Small Wars Journal

We Can Still Win The War

We Can Still Win the War: Things are Grim in Afghanistan, But Victory Remains in Sight - John Nagl, New York Daily News opinion.

Recent reports from Afghanistan paint a dark picture of the counterinsurgency efforts in the Taliban-infected south and east of the country. This spring's operation in Marja, initially proclaimed a military success, sputtered when the Afghan "government in a box" failed to show up. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, after a positive visit to Washington, has demonstrated erratic behavior, including forcing the resignation of two of his best ministers. And the critical offensive in Kandahar, Afghanistan's second-largest city and the historical cradle of the Taliban, has been postponed by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of our efforts there. Some are suggesting that the "Afghan surge" announced by President Obama in December at West Point has failed even before all of the planned 30,000 reinforcements have arrived in the country.

Those skeptics may have forgotten that counterinsurgency is always slow and grinding - "like eating soup with a knife", in the words of T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia), a man who knew something of this most challenging kind of war. Defeating an insurgency requires the patience to implement the classic "clear-hold-build-transition" counterinsurgency strategy. Efforts to clear the enemy from an area require large numbers of well-trained and usually foreign troops; hard as it is, clearing is the easy part. Success requires local troops to hold the area so that the insurgents cannot return to disrupt the process of building a better life for the population in the cleared area, which can then be transitioned to local control. Setbacks are likely at each stage of the process, but there are no shortcuts; defeating insurgents is hard, slow work.

Gen. David Petraeus, a man with some personal experience in counterinsurgency and the architect of our strategy in Afghanistan, testified during the darkest hours of our counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq that "hard is not hopeless." Hard is not hopeless in Afghanistan, either. Success there - defined as an Afghanistan that does not provide a haven for terror or destabilize the region and is able to secure itself with minimal outside assistance - remains a vital national interest of the United States...

More at The New York Daily News.


K.W. : It seems statisticaly to be getting much worse. The amount of hostile contacts is up by three times in the norwegian areas since last year. Its still nopt Marja, but moving in that direction. And thats a area that has been held, cleared and built. Seems to me there is a chainreaction these days, but I may be pessimistic. (I spend too much time watching the IDF sliding into insanity.)

I hope that the US has the wits to use the Euro subchannels to establish contact w China. Its about the only sane way out I can see. W.a. due respect to the folks who have served.

Anonymous (not verified)

Wed, 06/23/2010 - 11:02pm

Nothing to laugh at, though excessively erudite kids seem to laugh at pretty much anything -- except themselves. China's going to be there, the map and the math show that...

I'm not sure it's getting all that much worse, I believe a lot of that is ignorant media bleating. Still, it's not going to get a whole lot better for a number of reasons. The NATO nations including the US are not going to devote much more effort to attempting a two generation effort to rebuild Afghanistan. Nor, IMO, should they.

We can leave but we should do it slowly over the next couple of years, sensibly and without all the current ambivalent chatter about 'commitment' and rebuilding.

Ken White

K. White: Agreed, we should have left in 2003.

Im Norwegian, so my primary strategic worry is the sustainability of NATO as a valid alliance. (When I was in the army, we practiced for the soviets, our mission was to hold for three days...;-)) What we small Euro folks see is a situation getting rapidly worse, and not a lot happening, really.

Ive been laughed at over at Abu M for saying that we should pull in the chinese quite a while. I still stand by that. Give em the mines, and let the PLA do it.

Anonymous (not verified)

Wed, 06/23/2010 - 4:20pm


It's an imperfect medium for communicating. What looks right before I click on 'Send' doesn't always end up meaning what I thought it meant... :(

Still, you're both right on the LTTE. No real COIN effort, just desultory military action which was ultimately successful due to geography and mass more than finesse. Not sure that the qualified win will remain the case. Nor am I sure that a COIN effort would have worked in any event, it seldom really works well, is awfully expensive and time consuming for the prospect of an 'acceptable' outcome. No one really wins in those kind of fights and what it 'acceptable' tends to be defined down by both sides over time.

