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Strategic Calculus and the Afghan War

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By George Friedman

U.S. and allied forces began their first major offensive in Afghanistan under the command of U.S. Gen David Petraeus and Gen. Stanley McChrystal this July. Inevitably, coalition casualties have begun to mount. Fifteen British soldiers have died within the past 10 days — eight of whom were killed within a 24-hour period — in Helmand province, where the operation is taking place. On July 6, seven U.S. soldiers were killed in separate attacks across Afghanistan within a single day, and on July 12 another four U.S. soldiers were reported killed in Helmand.

While the numbers are still relatively low, the reaction, particularly in the United Kingdom, has been strong. Afghanistan had long been a war of intermittent casualties, the "other war." Now it is the prime theater of operations. The United States has changed the rules of the war, and so a great many things now change.

The increase in casualties by itself does not tell us much about the success of the operation. If U.S. and NATO forces are successful in finding and attacking Taliban militants, Western casualties inevitably will spike. If the Taliban were prepared for the offensive, and small units were waiting in ambush, coalition casualties also will rise. Overall, however, the casualties remain low for the number of troops involved — and no matter how well the operation is going, it will result in casualties.

Laying the Groundwork for Counterinsurgency

According to the U.S. command, the primary purpose of the operation in Helmand is not to engage Taliban forces. Instead, the purpose is to create a secure zone in hostile territory, staying true to the counterinsurgency principle of winning hearts and minds. In other words, Helmand is supposed to be a platform for winning over the population by securing it against the Taliban, and for demonstrating that the methods used in Iraq — and in successful counterinsurgency in general — can be applied to Afghanistan.

The U.S. strategy makes a virtue out of the fundamental military problem in counterinsurgency whereby the successful insurgent declines combat when the occupying power has overwhelming force available, withdrawing, dispersing and possibly harassing the main body with hit-and-run operations designed to impose casualties and slow down the operation. The counterinsurgent's main advantage is firepower, on the ground and in the air. The insurgents' main advantage is intelligence. Native to the area, insurgents have networks of informants letting them know not only where enemy troops are, but also providing information about counterinsurgent operations during the operations' planning phases.

Insurgents will have greater say over the time and place of battle. As major operations crank up in one area, the insurgents attack in other areas. And the insurgents have two goals. The first is to wear out the counterinsurgency in endless operations that yield little. The second is to impose a level of casualties disproportionate to the level of success, making the operation either futile or apparently futile.

The insurgent cannot defeat the main enemy force in open battle; by definition, that is beyond his reach. What he can do is impose casualties on the counterinsurgent. The asymmetry of this war is the asymmetry of interest. In Vietnam, the interests of the North Vietnamese in the outcome far outweighed the interests of the Americans in the outcome. That meant the North Vietnamese would take the time needed, expend the lives required and run the risks necessary to win the war. U.S. interest in the war was much smaller. A 20-to-1 ratio of Vietnamese to U.S. casualties therefore favored the North Vietnamese. They were fighting for a core issue. The Americans were fighting a peripheral issue. So long as the North Vietnamese could continue to impose casualties on the Americans, they could push Washington to a political point where the war became not worth fighting for the United States.

The insurgent has time on his side. The insurgent is native to the war zone and has the will and patience to exhaust the enemy. The counterinsurgent always will be short of time — especially in a country like Afghanistan, where security and governing institutions will have to be built from scratch. A considerable amount of time must pass before the counterinsurgent's strategy can yield results, something McChrystal and U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates have both acknowledged. The more time passes and the more casualties mount for the counterinsurgent, the more likely public support for the counterinsurgent's war will erode. Therefore, the counterinsurgency timeline is unlikely to match up with the political timeline at home.

The Intelligence Problem

The problem of intelligence is the perpetual weakness of the counterinsurgent. The counterinsurgent is operating in a foreign country and thereby lacks the means to distinguish allies from enemy agents, or valid from invalid information. This makes winning allies among the civilian population key for the counterinsurgent.

Unless a solid base is achieved among the residents of Helmand, the coalition's intelligence problem will remain insurmountable. This explains why the current operation is focusing on holding and securing the area and winning hearts and minds. With a degree of security comes loyalty. With loyalty comes intelligence. If intelligence is the insurgent's strategic advantage, this is the way to counter it. It strikes at the center of gravity of the insurgent. Intelligence is his strong suit, and if the insurgent loses it, he loses the war.

Then there is the issue of counterintelligence. Every Afghan translator, soldier or government official is a possible breach of security for the counterinsurgent. Most of them — and certainly not all of them — are not in bed with the enemy. But some inevitably will be, and not only does that render counterinsurgent operations insecure, it also creates uncertainty among the counterinsurgents. The insurgent's ability to gather intelligence on the counterinsurgents is the insurgents' main strategic advantage. With it, insurgents can evade entrapment and choose the time and place for engagement. Without it, insurgents are blind. With it, the insurgent can fill the counterinsurgent's intelligence pipeline with misleading information. Without it, the counterinsurgent might see clearly enough to find and destroy the insurgent force.

Counterinsurgency and the al Qaeda Factor

The Afghan counterinsurgency campaign also suffers from a weakness in its strategic rationale. What makes Afghanistan critical to the United States is al Qaeda, the core group of jihadists that demonstrated the ability to launch transcontinental attacks against the West from Afghanistan. The argument has been that without U.S. troops in the country and a pro-American government in Kabul, al Qaeda might return, rebuild and strike again. That makes Afghanistan a strategic interest for the United States

But there is a strategic divergence between the war against al Qaeda and the war against the Taliban. Some will argue that al Qaeda remains operational and, therefore, the United States must make a long-term military investment in Afghanistan to deprive the enemy of sanctuary.

