“A Looming Peace for Afghanistan’s Long Hard War?”

“A Looming Peace for Afghanistan’s Long Hard War?”  E-International Relations.  February 2019. https://www.e-ir.info/2019/02/26/a-looming-peace-for-afghanistans-long-hard-war/

During the last week of January, the news was awash with stories covering the current administration’s ostensibly unprecedented progress with Special Envoy Khalilzad’s recent talks with the Taliban and their Pakistani sponsors in Qatar. In a statement that the U.S. Embassy Kabul released on the last Monday in January, Khalilzad stated that the peace talks had made progress on important issues and that the negotiators had agreed on a framework for further talks in February. In the eighteenth year of a long and stalemated war, there are reasons to be sanguine about these developments, to some degree, simply because this seems to have been the most talk about peace among the belligerents yet in this long hard war. And Mr. Khalilzad is indeed one of the best people to be the U.S. envoy leading the talks given his Afghan origins and years of experience as ambassador in Afghanistan and Iraq.

However, there are also reasons for much caution and some alarm about the current progress and the potential for peace in Afghanistan since the deliberations and decisions about many previously intractable issues still require prudence and patience.  These details may potentially augur the gravest consequences for Afghanistan, its neighbors, and the U.S. Several things of great importance have yet to be worked out. There is still much uncertainty in what outcomes these talks will result in, and looming yet elusive peace also brings up questions and concerns about the Taliban’s and their sponsor’s true intentions.

According to the U.S. position, it is imperative that the “everything” to be agreed includes direct negotiations between the current government of Afghanistan and the Taliban. A comprehensive ceasefire is also a U.S. requirement for bringing talks forward. On the other hand, until now, the Taliban have intransigently refused to talk with the legitimate Afghan government and are also apparently demanding a U.S. withdrawal before they commit to a comprehensive ceasefire, although they have stipulated that their intentions are not to monopolize or take over the Afghan government. What is also significant, but suspect, is the Taliban’s claim that they will not allow Afghanistan to again become a sanctuary, or a geographic space hospitable to al-Qaeda or Islamist terrorists of similar ilk. The timing and conditions of these seemingly irreconcilable demands will be tough to work through. The devil will be in the details and those details relate to the hard realities and facts of the long war in Afghanistan.

This article postulates that the U.S. and its partners should retain their troops and advisors in Afghanistan as a means of ensuring the peace and enforcing the Taliban and Pakistan’s compliance with the terms. It explores the hard realities of Afghanistan, explains the American propensity for tactics over strategy, and examines the main reasons for the impasse in the war. It concludes by recapitulating recent potential changes in policy and by emphasizing the imperative to enforce and verify the terms of any agreement by sustaining the current operational approach and force levels.

The Hard Realities of Afghanistan – Defying Predictions and Expectations

Afghanistan itself defies prediction and eludes expectations. When the Soviets withdrew in February 1989, many predicted that the Soviet-sponsored regime would collapse quickly, yet it survived for over three more years. After the U.S.-led Coalition routed the Taliban in 2001 with a modest number of special operations and conventional forces working with indigenous Afghan and using airpower, the U.S. expected an end to the war. Yet, the Taliban revived, and the war continues. Now, after the longest peace talks in a long war, some are predicting an end to the war that leads to peace. There is much to be done, and much that can happen before peace breaks out.

A number of fables also blur the facts about Afghanistan, as the Afghan war is not necessarily America’s longest war[1] nor is Afghanistan the graveyard of empires, although Afghanistan has indeed proven easier to invade than to pacify. Contrary to the myth of being an ungovernable place, Afghanistan has been governable when governance has been compatible with its culture, as for almost 50 years before the 1978 April Revolution, the country saw more peace than the U.S. and Europe during the same period.

Yet, war itself defies certainty and prediction because it is a complex, social, and violent interaction that sees rationality, non-rationality, and irrationality escalate and reciprocate.  To be sure, for any war, there are so many variables interacting at so many levels that the outcome is impossible to predict with certainty. Add to this the petulance and impetuosity currently manifested in the American polity, and it should be clear that the details and the devil loom in the future talks.

Facts about the Long War – Tactics versus Strategy and How It Became Endless War

“The key to success remains sustained military pressure against the Taliban.” -December 2018 Defense Department 1225 Report, “Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan.”

One epic problem that helps explain the long hard war in Afghanistan is evident in the quote above from the recent Defense Department report. The emphasis on sustaining military pressure through actions and tactics derives from America’s and its military’s propensity for tactics and action over strategy in the wars after 9/11. Since the Vietnam War, senior American civilian and military leaders have often neglected the key idea from Clausewitz, that in war military means cannot be divorced from political objectives and that the latter drive the former, guiding and communicating the logic of strategy to the grammar of violence. War’s purpose is to fulfill policy with the means of violence, not the other way around. Strikes and raids that kill or capture enemy leaders do disrupt Islamist militant groups like the Taliban, but their effects are impermanent, not decisive.  Military actions can bring pressure and operational momentum they but do not amount to strategic momentum if they do not bridge the political object of the war and the violence with the logic of strategy.

In the immediate aftermath of 11 September 2001, the horror and grief engendered by those attacks animated the collective will of the U.S. Government, its armed forces, and its people, in theory, to employ the means necessary to achieve the political end of punishing the al-Qaeda leadership, removing the Taliban regime that provided al-Qaeda with sanctuary, and preventing Afghanistan from becoming a sanctuary for al-Qaeda and similar ilk ever again. The problem was, however, that the American senior leadership after 9/11 emphasized the military action over political ends in Afghanistan, and so in the rush to respond to the attacks, the how and the what replaced the why and to what end. U.S. senior leaders did not fully analyze or appreciate how to align the violence they could undertake with policy objectives that aligned with a peace featuring a stable Afghanistan inhospitable to al-Qaeda and other like-minded terrorists.

The Bush administration found the very idea of rebuilding Afghanistan (nation-building was a reviled term in the Rumsfeld Pentagon) abhorrent and instead targeted individual senior al-Qaeda leaders and terrorists for killing and capturing. For at least the first half-decade in Afghanistan, the U.S. depended too heavily on warlords, accommodated unscrupulous Afghan leaders, used air power indiscriminately, and killed too many non-combatants. All of this unjustly wronged many Afghans and catalyzed support among a number of Pashtun Afghans for the revival of the Taliban.

To make things worse, Team Bush committed strategic malfeasance by choosing to invade Iraq out of ignorance and arrogance, only to create a quagmire. As a result, Afghanistan became a secondary and poorly resourced effort for the U.S., with a limited number of special operations and conventional forces conducting strikes and raids to kill or capture key leaders. There were too few troops and too little resources committed to address the challenges of stabilizing the country. During the middle of the last decade when the U.S. was mired in Iraq, security gaps developed in the east and south of Afghanistan. Pakistan filled those gaps with its two favorite Islamist surrogates, the Taliban and the Haqqanis.

The U.S. leadership was then also unwilling or unable to either understand, or coerce or compel, the other real enemies who had directly or indirectly aided and abetted the Taliban regime and its al-Qaeda brethren in Afghanistan. Physical sanctuary, material, recruits, funds, and ideology flowed from Pakistan while funds and ideology from Saudi Arabia and other sponsors helped mobilize insurgents and terrorists in South Asia for decades. Pakistan continued to provide all of the above means of support to the Taliban and other militants after the Taliban fled to Pakistan in late 2001 and early 2002.

The Obama administration tried to focus resources on Afghanistan with a measured and prudent approach to strategy. It undertook a laudable but insufficient effort to align means to the political object by crafting a theory of strategic victory for Afghanistan with the surge that began in 2009. But Pakistan’s malign yet predictable strategic conduct, coupled with an American inability to muster the creativity, resources and coercive measures to curb Pakistan’s pathological proclivities, accounted for the gap between the theory and the practice.  After years of a limited number of troops conducting tactical strikes and raids, the Obama administration’s strategy and surge in troops made discernible operational gains but these were fleeting because the strategy failed to effect the sine qua non of the Taliban, Pakistan’s support and sanctuary.

Facts about The Stalemate – Sanctuary and Support Prevent the Taliban’s Defeat

“We either address the sanctuary and win the war, or we don’t and lose the war.  It is that simple.” – CIA Station Chief, Kabul, 2011[2]

“The current military situation in Afghanistan remains at an impasse.” – December 2018 Defense Department 1225 Report, “Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan.”

The sanctuary problem quoted above mainly explains the military impasse cited from the recent U.S. report. This is the second epic problem that has plagued and protracted the Afghan War. It stems from Pakistan’s long-ingrained strategic propensity for exporting Islamist militants as an instrument of policy. In other words, the stalemate is of Pakistan’s design. Pakistan has sustained the stalemate by its use of Islamist proxies in the form of the Taliban and the Haqqani Network, and imposed a strategic paradox on the Coalition because of an asymmetry of will and means. It has persistently used its means – a deep pool of zealous Islamist militants – to prevent the Taliban’s defeat, to protract the war, to erode the will of the West and its Afghan allies, and to make their means irrelevant.

Unsurprisingly, the recent U.S. report from last December again identifies the unfettered support and sanctuary that the Taliban receive from Pakistan as one of the most significant impediments to ending the war successfully (p. 24-25). It notes that “an externally enabled and resilient insurgency” and the “highest regional concentration of terrorist groups in the world” continue to pose an existential threat to Afghanistan (p. 23-24). A decade of Defense Department reports similarly attest that the Taliban and the Haqqani network, along with a host of other Islamist terrorist groups, benefit from the sanctuary in Pakistan. The report from December recognizes the Haqqanis as an continuously integral part of the Taliban’s effort to pressure the Afghan government in Kabul and eastern Afghanistan. What’s more, Sirajuddin Haqqani’s role as a Taliban deputy probably increased Haqqani influence within the Taliban leadership, and resulted in an increase in Haqqani influence to areas outside its normal operating areas of Paktika, Paktiya, and Khost provinces in eastern Afghanistan (p. 29). The Taliban, the Haqqani network, and other Islamist militants continue to carry out high-profile attacks in Kabul and elsewhere to generate the perception of prevalent insecurity and “undermine the legitimacy of the Afghan government.”

It has boiled down to an asymmetry in what the main actors, the U.S., the Afghan government, Pakistan and the Taliban, seek to achieve in Afghanistan, what value they ascribe to it, and what they will pay in time, costs, and sacrifices to achieve it.  For the Taliban, it is existential and it is about their survival. For Afghanistan and its security forces it is likewise existential. In Pakistan’s case, it is about history, proximity, and perception, as Pakistan perceives its policy of asserting control and influence over Afghanistan as existential through the filters of its strategic culture. From its inception, Pakistan’s existential postulation was to oppose India and to revise the regional status quo through the export of Islamist militant proxies. This pathological tendency provided meaning and purpose for Pakistan’s political elites and its security establishment, and its civilian populace cohered behind it. Pakistan’s preference for Islamist terrorists is a strategic-cultural attribute. Six decades of experience in cultivating and using Islamist militants have deepened this propensity, where the export of jihad has become central to Pakistani strategy[3]. But for the U.S., though a stable Afghanistan inhospitable to the likes of al-Qaeda is important as a measure to help prevent another 9/11, it is not vital or existential. For the U.S., the war is limited in purpose and means so the value of the political object it seeks is low relative to the Taliban and Pakistan. According to Clausewitz, the value of the object effects the costs and sacrifices a polity is willing to pay in magnitude and duration of a war. The value relates directly to political will and the costs of Afghanistan seem to have exceeded the value of the object for America.

Conversely, for the Taliban and Pakistan, the value of the object is high and there is therefore an asymmetry of political will vis-à-vis the U.S. The Taliban are willing to pay the costs in magnitude and duration because the U.S. has lacked the will to impose higher costs on Pakistan. Therefore, even as Pakistan is supporting the peace talks, it sustains the Taliban as they continue to attack and bomb its targets in Afghanistan, like the devastating attack on the Afghan intelligence service’s base in Wardak last month.

Revising and Renouncing the Ends And The Means

“Our troops will fight to win. We will fight to win. From now on, victory will have a clear definition.  Terrorists take heed: America will never let up until you are dealt a lasting defeat.” –  U.S. president’s August 2017 speech announcing new Afghanistan Strategy

“I have seen much war in my lifetime and I hate it profoundly. But there are worse things than war; and all of them come with defeat.” – Ernest Hemingway

“Some places are relatively forgiving of strategic incoherence.  Afghanistan is not one of them.”  – Alex Marshall and Tim Bird[4]

Since the beginning of this administration’s tenure in 2017, the executive branch has flipped and flopped in major ways a number of times. The president came into office wanting to get out of Afghanistan altogether. Then in August 2017, he heeded the advice of his most experienced and knowledgeable senior national security principals and announced a strategy with a commitment to a win in Afghanistan. The commitment was highlighted by the increase of about 3,500 U.S. forces – to a total of over 14,000 – to advise and assist the Afghan security forces. NATO countries also contributed additional troops, bringing the total number of Coalition troops in Afghanistan to more than 21,000. Beyond the strategic imperative to find a regional solution that would reduce external support for the Taliban, this approach re-aligned the increase in troops to advise more tactical units, to continue to double the Afghan special security forces and to expand the Afghan air force, all toward overmatching the Taliban in the fighting.  This idea is that this increased capacity can build military pressure and operational momentum against the Taliban to convince them to reconcile with the Afghan government.  Regional pressure would theoretically reduce the effects of sanctuary.

