Afghanistan and the Future of Counterinsurgency

Brian M Downing

If we were overthrown, there would be major chaos and confusion in the country and everyone including every single oppressed individual would blame you for it.

– Mullah Omar to President Clinton, Sept 1999

A government that is losing to an insurgency is not being outfought, it is being outgoverned.

– Bernard Fall

The US-led effort in Afghanistan placed a great deal of weight on counterinsurgency (COIN) to defeat or at least stymie the insurgency there.  There are few signs of success and the US is seeking negotiations with Mullah Omar’s Taliban in a less than attractive bargaining position.  Many feel that defeat or at least unceremonious withdrawal looms.

COIN has a long and intriguing history going back mainly to colonial administration and insurgencies in the post-WWII era.  It enjoyed growth after Fidel Castro’s band seized power in Cuba and the US looked for ways to counter Soviet-backed insurgencies elsewhere in the Third World.  COIN was romanticized once it became attached to the US green berets – a force with considerable cachet in the sixties.  The war in Vietnam saw limited but incoherent use of COIN and after Saigon fell (1975), the doctrine was put away lest some future president be tempted to get involved in another insurgency – a prospect that seemed dim if not absurd back then.

With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, however, COIN gained new attention and renewed romanticization.  It contributed to easing the Iraqi insurgency, or seemed to, and it was confidently put into practice in Afghanistan.  Despite great hopes and the leadership of General Petraeus, COIN has failed to do more than carve out a few enclaves in the south and east where security remains frail and popular support is chiefly formal.

Even if Afghanistan ends badly, COIN doctrine will not be put away as it was after the last Huey hurriedly took off from Saigon in 1975.  It is a central part of American strategic thinking and is being taught or put into practice in Yemen, Uganda, Somalia, Mali, Thailand, the Philippines, Colombia, and elsewhere.  Learning what went wrong in Afghanistan will be important in shaping future foreign policy and military budgets.  Some problems inhere to Afghanistan, others to American institutions and society.

Initial Misallocation of Resources

The insurgency in Afghanistan developed, largely unnoticed, while the US’s attention and resources were shifted to Iraq.  After expelling the Taliban and al Qaeda from Afghanistan in late 2001, the US took insufficient interest in rebuilding the country and little if any in building a government.  That would be “nation-building” – a policy with considerable opprobrium assigned it after the effort to bring stability to Somalia ended in humiliation and withdrawal.

Engineer battalions, intelligence outfits, and special forces units, which would have been useful in bringing order to Afghanistan and preventing an insurgency, were sent to Iraq.  The hoped-for transition to a UN government did not take place and a vicious insurgency emerged – and paradoxically though predictably, the US found itself involved in nation-building for many years.

Afghanistan suffered from neglect.  Warlordism and banditry plagued the country and the Kabul government, corrupt and inept, alienated many if not most Afghans.  The Iraq war had another consequence.  The Taliban saw the invasion of Iraq as evidence of US designs to conquer the region and control its resources and they were even more determined to fight the invaders in Afghanistan and return to power.

The Heavy Hand 

The US countered the emerging insurgency with conventional warfare, including heavy firepower.  This was how the US had fought its wars since Grant ground down the rebels in the Civil War, and of course this was how the Taliban had been driven out in 2001.

The American way of war has been to use its decided firepower advantage to maximize enemy casualties and minimize its own.  Junior officers had been trained to use artillery and air power to protect the young men entrusted to them and avoid the loss of morale and respect that casualties can bring.  US infantry units went through village after village chasing an elusive enemy and winning few friends along the way.  Insurgents capitalized on civilian casualties.

When COIN was finally put into practice in 2009, after many fits and starts, it had many resources to draw upon.  Well intended aid projects left a heavy footprint.  In the early sixties when David Galula was developing the principles of COIN in Algerian villages, he could contact a fellow junior officer in an engineering or medical detachment and, in short order, have a well dug or have a few medics come in to inoculate children.

