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Is the Slingshot mightier than the Sword? A strategic Analysis why the United States cannot win Afghanistan


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While realist theory suggests that power is the sole determinant of victory in conflicts, many wars throughout history have challenged this assumption. When examining asymmetric conflicts, it is observable that in many cases, strong actors are defeated by their weaker adversaries despite military superiority. The war in Afghanistan provides a convenient case study to examine this dynamic. Although vastly outpowering their adversary, the United States failed to defeat the Taliban from the beginning of the invasion in 2001. This paper analyses the Afghan war in order to find causes for strong actors' defeat. The paper draws on Mack's (1975) theory of relative interest and combines it with Arreguín-Toft’s (2005) theory of strategic interaction to develop a comprehensive framework to explain the course of the war. The identified reasons for defeat in asymmetrical conflicts are not so much found in concepts of power, but rather on the battlefield and in the belligerents' polity. Failing to employ strategic approaches that would have allowed for a quick victory, the U.S. let the war protract until opposition to the continuation of the war started to rise in its polity. By now, public opinion in the United States does not allow the government to employ a war-winning strategy, limiting U.S. endeavours to a counterterrorism approach. Contributing to the study of asymmetric conflicts, this paper reassesses and advances the strategic interaction theory. In order to adapt the theory to the realities of the 21st century warfare, the integration of the strategies of insurgency as well as counterinsurgency and the corresponding operationalization into Arreguín-Toft's framework are suggested.
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Is the Slingshot mightier than the Sword?
A strategic Analysis why the United States cannot win Afghanistan
Wolfgang S. MI NATT I
Univ.-Prof. Mag. Dr. Gerhard MA NGOTT
December 18, 2017
While realist theory suggests that power is the sole determinant of victory in conflicts, many
wars throughout history have challenged this assumption. When examining asymmetric
conflicts, it is observable that in many cases, strong actors are defeated by their weaker
adversaries despite military superiority. The war in Afghanistan provides a convenient case
study to examine this dynamic. Although vastly outpowering their adversary, the United
States failed to defeat the Taliban from the beginning of the invasion in 2001. This paper
analyses the Afghan war in order to find causes for strong actors’ defeat. The paper draws
on Mack’s (1975) theory of relative interest and combines it with Arreguín-Toft’s (2005)
theory of strategic interaction to develop a comprehensive framework to explain the course
of the war. The identified reasons for defeat in asymmetrical conflicts are not so much
found in concepts of power, but rather on the battlefield and in the belligerents’ polity.
Failing to employ strategic approaches that would have allowed for a quick victory, the
U.S. let the war protract until opposition to the continuation of the war started to rise in
its polity. By now, public opinion in the United States does not allow the government to
employ a war-winning strategy, limiting U.S. endeavours to a counterterrorism approach.
Contributing to the study of asymmetric conflicts, this paper reassesses and advances the
strategic interaction theory. In order to adapt the theory to the realities of the 21st century
warfare, the integration of the strategies of insurgency as well as counterinsurgency and the
corresponding operationalization into Arreguín-Toft’s framework are suggested.
To Mom and Dad,
Börny and Clara,
Jojo and Leo.
We fought a military war; our opponents fought a political one. We sought physical
attrition; our opponents aimed for our psychological exhaustion. In the process,
we lost sight of one of the cardinal maxims of guerrilla warfare: the guerrilla wins
if he does not lose. The conventional army loses if it does not win.
– HE NRY KISSINGER (1969, p. 214)
1 Introduction 1
2 Theoretical Groundwork 4
2.1 Defining Asymmetric Conflicts . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4
2.2 Explaining Relative Interest . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5
2.3 Explaining Strategic Interaction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8
2.4 DeningInsurgency................................ 11
2.5 Defining Counterinsurgency . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 14
3 The Afghan theatre 20
3.1 2001-2002: First Interaction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 22
3.2 2003-2005: Second Interaction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 27
3.3 2006-2008: Third Interaction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 31
3.4 2009-2014: Fourth Interaction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 36
3.5 2015-2017: Fifth Interaction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 42
3.6 Examining the Strategic Interactions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 45
4 Military Causes of Strategic Choice 47
5 Effects of the Protracted War 52
6 Conclusion 59
7 Bibliography 63
8 Eidesstaatliche Erklärung 70
List of Figures
1 TheLevelsofStrategy. .............................. 16
2 Percentage of U.S. citizens seeing the Invasion in 2001 as a mistake. . . . . . . 55
3 Percentage of U.S. citizens fearing to become a victim of a terrorist attack. . . . 57
List of Tables
1 Afghanistan’s Strategic Interactions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 46
1 Introduction
In early October 2001, the United States invaded Afghanistan in retaliation for the 9/11 terrorist
attacks. In a swift and successful operation, the U.S. toppled the Taliban regime and expelled
both the Taliban as well as al Qa’ida from Afghan soil (Jones, 2009, p. 94). Since then, roughly
sixteen years have passed and Afghanistan has changed. However, contrary to expectations,
the security situation has hardly improved and the Taliban are back, stronger than ever since
they started their insurgency (Byman & Simon, 2017). The U.S. recently announced a new
strategy on Afghanistan to tackle the deteriorating security situation but little is about to change
(McChrystal & Sadat, 2017, p. 3). Many analysts have examined the war to find reasons for
the United States’ failure in the Afghan war, because the initial situation gave little reason to
suspect such a protracted struggle. The U.S. was by far the superior actor, outweighing the
Taliban in both armed forces as well as almost all other resources. However, conflicts between
actors who vastly differ in their power, often labelled asymmetric conflicts, seem to follow their
own rules. It is striking that in many cases weak actors were able to achieve a victory against a
much stronger adversary (Arreguín-Toft, 2005, p. 4). From the French in Algeria to the U.S. in
Vietnam to the U.S.S.R. in Afghanistan, many strong actors proved unable to defeat their weak
opponents and eventually withdrew from the battlefield.
The 21st century has already seen several asymmetric conflicts, most famously the United
States’ Middle East interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. In both of these conflicts, the U.S.
set out to overthrow a hostile regime and to retreat after the installation of a new government.
However, in both cases the U.S. found itself entangled in a protracted, asymmetric conflict
against an insurgency (Romano, Calfano, & Phelps, 2015, p. 389). These experiences have
heavily fuelled the on-going debate of the "new wars" (Münkler, 2005, p. 7) and challenged
the modern understanding of warfare. Subsequently, phenomenons of asymmetric conflicts like
terrorism, the problematic distinction of combatants and civilians as well as the infamous effort
of nation-building were more widely debated than ever before (Holmqvist-Jonsäter, 2010, p. 1).
It also raised the question how states should adapt to this new kind of warfare. More importantly,
it is puzzling how such conflicts can be won, in other words, what determines the outcome of
asymmetric conflicts.
While extensive literature has been written on the conduct of such conflicts and the reasons
of the belligerents to engage in them, there are few contributions that seek to find general reasons
to explain the outcome of asymmetric conflicts (Arreguín-Toft, 2012, p. 637). Four authors have
tackled this field and established comprehensive frameworks to show causes for the outcome
of these conflicts and explain strong actors’ failure (Ringsmose, 2008, p. 412). Mack (1975)
looks at the strong actor’s polity to find reasons for its defeat. According to Merom (2003), the
spread of the democratic system is responsible for the success of weak actors as such systems do
not allow a strong actor to escalate to the necessary level of brutality a victory would require.
Arreguín-Toft (2005) examines the strategies employed by the actors on the battlefield while
Record (2009) concentrates on the diffusion of foreign support for weak actors. Although these
authors emphasise different aspects of asymmetric conflicts, they all share the same assumption
that an actor’s power is not a sufficient indicator to explain the outcome of an asymmetric
Regarding asymmetric conflicts, the case of Afghanistan is especially striking. Not only are
the asymmetries particularly strong with a superpower facing a small movement with limited
resources but it also is the longest war the U.S. has ever been engaged in (Byman & Simon,
2017). Furthermore, an ending to its engagement is not in sight anytime soon. Although the war
was broadly discussed by academics and military observers alike, who concentrated on political
as well as military issues, there has not yet been an effort to embed the war into a comprehensive
theoretical framework in order to explain the war’s course. Therefore, this paper tries to fill this
gap in posing the question why the United States cannot win the war in Afghanistan against the
Taliban although they enjoy a vast superiority in power?
This paper will argue that the U.S. were unable to employ the proper strategies to quickly
defeat the Taliban insurgency due to military as well as political reasons. The U.S. struggle
to react with an indirect military approach to the insurgency in the Afghan theatre led to a
protraction of the war and gave rise to opposition to the continuation of the war in the United
States’ polity. As a consequence, the U.S. is currently unable to engage in Afghanistan with a
military strategy that would allow it to win. What remains is a limited engagement concentrating
on counterterrorism, which will not suffice to defeat the Taliban.
To show this dynamic, this paper will apply two theoretical frameworks of asymmetric con-
flicts to the case of the Afghanistan war. By applying Arreguín-Toft’s (2005) theory of strategic
interaction, the strategies of both belligerent parties will be examined to draw conclusions about
the protraction of the war. Additionally, Mack’s (1975) insights, namely his theory of relative
interest, will be used to outline the reasons for the differences in the commitment of both par-
ties to the continuation of the war that developed due to the protraction of the war. These two
theories are applied because their combination makes it possible to analyse the Afghan war in
all its facets. Using only one of the above mentioned frameworks is hardly sufficient to properly
examine such a long conflict, and credibly explain its outcome. By combining approaches that
concentrate on the military as well as the political endeavours of the actors, this paper can pro-
vide a more comprehensive explanation. Moreover, the theory of relative interest is the starting
point for all other theoretical approaches and therefore, has proven its value. The theory of
strategic interaction features a more substantial record than any of the competing frameworks
and has shown its validity in a far reaching quantitative study. The above mentioned approach
of Merom (2003) has two flaws: First, it limits itself in its explanatory power to a conflict be-
tween democracies and weak actors, who employ guerrilla fighting. Second, it is simply not
in accord with history, because many democracies lost asymmetric conflicts although using ex-
cessive brutality (Arreguín-Toft, 2005, p. 16). Also Record (2009) contributes valuable insights
on foreign support and its effects to research, undoubtedly necessary to understand the course
of the Afghan war. However, relying on his approach alone would make it impossible to fully
grasp the characteristics of the Afghan theatre.
This paper will proceed in four steps to examine the Afghan war. First, starting with a
discussion of the theoretical groundwork necessary to tackle the subsequent case study, the
paper will introduce Mack’s (1975) theory of relative interest and Arreguín-Toft’s (2005) theory
of strategic interaction. Two new sets of strategies as well as a corresponding operationalization
will be suggested, enhancing the latter’s theoretical framework and allowing for an application
to the Afghan war. Second, the strategic interaction theory will be applied to the Afghan theatre.
The course of the war will be divided into five interactions and each phase examined according
to the theory. All five phases will be categorized depending on the employed strategies as
shortening or protracting the war. Third, causes that affected both actors’ choice of strategies
will be briefly discussed, concentrating on military and institutional factors. This will help to
explain both actors’ performances on the battlefield in Afghanistan. Finally, the paper will adopt
the theory of relative interest to explain the actor’s political reasons of their strategic decisions
and to show the political struggle of both actors to keep up commitment to the war.
2 Theoretical Groundwork
2.1 Defining Asymmetric Conflicts
The understanding of war has changed dramatically in the 21st century. The concept of the
"new wars" (Münkler, 2005, p. 7), which seems to grasp recent developments in modern con-
flicts, is indeed nothing entirely new. These kinds of conflicts have dominated the so called
"revolutionary wars" (Howard, 1979, p. 981), which the colonial powers waged throughout the
second half of the 20th century. However, they have gained much more attention recently as
the United States got tangled up in two such conflicts simultaneously, namely in Afghanistan
and Iraq. As phenomenons like globalization, arms diffusion and advances in technology are
progressing, more and more weak actors are empowered to defend their interests by violent
means. Hence, an ever growing number of conflicts have the potential of becoming an armed
asymmetric conflict. Moreover, as the power gap between global or regional powers and other
actors grows wider and war is waged increasingly often by private and non-state actors, the
logical consequence is an increase in asymmetric conflicts (Münkler, 2005, p. 3).
But what constitutes such an asymmetric conflict? Clausewitz (1984, pp. 357-360) stated
that war is asymmetric by definition since the two central elements of combat, defense and
offense, are asymmetric not only in their implications but also in their underlying purpose. De-
fense is considered to be the stronger form of combat, since the defender has not merely the
tactical advantage of being able to fortify a position or choose the ground of battle. Rather, the
defender can benefit on a strategic level as well when it comes to lines of supplies, communi-
cation or the public’s support. However, Clausewitz acknowledges that defense always has a
negative purpose of self-preservation, while the offense is able to stress the positive objective
of increasing one’s strength.
Although modern definitions of asymmetric conflicts go beyond these ideas, Clausewitz
touches upon an important theme. Asymmetries between actors in conflicts do not exist in one
domain alone but are multi-dimensional. Scholars usually define an asymmetric conflict as a vi-
olent struggle between competing actors that features a vast difference in relative power. Power
is predominantly considered the most decisive element in an armed conflict. However, there are
also other determinants that can produce asymmetries. Often affiliated to power differences are
different assessments of what constitutes victory, what objectives an actor pursues in the con-
flict or which strategy it chooses to accomplish these objectives (Arreguín-Toft, 2012, p. 637).
The juridification of war and the introduction of ius in bello has created yet another asymmetry.
Some actors, especially democratic states, are now bound to certain rules of engagement and
have to conduct war in a proportional manner, while others, particularly non-state actors who
are not subjects of international law, are relatively free to wage war as they see fit (Arreguín-
Toft, 2005, p. xi). Although studies of asymmetric conflicts predominantly focus on violent
conflicts, asymmetries can move beyond the conduct of war. Looking at an actor’s domestic
politics, political vulnerability and the willingness of an actor’s polity to suffer costs can differ
dramatically as well (Merom, 2003, p. 15).
Two relevant puzzles in academic studies concerning these conflicts remain. First, why do
actors engage in asymmetric conflicts and second, what determines their outcomes (Arreguín-
Toft, 2012, p. 637). When dealing with the latter, analysts have addressed various indicators
to explain the outcome of an asymmetric conflict. From Thucydides to Machiavelli and finally
to modern researchers like Waltz and Mearsheimer, realist thinkers have always attributed the
most decisive element in war to power. Power in this context is usually understood as the
armed forces an actor possesses, sometimes adding latent capabilities like its population or
the performance of its economy (Mearsheimer, 2013, p. 74). Indeed, Clausewitz (1984) noted
that "superiority of numbers [of one’s armed forces] admittedly is the most important factor in
the outcome of an engagement" (p. 194). This assessment holds true in many cases. In more
than 70% of all asymmetric conflicts conducted since the 19th century the more powerful actor
defeated its weaker opponent. However, relying solely on realist thought and power as the only
relevant indicator fails to explain nearly 30% of these conflicts. Even more puzzling is the fact
that the dynamics of asymmetric conflicts seem to favour the weaker actors because stronger
belligerents are observed to lose more often over time (Arreguín-Toft, 2005, p. 4). This poses
the question, what determines if the weaker actor, being outpowered in numbers, technology as
well as intelligence, is able to win.
2.2 Explaining Relative Interest
One of the first authors to develop a non-realist framework to explain the outcome of asymmetric
conflicts is Mack (1975) with his paper Why Big Nations Lose Small Wars. Being heavily influ-
enced by the United States’ defeat in the Vietnam war, he comes to the conclusion that in most
conflicts after World War II "military and technological superiority is a highly unreliable guide
to the outcome of wars" (Mack, 1975, p. 175). In the following, he makes three observations
on the U.S. engagement in Vietnam. First, realist concepts of power alone are not sufficient to
explain victory or defeat in asymmetric conflicts. Second, while the war was effectively fought
at the military front in the Vietnam theatre, another even more decisive element was to be found
at the political front in the U.S.’s domestic polity, as opposition to the war began to pressure the
U.S. government. Third, he concludes that a crucial element to explain the outcome of asym-
metric conflicts is the protraction of such conflicts which he attributes to the strategy of guerrilla
fighting, employed by the Vietcong (Ringsmose, 2008, p. 414). To connect these observations,
Mack draws upon the concept of an actor’s will to fight. The will of a belligerent is strong when
the government and, depending on its political system, certain elites or the public fully commit
to waging the war and are ready to bear the inevitably resulting costs. While emphasising the
importance to destroy an enemy’s armed forces in war, Clausewitz already acknowledged that
an actor’s will still matters in some regards. On the one hand, only by defeating an enemy’s will
to fight can lasting peace be secured. On the other hand, when a "grand and powerful purpose"
(as cited in Mack, 1975, p. 182) propels an actor, it will have the commitment to mobilize the
necessary resources to win an all-out war.
This importance of will is often neglected by strategists and military leaders, who concen-
trate predominantly on the military defeat of an adversary. The underlying logic is that by
destroying the technological and military capabilities of an adversary, its means to wage war,
the adversary’s will is automatically rendered irrelevant (Howard, 1979, p. 981). However, this
assessment can be reversed as well. When missing the necessary capabilities to defeat an adver-
sary militarily, one can target its will, which would then make its material superiority obsolete
(Mack, 1975, p. 179). The latter assumption constitutes the point of departure for asymmetric
conflicts in which the weaker actor is by definition vastly outpowered by its adversary, lacking
any chance of achieving victory by military means. The will of an actor to wage war and to
commit to the resulting costs is therefore of particular importance in such conflicts. Howard
(1979) makes a similar point when talking about the asymmetric colonial conflicts. He empha-
sises the growing relevance of the social dimension of warfare, stating that the "management of,
or compliance with, public opinion became an essential element in the conduct of war" (p. 977).
But while the relevance of an actor’s will to wage war and its special importance in asym-
metric conflicts in comparison to conventional conflicts is evident, the question remains how
this plays out in practice. Mack (1975) introduces the two concepts of relative interest and
political vulnerability to highlight this relationship. Relative interest relates to the very nature
of asymmetric conflicts. The most significant element to define such a conflict is the relative
difference in power. This asymmetry in power induces another asymmetry in the opponents’
commitment to the war. Therefore, relative interest describes the fact that the perception of the
war differs considerably between two competing actors. On the one hand, the strong actor does
not have to fear for its survival, so it perceives the stakes of the war automatically as limited.
