Small Wars Journal

Counterinsurgency Strategy Not Working in Afghanistan, Critics Say

Wed, 01/12/2011 - 8:44am
Counterinsurgency Strategy Not Working in Afghanistan, Critics Say by David Wood, Politics Daily. BLUF: "Experts on Afghanistan and on counterinsurgency, among them active-duty and retired military officers, analysts and academics, are pushing to have the U.S. mission in Afghanistan significantly narrowed in scope. Their message, in brief: Drop the hearts 'n' minds stuff. Go kill the enemy."
Categories: Afghanistan


James (not verified)

Sat, 01/22/2011 - 4:00pm


Read up on Faisal Shahzad. He was trained, funded, and directed by the TB. His initial desire was to fight for the TB in Afghanistan but the TB instead sent him to AQ to serve as a suicide bomber in the US since he was a US Citizen.

G Martin

Sat, 01/22/2011 - 2:44pm

Lost of assumptions in there- some may be invalid. I think they are.

The bottom line to me is that to prevent terrorists from hitting us at home there are many cheaper ways than building a stable nation with Western systems in Afghanistan.

But, the biggest assumption I disagree with you on is that if we draw down combat troops now and/or stop doing 3-24 COIN, that AQ will come back to Afghanistan or that the Taliban will start sending suicide bombers to the U.S. I think that is the logic ISAF uses and the fear of some- but I don't think our populace believes it (since they support us leaving) nor do our politicians (pushing to pull us out ASAP).

Regardless, I agree it is draining funds at a time when we need them elsewhere. Even SECDEF understand that as he has stated money is our greatest strategic threat now.

James (not verified)

Sat, 01/22/2011 - 2:21pm

To reiterate the point: "Afghanistan falling back into the hands of the Taliban would be perceived by both the Taliban and AQ as a strategic defeat to America and would invite more attacks on our interests abroad as well as our own soil again."
An emboldened TB and AQ due to a perceived victory in Afghanistan over a second superpower would likely seek to extend its reach beyond Afghanistan. The Taliban in Pakistan would likely gain momentum and further support from AQ to the point of seriously threatening an overthrow of the government in Pakistan. The relationship between AQ and TTP would bare much more interest for the AQ after an American "defeat" in Afghanistan because of the fact that Pakistan is a much less powerful government and is a nuclear armed nation. An AQ-friendly Taliban government in Pakistan presents obvious threats to American security but it would also serve as an enormous destabilizing force in the region. TTP spun off from the LET who's sole goal in life is to win the disputed Kashmir region between Pakistan and India and the TTP government would likely serve as the single most destabilizing force in the region. So we would end up with two nations in the region with a TB government, AQ sanctuaries and training camps in both, possibility of nuclear proliferation through to Islamic Fundamentalist world, and severely destabilized southern and central Asia. Yeah I would say that the Taliban threat to America and our interests abroad qualifies as strategic and preventing TB control of that dollar is worth way more than $20.

James (not verified)

Sat, 01/22/2011 - 2:01pm

"We're not talking about abandoning Astan"
Ok. That is the way your post came across to me so I apologize and will readjust my aim.

"We're also talking about reinforcing the same [grievances] that started the [insurgency] in the first place."
The insurgency started based on GIRoA's inabilities to attain legitimacy throughout the country. The last gov't here to do that was that of Zahir Shah. The limited of reach of GIRoA beyond Kabul and the disarmament of the warlords outside of the Taliban heartland created a power vacuum that allowed the Taliban to begin addressing the lack of governance and again begin their rise to power. It didn't start as an insurgency and was more of a power projection and alliance formation much like the Taliban's original rise to power. All the groups capable of resisting the Taliban were disarmed and the attempt was made to incorporate them into the political process. With those groups out of the way the Taliban was able to empower the rival groups and easily form their "network." This is almost exactly the same way they did it the first time except that their true enemies were disarmed. The Taliban goal was to gain strength and influence, and overthrow GIRoA through insurrection not insurgency. This movement because an insurgency once ISAF attempted to move beyond Kabul and had initial success against a Taliban with a much more limited military strength when compared to the 90s. That combined with AQ's successful insurgency in Iraq around 2006-07, it was an easy sell by the AQ leadership for the Taliban to shift strategies towards the end of 2007 to one of insurgency and the insurgency was ultimately begun in the spring of 2008. And we all know where it went from there but the bottom line is this insurgency didn't begin based on the grievances of the mass population. It began because of our limited role to the CT mission in the early years and our struggles with the AQ insurgency in Iraq.

"To top it off, we're building a huge standing army which this country will NEVER be able to maintain and pay salaries to on their own"
Afghanistan has one of the worlds largest untapped reserves of many natural resources. Resources that region powers such as China and India are quite interested in but the exploration and mining of these resources are dependent on security.

"These are not stupid people - they know how to run their country."
Many Afghans have no institutional memory of how a national government should work.

"They'll defend against a resurgent Taliban through the help of the ISI, not us."
How? When the ISI still views a Taliban government a more favorable alternative to the current one based on economic ties between GIRoA and India.

"And what if the ominous "Taliban" get back in power; these guys in 2011 are completely different than the guys in 2001."
At the mid level. And forget not that the Taliban is still in debt to AQ for their suicide attack that killed Ahmad Shah Massoud.

"They're made up of so many disparate groups and [interests] now"
They were in the 90s too.

"Our war is to disrupt and defeat AQ. And I disagree that we have the fight the TB there so we don't have to fight AQ here argument."
Disagree if you wish but when the Taliban passes would be insurgent fighters over to AQ to serve as suicide bombers in the US I'd say that it makes it hard to maintain your stance.

Bob's World

Fri, 01/21/2011 - 10:56am


Afghans have no problem recognizing the power of their current constitution, and in fact this is a country that has had several constitutions over the years. See this link for the text of every constitution since 1923:

So when people say "oh, they just don't understand/appreciate/etc such Western concepts," I say bullcrap. They understand full well the power of such guiding documents, that is why every new team to rise to power creates a new constitution designed to keep the previous guys in a powerless box, while in turn enabling their own sustained reign. The Catch-22 is that any constitution designed to do such a thing virtually ensures insurgency and the ultimate demise of the guys who enacted it.

