While I certainly sympathize with the thrust of John Kuehn’s title in his energetic article about the situation in Afghanistan, I’d like to offer a somewhat different perspective from my position as the Supreme Allied Commander for all NATO operations, including the 140,000, 50-nation coalition in Afghanistan.

First, I want to agree with John’s laudatory comments about our NATO / ISAF Commander in Afghanistan, my Naval Academy classmate and close friend General John Allen; as well as the commander of NATO’s Training Mission – Afghanistan, Lieutenant General Dan Bolger. Both are doing superb work in truly demanding assignments.

In terms of the Soviet experience in Afghanistan, while there are some similarities, the differences are far greater, and far more encouraging than the situation back in 1989.

In comparison to the Soviet Union, the ISAF coalition has devoted great resources to human capital and infrastructure development, and we have devoted significantly greater troop numbers for kinetic operations; and we already are well underway with a responsible and managed turnover of security responsibilities to Afghan National Security Forces. Most importantly, the international community’s commitment to Afghanistan after the majority of ISAF forces are withdrawn from Afghanistan in 2014 is real and tangible: detailed planning is in progress now in NATO.

A few key metrics to consider:

  • NATO / ISAF is a 50-nation troop contributing coalition which peaked at just over 140,000 troops, with about a 2:1 ratio of US to other nations, both in term of troop levels and KIA. The Soviets were on their own and had far fewer troops.
  • In addition to NATO / ISAF troop levels that significantly exceeded the Soviet level, and we will have trained-up 350,000 Afghan security forces compared to the Soviet-trained forces of around 60,000–almost six times higher.
  • As witnessed by the Bonn (2011) and Tokyo (2012) international conferences on Afghanistan, a truly global coalition of over 90 nations and hundreds of non-governmental humanitarian organizations are pledged for another decade of engagement in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan under the Soviets this was not the case at all.
  • Afghan troops are in the lead for security in 75% of the country today as the third tranche of transition moves them to the lead. Our NATO / ISAF overall casualties are 30% lower than last year as the Afghans take the lead. Independent polling (e.g. Asia Foundation) show approval ratings for Afghan security forces at well over 80%, while the Taliban poll less than 10% nationally.
  • NATO / ISAF will, as pledged at the recent NATO Summit in Chicago, leave a capable “train, equip, and mentor” mission in Afghanistan post-2014 when the bulk of the combat forces will be withdrawn.
  • Afghanistan has 8 million children in school (3.5 million girls) as opposed to least than 500,000 under the Taliban. Electricity availability has increased six-fold in terms of population with access. Health care availability has gone from 6% to over 60%, and infant mortality and maternal mortality rates are dropping rapidly. The NATO / ISAF comprehensive approach to civil-military affairs is working.
  • As an example of the broad base of international support beyond even the 50-nation ISAF / NATO coalition, Russia is also supporting the current effort by allowing ISAF support-material to be transported through its territory to and from Afghanistan. Similarly, the NATO-Russian Council Helicopter Maintenance Trust Fund, and a Counter Narcotics Training Project are also tangible evidence of Russian support for this international effort.

Are there daunting challenges ahead? Of course. Corruption, uneven governance, and cross-border operations coming from Pakistan will continue to be difficult.

Overall, our plan is indeed to “punch them in the nose,” but in terms that go beyond simple kinetic operations. We must and will continue engagement post-2014 with Afghans fully in the lead for security and with NATO / ISAF mentorship, support, and assistance. This was the clear message from the heads of state and government who gathered at the recent Chicago Summit, and in NATO today we are doing the detailed planning to fulfil that message.

If we execute this plan — fully turn over security lead to the Afghans and follow through with financial and training support post-2014 — I believe we have a reasonable chance at success in Afghanistan, despite the many challenges.

Cross-posted at ACO and EUCOM blogs.

Posted by ADM James Stavridis, USN (Ret.) in Air Force, Army, Marine Corps, Navy
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  • But are we winning?

