With public attention understandably directed at the election campaign and the credit meltdown, the war in Afghanistan has faded from the public view. Only a trickle of press reports are being published, and the news they contain is not particularly good. Are we losing the war in Afghanistan?


Afghanistan has, of course, been a minor “theater” in the election campaign “wars.” The Obama campaign has made a point of arguing that we have “dropped the ball” in Afghanistan by diverting attention from there to Iraq. Obama proposes roughly 8,000 additional troops to Afghanistan to correct the problem. McCain acknowledges the need for more forces in Afghanistan as they become available during an Iraq drawdown, but, as a champion of the Iraq war, he can hardly agree the problem was Iraq.

Will additional American forces in Afghanistan make a decisive difference in the effort there? The answer is that it depends on what the problem is, and what can be done – if anything – to correct it.

The problem in Afghanistan is conceptualization. What is the United States (and the NATO allies) doing there? There are two possible answers. One is that the United States is engaged in a counterinsurgency campaign against the Taliban, who are attempting to overthrow the Karzai government the United States helped put in power and now supports. The other is that the United States is engaged in a counterterrorism campaign, the object of which is the destruction of al Qaeda. The two are by no means the same thing, either as a conceptual objective or as a military problem. In fact, they may even be contradictory goals if pursuing one makes the other worse (which it may well be doing).

What is the political objective in Afghanistan for the United States? Since, as Clausewitz taught us nearly two centuries ago, the objecives in war are always post-war political situations that we favor, the answer is important both for framing our actions and telling if we have achieved them (or “won”). If the objective is defeating the Taliban, the news is not very encouraging: the Taliban is resurgent, claiming control over widening amounts of territory, and issuing a broader appeal than it did in the past. If it is the destruction of al Qaeda, the news is not much better.

What is the problem here? Assuming the two goals (effectively countering the Taliban insurgency and pursuing al Qaeda) are compatible, the problem is not an ambiguity of objectives (part of the problem in Iraq), but rather how to develop military obejectives and (especially) strategies to achieve the objectives.

The cointerinsurgency (in the vernacular, COIN) problem is more familiar and is the subject of FM 3-24, the Army and Marine Corps’ doctrinal statement issued over David Petraeus’ name. Successful COIN requires control of territory (denying it to the insurgents) and the transfer of loyalty from the insurgents to the government. The former requires lots of toops (far more than is proposed) and is problematic even under the best of circumstances. The simple fact is that COIN efforts only succeed when the insurgency has very little support (Che Guevara in Bolivia, for instance). If the insurgency has the support of a goodly part of the population and its suppression is attempted by foreign, racially distinct forces, those efforts have never succeeded since 1945 (see my book Distant Thunder for a detailed explanation). Moreover, Karzai is widely viewed as an American puppet, further undercutting his appeal. The COIN being proposed smells decidedly like South Vietnam. If it is achievable, the strategy that will achieve it is not evident; FM 3-24 does NOT provide the guidance to ensure its success.

If the real objective is destroying al Qaeda, the problem changes. Seven years of experience suggests that we do not know how to carry out an effective counterterror effort in the peculiar circumstances that surround the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Military efforts have failed and have caused more ill will than anything else: botched bombing attacks that kill civilians and produce new Taliban and al Qaeda recruits, incursions into Pakistan that violate that country’s sovereignty and create anti-Americanism within the government and the people. It is possible that military efforts are simply “feel good” exercises with little prospect of success. In that case, would it not be better to pull back and negotiate with the governments to provide the assistance needed to suppress the terrorists?

It is entirely possible that the missionary zeal quite naturally created by 9/11 has put the United States in an untenable position in Afghanistan. The situation is untenable if there is no realistic way the political objectives – either defeating the Taliban insurgents or destroying al Qaeda – cannot be translated into effective strategies that will accomplish those goals. That aspect of the problem deserves a much more thorough airing than it has gotten to this point. It is time to quit breast beating and to face the problem of Afghanistan more soberly.

During the Vietnam War, Richard Rovere borrowed the lyrics from an old work song, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” to describe America’s deepening involvement there. As the song put it, “We’re waist deep in the  big muddy, and the damned fool said to go on.” In Afghanistan, we are at least thigh deep. Should we wade deeper, or turn around and go back to shore? 

Donald M. Snow, Professor Emeritus at the University of Alabama, is the author of over 40 books on foreign policy, international relations, and national security topics. His most recent book, What After Iraq?, was published in March.  Originally posted at the What After Iraq? blog.