Derek Reveron’s “In Search of Strategy” is an excellent piece on a subject that deserves more attention.  It brought to mind the definition laid out Everett Dolman’s Pure Strategy: “strategy, in its simplest form, is a plan for attaining continuing advantage.”

  It is this plain, yet revealing definition that illuminates why strategy is so important to America today.

As Reveron points out, strategy is an “endless pursuit of contextual knowledge,” and this coincides nicely with Dolman’s belief:

[There is a] crucial difference between strategists and tacticians.  The tactical thinker seeks an answer.  And while coming to a conclusion can be the beginning of action, it is too often the end of critical thinking.  The strategist will instead search for the right questions; those to which the panorama of possible answers provides insight and spurs ever more questions….Strategy is thus an unending process that can never lead to conclusion.  And this is the way it should be:  continuation is the goal of strategy—not culmination. [All emphasis in original.]

It is this kind of reasoning that leads to strategic thought in terms of continuing advantage—how to consistently adjust to the context of a dynamic world and navigate forward to a point of advantage vis-à-vis other actors.

While many policymakers today would like nothing more than to move forward on an Afghanistan strategy, it is premature to drill down too quickly on a specific subject.  First, U.S. policymakers need to consider where America should be in order to have a continuing advantage given the global context of the day.

This context involves a great many factors; one could even argue it involves everything.  For example, a cursory look at current events reveals an ongoing debate about subjects from missile defense to Afghanistan to energy security to economic recovery to weapons proliferation.  Inevitably, a strategist must make choices between multiple paths that all lead to a different future based on various applications of the national instruments of power—diplomatic, informational, military and economic—and what areas are deemed most important for U.S. advantage.

When tackling U.S. foreign policy options, the strategist must constantly keep in mind Dolman’s idea of continuing advantage and ask the right questions.  Across the incredible panoply of issues facing the nation on the global stage, Afghanistan occupies a great deal of front page news and consumes an incredible amount of U.S. policymakers’ efforts.

This raises some very serious questions:  Should Afghanistan consume this amount of strategic thinking?  Is Afghanistan the top priority for the United States?  Will achieving success in Afghanistan place the United States in a position of continuing advantage on the world stage?  If so, what are those advantages?

It is difficult to find a concise argument for how success in Afghanistan will place America in a position of continuing advantage in the future.  I’m even willing to concede the point, for the sake of this argument, that the U.S. will be able to define success in Afghanistan and be able to achieve it.  These are important concessions to be sure.  However, it is important to start strategic thought at a higher level—there needs to be an answer to how Afghan success will give the U.S. a continuing advantage.  Without a powerful argument for what the U.S. advantage will be, the how pales in comparison.

Is the continuing advantage of Afghan success that Al Qaeda will not be able to use Afghanistan as a secure base of operations for terrorist attacks against the U.S.?  Al Qaeda can plan from other ungoverned places such as Pakistani tribal areas, Somalia, Yemen or Sudan.  Is the continuing advantage of Afghan success that nuclear-armed Pakistan will be more stable?  Surely there are better ways to stabilize Pakistan than stationing 68,000 or more U.S. troops in Afghanistan, with all the concomitant effects these combat troops have on local governance, security and people.  Is the continuing advantage of Afghan success that U.S. credibility will remain intact?  American credibility remained solid after Vietnam despite the backdrop of the Soviet Union and the Cold War.  There are a host of other issues where America can continue to prove its credibility—assisting in Pakistani-Indian discord being just one example.

There is increasing attention on Pakistan as a source of U.S. interest.  Many organizations, both government and private, now look not at Afghanistan but at the entire “AfPak” region as the issue.  The radical Islamic forces fueling the fight against U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan also threaten the Pakistani government and its primary institution of stability, the Pakistani Army, as witnessed by the recent attack on the Army HQ in Rawalpindi.  Such attention to Pakistan is worthwhile given the nuclear weapons safeguarded by the Pakistani military.

Pakistan needs assistance in getting its house in order.  And much of the reason Pakistan needs assistance is its preoccupation with India as an external threat.  This finally is an area where U.S. strategy could yield a continuing advantage—American assistance in ending Pakistani-Indian discord would allow the Pakistani government to focus the necessary resources to secure its ungoverned spaces.  Pakistan has a central government and a capable security apparatus, not only essential elements that Afghanistan lacks but also institutions that increasing U.S. aid have a good chance of improving, to the benefit of several important issues to the U.S.—eliminating terrorist havens, checking nuclear weapons proliferation (especially to terrorist groups) and preventing another failed state.

When thinking about U.S. foreign policy strategy, America needs to plot a course that takes it to a position of continuing advantage.  Afghanistan holds little, if any, continuing advantage for the U.S., even if America could define success there and figure out how to achieve it.  Now is the time to migrate U.S. resources against the Pakistani problem.  But these resources must have oversight—American investment in the AfPak region has been too great (in lives and treasure) to simply open the spigot to a Pakistan with little history of efficiently using U.S. funds to accomplish mutual goals.  Such a strategy has much promise for a continuing U.S. advantage.

Lt Col Paul Bauman, U.S. Air Force, is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council.  The views expressed in his articles are his own and do not reflect official U.S. Air Force or other U.S. Government opinions or policies.