However, at the end of 2018, the chief executive announced, apparently without consulting his Defense Secretary, that the U.S. would withdraw half of its 14,000 troops in Afghanistan. No orders yet exist for a withdrawal and no troops are yet withdrawing but if America does withdraw 7,000 troops this year it will be before the previously-announced conditions-based strategy have would time to be realized. Two corollary conditions are that the Afghan security forces are strong enough to deny Afghanistan as sanctuary for terrorists and that there is a political settlement with the Taliban, requiring the latter to have rejected the support or use of terrorism. These two conditions would be central to the aim of securing a stable South Asia that cannot be used to plan and support terrorist attacks against the U.S. homeland or its allies. The unpredictability engendered by Afghanistan, war, the peace talks, and the ill-advised announcement of a withdrawal all combine to promise much uncertainty still.

The previously announced and stated political object from August 2017 through most of 2018 had been to win in Afghanistan. This offered some reason for optimism since it was a contrast to the previous policies, which seemed to be simply not to lose. Another reason for optimism from August 2017 through most of 2018 was that the strategy was based on conditions on the ground being met, not arbitrary timelines. The surge was tied to a rigid timeline that was not congruent with meeting the necessary conditions on the ground. The Coalition’s operational campaign and presence in Afghanistan have some advantages that can weigh on the peace talks, the negotiated agreement, and the potential peace. It is prudent to continue to strengthen the Afghan Special Security Forces, build the capacity of the Afghan Air Force, and improve the other security forces by continuing to sustain and employ the current number of advisers with tactical units that do the fighting until the negotiations see some serious results. The presence of advisors has a positive influence on the Afghan security forces and will provide more negotiating weight than hastily withdrawing half, or even one quarter, of the 14, 000 U.S. troops now helping sustain pressure on the Taliban. The operational approach should allow the Afghan security forces to win more battles against the Taliban and sustain operational momentum that will help sway key decisions and conditions during the future peace negotiations.

A mutual and comprehensive ceasefire should be at least one precondition for any withdrawal of U.S. or Coalition troops because impulsive withdrawals translate to less leverage in the talks. A premature withdrawal would yield the necessary leverage to negotiate from a relative position of strength and it would signal a lack of will to verify and enforce any agreement. In addition, the Taliban and the Afghan security forces continue to wage war on the ground. The fighting on the ground is an instrument of the belligerents’ policies and the current level of Coalition force and advisors help sustain and improve the Afghan security forces capacity to generally outfight Taliban in heavily populated areas. Given that Afghanistan is the most permissive theater of war for the U.S. forces and the best platform for counter-terrorism efforts against the very Islamist groups that helped start the war, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, retaining the platform and the capacity for the long-term should be on the table to guarantee that Afghanistan does not become a welcome sanctuary for al-Qaeda.

But what would a real win look like in Afghanistan? A win would see a durable Afghan state, with the government, the security forces and the population aligned against a marginalized or reconciled Taliban. A policy to genuinely win would require a strategy that aligned U.S. and Coalition political will, intellectual capital, and capacity to defeat the enemy’s strategy. This means that for any strategy to have had held a chance of success, it should have focused on taking away the main sources of strength that allowed the Taliban to continue fighting for over 17 years. Pakistan’s sanctuary and support are the sources of strength without which the Taliban would not have survived until now. The modest increase in troops during the last year along with the strategy announced in August 2017 was not enough to break the strategic stalemate without any alteration in Pakistan’s strategic malice.

Furthermore, reconciliation with the Taliban in Afghanistan will be a seemingly implausible goal if the withdrawal goes forward and the peace agreement does not demand or enforce verification and compliance. The principal goal of the South Asia Strategy restated in the December report is to end the war in Afghanistan on terms favorable to Afghanistan and the United States to achieve a durable and inclusive political settlement to the war. These stated aims seemed to have evolved into something more fungible than the talk of winning in the president’s speech of 21 August 2017 that announced his then new strategy. With the president’s unstaffed announcement late last year of withdrawing half the American forces from Afghanistan and with peace talks underway, the negotiated political settlement and its consequences will now possibly engender something less than unambiguous success.


Until now the Taliban have adamantly and obdurately refused to talk to, reconcile with, or integrate with the existing government of Afghanistan. They view it as illegitimate and they did not want to join it but to take over because they see themselves as the legitimate Islamic government to institute and enforce sharia law. Until now they have also not renounced al-Qaeda or their collusion and support of other terrorists. The Haqqanis, an integral part of the Taliban, still remain on the U.S. State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. And, importantly, the Taliban still want a complete withdrawal of U.S. and Coalition forces before they will commit to a ceasefire.

For achieving peace, the current American approach and presence in Afghanistan would bring advantages on several fronts. The U.S.-led Coalition should retain this leverage to verify and enforce a peace. These are practical factors that argue in favor of sustaining the command and the force levels in both advisors and counterterrorism elements to ensure that Afghanistan does not fail. The existing Afghan government and its security forces do welcome and need the U.S. and its allies’ help to grow and improve. Though imperfect, the government and its security forces are working with the American-led Coalition toward common purposes of securing populated areas and bringing pressure to bear on the Taliban as well as denying sanctuary for other extremists.

The long war in Afghanistan has entered its the fifth month of its eighteenth year this month. For war to end in success and a better peace, ends must drive means, not the other way around. The value of the political objective, or the worth of the ends sought, determines how long and what costs the U.S. should be willing to pay. The value of what the U.S. sought in Afghanistan related directly to America’s willingness to pay the costs in time and magnitude to prevail in war and bring about a successful outcome. The duration of the war and the magnitude of the sacrifices and costs now seem to have exceeded the value of the original political objective so the U.S. may settle for something less by suing for peace with the enemy undefeated on the battlefield.

Now, the war in Afghanistan and the talks for ending will not be a win, but a qualified conclusion. One best case now for ending the war seems to be settling for a draw and a peace with some hope of enduring. A worst case would not be entirely dissimilar to the end of the Vietnam War where the delusion was peace with honor and a decent interval, yet the reality ended up being a peace with dishonor and an indecent interval between withdrawal and defeat.  The North Vietnamese forces took Saigon just over two years after the conclusion of the Paris Peace Accords in January 1973.


NB: This article does not reflect the views of any of the institutions with which the author is associated.

[1] See George Herring’s America’s Longest War and Bruce Palmer’s The 25-Year War

[2] Steve Coll, Directorate S. p. 536.  New York, NY: Penguin Press, 2018.  This quote was in his briefings to Congressional delegations that explained the single biggest obstacle to a successful outcome for the war in Afghanistan.

[3] S. Paul Kapur, Jihad as Grand Strategy, p.p. 32-50.  New York, NY:  Oxford University Press, 2017.

[4] Alex Marshall and Tim Bird. Afghanistan: How the West Lost its Way, p. 6.  New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press, 2011.

“How Did Afghanistan Become a War Without End?”

War is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means.

Its grammar, indeed, may be its own, but not its logic. If that is so, then war cannot be divorced from political life; and whenever this occurs in our thinking about war, the many links that connect the two elements are destroyed and we are left with something pointless and devoid of sense.

Since war is not an act of senseless passion but is controlled by its political object, the value of this object must determine the sacrifices to be made for it in magnitude and also in duration. Once the expenditure of effort exceeds the value of the political object, the object must be renounced and peace must follow.

– Carl von Clausewitz

The war in Afghanistan hit the seventeen-year mark for the United States and its partners this month. Soldiers in the US-led coalition have been fighting and killing and dying for almost eight years longer than the Soviets occupied Afghanistan. The reasons for this protracted stalemate are manifold, but the momentum that would bring the war in Afghanistan to an end remains elusive in large part because the coalition has until now been unable to link the grammar of war to the political object it seeks. For the logic of strategy to work, ends should drive means, not the other way around. The value of the political object, or the worth of the ends sought, determines how long and what costs the United States should be willing to pay. In Afghanistan, if those political goals are articulated clearly, their worth should relate directly to the will of the US polity to persevere in the war to a successful end.

How the Seventeen-Year War Happened

In the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001, the horror, devastation, and anguish engendered by those attacks animated the collective will of the US government, its armed forces, and its people, in theory, to employ the means necessary to achieve the object of punishing the al-Qaeda perpetrators, removing the Taliban regime that afforded al-Qaeda sanctuary, and preventing Afghanistan from becoming a sanctuary for terrorists ever again. With almost three thousand dead and the unprecedented destruction of key buildings and symbols of US power, Americans perceived the value of the object to be very high.

The problem was, however, that the American senior leadership after 9/11 emphasized the means over the ends in Afghanistan, and so in the urgency to respond to the attacks, the how and what replaced the why and to what end. During the years following the 9/11 attacks, US senior leaders did not fully analyze or understand how to align the actions the country could undertake with ends that involved peace and a stable Afghanistan inhospitable to al-Qaeda. The Bush administration opposed the notion of nation building and focused instead on targeting individuals for killing and capturing. For the first several years, the United States relied too heavily on warlords, tolerated venal Afghan leadership, and employed air power indiscriminately, thus inadvertently killing civilians. All of this aggrieved many Afghans and pushed some into support for a resurgent insurgency.

What’s more, after the ill-conceived invasion of Iraq, Afghanistan turned into a secondary and poorly resourced effort for the United States, with a limited number of special operations and conventional forces conducting strikes and raids to kill or capture key leaders. There was a dearth of troops and resources committed to addressing the challenge of stabilizing the country. During the middle of the aughts, when the United States was mired in Iraq, there were vacuums of security in the east and south of Afghanistan. Pakistan helped the Taliban fill those vacuums.

The US leadership was also unable or unwilling to comprehend or to ruthlessly go after other real enemies who directly or indirectly aided and abetted the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other groups like the Haqqani network in Afghanistan. Physical sanctuary, materiel, recruits, funds, and ideology emanated from Pakistan, adding to funds and ideology that had flowed from Saudi Arabia and other sponsors into South Asia for decades.

After seventeen years of war in Afghanistan the number of Afghan security force deaths is over thirty-eight thousand, the number of Afghan civilian deaths is over thirty thousand, and the number of US combat deaths in the country, so far, is just over twenty-four hundred. The monetary cost of the war in Afghanistan to the United States has been about $1 trillion. As the eighteenth year of war for the US-led coalition in Afghanistan concludes its first month, it remains stalemated. Afghan security forces, with US advisors, continue to contest the Taliban for influence and control over key population areas, mainly but not exclusively in the east and the south—where the principally Pashtun Taliban sustain an intense and existential insurgency on the Afghan side of the Pashtun Belt, near their sanctuary on the other side of the Durand Line, in Pakistan. Just last week, in what was possibly their boldest and significant actions of the war, the Taliban attacked a group of senior Afghan and American officials in Kandahar, killing the provincial chief of police and chief of intelligence. Unprecedentedly in this war, the senior US military commander in Afghanistan was among the group. He was uninjured but it was arguably the closest call of the senior US commanders to date.

Can We Win?

The stated policy objective of the current administration since August 2017 has been to win in Afghanistan. This offers some reason for optimism since it contrasts to the previous policies, which evolved through various stages but were never articulated with sufficient clarity and thus largely amounted to simply seeking not to lose. But what would a win look like in Afghanistan?

A win would be a durable Afghan state, with the government, the security forces, and the population aligned against a marginalized or reconciled Taliban. Another reason to be a bit more sanguine is that this current strategy is based on conditions on the ground being met, not arbitrary timelines. The strategy called for an increase of about thirty-five hundred US forces—bring the total to over fourteen thousand—to advise and assist the Afghan security forces. NATO countries are also contributing additional troops, increasing the total number of coalition troops in Afghanistan to more than twenty-one thousand.

This modest increase in troops isn’t enough to break the strategic stalemate. However, it will support growing the elite Afghan Special Security Forces, building the capacity of the Afghan Air Force, and improving the other security forces by employing more advisers with tactical units that do the fighting. That should allow the Afghan security forces to win more battles against the Taliban and gather marked operational momentum that will complement efforts to alter Pakistan’s harmful strategic proclivities.

Perhaps most significantly, the current year-old strategy stipulates that “we must see fundamental changes in the way Pakistan deals with terrorist safe-havens in its territory” for the strategy to gain momentum. The United States did start withholding funds from Pakistan with more seriousness this year, but withholding funds is not nearly good enough to bring the required change, and is woefully disproportionate to the years of Pakistan’s odious actions. Pakistan has not stopped its support of terrorists and insurgents in Afghanistan in any measurable ways. Pakistan sustains the Taliban, and the sanctuary it provides the group explains the stalemate.

Until America’s senior leaders show the ruthlessness to publicly avow the dire strategic impediments that Pakistan’s duplicity causes, and summon the will to bring about the end of sanctuaries, Afghanistan’s war will not end. But there are major obstacles to doing so in the unified, whole-of-government fashion required. For example, the Department of Defense’s and Department of State’s perspectives on Afghanistan and terrorism diverge in significant ways. DoD reports, including the most recent one, attest that the Taliban and the Haqqani network, along with a host of other Islamist terrorist groups, benefit from sanctuary in Pakistan. The reports observe that the highest regional concentration of terrorist groups in the world exists in Pakistan and threatens Afghanistan.