This becomes manifest as the weak actor has no possibilities to invade its adversary’s country
and win the conflict militarily. Even if the war is seen as of immense strategic importance, the
interest in the war will not reach a critical level as long as national existence is not in jeopardy.
On the other hand, the stakes are much higher for the weaker actor, having not only to worry
about military inferiority and defeat but also to expect the possibility of occupation. Therefore,
the war is considered to be total, as neither retreat nor capitulation is an option for the weaker
actor. Hence, the assumption is that an actor’s interest to wage war depends on its advantage or
disadvantage in power relative to its opponent (Mack, 1975, pp. 181-182).
Next, relative interest translates into political vulnerability. This describes the degree to
which the leadership of an actor is susceptible to pressure from its polity in its decision making.
As a consequence of the famous Clausewitzian quote of war becoming "the continuation of
policy by other means" (Clausewitz, 1984, p. 87), the political processes, debates and opinions
inside a given actor’s polity shape war just as any other policy. Low interest of an actor makes it
likely that opposition to the war arises in an actor’s domestic polity and social institutions. This
puts pressure on an actor’s government, undermining its will to wage war (Ringsmose, 2008,
p. 414). Therefore, political processes will work in favour of weak actors who have a high
interest in the continuation of the war and its decision-makers will not have to fear opposition.
On the contrary, the strong actor, having a low interest in the war, will be politically vulnerable.
As the conflict protracts, opposition will continue to grow as the public (in democratic systems)
or competing elites (in authoritarian systems) become weary of the war and of the little progress
that is being made. This will eventually leave the strong actor with no other politically viable
option than to withdraw its troops, therefore loosing the war without being defeated militarily.
This process is called "political attrition" (Mack, 1975, p. 192), enabling much weaker actors
to gain victory not by military but by political means. The dynamic was essentially captured by
former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (1969), when he noted that "the guerrilla wins if he
does not lose. The conventional army loses if it does not win" (p. 214).
However, to enable his theory to have a generalizable explanatory power, Mack (1975) ma-
kes two assumptions that have been subject to criticism. First, influenced by the final phase
of the Vietnam war and the Maoist ideal of guerrilla fighting, he assumes that in an asymme-
tric conflict strong actors always engage with a conventional strategy while the weaker actors
fight a unconventional, guerrilla-style war. While this holds true for many of the small wars,
it ignores the fact that for example even in the Vietnam war, the North Vietnamese engaged
in conventional warfare until the late 1960s (Arreguín-Toft, 2005, p. 165). Although the inte-
raction between a strong actor’s conventional strategy and a weak actor’s strategy of guerrilla
warfare is commonly observed, it cannot be seen as granted.
Second, a crucial point in Mack’s argument is the protraction of the war as time is the deci-
sive resource that will eventually lead to a strong actor’s political defeat. However, he fails to
provide an argument on why asymmetric conflicts often drag on for such a long time (Arreguín-
Toft, 2005, p. 25). By simply assuming a protraction of the conflict when the relative power
of the opponents differs, Mack renders his approach somewhat deterministic as every asymme-
tric conflict is by its very nature constituted by a vast difference in power. This would mean
that every asymmetric conflict is always won by the weaker actor as long as it manages to sur-
vive until enough costs have accumulated to force the strong actor’s withdrawal (Merom, 2003,
p. 15). In order to react to these two flaws, this paper will introduce a second concept to en-
hance Mack’s theory, firstly to challenge the paradigm of a fixed set of strategies in asymmetric
conflicts and secondly to present an explanation for the protraction of such conflicts.
2.3 Explaining Strategic Interaction
Arreguín-Toft (2005) approaches the field of asymmetric conflicts in an extensive quantitative
and qualitative study, evaluating over 200 cases of asymmetric conflicts regarding their out-
come. To explain these conflicts, he suggests not to look primarily on the domestic polity
of the competing actors but at the battlefield. In what can be considered a realist approach,
Arreguín-Toft expands on Mack’s groundwork and seeks to explain the protraction of asymme-
tric conflicts. Therefore, he examines the strategies employed by the actors and analyses how
they interact in a conflict, suggesting that depending on what strategies the actors use towards
each other, the war will either protract or be short-lived.
The so-called theory of strategic interaction defines strategy as "an actor’s plan for using ar-
med forces to achieve military or political goals" (emphasis in the original, Arreguín-Toft, 2005,
p. 29). While this definition incorporates an actor’s objectives in a conflict, it concentrates on
the conduct of war by examining only the armed forces of a belligerent party (Gundlupet, 2007,
p. 916). To operationalize these strategies, Arreguín-Toft (2005) makes several classifications
to categorize them. First, he suggests that all strategies can either be seen as offensive or de-
fensive measures. For his theory-building, he assumes that in asymmetric conflicts the stronger
actor initiates the fighting, therefore assigning offensive measures to the strong and defensive
to the weak actor (Ringsmose, 2008, p. 416). To each of these categories a set of strategies is
attributed. Second, heading into the same direction as Mack when working with an actor’s will,
he distinguishes between two direct and two indirect ideal-type strategies. While direct strate-
gies aim at the physical capacity of an adversary to resist militarily, indirect strategies seek to
destroy an adversary’s will.
The classical example of an offensive, direct approach is the conventional attack, which
"means the use of armed forces to capture or destroy an adversary’s armed forces" (Arreguín-
Toft, 2005, p. 30). This is accompanied by the attempt to control the adversary’s population,
territory and vital infrastructure, especially cities and communication centres. The usual goal in
such a conflict is to win the war in a decisive battle. The ideal-type counterpart for this strategy
would be the conventional defense, operationalized as a defensive, direct strategy. This ap-
proach mirrors the conventional attack as the strategy similarly tries to destroy the adversary’s
forces, shattering its capacity to further attack while defending one’s key values and strategic
resources. The description and operationalization of these strategies are not novel and relati-
vely well known throughout the literature as they illustrate the basic principles of conventional
warfare especially known from the first half of the 20th century. (D. E. Johnson, 2016, p. 124;
Gundlupet, 2007, p. 917).
Arreguín-Toft proposes two strategies as indirect approaches, namely the offensive barba-
rism employed by the strong and the defensive guerrilla warfare by the weak. "Barbarism is
the deliberate or systematic harm of non-combatants ... in pursuit of a military or political ob-
jective" (Arreguín-Toft, 2005, p. 31). As civilians do not constitute an adversary’s armed forces
and their demise does not destroy its military capacities, this approach can be considered to
be indirect because the adversary’s will is the target of such a military campaign. Indeed, the
goal of barbarism is to inflict as much pain as to coerce the adversary into surrender. Examples
for these strategies can be found in genocides like the Germans committed against the Herero
in their South-West Africa campaign, but also in the strategic bombing campaigns on German
cities by the allied forces (Arreguín-Toft, 2005, p. 32; Pieper, 2016, p. 151).
The ideal-type indirect defense strategy for the weak actor is guerrilla warfare. Guerrilla
warfare is the art of "imposing costs on an adversary using armed forces trained to avoid direct
confrontations" (Arreguín-Toft, 2005, p. 32). As a result, guerrillas try to inflict running costs by
steadily compromising the strong actor’s armed forces or its infrastructure. However, the goal
is not to destroy its military capacity but to wear down the will of the attacker, especially as the
conflict drags on. The strategy was most famously employed by Mao Tse-tung in his insurgency
against the Kuomintang, whose success has inspired many weak actors in the following decades
(Arreguín-Toft, 2012, p. 638).
The heart of Arreguín-Toft’s (2005) theory is the strategic interaction, in other words the
manner, in which these different strategic approaches effect each other. To argue for his theory,
he draws upon Liddell Hart (1991) and his ideas of a categorization of strategies and states that
"every strategy has an ideal counterstrategy" (Arreguín-Toft, 2005, p. 34). From the four ideal-
type strategies described above, two distinct interactions can be derived. Asymmetric conflicts
can result in same-approach interactions, where both actors either employ direct or indirect
strategies, as well as opposite-approach interactions. This would entail that while one actor is
using a direct strategy, the other one refuses to meet in battle by reverting to an indirect strategy.
The resulting logic reads as follows: In the case of a same-approach interaction, the strong
actor will win the strategic interaction since "there is nothing to mediate or deflect a strong
actor’s power advantage" (Arreguín-Toft, 2005, p. 34). This means that the conflict will not
protract but be resolved in short-time. However, if the actors engage in an opposite-approach
interaction, the weak will benefit from the engagement as it follows Mao’s advice of avoiding
to "fight with inferior weapons against modernized forces on the latter’s term" (as cited in
Mack, 1975, p. 176). If a conventional attack is countered by guerrilla warfare, the conflict
will prolong because the guerrilla trades values like infrastructure and territory for time. If
barbarism is countered by conventional defense, the conflict will also protract as such strategies
are time-consuming until they take effect. Moreover, especially in democratic states, barbarism
can fuel opposition to the war. As a consequence, if either the strong actor employs a direct
strategy versus an indirect one or vice versa, the conflict will protract as its advantage in power
is rendered irrelevant (Arreguín-Toft, 2005, p. 34; Ringsmose, 2008, p. 416).
This is where both theories of relative interest and strategic interaction come together and
complement each other. While Arreguín-Toft’s theory can explain why asymmetric conflicts
protract, Mack offers an analysis of which consequences the prolongation of the conflict implies
for each of the belligerent parties. To explain the outcome of the Afghanistan war, the strengths
of both theories will be combined to offer the most comprehensive and profound explanation
possible. However, before being able to apply the theoretical framework to the selected case,
certain issues have to be discussed. More specifically, by concentrating on the ideal-type stra-
tegies and categorizing every observed strategy as one of the four approaches discussed above,
Arreguín-Toft fails to acknowledge the variation of strategies employed in reality. Two strate-
gies, most famously observed in Afghanistan, were an insurgency by the Taliban as well as a
counterinsurgency, often abbreviated COIN, by the United States (Jones, 2009, p. 142). Both
strategies have to be examined in detail to operationalize them according to the strategic inte-
raction theory and categorize them into direct and indirect approaches.
2.4 Defining Insurgency
The ideal-type of guerrilla warfare as the only indirect strategy for the weak is an insufficient
model because the set of strategies irregular warfare allows is much broader than merely guer-
rilla fighting. Kiras (2009) offers a profound definition of the irregular warfare, which he under-
stands "as the use of violence by sub-state actors ... for the political purpose of achieving power,
control and legitimacy, using unorthodox or unconventional approaches to warfare owing to a
fundamental weakness in resources or capabilities" (p. 232). The lack of resources that is in-
herit for those waging irregular warfare, proves Arreguín-Toft’s (2005, p. 32) assumption that
irregular strategies are commonly employed by the weak in asymmetric conflicts, as more de-
cisive means are not available. Following the definition, five strategies of irregular warfare can
be identified. The elite-centred coup d’état, a popular revolution by a levée en masse and civil
war waged by opposing parties in a state make up the first three. More relevant for this pa-
per are the strategies of terrorism and insurgency. As Duyvesteyn and Fumerton (2010, p. 27)
note, the distinction between those two kinds of irregular strategies has largely been ignored by
practitioners and academics.
The two strategies however differ significantly in their objectives, organization and tactics.
Terrorists seek to achieve a political objective by provoking another actor through coercive me-
ans to act towards this objective. The aim is to create "public awareness of a political grievance"
(Duyvesteyn & Fumerton, 2010, p. 30) and to provoke reactions from governments and adver-
saries that undermine their own legitimacy. Terrorists are relatively free in their organizational
structure, having no need for public support and often being small, confined and committed
groups whereas insurgencies are far more complex and involve more actors. The insurgent’s
strategy can be defined as the struggle to "gain political-military control of a population and its
territory" (Duyvesteyn & Fumerton, 2010, p. 28). As Merom (2003) notes, this goal is being
accomplished when the insurgent manages "to dissuade their powerful rivals from continuing to
fight by imposing on the latter a high enough cost for a long enough period" (p. 34). An insur-
gency usually involves four actors. (1) Insurgents are trying to overthrow a national government
or impose some other form of governance in a specific region, while (2) the local government
is taking actions against them in the pursuit of national unity and stability. (3) Outside actors
might support either side to tip the balance. However, the war is essentially fought for the he-
arts and minds of (4) the local population (Jones, 2009, pp. 152-153). The population is the
single most important actor because no peace - no matter the outcome of the preceding war -
can be won without the support of the population but also because insurgents are particularly
dependent on the population (Arreguín-Toft, 2005, p. 17).
Mao’s metaphor of the insurgent as a "guerrilla fish swimming in the sea of the population"
(as cited in Kiras, 2009, p. 254) addresses a central theme of insurgencies. To continue to wage
war against a superior adversary, insurgent "fish" need their sea, the population, for two main
resources, namely shelter and support (Merom, 2003, p. 34). Shelter is essential for survival,
when the insurgent’s adversary has sophisticated intelligence and technology available, not le-
ast because a civilian environment might offer protection against heavy attacks. Additionally,
without having to reveal one’s identity as a combatant, as insurgents are not subject to humani-
tarian international law, they can easily hide in between civilians, thereby evading persecution
and death (Arnauld, 2016, p. 550). As Arreguín-Toft (2005, p. 33) adds, insurgents can also
gain shelter by physical sanctuaries like mountains, jungles or swamps or by political sanctu-
aries like sympathetic neighbouring states or poorly controlled border areas. The population’s
support is especially important for the insurgents to allocate the resources, intelligence and
the manpower necessary for the continuation of the war. Without being able to draw on state
assets, credits and taxes, insurgents need other ways to fund their ongoing campaign. Apart
from outside support in the form of money as well as foreign fighters, they have to rely on the
local population for supplies (Arreguín-Toft, 2005, p. 198). This support is not necessarily won
by the means of winning hearts and minds, in other words inspiring identification and sympathy
with the insurgent’s cause. Rather, support is often secured by coercive means like bribing,
co-option, intimidation or terror (Kiras, 2009, p. 236).
The importance of the population in an insurgency is further underlined by the fact that a
dissatisfied and disillusioned population is a necessary precondition for an insurgency to arise
in the first place. Jones (2009) finds a correlation between the start of an insurgency and "weak
governance and a well-articulated cause from insurgent leaders" (p. 154). Weak governance
describes the inability of a local government or assisting outside powers to provide security and
stability, to distribute resources and implement functioning policies. The lack of governance
enables insurgents to present themselves as a viable alternative to the government. By providing
law and order and in the broadest sense promoting state-building, mostly in the form of shadow
governance, the insurgents are able to win over the population. A cause is important because the
belligerents "fight over not only the current, but also over future, relations with the population"
(Merom, 2003, p. 40). As a consequence, a clear-cut motivation is able to spark hope in a
disillusioned population and makes the insurgency more attractive (Jones, 2009, p. 154).
Arguably the most famous insurgent of the 20th century is Mao Tse-tung, who not only won
the irregular war against the Kuomintang, but also significantly contributed to our understanding
on insurgencies with his book On Guerrilla Warfare. In his work, Mao describes three features
that shape the strategy of an insurgency. First, he notes that a distinction between the tactical
action taken by the insurgent and the overall strategy is crucial (Kiras, 2009, p. 255). Mao argues
against the notion of strategic offense and defense as simple opposites. Instead, he emphasises
that especially in irregular warfare defense must entail offensive action at the tactical level. This
is an important point when applying the strategic interaction framework to an insurgency. Since
Arreguín-Toft (2005, p. 30) codes strategic approaches either as defensive or offensive, special
care has to be paid to assessing an insurgent’s strategic choices in this respect. On a tactical
level, the strategy of insurgency goes beyond the simple conduct of guerrilla-style fighting.
Indeed, insurgents can employ a lot of tactics, ranging from guerrilla warfare to more offensive
measures like terrorism and suicide bombings (United States Army, 2009, pp. 2-20 - 2-22).
In this context, Duyvesteyn and Fumerton (2010) contest Arreguín-Toft’s notion of guerrilla
warfare as a strategy by stating that "guerrilla warfare is [...] better viewed as a tactic and not a
strategy, as it is sometimes described" (p. 31).
Second, Mao acknowledges that a war cannot be won by guerrilla fighting alone. In his
framework for victory, he proposes the succession of three strategic phases: strategic defense,
stalemate and finally strategic offensive (Kiras, 2009, p. 255). Indeed, a conventional approach
is necessary to secure key values in a conflict as unconventional strategies precisely trade these
values for time. Therefore, after having worn out and weakened an adversary or maybe even
forced withdrawal (in the case of an outside power), an insurgent has to switch strategy to
secure his victory. Third, an important point is made when the "primacy of politics" (Kiras,
2009, p. 254) is discussed. Mao points out that in guerrilla warfare military action is essentially
a supporting measure to buy time and to create opportunities for what is the prime objective of
an insurgency: Winning over the population by political and non-violent means.
The strategy of insurgency entails a fight of attrition against a stronger enemy, most pro-
minently employing guerrilla tactics to impose costs on the adversary while avoiding a direct
battle. Simultaneously, the insurgent fights for the hearts and minds of the local population, on
which it relies for support a shelter. Both of these strategic objectives do not target the adver-
sary’s military capacity, but its will to fight. In the former case, the insurgency seeks to make
the continuation of the war too costly for the adversary using military measures. In the latter
the insurgency is drawing the local population away from its adversary, undermining its social
base and eroding its support. This may be done either by coercion or by non-violent, political
measures, making an insurgency an eminently political-military approach. The strategic appro-
ach of an insurgency is therefore to be seen as an indirect strategy in the context of the theory
of strategic interaction.
2.5 Defining Counterinsurgency
The second strategic approach that needs further analysis is the strategic response to an in-
surgency, namely counterinsurgency (COIN). Although COIN makes a quick appearance in
the strategic interaction theory, Arreguín-Toft (2005, p. 32) fails to fully grasp the concept of
COIN. The only COIN strategy that is discussed is barbarism, the systemic killing of a popu-
lation. However, as the existing literature on COIN demonstrates, this falls short of reality as
the concept of COIN goes further (Kiras, 2009, p. 260). As the U.S. Army Field Manual 3-24
puts it, "counterinsurgency is military, paramilitary, political, economic, psychological, and ci-
vic actions taken by a government to defeat insurgency" (United States Army, 2007, p. 1-1). In
other words, all measures taken against insurgents, notwithstanding the actual strategic appro-
ach, are to be seen as counterinsurgency, which means that the term describes a wide range of
possible means and actions.
