The Good War: Why We Couldn’t Win the War or the Peace in Afghanistan
Basic Books, 2014, 416 pp., $29.99
Clausewitz: His Life and Work
Oxford University Press, 2014, 376 pp., $27.95
Deciphering Sun Tzu:
How to Read The Art of War
Oxford University Press, 2014, 256 pp., $29.95
Strategy is back in fashion. In the scramble to condemn the Bush Administration and to expound upon where it went wrong in Iraq and Afghanistan (a popular sporting activity in recent years), some critics reach for strategic texts. They cite “insights” from the sages of the past, laying out such maxims as “tactical activity without strategy is the noise before defeat” or “military victory cannot guarantee strategic victory.” Among the cacophony of voices, a phenomenon redolent of the Athenians bewailing the expedition to Syracuse (Sicily) in the Peloponnesian War, we are offered new epithets and solutions: Don’t attempt nation-building in the short term; be clear about your objectives; don’t try to impose democracy; or one that astonished me recently, “We lost in Afghanistan because we didn’t assert women’s rights.”
There is plenty of advice on offer about how it went wrong, why it was all futile, or how a proper application of strategy might have ensured success. But rather like the endless misuse of histories of British and Soviet encounters in Afghanistan, which might be labelled the “graveyard of empires” thesis, so much of the criticism is strikingly shallow. In our whirlwind media age, we have become obsessed with—or perhaps newly habituated to—vulgar sound bites, tweets, and slogans at the expense of consideration, reflection, and understanding.
Jack Fairweather uses the title The Good War ironically, noting that, in contrast to the “war of choice”—the invasion of Iraq and its bloody insurgency—Afghanistan offered the chance for the Western powers to achieve humanitarian success. The war in Afghanistan turned bad, he writes, because of a simplistic if well-meaning application of hard power and development work. He laments the waste of billions of dollars, most of which unwittingly fueled a civil war that was already well underway. The Western coalition found that it could not do reconstruction without a larger security commitment, because the intervention backed particular local elites who in turn threatened the vested interests of others. The often cruel and criminal manner in which Afghans govern each other was exacerbated when certain groups and individuals exploited the Western presence for their own ends. It was not progressiveness and modernization that was the problem; it was the old triad of atavism, avarice, and opportunism.
Fairweather argues, echoing the famous assessment by Gerald Templer in Malaya, that the solution was not to “surge” more weapons and cash into the country (although there were far fewer troops to garrison Afghanistan than there had been in Iraq), but to recalibrate expectations about the length of time Afghanistan needed to establish security, reconstruction, and development. Humanitarian intervention might, on occasion, stop the fighting in a civil war, but experienced NGOs will repeat that winning the peace and repairing the damage of conflict can take a generation or more.
The Good War is essentially a criticism of the decisions taken, and the waste and the casualties that flowed therefrom. Above all it is, Fairweather states, “an indictment of the assumption that military force can readily transform societies for the good.” Such a confident statement is likely to appeal to the majority who believe the ends of the war were ill-defined, the ways inappropriate, and the means wrong. Military forces can, however, under some circumstances, transform societies for the good. Nazism was defeated by military force; it was military means that enabled colonial American society to achieve its independence; and military force ended the medieval cruelty of the Taliban regime in the autumn of 2001.
Yet the main problem with The Good War is that the Afghans are curiously absent from their own conflict. Fairweather argues that Hamid Karzai, the President much criticized by the West, was hamstrung not by northern warlords who had helped him into power but by the international community, which “consistently prevented him from taking the necessary steps to help Afghans take control of their own future.” That is not how many Afghans saw it. The problem was not, as some Western critics claimed, that Karzai lacked legitimacy. He was not a marginal “tribal” leader, but the representative of one of the most prestigious families of Poplazai-Barakzai Pashtun heritage; he had more claim to leadership, by any historical reckoning, than the Ghilzai-led Pashtuns of the Taliban. While the Bonn Conference created an overly centralized government structure that was beyond the capacity and historical experience of the country to accommodate, the real problem, most critics now agree, was creating a peace settlement in which the vanquished were not invited. Be that as it may, the real problem was, in fact, that Karzai did not have the requisite apparatus of government to have his decisions implemented. He tended to meddle in detail in large part because the system functioned so weakly. In consequence, too much government depended on personality rather than on accountable bureaucracy. This situation, of course, is not unique to Afghanistan.
