Disjointed Ways, Disunified Means: Learning from America's Struggle to Build an Afghan Nation
Authored by Colonel Lewis G. Irwin.
Remarkably ambitious in its audacity and scope, NATO’s irregular warfare and nation-building mission in Afghanistan has struggled to meet its nonmilitary objectives by most tangible measures. Put directly, the Alliance and its partners have fallen short of achieving the results needed to create a stable, secure, democratic, and self-sustaining Afghan nation, a particularly daunting proposition given Afghanistan’s history and culture, the region’s contemporary circumstances, and the fact that no such country has existed there before. Furthermore, given the central nature of U.S. contributions to this NATO mission, these shortfalls also serve as an indicator of a serious American problem as well. Specifically, inconsistencies and a lack of coherence in the U.S. Government’s strategic planning processes and products, as well as fundamental flaws in the U.S. Government’s structures and systems for coordinating and integrating the efforts of its various agencies, are largely responsible for this adverse and dangerous situation. This book explores these strategic and interagency shortfalls, while proposing potential reforms that would enable the United States to achieve the strategic coherence and genuine unity of effort that will be needed in an era of constrained resources and emerging new threats.
Remarkably ambitious in its audacity and scope, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) irregular warfare and “nation-building” mission in Afghanistan has struggled to meet its nonmilitary objectives by most tangible measures. Put directly, the alliance and its partners have fallen short of achieving the results needed to create a stable, secure, democratic, and self-sustaining Afghan nation, a particularly daunting proposition given Afghanistan’s history and culture, the region’s contemporary circumstances, and the fact that no such country has existed there before. Furthermore, given the central nature of U.S. contributions to this NATO mission, these shortfalls also serve as an indicator of a serious American problem as well. Specifically, inconsistencies and a lack of coherence in U.S. Government strategic planning processes and products, as well as fundamental flaws in U.S. Government structures and systems for coordinating and integrating the efforts of its various agencies, are largely responsible for this adverse and dangerous situation.
As a rationally ordered expression of the ways and means to be applied in the protection of vital national security interests, strategy is supposed to represent a careful analysis and prioritization of the particular interests at stake. In turn, these interests are linked to feasible methods and the resources that are available for their protection, all placed within the context of competing global security demands and a serious consideration of risk. In the case of Afghanistan, however, U.S. Government strategic guidance has been disjointed--or inconsistent and lacking coherence--while interagency efforts have been “disunified,” with agency outputs too often fragmented, inadequate, or internally at odds with one another. As a result, U.S. strategic supervision of the Afghan operation has been muddled and shifting at best, even as our government’s interagency processes and available agency capabilities have fallen far short of what is needed to carry out the complex and broad requirements of irregular warfare and “nation-building.” Given the breadth, length, and expense of the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan, these strategic and operational shortfalls also carry with them potentially dire consequences for U.S. national security interests around the globe, considering potential first- and second-order effects and other associated risks. U.S. Government disjointed ways, coupled with a corresponding disunity of means, represent the proximate cause of our struggles in Afghanistan, and these deficiencies must be addressed if this mission and other similar future endeavors are to succeed.
Applying a finer resolution to the problem, these setbacks can be largely attributed to four related causes, each of which can be traced back to corresponding shortcomings at the national strategic level of planning and decisionmaking. As a first root cause, our struggles in Afghanistan stem at least in part from the immense challenges that Afghanistan poses as a candidate for nation-building and irregular warfare in the first place. These challenges include significant economic, sociological, demographic, political cultural, geographic, and even anthropological impediments that continue to stand in the way of any successful nation-building in Afghanistan. Compounding these obstacles is the fact that there are both internal and external actors who regard the notion of a stable, secure, democratic, and self-sustaining Afghanistan as a potent threat to their own vital interests. Furthermore, these enormous challenges seem to have been largely underestimated, misunderstood, or ignored by national-level decisionmakers as the United States commenced irregular warfare operations in the region and subsequently expanded the effort to encompass Afghan nation-building. All in all, the public record yields little evidence of any frank acknowledgment or systematic analysis of these major obstacles as the United States added nation-building to the original combat mission.