The most recent State Department report on terrorism does identify the Haqqani network as one of the dozen foreign terrorist organizations operating out of Pakistan. But, what strains credulity is that it does not name Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism. The Haqqani network is Pakistan’s and its Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate’s favorite proxy for launching the most grisly and lethal attacks in Afghanistan. The time has long since come to employ punitive measures aimed at those institutions and individuals in Pakistan that advise and fund the Taliban and the Haqqani network. Pakistan is one of the most egregious state sponsors of Islamist terrorists. Being more pointed and tough, by designating Pakistan as the state sponsor of terrorism that it is, would be a clear measure and signal that America is resolved to see this war through to a successful outcome.

War, therefore, is an act of policy. Were it a complete, untrammeled, absolute manifestation of violence, war would of its own independent will usurp the place of policy the moment policy had brought it into being; it would then drive policy out of office and rule by the laws of its own nature.

 Carl von Clausewitz

It seems that since the Vietnam War senior American civilian and military leaders have often ignored the key idea from Clausewitz—that in war military objectives cannot be divorced from political purposes, and the ultimate directives and decisions on the aims in war reside with the senior political leaders of the state. Strikes and raids that kill or capture enemy leaders do disrupt and impede Islamist militant groups like the Taliban and the Haqqani network, but their effects are impermanent, elusive. Strikes and raids interdict and suppress Taliban infrastructure but they are not decisive and do not amount to strategy or strategic momentum.

In theory, we fight wars to fulfill a political purpose and to achieve objectives by aligning the means and methods of war toward that purpose. In theory, the purpose of war is a better peace. And while, ideally, there is no difference between the theory and practice of war, as history has shown repeatedly, there almost always is. The purpose of war is to serve policy. Unchecked by reason, unguided by policy, the nature of war is to serve itself. When war and violence serve each other, absent strategy, it is perpetual killing and violence serving more violence and killing.

War and violence decoupled from strategy and policy—or worse yet, mistaken for strategy and policy—have contributed to war without end in Afghanistan. In its wars since September 11, 2001, the United States has accrued some of the most capable, best equipped, and exceedingly seasoned combat forces in remembered history. They attack, win battles, execute raids, and conduct strikes with great nimbleness and adroitness. But absent strategy, these tactical and operational successes where our forces assault compounds to kill or capture insurgents and terrorists are fleeting. Divorced from political objectives, successful tactics are without enduring meaning. Stating that there is a new strategy for Afghanistan does not necessarily mean that there is a strategy that is being implemented in the necessary and comprehensive way.

For seventeen years the United States has been consistently and explicitly demanding that Pakistan stop supporting Islamist terrorists against America, Afghanistan, and other states. Pakistan’s continued support for the Taliban is the biggest strategic impediment to a successful conclusion of the war. A policy to win requires a strategy that aligns political will, intellectual capital, and capacity to defeat the enemy’s strategy. Political will relates directly to the ends sought whereas capacity relates to the means each belligerent employs. Intellectual capital is required to align the means and ends with a strategy that will end the war and bring peace at the costs in time and magnitude acceptable and commensurate with the value ascribed to the policy. In other words, how much is the United States willing to pay to avoid another 9/11-like attack by preventing Afghanistan from becoming a sanctuary again?

For a strategy to work, it must focus on taking away the main sources of strength that allow the Taliban to continue fighting. Those are things without which the insurgency would wither. A win requires beating back Taliban capacity in Afghanistan and taking away the will of the insurgency by stopping the states and nonstate groups that provide material, ideological, and sanctuary support. Pakistan is the state that provides most support to the Taliban. Pakistan’s sanctuary and support are the sources of strength without which the Taliban will not survive.


“How Did Afghanistan Become a War Without End?”  Modern War Institute. October 2018.  https://mwi.usma.edu/afghanistan-become-war-without-end/

“No, the war in Afghanistan isn’t a hopeless stalemate.”

“No, the war in Afghanistan isn’t a hopeless stalemate.  The Conversation.  May 2018.


The war in Afghanistan has become so protracted that it warrants the epithet the “Groundhog Day War.”

Fighting has gone on for nearly 17 years, with U.S. troops in Afghanistan seven years longer than the Soviets were.

The U.S. leadership claims to have a strategy for victory even as warm weather brings in yet another “fighting season” and new rounds of deadly violence in Kabul.

Sixteen years and seven months of violence, loss, sacrifice and significant investment, without victory, is alarming – but is it without hope?

As a scholar of Afghanistan and strategy and a soldier who has served four tours in the country, I’d like to explore both the apparent stalemate and the reasons for harboring hope of an eventual resolution.

The ‘Groundhog War’

In terms of fighting battles and taking ground, momentum in the war in Afghanistan has ebbed back and forth from the coalition formed by the U.S., NATO and Afghan troops to the Islamist insurgents who call themselves the Taliban, or “the students.”

The two sides see gains and losses each year, until colder weather diminishes their ability to fight until the following spring. As the weather warms up, the pattern repeats itself. This story is told by 10 years of U.S. Department of Defense reports on Afghanistan that are required every six months by Congress.

Of course, it’s impossible to identify simple reasons for the failure to win something as complex as a war. Early on, the coalition and its Afghan partners lacked a strategy and a willingness to help rebuild the country after decades of war among Afghans, Russians, the Mujihadeen – and ultimately the Taliban – made Afghanistan one of the most damaged and destitute countries on the planet.

The Bush administration reviled the notion of nation-building, focusing instead on targeting individuals for killing and capturing. For the first several years, the U.S. relied too heavily on warlords, tolerated venal Afghan leadership and employed air power indiscriminately, thus inadvertently killing civilians. All of this aggrieved many Afghans.

Still, none of those missteps were decisive. Rather, I would argue that the war has dragged on for one overarching reason – Pakistan’s support for the Taliban.

The proof is in years of those Department of Defense reports.

A place to run and hide

The November 2013 report stated that Pakistan provides physical sanctuary to the Taliban leadership and that sanctuary is “a major factor preventing their decisive defeat.” It reported, Taliban “insurgents that attack Coalition forces continue to operate from Pakistan.” What’s more, most of the materials required to sustain the conflict, and “emanating from Pakistan,” remained significant.

Nothing had changed three years later when, at the end of 2016, yet another report noted that the Taliban – including the senior leadership of the lethal Haqqani clan that excels at high-profile terrorist attacks – had retained sanctuary inside Pakistan.

The December 2017 report affirmed “the externally supported Haqqani Network remains the greatest threat to Afghan, U.S., and Coalition forces.”

In testimony before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, General Joe Votel, the commander of U.S. Central Command expressed concerns about the Haqqani network, saying it “poses the greatest threat to Coalition forces operating in Afghanistan.”

Of course, Pakistan’s security establishment consistently and eloquently denies all this.

Afghan protesters hold a banner that reads ‘ISI clear enemy,’ during a demonstration in Kabul in 2011. ISI stands for Inter-Services Intelligence, part of the Pakistani Army.
 AP Photo/Musadeq Sadeq

Too much tactics

A corollary explanation for the stalemate is America’s tendency to focus on strikes and operations without necessarily linking those operations to the ultimate desired outcome: peace and stability.

This was the case 30 years ago when the U.S. was supporting the Mujahideen during the Soviet-Afghan War, and it was the case with Rumsfeld’s Pentagon from the beginning years of the war in Afghanistan.

After the ill-conceived invasion of Iraq, Afghanistan turned into a secondary and underresourced effort for the U.S. with a limited number of special operations and conventional forces conducting strikes and raids to kill or capture key leaders. There was a dearth of troops and resources committed to address the challenge of stabilizing the country.

The biannual defense department reports tell this story too. They tend to quantify the number of tactical actions – rather than assessing their effectiveness. While strikes that kill or capture enemy leaders do disrupt and damage the Taliban, their effects are fleeting, not decisive. They do not bring strategic momentum.

Not hopeless

However, with the change in policy last August, there is cause for hope.

The stated policy of the current administration is to win in Afghanistan. This contrasts to the previous policy, which was simply not to lose.

But what would winning look like?

A win, according to a definition worked out during my tours as an adviser to senior military leaders, would be a durable Afghan state, with the government, the security forces and the population aligned against a marginalized Taliban.

Another reason for hope is that this new strategy is based on conditions on the ground being met, not arbitrary timelines. The strategy calls for an increase of about 3,500 U.S. forces – to a total of over 14,000 – to advise and assist the Afghan security forces. NATO countries are also contributing additional troops, bringing the total number of Coalition troops in Afghanistan to more than 21,000.

This modest increase in troops isn’t enough to break the strategic stalemate. However, it will support growing the Afghan Special Security Forces, building the capacity of the Afghan Air Force and improving the other security forces by employing more advisers with tactical units that do the fighting. That should allow the Afghan security forces to win more battles against the Taliban and gather marked operational momentum that will complement efforts to alter Pakistan’s harmful strategic proclivities.

Perhaps most notably, the new strategy avows that “we must see fundamental changes in the way Pakistan deals with terrorist safe-havens in its territory” for the strategy to gain momentum.

Of course, just stating that there is a new strategy does not necessarily mean the strategy is working. In mid-January 2018, America’s U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, stated that Afghanistan peace talks are closer than ever before. Days later, the Haqqani network attacked the Kabul Intercontinental Hotel, killing at least 30 people. Less than a week later, the Haqqani network murdered more than 100 people by detonating an explosive-laden ambulance in a crowded section of Kabul. Two more complex suicide attacks followed in April. And in early May, Islamist militants attacked a voter registration site in Khost Province, killing over 17 and wounding more than 30. Khost is next to the Haqqani sanctuary in Pakistan.

Since 9/11, the United States has explicitly stipulated that Pakistan must cease support to extremist and terrorist groups. Diplomacy and US$33 billion in aid since 2002 have not brought a change in Pakistan’s conduct. Some have suggested that withholding aid from Pakistan is a step in the right direction. Withholding funds is not nearly good enough to compel accountability, nor to punish Pakistan for years of odious actions. Pakistan has not stopped its support of terrorists and insurgents in Afghanistan in any fundamental way. It is time to consider responding with punitive, lethal measures aimed at institutions in Pakistan that directly advise and fund the Taliban and the Haqqani network.

Some may wonder why it’s necessary to persist in this war – and not just bring the U.S. involvement in it to an end.

Practically speaking, Afghanistan represents an excellent base for combating Islamist terrorists in that region of the world.

But there is also an ethical argument for seeing the war through to a successful end. Afghanistan has been the good war of the post-9/11 wars. The United States went to war there for the right reasons – defeating al-Qaida, the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks, and removing the Taliban regime that provided sanctuary to al-Qaida. Although imperfectly carried out, the coalition also attempted to fight a just war by avoiding the killing of civilians. It would be fair to argue that it is a moral imperative that the U.S. not quit on a commitment to its Afghan allies in a war against externally directed murderous Islamists.


“No, the war in Afghanistan isn’t a hopeless stalemate.  The Conversation.  May 2018.


“The Illusion of Strategy in Afghanistan: No Change in Pakistan’s Malice”

“The Illusion of Strategy in Afghanistan:  No Change in Pakistan’s Malice.”  The Globalist.  January 2018. https://www.theglobalist.com/united-states-afghanistan-war-pakistan-taliban/

“Strategy is not always an illusion, but it often is.” 
(Richard Betts)

“The key to peace for the entire region lies with Pakistan.” 

(Ahmed Rashid)

As 2018 begins, Pakistan has not stopped its support of terrorists and insurgents in Afghanistan, and elsewhere, in any fundamental ways.

America and its Coalition partners have now been at war in Afghanistan for six years longer than the Soviets were at war in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan: A protracted stalemate

There are a number of reasons why the war in Afghanistan is a protracted stalemate, but a huge one lies in the delusion that portrayed Pakistan as a friend and, until now, impaired clear-eyed thinking about a strategy for Pakistan.

The reason for the stalemate is the support and sanctuary that the Pakistani security establishment has continued to provide to the enemies of the Afghans, Americans and the Coalition partners.

Pakistan is nominally a U.S. major non-NATO ally that receives all the benefits that this status confers. But the reality is that Pakistan comports itself like a malicious and mendacious enemy to America and to Afghanistan.

The Pakistani Army and its Inter Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) continue to collude with the Taliban and the Haqqani network, preventing their defeat and prolonging the stalemate.

Pakistan’s continued perfidy and America’s years of naïve neglect have seen Pakistan’s senior leadership deny and lie with shameless impunity about its support for the Taliban and other Islamist militants in Afghanistan.

This is why there is a protracted stalemate and this portends either no end, or a bad end to the war in Afghanistan. This is not a secret. It is stated in unclassified form for anyone to read in years of U.S. Department of Defense and NATO reports on the war in Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s machinations and America’s delusions

There are many astute South Asia scholars and journalists who have written books about Pakistan’s machinations and America’s delusions about Pakistan. Myriad titles and works ring true about Pakistan’s role and the prospects for stability and peace in Afghanistan.

A number of such works prompted this article, which distils insights from several works and titles to paint the grave picture that is Pakistan’s strategic duplicity, and America’s strategic illusion in presuming it can alter Pakistan’s conduct without fully investing itself in a regional strategy.

