Elephants in Afghanistan: The Military’s Counterinsurgency Failure


Earlier this year, several former ISAF commanders and diplomats wrote President Barack Obama, imploring him to freeze troop levels in Afghanistan until the next administration takes office. Obama ultimately agreed to keep 8,400 troops in country, but while President-elect Donald Trump said many things about many foreign policy during the election season, he gave few hints as to how he would handle the conflict. As the transition is underway, U.S. military planners are still grappling with building effective Afghan security forces — an effort that could take many more years, if not decades. Such an extended endeavor may be in order to secure U.S. interests in Afghanistan, but Trump would do well to ask a few questions of our military leadership before writing another blank check.

After all, our collective efforts under the leadership of those who signed the letter to Obama have left us, after 15 years of war, with muddled results at best. We have expended $64 billion to create a massive security force that shows an incredible willingness to fight but cannot hold off the Taliban, a force with a fraction of the resources. We have also plowed $113 billion into development projects with only reports of endemic corruption, waste, and inefficiency to show for it. Much has been written — some of it even commissioned by the military — about the larger failures of our post-9/11 strategy. Yet very little has been said about how the military’s approach to Afghanistan shaped, and ultimately limited, our overall strategy.

Having deployed to Afghanistan in a tactical role in 2009, from 2012 to 2013 as an advisor to the Afghan Border Police, and again briefly in 2014 to assess the advisory mission, I saw firsthand the futility of our approach. In a previous article at Tom Ricks’ Best Defense, I outlined how the American military failed to make counterinsurgency a priority, despite publicly saying that it was the key to success in Iraq and Afghanistan. But beyond the shortcomings of military personnel management, it is worth seeing just how our superficial approach to counterinsurgency has resulted in a prescribed solution for Afghanistan that is both entirely foreign to the Afghan experience and ultimately unsustainable by the Afghan government.

Stranger(s) in a Strange Land

In 1861, the King of Siam offered Abraham Lincoln a gift of elephants with the idea that they could be bred and utilized as beasts of burden in the settlement of the American west. It was a kind, if entirely unrealistic, gesture that the U.S. president politely declined. One can imagine, however, if Siam had been a world power charged with conquering the west. Today, tourists would look at the bones of long-dead elephants and laugh at the folly of introducing such a foreign and unsustainable solution to the challenges of westward expansion.

Such bones already exist in Afghanistan in the form of wildly overpriced, shoddily constructed, and completely unnecessary military infrastructure. Scattered around the country, these outposts, airfields, and bases serve as a reminder of both our unrealistic expectations for Afghan security forces and the American military’s inability to provide even basic oversight of international and American taxpayer-provided funding.

Early in the war, we had a grand vision for how to secure the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The vision entailed the construction of a series of walled garrisons along the border. The design of these outposts fit with what you would expect for an American military base with group barracks, fuel stations, and massive mess halls. Concerned about the ability of local Afghan leaders to oversee these projects efficiently and without corruption, we opted to manage the effort ourselves — and got robbed by someone else.

Touring dozens of these outposts from 2012 to 2014, I found them amusing in their uniformity and in their uniformly shoddy construction. We commonly found crumbling concrete and gleaming, if non-functional, propane kitchens. Outside of each kitchen the Afghans had constructed traditional wood stoves. It is what they knew how to cook with, and wood was the only fuel reliably available. My Afghan counterpart would often make a point of chipping the concrete with his fingernail, revealing the trail of fraud and mismanagement that accompanied each compound. Having had no say in the contracting process, we could only look at each other and shrug, sharing that universal acknowledgment of being in the midst of a clusterfuck.

For many of these installations, their location made no sense, except in being the closest plot of land where the design template would fit. Touring bases in southern Paktika in 2013, where U.S. forces had already withdrawn, gave an indicator of the utility of these outposts to the Afghans. Fuel stations remained unfilled, barracks empty, electricity non-functional, and the compounds used only as a meeting place for the disbursement of pay, if at all.

