war on the rocks

Reading Galula in Afghanistan

February 25, 2015

This spring marks five years since the troop surge in Afghanistan began. President Obama authorized a plan to send 30,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan in December 2009 and in early March 2010 the first elements of the surge began arriving in-country. This decision was based on the view, advocated by military leaders, that the counterinsurgency approach that had reduced violence in Iraq could do the same in Afghanistan.

Five years after the Afghan Surge began the situation looks quite different. The surge is long over. U.S. troop levels are now down from a peak of nearly 100,000 in 2011 to just 10,000 today, and are scheduled to drop to 5,000 by next year (although Defense Secretary Ash Carter has said this schedule may shift). Two things have not changed since the spring of 2010: the Taliban have not been defeated; and they continue to threaten Afghanistan’s stability. The failure of the Afghan Surge has led some to suggest that counterinsurgency theory never had any merit and should be abandoned as a part of American military doctrine. After all, if COIN did not lead to victory over Afghanistan’s insurgents then it must not be a valid doctrine.

The father of modern counterinsurgency theory, David Galula, would have a different view. Galula was a French Army officer who served in Indochina and Algeria. He fought insurgents for nearly two decades. Galula took the lessons he learned in these conflicts and turned them into a book called Counterinsurgency: Theory and Practice, which has become a standard text on the subject of counterinsurgency. Galula would not have been surprised by the difficulty in turning counterinsurgency theory into practice in Afghanistan. He would understand that, in fact, the U.S. experience there validated the ideas in his famous book.

Galula would probably have thought the Afghan Surge faced long odds from the start, not least because he understood that political conditions are critical and weighed against success in Afghanistan. The challenges posed by the Kabul’s legitimacy, or lack thereof, have been well documented. Less attention has been paid to geography, which Galula also believed was important to the success of a counterinsurgency. The paucity of attention is unfortunate because geography was a crucial factor in the failure of the surge to stem the Taliban’s momentum.

In his book, Galula names several geographic factors that he believed were critical to the success of a counterinsurgency. He would say the American experience in Afghanistan confirms his thinking about counterinsurgency because the geography there is hugely favorable to an insurgent, as opposed to Iraq where the geography is favorable to a counterinsurgent. This difference goes a long way in explaining why the Iraq Surge was able to bring violence down dramatically and why the Afghan Surge did not, and suggests that Galula’s approach to small wars remains valid.

Borders, Location, and Configuration

The first geographic condition Galula names as being important are borders. “The border areas are a permanent source of weakness for the counterinsurgent,” writes Galula. Although the Taliban regime was toppled in 2001, many of its leaders were able to find sanctuary across the border in Pakistan. For the last 13 years the Taliban, and other Afghan centric militants fighting alongside it, remained able to take advantage of safe haven in Pakistan and thus largely out of reach of U.S. military power. The Pakistani Army made a few halting efforts to bring the tribal areas under control (largely due to pressure from the United States), but largely avoided targeting Taliban sanctuaries there. The Pakistan army also allowed the Taliban to operate in other parts of the country, including Balochistan and Karachi. In short, after reluctantly supporting the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan reverted to its pre-9/11 policy of supporting the Taliban. The United States has launched drone strikes against al Qaeda and other militants in certain tribal agencies – particularly North Waziristan – but Taliban strongholds in Pakistan have been immune from the pressure United States ground forces could apply.

On the Afghan side of the border, American counterinsurgents could clear out hives of Taliban activity. Not so for Taliban forces hiding in Pakistan. Galula understood this condition as a major challenge. Taliban forces can build strength in Pakistan and strike across the border then withdraw back to Pakistan to build strength again. As Galula wrote, “By moving from one side of the border to the other, the insurgent is often able to escape pressure or, at least, to complicate operations of his opponent.”

Galula also discusses location and configuration as being important. In a country that can be compartmentalized and where the insurgency can be pressed into small areas from which it cannot escape the counterinsurgent has an advantage. The best conditions for a counterinsurgent would be to fight on an island in the shape of a star. Insurgents on an island cannot escape to neighboring countries. A country that has territory that juts out like points of a star creates places insurgents can be funneled down into, isolated, and destroyed.

In contrast, the ideal configuration of a battlefield from the perspective of the insurgent is a landlocked country with rounded borders surrounded by countries favorable to the insurgency. A country with rounded borders is not easily compartmentalized, and a country surrounded by neighbors favorable to the insurgency allows for the insurgency to find safe havens. It is not hard to see where Afghanistan fits on this spectrum. As a landlocked country with a rounded border and a neighbor who provides a safe haven to insurgents, Afghanistan represents ideal conditions from the perspective of an insurgent.

Compare this situation to that in Iraq. Iranian munitions flowed to Shi’ite militias and foreign fighters were able to cross over from neighboring Syria but neither country was willing to allow insurgents to openly operate from their territory. Iraq’s insurgents had no choice but to make their strongholds inside Iraq itself. When the surge came they had nowhere to go to avoid the pressure of U.S. troops. In Afghanistan, by contrast, the insurgent could always find sanctuary.


