Reconsidering Afghanistan: Time for an "Azimuth Check"

By deVillafranca, Richard | Parameters, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Reconsidering Afghanistan: Time for an "Azimuth Check"

deVillafranca, Richard, Parameters

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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)


1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Cited article

Reconsidering Afghanistan: Time for an "Azimuth Check"


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.