War is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means.

Its grammar, indeed, may be its own, but not its logic. If that is so, then war cannot be divorced from political life; and whenever this occurs in our thinking about war, the many links that connect the two elements are destroyed and we are left with something pointless and devoid of sense.

Since war is not an act of senseless passion but is controlled by its political object, the value of this object must determine the sacrifices to be made for it in magnitude and also in duration. Once the expenditure of effort exceeds the value of the political object, the object must be renounced and peace must follow.

– Carl von Clausewitz

The war in Afghanistan hit the seventeen-year mark for the United States and its partners this month. Soldiers in the US-led coalition have been fighting and killing and dying for almost eight years longer than the Soviets occupied Afghanistan. The reasons for this protracted stalemate are manifold, but the momentum that would bring the war in Afghanistan to an end remains elusive in large part because the coalition has until now been unable to link the grammar of war to the political object it seeks. For the logic of strategy to work, ends should drive means, not the other way around. The value of the political object, or the worth of the ends sought, determines how long and what costs the United States should be willing to pay. In Afghanistan, if those political goals are articulated clearly, their worth should relate directly to the will of the US polity to persevere in the war to a successful end.

How the Seventeen-Year War Happened

In the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001, the horror, devastation, and anguish engendered by those attacks animated the collective will of the US government, its armed forces, and its people, in theory, to employ the means necessary to achieve the object of punishing the al-Qaeda perpetrators, removing the Taliban regime that afforded al-Qaeda sanctuary, and preventing Afghanistan from becoming a sanctuary for terrorists ever again. With almost three thousand dead and the unprecedented destruction of key buildings and symbols of US power, Americans perceived the value of the object to be very high.

The problem was, however, that the American senior leadership after 9/11 emphasized the means over the ends in Afghanistan, and so in the urgency to respond to the attacks, the how and what replaced the why and to what end. During the years following the 9/11 attacks, US senior leaders did not fully analyze or understand how to align the actions the country could undertake with ends that involved peace and a stable Afghanistan inhospitable to al-Qaeda. The Bush administration opposed the notion of nation building and focused instead on targeting individuals for killing and capturing. For the first several years, the United States relied too heavily on warlords, tolerated venal Afghan leadership, and employed air power indiscriminately, thus inadvertently killing civilians. All of this aggrieved many Afghans and pushed some into support for a resurgent insurgency.

What’s more, after the ill-conceived invasion of Iraq, Afghanistan turned into a secondary and poorly resourced effort for the United States, with a limited number of special operations and conventional forces conducting strikes and raids to kill or capture key leaders. There was a dearth of troops and resources committed to addressing the challenge of stabilizing the country. During the middle of the aughts, when the United States was mired in Iraq, there were vacuums of security in the east and south of Afghanistan. Pakistan helped the Taliban fill those vacuums.

The US leadership was also unable or unwilling to comprehend or to ruthlessly go after other real enemies who directly or indirectly aided and abetted the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other groups like the Haqqani network in Afghanistan. Physical sanctuary, materiel, recruits, funds, and ideology emanated from Pakistan, adding to funds and ideology that had flowed from Saudi Arabia and other sponsors into South Asia for decades.

After seventeen years of war in Afghanistan the number of Afghan security force deaths is over thirty-eight thousand, the number of Afghan civilian deaths is over thirty thousand, and the number of US combat deaths in the country, so far, is just over twenty-four hundred. The monetary cost of the war in Afghanistan to the United States has been about $1 trillion. As the eighteenth year of war for the US-led coalition in Afghanistan concludes its first month, it remains stalemated. Afghan security forces, with US advisors, continue to contest the Taliban for influence and control over key population areas, mainly but not exclusively in the east and the south—where the principally Pashtun Taliban sustain an intense and existential insurgency on the Afghan side of the Pashtun Belt, near their sanctuary on the other side of the Durand Line, in Pakistan. Just last week, in what was possibly their boldest and significant actions of the war, the Taliban attacked a group of senior Afghan and American officials in Kandahar, killing the provincial chief of police and chief of intelligence. Unprecedentedly in this war, the senior US military commander in Afghanistan was among the group. He was uninjured but it was arguably the closest call of the senior US commanders to date.

Can We Win?

The stated policy objective of the current administration since August 2017 has been to win in Afghanistan. This offers some reason for optimism since it contrasts to the previous policies, which evolved through various stages but were never articulated with sufficient clarity and thus largely amounted to simply seeking not to lose. But what would a win look like in Afghanistan?

A win would be a durable Afghan state, with the government, the security forces, and the population aligned against a marginalized or reconciled Taliban. Another reason to be a bit more sanguine is that this current strategy is based on conditions on the ground being met, not arbitrary timelines. The strategy called for an increase of about thirty-five hundred US forces—bring the total to over fourteen thousand—to advise and assist the Afghan security forces. NATO countries are also contributing additional troops, increasing the total number of coalition troops in Afghanistan to more than twenty-one thousand.

This modest increase in troops isn’t enough to break the strategic stalemate. However, it will support growing the elite Afghan Special Security Forces, building the capacity of the Afghan Air Force, and improving the other security forces by employing more advisers with tactical units that do the fighting. That should allow the Afghan security forces to win more battles against the Taliban and gather marked operational momentum that will complement efforts to alter Pakistan’s harmful strategic proclivities.