You could be right on a better earlier effort in the 'Stan. However I wouldn't have stayed to find out. Unfortunately, they didn't ask me. Not sure you can blame this on one Rumsfeld, my perception is that he didn't want to stay in either Afghanistan or Iraq but got overruled by his Boss.

It's all a function of not having the right tools for the job and using what's available. Not a good plan, usually. Particularly when the job is poorly thought out...

Ken White

K. White: Fair point, but I still find the opening statement strange. That the Sri Lankan government spent 40 years doing pop-centric COIN among the Tamils was news to me, par example. Indeed, it can be argued that their adaption of more pop-centric methods in the last couple of years of the conflict led to the splitting up of the Tigers, and set the scenario for the final showdown. The way M. Scarlet describes it, he also makes the ending of the conflict disengaged from the rest of the campaign.

Just like the whole pro/contra COIN discussion fails to see the campaign as a series of interlinked events, btw. The first three years of inaction is the causal effect of the defeats today. We came, we promised lots of stuff, we didnt follow up, we pissed away reconstruction money on private contractors and luxury FOBs while maintaining the politics of warlordism that the Talebs rose out of in the first instance. In my humble opinion, the COIN approach from the bat in 2001 would most propably have worked well. Now weve killed and squandered ourselves to a loss. Its the last stop of the Rumsfeld trainwreck.

Anonymous (not verified)

Wed, 06/23/2010 - 12:04pm

Can't win :( -- forgot to sign that 11:02 post.

/s/ Ken White

Anonymous (not verified)

Wed, 06/23/2010 - 12:02pm


I think he was merely using an allegory in pointing out that after many years of ineffective attempts to end a situation, the Sri Lankans finally got fed up and employed the full force of government and significant military effort.

Since he later goes on to make some of the same points you make and since he's likely aware of the differences, I doubt he was being silly, merely making the point that we are trying to do something in a halfhearted manner because we're not prepared to fully commit to the effort. To me, his implication was that full commitment is unlikely and thus success is unlikely.

So I don't think he's the one being silly, the US government probably is...

Major Scarlet: "care to compare and contrast?".

Hmm, lets see: The tamil tigers were a military force composed of a single ethnic group holed up in a defensive perimeter with their backs to the sea. The civilian population (even most tamils) were sick to death with them, because they hindered ecponomic growth and contributed nothing to the population.

The afghan resistance, on the other hand, is a complex multi-ethnic conglomeration of units, many of who enjoy popular support on the ground. they control a vast mountain range, and are increasingly allowed free movement across a enormous country where there is no hope of any economic development unless you work with the resistance.

If you can convince all the talebs to cometogether on a remote island, Im all for your solution. If not, its just silly.

I seems to me that when we have to start articles with "we can still win" we are losing the IO/PAO struggle no matter what is "actually" happening on the ground.

Just ignores the issue of Afghan governance. You can make a case for everything else he says, though you might disagree with it, but the governance issue shows no signs of improving.


Mike Few (not verified)

Mon, 06/21/2010 - 8:36pm

I so hope that Dr. Nagl is right, but I so hate this editorial- amateurish in the best of sense.

Seriously, sir? I've known you for over twelve years. You were always one of the best of the SOSH Dept that I admired even long before you published a book. I expect more.

The most flagrant of sins is the analogy of Iraq and Afghanistan. I will invoke the same accord to certain guerrila strategies, but for you to suggest that one surge equals another is asanine.

A'stan has never been a regular Army fight. Iraq needed our surge, but A'stan was always Special Forces realm. Apples and oranges. Quality over Quantity.

I support your endeavor to allow those of us that have a lot of experience in the regular army serve side-by-side SF in building up the A'stan army, but to suggest that we should continue to do it ourselves is just wrong.

It's time to turn it over to USSF- less cost, less commitment, and most likely chance of success.

Anonymous (not verified)

Mon, 06/21/2010 - 12:30pm

Right now the Taliban have the perception they are winning. Fighting against a "perception" is really not covered in the COIN FM.

