Small Wars Journal

The Third Way of COIN: Defeating the Taliban in Sangin

The Third Way of COIN: Defeating the Taliban in Sangin by Dr. Mark Moyar, Orbis Operations.

The history of counterinsurgency in Sangin district offers a wealth of insights into the nature of the war in Afghanistan and the path that coalition forces should now follow. From 2006 to 2011, coalition forces took three distinct approaches to counterinsurgency in Sangin. The first two—the enemy-centric approach and the population-centric approach—failed to suppress the insurgents. The enemy-centric approach failed because it did not provide the population with adequate governance or deprive the insurgents of access to the population. The population-centric approach failed because the enemy's persistent military strength impeded governance and discouraged popular support for the government. Coalition forces adhered to the enemy-centric and population-centric approaches for four and a half years, from the beginning of 2006 to the summer of 2010, during which time they sustained one hundred fatalities and many times that number in wounded.

Read the full report.

This report is © 2011, Orbis Operations LLC. It is presented here with the kind permission of the author, Dr. Moyar, for viewing by the small wars community. Any further use is subject to copyright.


Border Rat (not verified)

Mon, 07/18/2011 - 9:13am

I quick fix for the poppy problem is genetically engineered pollen. Dust the fields at the appropriate time, the opium becomes low or no grade, and the next years seeds won't work. U.S. Agricultural companies have ruined almost every type of food crop in the world, lets see if they can work for the good guys for a change.

That's common to the units working over there. It generally implies the commander has the latitude to conduct operations to suit the needs of his area of operations. If the lawn doesn't need mowing that day, you don't mow the lawn, you can always work on some other aspect of COIN.

JMA (not verified)

Thu, 07/14/2011 - 5:10pm

David what ever your strategy is it is more likely to be considered than mine. Maybe you should float it in a thread on the discussion board to see what response you can draw from those with recent Afghanistan experience.

My view is simple. Out of the annual export value of $4billion $1billion goes to the farmers. So the current crop should be bought up by the US for $1billion directly from the farmers. This would be the last crop allowed to be cultivated in Afghanistan. From next year no poppy cultivation will be allowed (hopefully under pain of a death penalty).

The farmers would then be forced to seek an alternative crop. Government officials/insurgents/warlords/drug traffickers will be all bent out of shape about it but as the years pass they will learn to live with it.

That's it finished... no negotiation (which is terribly unAmerican I know ;))

David Connell (not verified)

Thu, 07/14/2011 - 12:38pm


One aspect I am referring to is highlighted in the following quote from Wired Magazine: by Mark Moyer
"Counternarcotics took a back seat to stabilization. The Marines decided that they had too many enemies already to engage in large-scale counternarcotics activities. Much of the population depended on the opium industry for its livelihood, and could be expected to cling to insurgency more strongly if that livelihood were at stake. Counternarcotics could wait until the government had enough personnel and adequate security to undertake robust counternarcotics measures. Marine COIN operations did, however, have a large impact on the narcotics trade because many of the insurgents they captured or killed had been involved in it. Nevertheless, the narcotics industry continues to thrive in Sangin, and it now poses a vexing problem across Helmand, for the power brokers required for reconciliation, and at some level the officials of the Afghan government, are deeply invested in it will strongly resist actions that would harm the narcotics business."

Now, in response to your question, no I would not completely ignore the problem but I would as Mark suggests undertake a deliberate strategy that avoids making the problem worse and causing further instability across multiple players (Afghans, Government, Insurgents, Powerborkers etc).

Try to bear with me on my own strategy, because this is controversial. I would adopt a ten year eradication strategy that relies at its heart on co-opting these players and essentially licensing the cultivation of Poppy (not opium and opiates) but with an end-date and a process of transitioning from poppy to legitmate livelihoods. Essentially providing for all to get out of the business and go legit by reducing licenses by 10% per year. Licenses would have fees; they would be initially limited to say 2008 production levels (which would represent at least a 25% reduction over current levels); they would be managed by the current poppy powerbrokers and GIROA; and they would be limited on the number any one farmer could purchase. Fees would go to the Goverment and used to fund alternative livelihoods. 100% Eradication would be undertaken in all unlicensed areas. Counternarcotics would continue. Corruption would be weeded out because of these measures, since all info is verifiable.

This strategy recognizes the problem space and its relationship to insecurity, it also contends with the current counter-narcotic strategy success and failures, and; it exploits the potential to collaborate in eliminating the problem over a definable and enforceable timeline. The problem has had ten years to wrosen, surely committing to ten years to eliminate it is not out of the question.