Magnificent Delusions

In the aptly titled Magnificent Delusions, a former ambassador of Pakistan to the United States offers an incisive view of the long relationship between Pakistani senior deluders and the deluded senior interlocutors from the United States.

The relations between the United States and Pakistan constitute a saga of false promises, mismanaged expectations and disastrous betrayals. Husain Haqqani notes that in the history of American-Pakistani relations, the United States’ rationale for seeking an alliance with Pakistan has differed from Pakistan’s reasons for wanting an alliance.

Pakistan’s purpose for the relationship has always related to its geopolitical competition with India. The United States’ reasons for the relationship were related to the Cold War competition with the Soviets and then to the war against al Qaeda and the Taliban.

American and Pakistani interests were most aligned during the Soviet-Afghan War, yet they were still imperfect. Those interests were most misaligned after 9/11 when the United States sought Pakistan’s help to defeat the Taliban and al Qaeda, the same Islamist monsters that Pakistan created.

The Dark Side

In The Dark Side, Jane Mayer explores how the United States under the George W. Bush Administration, with the heavy influence of a frantic Cheney, and supported by ideologue lawyers, breached a host of international laws and norms.

The Bush Administration’s response to the 9/11 attacks was a massive over reaction that led it to authorize torture and to expand renditions significantly.

Ultimately exposed at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, the Bush team’s abominable transgressions of the international laws against inhumane treatment, combined with the colossally ill-advised and inept invasion of Iraq, to undermine U.S. security interests by catalyzing more support and recruits for its Islamist enemies.

Dark Side policies also helped catalyze the revival of the Taliban in Pakistan. The extralegal program engendered by the Bush team’s war against terrorists was a subversion of the U.S. rule of law. The torture policy did damage to the United States’ reputation and security that will take decades to reverse.

Cheney himself announced the Bush team’s self-destructive response to the attacks on the first Meet the Press after 9/11, when he said “we’ll have to work sort of the dark side, if you will.”

Deadly Embrace

Deadly Embrace describes the United States’ relationship with Pakistan and explores Pakistan’s disconcerting role in creating the global jihad movement.

Pakistan is the second largest Muslim country, the worst nuclear weapons technology proliferator, the single largest enclave for Islamist militants and the only country in the world with its capital named for Islam.

Author and long-time South Asia CIA veteran Bruce Riedel sees Pakistan as the epicenter and birthplace of global Islamist jihadists. He also describes Pakistan as a “crucible of terrorism” and “arguably the most dangerous country in the world.”

The war in Afghanistan should have ended in 2002 but instead Pakistan’s security establishment regenerated the Taliban and hosted the movement and its headquarters in Pakistan, along with myriad other Islamist terrorist groups.

The Pakistan Army and ISI continue to be longstanding patrons of Islamist militants like the Taliban and the Haqqanis, yet Pakistan has increasingly been a victim of the monsters it created.

The United States has helped make Pakistan fecund ground for growing Islamist movements by pursuing short-term interests and actions like supporting the most virulent strains of Islamists among the Mujihadeen and helping empower the ISI during the Soviet-Afghan War.

The Wrong Enemy

The Wrong Enemy examines how the United States’ policies and actions in response to the 9/11 attacks failed to focus on the correct enemy, Pakistan.

Carlotta Gall is a journalist with years of experience on the ground in South Asia. This book explores how the U.S.-led Coalition, instead of going after the real enemy of Pakistan, inadvertently and unwittingly made too many of the Afghan people its enemies as a consequence of attacks and strikes that the Coalition undertook because it did not understand Afghanistan.

By relying on too few forces, a dearth of quality intelligence and a surfeit of air power, for the first eight years of the war in Afghanistan, the United States and its Coalition partners bombed, killed, or imprisoned too many innocent Afghan men, women, and children.

From the beginning, the operational imperative in Afghanistan should have been, do no harm to the Afghan population. A big part of the explanation for the revival and return of the Taliban, along with the protracted stalemate that Pakistan’s regeneration of the Taliban created, lies in the fact that the United States mistakenly bombed too many Afghan civilians and invaded Iraq.

By attacking the wrong enemy, and not focusing on Pakistan, the true enemy, and an unequaled incubator for Islamist militants, the United States allowed and enabled Pakistan’s security establishment to resurrect the Taliban and destabilize Afghanistan.

The axis of evil was mistaken rhetoric and malfeasant strategy. Iraq was not a state sponsor of Islamist terrorists or a nuclear proliferator. But, Pakistan was, and continues to be, the biggest nuclear proliferator and a jihadist factory.

Descent into Chaos

Descent into Chaos looks at what happened in Afghanistan after the initial operational successes in 2001 and 2002.

Ahmed Rashid explores how a U.S. failure to understand the war in Afghanistan, the real enemy there, and itself, all contributed to Afghanistan’s Descent into Chaos again.

The book covers the poor decisions by the Bush team and heavy-handed actions on the ground to explain why Afghanistan and the world were generally less secure eight years after the 9/11 attacks.

Impetuous actions, in lieu of prudent strategy, saw the United States ignore what was needed to consolidate victory in Afghanistan by removing the root causes of instability, in favor of invading Iraq unnecessarily and creating the single biggest military disaster in U.S. history.

Rashid fully explores the role that Pakistan and its ISI played in resurrecting the Taliban. For example, he highlights that support, fuel, and supplies continued to flow from Pakistan into Afghanistan well after 9/11 and until late fall 2001 while the ISI and its Islamist allies in Pakistan welcomed the Taliban, al Qaeda, and other Islamist fighters fleeing Afghanistan into Pakistan during the same period.

Jihad as a Grand Strategy

Jihad as Grand Strategy delves into Pakistan’s strategic propensity for cultivating, exporting and employing Islamist militants to pursue its security policy in South Asia. A recurring theme in the ascendance of terrorism as an ever-present global threat is the disproportionate amount of terrorism that links back to Islamist militants in Pakistan.

Author Kapur’s central argument is that since its inception in 1947, Pakistan has employed Islamist militants for two main purposes, one external and one internal.

Externally, Pakistan had relied on Islamist militants to pursue its policy of revising the status quo by confronting India and asserting influence over Afghanistan.

Internally, Pakistan relies on its support of Islamist militancy to promote domestic cohesion and give the country meaning to compensate for the tumult and weak political foundations related to Partition. Pakistan realizes its essential purpose by supporting Islamists.

Fighting to the End

Fighting to the End complements Jihad as Grand Strategy. Instead of focusing on the strategic culture of Pakistan as a country, C. Christine Fair argues that the Pakistani Army’s organizational culture is a more salient explanation for Pakistan’s sponsorship of Islamist terrorists because it has been the Army that has dominated Pakistan’s foreign and security policy.

This idea relates to the adage that most countries have armies but the Pakistani Army has a state. One of the book’s central assertions is that the Pakistani Army is imbued with an obligation to defend Islam and employ Islamist militants to further Pakistan’s policy and interests to revise the status quo in South Asia.

This cultural preference stems from the way the Army perceives India as an enduringly existential threat, how it perceives itself as the principal protector of the Pakistan state as an Islamist bastion, and the Army’s interpretation of Partition as an unfinished outcome that disadvantaged the then nascent Pakistani state.

Playing with Fire

Finally, Playing with Fire portrays Pakistan as a national security state that is under siege by the same violent Islamist groups that it deliberately indulged.

The author, Pamela Constable, is a journalist with much experience on the ground in South Asia. Among this book’s relevant insights are that in Pakistan, “truth is an elusive and malleable commodity,” something that is ephemeral and politically fungible.

This book explores and explains why Pakistan has been unwilling and unable to check the growing menace and appeal of Islamist militant groups. Playing with Fire indicts Pakistan relentlessly for how Pakistan comports itself in international affairs, as Pakistani leaders consistently deny, deceive, and prevaricate about Pakistan’s machinations in Afghanistan and India.

As an example, Constable points to the Pakistani security elites’ persistent claims that Pakistan has no links to the Taliban or other Islamist terrorists. Yet, Pakistan’s cultivation of Islamist groups has gravely damaged Pakistan’s security and regional stability.

Some of the very Islamist terrorists that Pakistan created have been attacking Pakistan for years. It is analogous to an arsonist compelled to act as fireman for his own house that he lit on fire.


U.S. stated policy is to win in Afghanistan. In a pre-Christmas visit to Afghanistan this month, the vice president delivered a speech to troops, asserting that the administration’s strategy for Afghanistan would ultimately lead to victory.

But, for a winning strategy in Afghanistan, America must close the wide gap between theory and practice by marshaling all resources to compel Pakistan to stop supporting the Taliban.

The current U.S. Afghanistan strategy acknowledges that Pakistan’s support and sanctuary for the Taliban is a major obstacle to success.

Until the U.S.-led Coalition has a strategy that shuts down the sanctuary and factories for the Taliban in Pakistan, operational forces will continue to capture and kill Taliban and the Taliban will continue to regenerate and multiply, with a flow of Islamist militants into Afghanistan from the incubator-madrassas in Pakistan.

It is no wonder then that the West has not achieved strategic momentum in Afghanistan. Until Pakistan changes its malicious strategic behavior, strategy for Afghanistan will remain an illusion, and the war will continue, with no end in sight.

“Pakistan: Graveyard of Strategy”

“Certain extremist groups—such as the Taliban and the Haqqani Network—retain freedom of movement in Pakistan.”

“The externally supported Haqqani Network remains the greatest threat to Afghan, U.S., and coalition forces.”

“Afghanistan faces a continuing threat from this externally supported insurgency and the highest regional concentration of terrorist groups in the world.”

— Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan,
Department of Defense report, 2017

For any Afghanistan strategy, the gap between theory and practice will remain vast until the full host of resources is employed to prevail upon Pakistan to stop supporting the Haqqani Network and the Taliban. Until Pakistan stops harboring and employing its Islamist proxies against Afghanistan, the key points of US strategy for Afghanistan will remain essentially theoretical, impossible to implement in practice. The three direct quotes above are from the most recent US report on Afghanistan, Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan. The facts they convey, combined with two others—that the Haqqani Network is an integral part of the Taliban and that Pakistan is the external supporter of both—make Pakistan’s role in thwarting US strategy abundantly apparent.

This recent report also declares that “we must see fundamental changes in the way Pakistan deals with terrorist safe-havens in its territory” for the strategy to gain momentum. This same report avows that a key pillar of the new strategy is to hold accountable those states that support proxies who undermine stability in Afghanistan. Withholding funds is a good start, but it is not sufficient to force accountability, nor is it commensurate punishment for years of inimical and insidious actions. Pakistan is the single biggest supporter of Islamist militants that threaten Afghanistan. And yet, despite US pressure, Pakistan has not stopped its support of terrorists and insurgents in Afghanistan in any “fundamental” ways.

Stating that there is a new strategy for Afghanistan does not necessarily mean that there is a viable strategy. During a visit to Afghanistan in December 2017, Vice President Mike Pence told US service members that the current strategy for Afghanistan would ultimately lead to victory. In mid-January 2018, America’s UN ambassador, Nikki Haley, stated that the Afghanistan policy is working, asserting that peace talks are closer than ever before. Yet, just days after the UN ambassador’s sanguine claim of imminent peace, it seems that Pakistan’s favorite proxy, the Taliban’s Haqqani Network, attacked the Kabul Intercontinental Hotel, killing at least forty people. Less than a week after the attack on the hotel, yet again, the Haqqani Network, the Pakistani security establishment’s preferred Islamist terrorist group for exporting mayhem into Afghanistan, murdered over 100 people by detonating an explosive-laden ambulance in a crowded section of Kabul.

Afghanistan is not the graveyard of empires, despite the sobriquet’s frequent appearance, but Pakistan is looking more and more like the graveyard of strategy, America’s and its own. The “graveyard of empires” metaphor is found in many titles but it is a worn-thin trope that belongs in the graveyard of platitudes. Afghanistan, in and of itself, did not bring ruin to the Greeks, the Huns, the Mongols, the British, the Russians, or the Americans. It is untrue that Afghanistan is innately ungovernable. It is governable with the right blend of government and governance that is apt for the demography, topography, and history of Afghanistan. Until now, however, Pakistan’s persistent use of Islamist proxies in Afghanistan to pursue its quixotic notion of strategic depth has killed any strategy or momentum for the US-led coalition in Afghanistan, and also threatens Pakistan, because some of the same Islamist militants that Pakistan cultivated have turned on and attacked Pakistan.

Gen. John Nicholson, commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, has acknowledged that the war is “in a stalemate.”Senior leaders in the US Senate have acknowledged that a stalemate after sixteen-plus years means that we do not have a workable strategy and that we are losing. The explicit recognition in the current US Afghanistan strategy that Pakistan’s support and sanctuary for the Taliban is a major strategic problem should mean that the United States now holds no pretentions about Pakistan’s role vis-à-vis Afghanistan. Pakistan is neither an ally nor a friend; it is the foremost ideological and materiel source of Islamist militants. Sustaining the fiction over the past sixteen-plus years that Pakistan was an ally in the war against Islamist terrorists, one that would really act in ways to help defeat Islamist militants, made America liable in Pakistan’s nocuous double-dealing.