I see currently no way that perception can be changed because the focus of pop-centric allows for the Taliban to maintain their sanctuaries (unchallenged), allows the Taliban to maintain their shadow district governments and does not put a dent their LOCs.

So why talk to the current Afghan government or the US/NATO when you perceive you are winning?

Did I miss anything in the news coming out of Afghanistan that makes this assumption invalid?

Bob's World

Mon, 06/21/2010 - 8:36am

Actually, with all respect to Dr. Nagl's work on COIN; it appears to me to lack much of a foundation in an understanding of Insurgency itself. (I find this to be a common trait among COIN SMEs)

This results in a very symptomatic approach. Not understanding what caused the insurgency to begin with, he preaches TTPs for a long, drawn-out approach for managing the symptoms.

This is not the type of Doctor I'd go to for medical help, nor is it one I'd go to for political help either.

The primary reason COIN takes so long is because most counterinsurgents expend 95% of their focus on targeting the symptoms instead of the problem.

American's can be very sympathetic and generous people. We typcially suck at Empathy though, and that is the key trait for understanding insurgency.

Major Scarlet (not verified)

Mon, 06/21/2010 - 8:35am

define "win".

William F. Owen

Mon, 06/21/2010 - 5:56am

<i> Counterinsurgency campaigns are not won by killing every insurgent and terrorist. The most committed terrorists have to be killed or captured, but many of the foot soldiers and even the midlevel leaders can eventually be convinced through a combination of carrots and sticks that renouncing violence and becoming part of the political process offer a better chance for success than continuing to fight.</i>

Ya Allah! Now he gets it! Very different tune from "You cannot kill and capture your way to success." - Turns out that "COIN" is like every other form of Warfare!.


Mon, 06/21/2010 - 1:42am

John Nagl wrote:
<blockquote><em>"We waited until last year to give the Afghan conflict the resources that success will require. While we focused on Iraq, the Taliban regained strength and reinstituted their previous reign of terror in much of southern and eastern Afghanistan."</em></blockquote>

The underlying suggestion of the statement is that <em>but-for</em> the lack of resources that are now being sent to Afghanistan, the Taliban would not have regained strength. That is absolutely absurd. Just as the "surge" in Iraq was not a numbers game, neither is this recent renewed effort in Afghanistan.

Ken White opined:
<blockquote><em>"All told, an article that make one wonder what could have been its purpose..."</em></blockquote>
I would assert that the quote above from Nagl is not legitimate analysis. Rather, it is a rhetorical swipe at the previous administration intended to appeal to individuals who are not sophisticated enough to understand the nuances of the debate, but who may be swayed if they believe the author is of the same political persuasion. If you can't sell the plan on its merits, sell it on something else. Anyone looking to buy a bridge?

A. Scott Crawford (not verified)

Mon, 06/21/2010 - 12:22am


I have great reservations regarding the hesitation of so many strategists and theorists to openly discuss the dilemma the U.S. faces in Afghanistan at present. Personally, I do not understand the COIN strategic concept to be expected to be successful if applied in a rushed timeline, against passive opposition from the Executive and diplomatic corps. If I'm mistaken, please correct me, but I cannot conceive of an enemy so ignorant of public statements by the White House that it would fail to simply retreat in order to prepare it's counter offensive to be executed in exactly the manner used against Israel when the IDF saw it's planned withdrawal from Lebanon turn into a humiliating rout.

The fact is, the White House's utter lack of a long term schedule past it's "deadline", undermines the entire war effort, and the Majority leaders in the House and Senate, the Secretary of State, and the President himself, surely know it. Pretending otherwise plays well in the salons of the Capital and is certainly the polite and gentlemanly course for officers navigating the greasy pole. But where are those Generals and such whom swore they'd not repeat the mistakes of Vietnam? Well? What kind of morale will result when soldiers who fought a decade in Afghanistan, and were clearly making progress in the so-called "long war", are then evacuated before the job is properly done?

