NYT says that NATO has launched Operation Dragon Strike across Khandahar, Zhari, and Panjwayi districts. Dragon Strike comes after weeks of ‘shaping operations’, comprising development/civil affairs missions combined with direct action raids on insurgent leadership and personnel. Dragon Strike appears to be a ‘decisive operation’ intended to displace insurgents across Western Kandahar. It comes only after all reinforcements are available to maneuver synchronically to disrupt the insurgency and extend political-social stability. If the mid-level Taliban and criminal elements are already ‘weakened’ and ‘demoralized’ by raids and detentions, then West Kandahar should be ripe for an operational maneuver that applies counterinsurgency principles to create social and political some space for emergence of local governing institutions.

This begs the obvious question about those institutions, their tendency for corruption and illegitimacy, and the strategic contradictions involved in supporting state institutions through counterinsurgency operations. As mentioned earlier, our relationship with the Afghans (to some degree) constitutes the ‘culture of corruption’ that appears to be embedded in their politics. Counterinsurgency is great operationally but won’t resolve the major strategic contradictions undermining the ‘space’ for the development of local institutions. As long as other power relationships continue, like those fostered by other agencies and NGOs through corruption and dependency, that political space remains limited.

Aspects of the Afghan war now resemble the Iraq war in summer 2007, when Operation Phantom Strike was launched to stability in the major population belts around Baghdad and across central Iraq (see Kim Kagan’s excellent book on this). Dragon Strike seems to be evidence that the campaign structure of full-spectrum operations has retained some consistency, with shaping and decisive operations that should be followed by sustaining operations. The length of time for deployment of all units into shaping operations determines the timetable to synchronize decisive clearing operations, and it has been much longer in southern Afghanistan in 2010 (11 months) compared to Iraq in 2007 (8 months).

However, in shifting to full-spectrum operations, the operational pattern of today’s counterinsurgency appears to have changed from its classical version: Instead of ‘clear, hold, and build’, modern COIN is ‘shape, clear decisively, and sustain’. The last step (if the counterinsurgents get there), seems to be when the political strategy will always be tested – and that’s when the model begins to fail. Absent a political settlement and no gradual improvement by institutions fostered by diplomatic and developmental support, then the new Operational Art can fail to be enough to achieve the strategic goal – the creation of local institutions that enforce legitimate order.

Little theory has been devoted to understanding how that happens, and as well as the limits of military action (counterinsurgency) on making possible institutional public space and socioeconomic development. This is where political operational and strategic art is lacking, and in its absence, the associated costs may be perceived to be higher than any military success. From a sociological perspective, the question becomes ‘how do we synthesize and share an understanding of social reality with local stakeholders that accounts for their own perceptions and ‘rational’ mindset’? Unless the strategic environment is framed in such a way to ensure that we all see strategic problems the same way, any attempt to transform the social and political environment from instability to stability through military operational solutions will not be sufficient. Operational successes are then not fulfilled by strategic ones, which currently explains the political impasse in Iraq. For all the Afghan Surge’s potential successes, it will likely suffer the same strategic pitfalls.

It’s time to move beyond operational art and begin thinking about state building and the constitution of bureaucratic identities as the new strategic art.