The key is to understand the principle at work in a successful constitution like the US, where and how the current constitution of Afghanistan violates those principles; and then to empower a team that represents Afghanistan's best and brightest from ACROSS the various interest groups to design a constitution tailored for their own culture and values that is consistent with principles that prevent the abuse of governmental powers, the suppression of minority groups, and the individual rights of all citizens in a manner that makes sense to them.

Where the US screws up is that we get WAY too prescriptive on these things to overly push these western values and concepts you mention. Or, as currently with ISAF, we consider such efforts to be outside our lane, so we lower our sights and engage the symptoms of the problem rather than the causes.

This is what we do not seem to appreciate about current US COIN doctrine and CT Doctrine: It is designed to manage and suppress symptoms of problems, not to cure them.

It is time to match our engagement with our rhetoric. We talk cure, but do mitigation. Time to do the cure as well.

Robert C Jones

Apologies for being offline - travelling.

Do you think that part of the mistake in the current top down level of strategic thinking in relation to negotiations is that we continue to come at this from a Western democratic mind set.

In an anthropological perspective, and at the risk of being elitist, it is anachronistic. We forget that Western democracy has been developed over a long period of history, numerous revolutions and civil wars that eventually resulted in founding principles cemented in documents such as the Magna Carta, and the Bill of Rights of 1689, which followed the deposing of James II. And of course the oldest written constitution in the world, the United States of Americas Constitution 1787.

Citizens in every local town in the United States have had over 220 years to recognise and respect their constitution within a free and open society.

Afghan tribes and villagers experienced democracy for the first time in 2004. Yet, this has not diminished the primacy of local power and authority in resolving disputes and negotiating local issues.

It could well be that because the introduction of democracy, constitution and rules of law to Afghanistan was through foreign intervention rather than an organic revolution; it will take even longer to cement a top down deontological approach to the rule of law.

Stepping back for a moment, the obvious difference between the insurgency in Afghanistan and that of other civil conflicts in Algeria, Vietnam, Malaya and East Timor is that these insurgencies were a momentous struggle to displace a deeply corrupt government or break the shackles of colonialism.

The motive for the insurgency in Afghanistan is neither of these. The foreign Taliban demand adherence to no ethnicity, no nationality nor necessarily have the same reasons to fight. Some are religiously motivated such as the Madrassah students from across the Pakistan border in the NWFP. Others are "Western home grown" Islamic students or converts to Islam from Europe who were fighting like many of the foreign elements who entered Iraq to join the Al Qaeda insurgency to kill Coalition soldiers.(dont mean to tell you to suck eggs!)

If I have followed your arguments correctly, then common sense would suggest we need a strong combination of local effort in coordination with national reform.

However, that formula is being attempted albiet with only just enough troops and coordination now and yet in little over six months the level of troops will start to be reduced.

When I read Major K's previous post - I crashed me back to earth from pondering, and straining to want to make it all work.

In a paper published by SWJ in August 2010 I wrote "No matter how much we try to win the hearts and minds, no matter how many millions of dollars is spent on development and regardless of attempts to improve governance and eliminate corruption, the socio-cultural ecosystem of Afghanistan does not respond to the doctrine of counterinsurgency and any permutation of Western systems of governance. While the pockets can be won the hearts and minds in Afghanistan will always remain notoriously capricious."

James says: "Afghanistan falling back into the hands of the Taliban would be perceived by both the Taliban and AQ as a strategic defeat to America and would invite more attacks on our interests abroad as well as our own soil again."

There is a game called "The Dollar Auction." The rules are simple. The auctioneer puts $1 up for auction, beginning at 1 cent. He will sell to the highest bidder. The catch is that the second highest bidder must also pay his bid - and he doesnt get anything.

Generally, the game proceeds along, and eventually someone bids $1, leaving someone else with a bid of 95 cents or something similar. Then the fun part starts. The second-highest bidder has an incentive to bid $1.01 because he will only be out 1 cent instead of 95 cents. The original bidder of $1 then has the same incentive to bid, say, $1.10.

The bids continue well beyond $1. Eventually, the game becomes more about winning than profit. Dollar bills have gone for $3-$5 dollars, and sometimes $20. The bidding often becomes heated and emotional, and ultimately more about winning and losing than gaining what little stood to be gained in the first place.

We've been in Afghanistan a while now. Are we bidding $3, $5, or even $20 for a $1 bill?

A comprehensive COIN strategy in Afghanistan with the aim of transforming that country into a working, non-terrorist democracy is certainly the best outcome we could want. Given enough time, money, and blood, we might be able to achieve it.

The problem is that this strategy will take so long and be so expensive that it wont be worth the effort. Sure, well end up with a buck, but how much will we have paid for it?

A limited counter-terrorism strategy is certainly not capable of producing the same results as a COIN strategy. However, it is much more efficient. While we may get, say, 75% of the effectiveness, we get it at 10% of the cost. We get more bang for the buck.

The 800lb gorilla in the room is the defense budget. It will shrink, and soon. While COIN is the most effective strategy, it is also the most manpower intensive, ergo, the most expensive.

Perhaps it is time we opted for a more efficient strategy? While not as effective, a limited counter-terrorism strategy is more sustainable in the long run.


Fri, 01/21/2011 - 3:43am

We're not talking about abandoning Astan; we're talking about dropping the armed nation-building and wasting billions of dollars of DoD money a year. We're talking about a gov't that doesn't want our capacity building or our Western ways of solving things. We're also talking about reinforcing the same greivances that started the insrugency in the first place. To top it off, we're building a huge standing army which this country will NEVER be able to maintain and pay salaries to on their own....and an army that will only be used to protect the personalities, not the institutions of the presidency and constitution when things go south.

Building GIRoA capacity is a non sequitir. These are not stupid people - they know how to run their country. It's messy, it's based on patronage networks and what we'd call functional corruption, and if we'd leave them to it, they'd make it work. They'll defend against a resurgent Taliban through the help of the ISI, not us. Whatever that type of political reintegration looks like, it'll be their solution, not one issued forth from our campaign plan or LOOs.

And what if the ominous "Taliban" get back in power; these guys in 2011 are completely different than the guys in 2001. They're made up of so many disparate groups and intersts now I'm surprised anyone still uses the blanket term like they're all card-carrying members of one group.

