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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