As a second root cause of our difficulties, the U.S. Government has also failed to articulate and maintain a set of clear, consistent, and feasible national security objectives in Afghanistan. Nor have we linked those objectives to practical methods for achieving them that match the realities of the situation on the ground or the agency resources and capabilities available to execute them--failing to link strategic ends, ways, and means. Exacerbating this lack of strategic coherence, only in recent years has the United States defined the compelling national security interests at stake in Afghanistan and the region in a conclusive way. As a result, the justifications and desired end states for this mission have shifted and drifted over the years that the United States was engaged in irregular warfare and nation-building. Compounding this strategic drift, mismatched instruments of national power have been misapplied in the pursuit of two vague and possibly infeasible broader national security strategies. Reviewing the evidence then, the United States appears to have backed into nation-building in Afghanistan with little serious analysis of the likely costs, duration, or of the feasibility of the mission. There is also little evidence of any clear-headed sense of what the second-order effects of this “mission creep” might be for other U.S. strategic interests around the globe. In sum, the process of strategy formulation has clearly fallen short of what it is supposed to be at the national level.
Partly as a result of this strategic disjointedness, the third and fourth root causes of U.S. difficulties in Afghanistan represent natural extensions of these deficiencies in strategic planning and mission guidance at the national level. As a third root cause of our struggles in Afghanistan, there is a clear mismatch between the existing organizational cultures, core competencies, and available capabilities of the key U.S. agencies involved in the mission and the demands and requirements of irregular warfare and nation-building operations. In particular, the Department of Defense (DoD), the State Department (DoS), and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) serve as the “key three” U.S. agencies with roles and responsibilities in irregular warfare and nation-building, with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the mix as a shadowy fourth. For a host of reasons, however, none of these three organizations or the others charged with roles and responsibilities in these operations is well-suited to the particular tasks required of them by these expansive and complex missions.
Lastly, the fourth root cause of the U.S. Government’s checkered performance in Afghanistan has been its consistent failure to apply the full weight of its various instruments of power to achieve the desired goals. This problem is largely due to the inability or unwillingness of these various agencies to agree upon the operational-level ends, ways, and means needed to prosecute the mission successfully. This operational-level disunity of effort also stems from structural deficiencies in the mechanisms for facilitating interagency coordination and integration, and this deficiency has contributed directly and significantly to the broader shortfalls in the Afghan mission.
While these shortcomings in the interagency coordinating structures and processes are commonly recognized by participants and observers alike, there is no consensus regarding the corrective actions needed to solve this critical concern. Furthermore, the remedies applied to correct this problem to date have been more cosmetic than substantive in nature. So although there are many very talented people working hard to achieve “success” in Afghanistan, the efforts of U.S. agencies have been disunified in many cases and actually counterproductive in some others. Given the realities of major resource disparities, missing capabilities, and weak interagency integrating mechanisms, the United States turned to DoD as a stop-gap substitute for those missing capabilities. The United States also turned to DoD as a substitute for the actual robust “whole of government” interagency structures needed to meet the major challenges associated with irregular warfare and nation-building operations.
Having settled upon this approach for reasons that are justifiable in some respects and questionable in others, the evidence illustrates that this method has brought with it some advantages but also major and distinct disadvantages--and generally poor results. Accordingly, the U.S. effort in Afghanistan must serve as more than a mere cautionary reminder of T. E. Lawrence’s sage observation that even in the best of circumstances, irregular warfare is “messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife,” as thinker and practitioner John Nagl famously quoted in his seminal book on counterinsurgency. Instead, we must learn the right lessons from our experience in Afghanistan, including the realization that achieving success in Afghanistan and in other similar national security challenges in the future will require more than simple, cosmetic changes to our national security apparatus. We must first improve our structures and processes for generating strategic analysis, plans, and guidance to achieve strategic coherence. Then we must reorganize the U.S. Government processes and systems for coordinating and integrating agency and departmental effort, if we are to realize the genuine unity of effort that will be vitally important in an era of constrained resources and emerging new threats.
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