Finally, sunk costs are no reason to continue prosecuting a war. We've set up GIRoA for success beyond any practical expectation. Again, they can do this if they want to. But they don't want to do anything by our definitions, our requirements, and our concepts. They'll still keep taking our money and our blood, but they'll do it differently if given the chance. It's their war, not ours. Our war is to disrupt and defeat AQ. And I disagree that we have the fight the TB there so we don't have to fight AQ here argument. That's a failed GWOT mindset. The only thing that will invite more attacks on America is by supporting these types of corrupt governments all over the world in the first place.

And that quote, it's from your previous post. I was arguing against it because that logic train has nothing to do with the resources and projects we and the int'l community are executing in Astan. The ends do not justify our ways or means.

James (not verified)

Thu, 01/20/2011 - 6:09pm

My point was/is still that if we abandoned Afghanistan, as you alluded to in your previous post, without building the capacity for GIRoA to defend against a resurgence in Taliban violence then we are inviting them to retake the country. History has already shown that the Taliban is at least tollerant of AQ. Afghanistan falling back into the hands of the Taliban would be perceived by both the Taliban and AQ as a strategic defeat to America and would invite more attacks on our interests abroad as well as our own soil again.
I am not an advocate of the Karzai government by any means and I agree that there are things that should be changed within his administration and in the Afghan constitution but a GIRoA, even in its current state, is a much better alternative and provides more to our national security than a Taliban controlled Afghanistan.
I am curious where you got your quote. I have read articles that have stated that same bit about the TB rejecting AQ if they retook Afghanistan and I find them completely off base and poorly researched.


Thu, 01/20/2011 - 4:33pm

Are we talking about Osama? What does underwriting a corrupt Central Asian government have to do with 9/11? Or are you inferring that the Afghans attacked us on 9/11? Please tell me you're not bringing up the whole "big lie" about ungoverned spaces allowing 9/11 planning to take place? I didn't think anything about this entire thread was about Osama. What we're doing in AFG certainly doesn't have anything to do with AQ. If I count right, out of 61 posts, 3 people mentioned AQ in the margins. What we're talking about is wholesale nation-building for a corrupt host-nation government at the cost of US blood and treasure. And after Transition in 2014 nothing will be one iota different. This thread is as little about AQ as it is about Islamofascism or caliphates.

<i>"[A] Taliban controlled Afghanistan post-OEF wouldn't allow an AQ presence..</i>" has nothing to do with our current PC-COIN campaign plan or billions of dollars spent dragging an unwilling GIRoA or AFG into a democratic 21st century and it certainly doesn't have anything to do with US national security. If we were serious about AQ, our efforts would be focused elsewhere. What we are serious about is promulgating a concept of "future warfare" that's got a huge defense/contractor/think-tank lobby behind it. At some point in the near future we won't be able to afford it anymore though, politically or economically. The sooner we get there the better.

James (not verified)

Thu, 01/20/2011 - 2:12pm

"Many of those I met said one thing but meant an entirely different thing- and they were very cunning (they wanted all they could get from whoever would provide it)."

I agree. The only way to find your way through this facade is through months and months of interactions. That's what we did. But that being said the Afghans in village A had completely different grievances from those in village B. The thing that we saw in common amongst almost every village was that they didn't care about national governance. They only cared how it affected them.

"I try to think first in terms of the "average huaman.""
The problem I have with that logic is that it seems to lend to putting the American answer on and Afghan problem. Most of the time that never works out.

Other than that I pretty much agree with the above statements by both Bob and Maj Martin.

Maj K,
Wow! Did you feel the same about Osama back prior to 9/11? I mean that was the consciences back then that yes he had his followers but he is half a world away... what can he do to us? And to think that a Taliban controlled Afghanistan post-OEF wouldn't allow an AQ presence is a dangerous assumption and not one that I would be comfortable making... especially given the history.

G Martin

Thu, 01/20/2011 - 9:33am

Ah- and I thought you were recommending a new name for our "colony"! ;)

My comment was directed more at James' remarks using his anecdote as the logic to support his argument. While I don't dispute his anecdote, I hesitate to use any one to support broad policies. For every American who wants different health care than what we have currently, there's another who wants something different. Why wouldn't Afghans be the same? (I'd also recommend we use anecdotes like science uses experiments- only to attempt to negate theories as opposed to support them. As I understand it, the scientific method holds that a theory grows stronger as more experiments are run to try and negate it. This is opposed to how we in the military seem to do things: we believe the theory was strong to begin with and seek out experiments/data that support our assumption.)

To me, "colonialism" also connotes coming in with your ideas/values/systems and forcing them on an ignorant/apathetic/misunderstanding/resistant populace. Regardless of our hubris to think we have the only answer on what "right" in life looks like- reality is there are many ways to live- and many Afghans have figured out/can figure out for themselves how to go about living.

There are tribal and family issues in some parts of the country that go back hundreds if not thousands of years. To think "good governance" can "fix" all of that is being too optimistic in my opinion. But, to repeat myself- I find that too many strategists and planners opine that "bad" governance is the main root behind the insurgency and if we just put good governance in we'd be successful. I submit that is an assumption- a HUGE assumption- and it may be wrong.

The alternative possibility is that in some places improved governance could help, in others ANY outside interference will drive up "insurgent" metrics, and in still others there are other underlying problems that good governance would not address. But to our leadership COIN has a template and it must be followed, and part of that template is "good governance", and if results aren't positive then it was the execution to blame- not the logic of the idea in the first place.

Lastly- something we discount is pride. We assume (unconsciously) that the Afghans will not resist our efforts out of a sense of pride in ownership. Who is more proud of what they have: the owner of a "habitat for humanity" house or the owner of a house that he/she financed/bought/built themselves? I sumbit that the assumption that whatever good goverance we/GIRoA help local Afghans with will be more of a stabilizing influence than not could also be wrong: instead believing that many Afghans will not support us and/or support the insurgency and not change their behavior based on things that are initiated by us, GIRoA, or perceived to have been initiated by any outsiders. I couldn't imagine our history if instead of "founding fathers" framing our initial government we had to acknowledge a horde of British advisers who helped us out and guided us down the right path. There's something to be said about "emergence", learning by trial and error, and doing it yourself.