The successes of guerrilla insurgents like Mao in China or the Vietcong in Indochina in-
spired many academic and military writers to tackle the problem of insurgencies and develop
adequate strategic responses. David Galula (2006)’s groundbreaking work Counterinsurgency
Warfare emphasises the crucial difference between conventional and irregular warfare, noting
that "special rules" (p. xii) apply to the latter. Since defeating insurgents is essentially a st-
ruggle for the support of the local population, which cannot be won solely by military means,
soldiers in a COIN campaign have to "be prepared to become a propagandist, a social worker,
a civil engineer, a schoolteacher, a nurse" (Galula, 2006, p. 132). A COIN strategy therefore
necessarily always entails a political dimension. The British General Thompson (1966) makes
a case for a strategy of winning hearts and minds of the local population by addressing their
grievances and needs. He was heavily influenced by the Malayan war, in which the British army
was confronted with an insurgency. The British eventually defeated the insurgency but not until
the U.K. granted the country its most urgent grievance, its independence. Winning hearts and
minds would strip the insurgents from their social support, turning them into easy prey for the
counterinsurgent and making the continuation of the insurgency thereby impossible (Arreguín-
Toft, 2012, p. 639). Another approach was chosen by the French Army officer Trinquier (2006),
who fought in the French Indochina war. In the wake of the French defeat, he suggested that
only a strategy concentrating on terror and cruelty to shatter the insurgent’s social base would
secure victory against an insurgency. Heavily inspired by these writers, the U.S. Army General
David Petraeus went on to write an U.S. Army Field Manual for the conduct of COIN in 2006.
The work attracted enormous attention at the time of publication and significantly shaped the
modern understanding of COIN (Kaplan, 2013a, p. 81). The field manual emphasises the inte-
gration of politics into the military strategy of COIN. Influenced by Galula, it argues that COIN
should consist of 20% military and 80% non-violent, political measures (United States Army,
The strategic approach to COIN can essentially be broken down into five ideal-type prin-
ciples (Kiras, 2009, p. 263). (1) The local population has to be controlled to restrict their
interactions with insurgents. (2) The counterinsurgent has to gain the support of the popula-
tion, either by integration or at least by deterrence. (3) To successfully kill or capture insurgent
fighters, the counterinsurgent has to gain intelligence on them. (4) A stable security environ-
ment has to be created, so insurgents can be denied a safe haven. This must not be perceived
as oppression, otherwise it can alienate the population. (5) The social grievances and politi-
cal or economic problems have to be tackled and effective governance secured to address what
sparked the insurgency in the first place.
The wide range of possible measures in COIN makes it impossible to operationalize it as
a single strategy in the framework of the strategic interaction theory. This becomes especially
evident when looking at the definition of strategy Arreguín-Toft (2005, p. 29) employs in his
theory. He concentrates only on the military realm and neglects the political dimension of
strategy, which makes it impossible to grasp many approaches to COIN and to implement them
into the framework of strategic interaction.
Figure 1: The Levels of Strategy.
Figure by author, see Jordan et al. (2009)
Therefore, the definition of strategy needs furt-
her examination. Arreguín-Toft draws his under-
standing of strategy from Clausewitz who states
that strategy is "the art of the employment of batt-
les as a means to gain the object of war" (as ci-
ted in Liddell Hart, 1991, p. 333). Although this
supports Arreguín-Toft’s narrow understanding of
strategy at first sight, it also means that "victory
cannot be defined merely in military terms. Rat-
her, a strategic theory of victory is concerned with
the achievement of policy objectives" (Lonsdale,
2009, p. 18). As a consequence, strategy can be
described "as a link between the military and po-
litical world" (Lonsdale, 2009, p. 22), which emp-
hasises the interdependence and ramifications of the two dimensions. This becomes apparent
when looking at the levels of strategy (see Figure 1). While policy dictates an actor’s aspira-
tions, Grand Strategy can be defined as the effort "to coordinate and direct all the resources
of a nation [...] towards the attainment of the political object of the war" (Liddell Hart, 1991,
p. 335). An actor can employ several instruments to attain its policy, ranging from diploma-
tic and political to economic and finally to military measures or a mix thereof. In war, it will
predominantly focus on military strategy, but other means may be used simultaneously.
In the case of COIN, the policy objective of an actor would be to defeat the insurgency. If it
decides to pursue solely a military strategy to accomplish the insurgent’s defeat, the assumption
concerning the scope of strategy by Arreguín-Toft (2005) is credible. However, if the counter-
insurgent engages in political as well as military measures on the level of Grand Strategy, the
military strategy employed cannot concentrate solely on the use of one’s armed forces. More
specifically, military strategy might not be in direct pursuit of the policy objective but rather
serving as a tool to change power relationships from which the policy can be attained politically
(Lonsdale, 2009, p. 25). While this in no way neglects the need for military action, it emp-
hasises the importance of closely examining political and military strategy as an intertwined
Depending on the degree to which politics are integrated into the military strategy and in
which way it pursues the insurgent’s defeat, two kinds of COIN are observable. A COIN cam-
paign can be enemy-centric. While this approach appreciates the basic assumptions that con-
stitute an insurgency, especially the population’s support, it seeks to render them irrelevant by
the sole use of military means. Merom (2003, pp. 35-41) identifies two possible strategies, a
counterinsurgent can employ in an enemy-centric campaign. The strategy of annihilation is
arguably the oldest form of COIN, already mentioned by Thucydides when talking about the
Athenian quest for domination in Melos (Merom, 2003, p. 35). Its logic is that by wiping out a
population, an insurgent is easily stripped from both of its vital resources, shelter as well as sup-
port, making continuation of the war either impossible or at the very least too costly. Reverting
Mao’s metaphor, this "hard line" (C. Paul, Clarke, Grill, & Dunigan, 2016, p. 1023) approach
seeks to drain the sea, in which the insurgent "fish" is swimming. After all, without water, "it
cannot survive" (Mao, 1961, p. 93). This strategy was numerously adopted throughout history,
for example by the Germans in South-West Africa (1904-1907) or by the Chinese in Tibet in
the 1950s (C. Paul et al., 2016, p. 1034; Pieper, 2016, p. 151). However, in recent times it grew
increasingly rare as human rights and the international humanitarian law spread and an rising
number of actors are restricted in employing such an approach. The strategy of eradication tar-
gets primarily the insurgent fighters, trying to eradicate the insurgency’s military potential. This
"soft line" (C. Paul et al., 2016, p. 1023) approach constitutes arguably the most conventional
approach to COIN. The counterinsurgent tries to kill or capture the insurgent’s armed forces to
eliminate its capability to continue fighting. To be successful, this approach has to be backed by
sufficient financing, sophisticated intelligence as well as highly competent COIN-trained sol-
diers, since the insurgent will in many cases be able to seek shelter in the civilian population
(Merom, 2003, p. 41).
Alternatively, COIN campaigns can follow a population-centric approach. This strategy
understands popular support as the key factor that enhances the insurgents capabilities and
strengths. By pursuing a strategy of isolation, which means the destruction of the link bet-
ween the insurgency and the population, the counterinsurgent makes the insurgent vulnerable
to kill-or-capture operations (Merom, 2003, p. 38). This approach has most famously been des-
cribed by the U.S. Army in the 2006 Field Manual on Counterinsurgency. As Sewall (2007)
notes, the manual "adopts a population-centered approach instead of one focused primarily,
if not exclusively, on the insurgents" (p. xxiv). As a consequence, three basic principles of a
population-centric approach can be identified. First of all, what distinguishes such COIN cam-
paigns from conventional warfare is the centrality of the civilian. The strategy’s top priority
has to be the isolation of the population from influence of the insurgents. This entails a total
prohibition of collateral damage, since every civilian casualty is legitimizing the insurgent’s
cause. The COIN forces have to guarantee security, which is why conducting defense and stabi-
lity operations is crucial as unstable and insecure environments alienate the population (United
States Army, 2007, p. 1-17).
Second, the field manual emphasises the importance to understand short-term risk as an
operational necessity. Because tactics that rely on firepower instead of manpower greatly reduce
casualties, they are often used by counterinsurgents. Not only can this cause a surge in civilian
casualties, but also hinders soldiers on gathering intelligence from locals. Therefore, the manual
suggests that by taking more tactical risks, strategic risks can be reduced, as less soldiers will
die if the conflict is won faster (Kiras, 2009, p. 267; United States Army, 2007, p. 1-22).
Finally, the manual underlines the special role of non-military efforts in a COIN strategy.
While conventional warfare has a clear-cut division of labour between civilians and the military,
population-centric COIN makes a combined approach of kinetic and non-kinetic measures ne-
cessary at all stages and levels. These efforts can include high level politics like reconciliation
but also simpler actions like providing electricity, jobs and the rule of law.
As Cornish (2009) notes, military personnel can be the only actors in the area of operation
for a long time, therefore making it "absurd to insist that armed forces should confine themsel-
ves exclusively to military tasks" (p. 74). Instead, "in this unusually highly politicized arena
of military operations, it would be prudent for armed forces to be trained and empowered to
be ’more political’" (Cornish, 2009, p. 73). As a consequence, a population-centric approach
to COIN features not only a physical understanding of security, but a comprehensive one, in-
cluding economic and political security. This is not to say that military efforts are redundant
in this strategic approach. When trying to win popular support and isolating the insurgent, it
is important to acknowledge that COIN is not a merely competition in popularity but also in
authority. As Metz and Millen (2004) note: "it is less an assessment of a preferred future that
drives insurgents or insurgent supporters than an assessment of who will prevail - the insurgents
or the regime" (p. 5). By gaining power advantage and inflicting setbacks on the insurgent’s
military advances, the counterinsurgent is able to promote his own role as legitimate authority,
thereby winning over social support (Lonsdale, 2009, p. 39). The often used description of this
strategy as "clear, hold, and build" emphasises the versatile role of COIN soldiers. After the
kill or capture of insurgents in an area, the territory has to be secured and it is also necessary to
engage in reconstruction of infrastructure and more importantly governance.
Having discussed the three specific approaches of a COIN strategy, it is necessary to ope-
rationalize them according to the framework of the strategic interaction theory. The strategy of
annihilation closely resembles the indirect strategy of barbarism, discussed by Arreguín-Toft
(2005). The systemic elimination of a people or a population does not target the military ca-
pacity of the insurgency but seeks to destroy its will to fight by imposing too high costs on the
adversary and rendering them vulnerable without support and resources. The enemy-centric
COIN strategy of annihilation is therefore to be seen as an indirect strategy. The strategy of
eradication is relatively conventional as it targets the insurgent’s armed forces. The objective
is to end an insurgency by eradicating its fighters. This strategy therefore closely resembles
the approach of a conventional attack in the context of the strategic interaction theory. As a
consequence, the enemy-centric COIN strategy of eradication can be understood as a direct
The strategy of isolation barely resembles one of the ideal-type strategies suggested by
Arreguín-Toft (2005). When looking solely on the military strategy, which is essentially con-
fined to the targeting of insurgent fighters, the approach should be coded as a direct strategy.
However, the essential part of the population-centric approach are stability and non-kinetic ope-
rations. When these political measures both by soldiers as well as civilians are integrated into
the understanding of strategy, it becomes apparent that the strategy of isolation in fact targets
the adversary’s will. The main focus of such a campaign is not to eradicate the insurgency’s
armed forces but to win the hearts and minds of a local population to prevent the insurgents
from obtaining shelter and support. Therefore, this COIN approach seeks to achieve victory
by making continuation of the fighting too costly or in vain for the insurgents. Accordingly,
the population-centric strategy of isolation can be operationalized as a indirect approach in the
framework of Arreguín-Toft’s theory of strategic interaction.
After the discussion of the theoretical groundwork and having suggested the integration of
two new sets of strategies in Arreguín-Toft’s framework, this paper will continue by applying
the altered model to the case study of the Afghan War.
3 The Afghan theatre
The war in Afghanistan is the longest war the U.S. had ever been engaged in, currently lasting
for more than 16 years. Not only is it a war of global reach, as numerous states are involved in
its conduct but the Afghan War has also significantly shaped international politics (Holmqvist-
Jonsäter, 2010, p. 1). On the one hand, the Afghan war has important strategic implications,
as its outcome will determine security issues like the U.S. presence in the Middle East and
more importantly the overall stability of the region. On the other hand, Bush placed the war in
the context of a global "war on terror", making it a highly symbolic struggle against theocratic
authoritarianism and transnational terrorist organizations (Fairweather, 2014, p. 24).
When the terrorist attack against the U.S. happened in September 2001, the Bush adminis-
tration declared it an act of war to allow for the broadest range of reactions possible. While
earlier terrorist attacks were considered as crimes, the 9/11 attack called for more drastic means
(Fairweather, 2014, p. 4). Undoubtedly, the attacks were instrumentalized to move against al
Qa’ida. At first, U.S. leaders were reluctant to engage militarily in Afghanistan, but proponents
of such an approach were given more attention when the negotiations with the Taliban for the
handing over of al Qa’ida failed (Fairweather, 2014, p. 27). These talks had been unsuccessful
because Mullah Muhammad Omar, the leader of the Taliban regime, refused to betray al Qa’ida
partly due to tribal honour and the right of hospitality, partly due to the religious conviction both
organisations shared (Fairweather, 2014, p. 26). After nearly a month of considerations, the U.S.
decided to wage war against al Qa’ida and their affiliates, the Taliban regime, in Afghanistan.
Before examining the strategic choices made by the actors in the Afghan theatre, it is crucial
to assess whether the Afghan war is an asymmetric conflict as understood in the framework of
the strategic interaction theory. Arreguín-Toft (2005, p. 2) defines an asymmetric conflict as
a violent struggle between two actors that shows a vast difference in power. Actors are most
commonly understood to be states, even though non-state actors and armed organisations can
also be actors in an asymmetric conflict. It is important to note that the actors in the Afghan
theatre were in no way two unified poles that opposed each other. Rather, each of the belligerent
parties consisted out of a conglomerate of different actors. While the U.S. originally only
supported the inner-Afghan opposition of the Northern Alliance, it soon deployed troops to the
Hindukush itself and was subsequently supported by international coalition forces of the United
Nations (UN) peacekeeping mission (Rynning, 2012, p. 7). Similarly, the Taliban regime was
not only supported by al Qa’ida but also other islamist groups like Hekmaytar and the Haqqani
network (Jones, 2009, pp. 102-105). For the sake of the argument, this paper will view the U.S.
and the Taliban as the two main belligerent actors, assigning strategic movements of allies to
one of them, as it is their resources, ideology and hostilities that shape the Afghan war. On the
outset of the Afghan war, both parties were states and therefore valid actors.
Next, to assess if the Afghan war is in fact an asymmetric conflict, an evaluation of the
power difference is vital. Arreguín-Toft (2005, p. 2) suggests a realist approach to the operatio-
nalization of power, concentrating on the material power of an actor which can be understood as
the product of the armed forces and an actors Gross Domestic Product (T. V. Paul, 1994, p. 22).
When examining the economic and military resources of the two belligerents on the outset of
the war in 2001, it becomes apparent that the relative power difference is indeed immense with
the United States’ material power exceeding the Taliban’s by a factor of more than ten thousand
(CIA, 2017). As a result, the Afghan war can be seen as an asymmetric conflict.
The following analysis will be divided into five phases that serve to examine the strategic
interactions in the Afghan war from the beginning of the conflict to the currently ongoing phase.
3.1 2001-2002: First Interaction
The U.S. very well remembered their endless endeavour in the Vietnam war, being caught up
in the middle of an insurgency, as well as the Soviet’s very own Vietnam, the Afghan war
from 1979 to 1989. As a consequence, the Bush administration was reluctant to put boots
on the ground in the Afghan theatre (Fairweather, 2014, p. 24). In contrast to its hesitation,
the administration’s objectives were clear. Heavily influenced by the danger of international
terrorism and subsequent attacks to September 11 on U.S. homeland, the United States’ prime
objective was to destroy the terror organization al Qa’ida. Additionally, the U.S. sought to
overthrow the Taliban regime to thwart any future attempts to provide a safe haven for terrorist
groups (McChrystal & Sadat, 2017, p. 3). Meanwhile, the Taliban were trying to secure their
reign by defending the crucial infrastructure in Afghanistan.
In order to prevent getting caught up in an unwanted war, the U.S. decided early on to pursue
the strategy of a "light footprint" (Jones, 2009, p. 117), deploying as little troops as possible to
Afghanistan. Hence, the U.S. sent Special Operation Forces (SOFs) into the Panjshir valley in
north-eastern Afghanistan in late September. The valley was the last sanctuary the Northern
Alliance, the country’s sole remaining opposition force, was able to hold against the Taliban,
after their succession to power in the 1990s (Jones, 2009, p. 90). The Northern Alliance was a
loose group of warlords that were bound together by their common enemy and had often been
subject to allegations of human rights abuses in the past. Their iconic leader that had managed
to link the warlords together, Ahmad Shah Massoud, had been assassinated the day before the
9/11 attacks. Therefore, the SOF teams worked with the local commanders, providing weapons,
intelligence as well as military advice and convinced the various strands of the group to start a
joint offensive against the Taliban regime (Jones, 2009, p. 87).
