Wanna Fight? Pushing Partners Aside in Afghanistan
“Remember when we kept saying that we were on ‘Afghan-led’ missions? We were lying every time.” This July 2021 tweet by Robert O’Neill, the Navy SEAL who claims to have killed Osama bin Laden, kicked up a Twitter frenzy. It was posted in the same week that the United States announced it had officially left Bagram Air Base, one of the final and most symbolic steps in ending the U.S. war in Afghanistan. The tweet captures a key disconnect between strategic intent in Afghanistan and tactical implementation, ultimately suggesting that large-footprint troop surges in expeditionary counterinsurgencies are doomed to fail.
Despite senior leaders’ guidance to advise and assist, tactical units across Afghanistan showed a clear preference for unilateral combat operations, often cutting Afghan partners out of mission planning and only grabbing enough Afghans on the way out of the wire to put an Afghan face on thinly veiled U.S. operations. Our respective Marine and Army experiences in-theater and our academic research suggest a prevalent preference to fight throughout Afghanistan, as well as in other theaters. We argue that this preference occurs under conditions in which tactical units possess the capabilities to conduct unilateral operations and working with partner forces is relatively difficult, dangerous, disappointing, and downright contradictory to the warrior ethos in the U.S. military. In other words, when U.S. units can fight alone, they will choose to do so.
To incentivize advising over fighting in future expeditionary counter-insurgency operations, large footprints of ground troops should be avoided. Instead, small and tailored units of advisors with substantive enabling packages should support partner forces without crowding them out from ownership of security operations. Counter-insurgency in Afghanistan resulted in, at best, short-term and highly localized security, and ultimately resulted in a partner force ill-prepared to fill the security vacuum once U.S. forces withdrew. While the failure manifested at the tactical level, the policy implications are strategic in nature and hold important lessons for how to conduct counter-insurgency and partner warfare in the future.
Strategic Guidance to Advise, Tactical Preference to Fight
A brilliant strategy is irrelevant if not embraced by the tactical units that implement it. Put another way by counter-insurgency theorist David Kilcullen, when fighting insurgencies “tactics are reality.” In Afghanistan, the reality was that despite the efforts of senior military leaders to educate, guide, and mandate tactical units to work through their Afghan partners, these efforts failed to change counter-insurgency implementation on the ground. Education for the advise and assist mission was instilled through both a rewriting of counter-insurgency doctrine (FM 3-24) and efforts to train forces in pre-deployment on how to be advisors. By 2009, the mission in Afghanistan morphed into winning the hearts and minds of the population.
The strategy hinged on population-centric counter-insurgency and building the capacity of the Afghan National Security Forces to conduct independent security operations. U.S. forces would advise and assist Afghan units so that they could sustain security advances once U.S. forces withdrew. The model was inspired by the perceived success of large-footprint counter-insurgency during the 2006-2008 Iraq surge — though when the Afghan surge was being devised in 2009 the long-term (un)sustainability of peace in Iraq once U.S. forces withdrew was as yet unrealized. The impetus to build capable Afghan forces was proved even more critical by President Barack Obama’s declaration that the surge would last only 18 months, providing a deadline for continued U.S. resources.
Long-term security outcomes hinged on Afghans taking the lead, as explained by Wes Morgan: “Unless it planned to occupy a country until the end of time, the eventual end point of any foreign army’s counter-insurgency campaign had to be the handover of security from outsiders to local forces.” This approach of accomplishing U.S. national security objectives through the efforts of others is common, with U.S. special operations forces deployed in over 80 countries around the world often working alongside indigenous partner forces — in these circumstances, the winning approach is the one where U.S. objectives are pursued at minimal cost to the U.S. taxpayer. It is in America’s interests to not own the costs of war directly, but rather indirectly accomplish its objectives through supporting local partners.
Recognizing this, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, as commander of the NATO International Security Assistance Force, issued a “Partnering Directive” in August 2009 directing his forces to partner down to the platoon level:
ISAF cannot independently defeat the insurgency; a well-trained and competent ANSF is necessary to achieve this endstate and to ensure GIRoA’s long-term survival. To rapidly expand the capabilities of the ANSF, ISAF will change the manner in which we partner. Embedded partnering will integrate ISAF and ANSF units together to form a more coherent relationship: we will live, train, plan, control, and execute operations together at all command echelons. The synergy created through embedded partnering will increase the likelihood of accomplishing the mission.