Today, in order to get that same engineering or medical project, a village in Kandahar will endure the presence of dozens of military and civilian personnel – an irksome intrusion that reinforces local notions of foreign occupation.  An engineer unit and a handful of medics might be able to accomplish more on their own than if accompanied by a brigade of consultants, aid workers, NGOs, public relations officials, and private contractors.

T.E. Lawrence identified a simple truth of leading an insurgency: “Do not try to do too much with your own hands.  Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them.”  This principle has not always been translated into counterinsurgency.  Foreign engineers, despite good intentions and seminars on cultural sensitivities, do not always listen to local views on aid projects and all too often dismiss the villagers’ folkways and impose their expertise.

The presence of a large number of foreign troops is seldom welcome by any people.  Americans might remember reading of their forbears’ annoyance at the presence of British troops back in the 18th century – and they were not really foreign, yet.  Today, a large number of US troops in another country, especially a traditionalist one, presents significant problems.

The rank and file of the US military are drawn from a swaggering, coarse, and often violent youth culture.  Trained for war and away from familial restraints, they do not all act responsibly out in the field or just outside the perimeter of an operating base.  Entering and searching though family houses is a routine part of COIN; laughing while doing so is not.  Even if 95% of soldiers act responsibly and the rest do not, the effect on winning hearts and minds will not be rewarding.

Routine contact with locals all too often breeds contempt.  Soldiers see villagers as indifferent to their sacrifices and reluctant to provide information about insurgents.  They see meetings with village elders as merely forums for the disbursement of American goods, with no attendant respect or loyalty – and from the prejudiced view of the combat unit, the locals know damn well where the IEDs are.  Afghan soldiers sit back and watch the GIs pound the ground and take the bulk of the casualties.

The relationship between soldier and villager is filled with mistrust and often hatred, much as it was in Southeast Asia almost half a century ago.  The books and films of that war are well known to young soldiers today and they have formed a dark template for looking upon the villagers in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Good things are unlikely to follow from this and the results have occasionally been lethal.

Safe Havens

Foremost in COIN doctrine is denying the insurgents the use of sanctuaries, either in foreboding parts of the country at hand or in adjacent countries.  Algerian insurgents had the mountains south of the coastal plain and the walled areas of major cities.  The Viet Cong had the U Minh Forest inside Vietnam and mountainous jungle areas just to the west in Cambodia and Laos.  US incursions and airstrikes had no lasting effect.

In Afghanistan, during the Russian war and today as well, Pakistan offers ready mountain refuges to insurgents.  Base camps and supply trails from the old mujahadin days have come back to service and Pashtun hospitality straddles both sides of the rugged and ill-defined frontier.

US pressure on Pakistan, a putative ally that receives ample subsidies, has led to only lethargic incursions into some frontier areas, though never into N. Waziristan and other key base camp havens.  Pakistani intelligence offers help against renegade groups like the Terikh-e-Taliban, but only rarely against groups fighting in Afghanistan.  Pakistan sees them as allies in its long rivalry with India.

It has only belatedly dawned on US intelligence that Pakistan is tied to many insurgent groups.  Failure to comprehend Pakistan’s strategic predilection with India is one of the most egregious failures of US intelligence in many decades.  Instead, the Taliban have a stalwart ally, US logistics are imperilled, and the war is probably lost.

The Kabul Government

The officials centered in Kabul have been getting outgoverned soundly for many years now.  The Karzai government’s corruption is well known and efforts to press Kabul into reform have been unsuccessful.  Corruption is a painful part of life inside Afghanistan where impoverished people must pay bribes to obtain a driver’s license to even a death certificate.  Litigants know well that the scales of justice tilt decisively in favor of those who toss in a few coins.

A government can be corrupt yet competent.  The bosses of an American city in the not-so-distant past took bribes routinely and perhaps even openly but nonetheless built the machinery to provide goods and services in an effective manner.  Afghans will tolerate copious amounts of corruption.  Indeed many practices westerners would deem corrupt are enshrined with tradition.  But too much corruption with too little competence triggers outrage and a search for justice from other sources.

