite resources to Iraq].

Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri shouldn’t even still be walking around. That’s what happens though, when there is a total strategic failure at the top of the political and military pyramids in Washington, D.C. (and at MacDill).

My Very Best Regards,
OK Jack

boffin ba-fen noun [origin unknown] (1945)
chiefly Brit : a scientific expert; esp : one involved in technological research
(C) Zane Publishing, Inc. and Merriam-Webster, Incorporated

Posted by OK Jack | Report as abusive

Are there really viable strategic options in Afghanistan for the West? One strategist lays out two options: Strategic Options: The West and Afghanistan

Posted by Sun Tzu | Report as abusive