Not doing anything to punish Pakistan’s security establishment for its serial betrayals of the partnership with the United States, and for Pakistan’s refusal to honor its own pledge to counter the very Islamist terrorists that it created, permitted Pakistan’s intelligence service to continue with its treachery. Senior US leaders should continue to be forthright, in public, about Pakistan’s malign influence in Afghanistan and support for the Taliban. Statements like that of Secretary of Defense James Mattis in October before the Senate Armed Services Committee that “Pakistan has a convoluted history with terrorism” fall far short of capturing the real extent of Pakistan’s bent for using Islamist terrorists in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

It is also not entirely helpful to purport tactical and operational measures of performance as strategy or indicators of strategic momentum. The following is another excerpt from the December 2017 DoD report quoted above:

From June 1, 2017, to December 1, 2017, SOJTF-A components advised or enabled 2,450 ground operations and conducted 330 kinetic strikes and 228 Air to Ground (ATG) strikes. These operations included 420 ground operations and 214 air strikes against ISIS-K, resulting in more than 174 ISIS-K killed-in-action (KIA); 1644 ground operations and 181 air strikes against the Taliban, resulting in 220 Taliban KIA; 68 ground operations and 28 air strikes against members of the Haqqani Network, resulting in 34 Haqqani KIA; and 43 ground operations against other insurgent networks, resulting in 36 enemy KIA.

Strikes and raids that kill or capture enemy leaders do disrupt and impede Taliban and Haqqani operations, but their effects are ephemeral. Strikes and raids are not decisive and do not equate to strategic momentum. A policy to win in Afghanistan requires a regional strategy that aligns political will, intellectual capital, and capacity to defeat the enemy’s strategy. This means that for a strategy to be real and vibrant, it must focus on taking away the sine qua non for the Taliban’s sustenance and survival. The material, ideological, and sanctuary support the group enjoys make Pakistan the sine qua non for the Taliban’s survival. Pakistan’s behavior is the reason for the stalemate.

In theory, the US policy is now to continue to work with coalition and Afghan partners in pursuit of a regional strategy to win. War without strategy is violence without purpose, so a real regional strategy is a key requirement for success. A modest increase in American and coalition troops to advise and assist the Afghan security forces is one important aspect of the new strategy for Afghanistan. Though this increase alone will not break the strategic stalemate, it will support the theater commander’s operational design to grow the Afghan Special Security Forces, build the capacity of the Afghan Air Force, and improve the conventional forces by using more advisors with tactical units that fight.

These conditions alone will not bring strategic momentum but they can complement other pieces of a regional strategy that aims to undermine the will and capacity of the enemies of Afghanistan and the coalition. Another new aspect of the current policy is a focus on conditions on the ground, and not rigid timelines, to discern momentum. It is also a positive sign that the stated Afghan policy acknowledges that Pakistan’s support for the Taliban is a major reason for the current state of the war. This is not hyperbole aimed at making Pakistan a patsy for a stalled war. It is an irrefutable fact—one which Pakistan’s leaders and pundits regularly propagate an eloquent narrative to deny.

Pakistan’s proxy Islamists cannot be defeated if strategy is moribund. Since 9/11, the United States has explicitly stipulated that Pakistan must curb all domestic expression of support for terrorism against America and its allies; show a sustained commitment to and make significant efforts towards combating terrorist groups; cease support, including by any elements within the Pakistan military or its intelligence agency, to extremist and terrorist groups; and dismantle terrorist bases of operations in other parts of the country. Elsewhere, I have described a get-tough approach with a menu of eight to ten steps that would essentially take away things of value to Pakistan and impose things that punish Pakistan. Fiscal compensation and diplomacy have not brought a change in conduct. It is time to consider reciprocating with punitive, and even lethal, measures aimed at Pakistan’s institutions that directly work with the Taliban and the Haqqani Network.

Pakistan’s penchant for producing and exporting Islamist militants is deep, ingrained in its strategic culture over seven decades. To envisage any possibility for influencing Pakistan to modify its pernicious strategic calculations demands a regional strategy that incorporates both Pakistan’s fears and its interests. A win is an Afghanistan that does not fragment and is not hospitable to al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or the Islamic State-Khorasan. There will still be poverty and violence, but stability without a continuous threat to Afghanistan’s existence is a win. Success is a relatively stable Afghan state, with the government, the security forces, and the population functioning in relative concert against a marginalized Taliban (or with any of the small number who might be reconciled).

Afghanistan is not the graveyard of empires, although it is true that the country has been more readily invaded than stabilized or pacified. But it is not possible to defeat an insurgency and bring peace to Afghanistan when the Taliban’s sources of strength—the group’s senior leadership, resources, and recruits—remain protected in Pakistan’s sanctuary. Pakistan remains a graveyard for strategy in Afghanistan because its protection and support of the Taliban prevent a winning US strategy in Afghanistan. Until the US-led coalition strategy induces Pakistan to stop mobilizing the Taliban in Pakistan for export and use in Afghanistan, operational forces will continue to face a continuous flow of Taliban into Afghanistan from the sanctuaries of Pakistan. No change in Pakistan’s affinity for Islamists means that strategy is dead. This portends a prolonged stalemate without end.


“Pakistan: Graveyard of Strategy.” Modern Warfare Institute.  January 2018.  https://mwi.usma.edu/pakistan-graveyard-strategy/

“The Wages of War without Strategy, Part III: Beyond the Present – A Call to Clausewitz and to Conscience.”

“The Wages of War without Strategy, Part III: Beyond the Present – A Call to Clausewitz and to Conscience.”  Coauthor, Jacqueline Tame.  Strategy Bridge.  August 2017.  https://thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2017/8/23/the-wages-of-war-without-strategy

“Its grammar, indeed, may be its own, but not its logic. If that is so, then war cannot be divorced from political life; and whenever this occurs in our thinking about war, the many links that connect the two elements are destroyed and we are left with something pointless and devoid of sense.” – Carl von Clausewitz

In Part I of this series, we revisited the fundamentals of Clausewitz and urged the senior leadership in the new administration to consider lessons long observed, if rarely learned since Vietnam, about the intended distinctions between policy, strategy, and military operations. In Part II, we urged policy and military leaders to break from the mistakes of the past, underscoring the need for that introspection and more profound thinking on the nature of war, through an examination of our continued inability to align means and ways with achievable political ends in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In this––our final installment––we appeal to each element of the Clausewitzian Trinity to do its part. To remain silent as practitioners of policy and war, we believe, would perpetuate the betrayal of those troops and civilians––American and foreign––who have made the ultimate sacrifice for reasons this country still struggles to articulate.


Last year’s election paralleled that of 2008 in an interesting way––the political expediency of campaigning on war, or in this case, anti-war. Much like we saw in the 2016 Presidential elections, in 2008, with nearly a trillion spent, thousands dead, no common understanding of the implication of our actions, and no end in sight, America’s public and its allies were war-weary. Just as Mr. Trump publicly advocated for withdrawal, candidate Barack Obama campaigned on withdrawing from Iraq. Obama spoke of his resolve to, once and for all, end the “seemingly endless War on Terrorism,” a ‘war’ whose unwinnable nature was manifest in our actions in Iraq, which, “in turn, compromisedthe U.S. campaign against al Qaeda.”

In that 2008 election season, the other candidates continued to mince Clausewitz’s words for political expediency. But this time the speechmaking was different. The words that candidate Obama used indicated a willingness to stop and evaluate where we were. He seemed to be pledging to think, to reflect, to pull back – certainly militarily, perhaps even intellectually – and reorient the country. He appeared to be advocating reclamation of the political objectives that should be driving U.S. actions, certainly those of a military nature. Candidate Obama, essentially, vowed to reinstate the key Clausewitz axiom––War is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means––and other deeper and more meaningful insights from Clausewitz’s work.

President Obama arrives at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., May 28


In January 2009, President Obama took office and became responsible for two wars. In 2011, following Iraq’s refusal to sign a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), the White House announced the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, ending the 8-year U.S. military occupation. With ephemeral and not irreversible momentum, the world and the extremists watched as U.S. forces withdrew from Iraq in view of the difficulties associated with the Maliki Government’s recalcitrance over the status of forces. The United States’ senior security establishment seemed compelled to satisfice with impermanent operational momentum instead of tenable strategic ends. In that instance, however, the policy objective was to end the occupation.

Reversible tactical and operational gains without irreversible internal political stability in Iraq had potentially grave implications and consequences for the strategic situation in Iraq and Syria. America turned its attention away from the fragile sectarian tinderbox it left in its wake in Iraq, back toward a neglected theater then still facing a stalemate with the insurgency in Afghanistan, and to a renewed strategic emphasis on Asia Pacific. But the client government the Bush (George W.) Administration installed under then Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki became, not surprisingly, increasingly factional and untenable.

Once again the Sunnis, armed, trained, funded, and employed to good effect by the U.S. during the surge just a few years earlier, were utterly disenfranchised and aggrieved as Maliki de-professionalized the army, replacing once-U.S. allies with Shia loyalists. Not unforeseeably, these untrained loyalists, who essentially became Iraq’s frontline security forces, almost immediately dropped their weaponsand ran at the first sign of ISIS’s rapid ascent and advance when the group declared itself a caliphate in 2014. ISIS, whose predecessors date back to 2004 and before, is the most recent evolution of al Qaeda in Iraq, a group that derived influence and support from the massive missteps that characterized the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. ISIS became significantly emboldened by the yet again-disenfranchised Sunnis remaining in the wake of the American withdrawal, when Iraq was still unstable in 2011.


At the end of stage three in the evolution of the threats America faces today, precarious and reversible ways, means, and ends did not prevent the metamorphosis of al Qaeda in Iraq (War, Inc.’s Monster Version 3.0) into the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS (War, Inc.’s Monster Version 4.0). The invasion of Iraq in 2003, the most costly blunder in America’s remembered history, was an abysmally imprudent idea that continues to compound.


As memories of America’s 2016 presidential election fade, having observed the results of the last several cycles contribute markedly to our situation today, many are still worried. We worry that history will continue to compound, lessons will go unheeded, and the intended relationship among ends, ways, and means will be misapplied or willfully distorted by the future crop of senior security leaders. These concerns stem from a sense that the United States may once again be engaging in military actions and operations, now against ISIS, without a discernibly compelling strategy for the long term.


President Trump addresses a joint session of Congress, 8 Apr 2017 | Agence France-Press


As odious a monster as ISIS has proven to be, and as equally terrible as its predecessor versions were, none ever posed an existential threat to the United States. The world should be far more afraid of what this group might become next, as a consequence of our actions or inaction and mistaking and substituting military operations for strategy. American citizens should fear the new enemies, state and non-state, that may emerge because of a willful or unwitting reliance on lethal strikes with fleeting results. They should question policymakers who seem intellectually incapable or, more disconcertingly, unwilling to think critically and speak honestly about America’s role on the world’s stage and to craft meaningful policies to achieve national objectives.


So why write this series? We are not the first to note and lament the questionable policy and strategy coherence over the past half-century. The ideas in this piece are not essentially new or earth shattering. We are writing because to remain aloof and silent would make us, as professionals and representatives of two components of the Trinity, complicit in the continued blurring and conflation of policy, strategy, and military action. For those of us who are students and practitioners of war, silence and acceptance without counterargument is tantamount to blindly endorsing bad ideas for bad wars, absent any strategic rationality. In the first part of the first decade of this century, this country has unfortunately witnessed episodes of mistaking loyal and informed candor for unpatriotic apostasy.

There seems to be tacit acceptance of the idea that raising objections to war or its potential is not being supportive of our troops. In fact, the opposite is true. To remain muted as potential future policy practitioners and current pundits distort Clausewitz’s words and misunderstand or misrepresent the fundamental logic of war, would betray the noble service and sacrifices of thousands of troops and civilians who have already lost limbs or lives for reasons the country has struggled to articulate.


Whatever approach we ultimately select in the Middle East and South Asia should involve an inclusive, coherent, trans-regional approach to internal politics. A viable long-term strategic solution must also rely on diplomacy, trans-regional cooperation, and local political solutions that reduce or remove the underlying reasons for the real and perceived grievances that catalyze support for violence. This includes efforts to achieve better governance that addresses the grievances and expectations of all segments of the populations. To create some prospect for ending this long war, or even to avoid its ending in ways that undermine our long-term security and global stability, within some reasonably foreseeable future, the U.S. national security leadership should seriously revisit the meaning of and need for a strategy with an end that envisions peace.


Defeat, would require a strategy to undermine both the will and capacity of al Qaeda, ISIS, the Taliban, and the states that provide material, ideological, and sanctuary support. What is necessary for the long term is a well-thought out and sustainable counter-ideology strategy that is clear-eyed and ruthless about shutting resources such as funding, madrassas, and non-state organizations that propagate the Salafi-Wahhabi-Jihadist creed. This requires prudence, patience, and perseverance, informed by knowledge and analysis.

ISIS is indeed a vile monster, and one that U.S. policy had a hand in helping bring about with its decision to invade Iraq. Iraq’s refusal to sign a SOFA and its demand that U.S. troops depart the country 8 years later, without having stabilized or secured the country, exacerbated an already bad decision and likely expedited the likelihood of the birth of a group such as ISIS. The fact that U.S. policy partially, if unintentionally, underwrote the ISIS’ creation renders it even more critical that we now aid in the solution to the havoc the group wreaks. ISIS threatens every government in the region. A strategy whose objectives would translate into annihilating the group and quashing the ideology that drives it will be incredibly difficult but not impossible to determine and carry out. A future policy of more troops and more actions absent strategy will continue to contribute to endless war; likewise, carpet-bombing, or lighting ‘em up would not be measured or prudent in any sense of these words.