Bob's World

Thu, 01/20/2011 - 4:38am

Oops. "GIROA" (not sure why my fingers tend to type that in the wrong order)

Bob's World

Thu, 01/20/2011 - 4:35am

I try to think first in terms of the "average huaman." To think first in terms of how everyone is different, etc, etc, leads to a dangerous form of rationalization that is quite common in the colonial experience. That the presence and actions of the Colonial power, no matter how contrary to what the "average human" would find acceptabe is not only ok in a particular circumstance, but actually "for their own good."

The greatest sanctuary in Afghanistan is the one we have created around GIROA. The one that the current government operates from with impunity in ways that contribute far more to the existance and growth of the sanctuary than any actions by AQ, the Taliban, or any other insurgent organization.

The second greatest sanctuary is the rationalization process we have built within our own minds regarding the context and effect of our own actions as a foreign, intervening power in Afghanistan.

This isn't because the men and women of GIORA are bad people. This is not because the U.S. and the Coalition are bad people.

It's just human nature.


Thu, 01/20/2011 - 2:02am

I'm going to pile on Grant's recommendation; no national interests are being served in Afghanistan, certainly to the extent of $11B a year or US lives lost. If Afghanistan re-Talibanized, who cares. No schools for girls in an Islamic Emirate? That doesn't stop my family back in the US from shopping in peace. No Afghan national healthcare system? Doesn't make me any less secure. The only way to address any of the problems in AFG is one we've intentionally limited ourselves from approaching and dealing with - the ISI and Pakistan. Since we'll never address that in any meaningful way...while we continue to piss away millions of USD on the PAK Mil and gov't, we might as well just pack up all our stuff in Astan and go home now.

One point I'd disagree on though Grant; if we disengage from the nation-building but still maintain the 'training/advisory/support efforts,' all we're doing is creating a Praetorian Guard for a corrupt government. I'm pretty sure GIRoA knows the fight for power that's coming....who do you think is going to defend them? All the elite and 'trusted' Commando Kandaks, ANCOP, and ANA units that are the cream of NTM-A's crop. When we disengage, we should really disengage. If they can't get governance and security straight after 10 years of US funding, equipping, and training/advising, it's a bridge too far and that should be plain for all to see. I'd imagine funding for humanitarian aid, development projects, and gov't support should still flow in after we leave but that will be through national committments and the UN if they see a need and a payoff. We don't need to train and fund a 380K standing ANSF which GIRoA has no need or capability to maintain on their own.

These 2 cents represent the thoughts of the author alone and not those of ISAF, the US Army, or the DoD.

G Martin

Thu, 01/20/2011 - 1:29am

I couldn't imagine a Chinese officer having the hubris to think he "knew" what it would take to get those "crazy" Americans in your example to stop fighting! I think we'd probably laugh at him...

I once thought those at "the bottom" should be allowed to do whatever within broad guidance- now I'm not so sure. I think many are too close to the problem- and too close to the specific example they see where they operate.

If we have to change GIRoA or their Constitution or anything drastic like that to "win"- then I say "good luck". We gave up most of the say-so when we pushed for early elections.

I think "the average Afghan" is a phantom. The guy just doesn't exist. And- even if he did- I find too many people describe them as altruistic. They just want to farm and raise their kids? I thought that's all the Vietnamese wanted...? Many of those I met said one thing but meant an entirely different thing- and they were very cunning (they wanted all they could get from whoever would provide it).

Lastly- I think we (Americans and Europeans) give way too much credit to the idea of "good governance"- when we don't really understand what that means in our own country, much less Afghanistan. I think many areas have figured out what good governance means to them in their area- and it has nothing to do with GIRoA or ISAF- and never will.

In the end I keep going back to Ralph Peters' and many others' points on our national security interests: they aren't being served by attempting to clear, hold, and nation-build. Let's back-off, let GIRoA take the lead, assist them with training/advisory/support efforts, and monitor the area for AQ presence. Who cares what local Taliban leaders want? Why does that matter to U.S. security?

James (not verified)

Wed, 01/19/2011 - 9:40pm

I have sat with Afghans who could careless who the district sub-governor was little on the president. All they wanted to do was grow their crops and raise their families in peace no matter who the government is.

That is a fundamental difference in Afghanistan and America. I get your point and while it is completely valid in that we have to fix the top it is incorrect to think that if we were to only change the constitution that everything else would subside.

The average Afghan out in the village, the same Afghan that the Taliban coerces his sons into joining their ranks, he doesn't care about whether his district sub-governor is appointed or not. He cares about how that affects him. If it means that he is allowed to grow his crops and he sees soldiers and police more often in his village but the Taliban isn't there forcing their way into his home or trying to convince his sons to go fight, then he is ok with that. But that all changes when the Taliban starts a firefight in his village and storms into his house and the response is an air strike that kills his son/daughter. Now he has grievances with those soldiers and his remaining son(s), who have also lost their brother or sister, asks to go fight the soldiers. He says yes or maybe he fights himself. Those new Taliban fighters could have been avoided if the soldiers and police had been able to keep the Taliban out of his village.

That is the local insurgency. Mullah Omar and his high level commanders don't inspire that guy. They don't rally him to overthrow the new government based on the fact that his sub-governor is appointed. They don't even rally him to fight because they were left out of the new government. So yes this insurgency is local and the bottom MUST be solved just as much as the middle and the top.

Let's take that same Afghan and this time his neighbor claims his fields as his own. Now the first Afghan brings this up to his local government but the second Afghan has already paid off the sub-governor so he refuses to intervene. Now this first Afghan has a grievance that was caused by a flawed government... government that if it had a stake in the dispute would be much less susceptible to bribery. This same Afghan is approached by the Taliban who agrees to kick the second Afghan off his land if he sends 2 of his sons to fight with them. We have arrived at the same end for a different reason.

We cannot fix the top alone or the bottom alone. We must fix all levels simultaneously.

IntelTrooper (not verified)

Wed, 01/19/2011 - 7:05pm

I wish all deploying personnel would sit through a class where COL Jones's scenario is illustrated in order to generate genuine empathy for the average Afghan and Taliban fighter.

