Turning the Corner in Afghanistan

By my mind’s creation
Wonders shall I do.

—Goethe, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”

In the November/December 2017 issue of Foreign Affairs, Kosh Sadat and Stanley McChrystal defended the ongoing state-building and counterinsurgency project in Afghanistan as both right and necessary. In doing so, however, they revived the fallacies that have long obscured problematic aspects of the U.S.-led campaign in that country. Proponents of the open-ended commitments to Afghanistan have long misrepresented the governance and security issues in Afghanistan as merely technical, albeit complicated, and overstated the ability of American means to remedy such issues. Like others before them, Sadat and McChrystal have addressed neither the complex prerequisites to state building nor the consequences of ongoing American political ambivalence towards the war. Either one of these factors alone could derail U.S. aims. The fact that both are present should give policymakers pause.

State Building in Afghanistan

Any functioning state rests upon a reliable bureaucracy, and Afghanistan’s leaders have yet to establish one. Afghan elites have continued to manipulate the function of those institutions to bolster their own legitimacy or to attack that of their rivals. Such infighting corrupts the evolution of institutional structures and how they relate to each other. Established bureaucracies enjoy legitimacy by expert authority rather than natural (i.e. tribal or familial) or charismatic (i.e. supernatural) authority. For bureaucracies to resist cooptation they must have the opportunity to establish internal norms and political equity on the basis of expertise alone; the proverbial egg must precede the proverbial chicken.[1]

Afghans do not have a living bureaucratic tradition like that of pre-modern China, which can provide the cultural soil for nourishing viable state structures. Thus, would-be Afghan state-builders are obligated to cultivate a political deference to expertise if they aspire to establish a stable ally in Kabul. This is a daunting proposition because it requires the acquiescence of the very elites that benefit from the extant patrimonial structures. Any proposal for an open-ended U.S. commitment to the survival of the Afghan state is incomplete if it does not include a strategy for persuading these elites to participate in the bureaucratization of governance.

Any proposal for an open-ended U.S. commitment to the survival of the Afghan state is incomplete if it does not include a strategy for persuading these elites to participate in the bureaucratization of governance.

Transforming elites’ attitudes toward state building begins with the elites themselves developing a coherent ideology. A body of ideas shared among elites is essential to institutional legitimacy and viability because it provides an explicit logic for the distribution and devolution of power and for the succession of individuals to legitimate leadership. A common ideology would facilitate the development of a distinct elite culture and hierarchy that mirrors and strengthens that of state institutions. Yet, despite attempts by regimes of radically different philosophies to create one, none has arisen in Afghanistan since the fall of the monarchy in 1973.


Afghan political elites remain fragmented across every dimension: geographically, ethnically, economically, and religiously. There is no facet of the Afghan ruling class that unifies them outside of the formal and somewhat artificial structure of their state. The fractiousness of Afghan elites is a principal cause for the state’s crippling paralysis and dysfunction. The loci of power in Afghan society are in small demographic and agrarian geographic social clusters rather than in the formal structure of state institutions. Tribalism and transactional loyalties predominate in the absence of trusted alternatives to meet the needs of daily life. Corruption in the Western context is the necessary lubricant for a functioning society in the current Afghan context.

The fractiousness of Afghan elites cannot be remedied through any formula of incentives and sanctions. Nor can it be cured by transient advisors however long serving and qualified they might be. The barriers to progress in Afghanistan do not yield to external influences because Afghan elites and their foreign backers view the costs and benefits very differently. Afghan leaders are concerned with the practicalities of local politics and the tools needed to achieve success. The U.S. and its allies, on the other hand, are guided by broad schemes and ideologies that are too often more aspirational than realistic.  Together they sustain a system riddled with perverse incentives that undermine the establishment of effective institutional norms.

The U.S. and its allies, on the other hand, are guided by broad schemes and ideologies that are too often more aspirational than realistic.

For example, the apprehension over ungoverned spaces in U.S. security policy incentivizes political dysfunction in Kabul. It cultivates the message that the U.S. and its allies could not countenance the possibility of the current republic’s collapse or a return of the Taliban’s status quo antebellum, and, in the minds of Afghan elites, that the U.S. is bound to guarantee the Afghan state’s survival. Given such an impression, one could imagine elite factions continuing their competition for influence and legitimacy heedless of its consequence for the viability of the state and its political culture. The wellsprings of political-social dysfunction in Afghanistan are so fundamental that they render any discussion of means and methods moot.[2]

Political Ambivalence

Policymakers should also recognize the consequence of the ongoing uncertainty about the specifics of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan and the true depth of American commitment. Military assistance cannot achieve lasting gains without political consensus in Washington. Effective US interventions in the past, such as the 1946 Greek civil war, benefitted from having both relative political harmony at home and measured policy aims that reflected the strategic context. It is possible that a similar consensus for Afghanistan will emerge, but the prospects are not particularly bright given the current state of American politics. It is far more probable that the policy mood will remain temperamental and sensitive to the fortunes of the moment. Without clarity of purpose and will, it is impossible to achieve anything better than a holding action in Central Asia at the expense of other national priorities.

