Small Wars Journal

This Week at War, No. 24

Here is the latest edition of my column at Foreign Policy:

Is Obama channeling Bush in Afghanistan?

On July 1, more than 4,000 U.S. Marines charged by helicopter and armored vehicle into southern Helmand province, the heart of Afghanistan's Taliban insurgency and the home of the poppy crop that supports the rebellion. Brigadier General Larry Nicholson, the commander of Operation Khanjar, described the effort:

What makes Operation K[h]anjar different from those that have occurred before is the massive size of the force introduced, the speed at which it will insert, and the fact that where we go, we will stay, and where we stay, we will hold, build, and work toward transition of all security responsibilities to Afghan forces.

A week into of the operation, there are now questions about when those Afghan forces, so vital to Nicholson's planning, will arrive. In an interview with the Pentagon press corps, the brigadier general said that only 650 Afghan soldiers have accompanied the Marines into south Helmand. "I mean, I'm not going to sugarcoat it," said Nicholson. "The fact of the matter is, I -- we don't have enough Afghan forces, and I'd like more." Nicholson could not give a specific answer when asked when more might be on the way.

As if he saw this coming, Gen. James L. Jones (ret.), President Obama's national security advisor, warned Nicholson against asking for any more U.S. forces before Operation Khanjar began, according to the Washington Post's Bob Woodward. The warning came after Nicholson stated that he did not have enough troops.

Everyone agrees that the preferred solution is more Afghan soldiers and police. But Afghan forces are not missing from the battle due to some sort of oversight. They are missing because they cannot be spared from elsewhere in the country. That there were only 650 Afghan soldiers available at the start of the Obama administration's first big military operation in Afghanistan also tells us that something is amiss with the effort to expand Afghanistan's security forces.

There is an eerie resemblance here to the Bush administration's military strategy in Iraq during 2004 and 2005. In that case, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, along with Generals John Abizaid and George Casey, sought to limit the number of U.S. troops in Iraq (Abizaid called U.S. troops in Iraq an "antibody" stirring up a reaction). Rumsfeld, Abizaid, and Casey planned to quickly turn responsibility over to Iraq's security forces, but the local troops were developing much slower than expected. As violence spiraled out of control in 2006, Bush had to gamble with the "surge" -- substituting U.S. reinforcements for what should have been competent Iraqi soldiers and police.

Today, it is Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Jones who wish to cap the U.S. headcount in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, in spite of several increases and reorganizations of the Afghan training program, Afghan soldiers are scarce and the local police are generally corrupt and unhelpful against the Taliban.

One notable difference from the early days in Iraq is the focus now in Afghanistan on protecting the population. But as I recently noted in this space, a population-centric approach, when combined with insufficient security forces, will leave some communities under the Taliban's control. Although the population-centric tactics in Afghanistan are an improvement from what the United States was doing in Iraq through 2005, the result still might be the perfect storm: enough foreign forces on the ground to catalyze a rebellion but too few to provide security.

Come 2011, might Obama be forced to gamble on a big U.S. troop surge in Afghanistan the same way Bush had to in Iraq? Such a decision would come 10 years into the Afghan military campaign and on the eve of Obama's run for reelection. Will either he or the electorate be ready at that time for one more military gamble?

Why insurgencies lose

As the Marines settle into their new combat outposts in Helmand province, they might ponder why some insurgencies succeed and why other fail. Writing at Small Wars Journal, Donald Stoker, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, explained why, according to one study, nearly 60% of insurgencies since World War II have failed. Stoker identified six factors contributing to failed insurgencies, five of which are self-inflicted. How do Afghanistan's Taliban rebels measure up on Stoker's factors?

1) Insurgents typically have fewer resources than the government. Certainly, the Taliban's funding and equipment do not match the Pentagon's.

2) Insurgencies are fractious. Bloody infighting among an insurgency's factions or leaders is a common weakness. I have seen little discussion of whether this a problem inside the Afghan Taliban.

3) Insurgencies are often dependent on a single leader. My guess is that the sudden demise of Mullah Mohammed Omar, should it occur, would not have much effect on the war. In fact, the Taliban's apparent lack of strong centralized leadership seems to be a significant asset.

4) An insurgency's tactics often alienate the people. The Taliban seem to be feared, not loved. Taliban leaders must be hoping that their resistance to the foreign presence in Afghanistan will find enough favor to facilitate their return to power. Although that has yet to work, intimidation has kept them in the field for eight years.

5) The people dislike the insurgent's ideas or rule. The Taliban were able to achieve power in 1996 because they offered the hope of stability during a very chaotic period of civil war. That precursor of civil war does not exist today and memories of the Taliban's terrifying period of rule linger on.

6) Insurgents sometimes employ bad strategies. During the first few years of resistance, the Taliban attempted to mass its fighters for conventional assaults on coalition positions. Roadside and suicide bombings were rare. Today, the Taliban's strategy is to avoid large-scale contact with U.S. forces. Instead, roadside and suicide bombs are causing a steady drip of casualties while the Taliban wait for U.S. domestic support of the war to fizzle.

Using Stoker's framework, it's clear that while the Taliban's ideas and tactics are unpopular, the militants have a resilient and adaptive structure. Most important, they are now employing a strategy that takes advantage of what they see as their adversary's biggest weaknesses: the U.S. public's impatience and aversion to casualties. Thus, unlike most modern insurgencies, the Taliban may not be making enough mistakes to lose.