Let me be clear up front: there is no better general for the command of Afghanistan than Gen. David Petraeus. I worked with him when we were both field-grade officers in the Pentagon. And, if the 'Stan is the main effort today in what used to be called the War on Terror, then there is no better general to take Petraeus' place at US Central Command than Gen. James Mattis.
Mattis and Petraeus go together like peas and carrots. They jointly wrote the U.S. Army / Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual (though Petraeus usually gets sole credit). There are not two senior commanders anywhere as well versed and expert in counterinsurgency (COIN) as these two.
And they will fail.
They will fail not through lack of effort or of insight or because of poor planning and execution. One would be surprised if every operation and campaign they plan is executed much less than magnificently well. There is nothing that they carry with them into Afghanistan that will fail them, nor will they fail their troops.
They will fail because COIN is a tactic, not a strategic objective, and the United States has no strategic objectives regarding Afghanistan. The generals will be conducting COIN for COIN's own sake, not really to achieve something else. As far any anyone can tell, President Obama's only national objective regarding Afghanistan is to pull American forces out by the end of next year. That's not a strategic objective. It's an admission of aimlessness.
This is not a criticism of Obama, though. I would make exactly the same observation of President G. W. Bush until the day he left office. This is one time that Obama could, with integrity, claim that he had been left a mess to clean up. Bush never set clear national strategic objectives for Afghanistan qua Afghanistan. From the outset, Bush enumerated the US's objectives almost exclusively in terms of fighting al Qaeda, which had made the country its base and practically its client.
According to US Army Lt. Col. G.K. Herring of the US Army War College, Bush named six national strategic objectives in warring against Afghanistan ("The War in Afghanistan: A Strategic Analysis"): They were (quoting Herring):
1. ... to disrupt, and if possible destroy, the al Qaeda network in Afghanistan.
2. The United States also sought to convince, and if necessary compel, the Taliban to cease their support for terrorist organizations; the al Qaeda network in particular.
3. In addition, the Bush Administration sought to demonstrate that the United States was not at war with the Afghan people or the Islamic religion.
4. The Bush Administration also sought to demonstrate U.S. resolve in this war on terrorism.
5. The strategy also included an objective to build international support for the war in Afghanistan.
6. The final objective of the Bush Administration was to stabilize Afghanistan following the fighting there.
The intent was to avoid creating a vacuum in a notoriously turbulent, unstable nation. When the fighting was over, the Administration wanted to establish conditions that would foster security and stability in Afghanistan. Moreover, the Administration wanted to eliminate the conditions that promoted terrorism and support for terrorism. The Administration’s overall intent was to prevent the re-emergence of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and the use of Afghanistan as a sanctuary for terrorist organizations.Of these six, only the first and the last actually matter now. And I am not persuaded that the first objective, disrupt or destroy al Qaeda in Afghanistan, matters anymore since al Qaeda's core has moved to Pakistan where it operates mostly unhindered.
We are nine years into this war and neither of the only two important objectives have been accomplished. Nor is there a realistic prospect that they will be. The Taliban have not thrown in the towel inside the country. The prospect of stabilizing Afghanistan are dim, indeed, since the government there does not operate despite corruption. It operates by corruption. Hamid Karzai is no friend of the United States, but then, neither is any potential successor.
The fact is that the Obama administration, like Bush's before it, does not know what it is trying to do in Afghanistan.
So why did we invade to begin with? Because the attacks of 9/11, planned, funded and commanded inside Afghanistan, left us no choice. If the US was to defend itself, and importantly, to be seen as defending itself, it had to attack its enemy where the enemy was, and that meant going into Afghanistan. We hoped thereby to cut off the head of the snake by killing and isolating al Qaeda's high command from the most of the rest of its organization and allies around the world.
In that we were significantly successful. However, we were (and are) like the proverbial dog chasing a car - once it catches it, what does it do with a mouthful of bumper? Probably no one in the Bush administration expected the Taliban government to fall so quickly, just as there was likely little understanding that al Qaeda was not nearly as dependent on its Afghanistan base as we thought. No doubt, al Qaeda was disrupted. That there has been no repeat of 9/11 is strong evidence for it, but this cannot be laid solely to the credit of invading Afghanistan (or in my view even primarily to it). The shadow wars of international intelligence, counter-finance and covert operations outside Afghanistan are just as credit worthy, and the truly massive effort al Qaeda mounted against US forces in Iraq sucked lives and resources from al Qaeda that it has never recuperated.
Der Spiegel explores American prospects in Afghanistan in some detail, including this nugget that I think is quite accurate:
The Americans and their allies are winning all the battles, and they are losing the war. This week, the global public is now being prepared for a major, supposedly decisive offensive against Kandahar, the home of the Afghan Taliban. The corresponding rhetoric is reminiscent of the situation reports submitted by the failing generals in Vietnam. And it doesn't take an oracle to predict that a hailstorm of bad news will soon be coming from Kandahar, proving, once again, that this war -- whether it's called a battle against terrorism, counterinsurgency or a peacekeeping operation -- cannot be won.How will the Afghan war end? It won't. It will sputter along for all the foreseeable future, with combat waxing and waning until eventually this president or one of his successors simply tires of it all and leaves the Afghans to their self-inflicted fate. The country has known naught but war since the Soviets invaded on Dec. 25, 1979. The warlords there no longer really know the purpose of their fighting, all they know is the fighting itself. And it will not be long before the same shall be said about the United States.
The majority of the Afghan people, complete with their corrupt, incompetent government in Kabul, no longer seem to have an interest in the success of the Americans and their allies. In fact, today it seems that the Afghans would like nothing more than to see all of the foreigners disappear from their soil and go back to where they came from, even if it comes at the cost of a new Taliban government.
Update: Two responses via email. First from an active-duty Army lieutenant colonel who has served twice in Afghanistan and commanded a combat battalion in Iraq:
I think your article is spot on. I do think our national strategic objective is a combo of 1) terrain denial to AQI from AFG, 2) elimination of AQI wherever, and 3) advancing human freedom as a way of permanently keeping down AQI. I think however that accomplishing all three objectvices is a gerenational endeavor. As such we need to acknowledge that, announce it to our citizens and to the world and set “timelines” and shape expectations accordingly and then Charlie mike. Otherwise we need to drop objective #3 and bpt work with strong but dirty allies who keep their fokls oppressed and hope that over time we can nudge them to some semblance of democratic freedom that fits their culture.Second from a U.S. Marine Reserve field grade infantry officer with both combat and civilian years in Iraq, and who has known Gen. Mattis personally for many years.
I think the moral thing to do is to keep all three objectives and know this will take a long time at some cost. But I do not think the American people have the will to see this thru – ours is not exactly a culture of discipline and focused patience. However, the enemies’ culture is.
Unfortunately, I think you nailed it...lack of goal and corruption color everything. Optimally, we extricate our forces with the least amount of damage -- tangible and intangible -- as possible. I trust Petraeus will do that, and keep realistic goals. The only point I don't agree with (based on my folks who have been and have first-hand knowledge) is that I don't think we have lost the Afghani public. At least those beside those who hate ANYONE from outside their square mile of turf.I'd love to be more optimistic, but just don't see evidence to be.