Near Jalalabad, Afghanistan, December 2014. Lucas Jackson | Reuters

Near Jalalabad, Afghanistan, December 2014. Lucas Jackson | Reuters

The U.S. military can adapt to the mood in Washington with single-minded purpose as it prosecutes the war, but belligerents in and around Afghanistan will continue to read current American political ambivalence as evidence of weakness and hedge accordingly. Under such conditions, rethinking our approach to targeting, expanding the scope of the conflict to deny sanctuaries in Pakistan, and renewing our efforts to stamp out corruption are old bromides that are unlikely to succeed.[3]

Sadat and McChrystal warned in Foreign Affairs, “a post-American Afghanistan is not a pretty picture.” It is a caution steeped in irony that is itself a warning. To stay the course in Afghanistan would be more about what Americans fear than what they expect to achieve. Fear leading policy is dangerous. Taking lead counsel from one’s nightmares opens the door to the kind of forever war that the U.S. should avoid. As crises and potential crises multiply around the world, the U.S. can ill afford open-ended strategic exposure which risks its capacity to preserve and advance its core interests elsewhere.

To stay the course in Afghanistan would be more about what Americans fear than what they expect to achieve.

There is little doubt that U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, under current circumstances, raises some dire possibilities, and Americans should not cover their eyes from these potentialities. Washington has asked Afghans to suspend their disbelief and to embrace the state-building, modernizing, vision of Afghanistan for more than a decade. Thousands of Afghans have been killed or maimed in service to that promise. Many more of them would likely suffer in the twilight before an American withdrawal. This, however, is the inescapable cost of American ambitions. The U.S. must acknowledge the cost and own it, but American policymakers ought not prolong the trickle of blood and treasure purely out of moral apprehension. Seeking certain victory, the U.S. has instead secured a Faustian bargain, and rescuing itself from that compact requires humility, moral courage, and an understanding of the limits of power.


The strategic choice before the U.S. and its allies is stark. A sudden and impetuous abandonment of Afghanistan would do grave harm to American interests and commit a severe moral transgression against the Afghans that have served, and continue to serve, alongside U.S.-led forces. American policymakers should, however, discard any illusions that they may have held about what military targeting, advising, and reform programs can reasonably be expected to achieve in strategically contested spaces like Afghanistan. Relying on those means and methods is to make a passive choice for the status quo. The deliberate choice is between a broad reset for the Afghan campaign, with all the resources that state building requires, or finding a path out of Afghanistan.

The U.S. Secretary fo State and President of Afghanistan.

The U.S. Secretary fo State and President of Afghanistan.

Turning back the clock to 2001 with circa 2011-level resources is an implausible proposition. The U.S. squandered the political capital it needs, both at home and abroad, by failing to justify the cost of Operation Enduring Freedom with policies commensurate to its ambition. Despite the wealth and lives it committed from 2001 through the end of the so-called surge in 2012, the U.S. never reflected in its policies a commitment to the kind of generational effort that state-building in Afghanistan demanded. The surge in Afghanistan was never sufficient, in quantity and coherence, to cultivate the kind of political culture and institutions necessary to effective governance. Even if the U.S. musters the will and wherewithal for state-building, it is doubtful that Afghans will be willing to suspend their disbelief and accept U.S. assurances that it can succeed as they had a decade ago.

Turning back the clock to 2001 with circa 2011-level resources is an implausible proposition.

Instead of revisiting state building, the U.S. should reduce its commitment to a program of security assistance that guarantees critical elements of materiel, funding, and limited advisory support to the Afghan security forces at the ministerial and senior command level. Such support would reflect the true balance of American interests in Afghanistan, correct the outsize influence that the Afghan war has had on institutional priorities in the American military, and the strategic exposure that the U.S. incurs. President Trump’s strategy for Afghanistan explicitly rejects the aspiration of reconstructing the Afghan state, but it declares anew the U.S. determination to win by reformulating past means and methods. The shortcoming in the current approach is one of kind rather than of effectiveness or efficiency. It was the insufficiency of the tools at hand for solving the problem of weak state institutions that have bedeviled the U.S.-led campaign.

Decisive victory in Afghanistan had always demanded more tools than U.S. policymakers ever seriously countenanced, and adding to the scope and robustness of tried solutions does not resolve that strategic tension. The modest surge in troops, pressure on Pakistan, etc., could be fruitful as a gambit to end the war on best-possible terms, but fear of ungoverned spaces is a seductive dogma that could persuade U.S. policymakers to gamble on discrete indices of progress against the dicta of strategy. The Trump Administration’s approach to Afghanistan thus leaves open the question of what path it has in fact chosen: to lead the dénouement of America’s war in Afghanistan or to hope in the promise of military tactics and diplomatic démarches in changing the strategic balance. The latter path is problematic because it increases American risk of building the proverbial bridge-to-nowhere and achieving nothing worth owning at even the least cost.

Robert Mihara is a former Featured Contributor on The Bridge and a strategist in the U.S. Army. He is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and holds an M.A. in U.S. History from Texas A&M University. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header image: An Afghan commando | David Gilkey, NPR


[1] Max Weber, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, eds. H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1958), 235-39, 246-50, and 295-97.

[2] Thomas J. Barfield, “Afghanistan’s Arduous Search for Stability,” Current History 115 (April 2016): 136, 138-39 and Francis Fukuyama, State-building: Governance and World Order in the 21st Century (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 2004), 82-91.

[3] Barfield, “Afghanistan’s Arduous Search for Stability,” 139-43.