This Week at War: The Afghanistan Vortex

What the four-stars are reading -- a weekly column from Small Wars Journal.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Petraeus's burden

Gen. David Petraeus now has the unenviable task of salvaging the campaign in Afghanistan. In his announcement of Petraeus's transfer, U.S. President Barack Obama stated that there will be no change in the campaign's strategy. With the president reaffirming his administration's analysis of the situation and its strategy for solving the problem, the implication is that success will come with continuity in management, better cooperation among the players, and more resources.

Afghanistan is becoming a deepening vortex for both the United States military and for the country's national security policies. In addition to the financial and human toll (80 ISAF soldiers have died so far this month), Afghanistan is imposing other costs on the U.S. military, on U.S. defense planning, and on America's diplomatic leverage around the world. When assessing the benefits to be achieved by the Afghan campaign, these costs also merit consideration.

Petraeus’s burden

Gen. David Petraeus now has the unenviable task of salvaging the campaign in Afghanistan. In his announcement of Petraeus’s transfer, U.S. President Barack Obama stated that there will be no change in the campaign’s strategy. With the president reaffirming his administration’s analysis of the situation and its strategy for solving the problem, the implication is that success will come with continuity in management, better cooperation among the players, and more resources.

Afghanistan is becoming a deepening vortex for both the United States military and for the country’s national security policies. In addition to the financial and human toll (80 ISAF soldiers have died so far this month), Afghanistan is imposing other costs on the U.S. military, on U.S. defense planning, and on America’s diplomatic leverage around the world. When assessing the benefits to be achieved by the Afghan campaign, these costs also merit consideration.

The administration and its military advisers have chosen a manpower-intensive counterinsurgency strategy for Afghanistan. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and a long list of officials have expressed their concerns about the implications of repeated deployments for the all-volunteer force. Afghanistan also seems to chew up generals. Gen. David McKiernan was replaced out of frustration with a lack of progress. The same frustration, expressing itself in behind-the-scenes contempt and bickering, brought down Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Now Petraeus has been recalled from a depleted bench. This move has its price. After jumping into the Afghan vortex, Petraeus will leave behind his critical duties at Central Command, which include diplomacy across the Middle East and Central Asia, the containment of Iran, and supervising the endgame in Iraq. The administration has yet to announce who, if anyone, will replace Petraeus at Centcom.

The Afghan vortex has implications for defense planning elsewhere in the world. In a speech he delivered to the Navy League in May, Gates said that the costs of rehabilitating the Army and Marine Corps, combined with the ground force’s long term manpower and family support costs, will mean that the Navy will see no increases in its budget. The secretary general of Japan’s ruling party recently argued that U.S. naval power is in decline and that Japan needs to adjust its maritime security policy accordingly. When that view spreads throughout Asia, an arms race will be inevitable.

The deepening commitment has forced the U.S. government into the position of pleading for favors from Pakistan and Russia in order to open new supply lines to the growing army in Afghanistan. The price has been to forfeit diplomatic leverage with implications for U.S. relations in Europe, India, and China.

Are the campaign objectives in Afghanistan worth all of these costs? Evidently, Obama has decided that they are. A smaller commitment to Afghanistan would presumably reduce or eliminate the costs described above. But such a course would have its own risks, which Obama has presumably considered and rejected.

Regrettably, the United States may yet end up with the worst of both worlds, namely all of the costs and few of the campaign’s expected payoffs. The campaign aims to deny al Qaeda a safe haven in Afghanistan. With its focus on population protection, the coalition has withdrawn from large portions of Afghan territory including along the Pakistan border, ceding these areas to anyone who can establish control. The campaign aims to reverse the Taliban’s momentum. But with sanctuaries along both sides of the border, the Taliban has the freedom to regulate its momentum as it sees fit.

This is the burden Petraeus has assumed. The costs stretch across the world and the United States will be paying them for years to come.

Expecting the unexpected

For nearly a decade the United States has suffered the consequences of strategic surprise. Prior to Sept. 2001, the country’s level of effort against global terrorism matched what at the time was perceived to be its  relatively low and infrequent cost. The scale of the 9/11 attack was a strategic surprise. With broad support, George W. Bush’s administration scrambled to devise a reciprocal response, the consequences of which we are still experiencing. Similarly, the U.S. military did not anticipate the requirement for large, manpower-intensive counterinsurgency and stabilization campaigns. Another strategic surprise with costly and enduring consequences.

Is there any way to avoid strategic surprise? Three U.S. government policy planners and two outside experts recently discussed the issue at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Their conclusion? The government cannot avoid surprise. The best it can do is to become more resilient to the consequences.

If we could make better forecasts about the future, we could prepare for it. When it comes to national security planning, a forecasting approach is self-defeating. Defending against adversaries and projecting influence in the world are competitive games with all sides endlessly responding to their opponent’s moves. Viewed from this perspective, it should not be a surprise that the U.S. military now finds itself fighting the kind of war for which it was least prepared — clever adversaries responded to a vulnerability U.S. planners had left open.

The solution to this dilemma is for U.S. military planners to strive for balance and to assemble a widely diversified portfolio of military capabilities. Unfortunately, this approach will by definition be wasteful. Most of the expensive capabilities in a diversified portfolio will never be used. It is true that these unused capabilities will have deteaed attacks adversaries may have otherwise contemplated. But it will still be painful to watch expensive investments making no contribution to a particular type of conflict, as occurs now.

Institutional culture also determines success or failure at coping with strategic surprise. Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently wondered what purpose the Marine Corps will serve in the future. Where is the efficiency in having a second land army? Bureaucratic competition, inter-service rivalry, and redundant capabilities are wasteful. But having a diversity of capabilities, even if seemingly redundant, hedges against strategic surprise.

In spite of Gates’s call for balance in defense planning, the Pentagon cannot affordably prepare for every contingency. And in spite of the perils of forecasting, defense planners will have to make some educated guesses about the most dangerous future threats and then prepare for them. That will mean taking risks on other flanks, to which adversaries will respond. Surprise may be inevitable. But military planners can prepare by creating a force that has adaptability built into its design.

Robert Haddick is managing editor of Small Wars Journal.

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