Bob's World

Wed, 01/19/2011 - 6:02pm

Consider this parallel universe:

In 2011, the People's Republic of China determines that they have a vital national interest in the U.S. Economy, so send 100,000 military advisors under a 4-star command to protect their investment and guard their vital national interest against U.S. government practices that they describe as "an existential threat" to the people of China.

This team identifies an American living in exile, and conducts special elections to place this man in power as the new President of the U.S. The existing Constitution is then deemed null and void, and a special team, closely advised by their Chinese mentors, produces a new constitution to prevent future abuses such as what occurred under the previous document.

In this new constitution, the President selected and by the Chinese, and recognized by Beijing as "the legitimate President of the U.S." is granted sweeping powers. He is able to appoint 1/3 of the U.S. Senate, replace the entire Supreme Court, appoint all State and Territorial Governors, and County Commissioners as well as the senior law enforcement official at each of those levels. He also is allowed to select the mayors of the major metropolitan areas.

Then, to avoid the abuses of militias, the National Guard is disbanded and teams of Chinese soldiers roam across the land searching for caches of privately owned firearms. All local law enforcement is also abolished and replaced by a new, fully centralized national police force and army. The President picks the senior officials in both forces, which are then in turn trained and mentored by Chinese soldiers and contractors.

Shortly after all of this occurs, acts of subversion and insurgency begin to grow across the land. China responds logically by surging in additional military forces to suppress these uprisings. Meanwhile, former U.S. officials operating from exile in Mexico and Canada take a leadership role in challenging the new U.S. Government. China responds by putting heavy economic pressure on both states to exercise their sovereignty and capture these terrorists.

None of this has much effect, so China implements a bold plan of nation building and development. Those Americans who collaborate most closely with the Chinese soon grow fabulously rich and powerful as they are granted contracts for everything from delivering gravel to pulling security on Chinese convoys. Meanwhile ambushes of Chinese soldiers and their American collaborators continue to climb. Major efforts to "clear-hold-build" in the greater LA and Atlanta areas result in a spike of violence. The insurgents are creative, bold, and fearless in their ungrateful efforts to attack the good soldiers of China.

Now, James, I ask you. Is this a "rural insurgency" that can be cured by a bottom up approach? I'm not buying it. Until the problem at the top is resolved the bottom will continue to fester. Once the top is resolved, the bottom will quickly subside.

James (not verified)

Wed, 01/19/2011 - 5:17pm


I am drinking no Kool-Aid... here I am lucky to get a sodas with a meal. It is basically just water, water, water, lol.

I agree heavily with your statement that the Taliban is, for the most part, a twin-hierarchy insurgency. And I also agree that some of the bottom tier's grievances are nested in the fact that there are foreign forces in their homelands (I was basically told the same thing by one TB commander). I am also all for bringing the Shura members to the table for reconciliation and inclusion in the government.

Where I don't agree is on the idea that the constitution of Afghanistan somehow makes a village level Afghan want to pick up arms and fight against GIRoA. I agree that the constitution needs to be reworked and amended to allow for locally elected local governance leaders. This happens even at the district level with the district shuras but that is where it stops.

My approach isn't a bottom-up or development to victory approach. Mine is a simultaneous attack on 3 different fronts: local security, district-provincial governance, and GIRoA.

To provide local security you DO NOT have to hold every single district in the country, not even half. What you have to do is hold the "heartland" and key areas throughout the east. Some provinces in the east will need to be held entirely and others not at all. Take Kapisa province for example. You do not need to hold 4 of the 7 districts. Nijrab has a single valley that needs to be held; however, if Tagab and Alasay districts were held the insurgency in Nijrab would likely be snuffed out due to the reduction of insurgent supply lines that traverse Tagab and Alasay districts would be significantly.

But all the bottom-up efforts are for not if we do not have good governance at the district/provincial level. The key to this is most likely through a system that allows the villagers, either through direct elections or through their village jirgas, to elect the government officials at this level. These government officials would be held accountable by both the population and by higher echelons of GIRoA. Where this system breaks down is in the fact that the provincial minorities are left without proper representation in the locally elected government. This was much of the reason the US chose a bi-cameral legislate branch. Something similar should be put into place at this level of government. That could be splitting powers between the Provincial Governor, the Provincial Council and a third new equal representation body.

For most of this to take place it will require an amended Afghan Constitution. This happens at the GIRoA level. The other big ticket issue that must be addressed at this level is corruption. There must be amendments to the constitution to create transparency mechanisms through checks and balances. I personally think that an American style legislative body would work better in Afghanistan than the current pseudo-European style but that could just be that I understand the American one better. :)

But my bottom line is that unless we address all three levels of this we can do all the bottom level security parts that we want but the Afghans will never be able break the current fracture nature of their government and the conditions will be set another unsettled population who welcomes a group to seize power in Afghanistan like the Taliban did in the 90s.

Bob's World

Wed, 01/19/2011 - 3:28pm

Whoa, James, step away from the Kool-aid. Ive heard this line a dozen times before, and while the facts are generally correct, it is a line of analysis that really isnt supported by an understanding of insurgency in general.

First, a key point that is missing here, and at ISAF, is an understanding that this is probably best looked at as a two-tier insurgency. We divide it more by named groups under distinct leaders than by the nature of insurgency (which then informs proper solutions) The senior leadership that drives the insurgency from Pakistan is largely a political, revolutionary movement best addressed through reconciliation and the creation of a constitution that includes all Afghans in economic and political opportunity. Out in the rural areas of Afghanistan where the people are largely self-governing (and always have been) it is far more a resistance movement against the foreign occupiers (us and the ANSF), coupled with the illegitimacy of District and Provincial government that they have absolutely no say in the selection of. This is what "fractured" this society far more than the tidal swings of who sat in Kabul over the past 30+ years.

IMO What makes COIN interestingly unique in Afghanistan is the "all or nothing" nature of this patronage society. When one team rises to power, they secure all political and economic opportunity in themselves, their families and their tribes. The old team is tossed out, where they form a ready insurgent force for the next foreign power coming along to conduct UW. The Soviets, the Muj, the Taliban, the US, and the Taliban/AQ again have all leveraged this unique aspect of Afghanistan in turn. I sincerely believe that this, coupled with the warrior spirit of these people, makes this the easiest country in the world to conduct UW in.

