November 1, 2005  

Success in Afghanistan means fighting several wars at once

Why are we winning in Afghanistan? In the simplest terms, we’ve gotten the strategy reasonably right.

How did this happen? Let me tell you the story as I saw it as the chief of staff for Combined Forces Command, Afghanistan, the headquarters of the military coalition known as CFC-A. I’ll focus particularly on the unique interagency process and structure that rapidly shifted the strategy in Afghanistan from a counterterrorist to a counterinsurgency effort.

The development of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005 was the result of an integrated civilian and military team — senior leaders who made it their business to be in continual dialogue and discussion with Bush administration policymakers, with members of the international coalition and even with nongovernmental organizations. In rebuilding one of the world’s most devastated countries, this was simple pragmatism. We could not afford to be at cross purposes.

This attitude began at the top. Strategic success was based on the close, daily working relationship of the U.S. ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, and the commander of Combined Forces Command, Lt. Gen. David Barno. These two kept in close contact with the government of Afghanistan and President Hamid Karzai, the United Nations and the international community. Over time, these leaders fostered a remarkable environment of mutual trust and support. This enabled the United States to work toward its goals and objectives through both the government of Afghanistan and the international community, producing concrete actions on the ground at a quicker pace than the opponents of Karzai’s government could react.

This strategic change came with the simultaneous establishment of CFC-A headquarters in Kabul in the fall of 2003. The fact that the commander began and ended every day in an office 30 feet from the ambassador’s was no mistake. It sent the message of T.E. Lawrence that this was an integrated political and military effort in which every dollar spent on building Afghan capacity to govern and deliver goods and services to its population may be worth more, in the long run, than 10 bullets fired at insurgents.


The strategic vision that emerged was that there were, and remain, three simultaneous wars occurring in Afghanistan. The first is directed toward terrorist senior leadership. The center of gravity for this fight is intelligence-driven military “kinetic” operations: killing or capturing bad guys.

The second war is against al-Qaeda, the Taliban and other terrorist and insurgent networks. The center of gravity for this war is the people of Afghanistan, winning their hearts and minds.

The remaining war involves those centrifugal forces that can tear the country apart internally: warlords, narcotics and factionalism. The key to success in this war is extending the reach and effectiveness of the Afghan government.

Based on this strategic concept, the United States embarked on a counterinsurgency campaign aimed at driving a wedge between the insurgents and the people by extending both the reach and effectiveness of the government in Kabul throughout the country; we needed President Karzai to be more than the “mayor of Kabul,” as critics often describe him. The important caveat was that all interagency operations would have an Afghan, not just an American, face. The intent was to build true Afghan capacity for governance.

The stated mission of the command remains the same: “Conduct full-spectrum operations throughout the entire area of operations in order to establish enduring security, set the conditions for the defeat of Al Qaeda and associated groups, and deter the re-emergence of terrorism in the region.”

While “full-spectrum operations” has become something of a cliche, the real issue for U.S. forces was how to conduct a nation-building program while at the same time being in combat.

To be truthful, we were blessed by the absence of existing doctrine. Creating a workable counterinsurgency solution came, in most instances, from the creativity of the junior leaders on the ground. Everything from the tactical analysis of tribal affiliations in Kandahar, to economic enterprise zones at the Provincial Reconstruction Team, or PRT, in Gardez, to the reconciliation program for the Taliban, began on the ground.

The source of this nascent counterinsurgency doctrine was self-education — Books-A-Million. The most popular title was the Marine Corps’ Small Wars Manual, followed by “A Better War,” “How to Eat Soup with a Knife” and “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.”

The ideas developed by subordinate commanders were supported by an open-minded command and interagency structure that allowed us to rapidly respond and to shape the security and political landscape. Centrally, the military campaign plan developed was an unconstrained planning effort, incorporating all elements of national power, in close collaboration with all U.S. interagency partners in country. The final product of the planning effort was a military plan fully synchronized with the chief of mission’s action plan for the attainment of U.S. goals and objectives in Afghanistan. That’s right: The State and Defense departments worked together.

The key interagency task highlighted in the planning effort was to defeat terrorism and insurgency as part of the larger global war on terror. The second priority was to support the Afghan government and the coalition “lead nations” — different partners took the primary role in different provinces — in the re-integration or defeat of warlords and militias.

But the task list simply went on from there: defeat the narcotics network; build the competency and capacity of the Afghan security services in conjunction with the international community and other agencies; enable reconstruction, reconciliation and socioeconomic development throughout the country as part of an integrated economic strategy. The goals are also regional: We wanted to support the Karzai government in establishing a coordinated regional approach to key issues including transnational terrorism, border security, economic development and counternarcotics.

This was never meant as a “rapid, decisive operation.” The Afghanistan campaign plan spans five years and begins with a consolidation phase that started with Karzai’s inauguration. During this phase, the coalition set the conditions for successful national assembly elections, and will maintain the political and military momentum from the presidential election by building Afghan governmental capacity. This phase ends with the seating of the legitimately elected national assembly.