The next factor discussed by Galula is terrain. Galula makes clear that the insurgent wants either rugged mountains or dense jungle. Hills and vegetation provide sanctuary for the insurgent and are difficult for the counterinsurgent to penetrate. Afghanistan is one of the world’s most mountainous countries. The roads are of poor quality and rail lines are nonexistent, especially in the center. Given the harsh terrain and poor transportation infrastructure, the interior of Afghanistan is very hard for a counterinsurgent to access, much less control.

Going back to the times of Alexander the Great, insurgents have used Afghanistan’s forbidding mountains as a defense. Insurgents strike out of inaccessible mountain redoubts and use the winter months to recover from losses incurred during the summer fighting season. Counterinsurgents have had difficulty penetrating deep into small mountain villages because of difficult terrain and poor infrastructure. The difficulty is made more acute in winter when the roads are snowed in and the mountains are even more inaccessible.

The Soviets learned the hard way that controlling Afghanistan’s cities is not enough to control the country. The Soviets and their Afghan communist allies held the major cities as well as the major roads linking them but this did not lead to a Soviet victory. The Soviets never controlled the rural areas in the center of the country or in the countryside surrounding the major cities and so could not subdue the insurgency.

The terrain advantages the insurgent has in Afghanistan are the opposite of what the insurgency had in Iraq. In Iraq, the land was flat, open desert. Galula notes that this is the ideal situation from the perspective of the counterinsurgent. In Algeria, he wrote, “the FLN was never able to operate for any sustained period in the vast expanses of the Sahara, with the French forces securing the oases and vital wells and air surveillance detecting every move [of the insurgent]”. In Iraq, the insurgency thrived in cities but wilted in open desert. In Anbar Province, for example, the insurgency was strong in Fallujah and Ramadi but weak in the rural areas and the empty desert of the far west. The United States could defeat the insurgents by securing the major cities. Not so in Afghanistan, where insurgents could thrive across a huge swath of mountainous countryside.


Galula makes clear that distribution of population is key to the success of an insurgency. Galula states plainly that, “The more scattered the population, the better for the insurgent”. Galula understood that counterinsurgency is about securing the population and denying the insurgent access to the population. The number of troops required to secure the population in a counterinsurgency is a function of the size of the population and the geographic area over which it is spread. A rural population spread across a wide area requires more troops to secure than the same number of people concentrated in cities.

Afghanistan has a population of 31 million people spread over an area of 250,000 square miles. Just 24% of its population lives in cities. It is one of the most rural countries in the world and its population is distributed fairly evenly throughout the country. There is almost nowhere in Afghanistan where Afghans do not live.

Iraq, on the other hand, is an urban country with 66% of its people living in cities. Iraq had only 25 million people spread across just 170,000 square miles. Even that exaggerates the size of the part of Iraq that the surge had to control because most of Iraq’s vast western desert is essentially uninhabited.

The distribution of the Iraqi population is ideal for counterinsurgency. Iraq has a smaller population living in a smaller territory than Afghanistan and its population is concentrated in cities that are themselves concentrated in an even more compact piece of Iraq’s territory. The Iraq Surge was, for this reason, primarily an urban affair with special concentration in Baghdad.

To illustrate the point, consider that the Baghdad neighborhood of Adhamiya was home to 400,000 people but could be controlled by a single brigade because the neighborhood was only a few square miles. To police the same number of people in the highly rural Helmand Province would require enough U.S. forces to control about 8,000 square miles of territory. It is simply inconceivable that a single brigade could secure a piece of territory that large against a determined insurgency.

In a city, counterinsurgents can respond quickly to emergencies because counterinsurgent forces are never far away. Responding to violence in rural areas is more difficult because counterinsurgent forces have to travel long distances to respond to insurgent activity. By the time counterinsurgent forces arrive the insurgents have long since left the scene of the violence. Counterinsurgent forces cannot offer security to the population because they can’t maintain a presence in every small village in Afghanistan’s rural mountains the way they could always be near to any neighborhood in a major Iraqi city. Galula understood this problem well and would not have been surprised at the difficulty it created in Afghanistan.


Critics of counterinsurgency theory have pointed to Afghanistan as an example of the theory’s deficiencies. In fact, the difficulties the Afghan Surge ran into are a confirmation of much of the foundational thought in counterinsurgency theory. Counterinsurgency theory is not a magic formula for victory. It is a set of ideas that help military leaders understand the challenges they face in small wars and design campaign plans to meet those challenges. Commentators who wish to discard counterinsurgency theory based on the result in Afghanistan should take a closer look at the geographic impediments to success and adopt a more nuanced view of what the war in Afghanistan says about counterinsurgency theory.

Just as with a conventional campaign, a counterinsurgency’s chances of success are highly dependent on the starting conditions of the campaign. The fact that counterinsurgency was not very successful in Afghanistan is not proof that counterinsurgency doesn’t work. It is only proof that, as Galula warned, not every counterinsurgency campaign will be waged in favorable conditions.


John Ford is a reserve Captain in the United States Army’s Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps and a graduate of Chapman University’s Fowler School of Law. He has written for The Diplomat Magazine and The National Interest. You can follow him on twitter @johndouglasford


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