The long reach of violent extremism – emanating from failed and failing states, from ungoverned spaces – brought America and our allies to Afghanistan. That country has become the laboratory for what I have been talking about for the past year – how to apply and fully integrate the full range of instruments of national power and international co-operation to protect our vital interests.
Think about the scale of the effort in Afghanistan. There are 42 nations, hundreds of NGOs, universities, development banks, the United Nations, the European Union, Nato, all working as part of a multinational, civil-military effort.
For sure, coalition warfare is nothing new. But in Afghanistan, Nato's operations are hamstrung by national caveats, where different countries impose different rules on where their forces can go and what they can do. A number of our allies and partners have stepped forward courageously. But many have defence budgets that are so low, and coalition governments that are so precarious, that they cannot provide the quantity or type of forces needed for this kind of fight.
Afghanistan has also shown the importance of strategic communications. In Afghanistan, the Taliban employ so-called night letters to sway and intimidate the local population. I've said before that we need the equivalent of day letters to persuade and inspire in the other direction. We need to show the citizenry that we are fully committed to making a difference, rather than working disconnectedly on "one-off" projects.
To be successful, the full panoply of military and civilian elements must integrate better. These efforts today – however well-intentioned and even heroic – add up to less than the sum of the parts. The list of accomplishments is long. But so is the list of obstacles.
We must overcome them. We must be prepared to change old ways of doing business and create new institutions – both nationally and internationally – to deal with the long-term challenges we face abroad. And our own national security toolbox must be well-equipped with more than just hammers.
Robert Gates is the US Defense Secretary. This is an extract from a lecture delivered to the US Institute of Peace on Wednesday