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Front Row Seat: Watching COIN Fail in Afghanistan

January 28, 2014

With President Karzai as unlikely as ever to sign a Bilateral Security Agreement with the United States, an early withdrawal of coalition forces from Afghanistan seems increasingly probable.  Although the focus will soon turn to determining how to safely extract coalition forces, the United States also needs to think about how to preserve the strategic gains it has won at so great a cost over the past dozen years.  Unfortunately, America’s own institutional inertia will probably lead Washington to continue pushing a failed national counterinsurgency strategy on the Afghan military.  The United States has taught its Afghan allies—albeit not always successfully—to fight and govern as Americans fight and govern, rather than teaching them to do so in a way consistent with their culture and in line with their own strategic beliefs. The current strategy, which requires a unified national policy directed by a strong, legitimate government, is unrealistic in its expectations and inappropriate against violence that is dispersed and motivated by local concerns.  Unless the United States begins pushing the Afghan National Security Forces to adopt policies more suited to their current needs and their military culture, the blood and treasure we have poured into Afghanistan over the past twelve years will have been for nothing.

Current counterinsurgency doctrine presumes a national solution to local problems: that a national army, usually with the aid of local police or militias, can come into a fractious area and convince unfriendly locals to ally themselves with the state by bringing security and certain amenities like electricity or economic programs.  This strategy requires a functioning and legitimate government and a skilled and disciplined military that can effectively target insurgents who hide amongst the civilian population without causing collateral damage.  It assumes that all enemy strongholds must be retaken and that unless the insurgency is defeated in all its parts, the nation cannot survive.

Rather than allowing the Afghans to find their own solutions to the insurgency, the United States bequeathed its ally a reductionist approach.  Thus, “the insurgents” were identified with the “Taliban” and the “Taliban” with those who most closely resemble the Taliban of Mullah Omar’s failed state.  Although the insurgency is strengthened, fueled and spread partly through religious networks, it is fundamentally a localist and anti-government movement.  Conservative rather than radical and tribal rather than religious, the insurgency is less a religious or political organization and more a classic peasant revolt of isolated, anti-modernist and largely landless individuals. These individuals’ only familiarity with the central government comes from being taxed and subjected to its military force.  The dispersed and decentralized nature of the insurgency is not, as is sometimes argued, evidence of what is fashionably termed “chaoplexy” or otherwise indicative of an advanced cell-based structure.  Rather, the insurgency is dispersed and decentralized because there are too many actors with too many different personal agendas dispersed over too large an area with too few communication tools for it to be a unified or coherent political opponent—and it is precisely this that makes it so durable and so difficult to defeat using our current policies.

The success of these local insurgents, as well as the likely reemergence of competing political, economic and social power structures after coalition forces leave Afghanistan, will make it impossible to implement anything resembling a national policy.  The Afghan government will only function in a very basic sense outside of Kabul and some northern cities once American military forces leave and foreign aid dries up.  After our departure, Afghan society will realign itself on the basis of tribal, religious, and regional ties or coalesce around strongmen funded by the opium trade or government corruption.  Attempts at exercising any sort of centralized authority or national planning along democratic lines will falter in the face of these obstacles.

Thus, regardless of how much time and money we spend on training our allies in the ANSF before we depart, the weakness and incoherence of the Afghan state will doom this approach.  Kabul does not have the reach or power to employ regional forces coherently, and local commanders will always resist those efforts.  For the most part, neither Afghan soldiers nor their commanders believe the Taliban strongholds in the south are worth fighting for—I’ve had many tell me they don’t consider the people who live in Helmand to be entitled to the benefits of Afghan citizenship.  ANSF commanders will not expose their units—their most significant source of power, prestige, and income—to danger unless they believe it will directly benefit them, and fighting the Taliban in Helmand or Kandahar doesn’t fit that bill.  And although many Afghan soldiers are brave to the point of carelessness, they are not fools and will not risk their lives for policies that are not aligned with their own interests or beliefs. Thus, they are willing to accept high levels of civilian casualties in order to protect themselves.

