Karl Von Clausewitz, Prussian military strategist of the 19th century, described war in his seminal text "On War" as being the continuation of politics by other means. I am not a big fan of Clausewitz. He is stiff. He is repetitive. You can almost smell the Prussian accent in his writing. He reminds me way too much of the Hegel and Kant I was forced to read as an undergraduate.
He is also, often, exactly right.
Clausewitz's point regarding the goal of war is perhaps more clear in the following quote, also taken from "On War". "The political object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and the means can never be considered in isolation from their purposes."
We don't go to war out of anger, pride or on any other emotional basis. We don't go to war based on starry-eyed romantic notions. We go to war to achieve specific political objectives. What means we will use and how we conduct the war are then driven by those objectives.
We neglect this admonition at our own peril, because the alternative is to enter into a conflict with no clear idea of its purpose and, consequently, no clear idea of how or when to bring it to a close. We do not know what we intend to achieve. We have no idea how to define victory. Soon we have no goal other than to get ourselves out of the box in to which we have placed ourselves.
We invaded Afghanistan in the Fall of 2001 with very clear, precise, narrow goals. We wanted to destroy the Al Qaida presence there, and we wanted to topple the Taliban regime that gave Al Qaida refuge. Those objectives we achieved in a matter of months utilizing a supremely effective combination of native allies, Special Operations and intelligence personnel and American airpower.
And then, having achieved that brilliant victory, we drifted, without any significant policy debate of which I am aware, into a totally different, completely open ended mission. Where before our presence on the ground had been minimal and our goals limited, we now poured in tens of thousands of conventional troops, added a huge phalanx of civilian contractors and took on the task of transforming one of the poorest and most primitive nations on Earth into a modern, secular, Western-style democratic state.
The results have been predictable.
And the events of the last several months have only served to highlight the absurdity of the direction we have taken.
Our troops, no doubt mentally crushed by the burden of fighting a seemingly endless conflict in a nation that seems to detest their presence, have been implicated in the desecration of Taliban corpses and the massacre of innocent civilians. Our Afghan allies have on numerous occasions turned on the American advisors assigned to help them and murdered them in cold blood. The border with Pakistan remains sealed, and all supplies for our forces in Afghanistan now come via a circuitous route across the Eurasian steppe at something like eight times the cost we used to pay to move supplies through Pakistan.
The President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, who owes his life and his position to the courage and fortitude of American forces, demands that we remove our troops immediately from the Afghan countryside. He opposes our holding of Taliban prisoners. He wants all night raids by our Special Operations forces, the single most effective tool we have in killing the enemy and avoiding civilian casualties, ended.
We sent $7 billion in aid to Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010. Estimates are that another $3.2 billion was sent in 2011. Many billions of dollars in additional aid are sent by other donors. So dependent does Afghanistan remain on this aid that 97% of its gross domestic product comes from outside sources. Put simply, there is no Afghan economy to speak of without foreign aid money.
And, with each passing day, the body count of our dead soldiers and Marines grows higher.
The politicians of both the major parties agonize and pontificate. Commentators and journalists opine and talk endlessly about "quagmires", "end games" and "timetables for withdrawal". Through it all, the course remains the same. We know full well what we are doing is not working. We see no real light at the end of the tunnel nor indication that we have turned a corner and begun to move in a positive direction. Yet, we continue to muddle along, doing more of the same and hoping somehow miraculously that things will improve.
They will not. We have neglected Clausewitz and paid the price. It is time to begin anew. It is time to clearly and succinctly articulate our goals in Afghanistan and to let those goals drive our actions and determine the resources we commit to the conflict.
As noted above, our original purpose for going to Afghanistan was to crush Al Qaida in that nation and topple the Taliban. Having done so our goal now should be to prevent the return of the Taliban and deny Afghanistan to terrorist groups seeking a safe haven.
Period. Full stop.
We may all wish that Afghanistan were a secular, democratic nation, which enjoyed gender equality and a modern educational system. It is not. It will not be for a very long time, if ever. Transforming it into one at the point of a bayonet is not feasible and it is not essential to our national security. That is not our mission.
Our mission is to leave Afghanistan in such a state that Americans can sleep soundly in their beds at night. Nothing more. Nothing less. And, driven by such a clear definition of our goals, the means to that end become clear.
We should withdraw as quickly as humanly possible all conventional forces, which are not either involved in the direct defense of American installations or operating in support of ongoing Special Operations missions. It is not our job to police Afghanistan. That job should be turned over to the Afghans now, with whatever minimal support and advice they need from US personnel.
We should recognize that the Afghan forces, which are going to do this policing, are not going to look anything like the neat, efficient army and police forces the bureaucrats in Washington envision when they think about such things. They are going to be an amalgam of elements of the Afghan Army, Afghan National Police, village defense forces and the private armies of warlords and local tribal chieftains. It does not matter. We do not require perfection. We require only forces capable of preventing a return of the Taliban and of maintaining Afghanistan as a nation friendly to our interests.
We should abandon all of our grandiose plans for nation building. Afghanistan is not a modern nation. It will not be for a very long time, if ever. We need to accept that and stop trying to force the Afghan people to accept values and attitudes alien to them.
We should maintain an unrelenting focus on the hunting and elimination of Al Qaeda and Taliban high value targets hostile to our national security. We should hand that mission to SOCOM and the Intelligence Community and give them the resources they need to do the job. It will take years, time and space to do the job.
The Afghanistan that these steps will produce will not be modern or secular. It will be a nation wherein the central government retains only limited control in some areas. It will also be a country that will be the scene of considerable violence for many years to come.
It will not, however, be a breeding ground for terrorism nor a launching pad for attacks on American soil. However imperfect, it will not be a threat to the United States of America. Furthermore, supporting Afghanistan in this fashion will require a small fraction of the number of troops we have there now and will cost us, in relative terms, a pittance.
And, we will know exactly what we are fighting for.