Defining Success, But Not How To Achieve It

Our guest blogger is Colin Cookman, a Research Assistant for National Security at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

In the latest joint publication of their respective think tanks, Defining Success in Afghanistan, the American Enterprise Institute’s Fred Kagan and the Institute for the Study of War’s Kimberly Kagan (along with coauthors Jeffrey Dressler and Carl Forsberg, whose report on Kandahar last year is recommended reading), have put forth a definition of success in Afghanistan. Here it is:

Success in Afghanistan is the establishment of a political order, security situation, and indigenous security force that is stable, viable, enduring, and able — with greatly reduced international support — to prevent Afghanistan from being a safe haven for international terrorists.

Succinct and comprehensive, certainly hard to object to, the writers deliver on their titular promise right from the start. Unfortunately, the rest of the report has scant to offer in terms of how to achieve that success, or meaningful assessments of its likelihood under the current approach.


This is not for lack of trying. The document details what the authors identify as considerable military successes over the past eighteen months of operations in Afghanistan. Changes in command structure and strategic focus are recounted; attacks on Taliban leadership and foot soldiers in the east and south are cited; the latest incarnation of local militia programs (pdf) comes in for heavy praise; momentum is asserted; the dangers of attempting any other approach are cautioned if not explicated.

Twenty-three pages into this, the authors pause to acknowledge that some readers may find some of this irrelevant to success as defined at the start of their paper. “The real question about the prospects of our success” for these skeptics, they write, would be whether “it is possible to help the Afghans develop any kind of government that will be stable, legitimate, and able to prevent the country from becoming again a sanctuary for terrorists.” Well, yes; none of the measures of progress identified thus far in fact contribute to that goal of a stable, viable, and enduring political order.

For skeptics, the Kagans and their co-authors offer in the remaining few pages of their report a guide through “The Way of the Pashtuns.” Correctly noting that Pashtun tribes have lost considerable cohesion and that tribal identity is not a decisive indicator of political behavior (a point better made in this paper from the Army’s Human Terrain System program), they identify the conflict between traditional systems of consensus decision-making and the heavily centralized executive system under which Afghanistan currently operates as a major de-legitimizing factor confronting the political order we are seeking to establish. This is an argument my colleague Caroline Wadhams and I have made previously in our May 2010 report on Afghan governance and elsewhere, so possibly I’m not the audience they have in mind when they argue that Afghans do, in fact, want to have some input into the decisions of their leadership. This desire for a more inclusive system of government and its existence in the past does not immediately offer a path forward, however, and the authors neglect to outline one.

“Success requires helping to change the way Karzai and Afghanistan’s elites see how the state can and should be run,” write the Kagans in the penultimate paragraph of their assessment. Here they reverse the conclusion of progress that opened the paper by acknowledging “it will be very difficult, and it may prove impossible”. But, the authors assure us in a rather underwhelming conclusion, “success in this endeavor is possible.” Those looking for suggestions as to how to achieve it will have to be content with the reminder that “hard is not hopeless.” This paper, like many before it, acknowledges the central role of Afghanistan’s internal politics in the shape and resolution of the conflict but then proceeds to gloss over the issue, preferring to focus on tactical military operations that have little to no effect on the ability of the Kabul government to mobilize domestic support and resources against its insurgent rivals.

The AEI/ISW report holds up military operations as signs of progress, while acknowledging that they have not decisively advanced the United States and its allies towards the ultimate success they define. The Kagans punt entirely on the questions of what would be required to address the actual underlying political dynamics of the conflict and its eventual resolution, but nevertheless explicitly disavow any change from the current strategy being pursued. The authors forecast transition to a viable, enduring Afghan state without ever defining what is needed to achieve that goal, making serious assessment of whether progress is actually being achieved impossible. They have a solid definition of what constitutes an ideal ultimate success state in Afghanistan, but have not offered any argument for how to achieve it.