These reasons all suggest that our application of a broad, national counterinsurgency strategy was flawed and that current ANSF policies based on these assumptions will ultimately lead to failure as we transition to an Afghanistan almost—or completely—absent of coalition forces.  And although negotiating with the Taliban is often touted as a “local” solution to Afghanistan’s counterinsurgency problems, this is a solution that is really only palatable to Pashtuns.  It would most likely serve as a means for Karzai to consolidate his own personal power while sparking an even wider conflict by forcing ethnic minorities threatened by the Taliban to seek other avenues to self-preservation.

A more sensible policy would be to broker limited deals with local insurgents (which already happens informally through bribes or threats) rather than with the Taliban’s leadership in Pakistan. Alternatively, the US could simply make official practice that which is already accomplished in the breach and encourage the Afghan government to pull the ANSF away from the areas in the south and east that it has shown itself unable and unwilling to hold. This would shorten the lines of defense, conserve manpower, at least partly negate the influence of the opium trade, and significantly reduce casualties within the ANSF.  Although a bitter pill for revanchists, a “Pashtunistan” would serve as an outlet for both Pashtun nationalism and political Islamism, while also providing a buffer zone between Pakistan and Afghanistan.  Draining reactionary and radical elements would decrease internal violence in both countries and allow for progress in areas such as women’s rights and education.  In the long term, it is likely that nationalism, historical distrust of foreigners and immediate, earthly needs will prove stronger than the attractions of millenarian terrorist organizations and the area will be stable, albeit unfriendly and anti-modern.  This would also allow the development of a strong Afghan government free of Pashtun tribal interests and able to implement cohesive national policies not dependent on the support of local power brokers—policies that would have a chance of being both local and popular and thus more likely to succeed.

The most likely outcome, though, is that we will follow historical precedent and belatedly begin picking regional strongmen within Afghanistan to support once the government crumbles, but this will be done only in a halting and very delayed fashion that will prevent us from maintaining any presence in the country as it descends once more into chaos.  In all cases, we should stop insisting on—and funding—the purchase of industrial or high-tech military equipment by the Afghan government.  The ANSF does not need a military based on the American model, it does not know how to effectively employ most of the assets we provide them, and it certainly cannot sustain the logistics system we burdened them with.  Their current problems will only get worse as Congress grows tired of funding a failed experiment and slowly ends its financial support for the Afghan military.

In any event, as the US military withdraws from Afghanistan and begins restructuring its forces for future wars, it is important that we not swallow whole the still-fashionable COIN doctrine.  A monolith that might have been appropriate against a centralized guerrilla movement—as embodied in our reification of the “Taliban” as a coherent organization—this doctrine was inappropriate against violence that is dispersed and motivated by local concerns.  In continuing to support and advise an Afghan military policy guided by these beliefs, we are trying to prove a theory which remains stronger than any observed fact and flies in the face of historical and practical experience to the contrary.

Once we leave, the Afghans will find their own local solutions to the problems that a national counterinsurgency policy cannot answer, but in doing so will doubtless leave minorities and females disenfranchised and oppressed and the country once more exposed to the dangers of radicalism.  There may be some cold comfort for those of us who have advised the Afghan military in knowing that our failure comes at the hands of historical forces which extended far beyond our reach and which we could not have hoped to overcome given the tools provided us, but it does leave us the duty to improve those tools for future generations.  Or, to paraphrase Gracchus Babeuf, “this is not the real COIN doctrine.  COIN is something we have not yet tried.”


Author’s note: Special thanks to Peter Munson for his comments in revising this piece.


Evan Munsing is a Marine Corps officer currently serving as a military advisor in Afghanistan.  He writes on a wide variety of issues, from national security organization to strength and conditioning.  The view expressed do not reflect those of the Marine Corps or the United States Government.


Photo credit: isafmedia

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11 thoughts on “Front Row Seat: Watching COIN Fail in Afghanistan

  1. I agree with most of this critique, but I think most of it is rooted in the political strategy that COIN operations are supposed to support, rather than anything inherent in COIN itself. If we’d been supporting a political vision of Afghanistan premised on a more decentralized (and realistic) distribution of political authority, our COIN ops would have accordingly been different (although our tendency to institutional mirror-imaging would have remained a problem).

    To your point about doctrine – the new JP 3-24 hits a lot of these points, and is explicit that no amount of operational or tactical competency can make up for a political strategy that isn’t attuned to political realities on the ground.