    We’ve been at this for 10 years and we get hit with power point stats?

    Really? Really? Say it out loud. Does that sound convincing? Even the stats when taken in context are discouraging. 10 years to train 350,000 troops? And even then we still have cases of Afghan’s turning on their trainers (and we still don’t have an honest accounting of the injuries…we get the number of our guys killed but not the number injured).

    Sorry but there has been no plan just a melding of two flawed philosophies. First Rumsfeld’s metrics based vision of a democratized Middle East and now a JCS led holding action with no end in sight.

    We’d be lucky if we could do a punch’em in the nose and leave campaign. Right now we’re being bled to death in a civil war with no end. Vietnam anyone?

  • Christie


    Thank you for these metrics. They certainly paint a positive picture of accomplishments, cooperation and possible peaceful sustainability. As well, you have set high my motivation as I look toward my upcoming departure on an IA to the region.

    One of the best indicators of the health of a nation, in my humble opinion, is how well the children are treated. The education and infant mortality rate comments are most encouraging. I would love to be able to follow in the footsteps of Greg Mortenson.

    Best regards,


  • Robert_K

    While these operational metrics are very useful for understanding the current situation, they do not address Gelb’s point (and I understand this is a political not military issue): “To me, the only way to think about Afghanistan is to ask the question directly and without prejudice: is it in America’s vital interests to fight on in Afghanistan? To me, the answer is an unequivocal ‘No.’”

    Given the economic situation in the US (and in most members of NATO) the support for the war is declining. As a recent Pew study found, “Just 32% of the public now says that the U.S. should keep troops in Afghanistan until the situation there has stabilized, while 60% favor removing the troops as soon as possible. In May 2011, the public was evenly divided over removing U.S. troops from Afghanistan (48% remove troops vs. 47% keep troops there).”


    See also:

    I find it difficult to believe the international community will continue to support this operation as anticipated for another decade.

    The one parallel that CDR Kuehn does not mention is the Soviet economic situation when the “intervention” started in 1979 and the economic situation when the prolonged war ended in 1989. It closely mirrors our current internal problems – and we are well aware of the ultimate outcome of the Soviet problems in 1991. The Afghan war was not the sole contributing factor but it did exacerbate internal Soviet Problems. http://faculty.washington.edu/aseem/afganwar.pdf I am not suggesting the US is headed towards collapse but we certainly have some internal issues we must address.

    As Col Douglas MacGregor noted earlier this year, ”America’s domestic social and economic problems will become so severe that the world will have to tend to itself for a decade while Americans sort themselves out.” And as a survey of reputable national security and military experts noted in March 2012 – given a list of potential threats, the one that posed the greatest danger was an economic crisis.
    Again, is it in America’s vital interests to fight on in Afghanistan? I agree with Gelb – no. CDR Kuehn offers a solid exit strategy.

  • Byron

    ADM Stavridis, I too was a supporter of this war. Today I don’t think I can say the same. I see no strategic objective other than pouring money into a bottomless pit. Sad to say, after all the money and treasure (read our service members lives) we poured into that bottomless pit we cannot see a definable result other than these “metrics”. I have a hard time believing them though, since members of the Afghan army and police are still ambushing their supposed compatriots on a day by day basis. I have a friend, a Lt. CDR, who has for his security a completely Afghan crew. He has six more months to go if he doesn’t get extended and I worry every day about him. My question to you is simple: if we are doing so well in Afghanistan then why do we still have notional allies still murdering our people and our allies people? It sort of sounds to me like we really haven’t won their “hearts and minds”. And yes, I also begin to see the parallel to Viet Nam.

  • Hi ADM Stavridis,

    Thanks for sharing your insight. However, I must agree with Byron; I see no strategic objective in Afghanistan at this point, other than saving face.

    One of our challenges as the remaining super power is the articulation of a cogent national strategy. Sadly, this has been the case since the end of the Cold War.