The reason why the Afghan perspective is so much more important than Fairweather’s narrative suggests is that this was a civil war with a pronounced struggle for the control of narcotics and other sources of wealth: The Western militaries were tasked with providing physical security and conducting limited reconstruction, but this was irrelevant to the real war. Fairweather looks for indicators of victory and defeat in Western terms, but even then he misses the achievement of two strategic factors: the establishment of the foundations of a new political dispensation, and the eradication of an international jihadi base.
The Good War focuses on conflicts and issues that mattered most to the West rather than the ones that concerned Afghans, by which they measured their own progress. Afghan secularists, a minority, were relieved to see the Taliban neutralized, but most Afghans were anxious to preserve Islam during the period of Western presence. They wanted Westerners to help, but they did not want to live under an occupation and were frustrated by the level of violence that persisted. They were angry at the contradictions and naivety in Western actions: offering free wheat seed in Helmand as an incentive to licit agriculture, for example, but failing to provide adequate storage and processing, and then failing to compensate for the loss of opium revenues while shielding corrupt and abusive police.
Fairweather claims his work is the first full narrative of the war in Afghanistan, conducted with extensive interviews and previously unpublished materials. But such a claim seems premature if the Afghan voice is missing.
Authors like Fairweather have good intentions but are busy weaving a history of their own, usually a dramatic one of Western failure and defeat, and ignore the fact that this was a civil war with its own strategic context. He consequently underestimates the role of the Afghan population. Carl von Clausewitz feared the consequences of a people’s war, having witnessed it first hand, as Donald Stoker points out in Clausewitz: His Life and Work, and much of Clausewitz’s subsequent emphasis on the search for a decisive engagement was precisely to avoid having to fight an insurgency. In 1812, he wrote to a colleague:
I believe and confess that a people can value nothing more highly than dignity and liberty of its existence . . . that there is no higher duty to fulfil, no higher law to obey . . . that a people courageously struggling for liberty is invincible; that even the destruction of liberty after a bloody and honourable struggle assures rebirth, [and] brings forth a new, securely-rooted tree.
More importantly, Clausewitz acknowledged time and again that war is not an exercise of will directed at inanimate matter, but one that is dynamic, full of setbacks and confusion, errors and “friction”, that are part and parcel of a fully human endeavor. The critics who have not understood war assume that we should vilify Western mistakes as if war were just a policy to be implemented, like the health service or an infrastructure development project.
There is a significant problem with thinking that the activity of war somehow equates to the strategy. It does not. Fairweather dismisses the British history in Afghanistan swiftly, making reference, as so many do, to the retreat from Kabul in 1842 or the defeat at the Battle of Maiwand. The fact that both these episodes were followed by much more decisive British victories is not so often mentioned. Kabul was retaken in autumn 1842, and at Kandahar in 1880 the Afghan army was so shattered that it essentially ceased to exist. Yet the crucial point is not the fighting, but the enduring strategy. Britain sought to deny the territory to Russian influence and did so for one hundred years, largely through diplomacy, a treaty that rendered Afghanistan a protectorate in all but name, and the threat of future intervention. In other words, after many mistakes and lost battles the strategy succeeded—at least until a serious Russian attempt to seize northern Afghanistan in 1885, which led the British to engage in intense diplomacy in the capitals and decide to fight if necessary.
This is precisely where Clausewitz fails to provide any guide to strategy, despite his outstanding contribution to the philosophical understanding of war. Clausewitz’s experiences, which Stoker has chronicled, indicate that he was eager to prove himself as an operational commander, and his journey through so many of Europe’s early 19th-century campaigns led him to understand the essence, or Natur, of war. He was less devoted to “strategy”, which he saw only as the way to bring an enemy to battle. Stoker makes extensive use of Clausewitz’s correspondence and provides the context to the campaigns in which the Prussian officer took part. Later in the century, Clausewitz was regarded as an historian, not a theorist; the renaissance of appreciation for his insights occurred only in the 20th century with the detailed works of Peter Paret, Michael Howard, and Hew Strachan.
Stoker’s most interesting chapter, “Legacy”, discusses the man rather than just his incomplete ideas, but it is welcome mainly to scholars as opposed to strategists. Nevertheless, Clausewitz’s On War will remain the primary interest because of his deliberations on policy and war. Strachan, one of the most prominent thinkers of strategy today, points out that Clausewitz went through a moment of crisis while writing Book VI, which is concerned with returning to the offensive. It was initially unclear to Clausewitz whether, having endured a defensive war and turned back the attacking force, it was automatic that one should pursue it into its own territory, for that moved matters from the realm of military operations into policy. He believed that it should be the preserve of the political elite to decide whether or not to extend a war, but this was at odds with the military judgment to pursue an adversary and develop a military advantage.