At the beginning of October, the U.S. launched Operation Enduring Freedom and started to
conduct regular bombings of the military infrastructure of the Taliban, more specifically their
limited air defense and communication centres (Jones, 2009, p. 91). Thus, the first targets of
the air offensive were military facilities in the cities of Kabul, Kandahar and Jalalabad (Tyler,
2001). Meanwhile, having empowered the various militias of the Northern Alliance, SOF teams
started to guide them into Taliban territory. Targeting key values of the Taliban, the forces mo-
ved against the northern City of Mazar-e-Sharif, while air strikes were increasingly redirected to
the front line to further weaken the Taliban position (Biddle, 2003, p. 32). After difficult advan-
ces through the mountainous and steep environment of northern Afghanistan, the city fell to the
Northern Alliance on November 10 in a brief but bloody battle (Jones, 2009, p. 92). The taking
of Mazar-e-Sharif was a harsh blow to the Taliban moral, what became apparent when the capi-
tal city of Kabul fell just three days later to the Northern Alliance. The Taliban had abandoned
the city before the arrival of the U.S. troops and the Northern Alliance militias, retreating to
the traditional Taliban stronghold of Kandahar in the south of Afghanistan, which allowed for
the capture of Kabul without any serious fighting (Fairweather, 2014, p. 28). As Jones (2009)
rightly notes, "only two months after the September 11 attacks, the most strategically important
city in Afghanistan - Kabul - had been conquered" (p. 92). The northern part of Afghanistan
was cleared of Taliban control in the subsequent siege of the city of Kunduz, when more than
5000 Taliban as well as al Qa’ida survivors surrendered to the attackers (Biddle, 2003, p. 33).
Following these swift successes on the battlefield, the U.S. concentrated their attention on
Afghanistan’s south and the city of Kandahar, which had been the first city controlled by the
Taliban in the 1990s and since then had been home to Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Two SOF
teams accompanied by warlord militias, one being led by the later Afghan President Hamid
Karzai, approached the city from separate sites, thereby encircling the Taliban stronghold. Af-
ter several days of fighting, the Taliban leadership fled the city on December 6, resulting in
the overthrow of their regime (Jones, 2009, p. 93). However, while many Taliban managed to
cross the Pakistani border near Kandahar to seek refuge in the city of Quetta, al Qa’ida lea-
ders, most importantly the "mastermind" behind the 9/11 attacks Osama bin Laden, fled to the
eastern Border of Afghanistan to cross over to Pakistan (Fairweather, 2014, p. 59). Bin Laden
was suspected by U.S. intelligence to hide there in an old cave system called Tora Bora, which
had been used as a Mujahideen hideout in the Afghan war against the soviets,. After sixteen
days of fighting, the cave system was eventually seized. Again most of the fighting was done
by Northern Alliance militias supported by U.S. air strikes. Due to the complexity of the tunnel
system in Tora Bora, the shortage in numbers of U.S. soldiers and the lacking commitment of
the Northern Alliance to move against al Qa’ida members, many were able to flee the caves
(Jones, 2009, p. 94). Some intelligence reports even suggest that al Qa’ida paid the Afghans to
permit them passage to Pakistan. Indeed, the diverging objectives of the U.S. and the Northern
Alliance had become more and more apparent during this operation. While the former predo-
minantly sought to hunt down the remaining al Qa’ida command, the latter cared little about
the terrorists, focusing only on the overthrow of the Taliban regime (Fairweather, 2014, p. 66).
As a consequence, the U.S. did not manage to capture bin Laden, who was later reported to
have found refuge in the border region of Pakistan (Jones, 2009, p. 94). The slipping of bin
Laden significantly thwarted the United States’ war objectives and led to criticism on the U.S.
for almost exclusively relying on Afghan forces to do the actual fighting for them.
The border region of Pakistan should prove to be the perfect sanctuary for the Taliban as
well as al Qa’ida affiliates. The border along the Durand line is a mountainous territory that
provides countless possibilities to hide for those seeking refuge. Moreover, the area is mostly
populated by Pashtuns, which is the ethnic group the Taliban drew their largest support from.
The ties with the Pakistani government, the Taliban had developed in the 1990s when seizing
power in Afghanistan, also guaranteed them limited protection (Jones, 2009, pp. 99-100).
In February 2002, U.S. intelligence reported a regrouping of Taliban and al Qa’ida fighters in
a valley east of Gardez near the Pakistani border. In the code-named Operation Anaconda, SOFs
from several states including the United States, Australia, Canada and Germany, conventional
forces from the U.S. as well as troops from the newly founded Afghan National Army (ANA)
moved against the radicals’ holdout (Tanner, 2009, p. 317). The fighting was heavy, involving
up to a thousand Taliban fighters against the coalition forces. These fighters were using hit-and-
run tactics, firing at coalition forces and then quickly retreating back into hiding in the caves of
the mountains. Eventually, the U.S. and allied forces managed to clear the valley of Taliban and
al Qa’ida fighters. Yet, many of the rebellious fighters were able to flee and seek shelter in the
Pakistani border region (Jones, 2009, p. 95).
The numerous battles conducted by the U.S. and allied forces against the Taliban and al
Qa’ida were most often accompanied by the heavy use of air support. As Suhrke (2015) notes,
"the US-led invasion in October 2001 and the ’mopping up’ operations afterwards relied on
[...] ’robust’ international airpower" (p. 102). Therefore, the conduct of war was highly enemy-
centric, with the sole objective of the coalition forces to kill or capture as many Taliban and al
Qa’ida fighters as possible. Although the targets of air strikes were without exception formally
military objects, this approach led to many civilian deaths because many air strikes turned out to
be what was called "normal accidents" (Suhrke, 2015, p. 103). In other words, civilian casualties
were considered necessary and occurred on a daily basis. Suhrke (2015) calls attention to the
danger of combining few troops on the ground with an intense use of air strikes:
With little reliable on-the-ground information, verification of targets became diffi-
cult, and alternative ways of addressing the problem that might reduce incidental
civilian damage – such as waiting, withdrawing, warning and negotiating – were he-
avily discounted in favour of the proven, tactical effectiveness of air strikes (Suhrke,
2015, p. 103).
Following the fall of Kabul in November, the U.S. government handed over the peace ne-
gotiations in Afghanistan to the United Nations. Since the Taliban were outright defeated, the
consensus was not to include them in the subsequent talks. As a result, the Bonn Agreement
which was signed by Afghan officials in December 2001, chose the Pashtun Hamid Karzai as
interim president (Lyall, 2015). Fearing the emerge of ethnic conflicts and an ensuing civil war,
the Bonn Agreement drafted the newly founded Afghan state as a highly centralised democratic
system. This was a transforming break with Afghanistan’s past as the country itself had been
essentially federalist for centuries, its society being divided "into tribes, subtribes, clans, and
other subsections based on their lineage from common male ancestors" (Jones, 2010, p. 123).
In the wake of the negotiations, the UN mandated a peace-keeping mission in Afghanistan
to secure the stability of the new government. The mission was dubbed International Security
Assistance Force (ISAF) and its name implied early on the intended purpose of the force. Its
efforts should be solely limited to assistance operations. Nation Building was no strategic goal
of the U.S. and as a consequence, there was little commitment to send troops into the Afghan
theatre (Jones, 2009, p. 112). The U.S. feared the emergence of popular resistance against occu-
pying troops, which was thought to have happened to the Soviets in the 1970s. While the U.S.
send 8000 soldiers to Afghanistan, designated to hunt remaining Taliban and al Qa’ida cells,
the ISAF program was supplied with additional 4000 soldiers. Although the Bonn Agreement
would have allowed otherwise, ISAF did not venture beyond the city of Kabul, limiting their
efforts to the capital of Afghanistan (Rynning, 2012, pp. 46-47). The "light footprint" strategy
resulted in one of the lowest levels of military presence in a stability mission since the occu-
pation of Germany after World War II (Dobbins, 2008). Moreover, the financial help that was
allocated to fund the new Afghan state was remarkably low as well. Early plans for an Afghan
"Marshall Plan" were invoked by the Bush administration (New York Times, 2002), but the
funding was never gathered, as neither the U.S. nor its allies were willing to sent the adequate
money into Afghanistan (Jones, 2009, p. 116).
The low level of troops in Afghanistan made it impossible for U.S. and government forces to
exercise full control over the country. While the Afghan government was able to secure and hold
cities and important connecting roads, the more remote regions were mostly left to themselves
(Jones, 2009, p. 130). In continuation with their past, the tribes and districts began to organize
themselves on their own, creating their own local councils, courts and security forces. To fill
the power vacuum and expand government control, Afghan President Karzai integrated various
warlords in his administration, empowering them to exercise governance in the remote regions.
After their takeover, the warlords fell back into old patterns, reigning by corrupt and violent
means, now legitimized by the government. Moreover, they began to fight against their rivals,
repeatedly attempting "to fool US special forces into targeting the others’ militias as ’Taliban’,
with some success" (Farrell & Giustozzi, 2013, p. 847). This was one of the first seeds to sow
disaffection with the new Afghan government in the population.
In 2002, the level of violence had massively dropped with only few kinetic actions throug-
hout the year and an all-time low of civilian casualties with a total of 400 deaths (Crawford,
2016, p. 3). With the exception of the southern border to Pakistan, Afghanistan was relatively
calm. The U.S. had successfully overthrown the Taliban regime in a swift invasion, yet failed to
accomplish their prime objective of destroying the organizational structure of al Qa’ida (Jones,
In conclusion, the first strategic interaction between the U.S. and the Taliban can be seen as
asame-approach interaction. By making use of the militias of the Northern Alliance instead
of their own troops, the U.S. employed a strategy that targeted the Taliban’s key values. More
specifically, the tactical objectives were to exert control over cities, critical infrastructure and
communication centres as well as the destruction of military targets. The latter became visible
not only in the battles on the ground but also by the United States’ use of air strikes. Since the
U.S. strategic approach targeted the military capability of the Taliban, the approach chosen by
the U.S. and their allies can be considered a conventional attack. The Taliban were defending
their key values in Afghanistan by the use of their armed forces, retreating from city to city after
each tactical defeat. Their strategic objective was to thwart the U.S. offensive by the destruction
of the Northern Alliance armed forces. Their defense efforts went on until finally the Taliban
forces were either killed, captured or fled the country along with their leadership. As a result,
the strategic approach of the Taliban can be described as a conventional defense.
Since both the U.S. and the Taliban employed direct strategies, the first strategic interaction
of the Afghan war is essentially same-approach. In accord with the theoretical expectations, the
interaction ended relatively swift and was clearly won by the more powerful U.S. in a matter of
3.2 2003-2005: Second Interaction
Already in 2002, first reports were emerging of offensive attacks of insurgents in the border re-
gions to Pakistan, specifically the Kandahar and Nangarhar regions. After the U.S. led invasion,
the Taliban leader Mullah Omar had spend considerable effort into reorganizing and regrouping
the Taliban. As Giustozzi (2008) argues, the Taliban evolved into an utterly new movement
during that time, therefore calling the new organization the "Neo-Taliban" (p. 13). While the
Taliban that emerged in the 1990s had a hierarchic structure with Mullah Omar as their supreme
leader and interpreted the Sharia extremely narrow, the Neo-Taliban changed these rules. They
were willing to employ more pragmatical tactics, which was owed to their training deficiencies
and made possible by their ideological conviction. Especially the cooperation with al Qa’ida
enabled the Taliban to access and utilize irregular tactics other than guerrilla warfare, for exam-
ple the use of Improvised Explosive Devises (IEDs) like TV bombs or even suicide bombers.
The latter was especially convenient for the Taliban as the group sought integration in the glo-
bal jihadist movement, effectively ending the isolationist approach that the "old" Taliban had
pursued. The suicide bombings also created attention and reduced the feeling of security in
the population. Additionally, the Neo-Taliban became more flexible regarding new media and
technology in general, allowing them to make heavy use of photo and video-propaganda (Gi-
ustozzi, 2008, pp. 13-14; Kamolnick, 2009, p. 140). Another break with the movement’s past
occurred on the level of personnel. Only few of the newly recruited fighters had been part of the
movement before the overthrow of the Taliban regime. Indeed, the Neo-Taliban started to re-
cruit fighters predominantly via madrassas, Islamic schools, in the Pakistani border region, not
limiting themselves to Pashtuns anymore, but embracing new recruits no matter their ethnicity
(Qazi, 2010, p. 487).
Starting in 2003, the newly organized Taliban employed a strategy that clearly resembled
the basic pattern of an insurgency. The Taliban started to send small teams of three to four
people into Afghanistan to infiltrate the villages and districts. As Giustozzi (2008) notes,
"the strategic task of these ’vanguard’ teams was to prepare the ground for a latter escalation
of the insurgency" (p. 101). The teams were dispatched to slowly build up local support for
the Taliban cause to make a resurgence of the movement possible. Undoubtedly, the Taliban’s
ideas fell on fertile ground. Afghans that lived in remote areas were more and more frustrated
by the escalating corruption of the warlords, which were legitimized by the Afghan government
and often backed by the U.S. as it needed their knowledge and force to move against remai-
ning terrorist cells. "Lines of conflict between, on the one hand, warlord patronage networks
that benefited from government largess and, on the other, disfranchised and downtrodden tribal
communities, formed and hardened" (Farrell & Giustozzi, 2013, p. 848). The Taliban success-
fully draw on these grievances to gather support for their movement.
The new Afghan state was designed to be highly centralized in order to prevent ethnic ten-
sions to arise. However, ethnic grievance was not a motivation for the developing insurgency.
On the one hand, the Taliban had abandoned their Pashtun-only tradition which became increa-
singly apparent by the introduction of foreign fighters to the Taliban (Farrell & Giustozzi, 2013,
p. 847). On the other hand, Karzai’s government had successfully integrated and represented
the different ethnic groups all over Afghanistan (Jones, 2009, p. 160). Dorronsoro (2009, p. 14)
critiques this assumption and states that a common perception in the Pashtun population was
that the new Afghan government was essentially in the hands of Hazaris and other non-Pashtuns
ethnicities. However, he admits that the Taliban did not play this card deliberately in order to
be able to spread the insurgency beyond the Pashtun areas in the south of Afghanistan.
In fact, one may say that three motivations actually fuelled the insurgency. First, the reli-
gious ideology of the group was important for many communities and the Taliban played this
strength by targeting local Mullahs and persuading them to voice their support for the insur-
gency (Farrell & Giustozzi, 2013, p. 853). Second, the centralist approach of the government
that involved exerting control in remote areas by the integration of warlords backfired. As civi-
lian casualties due to U.S. air strikes skyrocketed during the invasion, many Afghans started to
perceive the presence of the government as well as U.S. forces as an occupation (Jones, 2009,
p. 161; Suhrke, 2015, p. 102). Third, many young men joined the insurgency out of necessity,
having no job, no money and no perspectives. It is important to note that there are two tiers
in the Taliban movement. While the leadership of the Taliban was confined to a small group
of radical islamists that orchestrated the insurgency from Pakistan, the thousands of insurgency
fighters in the Afghan theatre were seldom radicals and often not even religious. However, the
Taliban were often seen as the lesser evil in comparison to the government, especially because
they paid well for every conducted attack or planted IED (Farrell & Giustozzi, 2013, p. 854).
In contrast to the government’s top-down approach, the Taliban were able to draw many
Afghans on their side by building their social base bottom-up, enabling them to expand the
insurgency (Jones, 2010, p. 125). As Farrell and Giustozzi (2013) note, "the Taliban slowly
built up local support in the district and became increasingly bold in their military activities"
(p. 850).
The U.S. changed their strategic approach as well. In Autumn 2003, the Afghan Zalmay
Khalilzad, who had previously worked for the Bush administration and had been engaged in
the Bonn Agreement, was designated as the U.S. ambassador in Kabul. Almost simultaneously,
General David Barno was appointed commander of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The two
men developed a close relationship, with their offices only several meters away from each other
(Kaplan, 2013b, p. 321). Khalilzad brought along a major increase in funds for reconstruction
in Afghanistan and together with Barno, he worked on a political-military strategy to stabilize
and rebuild the country in order to counter the insurgency’s development. The new approach
called "Accelerating Success" emphasised three features. First, vital Afghan institutions had
to be built. The strategy did not only concentrated on the formal aspect of the state, like cre-
ating democratic institutions, but also embraced the importance of economic development. In
addition, it recognized the significance to enable the urban, and the even more important ru-
ral population to take part in the development. Second, the plan was to improve governance
in Afghanistan by staffing the government with people that enjoyed popular support and were
equally competent. Third, warlordism and the accompanying problems in Afghanistan’s remote
areas had grown significantly. Therefore, another important concern was to disarm and weaken
the warlords and their influence in the regions (Jones, 2009, p. 141).
So far, the U.S. military was only deployed to hunt down Taliban or al Qa’ida affiliates while
the ISAF force was not allowed to venture out of Kabul. It was even forbidden to describe the
U.S. course of action by the term counterinsurgency (Jones, 2009, p. 142). This changed under
Khalilzad and Barno as they enacted a far-reaching change in the military strategy of the coali-
tion forces. To implement the objectives of their plan, the concept of regional command centres
was introduced. Originally, two regional commands in the south and the east of Afghanistan
were established, each with assigned forces to stabilize its area of operation and secure the
population (Jones, 2009, p. 142). By implementing Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs),
which were staffed with military as well as civilian personnel, the U.S. engaged in a combined
political-military effort to rebuild and stabilize the country for the first time in Afghanistan.
However, the project was seriously undermined by the lack of coordination between national
and provincial reconstruction. Furthermore, many NGOs refused to work together with PRTs
as they did not want to get involved in what they considered to be a military project. Finally,
the PRTs were often used to realize military strategy which undermined their political purpose
(Fairweather, 2014, pp. 133-134). The PRTs were manned by the U.S. as well as NATO, which
had taken over the ISAF command in August 2003. This was the first step to a slow expansion
of NATO forces, which ultimately resulted in a separation of Afghanistan in five regional com-
mands (north, west, south, east, and the capital) that were subsequently implemented until 2006
(Jones, 2009, p. 248).
In addition, the U.S. started to intensify the effort to rebuild the Afghan security forces. The
Afghan National Police (ANP), which had been trained by German officials after the invasion,
had shown extremely slow progress, and as a consequence, the U.S. took over the training to
allow for an expansion of police forces in remote areas as soon as possible (Dempsey, 2006).
The Afghan National Army (ANA) had been supervised by the U.S. since 2001, and started
to show first successes independent of U.S. support in 2004. A major breakthrough was the
successful protection of the first free and general elections in Afghanistan in a combined effort
of coalition forces and Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) that resulted in the election of
Hamid Karzai as President (Jones, 2009, p. 144).
Another important feature in Barno’s military strategy was the endorsement of the impor-
tance of the Afghan population. As a consequence, he almost completely prohibited the use of
air strikes. Although their is no data on the effect this measure had on civilian casualties, they
"were not even mentioned by two UN reports on human rights in Afghanistan, which in other
respect severely criticised the operations of US forces in this period" (Suhrke, 2015, p. 106).