I strongly encourage anyone above the rank of CPT assigned to ISAF to take an hour and read the Afghan constitution. People dont give the locals much credit. Plus we tend to place way too much importance on the effect that disruption of senior leadership has on the effectiveness of an organization.

No, the "security first" arguments fall flat as it leads to an endless cycle of "Clear-Clear-Clear"; just as the "develop to victory" falls flat, as it tends to enrich those who are currently in power as they get the contracts, while guiding projects to where they favor their friends and family as well since those who are excluded from that team are de facto "the Taliban." Likewise the "bottom up approach" fails the common sense test as well. First, we only have the capacity to engage less than a fraction of a percent of "the bottom," and second until the upper tier of the insurgency is reconciled and the constitution repaired such bottom focused efforts only endure so long as effort is kept to keep them going. Little pockets of foreign funded welfare. This isn't "ink blots", this is more like "lawn plugs."

As to Taliban "coercion" of the populace or Government "control" of the populace: What is the difference?? This is a flaw in our COIN doctrine. Control is best seen as a noun, rather than a verb. A government which is recognized by the populace as having the authority to rule, and who does so in an equitable and just fashion, will have "control" of the populace. This is must begin at the top.

Our problem is that weve drawn a big "no fire area" around GIROA, reconciliation, the constitution, illegitimacy of government, etc; for policy reasons I neither understand nor am privy to. Add to that the fact that the threat and AQ sanctuary have been so grossly mischaracterized that we are scared to simply walk away. So we stay and protect the very thing that fuels the insurgency the most: GIROA.

James (not verified)

Wed, 01/19/2011 - 2:23pm

Bob and Jason,

I agree that there needs to be pressure on Pres. Karsai to correct the issues in his administration; however, this insurgency is not driven by grief with the national government. Afghanistan is different from virtually any other COIN campaign in history (that I know of) in that the result of the anti-Soviet movement fractured much of the nationalist apparatus in Afghanistan. The institution of a national government left Afghanistan with King Shah and there are not too many Afghans remaining that have first hand memories of that. The fracture of that hierarchal national rule is what allowed the Mujahadeen to defeat the Soviet occupation so this happened much out of necessity. But as a result, Afghanistan for over 50 years now has been ruled by individual organizations made up of the tribal leaders and has been dependent on those leaders to deal with inter-tribal disputes. That system was very ineffective and was very instrumental in the rise of the Taliban to power the first time. A governance system such as that must be avoid in Afghanistan moving forward.

Because of the fractured national unity in Afghanistan to say that the villagers are supporting the Taliban because they are unhappy with Karzai is far from the truth IMO. Even in the heart of the insurgency there is a portion that support Mullah Omar out of loyalty, some out of coercion from those loyalists, and the rest out of the fact that the Taliban provides them power over their rival tribes.

Outside that area the biggest driving factor for the insurgents is that the Taliban has better presence and can more effectively coerce the population. Each village has its grievances and those grievances must be addressed once the population is secured but most of those grievances are not a result of the central gov't.

I have sat with TB commanders in RC-E and talked with them about why they won't leave the Taliban and join hands the ISAF in defeating the insurgency. Overwhelmingly response I got was that there really wasn't anything else for them to do. The Taliban took care of them and their village and that if they left without a way to secure that village the Taliban would make the lives of their villagers worse. So unless we address these local grievances and provide security to the population in some form then fixing Kabul accomplishes nothing.

So to address both previous post: Yes the insurgency in local and will be won or lost local but the building of a strong central government isn't for today, its for tomorrow. The purpose of fixing Kabul isn't to solve the insurgency but instead to help reestablish that national rule that was driven out of Afghanistan by necessity over 50 years ago. Once all responsibilities of governance and security is handed back over to the Afghans there needs to be that national government institution in place. There must be transparency and checks and balances to allow the Afghans to feel that they are able to actively engage in their government at all levels and create that "Buy-in" needed for lasting security.

Yes the solutions of this insurgency are very similar to those used in colonial insurgencies but we have to apply them knowing that the initial effects must be achieved at the local level and continue to build the rest of that governance piece all the way to the central government at the same time to better prepare Afghans for their own rule.

Bob's World

Wed, 01/19/2011 - 10:28am


Just like the American Revolution was a bottom up conflict? The fact is, that when a central government steps down hard on a populace, it is the little guys at the bottom that feel the pain most directly in terms of their day to day lives.

But it is the big guys, Like George Washington, one of the largest property owners in the colonies, sliding ever deeper into debt and forced to accept shoddy goods from British merchants, etc, that step up to lead. Or a Mullah Omar.

All of this, however, are reactions that rippled down through society from the domestic policies implemented at the top.

Think about how a prospector finds the mother lode. Far down stream he finds small, rounded flakes of gold. If he stays there and pans he won't make much progress. So he tracks it upstream, looking for larger and more jagged flakes and nuggets until he tracks it to his source. Then he digs there.

We are out panning for flakes. All of this that we see at the local level are manifestations of the form and function of the current government (driving the revolutionary aspect of the insurgency) and popular reaction to the tremendously unpopular and misunderstood foreign presence (driving the resistance aspect of the insurgency).

If the CIA really wanted to help, they'd park the drones and get out and conduct a little competitive UW among the Pashtun populace to drop AQ and to side with us; coupled with a shift from violent tactics to non-violent tactics to increase the pressure on the Karzai government. We can employ the example of Tunisa as a current model of the power of such tactics. We don't need to topple Karzai, but neither should we blindly support him. We just need to leverage his populace to squeeze him a bit.

Governments seem to perform better when the leader is ever aware of the firm grip of the populace upon his scrotum. When that dynamic inverts, bad things happen.

Are we still trying to implement a template i.e. COIN FM 3-24 into an environment that simply will not be turned by conventional COIN strategy and tactics?

There is very little national coordination of the Taliban, either local or foreign across Afghanistan. We all know the violence and insecurity is perpetuated by a variety of groups and individuals.

Therefore I agree with Robert C Jones' earlier comments that we continue to come at this from a colonial perspective.