This was, in essence, the situation in 2001 with regard to Afghanistan. The military strategy was to pursue and destroy an adversary and remove an existential threat, but this determined policy, too. To reassert policy when the military strategy had achieved its objective, there was a need to pursue a more comprehensive engagement, to foster good governance, and to extend the remit of the fledgling Afghan government into its hinterland, which, in turn, required a new security strategy.
Most scholars would observe that policy must have primacy in principle, but strategy is the best vehicle to achieve policy ends, and in a crisis strategy is more responsive than policy. Yet strategy must also adapt, with frequent reassessments as the dynamics of crisis and war play out. Into this dynamic, friction asserts itself: Ministers are rushed; the silos of government departments fail to coordinate; media and popular expectations for action escalate; leaders must appear to have resolve and decisiveness even when they realize they do not have the best information on which to form a judgment; and the public’s patience with the strategy will inevitably ebb long before the task has been completed.
Taoism, the “way”, had acknowledged these sorts of problems centuries before Clausewitz, and long before a para-state called Afghanistan existed. Among the Taoist observations was tsu jan (“that which is naturally so”), which seems well suited to another Chinese philosophical principle of shi, which in this context best translates to “propensity.” The tendency or predisposition to act in a particular way, and for things to follow a path that seems “naturally so”, underpinned the work of Sun Tzu, according to Derek Yuen. His Deciphering Sun Tzu is by far the best book on the subject in years.
As Yuen points out, too many works on Sun Tzu are limited to translations and literal uses of the maxims of the Ping-Fa. Yuen notes that Basil Liddell Hart and John Boyd made reference to Sun Tzu in an instrumental way, to examine the indirect methods of strategy. Scholars since have contrasted Clausewitz’s determination to focus effort on a center of gravity with Sun Tzu’s apparent emphasis on subtlety and evasion. Hitherto one of the most interesting, if incomplete, studies for comparative work was Michael Handel’s Masters of War. But Yuen argues that the only way to read Sun Tzu is to understand the philosophical, historical, and cultural context behind The Art of War.
The central point is that The Art of War is based on Taoism but contains many additions and interpretations added later. Yuen notes that Western misunderstandings result from a short attention span, and the concomitant desire to seek short, pithy maxims. (That charge could equally be laid against those who cite Clausewitz but have never read the entirety of On War, either in English or in German.) Taoism emphasized harmony, which is better translated as synchronization; integrity, which might best be understood as certainty; tsu jan, natural tendency; chi, an energy inclined to align itself with nature, but which some interpret as giving rise to determinism or fatalism; and finally, an understanding that knowledge is ever changing, plural in nature, and can only really be understood by living it, which one might interpret as the value of experience. Yuen’s work reveals that Sun Tzu’s treatise needs to be seen in the context of statecraft as a broader cultural artifact rather than in the narrower context of war or strategy, and that only the idea of deception has any real pedigree linked backed to the original.
The Art of War was superseded by other works, including Tao Te Ching, which put much greater emphasis on “unrestricted” warfare, as did Mao and other modern Chinese writers. This is perhaps Yuen’s most devastating conclusion: The Chinese “way of war” as an approach limited to indirect methods, or so it is depicted by many Western writers, turns out to be a misunderstanding. Chinese strategic thought is based on direct and lethal methods just as it is in the West, and it is as challenged by the problems of applying war as an instrument of policy as any other. Over the centuries China suffered the same problems that the West experienced in trying to translate a strategic posture and policy agenda into successful action.
What then, might we deduce from these three works, particularly with reference to wars like the one in Afghanistan? Fairweather’s study is a critique only of the Western difficulties in conducting an intervention into a civil or narco-war, and the only conclusion one can be driven to by his work is not to deploy at all. Civil wars are best left to the locals, and the effort, to quote Otto von Bismarck, is “not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian Grenadier.” This will satisfy many readers who want no part of such conflicts. British readers will be anguished, however, to read that despite the courageous sacrifice of military lives, Helmand was not the fulcrum of the conflict but merely a magnet for Afghans who wanted to fight an invasion and honor the ancestral memory of fighting the British. All the dysfunctionality of government efforts in a conflict-ridden zone with an illiterate population, particularly the efforts of the U.S. government and military, are laid bare. Finally, though, we learn only that wars are the realm of friction, that there is a dynamic between passion, reason, and chance, and that mistakes were made because of erroneous and sometimes unfeasible agendas. For those who scrutinize strategy, this is nothing new.