The measures showed success. Not only were violence levels considerably low throug-
hout this phase of the war, opinion polls also suggest that Afghans started to feel significantly
safer compared to the time of the Taliban regime (The Asia Foundation, 2004, p. 106). Ironi-
cally, the approach was suddenly interrupted as Khalilzad, partly because of his success, was
nominated ambassador in Baghdad and Barno was replaced by Lieutenant General Eikenberry
in the summer of 2005 (Jones, 2009, p. 150). This led to a break of the combined civilian-
military approach and subsequently to a new strategic approach of the U.S. and the coalition
The second strategic interaction in the Afghan war can be considered a same-approach
interaction. The Taliban famously employed the ideal-type of an insurgency strategy. By in-
filtrating remote areas, winning over the population’s support bottom-up and using guerrilla
tactics to attack government and U.S. forces, the Taliban clearly started to engage in a political-
military struggle for the population. As this approach does not target the military capabilities of
their adversary, the strategy can be considered as indirect because it sought to shatter the U.S.
will to keep on fighting. In comparison, the U.S. employed the strategy of counterinsurgency.
More specifically, as the support and solidarity of the Afghan population was considered the
key element of the strategy, the COIN approach can be described as a population-centric stra-
tegy (Suhrke, 2015, p. 105). Although the efforts were thwarted by difficulties in coordination
and by opposition from the military and NGOs, the overarching strategy was clear and can be
identified as a strategy of isolation, therefore an indirect approach. General Barno did not tar-
get the destruction of the Taliban fighters, but sought to forestall their efforts in by winning the
population’s support.
The observable same-approach interaction showed the expected results as violence levels
were low and the Afghan population’s approval ratings for the new government were conside-
rably high with more than 80% stating that the country was moving in the right direction (The
Asia Foundation, 2004, pp. 20-21). Like Barno (2007) emphasises, "most importantly, we had
built a solid basis of hope among the Afghan people for a better future" (p. 42). However, the
population-centric COIN approach of the U.S. lasted little more than a year, which was not
enough to reach a decisive level in the struggle for the population’s support. Before the inte-
raction could fully unfold, the U.S. changed leadership and subsequently also their strategy to
deal with the emerging insurgency.
3.3 2006-2008: Third Interaction
At the end of 2005, the situation in Afghanistan was getting worse and with the deteriorating
security situation alienating more and more Afghans from the government, the population star-
ted to look elsewhere for governance and leadership. Jones (2009) identifies two major factors
that caused the massive resurgence of the insurgency in the beginning of 2006. First, law and
order provided by the Afghan security forces started to crumble. The ANP had been trained by
the U.S. since 2003, which provided the security forces with urgently needed equipment and
weapons. However, investment soon ran thin as the U.S. was more committed to rebuilding the
ANA. As a consequence, the training of the ANP was outsourced to private security firms, that
had little or no expertise in dealing with the Afghan culture. This resulted in a poorly trained
police force. Moreover, the ANP was crippled by massive corruption, which resulted in police
forces that were "legendary for their corruption and incompetence" (Jones, 2010, p. 122). The
police was regularly outmatched by the insurgents, resulting not only in high numbers of ANP
casualties but also in many officers flipping to the side of the Taliban (Jones, 2009, pp. 172-173).
More than 70% of the Afghan population lives in rural regions, which made the ANP personnel
the only security force present at all times in these remote areas (Romano et al., 2015, p. 402).
Often, they were the sole representatives of governance, but alienated many Afghans from the
government due to of their poor performance.
ANA was more successful as the U.S. had shown full financial and personnel commitment
to the training of the Afghan army. Although desertion rates had initially been around 50%
per month in 2002, they dropped to a low of 1.2% in 2006 (Jones, 2009, p. 177). While ANA
successfully combated the insurgency in many battles, it lacked an air force of its own, resulting
in a burdensome dependence on coalition air support, without which its performance was con-
siderably poorer. Because ANA could not provide long-term security, and ANP struggling to
do so even short-term, the local population was often left without protection. On the one hand,
this meant that many Afghans were disappointed by the government and started to turn their
attention towards the Taliban. On the other hand, those loyal to the government often had no
other chance than co-opting with the Taliban as they otherwise would have had to fear for their
lives (Jones, 2010, p. 126).
Second, the other factor that fuelled the insurgency was the drug trafficking that had sky-
rocketed after 2001. Without the strict supervision of the Taliban, warlords and other criminals
started to cultivate poppy in unprecedented amounts with the biggest laboratories being in the
Helmand province. The drug trade resulted in a shadow economy that vastly exceeded the regu-
lar one and the insurgents derived huge revenues from it (Jones, 2009, p. 195). The British, who
had taken over the regional command in the south along with Canada and the Netherlands in
2006, sought to move against the drug trafficking in their PRT of Helmand. To destroy the most
prominent income source of the Taliban, the British tried to eradicate the opium production,
which essentially resulted in the burning of countless poppy fields. Instead of thwarting the
insurgent’s efforts, the strategy had the opposite effect. Many Afghan farmers were stripped
of their only viable income source and the compensation payments that were given to district
officials seldom reached their intended recipients due to corruption (Farrell & Giustozzi, 2013,
p. 851). The Taliban used this opportunity to offer protection against coalition forces and got
increasingly involved in the drug trafficking at all levels, eventually drawing as much as 30% of
their income from the opium trade (Jones, 2009, p. 195).
Beginning with 2006, the Taliban intensified their efforts in the insurgency and made two
critical changes to enhance their strategic approach. First, the Taliban leadership was redrafting
the organizational structure. The reliance on foreign fighters had repeatedly interfered with
the Taliban’s effort to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan population. Foreigners were
therefore re-assigned to consulting positions instead of fighting at the front lines. This had
become possible because the Taliban were attracting a growing number of recruits (Farrell &
Giustozzi, 2013, p. 858). Furthermore, to prevent corruption and exploitation of the population,
the Taliban leadership introduced the rotation of commanders in Afghanistan. This was initially
successful although the system would eventually break down in 2011 due to the heavy targeting
of the commanders (Farrell & Giustozzi, 2013, p. 860). Second, the Taliban put emphasis on
creating governance structures. When seizing an area, "the Taliban would set up a local mulki
(political) commission comprising district shadow governors and judges, and this would be
charged with dealing with the complaints of the villagers" (Farrell & Giustozzi, 2013, p. 862).
Especially the judicial system proved to satisfy the population’s expectations. The troubled
population liked the harsh but fast jurisdiction of the Taliban more than the slow and often
simply absent judicial system of the government.
Their overall military strategy continued to follow the basic principles of insurgency, alt-
hough the Taliban were increasingly defending points of tactical value conventionally, partly
because of the significant increase in recruits. In the south of Afghanistan, especially in Hel-
mand and Kandahar province, hundreds of Taliban fighters fought against coalition forces in
conventional battles (Jones, 2009, p. 212). These conventional assaults to overrun coalition out-
posts resulted in heavy casualties for the Taliban, which ultimately caused them to move even
closer to guerrilla tactics than before. Large-scale attacks were carried out occasionally, because
it enabled the Taliban to show their regained strength (Farrell & Giustozzi, 2013, p. 865). When
losing such an encounter, the Taliban fighters would retreat for several months before moving
back into the area after coalition forces had withdrawn (Jones, 2009, p. 254). Additionally, the
Taliban started to increase the use of irregular tactics other than guerrilla warfare. While only
three suicide bombers had detonated themselves in 2003, the number had risen to a total of 140
in 2007 (The University of Chicago, 2016). Simultaneously, the use of IEDs doubled between
2005 and 2006, reaching a high of more than 1600 detonations (Jones, 2009, p. 207).
This escalation of violence caught U.S. and NATO forces by surprise. In 2006, the Supreme
Allied Commander Europe, General James Jones, said, "My take on the situation in Afghani-
stan is that the Taliban and al Qaeda are not in a position to where they can restart an insurgency
of any size and major scope" (The Washington Times, 2006). NATO had recently expanded
its reach over whole Afghanistan, but the plans for expansion had been made in 2003 while
violence levels were still considerably lower. As a result, far to few resources, in both man-
power as well as finances, had been allocated to react properly to the new challenge (Suhrke,
2015, p. 106). Another problem was the position of many NATO members, especially Germany,
who were risk-averse and limited the rules of engagement for their armies to minimize casual-
ties. Therefore, only a handful NATO member states were actually willing to engage in heavy
fighting, namely the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the Netherlands (Jones,
2009, p. 248).
Eventually, the coalition forces reacted to the advancing insurgency and formally employed
a COIN strategy following the famous pattern of "clear, hold and rebuild", invoking a population-
centric approach. However, due to the low levels of troops, this pattern could only be applied
in very few sectors (Jones, 2009, p. 254). In most sectors, ISAF soldiers were spread across
the area of operation too wide apart, creating a situation where the forces were too small to
effectively protect the Afghans from Taliban violence, while being "large enough to antago-
nize the local population and drive them further into the arms of the insurgency" (Farrell &
Giustozzi, 2013, p. 850). By the end of 2006, the coalition operated in the Afghan theatre with
approximately 26.000 ISAF troops and an additional 10.000 soldiers under direct U.S. com-
mand. Although mandating and supplying this impressive force, the coalition forces struggled
to operate jointly as there was no central command and each nation’s forces differed in their
mission and equipment (Barno, 2007, p. 43).
The NATO command eventually discarded the political, non-kinetic efforts of their strategy,
concentrating solely on the military side. ISAF started to rely in great measure on aggressive
air support to minimize the costs of their engagement. This lead to a stark increase in civilian
casualties with 116 deaths from air strikes in 2006 up to 321 in 2008 (Human Rights Watch,
2008, p. 14). The development was fuelled by "the use of so-called area-affect bombs, inclu-
ding 2,000-pound bombs that obliterated a large area and allowed no discrimination between
combatants and civilians" (Suhrke, 2015, p. 107). Even when only hitting military objectives,
the devastation of the bombings irritated many Afghans, because once again they were deprived
from their basic resources for survival and alienated even further from the government.
ISAF commander General McKiernan responded to this development in 2008 by releasing a
directive that emphasised the importance of minimizing civilian casualties. However, there was
little change in the subsequent use of air strikes on the battlefield (Suhrke, 2015, p. 109). The
U.S. and ISAF forces moved heavily against the Taliban, especially in the southern provinces of
Helmand and Kandahar, where they conducted many operations to dispel the insurgents, killing
hundreds in the engagements.
In conclusion, the third strategic interaction between the U.S. and the Taliban can be consi-
dered an opposite-approach interaction. The Taliban did not change their strategy of insurgency,
but intensified their efforts to win the population’s support and simultaneously engaged in guer-
rilla warfare as well as other irregular tactics. The Taliban’s strategic approach can therefore be
seen as an indirect strategy. The U.S. did alter their strategic approach in this phase. The quick
development of the insurgency had caught the U.S. and its allies by surprise. The coalition for-
ces still employed the doctrine of a "light footprint" and there was little commitment to allocate
more resources to respond to the new security environment. Therefore, the U.S. did not have the
necessary manpower and the financial funding to commence a proper population-centric COIN
strategy. In spite of officials repeatedly emphasising the importance of the population, the U.S.
approach essentially was an enemy-centric COIN. More precisely, the U.S. pursued a strategy
of eradication, trying to kill or capture as many Taliban fighters as possible to thwart the insur-
gency’s advance. Efforts to win over the population were scarce and essentially undermined by
the excessive use of air strikes and the resulting collateral damage. Therefore, this approach has
to be classified as a direct strategy, targeting the adversary’s military capabilities. Consequently,
the phase results in an opposite-approach interaction. The U.S. and their allies were not able
to make use of their power advantage and could neither stop the increase in violence nor the
spread of the insurgency all over Afghanistan. In the three years that constitute this phase, little
progress was made on the side of the U.S. and its allies.
3.4 2009-2014: Fourth Interaction
In 2006, the U.S. Army had released a new field manual especially designed to deal with the
situation the U.S. saw it self confronted with at that time, namely being entangled in two asym-
metric conflicts. The author of the new manual, General David Petraeus, proposed a population-
centric approach to COIN. Soon after its publication, the manual was put to the test in Iraq. In
January 2007, President Bush announced a new strategy for Iraq, involving most famously a
massive troop surge as well as a new commander of the coalition forces, David Petraeus. Un-
doubtedly, the new COIN strategy proved to be utterly successful, as violence started to drop
rapidly in 2007 (Biddle, Friedman, & Shapiro, 2012, p. 7). Notwithstanding the troop surge,
which significantly improved the security environment, this was mainly due to Petraeus steer-
ing towards the Iraqi population. The Sons of Iraq Program successfully integrated former
insurgents and by accommodating the population’s demands, the insurgents were successfully
isolated from their social base and consequently became easy prey for the counterinsurgents
(Kaplan, 2013a, p. 85).
In 2009, newly elected President Barack Obama outlined his strategy for Afghanistan and
was pressured from the military to follow the Iraq formula. However, from the beginning of
his Afghanistan efforts, Obama made clear that he was pursuing minimal objectives. First, the
mission was about further denying al Qa’ida a safe haven and preventing them from regaining
enough strength to pose a threat of international terrorism again. Second, the Taliban insur-
gency had to be weakened. That way, the Afghan Security forces would be able to deal with the
problem themselves, allowing for a withdrawal of coalition forces (Rudolf, 2011, p. 1). For this
purpose, Obama invigorated the COIN strategy in Afghanistan, made General Stanley McChry-
stal, a fierce advocate of Petraeus’ COIN doctrine, the commander of the coalition forces and
announced a surge in troops. 30.000 more troops were deployed in the Afghan theatre, resulting
in a total number of 90.000 coalition forces in 2010 (Griffin, 2014, p. 456).
Subsequently, the COIN strategy was implemented in the southern regions of Afghanistan
by McChrystal. Considerable effort was made to make sure that coalition troops would follow
through with the population-centric approach at every level. As a consequence, McChrystal’s
arrival in Afghanistan marked a clear reduction in civilian casualties as he repeatedly emphasi-
sed "the trap of winning tactical victories – but suffering strategic defeats – by causing civilian
casualties or excessive damage" (as cited in Suhrke, 2015, p. 111). Petraeus, who replaced Mc-
Chrystal in 2010, intensified efforts to reduce civilian deaths, putting the focus on night raids
and infantry operations instead of air strikes. The approach showed some success, although re-
sults were mostly restricted to the south of Afghanistan, where COIN was actually implemented
(Rudolf, 2011, p. 2).
Arguably the most successful measure was the implementation of the Village Stability Ope-
rations (VSO) which were a COIN program specifically designed for the rural environment
of Afghanistan. It was a bottom-up program that meant to empower local tribes and clans to
provide for their own security. Small SOF teams along with people trained in civil affairs and
interpreters moved into villages and connected with village elders and tribal leaders to iden-
tify their grievances and sources of instability. Once a relationship was established, the SOF
team was supposed to address these problems and enable the local population to stand up for
themselves. Particularly, the SOF teams were to establish and train a local police force and con-
nect these local efforts to the central government (Miller, 2013, p. 89). Notwithstanding these
successes, both McChrystal as well as his successor Petraeus encountered several obstacles that
complicated the implementation of the COIN strategy.
First, the political-military endeavour that defines the population-centric COIN approach
was not well balanced. General McChrystal was interpreting the COIN doctrine more or less
literally, seeking to limit kinetic action to follow the manual’s formula of 20% military and
80% political efforts. He misjudged the situation in Afghanistan, underestimating the danger
the Taliban posed and using too little military force to secure the political advances of the coa-
lition forces. As a consequence, neither military nor civilian successes were made and political
efforts were also scarce (Kaplan, 2013a, p. 88). For example, when dealing with the pervasive
corruption of Afghan officials, only symbolic progress was made, the core problem being left
untouched. Furthermore, the Afghan government had not yet managed to expand into remote
areas, restricting effective governance to the urban areas of Afghanistan (Cordesman, 2012). Ei-
kenberry (2013, pp. 70-72) heavily criticizes Karzai’s government for not taking the necessary
steps to support the coalition’s military struggle with the appropriate civilian measures. Indeed,
Karzai had little sympathy for the new COIN approach, understanding the surge in troops as a
further delay of the independence of the Afghan state. Therefore, wherever political and civilian
actions were implemented, they were predominantly conducted by poorly trained U.S. military
personnel, who had little understanding for Afghan culture (Eikenberry, 2013, p. 64).
Second, when Petraeus took over the command of the coalition forces, he was motivated
by the challenges ahead, planning on repeating his successes of the Iraqi surge in Afghani-
stan. However, Afghanistan proved to have completely different prerequisites (Kaplan, 2013a,
p. 89). The political system in Afghanistan is more centralized than the Iraqi system. There-
fore, promising the regional tribal leaders influence in the government was less credible and
made winning their support notably more difficult. The rural character of Afghanistan contrasts
the more urban Iraq and makes the protection of the population much harder. In order to re-
spond to this situation, government presence on a local level would have been necessary. As
Romano et al. (2015) note, "Afghanistan lacks all of these [government institutions] at every
governing level. Poor governance compromises government legitimacy, of course, and thereby
hurts counterinsurgency efforts" (p. 302).
In addition, the U.S. and the Afghan government failed to establish a working reconciliation
strategy that would have allowed for the re-integration of former insurgent fighters. Semple and
Christia (2009) argue that the years of civil war have taught the Afghans a basic rule for survival
- to "side with the winner" (p. 35). When low-level fighters of the Taliban were confronted with
the U.S. surge, many would have considered desertion to side with the more powerful coalition
forces. However, in order to gather intelligence, the coalition forces regularly detained deserters
or any suspected fighters. This made flipping sides unattractive for Afghans and secured cohe-
sion in the ranks of the Taliban. Moreover, because of the special geography of Afghanistan,
the Taliban were not solely dependent on the population to seek shelter, but could also hide in
the remote areas of Afghanistan and the Pakistani border region. This extraordinary circum-
stances would have required more troops than the operations in Iraq, but even at its peak, the
troop levels in Afghanistan remained below the Iraqi numbers. Besides, a strategy of isolation
was easier to implement in Iraq because the insurgency was led by al Qa’ida, which was foreign
to the country. In Afghanistan, the Taliban forces were mostly made up of local recruits with
strong ties to the Afghan tribes (Romano et al., 2015, p. 406).