    1. @ Max Kelly
      I agree, tactical victories by definition are meaningless unless properly embedded in a coherent strategic framework; but conflating the failures of counterinsurgency doctrine with the problems of US strategic policy passes the buck and prevents a meaningful examination of why COIN fails.
      Sure, COIN could work, but it is so expensive in terms of time, money and manpower that it is just not useful. The case studies used to develop COIN theory – the Banana Wars, Algeria, Malaysia, Vietnam, and now Iraq and Afghanistan – all show COIN to be such an intensive model that even when it is successful (as in Malaysia, and perhaps in Central America and the Caribbean), the flow of strategic events outpaces tactical and operational successes to the point that the wars are ultimately irrelevant. By the time the British had stabilized Malaysia, the collapse of the Empire forced them to give up control anyway. Similarly, Vietnam is more notable for its impact on domestic politics than it was for its strategic effect; and no one has been able to show that the sacrifice of soldiers and Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan and the massive expenditure of wealth in pursuit of a failed counterinsurgency policy has in anyway improved America’s strategic position or made the homeland safer (or prevented enough attacks to justify 6000 combat deaths and tens of thousands more wounded). And before you throw the blame elsewhere, in all three cases military leaders and their civilian counterparts asked politicians for more soldiers and more money rather than coming up with a better plan. Conversely, the SF model of “by, with and through” (and the FID model) exposes US forces to much less risk, requires a much lower investment of men and material, and has much lower requirements for success – in fact, it defines success in a different and more useful way rather than presupposing the establishment of a military and government based on Western lines.

      1. Evan – thanks for the thoughtful and detailed reply. I disagree on a couple of points of history, but your last paragraph about the ‘SF model’ shows that we were talking past each other to some extent. Although it has become associated with our approach in Iraq and Afghanistan, COIN doesn’t presuppose the size of the US presence, or the establishment of a government based on Western lines (attempts by foreign counterinsurgents to impose wholesale social revolution have failed as far back as the French in the Peninsular War). And a light footprint approach is no guarantee of success either – the operational approach should flow from the political strategy and nature of the challenge, rather than any predetermined template. Horses for courses, as they say.

        On Afghanistan – if we hadn’t been trying to impose an unbroken line of authority from the President’s office to every rural village, and with it a standardized suite of public services, our operational approach would (or should) have been very different from what we’ve pursued over the last few years. No?

  2. Soooo sad. We made the exact same mistake in Vietnam…trying to organize, train, and equip to fight as we do, not as they would be able to sustain on their own.
    Disgusting and tragic to the max!!

  3. Overall, an excellent article which pretty much sums-up what we have been hearing from people who have been involved in various aspects of COIN-ops over there. Counter-Insurgency.com/ADG’s main man on the ground there (Maj. Agha Amin Pak. Army ret.) has been saying for about the last 5 years that the ‘Pashtunistan’ model in the south with the Hazarajat mountain barrier acting as the new frontier would be the only outcome that stood a chance of working over time.
    The problem with the classic COIN national approach in Afghanistan is that it has been superimposed on a region that defies what a modern nation-state is. Had we looked more closely we would have seen what is, in effect, a feudal Islamic state for the most part (with a couple of serious variations on that theme). Really, we failed to do our homework as e answers are all there in the many superb books and histories written by British officers who had over 100 years experience with this very set-up in the Northwest Frontier. Start by reading Col. Warbuton’s account of how deals with tribal elders in the Khyber area, deals that worked to everyone’s benefit, were undone as if they were nothing by some looney-tunes mullah’s call to jihad. But this very same lesson was repeated ad-nauseum up and down the frontier for decades and the minute, nay the very second, British fortifications, garrisons, police posts, etc. were removed (after 100 years of keeping the peace (that is a relative term – to be sure) – everything went back to what it was as if they had never been there. From the British and Russian experiences on there has been much talk about ‘Afghanistan’s Ghosts’ – usually referring to how the fighters attack and fade away – but I would argue that we are the ghosts as our influence there will prove to have been as ethereal as any specter could hope.
    The lesson here is – only fools seek revenge in the land of revenge!

  4. Please tell the Marine Evan Munsing that wrote this “Bravo!!”

    It’s by far the clearest summary I’ve read describing the mindlessness of our disastrous Afghan intervention–though far too anodyne in tone.

    I would add only only three points:

    1. Our dysfunctional Afghan pseudo-COIN “strategy” was not simply the result of stupidity. The rotten character of our highest ranking military and political leaders contributed at least as much.