This inability to design and position outposts that might actually be useful for the Afghans was the result of two factors. First, we never trusted the Afghans with the money or authority to decide what kind of bases would work best for them. We also managed the construction process via an ad hoc system of engineers, contracting officers, combat advisors, Afghan leaders, and tactical unit commanders. Each of these actors typically worked for a separate chain of command and rotated through the country on separate timelines, guaranteeing that there would be neither unity of effort nor continuity in the process. As a result, the only actors with continuity and a direct incentive around these projects were the contractors and sub-contractors tasked with building them — and their only incentive was profit.

Ironically, the actors most able to navigate these contracting processes and with the incentive to build what was best suited for the Afghan security forces were those we trusted the least: Afghan military leaders. That we did not trust them with contracting dollars was not without reason. In a society that has gone decades without effective governance and functioning bureaucracies, the people of Afghanistan have relied on patronage networks to survive, and those networks still drive the allegiances of Afghan military officers. At first blush, the continued presence of these networks appears to reflect a moral failure, but this is a shallow conclusion. The people of Afghanistan only survived through seemingly endless years of warfare and the collapse of the Afghan state by relying on familial, tribal, and ethnic relationships. Of course they still rely on patronage networks.

I never met a senior Afghan officer who had not paid a “tribute” to secure his position. In 2013, the going rate to be a kandak (battalion of 300 to 500 personnel) commander in the border police was the equivalent of $50,000. This meant that each officer was similarly incentivized to take pay from those under his command and to use his position to recoup his payment. Such payments are foreign to Americans and distasteful to our sense of propriety, yet are an understandable byproduct of blindly pumping billions of dollars into an undeveloped, war-torn country governed by patronage networks.

So while a newcomer may recoil from these arrangements in disgust, it is worth asking which is more absurd: the continued presence of these patronage networks or the idea that after being part of the fabric of Afghan life for decades that we can just wish them away as we build a security apparatus designed for a state and society that simply do not exist?

And despite our distaste for the existence of these patronage networks, the Afghans know how to manage the churn of American officers passing through Afghanistan. Even those with egregious corruption charges against them could sustain the trust of American officers, so long as they appeared to aggressively go after the Taliban. Over a third of the senior leaders I dealt with in the Afghan Border Police in 2012 and 2013 had spent time in jail on some form of corruption charge. All were ultimately cleared after a few months or years in prison, their arrests most often a temporary appeasement of the Americans or a byproduct of infighting over lucrative jobs.

The goal of the counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan was to develop sustainable security solutions for indigenous forces. Doing so effectively requires an understanding of existing power structures, but officers rotating through on short rotations have never had the time to move beyond the most simplistic understanding of Afghan culture. It is telling that at no point have we ever attempted to account for these patronage networks, either in shaping the Afghan military or in determining why the chain of command does not work like we think it should. Instead, we have opted for disgust and righteous indignation.

At the end of an Afghan security council meeting in early 2016, the outgoing American commander turned to the assembled leaders and said that to be successful, “You’ve got to want it more than we do.” It is a common phrase among American officers in Afghanistan and a go-to means of cajoling Afghan units into being more aggressive. On the one hand, it is a reflection of our impatience, as American officers deploy to Afghanistan with little time to make things happen and we naturally want to see immediate progress. Never asked, however, is whether it is a question of motivation or if maybe our vision of “it” is simply incompatible with what the Afghans want, need, or can create.

The idea that Afghans “don’t want it” falls apart when one considers that in 2016 alone the Afghans have lost nearly as many men fighting the Taliban as the United States has lost over the last 15 years of war in both Iraq and Afghanistan. That a force willing to keep fighting in the face of such sustained losses is still having trouble holding back the Taliban is a failure that cannot be laid entirely at the feet of Afghan leadership. At some point we have to acknowledge that replicating the American military in Afghanistan makes no more sense than cowboys on elephants.


Jason Dempsey retired from the Army in 2015, last serving as special assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He deployed to Afghanistan in 2009 as the operations officer to an infantry brigade and again in 2012-2013 as a combat advisor to the Afghan Border Police. He returned again briefly in 2014 to assess the advisory mission. He is the author of Our Army: Soldiers, Politics, and American Civil-Military Relations. He currently serves as an adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for New American Security and Director of the Military and Veterans Initiative at Columbia University.

Image: Author