Another major feature that distinguishes the Afghan theatre from Iraq is Pakistan’s role
in the conflict. From the beginning of the invasion in 2001, Pakistan was playing a double-
game. On the one hand, it received funding from the U.S. and in turn cooperated with them
on COIN in the border region of Pakistan. On the other hand, the Pakistani secret service
was repeatedly suspected to support the insurgency indirectly (Kassel & Reiner, 2017). More
importantly, Pakistan refused to grant U.S. forces leeway on its territory, insisting on dealing
with the problem itself. While Pakistani forces willingly targeted al Qa’ida affiliates, the Taliban
were mostly left alone. Pakistan had limited interest in supporting Karzai’s government and
favoured the ideologically more similar Taliban as a neighbour, hoping their support in the
Pakistani struggle against India (Jones, 2009, p. 263). This provided the Taliban with a perfect
sanctuary from where they could start operations and retreat to afterwards without having to fear
prosecution by coalition forces. Although Obama was trying to pressure Pakistan into engaging
more effectively against the Taliban on their territory, little changed and the shelter, the Taliban
were granted, considerably thwarted the U.S. COIN efforts (Cordesman, 2012).
Third, the COIN strategy was constantly obstructed by political struggles that undermined
the efforts to win over the population. At the same time as announcing the Afghan surge,
Obama had presented a condition-based deadline for U.S. presence in Afghanistan to clarify
that the U.S. would not get entangled into another quagmire. However, this outlook presented
an enormous moral boost to the insurgents’ supporters that saw the U.S. withdrawal within re-
ach. As a consequence, the efforts of the coalition forces to win over the population’s support
were seriously undermined. When changing the deadline from condition-based to time-based,
announcing a full withdrawal of U.S. troops for the end of 2014, Obama further fuelled the
insurgents’ moral (Cordesman, 2012). In addition, Obama sidelined the COIN strategy with a
counterterrorism (CT) strategy, implemented in the Pakistani border region. This strategy relied
on targeted killings, which required the heavy use of air strikes. Consequently, air strikes had
tripled by 2009 in comparison to 2008 with more than 161 strikes killing a total of 1029 people
(Hudson, Owens, & Flannes, 2011, p. 125). The resulting strategic confusing of winning the
hearts and minds of a population in Afghanistan while antagonizing the population on the other
side of the border, seriously thwarted U.S. COIN efforts. On the one hand, the immense use
of air strikes led to retaliating actions of insurgents, for example causing an in the increase in
suicide bombings. On the other hand, the strikes contributed to the "accidental-guerrilla pheno-
menon" envisioned by David Kilcullen (2011, p. 35), leading to radicalization and recruitment
of people affected by the air strikes. As Hudson et al. (2011) thoughtfully note,
only a small minority of those affected by drone attacks become the kinds of ra-
dicals envisioned by Kilcullen. However, with the average frequency of a drone
strike every three days in 2010, this would be enough to provide a steady stream
of new recruits and destabilize the region through direct violence (Hudson et al.,
2011, p. 126).
Since the underlying assumption of targeted killings is that personnel cannot be replaced, the
implemented strategy can hardly be described as successful, because the numbers of Taliban
forces were considered steady from 2010 to 2011 (Rudolf, 2011, p. 2).
Meanwhile, the Taliban kept on fighting an insurgency against the U.S. forces, although
the surge affected their strategic approach. The rotation of commanders between the different
regions was ceased as it proved to be to dangerous for commanders to move since they would
often fall victim to coalition raids (Farrell & Giustozzi, 2013, p. 860). Subsequently, in order to
respond to the troop surge, the shadow government of the Taliban was increasingly militarized,
mostly dealing with military matters and undermining their original purpose. Although juridical
courts were reduced and mobilized in order to move across the region, the Taliban maintained
their influence on legal matters (Farrell & Giustozzi, 2013, p. 862). A more important develop-
ment was the slow shift of their tactics to a more professional level, intensifying the training
of their fighters to make them more effective in using irregular tactics. This was a reaction to
the heavy casualties sustained from encounters with the coalition forces. "In 2010 the Quetta
military commission issued a general order instructing field units to avoid direct combat and
make greater use of IEDs, sniper fire and proper guerrilla tactics" (Farrell & Giustozzi, 2013,
p. 865). As a result, Taliban tactics became more lethal for civilians. While the Taliban were
responsible for 58% of all civilian deaths in 2009, this number rose to 77% in 2011 (Farrell &
Giustozzi, 2013, p. 865). The Taliban’s new strategies had a considerably thwarted their effort
to win the hearts and minds of the population. However, due to the absence of governance and
the limited presence of government and coalition forces in the rural areas, many Afghans were
still supporting the insurgency, largely because they had no other viable option.
In May 2011, a SOF team deployed into Pakistan was able to locate and kill Osama bin
Laden. After this pivotal achievement of the CT strategy, Obama was able to advocate for a
withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, without having to admit an outright defeat. (Kaplan,
2013a, p. 89). In 2012, the surge was complete and coalition forces slowly prepared for the
reduction of troop numbers. Hence, this led to fewer offensive advances against the Taliban
and a further undermining of COIN, since coalition forces were limited in their engagements to
merely defending their gains (Miller, 2013, p. 87). Especially during 2014, NATO was primarily
occupied with the challenging logistics of withdrawing from the Afghan theatre, shutting down
their military bases along the way (Farrell & Semple, 2015, p. 84).
To conclude, the fourth phase in the Afghan war between the U.S. and the Taliban can be
considered as a opposite-approach interaction. The Taliban continued to employ a strategy of
insurgency, although their efforts of winning the population’s support were seriously thwarted
by the coalition offensives. Notwithstanding the pressure, the Taliban were able to secure their
gains and further weaken their adversary’s will. The beginning of the phase was marked by
a debate over whether to change the U.S. strategic approach to COIN or concentrate on CT.
Eventually, the strategy of population-centric COIN was embraced, however severely under-
mined from its start. Obama’s counterterrorism program, the neglect of the peculiarities of
Afghanistan and the wrong balancing of kinetic and non-kinetic measures seriously compromi-
sed the population-centric COIN approach envisioned by McChrystal and Petraeus. With the
political part of the strategy falling short, the remaining military strategy can best be descri-
bed as a strategy of eradication. Coalition forces were first and foremost targeting the military
capability of the Taliban, killing insurgent fighters to reduce their ranks.
Therefore the U.S. engaged in a direct strategy against the Taliban insurgency employing a
indirect insurgency. The observable opposite-approach interaction meets the expectations of the
framework. Although engaging for more than three years in an intense fight against the Taliban,
little progress was made by the U.S. against the insurgents and the conflict kept protracting.
Moreover, the focus on counterterrorism as well as the emphasis Obama put on a deadline for
withdrawal showed that the U.S. will to continue the fight began to crumble.
3.5 2015-2017: Fifth Interaction
Shortly before his re-election in 2011, Obama had announced a full withdrawal of U.S. soldiers
until 2014, with only a few remaining forces on the ground in Afghanistan to train the Afghan
National Security Forces. As a consequence, the ambitious goals of the U.S. engagement were
drastically reduced to one sole objective, namely to deny al Qa’ida a safe haven from which
they could attack U.S. homeland. For the first time since the invasion, ending the insurgency
and defeating the Taliban was explicitly not part of the plan. Although violence had significantly
increased every year, ISAF reoriented its efforts to the training of Afghan security forces since
2012 and finalized this transition in the winter of 2014 (Griffin, 2014, p. 456). However, two
events halted the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops. First, the terror militia Islamic State (IS)
had risen in the Middle East, gaining territory in Iraq and Syria. Affiliates of the IS were also
active in Afghanistan, with several Taliban commanders declaring their allegiance to it. Second,
the 2014 presidential elections had been suspected of massive fraud, eventually resulting in an
unstable National Unity Government with the two contestants, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah
Abdullah as its leaders. In the following, Ghani signed a Status of Forces Agreement with the
U.S. allowing for the new Afghan mission named Operation Resolute Support (Felbab-Brown,
2016, p. 6).
Operation Resolute Support was originally intended to hand over the actual fighting to the
ANSF. In March 2015, U.S. troops were reduced to less than 10.000 soldiers. Intended was a
troop level of 5.500 at the end of 2015 but because violence had risen drastically during that
year, the Obama administration adjusted its plans and pledged not to reduce numbers further
than 9.800 soldiers until the end of 2016 (McChrystal & Sadat, 2017, p. 4). Although being
officially restricted to train the ANSF and to conduct counterterrorism operations against al
Qa’ida, the IS and other terrorist groups, the deteriorating security environment soon made it
necessary for the U.S. forces to engage against the insurgents as well. The ANSF were under
constant pressure, experiencing a steep decrease in numbers due to sustaining heavy casualties
and equally high numbers of defections. Because its forces were relatively exposed to Taliban
pressure, the ANP was especially affected, resulting in the loss of a quarter of all personnel
in 2015 (Farrell & Semple, 2015, p. 85). Since the National Unity government was unable
to make badly needed cabinet decisions, namely the designation or replacing of a minister of
interior, a minster of defense, and other top military positions the effectiveness of ANA was
seriously undermined. The sheer number of attacks and operations all over the Afghan theatre
put intense pressure on ANA that sustained nearly 8.000 casualties in 2016 alone (Livingston
& O’Hanlon, 2017, p. 12). ANA was then and still is only able to secure recruitment, because
it is "one of the two main sources of employment in the country, the other being opium poppy
cultivation and harvesting" (Felbab-Brown, 2017, p. 4). Despite everything, ANA was able to
achieve important tactical victories against the Taliban, but it remains dependent on the U.S. in
two aspects.
First, Afghanistan has no own air force, which strips ANA of a substantial advantage in
their engagements with the Taliban. Indeed, ANA soldiers grew accustomed to be active in
an environment of coalition air support for years. Remaining coalition forces do provide air
support but such missions are limited due to their restrictive rules of engagement. Second,
ANA completely relies on the financial help of the U.S. making Afghan security completely
dependent on the U.S. congress and its commitment to continue the pivotal funding (Felbab-
Brown, 2016, pp. 10-11).
While this period proved especially challenging for U.S. and Afghan forces, the Taliban
have grown stronger every year, claiming and contesting more and more territory. Since the
invasion in 2001, their influence and control had never been so wide-ranging. In 2016, they
were reported to control as much as 40% of Afghanistan, although these occupied areas are
relatively population-poor. Therefore, the government still controlled more than two-thirds of
the Afghan population (Byman & Simon, 2017). In September 2015, the Taliban managed to
capture the city of Kunduz, the fifth-largest city of Afghanistan. Although ANA pledged their
full commitment to driving the Taliban out of the city, it took them two weeks to defeat the
occupants (Farrell & Semple, 2015, p. 79). Even the Taliban were surprised by the time they
could withstand before being defeated. Hence, the advance proved to be a prestigious strategic
victory, allowing the Taliban to show their regained strength (Felbab-Brown, 2016, p. 12).
The Taliban were repeatedly expelled from critical terrain, but ANA did not have enough
manpower nor the necessary resources to retain a foothold in these areas, allowing for a quick
return of Taliban forces. The widespread frustration with the government and the ANSF’s
inability to provide security led to a vast part of the Afghan people mistrusting not only outside
forces but now also domestic forces. This allowed the Taliban to easily retain a foothold in
sympathetic areas. Especially in Helmand, the Taliban were able to retain control over several
districts, in particular due to the support of warlords and tribal militias (Farrell & Semple, 2015,
p. 85). However, the Taliban’s cohesion was under serious distress in early 2015 when reports
were stating that the Taliban leadership had kept the death of the supreme leader Mullah Omar
secret. In the following struggle for power, Mullah Mansour was able to unify the different
parties within the Taliban (Giustozzi & Mangal, 2015). When Mansour was killed by an U.S.
air strike in May 2016, the Taliban leadership again was able to prevent a disintegration of the
movement, quickly announcing Mansour’s deputy, Hibatullah Akhundzada, as the new leader
(Felbab-Brown, 2016, p. 19).
In August 2017, President Trump announced his administration’s new strategy for Afghani-
stan. Although the approach does involve a modest troop increase of 3.000 soldiers, resulting
in approximately 14.000 coalition troops on the ground, the basic consensus is that "it is largely
more of the same" (McChrystal & Sadat, 2017, p. 3). Indeed, the renouncement of nation-
building and any political efforts to improve Afghan governance makes Trump’s approach a
slightly altered version of his predecessor’s final strategy (Felbab-Brown, 2017, p. 2). Since
2014, coalition troops are confined to counterterrorism, kill-or-capture operations and the trai-
ning of the ANSF. The non-kinetic part of the approach has been outsourced to the National
Unity Government, which is despite its name, far from united thus no major efforts were taken
to fight corruption or the recurrent misconducts by the security forces (McChrystal & Sadat,
2017, p. 4).
When applying the strategic interaction framework to the fifth phase of the Afghanistan
war, little has changed in comparison to the fourth phase. Although being more aggressive,
conducting tactical offenses against cities and effectively controlling territory in Afghanistan,
the Taliban went on to pursue the strategy of insurgency. Their support in the population has
suffered due to cruel and indifferent behaviour, but the Taliban can still rely on a broad social
base and have the means to coerce the population into co-opting if needed (Felbab-Brown,
2016, p. 12). Their desire to await the full U.S. withdrawal became visible when Obama as
well as Ghani tried to engage in peace talks with the Taliban leadership. In the wake of their
recent successes, the Taliban were unwilling to engage in any serious negotiations (Farrell &
Semple, 2015, p. 100). Therefore, the Taliban’s strategic approach can be described as an
indirect strategy.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has formally given up their COIN efforts, denouncing any further
meddling in Afghan governance. While coalition forces are conducting CT operations that
predominantly targeted al Qa’ida affiliates as well as other terrorist groups and move against
Taliban leader’s only as an exception, the Afghan government is committed to defeat the Taliban
militarily, ignoring any efforts to improve governance. Thus, the overall strategic approach
can be seen as a strategy of eradication, a COIN approach that targets the Taliban’s physical
capabilities and tries to defeat them military, making the U.S. strategy a direct strategy. In
conclusion, the fifth strategic interaction can be considered a opposite-approach interaction that
shows results as expected by theory. Combating an adversary that was avoiding direct and
decisive battles, the U.S. and more importantly the ANSF were unable to achieve any major
tactical let alone strategic victories against the Taliban in recent years.
3.6 Examining the Strategic Interactions
This section has outlined the conduct of the Afghan war from the U.S. led invasion in 2001
until the summer of 2017 putting specific emphasis on the strategic approaches the belligerents
chose in this asymmetric conflict. By applying the strategic interaction theory of Arreguín-Toft
(2005), this paper argues that there have been five strategic interactions to the present day. In
the first two interactions both actors employed direct (2001-2002) and indirect (2003-2005)
strategies, resulting in same-approach interactions. In both phases, the stronger actor, the U.S.,
was able to make use of its power advantage. The first phase began with the U.S. employing
a conventional attack against the Taliban who conventionally defended their regime and state.
This resulted in the swift overthrow of the Taliban regime, which was expelled from the country
in a matter of months.
In the second phase, the Taliban switched strategy to conduct an insurgency against the new
Afghan government and the supporting coalition forces. Meanwhile, the U.S. had implemented
a population-centric counterinsurgency campaign that sought to strategically isolate the insur-
gents from the population’s support. The political-military strategy was successfully implemen-
ted with the PRTs combining kinetic and non-kinetic efforts and securing a high approval rating
of the government. Although this second interaction can be considered a same-approach inte-
raction, the U.S. could neither halt nor defeat the insurgency, due to two reasons that strategic
interaction theory fails to capture. First, the strategy was only implemented for little more than
a year although normally, the counterinsurgent’s strategy of isolation needs time to take full ef-
fect. Naturally, the construction of democratic institutions, security forces and a judicial system
are long-term procedures. Equally, it needs time to communicate progress to the population
and than again until it affects the adversary’s will. Therefore, the short timespan in which the
Table 1: Afghanistan’s Strategic Interactions
Phase U.S. Strategy Taliban Strategy Strategic Interaction
2001-2002 Conventional Attack Direct Conventional Defense Direct Same-Approach
2003-2005 COIN - Isolation Indirect Insurgency Indirect Same-Approach
2006-2008 COIN - Eradication Direct Insurgency Indirect Opposite-Approach
2009-2014 COIN - Eradication Direct Insurgency Indirect Opposite-Approach
2015-2017 COIN - Eradication Direct Insurgency Indirect Opposite-Approach
strategy of isolation was implemented was insufficient to fully take effect. Second, the Tali-
ban were never as dependent on the population as actors in other asymmetric conflicts, because
they were able to find physical sanctuary in the Pakistani border region. This reduces the in-
surgents’ need to enjoy popular support, making them relatively immune to COIN efforts in the
short-term. A similar dynamic was observed by Arreguín-Toft (2005, p. 195) in his qualitative
analysis of the soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, when the Mujahideen were able to persist
the soviets although they engaged in a same-approach interaction.
With the resurgence of the Taliban insurgency, the U.S. struggled to find the appropriate
strategic response. Although formally employing a population-centric approach, the U.S. was
not able to live up to its expectations. In the third phase from 2006 to 2008, the U.S. essentially
switched strategy to an enemy-centric COIN, putting more emphasis on the use of air strikes and
targeted killings of insurgent fighters. Due to the "light footprint" approach, the coalition forces
were not able to thoroughly implement the non-kinetic side of COIN, lacking the necessary
numbers to be able to provide security for the population and address their grievances. In the
fourth phase from 2009 to 2014, the troop level was drastically increased and military successes
were made. However, the political efforts were seriously undermined once more. By sidelining
COIN with a CT campaign, failing to find the appropriate balance between kinetic and non-
kinetic measures and neglecting the characteristics of the Afghan theatre, the U.S. was not able
to gain the population’s support, on the contrary it alienated many Afghans. Moreover, the
argumentation used for the second phase can analogously be applied for this phase, as Obama
set a deadline of less than three years for COIN to work and had little success in his efforts to
persuade Pakistan to end their support of the Taliban.
In the fifth phase from 2015 to 2017, the U.S. considerably decreased their commitment,
limiting their efforts to CT campaigns and the training of the ANSF. Simultaneously, the Afghan
government failed to take effective measures to improve governance and win back the hearts and
minds of the Afghan people. The ANSF were used mainly to fight against insurgents and did
not take part in any reconstruction efforts. As a consequence, the last three interactions can be
considered opposite-approach interactions, without lasting progress for the U.S. and their allies.