The Taliban have a long history of outfighting and outgoverning opponents.  During the Russian war, the Taliban forces in the south distinguished themselves from other bands by settling disputes in accordance with Sharia in their courts, gaining the gratitude and respect of southerners.  Taliban courts operate today as well and are key to the rising insurgency.  Many see them as fairer and more efficient than those of the Kabul government.

Administering justice is part of the Taliban’s method of expanding into a district.  The Taliban begin their campaign not with a guerrilla band but with negotiators who meet with local elders and identify grievances, then seek to settle them.  The Taliban warns government officials to leave – or kills them.  Guerrilla bands then operate in the district, often with local men levied into them.  An alternate government spreads from district to district and takes on more of the functions of government.  Today, the Taliban operate shadow governments in many districts and provinces of the south and east.

Karzai might have been expected to enact reforms after the US announced plans to reduce its presence.  President Nguyen Van Thieu pressed through land and state reforms once President Nixon announced troops withdrawals.  Even the army began to professionalize.  US officials have been exasperated to see no comparable effort from Karzai and Afghanistan seems headed for South Vietnam’s fate.

The Afghan army

Related to state failure is the failure to build a competent indigenous army.  The Afghan National Army (ANA) was built upon the forces of the old Northern Alliance – the non-Pashtun militias that fought the Taliban for years and drove them into Pakistan in 2001 with US help.

Mohammed Fahim, the Tajik warlord following Ahmed Shah Massoud’s assassination, was Karzai’s defense minister and naturally enough he sought to make the ANA reflect northern interests, not southern Pashtun ones, which he deemed often sympathetic to their kin in Pakistan and to the Pakistani army as well.  The ANA officer corps was drawn disproportionately from the Tajik and Uzbek commanders of the Northern Alliance, as was the rank and file.  This of course led to conflict with Pashtun leaders, including Karzai, so Fahim was replaced by Abdul Rahim Wardak, a Pashtun who began ousting northerners from key positions and replacing them with Pashtun officers.

The rank and file, however, remain from the north and are resentful of their Pashtun officers whose sense of ethnic superiority is palpable but whose professional qualifications are not.  Further, the Pashtun are resented, in and out of the army, for a long history of political artlessness: the communists whose oafish policies began the country’s disintegration in the late seventies, the Taliban who ruled roughly and pointlessly, and the current president whose often bewildering actions defy explanation.

An army rent by ethnic tensions and professional doubts will not be very effective in the field.  What soldier will risk his neck for an officer promoted for personal or tribal connections?  What battalion will risk an operation without assurance that sister battalions will come to its aid or perform their related responsibilities?  How often has a Pashtun soldier turned his weapon on fellow soldiers, Afghan or ISAF, then gone over the hill to the insurgents?

Add in widespread reluctance to serve outside one’s province and risk-aversion that comes from years of war and we have a spiritless army.  Better to await some sort of settlement with the Taliban than die for a dubious army and state, many soldiers reason – all the more so after the recent Koran burnings and the massacre in Kandahar have made the US position less tenable.

Comparisons to the South Vietnamese army (ARVN) might be useful.  Though often reduced to a caricature in popular culture, the ARVN of the early seventies had several professional units such as the 1st Infantry Division, the marine and airborne units, and the ranger battalions.  Too many other units, however, remained unprofessional and incompetent and collapsed under the weight of the 1975 North Vietnamese offensive.

A further relevant point is that the reports on almost all ARVN units were glowing.  In their periodic and end-of-tour assessments, most US advisers spoke of the impressive strides in professionalism, efficacy, and cohesion that had been made.  Washington was confident that the ARVN could stand up to the North Vietnamese once the US left.  Most who saw ARVN units in the field knew this was untrue.