Even as the strategy hinged on advising and assisting the Afghan National Security Forces, senior leaders anticipated that tactical units were disinclined to execute partner warfare. This manifested through directives mandating partnered operations. For example, for U.S. forces to conduct operations, units had a minimum ratio of Afghans to U.S. forces required for any patrol. Without being forced to partner (since missions would not be approved without minimum partner force ratios being met), many U.S. units would only conduct unilateral operations. Instead of adapting to implement the strategy, tactical U.S. units instead typically manipulated the directives to continue fighting. The minimum-force requirements led to operations that were technically but not substantively partnered. U.S. forces would plan patrols unilaterally, inform the partner force at the last minute to be prepared for a mission, and then grab the required number of ill-informed Afghans on the way out of the gate. Afghans would be placed within the patrol where they could have the least influence on the mission, or in some cases at the front of the patrol to provide an Afghan veneer during interactions with the local population.
While scholars and practitioners have argued that some militaries are more effective at advising than others, our respective experiences with the Marines and the Army, in both conventional and special operations, suggest that the preference to fight was universal in Afghanistan. Even among purpose-built Army Special Forces advisor teams there was often a proclivity to conduct kinetic operations rather than work through the partner force. Our anecdotal observations are supported by our own academic research, which includes dozens of interviews with U.S. advisors and acclaimed books on the war by Jessica Donati, Wes Morgan, and Emile Simpson.
Why U.S. Forces Prefer Fighting to Advising
Why do troops prefer unilateral operations over working through partners? It is not out of apathy or tactical incompetence. Instead, a preference for unilateral combat operations is the rational response under conditions in which working with partners is difficult, dangerous, disappointing, and downright contradictory to the warrior culture. Combat is dangerous and exhausting work — but is a walk in the park compared to combat by, with, and through partners.
First, working with partners who do not share a common language, both literally and professionally, is difficult. U.S. troops rarely spoke the same language as their Afghan counterparts and relied on a small number of interpreters to relay critical information. Even Afghans who spoke some English were not familiar with U.S. operational concepts and jargon. This meant that any individual task took longer, often much longer, through partner forces. This is frustrating in mission planning and deadly when coordinating battlefield maneuvers under fire, where quick and effective communication can mean the difference between life and death.
The threat of insider attacks also made working with partners more dangerous than cutting them out of mission planning. Tactical units faced a dilemma of following far-off strategic guidance to plan with their partners, and the immediate reality that their partner might pass sensitive intelligence about upcoming patrols to the enemy. The result was that Afghan units rarely participated in mission planning, boding poorly for their readiness to assume security operations once U.S. forces withdrew.
Even for troops willing to assume the extra work and risk of working with partners, they were often disappointed by their lack of value added to the mission, especially based on U.S. deployment timelines. U.S. forces could execute military tasks more effectively than their Afghan counterparts — and the military is a results-oriented organization. While some argue that indigenous forces provide advantage through knowledge of local culture, it was common for Afghan National Security Forces to work in regions where they did not speak the same language as locals, or even held antagonism against the population. The drive to make-mission is much stronger than the tolerance to let weaker partners quasi-address threats in their own way — Afghan good enough was not good enough for tactical units under the gun.
Even as U.S. units endured the practical challenges of partner warfare, they were also fighting against their own warrior culture — it is in the DNA of U.S. forces to fight rather than advise. U.S. forces across branches and services are selected, indoctrinated, and trained to fight. For troops like us, deploying to Afghanistan is like training for the Super Bowl — once you get there you do not want to sit on the sidelines so partner forces can play the game for you. Simply put, combat arms forces want to “get their gun on.” Some units, both conventional and special operations, planned and prioritized operations around the odds of getting into a gunfight. Movement to contact was the tactical objective even as the strategy espoused building competent partner forces and engaging with and protecting the population. What is more, while combat credibility is career enhancing, there is no real career enhancement to partnering — these assignments are typically out of the mainstream career paths and success is difficult to quantify.
Altogether, tactical units were incentivized to own the fight rather than help Afghan forces to lead. Strategic guidance ensured that an Afghan face was put on mission paperwork, but the brains and brawn behind each patrol — and faces that the Afghan population saw — were American. Guidance from higher up, combined with constraints such as minimum force ratios, did not change behavior among tactical units who could parrot guidance and grab a few Afghans on the way out of the wire. The result was that the Americans both became the face of security while setting forward an unsustainable security apparatus that failed once U.S. troops withdrew.
Incentivizing Advising Over Fighting
T.E. Lawrence advises, based on working closely with Arab partner forces during World War I, to “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.” In other words, embrace an Arab-good-enough approach to partner warfare. However, Lawrence was operating as a singleton advisor with a large Arab force, able to provide British-furnished enabling capabilities and sustainment resources. He was unable to conduct unilateral British operations even if he wanted to, and so he worked by, with, and through his local partner forces to accomplish military objectives.
In Afghanistan, strategic leaders sought a by, with, and through strategy during the surge but failed to induce or coerce tactical units to implement it. How can future leaders incentivize U.S. troops to focus on advising and putting the costs of combat on the partner force rather than owning security themselves? One answer lies in removing the physical capability of tactical units to conduct unilateral operations.