Indeed, the war has lasted for sixteen years now and the current situation is less secure and more
deadly than ever. The Taliban were able to make significant advances in their campaign, but
they are still employing an insurgency strategy that keeps them from taking effective control
over Afghanistan, which would require them to embrace a conventional strategy. However,
because the U.S. was and still is not able to properly employ the appropriate indirect strategy,
the conflict keeps protracting.
As Farrell and Semple (2015) conclude, the war in Afghanistan is effectively in a stalemate,
"neither side can win" (p. 79), albeit Kissinger (1969) thoroughly argues, "the guerrilla wins if
he does not lose" (p. 214).
4 Military Causes of Strategic Choice
After having assessed what determined the protraction of the United States’ longest war, it is
necessary to examine why both actors employed their respective strategies. While the political
dimension will be analysed in the next chapter by applying Mack’s theory of relative interest,
this section seeks to find military causes to explain the actors’ strategic choice. Table 1 shows
that the U.S. primarily chose a direct approach in three of the five phases, while the Taliban
were using an indirect strategy in four phases. This pattern is consistent with many other asym-
metric conflicts, in which the strong actor is engaging with a direct strategy, whereas the weaker
opponent is defending itself with an indirect approach.
To explain such a pattern, Arreguín-Toft (2005) draws on Kenneth Waltz’ idea of state socia-
lisation, which implies that states will "imitate each others’ successes and avoid what they count
as failures" (p. 37). He argues that this socialisation is also applicable on strategy or tactics, alt-
hough it seems to have worked regionally rather than globally after World War II. He suggests
that two different strategic cultures have evolved. The West (as well as the Soviet Union) was
predominantly influenced by the Second World War in Europa, a total war with conventional
strategies and tactics. Meanwhile, the East saw the irregular warfare of Mao against a superior
adversary succeed, which prompted other actors to adopt similar indirect strategic approaches
(Arreguín-Toft, 2005, p. 37). If this is true, the U.S. would have been socialised into choosing
a direct approach while the Taliban, influenced by the eastern strategic socialisation, would be
confined to engage with an indirect strategy. However, apart from the first interaction phase,
the U.S. never considered a direct conventional approach to be ideal, trying to implement an
indirect strategy as early as 2003. Yet, other causes seem to have thwarted these efforts, which
Arreguín-Toft’s interpretation of state socialisation cannot account for. Therefore, a closer look
is necessary on what determined the actors’ strategic choices.
Until today, the Taliban have used two strategies to move against the United States. Their
first choice, a conventional defense, was implemented because of two reasons. First, the Taliban
were essentially caught by surprise by the swift and coherent attack of the U.S. and its allies, the
Northern Alliance. The Taliban had neither an organizational structure of their armed forces nor
the appropriate resources that would have allowed them to react with an indirect strategy against
the invasion, because they had spent the last years in offenses against the Northern Alliance’s
last holdouts (Farrell & Giustozzi, 2013, p. 848). Second, the Taliban leadership was not willing
to give up on their key values, especially their stronghold Kandahar, which would have been a
precondition for successfully implementing an insurgency or a similar indirect strategy (Jones,
2009, p. 93). Therefore, the only viable strategic choice was the attempt to conventionally
defend their cities against the invaders.
After being expelled from Afghanistan, the Taliban regrouped and reorganized themselves,
eventually launching an insurgency against the newly established Afghan government and the
United States. Following their near defeat, this was arguable the only strategic approach that had
any chances of success. As Fick and Nagl (2009) note, "the United States’ conventional military
superiority has pushed its enemies inevitably toward insurgency to achieve their objectives".
Indeed, Merom (2003, p. 34) suggests two reasons why the conduct of an insurgency might
seem reasonable to a weak actor. On the one hand, the indirect strategy enables the weak to
engage against a strong actor without being an easy target that can be eradicated by the use of
superior power. On the other hand, when employed against a direct approach, the strong actor
needs a high level of centralisation to uphold its conventional strategy. Fixed bases, lines of
supply and similar infrastructure usually go along with a direct approach, which make excellent
targets for hit-and-run tactics and other irregular approaches.
Furthermore, the conduct of an insurgency essentially renders key values, not least families,
tribes and farms, vulnerable to the adversary (Arreguín-Toft, 2005, p. 33). By the time of the
formation of the insurgency, the U.S. had already taken all these values in Afghanistan from
the Taliban but they could rely on U.S. to restrain from making use of this advantage. Not
only because the U.S. was struggling to employ a population-centric approach, but also because
the Afghan war, which was essentially the first and foremost bastion in the "war on terror",
did not allow for any particularly brutal measures against the population as this would have
seriously undermined the symbolism of the war (Jones, 2009, p. xxii). In addition, the costs of
establishing a conventional army are much higher than the maintenance of an insurgency and it
needs less time to establish. All these factors allowed the Taliban to quickly launch an assault
against the Afghan government, making the strategic choice of an insurgency the most rational
More surprising than the Taliban’s choice of strategy is the U.S. struggle to implement
an appropriate strategy. While the U.S. was able to employ its ideal strategy in the first and
second interaction, it was not able to implement an indirect strategy in the two subsequent
phases. Having fought and lost an irregular war in Vietnam, which was afterwards extensively
analysed by academics and military writers, the U.S. could have been expected to draw from
this experience when engaging in the Afghan theatre. However, during the Cold War only few
officials supported the idea of an army that was trained and equipped to deal with an insurgency
or any kind of irregular forces for that matter. As General Keane noted, "after the Vietnam War,
we purged ourselves of everything that had to do with irregular warfare or insurgency, because
it had to do with how we lost the war" (as cited in Nagl, 2007, p. xiv).
The U.S. struggle to implement COIN in Afghanistan was reinforced by institutional con-
straints. As Arreguín-Toft (2005) rightly argues, "forces, equipment, and training - all closely
integrated - are not fungible" (p. 37). The resulting tendency of an actor’s military to stick
to certain set of rules and procedures can therefore be described as a kind of path-dependency.
Therefore, the institution of the U.S. military is entrenched in the way its armed forces are struc-
tured and organized due to several reasons. The costs of a change, the current leadership’s loss
in inter-institutional power as well as the complications and opposition from sub-institutions
limit the possibilities of progression in the U.S. military (Djelic & Quack, 2007, p. 162).
In the two World Wars, the U.S. was able to achieve victory primarily due to their capable
conventional forces. In the Korean war, this capability proved decisive once more and later
during the cold war, the U.S. and the Soviet Union had not only engaged in a nuclear arms race
but also in a conventional one. Because of the danger of an all-out interstate war between the
two blocks, the military was preparing for a conventional war (D. E. Johnson, 2016, p. 124).
Lessons that were learned in Vietnam were quickly dismissed by the Nixon doctrine, that de-
manded a military able to deal with conventional threats, neglecting the importance of COIN
as the U.S. would no longer engage in such wars (D. E. Johnson, 2016, p. 134). The diction of
summarizing irregular strategies like counterinsurgency and counterterrorism under the term of
military operations other than war (MOOTW) shows how the military dismissed such efforts.
Indeed, "the feeling was, as General John Shalikashvili, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of
Staff, once muttered, ’Real men don’t do moot-wah [MOOTW].’" (Kaplan, 2013a, p. 76).
Naturally, such a perspective is directly linked to an actor’s threat assessment. With the U.S.
perceiving the Soviet Union as the biggest danger they had to counter, their military structure
was shaped accordingly (Arreguín-Toft, 2005, p. 38). Along with this understanding of warfare
came a binary understanding of war that became visible in the reluctance to combine military
and political efforts. As Cornish (2009) notes, this mindset "shows not only a deep aversion
to the idea of a militarized politics but also, within the professional armed forces, an equally
deep suspicion of a politicized military" (p. 72). This further complicated the political-military
efforts necessary for COIN.
After the end of the cold war, there was widely shared enthusiasm over how conflicts will
change in the future.
That enthusiasm failed to translate into responsible military reform. Information
technology was increasingly integrated into defense hardware of all types, but no
doctrinal concepts developed suitable for the full spectrum of conflict. Instead,
most doctrine developers took the view, so popular in the 1990s, that all aspects of
irregular warfare could be treated as ’lesser includeds’ (Echevarria, 2015, p. 232).
The logic was that superiority in conventional warfare would ensure that all kinds of operations
could be conducted successfully.
Therefore, the U.S. military was ill-prepared to fight an irregular war when engaging in
the Afghan theatre. The last field manual discussing the conduct of irregular warfare, the
Small Wars Manual, had been released in 1940 and only with General Petraeus’ work in 2006,
attention was shifted back to COIN doctrine (D. E. Johnson, 2016, p. 124). Although military
officials tried to apply the lessons from the new field manual, soldiers lacked the appropriate
training and education to successfully implement them. Furthermore, there was no grand stra-
tegy in place to unify the doctrinal approaches of the coalition forces, which sometimes resulted
in the contradiction of different strategic and tactical efforts (Echevarria, 2015, p. 232).
Additionally, COIN doctrine is often misunderstood, especially from proponents of conven-
tional warfare. First, strategists tend to think that the reasons for violence in irregular warfare
differ from conventional warfare. However, although the way violence is enacted might in-
deed differ, it is for the same reasons of gaining a power advantage to achieve a certain policy.
By depicting insurgents as naturally radical, violent and belligerent, this dynamic is often neg-
lected, which enables strategists to view political and military efforts separate from each other.
This does not allow for a comprehensive COIN solution and dooms military action to invoke
dissatisfaction and opposition (Kiras, 2009, pp. 269-270). Second, military thinkers tend to
measure their adversaries on the tactics and means used. However, tactics might not be a suf-
ficient indicator to assess one’s strategy as tactics might change or constitute a wide range of
different measures (Duyvesteyn & Fumerton, 2010, p. 30). For example, by looking at suicide
bombers and similar means that inflict heavy civilian casualties and undermine a hearts and
minds approach, a political endeavour of the Taliban is easily neglected (Jones, 2009, p. 207).
Such a perspective is often reinforced by a phenomenon, Kiras (2009) calls "mirror-imaging"
(p. 274). The insurgent is mirrored in the assumption that tactical actions must belong to a co-
hesive strategy, which is the case in the military of most counterinsurgents. However, insurgents
disagree on certain issues and have a loose and more decentralised organisation which makes
incoherence between the tactical and the strategic level more common.
In conclusion, when examining the actors’ choice of strategy on a material level, the Taliban
employed their strategies following necessity in resources and survival. While the Taliban had
no time for deliberation and restructuring in 2001, the conduct of an insurgency proved to be
the most rational choice for them afterwards. The U.S. were entrenched by their contempt for
irregular tactics and strategies, which had resulted in an army confined to conventional warfare.
Moreover, the implementation of COIN required the reconsideration of key assumptions on
military action which proved a challenge for many U.S. strategists.
5 Effects of the Protracted War
After having discussed factors in the military realm that have influenced the strategic choice of
the actors, it is necessary to further analyse its political dimension. In the third chapter, this
paper assessed the reasons for the protraction of the Afghan war by the use of the strategic
interaction theory. The following section continues to examine how this protraction affected
the actors’ will to fight, in other words their commitment to continue the war in Afghanistan.
Hence, the theory of relative interest is applied to the case study. Therefore, it is necessary
to examine the relative interest in the war of two belligerent parties, namely the U.S. and the
Taliban. According to Mack (1975, p. 185) this interest should translate into a high political
vulnerability for the strong actor, with opposition rising as the conflict protracts, eventually
forcing its retreat.
Mack (1975, p. 185) argues that an actor’s perception of the stakes in a war are very much
dependent on its relative power as compared to its adversary. From the beginning of the war in
2001, the Taliban had been the weaker actor in comparison to the United States. The Taliban
faced not only a possible military defeat but also the danger of occupation. Both scenarios
became reality when their regime was overthrown and the United Nations mandated the ISAF
peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan (Jones, 2009, p. 112). Following Mack’s logic, this led to
the Taliban’s perception of the war as being total, therefore they developed a high interest in the
war. As a consequence, the Taliban’s will to continue the war was persistent and the leadership
was not really vulnerable to internal opposition at any time. While their military capabilities had
been essentially destroyed in 2002, their political will to fight was not. Instead of recognizing
their defeat, the Taliban reorganised themselves, adapted to the situation and resumed the fight
against the U.S. (Farrell & Giustozzi, 2013, p. 847). Because the Taliban were fighting for
their survival, it was essentially easy for them to mobilize the necessary resources from their
affiliates. This became visible in the Taliban’s ability to cope with the high numbers of casualties
they sustained, especially in 2006 and 2007 while engaging in conventional battles against the
coalition forces (Coghlan, 2012, p. 130). Indeed, estimates suggest the Taliban’s attrition rate to
be as high as 20%, although it is necessary to note that the movement does rely on mercenary-
like services to recruit its fighters (R. Johnson, 2016, p. 261). The willingness of their fighters
to make sacrifices, not least when killing themselves as suicide bombers, is additional proof of
the Taliban’s commitment to the war (Jones, 2009, p. 207).
The Taliban are no democratic actor and the movement was build around the supremacy of
their former leader, Mullah Omar, what reduced the leadership’s political vulnerability. Ho-
wever, the existence of the shura in the Pakistani city of Quetta, a council with high ranking
Taliban officials, essentially deciding over the advance of the Taliban movement, would have
allowed for opposition (Jones, 2009, p. 67). As the Taliban are by no means an unified actor but
a blend of different groups and movements, this too could have fuelled opposition (R. Johnson,
2016, p. 246). Yet Mullah Omar, as well as his successors, more or less managed to secure
cohesion of the Taliban. While intense rivalries broke out after the announcement of Omar’s
death, Mansour was eventually able to calm the waves and position himself as the new leader
(Giustozzi & Mangal, 2015). Although little is known about the inner dynamics, the structure
and organization of the Taliban insurgency, it can be noted that its leaders never had to fear
serious opposition to the continuation of the war as the conflict protracted. Notwithstanding its
commitment to continue the war, power struggles took place. However, these rivalries never
weakened the Taliban’s will to fight, but if anything, undermined the peace negotiations with
the U.S. and the Afghan government (Malkasian, 2015).
The U.S. has been the strong actor in the Afghan war, which would entail a low interest
in the war according to Mack. At no time did the Taliban pose a danger to the U.S. survival
or have the military capabilities to attack U.S. homeland, neither when constituting the Afghan
government nor when conducting an insurgency. As a consequence, the U.S. should have con-
sidered the Afghan war as limited, in other words they should have had little interest in the
war. However, the U.S. had two objectives when invading Afghanistan. The overthrow of the
Taliban regime was more a by-product of the bigger goal, the disintegration and destruction of
the organizational structure of al Qa’ida (Jones, 2009, p. 108). While the Taliban did not en-
danger the U.S., the terrorist organization proved with the 9/11 attacks to have the capabilities
to inflict a major blow to the U.S. on their own territory. The prevention of allowing al Qa’ida
or a similar terrorist group to conduct another attack against the U.S. was the predominant U.S.
security objective when engaging in the Afghan war. Hence, Mack’s logic of relative power
translating into relative interest does not thoroughly apply here. Arreguín-Toft (2005) suggests
another determinant of an actors interest. The actor’s perception of the danger its adversary
poses as well as the consequent consensus in its polity "on the need for the risk and sacrifice of
war" (Arreguín-Toft, 2005, p. 24). Although perception of the danger an adversary poses will
often go together with superiority in power, there might be cases were the two diverge.
When taking into account the Bush administration’s "war on terror" and the upheaval that
followed the 9/11 attacks, it becomes apparent that the danger of terrorism was indeed conside-
red to be vital. Although the survival of the U.S. was never endangered by terrorist attacks and
the U.S. enjoyed a vast superiority in power, terrorism was considered to threaten the U.S. and
also the concept of a free world as such (Jones, 2009, p. xxii). Therefore, the U.S. repeatedly
put heavy emphasis on the denial of a safe haven for terrorist groups, while the defeat of the
Taliban insurgency had always been secondary. This perception raised the stakes for the U.S. in
the Afghan war and would significantly shape the U.S. leaders’ political vulnerability.
On the outset of the war in 2001, the Bush administration enjoyed broad popular support
for its "war on terror". 89% of all Americans endorsed the U.S. commitment to the war in its
first months and the numbers rose even higher after the initial success in the Afghan theatre (see
Figure 2, Newport, 2014). As a consequence, the Bush administration was relatively free in
its actions and politically almost invulnerable because there was no real opposition to the war.
However, as the war protracted, the population started to change their opinion. In 2003, the
public was predominantly occupied with the war in Iraq, which was much bigger in scale and
costlier as the U.S. sustained sixteen times more casualties in the Iraqi theatre than in Afghani-
stan in 2004 (iCasualties, 2017). By 2008, violence in Iraq had begun to decrease and attention
shifted back to Afghanistan. This was essentially due to Obama’s electoral campaign in which
he repeatedly put emphasis on turning around the "good war" in Afghanistan, juxtaposing him-
self to Bush and his "bad war" in Iraq. By 2008, the security situation had deteriorated and
Obama pledged to send more troops to the Hindukush to bring the Afghan war to a successful
end (Kaplan, 2013a, p. 86; Landler, 2017).
However, public opinion regarding the war in Afghanistan had changed and more than 30%
saw the invasion of Afghanistan as a mistake for the first time. After his election, Obama
experienced intense pressure from two sides. The military as well as Obama’s war council,
including then secretary of state Hillary Clinton, urged the president to drastically increase the
resources for Afghanistan to make the successful implementation of a COIN strategy possi-
ble (Landler, 2017) At the same time, another group, among them Vice-President Joe Biden,
favoured a smaller solution, sometimes referred to as "Counterterrorism Plus" (Rudolf, 2011,
p. 7), which would have involved an intense use of air strikes to target terrorists and insurgents
while training ANA. After months of debate, Obama eventually gave in to his military advi-
sers and announced a troop surge of 30.000 soldiers as well as the implementation of COIN in
2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
Figure 2: Percentage of U.S. citizens seeing the Invasion in 2001 as a mistake.