As Robert Wright shrewdly observed, “The part of ISIS’ rhetorical power worth contemplating is the part that we can do something about.” Successful recruitment to such groups seems associated with certain U.S. policies, to a vicious cycle of terror which the country inadvertently helped catalyze decades ago. This cycle is one that would be helpful to break imminently. “When recruiters for [groups like] ISIS and al Qaeda say that the West is fighting a war against Islam, they cite U.S. policies: drone strikes in Muslim countries, the imprisonment of Muslims in Guantánamo, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, perceived U.S. support for Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, and so on.”

The most pressing challenge for our newest senior leaders and policymakers is to break this vicious cycle, to “speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision.” Thinking through the potential difference between theory and practice should help considerably. A return to Clausewitz offers a first step.

As Martin Luther King, Jr., observed fifty years ago, “…The calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.”

Robert Cassidy, Ph.D., is a retired U.S. Army colonel who has served in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere in the Central Command region. He is the author of three books and a number of articles about strategy,irregular warfare, and Afghanistan

Jacqueline Tame is an intelligence and national security professional who has worked throughout the Intelligence Community as a strategic planner and policy advisor.

The ideas in this series do not represent the views of the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Government, or any of the institutions with which the authors affiliate.

“The Wages of War without Strategy, Part II: How We Twitterized Clausewitz and Ended Up Bogged Down in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

“The Wages of War without Strategy, Part II:  How We Twitterized Clausewitz and Ended Up Bogged Down in Afghanistan and Iraq.” Coauthor, Jacqueline Tame.  Strategy Bridge.  June 2017. https://thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2017/6/20/the-wages-of-war-without-strategy

“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else — if you ran very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”

“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that.”

– Lewis Carroll, “Through the Looking Glass

War and violence decoupled from strategy and policy—or worse yet, mistaken for strategy and policy—have contributed to perpetual war, or what has seemed like 15 years of “Groundhog War.” In its wars since 11 September 2001, the United States has arguably cultivated the best-equipped, most capable, and fully seasoned combat forces in remembered history. They attack, kill, capture, and win battles with great nimbleness and strength. But absent strategy, these victories are fleeting. Divorced from political objectives, successful tactics are without meaning.

In theory, we fight wars to fulfill a political purpose and to achieve objectives by aligning the means and methods of war toward that purpose. In theory, the purpose of war is a better peace. In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice, but as history has shown repeatedly, in practice there is.

The purpose of war is to serve policy. Unchecked by reason, unguided by policy, the nature of war is to serve itself. When war and violence serve each other, absent strategy, it is fruitless killing. World War I was a conspicuous example of war for war’s sake, and serves as “an excellent cautionary taleabout the dangers of carelessly blundering into a pointless and catastrophic conflagration.” The war in Iraq and the strategic stalemate in Afghanistan, are simply contemporary examples of the same.

In Part I of this series, we revisited the fundamentals of Clausewitz and urged the senior leadership in the new administration to consider lessons long observed, if rarely learned since Vietnam, about the intended distinctions between policy, strategy, and military operations. We offered that equating the three is tantamount to ‘Twitterizing’ U.S. foreign and security policy—something this country has done under both parties, and for many years. In this installment, we urge policy and military leaders to break from the mistakes of the past, and to do so now, underscoring the need for that introspection and more profound thinking on the nature of war, through an examination of our continued inability to align means and ways with achievable political ends in Afghanistan and Iraq.


Over the last 50 years, our ill-informed application of Clausewitz’s key tenets in U.S. military engagements has scarred the country’s credibility, moral rectitude, and legitimacy. But at no time have we more superficially or detrimentally applied Clausewitz than in the Global War on Terrorism, or the Long War – a “war,” undeclared by Congress, and about whose purpose the country was so conflicted that its monikers changed constantly.  The Global War on Terrorism revealed not only that the U.S. was in dire need of a viable strategy for undermining ideologically motivated non-state actors, but also that the very meaning of strategy had been fundamentally debased in our political lexicon.  Terror is a tactic, a technique. To wage perpetual war on a tactic, absent a realizable long-term political objective, is not a strategy but a sign of the absence of one.

By misunderstanding, distorting, and ultimately Twitterizing Clausewitz, U.S. policy has unintentionally helped breed, fund, arm, and release on the world the very groups of head-lopping apocalyptic fanatics it fears most.  Moreover, the long-term strategic attention deficit engendered in waging wars without strategy has rendered the American public unaware that its government has, indeed, become a metaphorical Dr. Frankenstein, with ISIS being just the latest monster, albeit one we did not set out to create.


“War is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means.” The distortion of Clausewitz’s famous axiom results from a careless reading of the relation between its subject and predicate. This is interesting, because critics have long lexically dissected the phrase, but for a different reason. The phrase itself, Der Krieg ist eine bloße Fortsetzung der Politik mit anderen Mitteln, or “war is a mere continuation of politics with other means,” is traditionally debated because, depending on the translation, Clausewitz uses the words “with” and “by” [other means] at different points in On War.  While this outwardly small distinction seems mere fodder for academic publications, a consequential interpretive difference does arise. The word “with” suggests that the use of force is additive and will complement whatever mélange of diplomacy, information, and economic means currently exists.  The word “by,” however, implies that employment of other means has failed and war is the only remaining option.

But prepositions are a secondary matter here. “Continuation” is the key word in Clausewitz’s sentence (and one never contested in translation) because it implies that a nation waging war must have started with a political objective. A policy matched to some notion of a supporting strategy requires this fundamental clarity about war’s benefits and liabilities in the service of political ends: once prior means become insufficient to achieve political objectives, we may choose war as a means of continuing to pursue these objectives. “Continuation” also illuminates the necessity of sustaining a healthy tension between policy and war to ensure one does not overtake or replace the other.


So how did this country come to equate policy, strategy, and military operations, and absolve itself of responsibility for all but the last?  It stems from a long-standing American propensity for binary perspectives, exacerbated by a cultural proclivity toward anti-intellectualism. It stems from a national intolerance for patience, driven by the availability of on-demand everything. It stems from the 24-hour misinformation overload of mass media, whose scrolling banners and simplistic sound bites convince viewers and readers they don’t need or have time to understand the issues fully. And all of that is underwritten by the explosion of all sorts of information technologies that facilitate scrolling but not reading, listening but not hearing, and killing without having to look one’s enemies in the eyes, or to even pull a trigger. One final factor has contributed to the casual and dangerous blurring of politics and war: domestic political incentives to ignore Clausewitz’s cardinal axioms. Wars, with or without strategy, sell, particularly so, it seems, when those who wage them constitute small fractions of the population.


Who cares?  Why should people heed a long-dead German soldier-scholar who never had to deal with today’s wars anyway?  Because in this era of war-on-demand, it is even more imperative to beware of the monsters that policy absent strategy can help create, by both action and inaction.  The U.S. is creating more monsters than it destroys every day, keeping politics and war separate and equal.

American policy makers failed to remain engaged, responsible, and farsighted in 1989 after the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan, when they washed their hands of a war-torn country where mujahideen forces had, for nearly a decade, served as expendable Cold War proxies. Senior leadership failed again not 15 years later with the invasion of Iraq in 2003, without a viable strategy or honest assessment of why this country would be willing to sacrifice thousands of lives and upwards of a trillion dollars on the altar of an illusion about bringing democracy to Iraq. The products of these decades of desultory action and inaction, uninformed by long-term strategy, have been al Qaeda, the Taliban, and, most recently, ISIS. 


In December 1979, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Official reporting indicates that U.S. leadership at the time – unwilling to engage in ways that would escalate the war beyond its geographical bounds – ultimately got involved but in a limited, indirect, and plausibly deniable way. Substituting proxy military actions for viable long-view political objects through various channels, America secretly gave weaponry and money to a host of Afghan resistance groups, known as the mujahideen, or holy warriors.

Revelations, however, from former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Bob Gates and then National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brezinski about when the U.S. actually began engaging with those who opposed the Soviet regime in Afghanistan, offer an ironic twist as to a major stimulus for war. The twist was that the U.S., in fact, began aiding the mujahideen nearly six months before the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, and that decision to aid opponents of the regime might have actually been the catalyst that “induce[d] a Soviet military intervention.”

Nonetheless – and far from being driven by a political objective in Afghanistan beyond further eroding Soviet influence in a zero-sum global competition – the U.S. simply wanted the Soviets to suffer as payback for supporting America’s enemies in the Vietnam War. These shortsighted decisions and actions thus continued and further complicated the long and risk-laden U.S. relationship with Islamist extremists.

Ultimately, the Soviet regime’s support for the war eroded – first its will, then its existence – as the war’s costs and losses became higher than the perceived value of the political object in Afghanistan, and its components splintered off into different mujahideen factions. The Soviet-Afghan War was over, but another war was beginning. One about which the U.S. would have done well to think deeply regarding the Soviets’ ability to distinguish between political objectives and military operations. That war was the precursor to the United States’ Global War on Terrorism.

From a potent combination of militant Egyptian expertise, Saudi wealth, and a philosophical foundation for jihad, Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Sayyed Imam Al-Sharif (Dr. Fadl) formed al Qaeda in 1988.  Over the next eight years, bin Laden grew angry over Saudi Arabia’s rebuff when he offered to defend the Kingdom against Saddam Hussein, and then enraged at the Kingdom’s decision to host infidel American forces in what would become the first Gulf War. Bin Laden ultimately cited U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia as one of the reasons he began preparations for a series of attacks against the U.S.

At the end of stage one in the evolution of the monsters we know today, the U.S. had inadvertently helped create al Qaeda: War, Inc.’s Monster, Version 1.0.

Soviets leaving Afghanistan, 15 Feb 1989

In February 1989 the last Soviet troops departed Afghanistan.  The Soviet withdrawal left a power vacuum that drew scarce international attention, and saw armed, angry, desperate young men remain in its wake. Throughout the 1990s, this helped create the perfect storm for the emergence of a group of Pashtun Islamist leaders and their students who – armed and trained in Pakistan thanks to the Pakistani ISI – remained committed to prosecuting holy war.

That U.S. security elites substituted emotion-driven proxy military actions for a genuine political objective was sufficient folly in itself.  But, while the U.S. did not create the Taliban, as some rhetoric purports, history has shown that our friends and interlocutors from the Soviet-Afghan War in the Pakistani ISI, in particular, directly helped fund, train, and arm the Taliban – a group that would ultimately ally with and provide sanctuary to al Qaeda. Once again, this was a direct outcome of not linking military action to political objectives after careful assessment of all enemies and the potential character of the war.  By 1996, internecine war ravaged Afghanistan. Upon returning from Sudan to Afghanistan that year, bin Laden built a relationship with Mullah Omar, leader of the new Taliban-led Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The then U.S. leadership’s decision to generally ignorethe rise of the Taliban from 1994 onward–to do nothing as the Taliban imposed its Islamist emirate and antediluvian governance on the Afghan people, and to stand by as the Taliban provided succor to bin Laden and his al Qaeda lieutenants upon their return to Afghanistan in 1996—was, as the 9/11 Commission Report put it, “a dangerous failure of imagination.”

At the end of stage two, then, the monster had evolved.  In addition to al Qaeda, the U.S. stood by and observed rather indecisively and ineffectively during the Taliban’s emergence and takeover of Afghanistan: War, Inc.’s Monster, Version 2.0.

In February 1998 – not three years after the bombing of the Office of the Program Manager, Saudi Arabian National Guard Modernization Program Headquarters, which preceded bin Laden’s first fatwa–bin Laden issued his second famous fatwa, calling upon Muslims to ‘perform their duty’ by killing American citizens, whom he declared ‘legitimate targets’ of al Qaeda. Heeding bin Laden’s call, six months later in August 1998, al Qaeda carried out twin embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.  The U.S. retaliated with cruise missile strikes on al Qaeda in Sudan and Afghanistan. Al Qaeda subsequently attacked the USS Cole in 2000 and the East Coast of the United States a year later.

The warping of Clausewitz’s theory of war over the decade that followed this country’s pivot away from its primary theater-of-necessity in Afghanistan to open a secondary theater-of-choice in Iraq was compounded by the complexity of the enemy that U.S. actions there helped catalyze. The devastating September 2001 attacks irrevocably shook the American psyche and spirit, and ensured a continuation of reflexive war as the essence of its Middle East and South Asia ‘policy.’

Iraq After the Fall of Saddam Hussein

In October 2001, U.S. troops invaded Afghanistan, set on expelling the Taliban government to deny al Qaeda continued sanctuary in the country and, ultimately, to dismantle the group responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Then, in March 2003, in a decision, unconstrained by reality and uninformed by strategic analysis, the U.S., opened a secondary theater. It was a war of choice, against an odious but secular dictator, who was in no way linked to the events of 9/11. Scores of books and articles have examined the colossally bad decision to go into Iraq in 2003. We won’t add to that body of analysis and interpretation. For the purposes of this series, that aim to amplify examples of the United States’ propensity to conflate policy and tactics, to substitute action for strategy, suffice it to note that the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq served no real political or strategic objective. Instead, it resulted in the creation of more insurgents and terrorists animated by the Salafi-Wahhabi-jihadist creed, a power vacuum, and the very chaos and instability that helped lead to the emergence of ISIS.

