For some time now, our trajectory and strategy in Afghanistan have been flat. We are not losing, and we are not winning. We find ourselves in an operational stalemate where progress on governance, reconstruction, and economic development--the core of our state-building strategy--is slowing while requirements for security and additional military force are accelerating. This condition is dangerous, given the American cultural urge to move on to new challenges. The Pakistanis and Afghans are not only aware of this tendency, they remember it, rendering our protestations of constancy moot. Even Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, ousted by the United States in 2001, understands the virtue of patience. "Americans have all the watches," he once observed, "but we have all the time."
What Mullah Omar is suggesting is that if we are not winning, we are losing. He seems to grasp, possibly better than we do, that the United States and the international community cannot maintain their current level of commitment to Afghanistan indefinitely, probably not even for another five years. His prognosis, if correct, carries profound implications for US strategy.
Two Strategic Mistakes
Why we are not winning is complex but can be traced to two strategic errors, both of which are remediable. The first error centers on state-building: We have adopted a standard western state-building template that does not fit Afghan conditions particularly well. Expectations, both ours and the Afghans', are not aligned with reality, not just in terms of outcomes but also in terms of the time it will take to achieve them. The second mistake is more dangerous to our overall objectives in Afghanistan. It centers on the Taliban insurgency, which we perceive in one dimension (as a military--our military--problem). This perception drives American strategy and the instruments of US power we choose, with decreasing returns, to apply to it. But there are other parties to the conflict. Pakistan, the Afghan people, and the insurgents themselves view the insurgency in ways that differ significantly from our perspective. A successful strategy for defeating the insurgency needs to be based on a clearer, deeper understanding of what these parties want.
Barring a major revision in strategy, our trajectory in Afghanistan is likely to continue to be flat, or worse. Most Afghans still think things are a little better now than they were before we came. But they also wonder why things are not a lot better, and a lot safer. The longer they wonder, the harder our task becomes, because while we may have a reputation for impatience, we do not own it outright. Thus the Mullah's strategy: If he is not losing, he is winning.
A Matter of Time
The current approach is an acceptable strategy, but it is not without flaws. The Taliban cannot defeat NATO militarily, but they do not have to; their best weapon is time. They can retard governance, reconstruction, and development, diminish security for the population, and erode national will. In essence, they can shorten the time available for state-building. A waiting game, however, is passive. It cedes the tactical domain to the United States, NATO, and the international community, betting that under the conditions that support the insurgency those actors will make operational mistakes that will result in their losing the contest in the long run. This strategy also assumes that America lacks the vision and agility either to recover from our operational mistakes or to craft an overall strategy that could make time switch sides.
That line of reasoning makes Afghanistan still ours to win or lose. If we are to win, it is commonly understood, we have to identify the mistakes being made in our operations, militarily as well as in project assistance. But beyond the simple identification of mistakes, we are actually expected to fix these errors and omissions, a much more difficult proposition that is often overcome by doctrine, politics, and budgets. …