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American strategy in Afghanistan flunks Sun Tzu
By GIAN GENTILE
02/07/2012
Proof of counterinsurgency’s failures is the current state of affairs in Iraq and Afghanistan.
 
American-style counterinsurgency does not work. It has failed in Iraq and it is currently failing in Afghanistan. In war, strategy should look to policy – which gives war its direction – and then apply the tools of war, like military tactics, to achieve policy aims in the most cost effective way in blood and treasure.

Proof of counterinsurgency’s failures is the current state of affairs in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In Iraq, the United States spent 8.8 years nation-building, resulting in 4,773 Americans killed, thousands and thousands more with life-changing wounds, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed, close to a million more Iraqis displaced from their original homes with only a handful being able to return to them. Of course there is the billions and billions of American funds spent as well. And from all of that expenditure what appreciable strategic and policy gains has the US achieved? Not much. The country is still mired in low grade war and one dictator has been replaced with another – the latest one allied closely with America’s strategic enemy in the region Iran.

In Afghanistan, and like Iraq, the US has invested heavily since the beginning in a hefty nation-building endeavor. Yet after 11 years of nation-building, the country is still in tatters (if it ever wasn’t), its nascent political institutions are corrupt, the Taliban enemy is still as strong as ever and, despite rosy proclamations by NATO officials, objective reports show a steadily rising level of overall violence in the country despite increased American troop numbers and a so-called new counterinsurgency strategy.

Chinese war philosopher Sun Tzu wrote thousands of years ago about the relationship between strategy and tactics in war, that “strategy without tactics is the slow road to victory” but “tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” His point was simple and clear: if a state gets its strategy right then the tactics of war will fall into place. But let a state gets its strategy wrong and no amount of tactical excellence can save a war fought under a botched strategy.

History illuminates Sun Tzu’s essential point. Think about the German army in World War II, probably one of the finest industrialized tactical fighting armies the world had ever seen. Yet all of that tactical excellence on the part of the German Army could not rescue it from a dysfunctional strategic approach and a morally perverse policy under Nazism. Conversely the Soviet Union on the Eastern Front in World War II never amounted to much tactically, but had developed effective operational commanders under a strategy that made sense for the Soviet Union.

IN AFGHANISTAN today, American strategy has flunked Sun Tzu. America’s core policy goal from the start of the war in 2001 up to the present—remembering that policy gives war its overall direction and purpose—is focused on disrupting, disabling and eventually defeating al-Qaida. It is actually a quite limited core policy goal that makes infinite sense since it was al-Qaida that attacked America on 9/11. But in order to achieve that core policy objective, American strategy has sought to use a maximalist operational method of counterinsurgency – armed nation-building— to achieve it. It is like using a sledgehammer to drive a nail through a soft piece of pine wood when a carpenter’s hammer would do the trick.

The US has been doing armed nation-building from the very start, investing huge amounts of blood and funds in Afghanistan to achieve its very limited core policy goal, and it has not worked. This is why America has failed at strategy in Afghanistan. There were always much more limited means to apply to achieve the core policy goal, but the underlying assumption all along was that nation-building was the method to achieve it.

This American impulse to rebuild, to fix a foreign land after it has been broken by military force seems to draw on a number of disparate causative forces in American history.

There is the idea that emerges from the American Progressive Era during the first years of the 20th century that human reason carried out by experts empowered by governments can fix any problem that society confronts. For example, back then Progressives thought that poverty could be tackled by experts in social engineering and human behavior who could tweak attitudes among the working classes.

There is also the idea that emerges after the American experience in World War II that never again in the future could the US supposedly “isolate” itself as it had in the 1930s from the rest of the world’s problems – thus resulting in the rise of Nazism. Yet the US was never truly isolated from the rest of the world during the years between World War I and World War II. Still, this line of thinking has resonated forcefully over the years because it assumes that American power, if applied correctly by smart people throughout the world is limitless.

This leads to the last causative factor in American history that has helped shape the current impulse to “change an entire society” in Afghanistan. After World War II, throughout the Cold War and persisting through the 9/11 era is the rock solid assumption that whatever America does in the world is, by rule, morally righteous. This hardened assumption of moral righteousness has combined with another rock solid assumption: that American war of whatever kind works in foreign lands, that if the United States just gets the tactics of war correct and puts the right general in charge then anything can be accomplished with military force.

It was a combination of these assumptions that drew the United States into the quagmire of Vietnam, and it is these very same assumptions and causative factors that have shaped America’s failed strategy in Afghanistan.

The author is a serving American Army Colonel. In 2006 he commanded a combat battalion in West Baghdad. He holds a PhD in history from Stanford University.
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