Megan (not verified)

Wed, 07/13/2011 - 8:44pm

I think it's BULLSHIT that 3/7 isn't getting the credit they deserve. My husband and his unit went into Sangin and pushed all the way to the Helmand river. That had never been done before. The article mentions that they were only there for a few weeks, not long enough to make a difference. Wrong. They were there for over a month and they made a huge difference. I have not read one article giving them credit for accomplishing what no other unit had.

JMA (not verified)

Mon, 07/11/2011 - 9:27pm

Frankly I am not sure what you advocate on this matter. To allow poppy cultivation and opium and heroin production to continue unabated?

I am aware that the Taliban ban on poppy cultivation virtually led to the collapse of the Afghan economy by the end of 2001. It has been in the wake of the US/NATO military intervention that poppy production has gone through the roof. This is nothing short of criminal negligence (by the last two US Administrations).

I would hasten to add that I believed that the US should have got out after forcing the collapse of the Taliban government and not got involved in the "nation building" exercise they have.

Having decided to stay, the opportunity missed was to assist with the building of an Afghan economy without poppy production and the associated drug trade. It was let slide and astoundingly poppy production has been allowed to continue and in a bizarre fashion has become an important part of the "hearts and minds" program of the US policy in Afghanistan. How much Afghan heroin flows into the US due to the criminal negligence of Bush and Obama I don't know but I assume it to be significant.

What is not being made clear by the US and the British about Sangin and Helmand is the extent to which poppy cultivation and the drug trade plays a role in the "troubles" there. It is not difficult to assume that with a much reduced drug component the "witches brew" facing US and Brit forces in Helmand (and especially Sangin) would be significantly less.

Strategically and morally the current policy is indefensible and a means should be actively sought as to how to criminally prosecute those US/Brit politicians/employees/generals/others who have in the past and even now continue to promote the protection of poppy cultivation and the associated drug trade in Afghanistan.

David Connell (not verified)

Mon, 07/11/2011 - 12:52pm


You wrote,"The warlords/druglords are told that that the days of poppy cultivation are over and if they don't like that lets do battle. One accepts that the drug trade includes certain of the tribal entities with matter will have spill over effects. (The current policy where poppy cultivation is tolerated is criminal and the originators of that policy and those who maintain it should be shot - and I am not joking)"

I feel compelled to comment that the poppy issue extends way beyond its criminal association and in fact is linked directly and indirectly to what Bob Jones refers to as sources of insurgency. Almost a third of the Afghan population has some involvement in poppy cultivation and or opium production and distribution and a majority of the Afghan GDP is similarly involved. Corruption is also linked directly to many issues of both poppy growth and eradication efforts. Therefore any and all efforts to reduce, eradicate or influence this activity needs to be considered in the whole and not strictly as a criminal behaviour to be stomped out.

In many of these areas, poppy cultivation is the only game in town due to its price, ability to be grown widely and its market for demand. Poppy cultivation employs and provides income for a large majority of the non-criminal population (UNODC estimates approx 17% of profits fuel the insurgency). This population is taking advantage of employment and income for: subsistence, self-esteem (marriage or Mecca pilgrimage costs) and quality of life. Another smaller group controls the huge profits and associated corruption within and without Government and ANSF. Both of these groups will challenge any efforts to adopt the measures you advocate. The alternative livelihood options, such as replacing poppy with wheat, effectively marginalizes 80% of the labour force and sustains only the few land owners and farmers. Therefore eradication fuels insurgency and insecurity, not poppy cultivation.

Here is a parallel for westerners to consider. What if the west outlawed oil exploration and development because of Global Warming fears? Imagine the outcry and compounding effects associated with job, investment and profit losses, and the follow on economic effects and potential for recession. Would anyone expect some form(s) of insurgency to emerge with elements of peaceful and potentially violent effects?

Therefore, like the COIN debates or the premise of the Third Way, the poppy issue must return to and focus on the sources of insurgency and contend with developing a strategy that addresses these issues as system issues and not symptoms.

JMA (not verified)

Wed, 07/06/2011 - 12:34pm

Bob, that supports my point about on behalf of who are US and Brit forces negotiating?

If the central government has no authority in the area then what on earth are the forces doing forcing them upon the population?

So what would the military want as the end result of the negotiations?

I would suggest again then that the military should resist being sucked into the void created by the lack of political leadership and structure in Sangin (and probably most all of Afghanistan).