As one example in Afghanistan, Tom Schueman deployed to Helmand Province as a Marine infantry platoon commander from 2010–2011 during the surge and then again in 2012–2013 to the same area as an advisor with only a handful of Marines. During both rotations he was the same leader, in the same (highly kinetic) area of operations — but his approach to working through partners dramatically changed. During a research interview he identified that though his unit was nominally supposed to partner with Afghans in 2010, it was very much an afterthought as he was focused on a dangerous and difficult fight that tragically claimed the lives of 25 Marines from his battalion. His platoon, like both of ours during this same period (though in different locations) and probably many others across Afghanistan, often brought Afghans on patrol simply to “check the box” for mission approval.
Only a year later, as the overall Marine footprint declined in Helmand Province during the surge drawdown, he took a very different operational approach as the leader of a small advisory team of five Marines. His Afghan partners took the lead in mission planning and fighting but could be incentivized to action through the reassurance of U.S. intelligence, air strike, and medical evacuation capabilities. Tom now was able to leverage U.S. enabling capabilities to induce and persuade his Afghan partner forces to conduct security operations, all while mitigating risk to force by reducing the exposure of U.S. forces to conflict. While the challenges of working with an Afghan partner force remained, the only way to get into the fight was through his partners.
Tom’s story is not an isolated case. The same shift in advisor approach was seen across Afghanistan as troop numbers drew down, as well as in the counter-Islamic State fight in Iraq where there was a need for U.S. military action but little domestic political support to replicate the surge. Through small advisory teams who could act as liaisons to broader U.S. enabling capabilities, the United States was able to assist the Iraqi Security Forces in their effort to take back Mosul and other key terrain in Iraq. Similarly, a relatively small U.S. commitment that included fewer than 5000 troops and zero casualties from March 2020 to July 2021 was able to prevent the overthrow of Afghanistan by the Taliban until removed, although it should be recognized that the success of this mission may have been due in part to the Taliban limiting the strength of their efforts in the wake of the February 2020 Doha agreement.
Policy to Strategy to Tactical Implementation
A strategy that hinges on working by, with, and through partners with a large footprint of external U.S. military forces is doomed to fail. When tactical units can conduct unilateral operations, they will. Time and scope do not allow comparative analysis of the U.S. military approach in Vietnam, but similar military approaches ultimately ended in the same result as Afghanistan. The very action of placing large numbers of combat arms soldiers on the ground ensures that the United States will take a lead role in security rather than focus on advising partner forces and building sustainable indigenous security postures. The implication for future leaders is to design incentive structures for tactical units to align with strategic guidance to advise and enable rather than fight. For military leaders this requires the recognition that educating, guiding, and mandating partnering activities will not ensure change in tactical unit behavior — the best immediate way to ensure a by, with, and through approach is to remove the unilateral option for tactical units, while also educating leaders on why indirect approaches are critical to strategic success.
However, there may be bureaucratic incentives for military leaders at the highest levels to push for troop surges even as they promulgate an advisory approach. This suggests that there may be a role for civilian leadership to impose troop limits. Two successful examples of U.S. partnering efforts, in El Salvador and Colombia, both had troop caps imposed by Congress — 55 in El Salvador and 800 in Colombia. Will Wechsler, who participated in the policy design of Plan Colombia, argues that the congressionally mandated troop cap was a positive development because it prevented the type of high-profile debate over troop numbers seen during the 2009 Afghanistan surge debate that divided the military and the White House, and focused the executive branch on strategies given the fixed means. For the military, the strategy became enabling partner forces with small teams of advisors who in turn had no option to get into the fight other than by, with, and through their partner forces.
In counter-insurgency, tactics are reality. While war is hard, war with partner forces is harder. However, given the unmistakable and overwhelming abundance of irregular conflict short of conventional state-on-state war, the United States will continue to pursue its national security objectives through the guided efforts of others. Success in future partner-warfare endeavors will require removing the capability of tactical units to get their gun on and incentivizing tactical leaders to drive their partner forces to fight harder in line with U.S. interests.
Kyle Atwell is an instructor in the Social Sciences Department at West Point, co-director of the Irregular Warfare Initiative, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, and a Ph.D. candidate in Security Studies at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. His operational experience includes assignments in North and West Africa, South Korea, Germany, and 20 months in Afghanistan.
Paul Bailey is a Marine officer with operational experience in both conventional and special operations units, deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan during Operations Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom, and Inherent Resolve. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, where he co-authored Relational Maneuver: How to Wage Irregular Warfare and MARSOC’s Strategic Application.
These views are those of the authors and do not reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, the United States Marine Corps, or the Department of Defense.