    I don’t have the answers, but it seems slogans, COIN, and other fads have come to predominate our “strategic” thinking. As many have said on these pages, a return to Mahan and Clausewitz might be in order. Perhaps this is a reflection of our short-attention-span culture, but I suspect we could do better.

    Many thanks for your contributions, leadership, and service.


  • RickWilmes

    When considering the future of Afghanistan, I think context matters and nothing sets that context better than John Adams’

    “A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law.”


    “Ignorance and inconsideration are the two great causes of the ruin of mankind.” This is an observation of Dr. Tillotson, with relation to the interest of his fellow men in a future and immortal state. But it is of equal truth and importance if applied to the happiness of men in society, on this side the grave.”

    Dare to reread this dissertation by rewriting the canon law with Islamic Law.

    Afghanistan became a failure as soon as it’s people formed a government based on Islamic Law.  In essence what the 50 nation coalition is trying to do with one of the poorest remaining feudal societies on earth is reinstate the combination of canon/Islamic law with feudal law.  It can’t be done.

    As John Adams reminds us.

    “Let us banish for ever from our minds, my countrymen, all such unworthy ideas of the king, his ministry, and parliament. Let us not suppose that all are become luxurious, effeminate, and unreasonable, on the other side the water, as many designing persons would insinuate. Let us presume, what is in fact true, that the spirit of liberty is as ardent as ever among the body of the nation, though a few individuals may be corrupted. Let us take it for granted, that the same great spirit which once gave Cesar so warm a reception, which denounced hostilities against John till Magna Charta was signed, which severed the head of Charles the First from his body, and drove James the Second from his kingdom, the same great spirit (may heaven preserve it till the earth shall be no more) which first seated the great grandfather of his present most gracious majesty on the throne of Britain, — is still alive and active and warm in England; and that the same spirit in America, instead of provoking the inhabitants of that country, will endear us to them for ever, and secure their good-will.

    This spirit, however, without knowledge, would be little better than a brutal rage. Let us tenderly and kindly cherish, therefore, the means of knowledge. Let us dare to read, think, speak, and write. Let every order and degree among the people rouse their attention and animate their resolution. Let them all become attentive to the grounds and principles of government, ecclesiastical and civil. Let us study the law of nature; search into the spirit of the British constitution; read the histories of ancient ages; contemplate the great examples of Greece and Rome; set before us the conduct of our own British ancestors, who have defended for us the inherent rights of mankind against foreign and domestic tyrants and usurpers, against arbitrary kings and cruel priests, in short, against the gates of earth and hell. Let us read and recollect and impress upon our souls the views and ends of our own more immediate forefathers, in exchanging their native country for a dreary, inhospitable wilderness. Let us examine into the nature of that power, and the cruelty of that oppression, which drove them from their homes. Recollect their amazing fortitude, their bitter sufferings, — the hunger, the nakedness, the cold, which they patiently endured, — the severe labors of clearing their grounds, building their houses, raising their provisions, amidst dangers from wild beasts and savage men, before they had time or money or materials for commerce. Recollect the civil and religious principles and hopes and expectations which constantly supported and carried them through all hardships with patience and resignation. Let us recollect it was liberty, the hope of liberty for themselves and us and ours, which conquered all discouragements, dangers, and trials. In such researches as these, let us all in our several departments cheerfully engage, — but especially the proper patrons and supporters of law, learning, and religion!”

    As Americans and lovers of liberty and it’s proper moral defense let us banish and kick in the nose any government that wants to reestablish Islamic and feudal law.  After ten years of misguided adventures let’s leave Afghanistan letting the Islamist world know we learned our lesson and if you attack us again we will destroy you not bring democracy to your armpit of the world.

  • Retired Now

    I served during the Vietnam war. Admittedly, I was always off the coast onboard some Navy ship that had some airconditioning onboard. But I made several prolonged deployments off Vietnam. My brother and best friend both were in-country (twice). That Vietnam war was and is a terrible bunch of memories.