The reasons for this deception are not long to seek.  What officer would report that he did not better the units he worked with on his tour of duty?  If he had, what superior would not have redacted the report?  Institutions do not judge themselves fairly and often give themselves many points for good effort.  Today, most reports on the ANA stress the impressive strides they’ve made in professionalism, efficacy, and cohesion.

Bureaucracy at War

COIN requires coordination of various military and civilian agencies, most of whom have exhibited little willingness to cooperate in Washington – an unpromising augur for the tasks ahead in a distant heterogeneous country ravaged by three decades of war.

The State Department, Agency for International Development, Central Intelligence Agency, Health and Human Services, Treasury Department, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Department of Agriculture, and other bureaus have all taken part in the effort in Afghanistan and do so without leaving their institutional parochialisms at Dulles airport.

Further, the program is an international effort.  Many NATO powers have troops there, as do Norway and the United Arab Emirates.  Russia trains the police while India and Iran play important parts in reconstruction.  All bring different national histories and often conflicting national interests as well. The breadth of experiences and approaches provided the opportunity for an intricate plan, but aggregating various ideas into a coherent strategy and specific programs was elusive.

Placing each agency and bureau onto a large, integrated organizational chart with clearly drawn lines of authority and cooperation, atop which stands an ambassador or general, did little to blend disparate views and conflicting personalities.  It might be likened to assembling a number of musicians, each of whom may be highly talented but in different genres. Even a gifted maestro will be hard-pressed to produce a mellifluous arrangement.

Douglas Blaufarb’s account of COIN’s incoherence in Southeast Asia might offer valuable insight into what is going wrong in Central Asia.  Advocates of counterinsurgency “were dismayed, as time went on, to find that it had degenerated into a vague slogan behind which various policy interests contended for their own goals, not all of which were in fact consistent with the intentions of the originators of the ideas and policies involved.” (Blaufarb, The Counterinsurgency Era, p. 1.)

Tribal Society

COIN doctrine invokes the “ink spot” imagery.  Operations  begin in a small area then spread out to adjacent villages and districts, winning people over and detaching them from the insurgents.  It has had some success in Malaya, parts of Vietnam, and Central America, though in these cases COIN programs spread out across reasonably homogeneous and non-fragmented populations.

Afghanistan, however, is a patchwork of tribes and ethnic groups, many of whom have forged stable relationships over the years, but many of whom are deeply antagonistic and use immediate national issues to revisit longstanding local ones.  The south and east, where the insurgency is based, are highly fragmented and antagonistic.

Though chiefly Pashtun, the constituent clans and tribes and confederations have little in common but language and distant lineages to tax-collection entities and warrior formations cobbled together by or against Persian and Mogul emperors.  Whatever common outlook there might  have been, it has largely fragmented over generations of competitive dealings with Kabul and the fissures and discontinuities brought on by relentless war.  Many tribes are now ruthless competitors for scarce resources.  “Amoral tribalism” is the rule.

COIN projects, even well planned and executed ones, face extraordinary problems in Pashtun regions.  Tribes mistrust if not despise their neighbors and oppose anything that strengthens them.  Building a well for one Pashtun tribe fosters resentments in adjacent ones.  Claims of preferential treatment flare in elder councils; personal animosities masquerade as matters of tribal honor; rivals are unfairly branded Taliban commanders; and the poor reconstruction team’s resources and patience are not unlimited.

Such rivalries have been noted since British officers wrote their dispatches on the Pathans back in the 19th century.  Decades of war have only worsened matters.  Mujahadin commanders fell into murderous warfare and villagers settled personal scores once the unifying force of the Russian army withdrew from their province.

The Taliban of course have been able to win support from many of these Pashtun tribes, though many others remain implacable foes from their time in power, from the Russian war, and even from further back.  The Taliban’s success is based on widespread hostility to foreign troops and the Karzai state, not on anything likely to last after the western forces withdraw and the last officials flee.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online)