Im still a student of this discipline but werent past insurgencies primarily monolithic or national in form? The insurgencies were working for very specific local goals (like overthrowing a local government), and they derived most of their power from the local population. With such a centralized base of power, previous insurgencies were vulnerable to strong military responses and were countered by triumphant colonial military campaigns.

Given the background of the major counterinsurgency campaigns that are held up as models for the modern day warrior, it does not take a TE Lawrence to work out that Afghanistan is substantially different.

How many Districts, let alone Provinces, has ISAF been able to hand over to the ANSF?

The Afghan/GiRoA side of the counterinsurgency is struggling to present a safe, secure alternative let alone an independently powerful and economically beneficial central government.

In summary local solutions for local problems. Forget trying to hammer the square peg into the round hole.

Yet, I wish you were right about the battle being won in the Capital. Afghanistan is so much a bottom-up conflict. It is the classic environment for "all politics is local." If the local Taliban in each District agrees not to allow AQ back in or any other foreign extremist/Pakistan based organisation to plan regional or global terror then that is perhaps the best 'win' we can expect as opposed to this constant obsession with builing a Western style government.

Bob's World

Tue, 01/18/2011 - 9:14am

I did not say "support the top" I say one must "Change the top."

It is our efforts to mitigate the symptoms at the bottom that in fact "support" the top. It is that very support that is dooming our efforts and why the promise of "creating legitimacy from the bottom up" is a false hope. Yes, legitimacy does come from the bottom up, but it cannot do so if the national government is illegitimate and ruled by a constitution that allows no legitimacy above the village level. Just as a thermal inversion traps pollutants in the LA Valley; the "constitutional inversion" in effect in Afghanistan traps legitimacy down below the District level as well.

Insurgencies are waged in the countryside, but won or lost in the Captials. For a colonial-like intervention such as the US is waging in Afghanistan, the principal battlefield is in Washington DC; (and they think that they are in the bleachers watching the game in Kandahar and Helmand).

kdog101 (not verified)

Mon, 01/17/2011 - 11:31pm

Don't most great movements start from the bottom?

We keep supporting the top, perhaps we will just get more of the same.

James (not verified)

Mon, 01/17/2011 - 9:32pm

I think ol' Blue said it best on his blog

"COIN does not function as a self-standing strategy for resolving instability, it is a methodology for fighting against an active insurgency, but it does not resolve the causes and conditions that gave rise to the insurgency to begin with. Instability is an incubator for insurgency. The military role in the stability operations required to remove these underpinnings is the lesser of the three main lines of effort."

It seems to be what the two of us are trying to say.

James (not verified)

Mon, 01/17/2011 - 9:46am

"This is why I developed the concept of 'conditions of insurgency.'"
I am writing a short paper for my own gratification call 'Dynamic of a Successful Insurgency' which sounds kind of similar to your idea. Do you have any published works on your topic? I would would like to take a look for knowledge-sake.

"Where it gets tricky is in tracking the causation for such conditions back to the source."
I think this is nearly impossible in Afghan society unless you are able to out into the villages and learn what their grievances are. Maybe it is the constitution or maybe it is that their village elder has been marginalized in favor for the district "Shura." Either way if we simply sit Kabul City we would never even know the grievances of villagers in Surobi, a far district in Kabul province.

Bob's World

Mon, 01/17/2011 - 7:46am

"It is pointless to defeat the insurgency and not address the grievances that laid the ground work for the insurgency in the first place."

A true statement, IMO. Just remember that the insurgent is not the insurgency, he just represents a group that emerged to exploit conditions of insurgency that are in turn a reflection of the populaces perceptions of the nature and applicaiton of domestic policies from the government. This is why I developed the concept of "conditions of insurgency." Address the conditions and the insurgent fades away for want of support. Where it gets tricky is in tracking the causation for such conditions back to the source. The mother lode in Afghanistan is their current Constitution. Dig there for best effect.

Out in the villages? You just panning for dust. You'll make beer and hooker money, but the real money is found at the mother lode.

James (not verified)

Sun, 01/16/2011 - 2:01pm

First off, thanks for the compliment.
Secondly, I agree with you that the bottom-up cannot be the long term solution because, as you have stated, the governance institution will eventually collapse from the top-down. But the intent of the bottom-up IMO is to provide security and a decent interval for the higher levels of governance to improve. But if we were to continue to try to build the governance institution of Afghanistan from the top down like we did from 2001-2008ish, GIRoA would never earn the legitimacy of the populace. That can only come through those village level efforts. But they must tie back to the top levels to be sustainable. It is pointless to defeat the insurgency and not address the grievances that laid the ground work for the insurgency in the first place.

Bob's World

Sun, 01/16/2011 - 8:04am


The "bottom up is the only way" crowd reminds me of a true story a friend of mine told me of his experience at the Pentagon on 9/11. A mountain of a man, this Navy SEAL was everywhere, putting his great size, training, and energy to work to save others. He literally caught several people who were forced to leap from a third story gap in the building to escape the growing flames. He later led a party into the burning smoking building to search for survivors they were told were still inside.

As they entered one room, the ceiling suddenly sagged down upon them. This hero immediately reached up, pressing both hands against the ceiling, locking his body in a rigid X, and directed everyone to get out. Once everyone was clear, and he was alone in the smoke filled room with this tremendous weight of a failing building above him, his thought was "now what?"

He knew he couldn't hold it much longer, and he knew it would likely collapse and crush him once he attempted to withdraw. The best he could hope for was a "decent interval."

Long story short, God granted him that decent interval and a great man lived to share his story in humble wonder. VSO is much like this. Bubbles of goodness propped up artificially through the extreme efforts of our amazing SOF community. But they can't hold it up forever, and just like a collapsing building, a collapsing government cannot be saved from the bottom up either until the problems up above are resolved.

You have a good head on your shoulders James, keep up the good work.


James (not verified)

Sat, 01/15/2011 - 7:58pm

It will take more than just a village... from the security stand point there must be an onion of layers on layers of security. Neighborhood watch, ALP, ANP, ANA, NDS, ABP, etc. They have to all work together when we leave. Most of the governance will be done by the village elders and tribal councils. A smaller amount through the district/provincial gov't. And even less through GIRoA.