    Question, (and I’m not trying to be glib here), if Pres. George W. Bush and VP Dick Cheney had served in-country Vietnam, just one or two tours each, would America have become involved in Iraq & Afghanistan wars in-country ? As my relatives have lamented, if America had learned our lessons in fighting in South East Asia 1960’s – 1970’s, would America have gotten entangled in this South West Asian war for the past decade ? I ask this question seriously and I’m trying to blame the former President and VP for not going in-country Vietnam, but they obviously did not fully comprehend what a United States involvement in this current South West Asian war would be like, back in 2002-2003 when decisions were made. Could no one recall the Vietnam South East Asia war that ended in 1974 ? Where’s the “Corporate Memory” of our US Government ?

  • Robert_K

    The comparison of Afghanistan to Vietnam is very important. An unpopular, prolonged war not supported by the American people caused great, enduring damage to the United States. It created an erosion of trust between the citizens and their elected officials. The misinformation campaign from the Pentagon also damaged the credibility of military/defense leaders for decades.

    To your question, the war in Afghanistan would still have been fought – probably differently. Kill the Taliban/AQ and conduct CT operations from off shore until Bin Laden was gone. Nation building is not a US strongpoint, particularly with a weak economy. Not so sure about Iraq. I think the quick success in Afghanistan to oust the TB/AQ set up the administration to think Iraq would be another quick win, requiring only a small force. Clearly the post conflict reconstruction problem was not thought through.

  • RickWilmes

    “Overall, our plan is indeed to “punch them in the nose,” but in terms that go beyond simple kinetic operations.  We must and will continue engagement post-2014 with Afghans fully in the lead for security and with NATO / ISAF mentorship, support, and assistance.  This was the clear message from the heads of state and government who gathered at the recent Chicago Summit, and in NATO today we are doing the detailed planning to fulfil that message.”

    Why did the Chicago Summit ignore the issue of women’s security and freedom as discussed by Kakar below?

    Will her concerns be addressed before 2014?

    ‘”Women do want the progress that has been made over the past 10 years to continue, but they are being kept away from the political processes,” Kakar said. “All Afghans, men and women, want a country without foreign troops, but I think the international community should be putting women on the agenda and making sure their security and freedoms are secured, directly and indirectly.”
    She criticised the recent Nato conference in Chicago for completely ignoring the issue. “Women are regularly harassed in the workplace, they are exploited and credit for their achievements taken by men, while also being targeted by insurgents for going to work or school. They suffer the worst in the security situation and, even at home, they are subjected to violence and abuse which is tacitly sanctioned by the courts and the government.”‘


  • Matt

    Admiral Stavridis,

    I would just like to make one point regarding your comparisons with the Soviet experience and ours presently. I understand the downfall of the Kabul Govt. had everything to do with the USSR’s economic collapse in 1991. So for me, this means the Afghans did not defeat the Soviets at all and that all we have to do is not go bankrupt ourselves. I did not understand the cause of the Soviet defeat before I read this somewhere and I believe many Americans don’t either. It would be wise for you to repeat this at every oppurtunity as it would redefine the Soviet defeat and make victory seem much more achievable.

    On the other hand however Pakistan’s continued support for the Taliban is for what purpose if they believe the Taliban will be defeated? Do they know something we don’t? Or are they so ideologically alligned with the Taliban and Islamic extremism that they are willing to fight to the death? Why isn’t Pakistan convinced of an ISAF victory? Why haven’t we punched Pakistan in the nose (or much, much worse) to convince them?

    9/11 is the single biggest difference between Aghanistan and Vietnam. If aliens from outer space had done it we would’ve gone to war with them. No matter which country you are, you cannot survive while allowing such devestating attacks. Thank God the attack was from such a weak and backward country. I believe our casualties would’ve been far greater with a more capable enemy.

    God Bless America. Semper Fi.