Bob's World

Wed, 07/06/2011 - 11:37am


Under the Constitution the governors of Helmand and Sangin have no local legitimacy. They are "government in a box." A box formed by the constitution, filled by Mr. Karzai personally (with patronage owed to him), and protected by the Coalition. The reistance is as much against this government in a box as it is against the ANSF and foreign forces sent to force the populace to submit to the same.


JMA (not verified)

Wed, 07/06/2011 - 8:44am

Point taken Bob.

In Sangin there is a "witches brew" comprising tribal/warlord/druglord/Taliban. The former wants to be the controller and not the controlled, the second wants to control, the third wants no interference and the fourth wants to control and as a Johnny-come-lately there is the central government who wants overall control (or a piece of the action).

What potential was there to negotiate a peaceful resolution back then before the Brits deployed to Helmand? And who would have been the parties to these negotiations? And given the history of the Pashtuns was there any guarantee that any agreement would have been honoured beyond five minutes after having been signed?

So what would have been the best way to set the scene for productive and effective political negotiations both then and now? What was the military function there? To underwrite the authority of the central government? If so little wonder why it was contested by all parties in Sangin.

If the military presence there is to underwrite the authority of the central government then it will be a total waste of time. The best option would then be to negotiate a truce with local parties until 2014 and then let it revert to status quo. The loser will be the central government.

Who has the authority to negotiate with these independent spirited tribes to grant them autonomous or semi-autonomous status and on whose behalf? Certainly not the US or Brit military. So the best one can achieve with the tribes is to tell them that the forces are there until 2014 and are tasked with preventing AQ from returning to Afghanistan to use the country for training or as a springboard for attacks on the US (and the West) and to eradicate the poppy cultivation the derivatives of which are killing thousands of our children in the West. We are not interested in their tribal issues and will not get involved in them. A truce until 2014 is the best outcome.

The warlords/druglords are told that that the days of poppy cultivation are over and if they don't like that lets do battle. One accepts that the drug trade includes certain of the tribal entities with matter will have spill over effects. (The current policy where poppy cultivation is tolerated is criminal and the originators of that policy and those who maintain it should be shot - and I am not joking)

The Taliban would be told that come hell or high water ISAF troops will be there until 2014. We can fight now or they can bide their time until 2014 then contest for power with the central government through the ballot box or the barrel of the gun (for all we care). To help them keep up the appearance of armed resistance we can negotiate for a predetermined long range, no casualties either side contact on every second Wednesday ;)

If I were a military commander in the field there right now I would do exactly that. The problem being that military commanders change every six months or so, so the next bright beauty to come in may well have other ideas.

Is there anything one could negotiate with the local entities on behalf of the central government that would be even vaguely acceptable to both? Surely the governor of Sangin and of Helmand are talking to these people and have made no progress so what progress can one expect from a foreign military?

Bob's World

Wed, 07/06/2011 - 6:59am


True, but we are discussing Sangin, and in Sangin it is not a Serra Leone where some strongman is leveraging revolt to gain control of the diamond mines. This is not purely about a grab for power and profits by a few (though in the Afghan system, it is historically a few who do end up with those prizes).

Sangin is largely a resistance by a popualce who cares little about Kabul, that has never heard of 9/11, and often as not thinks that the current coalition of foreign troops in their valley are Russians. They do understand that when power shifts at the top that it is the people with some crumbs of patronage at the bottom that will lose out.

And if Sangin is "secured," then what? The domino theory of C-H-B; even with supplemental programs like VSO and nightraids, still only engages the resistance insurgency and avoids the over-arching revolution. It is military COIN focused on military problems; but it is political resolution of the revolutionary issues that get us to why we are in Sangin and elsewhere to begin with.

The keys to AQ sanctuary in Pakistan are in the hands of the Pashtun populace there and the various Taliban faction leadership. Neither the Afg or Pak government can "deny" sanctuary, as it comes primarily from the support of the people, not some governmental fiat. We attack the one party who can help us achieve the primary purpose for our being there in the first place. Someone ought to pause and ponder on that thought for a bit...


JMA (not verified)

Wed, 07/06/2011 - 4:38am

Bob, I'm not sure one should include the word populace in this as it gives the impression that thousands/hundreds of thousands/millions take to the streets to reclaim control over their own lives and destinies. In many cases the insurgencies are started by a few/a small group who want to lead in liberating their people or seizing power for themselves through using the people in an insurgency/revolt/rebellion/whatever. Once the basic idea sold to the people and they have military forces in the field they keep up the propaganda onslaught while killing off enough "regime spies" to keep the people more scared of them than the regime (and it's thugs). From here on its a war of attrition the result of which is largely dependent upon 1)who keeps the people in line and 2) which has the external support to out last the other.