Perhaps the most important observation is one the book gives us unwittingly: Westerners tend to write about their own wars or their parts in others’ wars, attributing success and failure to themselves even when they occur in different parts of the world. Fundamentally they fail to understand because they do not pay attention to those other parts of the world and the people who live in them. Moreover, they can be selective in their conclusions. Fairweather estimates that some 3,400 Coalition troops died in Afghanistan and possibly 32,000 civilians. Terrible though this toll might be, it is far lower than those of the Soviet operations of the 1980s. According to Roderic Braithwaite, 15,051 Soviet soldiers died in Afghanistan, and civilian casualties might have been between 600,000 and one million. Indeed, for all the lamentations about failure, waste, and incompetence, the West has not suffered the fate of the Soviet Union nor of the Athenians in the Peloponnesian War. Unlike the British campaigns of the 19th century, more Afghans worked alongside the Coalition than fought it. Today, Kabul is transformed, primary education and health services are developing, and life expectancy is on the rise. Yet the civil war continues, and this bout of Western intervention will certainly come to be seen as just one phase in that much longer conflict.
Clausewitz understood through his own career in Prussia and in Russian service that the experience of war exposes the dynamic interaction of wills, and that morale and psychology matter more than cash and technology. Stoker’s biography furnishes a timely reminder of what Clausewitz went through to reach his conclusions about war. He witnessed the deterioration of morale caused by defeat but also by protracted conflict, and devised an antidote, which was never guaranteed to work but offered the best chance of success: to understand the grammar of war, and so to avoid trying to change each conflict from its fundamental nature; and to locate the hinge, or fulcrum, on which the adversary was dependent, and then to focus all of one’s efforts at this central schwerpunkt. In Afghanistan, the Coalition struggled to articulate its ends, and could not align its means through agreed ways. It could not quite decide on its policy after the decision to install the war against terror in Afghanistan, with capitals deciding on policy solutions that could not be applied in the short term, if at all, to that country.
We could add Sun Tzu’s observation that the primary objective was to defeat the enemy’s strategy, but thanks to Yuen, we would have to acknowledge that this is more about thwarting an opponent’s policy through statecraft than it is about anything to be done on the battlefield, and that it would involve careful synchronization, the exploitation of a propensity to behave in a certain way, a “weight”, if you will, and the appropriate combination of action and understanding.
Yuen notes that Sun Tzu was probably a successful conventional commander, but we cannot thereby assume that the “Eastern mind” possesses some unique and mysterious insight into solving conflicts like the one in Afghanistan. Deciphering Sun Tzu also reveals another disturbing truth. The West’s “Orientalist” assumptions about the world, and its failure to understand, study, or even acknowledge other values and perspectives, is unforgiveable. That is not to romanticize “the Other”, however. Those who argue that the West would have succeeded had it aligned itself to the tribes of Afghanistan are exhibiting an even greater misunderstanding about the developing world, which is not in fact as tightly locked into the past, or bound to outmoded assumptions, as many Westerners think. Where there were qawm-i (“tribal”) allegiances in Afghanistan, they were malleable, opportunistic, and fractured. There were conflicts within party factions, between generations, between ideological groupings. This was, after all, a civil war.
As a consequence, no single strategy could have suited Afghanistan, and the conflict there could not have been resolved by applying one or another strategic idea more or less rigorously. War is an uncertain and dynamic phylum. Fairweather describes that phenomenon but does not explain it; Stoker notes that Clausewitz understood its nature profoundly through experience but struggled to offer a useful framework to explain it; and Yuen reveals that Sun Tzu offered not only some practical illustrations of the art of warfighting, but also a window into how the Chinese, having experienced some of the most gruesome civil wars in human history, attempted to explain its essence in the context of policy and philosophy. Ultimately, there is no magical template for strategy, and no “quick win” solutions to be had. War will mock such hubris and such innocence. Just as there can be no static plan, but only the exercise of planning, so there is only strategic thinking. Strategy is a much misunderstood art that is based on lived experience, critical engagement with ourselves and our rivals, and deep, philosophical reflection throughout.