  • Admiral- Thanks for taking the time to post. With respect to casualties: Why do initial ISAF press releases lead with “NATO servicemembers killed in Afghanistan” when in the vast majority of cases, a more accurate statement would be “US servicemembers killed in Afghanistan?” The former lead is disingenuous at best, and appears to be an obfuscation of America’s over-sized contribution in blood and treasure to the fight there.

  • gian p gentile

    From 2002 onward the core American policy objective has been in so many words “disrupt, disable, and defeat” al Qaeda. Yet the American military, supercharged with the Army’s belief in the efficacy of armed nation building (exactly the same as FM 3-24), has been able to propose only one operational method to achieve that very limited core policy goal: armed nation building. It has been akin to driving a nail through a soft piece of pine wood with a jack-hammer when a carpenters hammer would have done the trick, and with much less spent in blood and treasure.

    We have failed at strategy in Afghanistn, and in war it is strategy that counts for the most.

  • John T. Kuehn

    Thanks to Admiral Stavridis for this well-considered and thoughtful response. My own view is that perhaps serendipity may prevail. After all, when the Soviets pulled out Nadjibullah hung on until the USSR and its concomitant funding evaporated. Too, I am not ready to throw over the relationship with Pakistan entirely for some pie in the sky “arrangement” with India.
    But we must be realistic, the westernized world, as led by the U.S. and underwritten by the Admiral’s NATO military-(political) command is having money problems, aren’t they? The key question is the sustained application of fiscal resources to support all those human resources the Admiral mentions. I remain cautiously pessimistic, but am ready for serendiptiy and the uncertainty of complex human trends to surprise me–or not.
    vr, John
    Fort Leavenworth, KS (which is as hot and dry as Anbar these days)

  • jstavridis

    John, I suspect we’re not so far apart. I’m cautiously optimistic, generally because this is not just a US effort but a 60-80 nation pull at the oar. But the challenges, as you point out are immense. Thanks for your engagement and thinking on this key challenge.

  • Bud Meador

    Admiral Stavridis is right to make his case as he does. He is right to review critically the stats to which he referred. He can not be held accountable for not having a “crystal ball” to see perfectly into the future; no one person or agency has that capacity. He, like the youngest of his troopers, is an executor of policy made by others, and, often miles away from the scene of action. Likewise, Cmdr. Kuehn is an astute observer who has the benefit of not being in the midst of the fight; that might be the best position from which to make an observation, objectively. In any event, as to the issue’s outcome, we shall see.

  • Michael Monroe Finley

    To respond to the several very thoughtful correspondents to this thread who express doubt respecting American national security strategy and cognizance of genuine national interests at this point in time: Attending this June’s Naval War College Current Strategy Forum 2012 gave me immense peace of mind, if not on the unforeseeable outcome, at least on the current direction of American grand strategy.

    The adults are back in charge.

    You can go to the videos of several of the key presentations [http://www.usnwc.edu/Events/CSF/2012/Videos.aspx], and be reassured that these are not PR declamations, but reliable reports from the point of the spear. Afghanistan and Iraq may or may not go the way we would like for neat and clean U.S. PR benefits, but our focus is back on the global balance of power, and what worked from WWII to the big win in the Cold War. ADM Stavridis and his peers and superiors appear to have things in hand, if a non-professional but very inviolved civilian like me can hold such an opinion.

  • Admiral,
    We are friends, I think. You know what a supporter I am. But, while your metrics are interesting and impressive in so many ways, allow me to return you to your own words from not so long ago in “Partnership for the Americas.”

    You said, on page 60: “But before we ‘understand,’ we must ‘see.’ Ultimately, we – the U.S. Government specifically, but also the Nation as a whole – need to view the world through others’ eyes… need to fully grasp the sources of grievance… need to fully comprehend the sources of conflict and quarrel so that our thoughts, our words, and our deeds can serve as safety switches, not trip-wires that set off unintended consequences”

    And before and after that in your book, you talk about “shaping” and positively influencing.