But while some al Qaeda members remain to issue threatening messages from the region, the group's ability to meet covertly, recruit talent, funnel money and execute operations from the region has been hampered considerably. The overall threat value of al Qaeda, in our view, has declined. If this is a war that pivots on intelligence, the mission to block al Qaeda eventually may once again be left to the covert capabilities of U.S. intelligence and Special Operations Command, whether in Afghanistan, Pakistan or elsewhere.

Widening the war's objectives to defeating the Taliban insurgency through a resource-intensive hearts-and-minds campaign requires time and patience, both of which lie with the insurgent. If the United States were to draw the conclusion that al Qaeda was no longer functional, and that follow-on organizations may be as likely to organize attacks from Somalia or Pakistan as they would be from Afghanistan, then the significance of Afghanistan declines.

That creates the asymmetry that made the Vietnam War unsustainable. The Taliban have nowhere else to go. They have fought as an organization since the 1990s, and longer than that as individuals. Their interest in the future of Afghanistan towers over the American interest if it is determined that the al Qaeda-Afghanistan nexus is no longer decisive. If that were to happen, then the willingness of the United States to absorb casualties would decline dramatically.

This is not a question of the American will to fight; it is a question of the American interest in fighting. In Vietnam, the United States fought for many years. At a certain point, the likelihood of a cessation of conflict declined, along with the likelihood of U.S. victory, such that the rational U.S. interest in remaining in Vietnam and taking casualties disappeared. In Vietnam, there was an added strategic consideration: The U.S. military was absorbed in Vietnam while the main threat was from the Soviet Union in Europe. Continuing the war increased the risk in Europe. So the United States withdrew from Vietnam.

The Taliban obviously want to create a similar dynamic in Afghanistan — the same dynamic the mujahideen used against the Soviets there. The imposition of casualties in a war of asymmetric interests inevitably generates political resistance among those not directly committed to the war. The command has a professional interest in the war, the troops have a personal and emotional commitment. They are in the war, and look at the war as a self-contained entity, worth fighting in its own right.

Outside of those directly involved in the war, including the public, the landscape becomes more complex. The question of whether the war is worth fighting becomes the question, a question that is not asked — and properly so — in the theater of operations. The higher the casualty count, the more the interests involved in the war are questioned, until at some point, the equation shifts away from the war and toward withdrawal.

Avoiding Asymmetry of Interests

The key for the United States in fighting the war is to avoid asymmetry of interests. If the war is seen as a battle against the resumption of terrorist attacks on the United States, casualties are seen as justified. If the war is seen as having moved beyond al Qaeda, the strategic purpose of the war becomes murky and the equation shifts. There have been no attacks from al Qaeda on the United States since 2001. If al Qaeda retains some operational capability, it is no longer solely dependent on Afghanistan to wage attacks. Therefore, the strategic rationale becomes tenuous.

The probe into Helmand is essentially an intelligence battle between the United States and the Taliban. But what is striking is that even at this low level of casualties, there are already reactions. A number of prominent news media outlets have highlighted the rise in casualties, and the British are reacting strongly to the fact that total British casualties in Afghanistan have now surpassed the number of British troops killed in Iraq. The response has not risen to the level that would be associated with serious calls for a withdrawal, but even so, it does give a measure of the sensitivity of the issue.

Petraeus is professionally committed to the war and the troops have shed sweat and blood. For them, this war is of central importance. If they can gain the confidence of the population and if they can switch the dynamics of the intelligence war, the Taliban could wind up on the defensive. But if the Taliban can attack U.S. forces around the country, increasing casualties, the United States will be on the defensive. The war is a contest now between the intelligence war and casualties. The better the intelligence, the fewer the casualties. But it seems to us that the intelligence war will be tougher to win than it will be for the Taliban to impose casualties.

U.S. President Barack Obama is in the position Richard Nixon found himself in back in 1969. Having inherited a war he didn't begin, Nixon had the option of terminating it. He chose instead to continue to fight it. Obama has the same choice. He did not start the Afghan war, and in spite of his campaign rhetoric, he does not have to continue it. After one year in office, Nixon found that Lyndon Johnson's war had become his war. Obama will experience the same dilemma.

The least knowable variable is Obama's appetite for this war. He will see casualties without any guarantee of success. If he does attempt to negotiate a deal with the Taliban, as Nixon did with the North Vietnamese, any deal is likely to be as temporary as Nixon's deal proved. The key is the intelligence he is seeing, and whether he has confidence in it. If the intelligence says the war in Afghanistan blocks al Qaeda attacks on the United States, he will have to continue it. If there is no direct link, then he has a serious problem.

Obama clearly has given Petraeus a period of time to fight the war. We suspect Obama does not want the Afghan war to become his war. Therefore, there have to be limits on how long Petraeus has. These limits are unlikely to align with the counterinsurgency timeline. The Taliban, meanwhile, constitute a sophisticated insurgent group and understand the dynamics of American politics. If they can impose casualties on the United States now, before the intelligence war shifts in Washington's favor, then they might shift Obama's calculus.

This is what the Afghan war is now about.

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