Monday, June 10, 2024

Coalition Building in the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars


Wars are frequently multinational operations, extremely complex operations involving standardizing communication systems, hiring translators, establishing both national and international chains of commands1, and so on. Fundamental to this is the diplomatic work to build coalitions. The coalition President George H. W. Bush assembled to liberate Kuwait came together relatively easy during the buildup to the Gulf War. President George W. Bush was able to rapidly assemble a multinational operation for prosecution of the Afghanistan War, but he encountered difficulties in forming what would be called the Multi-National Force - Iraq (MNF-I), popularly called the "Coalition of the Willing." This paper compares the assembly of the coalitions for both the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars and attempts to identify the ways the younger Bush was able to overcome the difficulties in forming the MNF-I.

The history of our involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq are extremely relevant to explaining the difference in effort needed to build the two MNFs, perhaps as important as the jus ad bellum (reasons for declaring war) for both conflicts. For this reason, the historical context for both wars is provided. Following this, the usual factors that a potential member of an MNF must consider before committing are examined. Finally, the ways that the Bush Administration used to grow MNF-I are described, along with the embarrassments they generated.

Colin Powell at the UN.

Historical Background of the Afghanistan War

During Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (24 December 1979 - 15 February 1989), the United States via the Central Intelligence Agency supported the Afghan Mujahideen resistance fighters, as did Pakistan, Iran, the UK, and the Arab Gulf States. The Soviets withdrew following the signing of the US-brokered 1988 Geneva Accords, but they left in place a Soviet-backed regime led by Mohammad Najibullah. Thus, the war to rid Afghanistan of communism continued, but now it was a civil war.

Najibullah was ousted in 1992 and was replaced by the Mujahideen. This lasted until September 1996 when the Mujahideen were in turn replaced by the Taliban, an Islamic group primarily composed of Pashtun Afghans, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan.

A new civil war then started between the Pashtun (represented by the Taliban) and the other ethnic groups (represented by the Northern Alliance). While this war raged, foreign fighters entered the country, most importantly Al Qaida led by Osama Bin Laden, and they began using Afghanistan as a base of operations.

Al Qaeda bombed two US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania on 7 April 1998, and on 12 October 2000 they attacked the USS Cole while docked in a Yemeni port. Bin Laden was now considered an international terrorist threat, and the US demands his extradition. The Taliban refused, and the UN imposed economic sanctions in response.

Shortly following the September 11th terrorist attacks, Bin Laden was determined to be the culprit and again America demand extradition. The Taliban again refused to hand him over. This meant that Afghanistan was not only harboring known terrorists, but the Taliban became an impediment to the capture or destruction of Al Qaeda members.

The political objectives of the US-led forces were the capture or destruction of Al Qaeda and the destruction of the Taliban. While the latter was not necessary to achieve the former, it was felt that ousting the Taliban from power would allow US-led forces to gain support of the Northern Alliance, prevent Al Qaeda from reconstituting itself, and serve as an object lesson to other nations of the price of harboring or supporting terrorists.

The ultimate strategy for the War in Afghanistan was to use high tech weapons (UAVs and guided missiles) together with Special Forces to defeat the Taliban2, and to use a small number of conventional forces to search for Al Qaeda. This plan overcame two problems with the location and geography of Afghanistan: the "tyranny of political geography" and the "tyranny of topography," which made Afghanistan into "a logistics nightmare."3

On 7 October 2001, the US and the UK begin bombing operations, less than one month after the 9/11 attacks. Because of this short time interval, insufficient post-combat planning was performed.

Historical Context of the Iraq War

Prior to the start of the Afghanistan War, the US had little interaction with Afghanistan beyond support of the Mujahideen during the Soviet Occupation. In contrast, there was considerable history between the US and Iraq: the Gulf War.

While the Gulf War saw the eviction of Iraqi forces from Kuwait, Saddam Hussein remained in power. When George W. Bush became president, he brought along policy experts who believed that leaving Saddam in power was a mistake. This was the first reason that war with Iraq was seen as inevitable.

