10/22/2012 01:29 pm ET Updated Dec 22, 2012

Afghanistan: The Ends, Ways, and Means

Insider attacks and the election bring the war in Afghanistan to the front page again. There are calls to accelerate the drawdown and calls to stay the course. One argument for staying the course is to recall the extraordinary costs already expended. What will withdrawal say to those who served and sacrificed? But these are what economists call sunk costs. They are spent and cannot be recovered. Future costs are all that can be controlled.

Let's go back to the beginning and review the ends, ways, and means linkage of strategy. Ends are the objectives pursued, means are the resources committed to achieve objectives, and ways are how those resources are organized and applied to achieve the desired objectives.

Competing warlords induced a Soviet invasion to support Afghanistan's communist government. The invasion (1979) drew combatants from around the world, including Osama bin Laden and Egyptian jihadists released from prison (1984). Having no historical roots in Afghanistan or Pakistan, the Taliban's virulent form of Islam was created during the Soviet occupation. When the Soviets withdrew (1989), the warlords returned to fighting each other, and the Egyptians relocated to the Sudan to continue opposition to the Cairo government. Osama's opposition to Western forces in the Gulf War (1990-1991) led to his being unwelcome in Saudi Arabia and he too went to Sudan. A functioning Sudanese government was in place but, even sympathetic to al-Qaeda, it didn't relish the external pressure from the West and from its neighbors. Diplomatic efforts pressured al-Qaeda out of Sudan and back to Afghanistan (1996). Coercive diplomacy was the chosen way.

On 9/11, four commercial jet liners departed from Boston, Newark, and the District of Columbia laden with fuel for Los Angeles. They were quickly hijacked and diverted to targets in New York and the nation's capital. The concept for the attacks was born of a Kuwaiti, and the "planes operations" were briefed to Osama bin Laden in Tora Bora mid-1996. In a spring 1999 meeting near Kandahar, Osama approved a more detailed plan, including initial target selection, and agreed to provide hijackers, pilots, and funding. The half-million dollar funding came from Saudi and Kuwaiti sources. Independently, four Western educated men living in Germany formed what later would be called the Hamburg group that would provide three of the four 9/11 pilots. The pilots were Saudi, Egyptian, Emirati, and Lebanese. The "muscle" hijackers -- twelve Saudi and one Emirati -- trained in Afghanistan. Details, including final target selection, were transmitted in a meeting near Barcelona. Flight training, surveillance flights, and test flights were conducted within the United States.

The initial objective was to capture the al-Qaeda ringleaders, coercive diplomacy was the initial way chosen, and means were minimal. There were rifts between the Taliban and al-Qaeda, but diplomatic efforts were insufficient to put Osama in U.S. hands. The Taliban government was strong enough but chose not to comply. Some argued that additional efforts may have succeeded. Maybe, maybe not.

Failing coercion, direct intervention was the next step up the escalatory ladder. Kill or capture became the new objective, military intervention the way, and resources included a small footprint force. There was already a regional effort, with Iran playing a leading role, to deal with the Taliban, seen as a growing problem in the region. The post-9/11 response from Western powers displaced the regional response. The force quickly displaced Taliban rule, disrupted and reduced al-Qaeda, but was denied the ultimate measure of success. Osama escaped. Some argued that a larger force would have been more successful. Maybe, maybe not.

The next step up the ladder is crucial. Failing the elimination of Osama, the objective shifted to preventing al-Qaeda from launching future attacks on the United States by denying sanctuary. Denying sanctuary could be accomplished either by continuing the manhunt for al-Qaeda ringleaders or by nation building. The U.S. chose nation building as its way. The invasion of Iraq (2003) drew focus and resources away from the Afghanistan effort.

What the U.S. calls nation building actually includes nation building, economic development, and state building. Nations are peoples with shared history, language, culture, and unifying sense of national identity. States have borders and institutions to defend and enforce the norms of the nation and to meet their obligations to the international system of states. Nations and state borders are not aligned.

Afghanistan's borders were established for the convenience of Britain and Russia without regard for nations. The border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Durand Line (1893), was established to demarcate the Russian and British areas of influence. It effectively divided the Pashtuns, half in Afghanistan, half in what would become Pakistan. Pakistan's other border, the Radcliffe Line (1947), was also rather arbitrarily drawn by the British as they abandoned colonial claims and created a Muslim Pakistan and a secular, Hindu-majority India. The result was massive displacement, death, and animosity. In the southwest, Baluchistan is divided between Afghanistan and Iran. And Soviet religious suppression drove Muslims out of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan into northern Afghanistan. Afghanistan is a weak state attempting to govern several divided nations.

But there are two broad approaches to nation building. The one we see has the military in the lead with the cooperation of other government agencies. The one we don't often see is conducted by the U.S. Agency for International Development. The USAID approach is slow and persistent attempting nation building, state building, and economic development at a rate that can be absorbed by the host country and at the host's invitation. The military approach hopes to accelerate the process. The difference in resources required by the two approaches is stark.

The other way to deny sanctuary can be called a manhunt implemented with persistent intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance and periodic strikes and raids. It could be combined with the USAID approach to nation building.

Both manhunt and nation building will produce blowback. Honest people can disagree about which will create more, but it is hard to argue that they are equal in costs. State building, nation building, and economic development applied to one of the world's least developed countries entail extraordinary costs with weak prospects for success.

No Afghans, Pashtuns, or Taliban were involved in the 9/11 attacks. The meetings that took place in Afghanistan could have taken place anywhere in the world as evidenced by the significant activities in Germany and Spain, states with strong institutions. The most important training took place in the U.S., where many inhabitants believe the institutions of state are too strong. The training of the "muscle hijackers" could have taken place in a barn, warehouse, or field anywhere, including Somalia, Yemen, or the deserts of North Africa, or in Idaho, Texas, or Minnesota for that matter.

For the Afghan government to deny sanctuary to al-Qaeda, it must have both the will and the ability. Afghan National Security Forces provide the ability. Security forces currently consume 25 percent of GDP where 3 percent is typical of similar states. And those costs are two and a half times government revenues. This path does not appear to be sustainable. Building the political will -- both official and public -- seems even more problematic.

Options to deny sanctuary to al-Qaeda and associated movements include nation building (in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, etc.), strikes and raids (in the same places), or coercive diplomacy (sticks and carrots) extended to regional stakeholders. Of course a mix is possible, but one should be chosen as the principle way in the ends-ways-means linkage of national strategy. What way will the presidential candidates choose?