Perhaps most significantly, the current year-old strategy stipulates that “we must see fundamental changes in the way Pakistan deals with terrorist safe-havens in its territory” for the strategy to gain momentum. The United States did start withholding funds from Pakistan with more seriousness this year, but withholding funds is not nearly good enough to bring the required change, and is woefully disproportionate to the years of Pakistan’s odious actions. Pakistan has not stopped its support of terrorists and insurgents in Afghanistan in any measurable ways. Pakistan sustains the Taliban, and the sanctuary it provides the group explains the stalemate.

Until America’s senior leaders show the ruthlessness to publicly avow the dire strategic impediments that Pakistan’s duplicity causes, and summon the will to bring about the end of sanctuaries, Afghanistan’s war will not end. But there are major obstacles to doing so in the unified, whole-of-government fashion required. For example, the Department of Defense’s and Department of State’s perspectives on Afghanistan and terrorism diverge in significant ways. DoD reports, including the most recent one, attest that the Taliban and the Haqqani network, along with a host of other Islamist terrorist groups, benefit from sanctuary in Pakistan. The reports observe that the highest regional concentration of terrorist groups in the world exists in Pakistan and threatens Afghanistan.

The most recent State Department report on terrorism does identify the Haqqani network as one of the dozen foreign terrorist organizations operating out of Pakistan. But, what strains credulity is that it does not name Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism. The Haqqani network is Pakistan’s and its Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate’s favorite proxy for launching the most grisly and lethal attacks in Afghanistan. The time has long since come to employ punitive measures aimed at those institutions and individuals in Pakistan that advise and fund the Taliban and the Haqqani network. Pakistan is one of the most egregious state sponsors of Islamist terrorists. Being more pointed and tough, by designating Pakistan as the state sponsor of terrorism that it is, would be a clear measure and signal that America is resolved to see this war through to a successful outcome.

War, therefore, is an act of policy. Were it a complete, untrammeled, absolute manifestation of violence, war would of its own independent will usurp the place of policy the moment policy had brought it into being; it would then drive policy out of office and rule by the laws of its own nature.

Carl von Clausewitz

It seems that since the Vietnam War senior American civilian and military leaders have often ignored the key idea from Clausewitz—that in war military objectives cannot be divorced from political purposes, and the ultimate directives and decisions on the aims in war reside with the senior political leaders of the state. Strikes and raids that kill or capture enemy leaders do disrupt and impede Islamist militant groups like the Taliban and the Haqqani network, but their effects are impermanent, elusive. Strikes and raids interdict and suppress Taliban infrastructure but they are not decisive and do not amount to strategy or strategic momentum.

In theory, we fight wars to fulfill a political purpose and to achieve objectives by aligning the means and methods of war toward that purpose. In theory, the purpose of war is a better peace. And while, ideally, there is no difference between the theory and practice of war, as history has shown repeatedly, there almost always is. The purpose of war is to serve policy. Unchecked by reason, unguided by policy, the nature of war is to serve itself. When war and violence serve each other, absent strategy, it is perpetual killing and violence serving more violence and killing.

War and violence decoupled from strategy and policy—or worse yet, mistaken for strategy and policy—have contributed to war without end in Afghanistan. In its wars since September 11, 2001, the United States has accrued some of the most capable, best equipped, and exceedingly seasoned combat forces in remembered history. They attack, win battles, execute raids, and conduct strikes with great nimbleness and adroitness. But absent strategy, these tactical and operational successes where our forces assault compounds to kill or capture insurgents and terrorists are fleeting. Divorced from political objectives, successful tactics are without enduring meaning. Stating that there is a new strategy for Afghanistan does not necessarily mean that there is a strategy that is being implemented in the necessary and comprehensive way.

For seventeen years the United States has been consistently and explicitly demanding that Pakistan stop supporting Islamist terrorists against America, Afghanistan, and other states. Pakistan’s continued support for the Taliban is the biggest strategic impediment to a successful conclusion of the war. A policy to win requires a strategy that aligns political will, intellectual capital, and capacity to defeat the enemy’s strategy. Political will relates directly to the ends sought whereas capacity relates to the means each belligerent employs. Intellectual capital is required to align the means and ends with a strategy that will end the war and bring peace at the costs in time and magnitude acceptable and commensurate with the value ascribed to the policy. In other words, how much is the United States willing to pay to avoid another 9/11-like attack by preventing Afghanistan from becoming a sanctuary again?

For a strategy to work, it must focus on taking away the main sources of strength that allow the Taliban to continue fighting. Those are things without which the insurgency would wither. A win requires beating back Taliban capacity in Afghanistan and taking away the will of the insurgency by stopping the states and nonstate groups that provide material, ideological, and sanctuary support. Pakistan is the state that provides most support to the Taliban. Pakistan’s sanctuary and support are the sources of strength without which the Taliban will not survive.


Robert Cassidy, PhD, a retired US Army colonel, is the inaugural Chamberlain Project teaching fellow at Wesleyan University and a senior fellow at the Center for Advanced Defense Studies. His published work focuses on Afghanistan and irregular war. He has served in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or any of the institutions with which the author is associated.


Image credit: Spc. Matthew R. Hulett, US Army