The second reason that war seemed inevitable was the Bush Administration's overall policy in response to 9/11. Bush not only declared war against Afghanistan, but he also declared a Global War on Terror (GWOT). Few people at the time wondered just how it was possible to declare war on a tactic (terrorism).

The connection between Iraq and the GWOT was tenuous: Saddam was not known to harbor terrorists, nor was he a sponsor of terrorism (or at least international terrorists). What tipped the scale was Saddam's unwillingness to allow UN Weapons Inspectors to examine certain weapon facilities. This led to suspicions that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the means to deliver said WMD, and that he had used WMD against the Iraqi Kurds. The political objectives of the US-led forces were to eliminate Saddam and the Ba'athist regime, locate and destroy the WMDs and the facilities to manufacture them, as well as to protect the Kurds.

Just like in Afghanistan, there was little post-combat planning, but the difference was that Iraq shared a 994-mile-long border with a hostile enemy: Iran.

Joining a Multinational Operation

The countries involved in multinational operations share a common desired political outcome from the military operations, that much is clear. Assembling a coalition is thus an act of diplomacy, and the decision for a country to become a partner nation (PN) in a multinational task force (MNTF) depends on the purpose of the MNTF, the lead nation, as well as domestic concerns.

There are numerous domestic concerns a potential PN must consider: domestic politics, national interest, the defense budget, and threats from other nations that may seek to use the diversion of the PN's military to the MNTF to their advantage4.

Once the PN decides to join, there is the question of the range of support (the type and level of commitment) the PN would provide to the MNTF. According to JP 3-16, the range of support is a spectrum5. On one end of this spectrum is combat support in the form of troops, aircraft, ships, equipment, etc. At the other end there are commitments that do not require troops or equipment, such as financial assistance, overflight and basing rights, and use of existing facilities. In the middle, noncombatant forces can be committed to provide forms of support such as logistics, infrastructure, air and sea lift, intra-theater lift, etc.

There is also the question of when the PN's forces engage: combat, post-combat, or both. During the Iraq war, several nations agreed to become involved only after combat operations ended, at which point humanitarian assistance and reconstruction came to the fore.6

How the Iraq War Differed from the Afghanistan War

There were two differences between the Iraq War and Afghanistan War that were of importance to potential PNs. First, there was the fresh and raw memory of the 9/11 attacks and the very real possibility that Al Qaeda would attack them (whether they became a PN or not). Second was the differing expected post-combat outcomes.

With the shock of the 9/11 attacks, not much consideration was given to how Afghanistan would look after the completion of military operations. The elimination of Al Qaida was seen as doable, and preventing the return of the Taliban was an important goal, but what form would the new Afghan government take? America promised a representative democracy, but Afghanistan is composed of a number of ethnic and tribal groups and would require a strong central government in order to keep them those groups at peace. The inherent contradiction was lost on the military planners. Add to this was the fact that the Taliban were primarily Pashtun, which were 40% of the population. If the Pashtun were excluded, then the new Afghan government wouldn't be representative; if they were included then a strong central government would be needed to keep them from taking control, so the new Afghan government wouldn't be democratic. The participants in Operation Enduring Freedom would have to prop-up the new Afghan government instead.

In comparison, the reasons for invading Iraq were suspect from the start: there was no evidence for the existence of Saddam's WMDs7. Further, the Bush Administration provided a plethora of reasons for going into Iraq, and if WMDs turned out to be a wash, the US could always fall back on Saddam's history of human rights violations.

Further, the goal of eliminating the Ba'athist government did not come with a plan to replace it. The need for a replacement was immediately obvious due to the presence of Iran: if no de-Ba'athized government was formed, Iraq would invade, and so an extended foreign presence would be required. The realpolitik Pottery Barn Rule would apply: "If you break it, you bought it."

So, both wars would require an extended presence in both countries, but the problems for post-combat Iraq were much more obvious.