The sequence of disconnected events following the 2003 invasion of Iraq resulted in the replacementof Saddam Hussein’s government with a predominantly Shiite administration. The Sunni majority areas of the country suffered from vast unemployment, aggravated by a near-total loss of assets and political influence. “Rather than promoting religious integration and unity, American policy in Iraq exacerbated sectarian divisions and created a fertile breeding ground for Sunni discontent, from which al Qaeda in Iraq took root.”

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Three and a half years into the Iraq war, on 6 December 2006, the Iraq Study Group released its report.  One of several approaches offered in the report advocated a significant surge in U.S. ground troops to help train Iraqi Army units and secure the population. The idea of a surgewas contentious for war-weary Americans, but ultimately the prospect of expanding military operations, in lieu of conducting the hard work of generating viable strategic options and putting into place thoughtful, well-crafted policy, won the day. Accordingly, and in keeping with our culturally ingrained and increasing propensity to distort Clausewitz’s cardinal axiom, the United States introduced the surge itself as the new “strategy” in Iraq. The new objective – neither strategic nor political in the traditional sense – was to find a way out of Iraq without explicitly acknowledging defeat.

Much like peering through the looking glass, “the war on terror has been like the nouveau roman,with no coherent plot, only jarring disjunctions of cause and effect, time and place.”

“The Wages of War without Strategy, Part I: Clausewitz, Vietnam, and the Roots of Strategic Confusion.”

“The Wages of War without Strategy, Part I: Clausewitz, Vietnam, and the Roots of Strategic Confusion.” Coauthor, Jacqueline Tame.  War on the Rocks.  January 2017. https://warontherocks.com/2017/01/the-wages-of-war-without-strategy-part-i-clausewitz-vietnam-and-the-roots-of-strategic-confusion/

It is important to remember, in the discussions on which we are about to embark, that they ultimately concern violence, and that our moral and practical decisions have real consequences in the use of force, and all that the use of force entails for suffering and death.

Philip Bobbit, The Shield of Achilles

In a matter of weeks, this country will see a change in presidential administrations.  President-elect Donald Trump will inherit a country that has been committed in overseas wars directly or indirectly during every decade from Vietnam until the present.  This is a country that will be seeking strategic definition and direction.  Those who follow national and international security issues closely will be seeking a rationale for the way ahead that will allay concerns about the state of the world and their place in it.  A question that persists is, with unmatched wealth and military prowess, why has America seen such poor outcomes in many of its wars from Vietnam to today?

To answer such questions, the president-elect and his senior-most national security advisors should be introspective, intellectually frank, and discerning of the more profound thinking on the nature of war.  They should be willing to think critically about the state of the world and the country and what should come next.  And if they heed just one suggestion, it should be: know the distinctions between policy, strategy, and military operations.  Remember the intended relationship among the three.  A number of the president-elect’s closest advisors are retired general officers.  His choice for secretary of defense, Gen. (retired) Jim Mattis, in particular, is known to be a voracious reader and student of military history and strategy.  Gen. Mattis has most certainly read Carl von Clausewitz’s On War and should embrace a measured and prudent adherence to the famous but often misunderstood axiom:

[W]ar is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means.

And yet, one article has asserted that the president-elect seems to embrace an almost “apolitical vision of war,” as Dominic Tierney wrote recently in The Atlantic, terming it President-elect Trump’s “Clausewitz Problem.” He explains:

[W]hen Trump talks about war, he focuses almost solely on destruction—not on the larger political goals.  Trump promised to “beat the hell out of ISIS,” and the Islamic State “will be gone if I’m elected president.  And they’ll be gone quickly. They will be gone very, very quickly.”  Trump shows little interest in the political consequence of bombing, nation building, or the demands of post-conflict reconstruction.

Americans should hope that the president-elect will contemplate the guidance of the most experienced among his strategic advisers and members of his cabinet to square the new administration’s perspective on strategy and statecraft.  For the United States to find its footing in the next four to eight years, its senior leadership and its professional advisors should consider lessons long-observed, if rarely learned, about the wages of war without strategy.  The U.S. military does record lessons, fastidiously so, but it failed to absorb many of the strategic lessons in the aftermath of Vietnam because there was no consensus on the reasons for that failure.

Making war bereft of strategy has become an American addiction over the last 50 years. We win battles but not wars, and we win them at great political, material, and moral cost.  Since America first became mired in the jungles of Southeast Asia, it can boast only two notable examples of measured and prudent approaches to strategy that aimed to match ends, ways, and means. The first and arguably more successful example was the Persian Gulf War in 1991.  The second and more controversial was the laudable effort to craft a strategy for victory in Afghanistan with the surge that began in 2009.  For the latter, however, Pakistan’s duplicitous albeit predictable behavior and America’s inability to marshal the levers, resources, imagination, and will to compel Pakistan to desist accounted for the difference between theory and practice.

What’s more, bombing and decapitation are not strategies in and of themselves. The notion that the United States could simply carpet-bomb the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and other militants into extinction represents a divorce from the theory of war and strategy that Clausewitz expounded.  Nor will bombing them into the Stone Age lead to long-term success or victory in places like Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, no matter how visceral and appealing the idea of that kind of simplicity and lethality is to some.

Carpet-bombing is not a strategy. Strategic bombing is a myth. The United States and Britain dropped tons of bombs on Germany during World War II, and it did not break Germany’s will.  The United States dropped seven million tons of bombs during the Vietnam War, and it did not bring victory.  Bombs alone cannot defeat an ideology.

This article is the first of a series that aims to take a long view at exploring what has ailed American strategy over the last half-century.  This installment highlights the continued value and salience of Clausewitz’s more profound and nuanced ideas about the nature of war that have been absent or misapplied during the last 50 years.  It remains almost certain that On War is still more superficially quoted than deeply understood. It is time for a return to the fundamentals of Clausewitz.

On Clausewitz

Carl von Clausewitz (1780 to 1831) was a Prussian soldier, professor, and intellectual, whose combat experience and deep reflection on strategy and military theory led to the writing and posthumous publication of Vom Kriege (On War) in 1832. To this day, it is heralded as the most influential work of Western military philosophy and strategy.

In the nearly two centuries since publication, Clausewitz’s ideas have continued to be translated, circulated in dozens of languages, and stridently debated.  But, his musings on the theory and practice of warfare “will remain valid as long as states, drug lords, warrior clans, and terrorist groups have mind to wage it.”

Clausewitz’s assertion about war’s relationship to politics is profound.  The distortion of that relationship by this country’s past military and political leaders has helped lay the groundwork for the state of perpetual war in which the United States finds itself today.

Apt application of Clausewitz’s precepts is among the casualties of the last 50 years of American political and military history.  Too often, after Vietnam and especially since 9/11, the United States has doubled down on its most reductive and temporarily comforting habits of thought: viewing the world as black and white, good or evil; believing in and demanding simple solutions; and regarding critical thought and serious debate as weak or unpatriotic.  Just as Americans have Twitterized the English language, so too have we relegated arguably the most fundamental tenet of strategy and military theory to a dangerously simplistic platitude.  A number of those charged with making policy and planning wars over the last half-century — most notably Weinberger and Powell in the aftermath of Vietnam, the National Command Authority at the outset of U.N. operations in Somalia, and senior civilian leadership in the George W. Bush administration in influencing Operation Iraqi Freedom — have neglected, misconstrued, or distorted Clausewitz’s axiom.  It is therefore not surprising that U.S. forces have entered Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Syria despite a questionable faculty to fully match stated ends with the employment of the “other means” to which Clausewitz alluded.

We cannot afford to continue this distortion of policy and strategy.  America’s proclivity for “global presence, power projection and interventionism” as strategy and “Instawar” as policy all but guarantee ISIL will not be the scariest monster the United States will face.

This, then, is a call to action but not to the reflexive military action into which this country is too often quick to jump.  It is a call to conscience but not to disengagement or to a sweeping rejection of the use of military force as “a true political instrument,” one strategic component of a realistic, well-considered, long-term policy.  It is a call that we, as military and intelligence service professionals, make to our prospective future senior security leaders to come back to Clausewitz.  And it is a call to the nation to restore the critical partnership and balance between the three sources of power in Clausewitz’s “remarkable trinity”— passion, probability, and policy, often associated with the people, the military, and the government, respectively.  We call upon each of these stakeholders to do its part in reflecting on the purpose of war as a servant of policy.

The Roots of Confusion

In the aftermath of the war in Vietnam, the United States would have benefited from deep reflection.  Instead, its leaders opted for historical airbrushing and a doctrine of confirmation bias. The purpose of this section is not to reflect the most up to date understanding of the history of American strategy-making in the Vietnam War, but rather to reveal how the U.S. military did and did not take lessons from early histories and assessments of the war.

The end of the Vietnam War led to a renewed interest in Clausewitz, with publication of the 1976 translation of On War by Michael Howard and Peter Paret.  Indeed, the U.S. military underwent a renaissance of sorts after the Vietnam War, refocusing professionally and intellectually.  However, it squandered the opportunity to base that renaissance on an honest autopsy of its shortcomings in Vietnam.  The version of Clausewitz adopted by a number of U.S. military institutions after Vietnam was selective and generally misconstrued some fundamental aspects of On War.

The military did not properly reflect upon Vietnam in the context of Clausewitz’s explanations of the nature and character of war.  The military and the Army did sponsor studies to learn what happened in Vietnam.  BDM and Kupperman and Associates produced works that analyzed the reasons and the lessons of that failed war.  These reports were essentially indictments of the U.S. Army’s inappropriate conventional approach to Vietnam. They found the Army was more focused on avoiding another such intervention than learning from its failures in waging low-intensity warfare.  They essentially criticized the American model of war, which focused on the destruction of enemy forces at the expense of political factors. A 1970 RAND report concluded:

The Army’s doctrine, its tactics, its organization, its weapons – its entire repertoire of warfare was designed for conventional war in Europe. In Vietnam, the Army simply performed its repertoire even though it was frequently irrelevant to the situation. Changes were proposed repeatedly, but few changes were made… Among the institutional obstacles to change are the belief that the changes proposed might not work…the belief that what has been needed is more of the same…that the war in Vietnam is an aberration…

The U.S. Army War College then hired Col. Harry Summers, a veteran of the war, to synthesize these studies. However, he ultimately disagreed with their findings in his own book, On Strategy.  Summers claimed to be representing the axioms found in On War and then filtered his analysis through his experiences in Vietnam.  He argued that the Army’s failures in Vietnam stemmed from its deviation from the big, conventional-war approach and its temporary and incomplete experiment with counterinsurgency.

A lack of consensus emerged on what happened and as a consequence, the Army as an institution did not absorb many lessons aptly, or at all. What is more, a number of senior civilian and military U.S. security officials and military commanders never fully understood the enemy and were thus unable to create a viable strategy to undermine the enemy’s will in relation to the value of the object to the enemy. This is something Clausewitz warned was critical.  For example, a number of senior American security practitioners were unable to fully fathom the intangible resources the North Vietnamese and their proxies brought to the fight — namely morale and will.  Furthermore, senior civilian leaders during most of President Johnson’s tenure did not genuinely appreciate the disproportionate values of the political objects and commitments of the two sides to their respective political objectives.

More problematic, however, was the emergence in 1984 of the so-called Weinberger Doctrine.  Proponents of this doctrine claimed it was rooted in Clausewitz, but this was not the case.  It cherry-picked elements from Clausewitz in a manner that distorted the theory.  In the end, the essence of the Weinberger Doctrine and its subsequent Powell Corollary was that the United States military should wage only big, conventional wars by engaging quickly and decisively in “go-big-then-go-home” campaigns.

It was not simply that senior defense civilian and military leaders at the time did not get Clausewitz, who is, admittedly, not an easy read.  As one of us wrote elsewhere, it was that they purposefully ignored studies that captured the more balanced and measured explanations for failure and embraced those — most notably Summers’ — that found the opposite explanations, that the military did not wage it conventionally enough.

Had the country not fallen to confirmation bias about its military strengths after Vietnam, things might look very different today.  America might have been more prepared in terms of intellectual capital and strategic savvy to better understand the challenges of fighting its future wars.  The Weinberger rules tended to limit policy and strategy to interstate war thinking.  The doctrine as it stood, eschewed other kinds of wars, notwithstanding policy necessity.  Rather than a tribute to Clausewitz’s genius, then, the Weinberger Doctrine became a conspicuous example of the U.S. defense and military institutions’ misunderstanding and misapplication of his cardinal axiom.

The Implications of Not Understanding Clausewitz

As discussed, the Army drew two flawed conclusions from the Vietnam War, which an accurate reading of Clausewitz might have helped it avert.  The first was that, militarily, the war was an aberration and, therefore, required no serious operational reassessments or organizational changes. The second was that, to the extent there were lessons to be gleaned from Vietnam, they were adequately encapsulated in the Weinberger Doctrine’s six tenets and were readily applicable to whatever future conflicts the United States might undertake. The doctrine prescribed what kind of wars the American military would fight and proscribed those it would not fight, roughly summed up by the slogan “no more Vietnams.”