Bob's World

Tue, 07/05/2011 - 4:12pm

In my study and experience, insurgencies do not occur when the government has lost control of the populace; rather insurgencies occur where the populace has lost control of the government (or newly discovered that government is something that they might reasonably have control over).



JMA (not verified)

Tue, 07/05/2011 - 2:16pm

Bob said, "The insurgents are part of the populace". Yes and that is more reason why the second phase should IMO be McCuen's "control" rather than the current "hold". Clear would then mean to remove or neutralise the military options of the insurgency in that particular area so that the civil affairs and the Intel people can start to deal with the political wing of the insurgency free from the risk of military action from the armed wing.

I'm not sure that the "hold and build" phases should be based on drinking tea with people who hate you and ask them what their "needs" are.

More on the basis of McCuen's "control and counter-organise" where in the absence of interference from the insurgent's armed wing the political structures of the insurgents can be systematically dismantled while holding out the carrot to the local population of improvements to roads, education, healthcare, agricultural extension services etc etc (where aid and projects are not provided as a "bribe" but rather as a "reward".)

I'm not sure I support half colonels commanding combat units should be given a political mission. They should be given military missions with limitations. As I have said before once the combat units have cleared the armed insurgents from an area the civil action/police/whatever move in and set up a JOC (Joint Operations Centre) of sorts where the political war can be waged (and the government structures established or re-established) with the treat that if the insurgent's armed wing come back into the area then so will 3/5 Marines and "you know what happened last time they were here?" A balance between the carrot and the stick and making them an offer they can't refuse.

This is why the appointment of a serving general as the "supremo" in Afghanistan is so confusing. Where is the Templer as in Malaya?

Bob's World

Sun, 07/03/2011 - 11:05am

JMA, you observe:

"Surely the key to the "clear" phase is to break the contact the insurgents have with the civilian population."

A fine point perhaps, but worth considering is:

1. This is largely a resistance insurgency in this area (and throughout rural Afghanistan);

2. The insurgents are part of the populace;

3. All insurgents are by definition "civilians." There are combatants and non-combatants certainly (a fuzzy line at best and situational), but all are civilians. "COIN" of this nature is the employment of foreign military forces, along with national forces recruited elsewhere, to force a segment of the populace that neither accepts nor recognizes the legitimacy of the current government to submit to their rule.

Given how this government rose to power, how it was organized, and the monopoly-forming nature of the current constitution, such resistance is very reasonable.

This is the mission given to 3/5 Marines and they have done it well. My point is that such operations simply cannot resolve the larger revolutionary insurgency between the Taliban leadership in exile and the Karzai-led, Northern Alliance-based government we protect and support with such efforts.

Far better that we back off from these tactical military operations and focus our energy on the political lines of operations that are the beating heart of the revolution. Many will be quick to point out that such political action is not in the lane of a military commander, to which I answer "Exactly."

We have given a political mission to the military, and the military has logically focused on the military aspects of it and wage it as war. Until we subjugate the military component of our effort under a Civilian-led, politically focused contingent we are wasting our time and the hard efforts of dedicated young men such as fill the ranks of the 3/5 Marines and other units across Afghanistan.

Until the Generals revolt and point this out to our civilian leadership we are doomed to repeat this cycle over and over.


JMA (not verified)

Sat, 07/02/2011 - 4:52pm

Just when the pendulum was starting to swing too far in the pop-centric direction with nonsense like "courageous restraint" starting to creep in we start to swing back in the direction of "If you've got them by the balls their hearts and minds will follow."

This LTC Morris seems to be a rare talent and should be looked after as there are really few intelligent fighting commanders out there.

What strikes one straight off is that the Brits 1) had no COIN doctrine to draw on and 2) were unable to figure out how best to utilize limited manpower and equipment resources to the best effect under the Sangin circumstances. Consequently every six months with a new brigade commander came a new plan.

Surely the key to the "clear" phase is to break the contact the insurgents have with the civilian population. Then to prevent the insurgents slipping back into the area at night or when force levels reduce holding or controlling forces need to move into place. (Prefer McCuen's "clear, control and counter-organise" than the current favourite "clear, hold and build.)

Should these holding or controlling forces not be introduced once the area has been cleared and be trained for the type of "civic action" work that will be required through the build/counter organise phase? This will allow your specialist fighting men to continue to "clear" to expand the "bubble" or the "ink spot". The ANA (in the case of Sangin) should full-fill this role IMO.