During the transition phase that follows, coalition ground forces will switch tactical emphasis from counterterrorist and counterinsurgency operations to supporting the Afghans in the re-integration of remaining militia — this is a crucial task — and further disrupt the narcotics network, all the while continuing to build Afghan governmental capacity. It was clear to us from the start that creating a coherent and legitimate state was the definition of victory. The transition phase ends when the Afghans assume the primary responsibility for their internal security.


From the start, Afghan strategy has been a coalition strategy. Due to the lead nation concept agreed to in Berlin in 2002, almost all U.S. plans, policies and operations have required close coordination with the four other “lead nations” contributing to the effort. Therefore, while the United States conducted the lion’s share of counterterrorism and kinetic counterinsurgency operations, Japan was the lead for the disarmament of warlords, Great Britain headed counternarcotics operations, Germany worked on developing the Afghan National Police, and Italy invested in judicial reform.

Additionally, the Combined Forces Command conducted close and continual coordination with the International Stabilization Assistance Force, which controlled all operations in northern, and as of May, western Afghanistan.

The shift to a counterinsurgency focus and the effort to develop and maintain support among the Afghan people was manifested in the rapid expansion of the PRT effort. These military-led interagency teams served as the practical interface between the coalition effort and the Afghan people. Armed with a range of nation-building expertise and rapid direct funding for local projects, the PRT program expanded from four to 19 teams throughout the country, with the major effort in the south and east. What confronted the insurgents migrating back from safe havens in Pakistan in the spring of 2004 was a permanent coalition presence at the local level.

The PRT success, combined with an aggressive coalition military campaign targeted solely at the insurgents, set the conditions for the important first political step: successful presidential elections.

Fully understanding the danger, the Afghan insurgents promised to disrupt the elections. Yet some Taliban realized early on that the ballot box, not violence, was to be the future in Afghanistan. These groups approached Afghan tribal elders and coalition forces directly in an attempt to come in from the cold.

We wanted to exploit this impulse as much as we could. Through Combined Joint Task Force 76, we proposed an “allegiance program” through which Taliban fighters could rejoin Afghan society. Two days after this concept was briefed to Ambassador Kalilzad, the government of Afghanistan approved it. The psychological implications were enormous. The command rapidly developed a reconciliation program for former Taliban, and began a release program of 80 former Taliban each month from U.S. detention facilities, again involving the Afghan government in a central role.

The purpose was not simply one of goodwill, but sound strategy: We sought to create seams, fissures and doubt among the insurgent groups, al-Qaeda, the Taliban and the home-grown organization of Afghan Islamist warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. The program is now run exclusively by the Afghans themselves. Additionally, there was a continually shrinking sanctuary for insurgents along the Afghan border due to an aggressive offensive by the Pakistani military.


The development of the security sector had made significant progress by October 2004. The advance has been led by the now multi-ethnic Afghan National Army, the ANA. Its key role in mitigating the influence of Afghanistan’s most powerful warlord —Ismael Kahn, the governor of Herat province — is a significant measure of the central government’s growing writ beyond Kabul.

In the middle of August 2004, Ismael Khan began a violent squabble with another local power broker, Amanullah Kahn, in the vicinity of the Shindand airfield south of Herat. Within days, ANA deployed more than 700 soldiers and hundreds more Afghan National Police, or ANP. These forces seized Shindand National Airport, separated the militias, took Amanullah Kahn into government custody and disarmed Ismael Kahn forces of their heavy weapons and began moving them to a containment site in the vicinity of the commercial airport at Herat.

Despite two days of civil violence in Herat by Ismael Khan’s supporters, who damaged the UN offices there, the entire episode was over by month’s end. And after spurning Karzai’s offers for months, Ismael Kahn now directs the GoA’s energy program in Kabul. He will also be the first to tell you that Karzai does indeed have influence outside of Kabul.

The Herat experience did reveal that serious work needed to be done with the Afghan National Police. Their lack of equipment and training was evident. The Afghan government, with U.S. support, quickly worked to equip and train thousands of policemen in preparation for the presidential elections just two months away.

The stopgap measure to shore up the ANP worked. They provided a significant security presence, backed by the ANA, at thousands of polling places and counting houses during the election. However, there’s no denying that the ANP has long-term problems that must be addressed. Along with the ANP, the coalition military worked closely with the U.S. embassy and German government representatives in Kabul to develop a viable plan to reform the ministry of interior and the police, using the model of the program that created the ANA and is reforming the ministry of defense. The key here will be interagency coordination in Washington on how the police reform effort will be conducted and funded. Only a robust commitment of American planners in Kabul will see the successful reform of the Afghan interior ministry.

There is much that has gone very well in Afghanistan; yes, we’re winning. But a complete victory is still distant. The military and, in particular, the political and economic dimensions of the problem demand a continued U.S. military presence and long-term commitment to Afghanistan and the region.

Army Col. David Lamm is a professor of strategy at the National War College. He previously served as chief of staff of the Combined Forces Command, Afghanistan.