    2. The entire adventure has corrupted our armed forces, our defense industry and our Congress even more deeply than Vietnam did, with not a chance that we’ll recover.

    3. The outcome for Afghanistan will not be a simple return to the status quo ante bellum . It will be appallingly worse.

    Take Care, Don Vandergriff

  5. I agree that a premature American withdrawal will have disastrous consequences in Afghanistan however it should be noted that there is a difference between COIN doctrine, national policy, and the actions of leaders on the ground. COIN is very much a local fight. Having served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, I can attest to the fact that what my unit did in environs of Kandahar city would not work in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan and our actions had nothing to do with corruption in Kabul.

    COIN success and failure is based on how well local and regional commander’s understand the fight in their area of operations. Very little is tied to national policies. COIN in many parts of Afghanistan is about building a strong local governance and police force so that the Army can withdrawal. Sole dependence on the ANA is mistake and should only be done when building the ANP capabilities.

    Decisions are made on the ground everyday by leaders on the ground that have positive and negative consequences. And it is the sum of this local fights that make COIN either effective or in-effective. If COIN were contingent on national policies how come the ALP / VSO has been successful when adopted even in some of the biggest Taliban strongholds.

    Your argument for the failure of COIN would also say that the My Lai massacre in Vietnam was the result of a failed policy for conducting operations there instead of the actions of the leaders on the ground. If you are so concerned about national COIN policy and how that is effecting your job as a counter-insurgent then you might as well leave now.

  6. 1. The Taliban is the former legitimate government of Afghanistan that we deposed in early 2002. How does the fact that they were deposed, in any way shape or form, make them insurgents? It does not. And since the Taliban are not really insurgents, its no surprise that our COIN strategy of separation the population from the insurgency has failed. There has never been an insurgency to separate them from. The Taliban have only politically and militarily gone underground and guerrilla, out of military and political necessity. Like the french underground, the Taliban have pretty much enjoyed the popular support of their beloved freedom fighters who are bearing the only semblance of hope and nationalism the afghan population has ever known. (in my lifetime anyways.) The only cure for all of their corrupt GIRoA woes, is for the Taliban to prevail; and prevail they will.

    2. The reason we are still stuck in Afghanistan, is because the TIP TOP military command fraternity that has passed the buck every promotion, to the next guy in line, lost sight of the AQ in 2002 and mistook the few TB that were still standing around as the AQ. So we began the hunt for the Taliban until the Taliban, like the AQ, faded into the mist. Thats when the Commanders caught site of the civilian population and our attention then turned to the next available target. But you can’t shoot at civilians so we use the next logical weapons at our disposal. (Money, cell phones, school buildings, tractors, ext…) This has been going on for so long now that we actually forgot why we declared Global War on Terror. Osama Bin Laden. Objective ZERO!!!!!!! The one and only reason we went to war. We forgot that the Rangers jumping into Kandahar is what we call a punitive operation, where by we are going to inflict damage and death on an enemy in response to his egregious act of aggression. On 02/05/2011 (give or take a day) MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!!!!!!!!! We should have started packing up then and there. But as stated in the article, we are still standing around, now wondering who to leave without giving up our hard earned shit hole FOBS and COPS.

    3. The whole notion that we are ‘prematurely pulling out’ of Afghanistan is laughable. But that sentiment only solidifies the truth that the top brass, the politicians and the pundits, have all fallen victim to their own false reality. The enemy is not in Afghanistan, and has not been there for some time. Petraeus, McCrystal, Gates, Mullins, and the bunch convinced themselves that COIN was the way to go, and going Global in the war on terror was not. Thats why Bin Laden was able to hide out next door for so long. Thats why AQ is making gains in Africa, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and else where. (not to mention the fact that the current administration can’t even spell foreign policy.)

    Afghanistan is not worth the continued expense or loss of US and NATO lives. 98% of the Afghan population is 50 years behind horse shoes. Let the Taliban have it. Who gives a damn? They don’t.

  7. There’s an interview between Tom Ricks and Kilcullen where Kilcullen, to his credit, limits COIN significantly and doesn’t have COIN given credit for many things some would give it credit for. This suggests that the author of this piece and all the commenters may, in a way, all be right at the same time!