Building a multinational force was considerably more difficult for Iraq than for Afghanistan for all these reasons8. In addition, the US was unable to get UN agreement on invading Iraq. To compensate for all this, the Bush Administration had to get... creative.

Getting to ‘Yes’: Persuading Potential PNs to Join MNF-I

For whatever reason, the primary metric that the Bush Administration used for determining the robustness of the Multi-National Force - Iraq (MNF-I) was the number of partner nations. This quickly led to issues.

The Bush Administration initially released only the number of PNs, not the names of the PNs. When the list of names was released9, several problems became clear: first, several listed countries (the Solomon Islands, Palau, Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands) not only lacked name recognition, they also lacked standing armies. Second, two of the counties on the list (Eritrea and Ethiopia) had recently completed a major war against each other (the Badme War, 6 May 1998 - 18 June 2000). Third, at least one country on the list (Costa Rica, also a nation without a standing army) denied agreeing to be a PN.

To pad these numbers, the State Department claimed that 15 nations were "covert" PNs. The existence of at least one covert nation (Canada) was proven in the WikiLeaks US diplomatic cable leak10.

The Bush Administration also used financial pressure to grow the number of PNs. Several of the countries were already receiving US aid. Georgia was believed to have become a PN and commit 2,000 soldiers to Iraq as repayment for American training of Georgian forces that could be used to stabilize break-away regions. In 2003, Turkey was offered $8.5 billion in loans for sending 10,000 troops. They refused the loans but did allow medical airlifts into and out of the country.

Thus the Coalition of the Willing came into being.


Prior to the Iraq War, participation of states in a multinational operation depended on domestic consent, decisions about the range of support, as well as decisions about the stage of the operation (conflict-phase, post-conflict, or both). The Bush Administration added two additional factors: whether to participate publicly, and the amount of quid pro quo necessary.

Regardless, the MNF-I was established. As combat operations concluded, the existence of WMD came into serious doubt and the Iraq War became more and more a quagmire, PNs began leaving the Coalition of the Willing.


  1. Joint Chiefs of Staff. Joint Publication 3-16, Multinational Operations, II-1 to II-19.
  2. Howard, C. “To Baghdad and Beyond: ARSOF in Operation Iraqi Freedom.”
  3. Snow, D. & Drew, D. From Lexington to Baghdad and Beyond.
  4. Joint Chiefs of Staff. Joint Publication 3-16, Multinational Operations. III-1 to III-4
  5. Ibid. III-3 to III-5.
  6. Rayburn, J. & Sobchak, F. The U.S. Army in the Iraq War – Volume 1
  7. Younge, G., Norton-Taylor, R. & Wintour, P. “Blix attacks ‘shaky’ intelligence on weapons.”
  8. NATO, “NATO and Afghanistan.”
  9. Schifferes, S. “US names ‘coalition of the willing’”.
  10. Weston, G. “Canada offered to aid Iraq invasion: WikiLeaks”


Howard, C. “To Baghdad and Beyond: ARSOF in Operation Iraqi Freedom.” USASOC History Office, 20 March 2023. Retrieved 10 June 2024 from

Joint Chiefs of Staff. Joint Publication 3-16, Multinational Operations, 12 February 2021.

NATO. “NATO and Afghanistan.” North Atlantic Treaty Organization. 31 August 2022. Retrieved 9 June 2024 from

Rayburn, J. & Sobchak, F. The U.S. Army in the Iraq War – Volume 1: Invasion – Insurgency – Civil War, 2003-2006. USAWC Press, 17 January 2019. Retrieved 9 June 2024 from

Schifferes, S. “US names ‘coalition of the willing’” BBC News, 18 March 2003. Retrieved 9 June 2024 from

Snow, D. & Drew, D. From Lexington to Baghdad and Beyond: War and Politics in the American Experience. Routledge, 2009.

Younge, G., Norton-Taylor, R. & Wintour, P. “Blix attacks ‘shaky’ intelligence on weapons.” The Guardian, 23 April 2003. Retrieved 10 June 2024 from

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