    All great thoughts to be sure. On these lofty notions, what metrics apply? How do we say – here is how we are helping these people help themselves to a good and secure future; how do we say we – Americans – are doing what we think is right, for the right reasons? I believe that is our challenge, and your challenge as the leader you are. G

  • John T. Kuehn

    I have one more comment for this Kuehn guy and his article (which I have it on good authority he wrote back in March, some of it even earlier). He assumes that our Allies in the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) (ie. the police and the army) are aligned with us even achieving goals on THEIR behalf to facilitate our departure. The last part is correct, our allies do wish to facilitate our (NATO’s) departure. The first part is wrong, they are not aligned with us on how to do that–based on the most recent news out of Afghanistan–5 attacks by ANSF on NATO in the last week, just this morning 3 U.S. dead from an ANSF police trainee-attack. We must now revise our assumption about aligning goals and targets, it would probably be easier to do with the Pakistanis and the Taliban, than with our “allies.” Does anyone remember the ARVN and provincial militias doing much of this when we left South Vietnam? I think not. So this sandwich is even worse tasting than Vietnam.
    Regretfully, John T. Kuehn, CDR USN (ret)

  • UltimaRatioReg

    “Does anyone remember the ARVN and provincial militias doing much of this when we left South Vietnam? I think not. So this sandwich is even worse tasting than Vietnam.”

    Seems the good Commander has you game, set, and match with that, Admiral.

  • Robert_K

    More metrics to consider – a poll of 800 vets (veterans not left leaning radicals) listed their top national security concerns as the economy and national debt – “winning” the war in Afghanistan didn’t make the top tier of their responses. http://concernedveteransforamerica.org/2012/08/14/new-poll-u-s-national-debt-is-a-threat-veterans-say/

    So let’s recap:

    -After 10 years of deficit spending on the war in Afghanistan, the expectation is to continue on this path for another decade, getting the nation further in debt (holding all other discretionary spending at current levels and not increasing taxes to pay for the war that majority of Americans do not support).

    -A large percentage of American’s killed in Afghanistan this year (1:11 by some reports) were killed by the Afghans they are training/liberating.

    -Walking the fine line with Pakistan to get their support for our objectives in Afghanistan can’t be good for building a strategic partnership with India.

    After considering this issue further, Gelb only had it partially correct when he answered that continuing operations in Afghanistan is not vital to US interests – continuing our involvement in Afghanistan, in reality, puts American National Security at risk.

  • Michael Monroe Finley

    There is an emerging school of thought that, since the only functioning government in Afghanistan outside Kabul district is that of the regional tribal organizations, which, in some locations, expresses itself in forms of government that we in the West would recognize, such as city councils, local police, and public utilities– we should focus our nation-building there, not on the dysfunctional central government.

    I brought this concept up at the 2011 Emerald Express strategy conference of Marine Corps University onboard Quantico, directed to a representative of the Afghan central government in the Q&A period after his address to the general convocation. His only response was to insist that during Afghanistan’s last monarchy, they did indeed have functional control and the support of the whole country. The implication was that we should just trust them to be able to do it again. I’m not sure either proposition is valid.

    Hopefully the regional/local approach will prevail in the U.S. civilian command authority during what time we have left there, and find support in our joint/interagency forces who know the situation in the provinces. Help whoever seems to be in control in the major centers of gravity; if they’re Taleban, so what? Most of those who’ve fought us since we went there in 2001 are accidental guerillas, anyway– why not confound them with Mark Twain’s “Love your enemies– it’ll drive ’em crazy”. And it’ll take away the Taleban’s main recruiting angle of the reckless don’t-care crazy killer Americans. Use the drones to survey future irrigation systems layouts; they already have capacity to do altitudes and follow topo lines.

    • grandpabluewater

      Perhaps we should just accept defeat at our own hands and come home and try to save what we can, from our impending government financial collapse and the accompanying civil unrest at home.

      It is after all just the most recent Afghan war…there will be others soon enough.