Front Row Seat: Watching COIN Fail in Afghanistan

U.S., Afghan troops conduct joint patrol

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