Rather than fading as a distant aberration, the Vietnam War became a recurrent political and military metaphor. The United States has continually come up short in assessing the character of the wars in which it engages. One principal determinant of Vietnam’s poor outcome was that, before committing to the war, U.S. political leaders failed to assess the value of the objective or failed to act in accordance with such an assessment. President Johnson stated on tape in a May 1964 phone conversation with the Special Assistant for National Security Affairs, McGeorge Bundy, “I don’t think [Vietnam] is worth fighting for.”  Once fully engaged in waging it, senior civilian leaders continued to prescribe limits and constraints on the use of force to preclude escalation. Key military leaders in the theater were less sanguine about the prospects for success compared to what the public heard and perceived, at least until Tet of 1968.  When senior leaders fail to treat war as a distinct means of achieving a carefully identified political object and when policy and strategy no longer communicate both ways, it creates an imbalance in the trinity.  In such cases, war and violence become a substitute for strategy or worse for policy.

Clausewitz’s trinity goes hand-in-hand with his famous axiom.  Among the combinations of the individual elements of the trinity, each reflects a potential distinct character of the war in question.  As Clausewitz wrote:

The passions that are to be kindled in war must already be inherent in the people; the scope, which the play of courage and talent will enjoy in the realm of probability and chance, depends on the particular character of the commander and the army; but the political aims are the business of government alone.

Simply identifying a meaningful political objective, however, is not enough to ensure long-term victory.  Clausewitz argues that the trinity and each of its components determine a nation’s behavior and its associated capacity for war — two critical variables to assess before committing forces. Intangible factors like popular motivation, belief in a government’s abilities, and support for a political objective are paramount in determining how willing the nation will be to sustain support for war’s brutalities. The military should consider the quality of leadership, an understanding of the political objective, its relationship with civilian overseers, and the quality of doctrine. Even though the dynamics between the elements of the trinity and the interaction with the enemy trinity ebb and flow throughout a war, a balance must be sought between the people — the nation’s civilians, the legitimating entity behind the government; the political leadership — responsible for, and accountable to, the policy it prescribes; and the military — which must be ready and willing to execute the policy.

As America neared the 21st century, Clausewitz’s remarkable trinity was remarkably imbalanced.  Senior political and national security leaders were remiss in their responsibilities to formulate and articulate coherent political purposes.  Military professionals were increasingly inclined to fill this void in strategy with operational methods and actions.  Both groups ignored the principle “that in war military aims cannot be divorced from political purposes, and the ultimate decisions rest with the civilian political leaders of the state.”

“Afghanistan or Talibanistan.”

“Afghanistan or Talibanistan.  Armed Forces Journal.  April 2014.  http://www.armedforcesjournal.com/afghanistan-or-talibanistan/

Afghan National Army soldiers with the 215th Corps conduct a simulated casualty evacuation during a training exercise aboard Camp Shorabak, Helmand province, Afghanistan, Feb. 19, 2014. For many of the Afghan soldiers present, this was the first time they had been aboard a helicopter. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Joshua Young)

Will the country see relative stability and freedom after 2014?

Col. Robert M. Cassidy

This year will see a set of key events in Afghanistan: variables of pivotal magnitude that may well determine whether it succeeds as a state or succumbs to another Taliban takeover.

If Afghanistan succeeds and endures, the struggle will have ultimately been the good war of the last 12-plus years: in terms of the justification for going to war, in the way the coalition ultimately prosecuted it, and in the context that the international community will have fulfilled a post-war moral commitment to the Afghan allies we supported and fought alongside.

The value of the political object, the morality of the war, and the perception of victory or defeat comprise the most compelling logic of the contest of wills there. There are impediments that increase the risk of failure, yet also momentum that favors success. And there is history, and the history of wars in Afghanistan does not suggest that catastrophic failure is inevitable – if the coalition continues to support Afghanistan after 2014.

The political object, and its perceived value, guide war. The value of the political object of the Afghan War – dismantling, defeating, and denying al-Qaeda sanctuary – derives from the horrific consequences of the 9/11 raids. The political object, when achieved and sustained, will prevent this from happening again. However, the perceived value of the object has diminished in the eyes of the supporting polities because of the costs and duration of this war. In other words, the political and domestic will to persevere have waned.

The Taliban, al-Qaeda, and Islamist zealots of similar cloth have endured significant disruption, displacement and dismantling of their capacity to carry on, yet their will to continue has not relented. This is because of the fanatical religious creed that animates these enemies, and because of the physical and materiel sanctuary and support they benefit from in Pakistan’s border areas. Generous funding from Saudi Arabia and other gulf states also helps. For the likes of the Quetta Shura and the Haqqanis, their mantra is ‘Islam or death.’ For Western polities, it is, ‘bring the troops home.’

Pakistani security elites believe they can counter their existential nemesis, India, by supporting the Taliban and using the Haqqanis to foment insurgency in Afghanistan. Although this notion of strategic depth is a figment of these elites’ febrile and fertile imaginations, their cost-benefit strategic calculus is not likely to change unless there is a huge shift in how the U.S. and the West confront Pakistani duplicity. In other words, in the minds of the Pakistani security leadership that decides strategy, the benefits of supporting and protracting the insurgency in Afghanistan outweigh the costs.

Starkly, there are still two potential, but not inevitable, outcomes: a revived Talibanistan or a strengthened Afghanistan. Giving up potential victory by quitting the field precipitously might see the Taliban eventually overwhelm and undermine the Afghan government and its security forces. And, if the Taliban were to revive an Islamist emirate in Afghanistan, there is every reason to forecast a future with more attacks against the West, planned and prepared, with increasing scope and intensity, from Afghanistan’s and Pakistan’s tribal areas.

A better outcome, turning the stalemate of the previous decade into a semblance of victory, would see a resilient and durable Afghan state, with the government, the security forces and the population aligned against a marginalized Taliban. Success would see an Afghanistan that does not fragment and endures as a state inhospitable to al-Qaeda, the Quetta Shura Taliban and other extremists. The bar is not high and the international community does not aim to make Afghanistan into Austria. There will still be violence, poverty and underdevelopment, but an Afghanistan with its people, security forces and government cooperating in modest harmony equates to victory in this context.

There are also moral imperatives for a war to be a “good” one. Despite the missteps that characterized the early years of the Afghan war, this war is ostensibly the good war of the last 12 years. The proximate cause for going to war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban was justified in terms of self-defense. The methods of fighting the war saw the U.S. and the coalition killing enemy combatants and generally trying to avoid killing civilian non-combatants, however imperfectly carried out.

The coalition has intended to do the right things, to help Afghanistan and not to harm Afghanistan. Now, the question remains, will the international community do the right thing in terms of jus post bellum. The requirements for this would be to continue to help the Afghans who allied with us to protect the state and preserve the societal developments in the face of the insurgency and external threats.

Moreover, in a contest of ideas that juxtaposes two diametrical world views of reason versus extreme religiosity, of freedom to choose versus a tyranny of dogma and fear, victory or defeat are of huge importance to our cause and to the cause of our enemies. If the West quits the fight, or stops supporting the Afghans’ cause prematurely, this would likely vivify and embolden al-Qaeda, the Taliban and other militants who espouse a distorted Salafist-takfiri creed of sectarian violence.

In spite of the ambiguity that inheres in the present and future of Afghanistan, the last 12-and-a-half years have witnessed discernible momentum in important areas. Both the quality and the quantity of the Afghan security forces have certainly improved and increased, with the most notable changes occurring since the surge in 2010. What’s more, during the 2013 fighting season, the Afghan security forces were genuinely in the lead, bearing the brunt of the fighting and outmatching the enemy during most combat engagements. Also of importance: During the last decade in Afghanistan, most measures of human development and progress have improved and continue to improve in geometric terms.

The biggest impediment to enduring stability in Afghanistan is the Taliban’s sanctuaries in Pakistan. These give the Taliban a place to regenerate; they allow resupply of lethal aid and recruits. They allow the Taliban to protect its will – the senior leadership and the insurgency’s regenerative potential – thus protracting the war to exhaust the political will of the coalition, with the ultimate aim of making the tremendous capacity of the coalition irrelevant if it leaves the field before achieving its aims. As a consequence of the strategic paradox that Pakistani policy imposes on the coalition’s efforts in Afghanistan with its proxies, though the coalition has made significant gains at the operational level, those gains could very well end up being ephemeral and irrelevant. The crux is that the Afghans, with coalition support, cannot utterly defeat the Taliban by taking away both capacity and will because the insurgency’s political will remains protected in Pakistan’s sanctuaries.

The Afghanistan scholar Thomas Barfield has written that foreign invasions of Afghanistan have manifested a pattern in that, “former insurgent leaders found that success on the battlefield or rallying opposition against foreigners could not be transmuted into political authority once those forces departed.”

After more than 12 years of this war in Afghanistan, it is not likely that Pakistan will turn off its support and sanctuary to the Taliban in the next couple of years. Payments, persuasion, diplomacy and policy have all failed to compel Pakistan to modify the warped calculus that underpins its support to proxy insurgents in Afghanistan. However, it is also unlikely that the Taliban will threaten or seize Kabul outright, or other key population centers, when the coalition forces shrink to whatever post-2014 strength their political leaders decide upon. Whether the international effort devolves to a residual presence of 12,000, or even to a lesser number of forces for assistance, advice and counterterrorism support, historical precedent augurs a difficult future for the insurgents, even with Pakistani support. The one requisite is that the coalition continues to provide a degree of financial aid and assistance.

When the Soviets departed Afghanistan in February 1989, even though the mujahideen, its Pakistani backers, and many others had forecast a quick insurgent victory and an imminent collapse of the Najibullah regime, this did not happen. The regime endured for another three years and two months, with continued Soviet financial, materiel and food support. Only when the Soviets stopped supporting the Afghan regime at the end of 1991 did the Afghan state begin to unravel. Without Soviet support, it ultimately fractured and yielded to the then-inexorable arrival of the various mujahideen factions in April of 1992.

Afghan scholar Joseph Collins has testified to the following reasons for the endurance of the Najibullah government: a disunited enemy; a transition plan that harmonized aid, military assistance and diplomacy; strong and effective leadership; modest reconciliation between the central government and the peripheral tribal militias; stronger Afghan security forces; and a steady flow of foreign aid. In Barfield’s own scholarly work, moreover, he observed several corollaries that accounted for the incapacity of the insurgents to defeat the Soviet-supported government: They were unable to modify their insurgent methods into an effective conventional approach; they lost their cohesion after their foreign foes left the field; and they were incapable of making the transition from factional insurgent leadership to effective national leadership.

What does this mean for Afghanistan after 2014? Commentary from the Middle East Policy Council posits several forecasts for the current war. First, after the withdrawal of ISAF forces at the end of 2014, continued international military and economic assistance to the Afghan government may in fact help it retain power in the key population centers. Second, it is not at all inevitable that the Taliban will regain power, even though they will continue to receive Pakistani assistance and sanctuary. Third, opposition to the Afghan government will actually decline after the American and coalition presence diminishes. And, fourth, once the Afghans are responsible for their own survival, the effectiveness of Afghan government forces may increase discernibly. That is the good news.

The bad news is that if American and allied support for the Afghan state ends abruptly, it is probable that the Kabul government’s strength will decline precipitously. If this occurs, ethnic divisions within the Afghan government leadership are likely to worsen. There will then emerge a possibility, though not an inevitability, that the non-Pashtun officer corps might seek to usurp the power of the sitting Afghan government. In an extremely worst case scenario ¬-¬- a descent into chaos — the most critical fractures within Afghanistan are likely to be those between Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns.

The protracted war in Afghanistan has not yielded smooth and unambiguous results for long-term stability in Afghanistan, Pakistan or the region writ large. Neither victory nor defeat are yet certain or inevitable. Indeed, success will not resemble those cherished victories over Germany and Japan during World War II. However, since 2010, the combined Afghan and coalition campaign, forces, resources and leadership have fought the Taliban inside Afghanistan with effect. What is even more compelling is that since the 2013 fighting season, the Afghan security forces were in the lead, have borne the brunt of the fighting, and indeed overmatched the insurgents in most of their battles and engagements.

It cannot be overstated that the biggest strategic risk to the stability of both Afghanistan and Pakistan lies in the fact that the Pakistani Army and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate, under the delusional and spurious notion of creating “strategic depth” on their western flank, continue to support proxy insurgents, just as they have over the last four decades. Al-Qaeda and like-minded militant groups that collude with al-Qaeda in the tribal areas on Pakistan’s western frontier are disrupted and diminished, but they are not fully dismantled and defeated.

In the end, any successes will be ephemeral unless there is continued international support to the Afghan state and its security forces. And violence will not ultimately abate until there is a strategic change inside Pakistan to turn off the sources of support to the insurgents. Without sanctuaries, indeed, the Taliban would wilt into insignificance. The somber reality is that the international community and the U.S. have not reimagined the means and ways to force Pakistan to alter its harmful strategic calculations.

Both the continuation of external support to Afghanistan and the reduction of the pernicious effects from the sanctuary in Afghanistan are a strategic necessity.

Col. Robert Cassidy, U.S. Army, is a professor of Joint Military Operations at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. These views are his and not those of the U.S. government or the Naval War College.