Figure by author, data collected by Dugan (2015)
Afghanistan (Kaplan, 2013a, p. 87). Nevertheless, reports suggest that Obama was having
doubts about the strategic approach from the start. Following his doubts, he simultaneously
made a commitment to withdraw troops as soon as possible, setting a deadline from which
the U.S. troops should start to withdraw in mid-2011 (Landler, 2017). Moreover, Obama st-
ruggled to fully commit to one strategy, sidelining the COIN strategy with a CT approach,
which seriously undermined the earlier efforts. General McChrystal and General Petraeus were
not allowed to use the term counterinsurgency, but rather call their endeavours "target, train and
transfer", which again demonstrates the ambivalence of Obama’s approach (Rudolf, 2011, p. 2).
The resulting mix of strategies was essentially a product of Obama’s political vulnerability.
The protraction of the war and the limited successes of his predecessor had significantly shaped
the U.S. population’s opinion on the war and alienated many from further supporting it. In
2009, 66% of all Americans considered the U.S. performance in Afghanistan as badly. With
a large portion of the public dissatisfied with the results of the Afghan war and many openly
opposing its continuation, Obama was under constant pressure from the voters. Especially the
voters who traditionally voted democratic, and therefore constituted Obama’s most important
base, were getting increasingly war-weary. In 2009, more than half of the democratic voters
thought the invasion of Afghanistan was a mistake (Newport, 2010, p. 319). During Obama’s
first term, the dissatisfaction grew larger, which ultimately shaped his positions for his next
electoral campaign and his second term as president. The costs of the war had grown very
high, with more than 1800 U.S. casualties by 2011 and a budget of 113 billion dollars for the
same year alone (Rudolf, 2011, p. 5). The withdrawal that began in 2011 was widely applauded
by the population with 72% approving the reduction of troop levels. Around the same time, a
Gallup poll found that almost half of Americans disapproved the war in Afghanistan (see Figure
2, Newport, 2014). Simultaneously, the Washington Post conducted a survey indicating that for
the first time almost two thirds objected the continuation of the Afghan war (Wilson & Cohen,
In Congress, a considerable number of delegates that involved democrats as well as some
republicans started to oppose the continuation of the Afghan war. Especially after the success-
ful killing of Osama bin Laden, an increasing number demanded to limit U.S. engagement in
Afghanistan to a counterterrorism mission. In May 2011, 204 votes, 178 democrats and 26 re-
publicans, approved a motion that called for a fast withdrawal from Afghanistan (Rudolf, 2011,
p. 6). Additionally, public support of most U.S. allies had also faded, further pressuring the
president, as coalition members were urging to withdraw too (Cordesman, 2012). As a conse-
quence, Obama announced the full withdrawal of U.S. soldiers from the Afghan theatre with the
end of 2014 (Rudolf, 2011, p. 2). Due to the deteriorating security environment, a small force
stayed behind, but the president did manage to reduce the boots on the ground in Afghanistan
from almost 100.000 to less than 10.000 U.S. soldiers (McChrystal & Sadat, 2017, p. 2).
When Donald Trump was running for president, he repeatedly promised to end all wars, the
United States, in his view, had no chance of winning. Once assuming office, President Trump
changed his view on the matter. In August 2017, Trump announced his administration’s new
Afghanistan strategy. Surprisingly, he was advocating a small-scaled surge of 3.000 troops,
instead of a full withdrawal from Afghan soil. At first sight, this contradicts the argument of
Mack (1975), and the underlying logic of increased political vulnerability as the war protracts.
However, there were two factors that alter this logic and allowed President Trump to renew the
U.S. commitment to Afghanistan.
First, although the public was essentially against the continuation of the war, Trump was
and is not as vulnerable as Obama. The protraction had drastically increased the public’s war
weariness. Only 23% of voters thought that the U.S. was winning in Afghanistan and even
fewer Americans approved an increase in troop levels in July 2017. But Trump’s voter base
differs significantly from this trend, with 38% of his voters approving the troop surge. When
confronted with the choice of full withdrawal or a renewed commitment, more than half of
Trump’s voters opted for the continuation of the war, contrasting the 28% of Clinton voters,
who supported a further commitment (Shepard, 2017). This highlights the different degree
of political vulnerability which democratic and republican presidents have experienced during
the conduct of the Afghan war. Bush as well as Trump were subjected to considerable less
pressure from their voters than Obama or Clinton, if she would have won the elections in 2016.
When examining the public opinion polls, it is worth noting that around 39% had no opinion
on whether or not the U.S. is losing in Afghanistan and 19% had no opinion on the question of
increasing the troop level. The considerable amount of people who neither seem to know much
nor care about the Afghanistan war, further reduces Trumps vulnerability (Byman & Simon,
2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016
Figure 3: Percentage of U.S. citizens fearing to become a victim of a terrorist attack.
Figure by author, data collected by Gallup (2017)
Second, although the public’s support for the war is fading, the omnipresent danger of Af-
ghanistan becoming a breeding ground for terrorist cells which could then attack the United
States, keeps them from completely giving up on Afghanistan. It is important to note that while
the U.S. population’s commitment to battle the Taliban insurgency is decreasing, their will to
keep fighting terrorism is still vivid. A Gallup poll suggests that the fear of becoming a victim of
a terrorist attack is consistently around 40% to 50% since 2001, with a slight increase as several
terrorist attacks happened in Europe (see Figure 3). In 2016, 79% of a Gallup survey described
international terrorism as a critical threat, another 18% labelling it important (Gallup, 2017).
As noted above, until today, the danger of terror attacks similar to 9/11 raises the interest of the
U.S. in the Afghan war. The public’s support to tackle the problem of international terrorism
has allowed Obama to step up his efforts in counterterrorism, while reducing his commitment
to nation-building and counterinsurgency - the latter were politically not viable anymore, the
former was. The same dynamic continues until today. In a speech in August, Trump empha-
sised the need to deny terrorists a safe haven in Afghanistan and made the danger of terrorist
activities the center piece of his new strategy. The absence of a renewed commitment to ef-
fectively defeat the Taliban insurgency, which will by no means be possible with the intended
increase in troops, is consistent with this pattern. As Byman and Simon (2017) thoroughly ar-
gue, the Taliban would not be an international threat once again, even if they would manage to
take over Afghanistan. Since they have become more pragmatic in the course of the insurgency,
the Taliban would have little interest to give outside powers new reasons to intervene. There-
fore, the danger to U.S. homeland posed by the Taliban is virtually non-existent. Conversely,
terrorist groups like al Qa’ida as well as the Afghan branch of the Islamic state do represent
such danger, which makes a continued effort to follow a small-scaled counterterrorism strategy
politically viable.
While Mack’s theory holds true for the weak actor, the logic of Mack’s argument proved
to be too deterministic for the strong actor. He is right in assuming that support for the war
would drop as the conflict protracts, but he fails to acknowledge the capability of weak actors
to harm the strong actor on his own territory using the threat of terrorism. This neglect may be
due to developments like arms diffusion and technological progress, which allow weak actors
the conduct of tactics and strategies that were almost impossible at the time Mack wrote his
theory. As a result, the danger that international terrorism currently poses, distorts the relation
between relative power, relative interest and political vulnerability. While U.S. administrations
were politically vulnerable to the conduct of full-fledged war against the Taliban, the public’s
opinion allowed for the commitment to tackle terrorists on a small scale in order to prevent new
attacks on U.S. homeland.
As an overall conclusion one may say that the U.S. failed to win the war in Afghanistan.
Chances were not used when the public was still largely supporting the war and U.S. leaders
were virtually free in their conduct. When Obama assumed office, the public opinion had
already started to shift and the prospect of nation-building and the unavoidable high costs in
finances and manpower had become increasingly unattractive. Still, Obama invigorated the
commitment to the war and drastically increased the troop level. As McChrystal and Sadat
(2017) note, "if ever the United States had a realistic shot of success in its post-9/11 involvement
in Afghanistan, it was then" (p. 2). The chance passed and the U.S. started to withdraw from
Afghanistan. As long as the U.S. population feels to be endangered by international terrorism,
U.S. administrations will be able to continue a counterterrorism strategy in Afghanistan that
keeps the costs to a minimum. However, this will not be sufficient to win the war against the
Taliban. The U.S. has had its chance to defeat the Taliban and win the subsequent peace in
Afghanistan, but it let it slip away. Trump’s current approach is politically viable and the U.S.
will be able to continue it for several years. However, a U.S. victory is not possible anymore.
6 Conclusion
More than two-hundred years ago, Clausewitz (1984) concluded that "war is a mere continua-
tion of policy by other means" (p. 87). At the time of writing, this assertion was revolutionary,
appreciating the political dimension of war and the fact that military measures necessarily have
to serve a political objective. However, the reverse appears to be true as well. Mack (1975)
suggested that in certain cases "politics may become the continuation of war by other means"
(p. 179). The importance of this insight can hardly be overstated as it emphasises that the con-
flicts in a war go beyond the mere fighting on the battlefield. Especially with the proliferation
of democratic systems, a second front, now in the actors’ domestic polity, became increasingly
decisive for the outcome of asymmetric conflicts. The U.S. experienced this dynamic for the
first time in the Vietnam war. Opposition emerged from within civil society and politics, and
the U.S. government was exposed to increasing pressure that thwarted the continuation of the
war (Mack, 1975, p. 177). Although the defeat in Vietnam was probably the biggest disaster
for U.S. foreign policy since the second world war for the United States, few lessons had been
This paper set out to find reasons for the sixteen year long struggle of the U.S. to win the
war in Afghanistan. Since the beginning of the invasion in 2001, the United States have vas-
tly exceeded their opponent in terms of material power, most importantly their armed forces.
Yet, contrary to realist expectation, this advantage has not translated into a quick and decisive
victory. The striking question emerges, how weak actors can evade defeat and even win asym-
metric conflicts, in other words, what determines the outcome of an asymmetric conflict. The-
refore, this paper embedded the Afghan war into a theoretical framework to conduct a compre-
hensive examination of the course of the war and find determinants for its progression.
It is argued that the U.S. allowed the conflict to protract for too long, eventually finding
itself without politically viable options to win the war against the Taliban. When the invasion
happened, the U.S. had considerable interest in the war, as the country was still in shock due
to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. This interest started to fade as the war kept protracting, ultimately
eroding the public support for the continuation of the war. By applying the strategic interaction
theory of Arreguín-Toft (2005) to the Afghan war, this paper sought to find reasons for the
protraction of the war. Therefore, two strategic approaches that are not sufficiently discussed in
Arreguín-Toft’s work were introduced and an operationalization for the framework suggested.
While an insurgency was coded as an indirect approach, the more complex COIN strategy
was divided into three different approaches. On the one hand, the strategy of eradication, the
targeting killing of insurgents, was coded as a direct approach. On the other hand, the strategy
of annihilation, the systemic killing of a population, as well as the strategy of isolation, the
hearts and minds approach, were considered to be indirect strategies.
The first two phases of the war were essentially same-approach interactions, allowing the
U.S. to make use of its superiority to shorten the war. The U.S. started their invasion with a con-
ventional attack, the Taliban sought to defend themselves conventionally, therefore both actors
employed direct strategies. The two belligerent parties changed their strategies in the second
phase, the Taliban conducting an insurgency and the U.S. employing a population-centric COIN
approach, both strategies being indirect. In both cases, successes for the U.S. are undeniable.
The first interaction ended in a matter of months, while the second resulted in a considerably
more secure Afghanistan. However, the COIN strategy of isolation was only implemented for
little more than a year, which meant the cancelling of the strategy before it could take full effect.
The three latter phases of the Afghan war were characterized by the inability of the U.S. to
employ an indirect strategy and the resulting opposite-approach interactions. By avoiding to
meet the U.S. in a decisive battle "on the latter’s terms" (Mack, 1975, p. 176), the Taliban were
able to keep their insurgency going and watched as U.S. commitment to the war slowly started to
crumble. In the third and fourth phase of the war, the U.S. stressed their commitment to win the
hearts and minds of the Afghan people, repeatedly trying to employ a population-centric COIN
strategy. However, their efforts were seriously undermined by the lack of commitment to the
inevitable costs that go along with a full-blown population-centric COIN strategy. In the third
phase, the U.S. and its allies had far too few boots on the ground to conduct a successful COIN
and too little effort was put into the stabilization and improvement of governance. The "light
footprint" approach as well as the insufficient resources for the ANSF soon proved disastrous.
Although Obama started the fourth phase of the Afghan war with renewed commitment and a
surge in troops, he was simultaneously undermining his own approach. The excessive use of
air strikes, the failure to seriously engage in non-kinetic and civilian measures as well as the
establishing of a time-based deadline turned Obama’s approach into a strategy of eradication,
instead of the intended strategy of isolation. In the fifth and on-going phase of the Afghanistan
war, the U.S. has abandoned the strategy of COIN, rather concentrating on the direct strategy
of counterterrorism. These direct strategies employed against the indirect insurgency of the
Taliban showed limited success. The war protracted without major advances of the U.S. which
repeatedly failed to make use of its superiority in power by engaging in an opposite-approach
As a result, this paper showed that the strategic interaction theory is able to largely explain
the protraction of the Afghan war. However, the theory fails to capture two factors. First, the
implementation of some strategies needs time, especially until they take full effect. Although
there might be an ideal counterstrategy to every strategy, enough time is necessary to success-
fully thwart the adversary’s approach. Moreover, strategies are highly connected with the way
an actor’s military forces are trained and structured. A particular kind of armed forces might
ease and accelerate the implementation of certain strategies, while complicating the usage of ot-
hers. This was especially true for the United States, as it was ill-prepared for anything other than
conventional war. Second, outside support and more importantly, the ability to seek physical
shelter other than within the population, makes an actor less susceptible to a COIN strategy of
isolation or annihilation, because it’s survival is not as dependent on the population’s support.
This paper continued to look into both actors’ polities to examine their interest in the war
and the political vulnerability of their leaders regarding the continuation of the war. Using the
concept of Mack (1975), it was shown that the Taliban had a high interest in the war, because
they fought for their survival. Although there are limited sources about the inner dynamics of
the Taliban, it is relatively safe to say that little opposition to a continuation of the fighting had
evolved and the leadership was never significantly vulnerable. However, the logic was not so
clear-cut when examining the dynamics in the United States. First, the interest in the war was
considerably higher in the population than expected by Mack because al Qa’ida indeed was able
to pose a danger to U.S. homeland. This interest translated into political vulnerability. While
the approval to the continuation to the Afghan war started to dwindle as the conflict protracted,
the population kept supporting efforts to fight international terrorism. As a consequence, the ob-
jectives of nation-building and the defeat of the Taliban insurgency were gradually relinquished.
The minimum goal of denying transnational terrorism a safe haven in Afghanistan remained a
political viable approach for the U.S. administrations of Obama and Trump.
The United States will be able to continue a low-scaled counterterrorism strategy in Afgha-
nistan, but the chance to allocate the resources for a strategy to defeat the Taliban insurgency
has passed. Mack (1975) concluded that in asymmetric conflicts "politics may become the con-
tinuation by other means" (p. 179). Indeed, the Taliban have succeeded in avoiding military
defeat and managed to drive the U.S. close to political defeat. With every year that passed, the
Taliban dealt one blow after another to the United States’ will to keep fighting. The current
situation does not allow the U.S. to employ a war-winning strategy in Afghanistan and as long
as public opinion stays roughly the same, this will not change.
Future research should engage in a twofold set of questions, which derive from this paper’s
results. First, the suggested operationalization of the strategies of insurgency and counterinsur-
gency should be further examined and put to the test in other case studies. The enhancement wi-
dens academic understanding and especially enables the applicability of the strategic interaction
theory to warfare in the 21st century and the corresponding spread of asymmetric conflicts. A
convenient case study would undoubtedly be the Iraq war from 2003 to 2011, as it features
striking similarities as well as profound differences to the Afghan theatre. Of course, other
asymmetric conflicts also may pose valuable samples, further enhancing the understanding of
these strategic approaches. Furthermore, a quantitative study using the enhanced framework,
similarly to the work of Arreguín-Toft (2005), would allow for a broader validity of the sugges-
tions. Second, it is necessary to examine the future development of the Afghan war, observing
the strategic advances on the battlefield and their effect on the U.S. polity. Although President
Trump’s new Afghanistan strategy has not been particularly innovative, it is important to moni-
tor its proceedings. Like any other policy issue, wars are subject to an ever changing political
environment, where even the same strategic approaches might lead to an entirely new situation.
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8 Eidesstaatliche Erklärung
Ich erkläre hiermit an Eides statt durch meine eigenhändige Unterschrift, dass ich die vorlie-
gende Arbeit selbständig verfasst und keine anderen als die angegebenen Quellen und Hilf-
smittel verwendet habe. Alle Stellen, die wörtlich oder inhaltlich den angegebenen Quellen
entnommen wurden, sind als solche kenntlich gemacht. Ich erkläre mich mit der Archivierung
der vorliegenden Bachelorarbeit einverstanden.
Datum Unterschrift
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Cambridge Core - International Relations and International Organisations - Understanding Modern Warfare - by David Jordan
Historically, insurgency is one of the most prevalent forms of armed conflict and it is likely to remain common in the foreseeable future. Recent experiences with counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan offer many lessons for future counterinsurgents, but the discourse on the subject continues to be mired in a traditional dichotomy pitting population-centric approaches to counterinsurgency against enemy-centric approaches. Historical analysis suggests that this traditional dichotomy is not a sufficiently nuanced way to understand or plan for such operations. Instead, discussions of counterinsurgency should focus on two dimensions: actions (use of physical force vs. political or moral actions) and targets (active insurgents vs. insurgent support). This perspective divides the space of possible counterinsurgency efforts into four quadrants, suggesting that effective counterinsurgency campaigns find a balance of effort across the four quadrants that is well matched to the specific context.
Gil Merom argues that modern democracies fail in insurgency wars because they are unable to find a winning balance between expedient and moral tolerance to the costs of war. Small wars, he argues, are lost at home when a critical minority mass shifts the center of gravity from the battlefield to the market place of ideas. Merom analyzes the role of brutality in counterinsurgency, the historical foundations of moral and expedient opposition to war, and the actions states traditionally took in order to preserve foreign policy autonomy. He then discusses the elements of the process that led to the failure of France in Algeria and Israel in Lebanon. In the conclusion, Merom considers the Vietnam War and the influence failed small wars had on Western war-making and military intervention.