As much as I respect the Secretary and JCS for keeping their disputes with the Administration private, I believe someone needs to point out that pretending the current timetable is acceptable given the circumstances, is unlikely. Obviously the brass will TRY to accomplish it's mission, but shouldn't we who think about Small Wars discuss the implications of the Taliban adopting a clever and common sense strategy of biding it's time?


A. Scott Crawford

Ken White (not verified)

Mon, 06/21/2010 - 12:21am

Those who think anyone can win in an insurgency are suspect. The best one can hope for is an acceptable outcome...

Nagl says:<blockquote>"Those skeptics may have forgotten that counterinsurgency is always slow and grinding - "like eating soup with a knife", in the words of T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia), a man who knew something of this most challenging kind of war..."</blockquote>No one has forgotten that because COIN devotees remind them of it quite frequently. What many believe is that there is a better way. Lawrence practiced one type of war in one locale; all wars differ. Nor is Lawrence one of the more knowledgeable practitioners. However, the important thing is that one remember that while eating soup with a knife is not the advised approach it's even better to avoid the soup altogether...<br><br>

The author continues:<blockquote>"...Defeating an insurgency requires the patience to implement the classic "clear-hold-build-transition" counterinsurgency strategy. Efforts to clear the enemy from an area require large numbers of well-trained and usually foreign troops...Success requires local troops to hold the area so that the insurgents cannot return to disrupt the process of building a better life for the population in the cleared area, which can then be transitioned to local control."</blockquote>Three excellent reasons to avoid interventions in the potential insurgencies of others. One could ask how that's all working out for us but I suspect the large number of articles and op-eds in defense of the effort similar to this are answer enough.<blockquote>"...defeating insurgents is hard, slow work"</blockquote>Two reminders of the time required in one paragraph. We're unlikely to forget.

All that said, the article is essentially correct; we can achieve an acceptable outcome and it will take a while. The use of perhaps specious numbers for the ANA and ANP -- specious in the sense that numbers do not show capability and change frequently for various reasons -- is not reassuring, rather the reverse. Regrettably, 'metrics' and warfare do not mix well and rarely do numbers tell much about the state of a campaign.

All told, an article that make one wonder what could have been its purpose...

Major Scarlet (not verified)

Mon, 06/21/2010 - 10:46am

questions for Nagl based on his article:
"defeating insurgents is hard slow work"

really? once the Sri Lankans got tired enough of the Tamils they locked the media and antiwar NGOs in a building and sent their military out to pound the Tamils in to submission. it took 40 years of the process we are using for them to figure out it won't work and less than a month to attack and destroy the Tamils with a military campaign that had a very small (if any) ROE. care to compare and contrast?

"Most importantly, despite the gloom that hovers over Washington discussions of Afghanistan policy, the war is still winnable, given the right decisions here, in Afghanistan itself and in Pakistan."

are you assuming Pakistan is on our side? they aren't.

"along with more effective drone strikes and an increasing Pakistani commitment to counterinsurgency, are putting more pressure on the Taliban and giving the Afghan government an opportunity to outgovern its enemies."

wishful thinking. the afghan government isn't configured correctly for government and will soon collapse from ineptitude, cronyism, and corruption. do the taliban tribes trust the Afghan government to look out for them? of course not. anyone with an ounce of sense can see how badly the Afghan government is doing.

"The second reason success is possible is that Pakistan began to take far more effective action against the Taliban over the course of 2009."

this is a lie by omission. Pakistan handled the Pakistan taliban because they threatened their government. for the most part, the Afghan taliban got a pass. the ISI is supporting, training, and conducting missions against US troops with the taliban.

"The Afghan Army, the most respected institution in the country, is now 125,000 strong."

what study confirms this statement. the last i heard, tribes send their worst males to join the ANA. has something changed in less than one year? this certainly isn't the feedback i'm getting from friends i have in afghanistan.

"That is how this war is likely to end - first with a trickle and then a torrent of Taliban deciding that working with the government offers a better future than fighting against it."

why would the taliban work with the afghan government when they have an opportunity to be the government after we leave? what worked in iraq won't work in afghanistan.