The early years of the Barrack Obama presidency provide an example of the challenge of delivering an integrated strategy. Everyone agreed that there was no purely military solution to the problems in Afghanistan. But the US military continued to act as if there were. The administration said the right things, in terms of talking up the need for political action. But it proved difficult to match that rhetoric with the action on the ground.
Fundamentally, the administration failed to align the essential elements of strategy – ends, ways and means. We were locked into a debate about the contribution of the competing ‘ways’ – diplomatic and political versus military. The problem was that the debate about the end state was not adequately resolved. In retrospect, the problem with the early Obama era strategy in Afghanistan was that the different US actors were inadequately aligned with regard to the ends we were trying to achieve. This left the military free to interpret the ends so as to justify the ways and means they intended to employ – an intensified military campaign. So, we ended up with the military going one direction, while the diplomats pursued regional diplomacy and the aid workers did their own thing.
If I had a chance to do it over again, I would spend more time on ensuring that we really had pinned down what it was that we were trying to achieve. We could have then worked through the ways and means of the military and political actors, ensuring that they were in fact aligned and mutually supportive. That would have allowed us to counter the classic bureaucratic tendency for every actor to prioritise their own effort.
The objective as formulated by the first Obama administration boiled down to the achievement of an Afghanistan sufficiently stable that it could no longer be a base for international terrorism. The US internal statements of the objectives we were pursuing in the years after 2009 were deliberately and increasingly narrowly focused. This formula was a reaction to the way that in the preceding years the US had signed up to overly ambitious ends. By 2007, President George W. Bush had been talking in terms of achieving a flourishing market economy and equality for all citizens.
But even when you shift to a more limited formula of achieving a stable Afghanistan with no room for international terrorism, you still have to unpick it and say what you mean, because the formula is open to different interpretations. And in a sense, to achieve clarity on the ends you have to specify which ways and means are to be prioritised. It would have made sense for us to state explicitly that the primary means we were going to use were political, not military, and that the military was required to support political action.
There are many ways in which the military can support political action. For example, it could have been directed to reduce levels of violence in specified areas, to contribute to confidence-building and diplomacy. The military could support the work of establishing contact between Taliban leaders and the US or the Afghan government. Alternatively, in its work to develop the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP), the military could have been tasked to promote forces that were representative of the population in the areas in which they operated. This would have addressed the problem of an army that recruited personnel from northern and eastern Afghanistan and sent them to fight in the south. Similarly, the military effort could have supported diplomacy by prioritising efforts to reduce corruption in contracts. In reality, we prioritised none of these things and left the military to do what it does best: delivering violence. It was as if we read the foreword to Clausewitz but did not bother to finish the book.
To understand why US strategy in Afghanistan played out in the way that it did, you have to refer to our domestic politics. In the first place, the incoming Obama Administration was primarily focused on salvaging the US economy. The free hand that was given to the military also reflected the bureaucratic alignment of the Defense and State Departments. Admiral Mike Mullen, General David Petraeus and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joined forces to support an approach that gave primacy to military action.
Then there was the personality factor. Special Representative Richard Holbrooke was the person most clearly charged with championing a holistic political-led approach. But for some reason his personality generated ‘antibodies’ and he was unable to assemble enough support within the administration to give him a chance of bringing the military into line. And in Kabul, the larger-than-life generals, McChrystal and Petraeus, simply overwhelmed our ambassadors. Finally, there was the issue of the most basic ways and means – resources. The military had at its disposal resources that just dwarfed anything the diplomats had access to.