The Obama administration is rethinking its strategy in Afghanistan. NATO is developing its new strategic concept. And the United States military is conducting its strategic defense review. It seems that one cannot talk about international affairs today without first thinking about strategy.

In spite of being ubiquitous, strategy is frequently misused to describe something that is most important, most pressing or most dangerous. Yet, strategy has a specific meaning.

The current issue of Joint Force Quarterly is dedicated to understanding strategy. The journal is published for the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff and its timing is flawless. The editor, retired Marine colonel David Gurney, argues that “strategists cannot hope to arrive at a secure destination of mastery in the face of complexity and nonlinear change. Strategy demands an endless pursuit of contextual knowledge that is organized around and built upon a foundation of scholarship and social insight.” As governments and organizations revise and rebuild strategies, Gurney wants strategists to reduce the risk of adopting simple solutions.

The challenge for the strategist is to coordinate the various levers of national power in a coherent or smart way. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emphasized this during her January 2009 confirmation testimony when she argued, “We must use what has been called “smart power”: the full range of tools at our disposal — diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal, and cultural — picking the right tool, or combination of tools, for each situation.”

As we approach the 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall collapse, the need for strategy guiding international affairs is omnipresent. Ike Skelton, Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, observed:

Our international actions can be likened to a pickup sandlot baseball game rather than a solid course of action.  Major policies are sometimes inconsistent and contradictory and so we sometimes suffer from a splintering of national power, and an inability to coherently address threats and reassure and cooperate with allies around the world.

The goal of strategy is to be proactive and contrasts with crisis management. At a minimum strategy sets priorities. As Frederick the Great is reported to have said, he who attempts to defend everything defends nothing.

In its simplest form, strategy helps either prevent train wrecks or prepare for train wrecks.  In the aforementioned issue of JFQ, my colleague Jim Cook and I offered a framework for “Translating National Strategy into Theater Strategy.” We argued that, at a minimum, strategy links ends, ways, and means. For the U.S. Defense Department, strategy is “the art and science of developing and employing instruments of national power in a synchronized and integrated fashion to achieve theater, national, and/or multinational objectives.” Or, strategy is about how leadership can use the power available to the state to exercise control over people, places, things, and events to achieve objectives in accordance with national interests and policies.

When thinking about Afghanistan, it is essential first to identify the desired end-states. This will certainly be the most contentious issue and should be the most important subject of debate. Desired end states can vary from:

  • Create a functioning Afghan democratic state, multi-plural society, and market economy
  • Prevent Afghanistan from being a launching point for terrorism
  • Normalize relations with the Taliban to facilitate NATO withdrawal

Discussions should be tempered by a good analysis of the security environment. External actors are limited in what they can accomplish must take into account the society it is trying to help. Success depends not only on the ability of NATO forces to execute the strategy, but also depends on the Karzai government, the Afghan people, neighboring Pakistan and Iran, and the Taliban. To paraphrase an old saying, the enemy (and friends) get a vote too.

After a desired end state is imagined, the Obama administration and other NATO partners in Afghanistan must consider the ways of achieving the end state. Again, there are choices that should be informed by serious debate.

  • If the desired end is to create a functioning state, then an appropriate way is to deploy additional NATO forces to conduct counterinsurgency operations and increase the size of Afghan security forces
  • If the desired end is to reduce the likelihood of Afghanistan from becoming a terrorist haven, then efforts can focus on targeting terrorist groups (similar to Somalia)
  • If normal relations are the goal, then diplomatic efforts must seek to reconcile with Taliban leaders (similar to Iraq)

Next, a good strategy identifies the appropriate means to execute the ways of the strategy.

  • If counterinsurgency operations increase, then additional forces are needed to root out the Taliban, provide security for Afghan territory, and facilitate reconstruction.
  • If counterterrorism is the main way to achieve the desired end-state, then additional intelligence units will be necessary to facilitate targeting. These units must be on the ground and in the air.
  • If increasing the Afghan security forces is the primary way, then additional trainers are required.

Finally, a good strategy assesses risk as it relates to the ends, ways, and means. Risk discussions should transcend the pessimistic “what if” questions. Instead, risk should identify the gaps between the desired ends, ways, and means. To be clear, ISAF is assuming risk today by attempting to achieve particular desired ends without the available means. Of those debates General McChrystal’s speech at IISS kicked off, the most important is understanding the current gap that exists among ends, ways, and means.

Derek Reveron, an Atlantic Council contributing editor, is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.  These views are his own.  Photo cropped from JFQ cover.