Sadly the approach to the opium trade borders on the criminal. Considering the complexity in Sangin is directly related to the poppy/opium/heroin factor poppy production should have been outlawed in 2006 (like it was under the Taliban) with possibly compensation being paid to farmers for one year. To allow a significant source of funding Taliban operations to continue is (I say again) criminal. Action in this regard should have been delayed as the money from this harvest will be used to fund military action against the US and ISAF forces this year.

As far as counter-organising is concerned special attention is required on the political front to negotiate directly with tribes like the Ishaqzai in similar fashion as with (reportedly) the Alikozai.

The it appears that after all the millions/tens of/hundreds of spent on IED detection systems in the end the most effective detection method is the old "mark-1 eyeball" of an experienced trained soldier.

I then agree with 18 of the 19 "Keys to the Success" with the exception being the insanity over ignoring the poppy/opium/heroin trade.

The great tragedy of the sacrifice of these fine marines is that as long as the government of Afghanistan is illegitimate and corrupt there is no way support for the government can be won and maintained for one day past the end of money the US and other countries are throwing down this bottomless pit.

One must salute the efforts of LTC Morris and the 3/5.

Bob's World

Thu, 06/30/2011 - 1:08pm

This is tactics, not strategy.

From the article:

"...reconciliation and mobilization of the population required political outreach and economic development rather than the use of force, 3/5 made much greater advances than its predecessors in reconciliation and population mobilization by virtue of greater reliance on force. This battalion and its attached units took casualties at a rate more than twice as high as most of the preceding units, sustaining a total of twenty-nine killed-in-action and two hundred wounded, but the high short-term costs resulted in a future with much lower casualties, which, along with the bolstering of Afghan capacity, greatly improved the prospects for ultimate transition to Afghan control."

First, what 3/5 was doing, what all military units are doing, is REINTEGRATION, not reconciliation. This may appear a fine point, but it is a critical one.

Reconciliation is the political negotiation and settlement of grievances between the Northern Alliance-based GIRoA in Kabul and the Taliban-based revolutionary insurgent leadership in exile in Pakistan. ISAF has quite pointedly left this to GIRoA to lead, and frankly, as it is not in Mr. Karzai's interst to reconcile so long as we dedicate ourselves to funding and protecting his government, he has, and will likely continue, to slow-roll that critical LOO.

Reintegration, on the other hand, is a convincing of rank and file resistance insurgent members in Afghanistan to return to their villages and promise to not rejoin the resistance. This is the ISAF led component of this, and this is what 3/5 Marines and other units are doing. The irony for those who appreciate insurgency in general, and this insurgency in particular, is that many of these resistance fighters "reintegrate" on a regular basis, be it nightly, seasonally, or as it suits them in general. This is like attacking the bottom of a sand dune with an e-tool. You might move a lot of sand if you work hard enough, but you really aren't getting anywhere.

The artificial distinction of killing them in the hills a few miles away, while coddling them in the valley in one small district of one Province, of a vast country where the overarching issues of revolution are going unaddressed and unaffected is not one anyone should be hanging their hat on. We are however hanging our hat on this one. It is a mistake.

Good Marines are doing good duty and taking hard losses in this effort. They deserve some strategic top-cover, and they are not getting it. Not at all.


carl (not verified)

Thu, 06/30/2011 - 11:45am


Can you outline a strategy you like to see employed in Afghanistan?

gian p gentile (not verified)

Thu, 06/30/2011 - 9:28am

Moyar takes it too far; in the end his third way is really the first way of population centric counterinsurgency which defines success by turning the afghan people away from the taliban enemy. In this framework, even if the levels of kinetic activity against the enemy has increased, that kinetic activity--or enemy centric--is always subordinate to winning the population over to our side and that of the Kabul government.

This is why strategy is dead in Afghanistan; because the military, its generals, and its civilian action intellectuals can see no other way.


This is a good article; I think it really highlights a potential issue that exists in the military. I have a feeling (supported by this article) that many commanders view COIN like a switch - either it's completely enemy, or completely population in focus. I feel that when you view COIN like this, its going to be very difficult to succeed due to the fact that you are leaving out critical elements of the other view which, as this unit found out, could be the key to overall success.

Now I believe that in the long term, fixing local grievances and solving root causes for the conflict will be the only real way to stop the fighting, but I dont doubt for a second that there may be times when violence (albeit carefully executed and specifically aimed) will be necessary to make that happen.

Thinking that COIN is either completely "enemy" or completely "population" in focus is, in my mind, dangerous and not likely to produce desired results.