But when you talk about bringing security for the first time it starts at the village level. If we cannot provide security to the everyday Afghan living in the village so that he can make that connection to his village/district leaders then he will never see the "Face" of the Afghan government. To him his village leadership might be the only "face" of GIRoA he ever see. The insurgent is embedded with the everyday Afghans... he sleep with them... he eats with them... and he breaths with them. Its at the village level.


If we're honest with ourselves, we all look through soda straws to some extent, whether they be pet theories, or a piece of turf called our AO. However, addressing your opinion that you think bottom up will work, please explain how you see any village or even a collective of villages effectively resisting the return of the Taleban after we depart? The village's mass is the villages mass, whereas the Taleban will be able to bring sufficient mass to bear on the village and likely with State support from Pakistan. If Afghanistan isn't united (or at least larger parts than the villages), then what will we have accomplished? Maybe as Bob stated a decent interval to allow a withdrawal?

James (not verified)

Sat, 01/15/2011 - 5:28pm

"This is why Civilian lead is so critical for COIN (an aspect of Galula we conveniently set aside)."

If you look at the PRT structure in Iraq NOW it is lef by DoS. That is likely what will happen here too.

"As to the "this is a rural insurgency" That is a half-right statement."
When the TB is nothing more than those top-tier guys in Pakistan sitting around in their shura I'd say the insurgency has effectively been squashed. That's not to say that if the governance piece doesn't improve that it won't pick back up or that the Quetta shura shouldn't be dealt with.

Bob's World

Sat, 01/15/2011 - 5:04pm


So who at state has authority over Gen. Petraeus?? I have not seen or heard two words from Amb. Eikenberry since McChrystals fall.

So here is the problem, the military has the mission, yet feels it lacks the authority to execute the LOOs that must be addressed to truly resolve the insurgency. State may have the authority, but have either been ordered to stand down, or believe they lack the mission.

As to the "this is a rural insurgency" That is a half-right statement. The rural insurgency is the lower tier of a two-tier insurgency, and is largely a resistance movement. It grows as our presence grows, and the surge has been like "Miracle-Gro" so far. Reintegration efforts are aimed at this, as are development, capacity building, etc. All futilely increasing the causation in their very efforts to address them. The upper tier of the insurgency is more political and revolutionary in nature, and that is the leadership that takes sanctuary in Pakistan. Again, the military feels that is outside their mandate, so they ignore the political reforms, the reconciliation efforts that could resolve the insurgency; and instead hammer away at the resistance movement instead.

This is why Civilian lead is so critical for COIN (an aspect of Galula we conveniently set aside).

The party line is off track, and the results speak for themselves. This is fixable, but we must make a sea change in focus and priority, not just apply more resources.

James (not verified)

Sat, 01/15/2011 - 2:36pm

"This cannot be fixed from the bottom up. One can work hard and perhaps gain a "decent interval" under which to withdraw, but one cannot fix this from the bottom. The COG is the constitution, and that is not in the ISAF Commander's lane, so it sits there unaddressed. A good COIN effort would zero in on this defect. A good colonial intervention operation executed by a country that has no intent to stay and run a colony has no interest dealing with such issues. We say "That is for Karzai and GIROA to fix." Right."

So true... but I am not a Statey... I am in the military and I brief military leaders on what we are and should be doing. Somtimes I forget that the rest of this forum isn't looking through that same soda-straw view. As you said the National Governance is not our lane. What we CAN do is the bottom up stuff. The State Department has to do the rest but I would agree that it is equally important in the big picture.

With a rural insurgency, doing the Pop-centric COIN and village level governance initiatives should put into place an environment in which GIRoA/USDoS has the opportunity to fix the rest. To attempt to fix GIRoA's flaws without security and local-governance would be foolish. Meanwhile the converse of attempting to establish security and build village level governance without creating that link with GIRoA would be equally foolish.

Bob's World

Sat, 01/15/2011 - 1:09pm


VSO is a great program and I am proud to have had some small hand in shaping and growing the same. However, while "building from the bottom up" is all the guys on the bottom can do, it is not likely to work in a country where the ONLY local government is at the village level. Larger cities? Nope, picked by the President. District? Nope, picked by the President. Province? Nope again, also picked by the President. The President himself? Well, this too is a problem. Initially picked by the U.S.; and then confirmed in an electtion managed by all of these afore mentioned gentlemen who all owed their positions and access to the vast income assocaited with patronage to him staying in office. So, an election regarded across Afghanistan and around the world as fixed.

This cannot be fixed from the bottom up. One can work hard and perhaps gain a "decent interval" under which to withdraw, but one cannot fix this from the bottom. The COG is the constitution, and that is not in the ISAF Commander's lane, so it sits there unaddressed. A good COIN effort would zero in on this defect. A good colonial intervention operation executed by a country that has no intent to stay and run a colony has no interest dealing with such issues. We say "That is for Karzai and GIROA to fix." Right.

James (not verified)

Sat, 01/15/2011 - 12:38pm

"The issue was not communism then, and it is not Islamism now. The issue was and is governance. True COIN is domestic, and focuses on the repairs of governance IAW the reasonable concerns of a governed populace. Colonial intervention is led by some intervening power and works to preserve the problem government through some mix of security and effectiveness operations."

I absolutely agree with this; however, that is why I think that we have to build governance from the village level up. The Top-Down approach of governing from Kabul will not work in Afghanistan. That is why think we have initiative such as the ALP and ADLG and we must continue to refine and improve these.

No matter what governance you have you have to have a secure environment for the populace. Without such these local governance initiatives cannot provide any governance to the local Afghan. Instead they will be intimidated into either leaving the area or utilizing the Taliban shadow governance.

James (not verified)

Sat, 01/15/2011 - 11:56am

"The real test of the security gains in
southern Afghanistan will come in late
summer 2011, when the insurgent fighting
effort can be expected to reach
its peak. The seasonal nature of enemy
activity makes judging the depth of
progress before then extremely difficult."

"Nope...the real test will come when ISAF, NATO and, above all, the US start to down-size and withdraw and Afghanistan (or elements within it) gets to determine its own path again..."

The statement is in regards to the security gains that we have made. If you make gains in the late fall/winter as we have you have to wait until late summer to find out if you can continue to hold that terrain and protect the Afghans who are now on your side. That is what I see in that statement and my assessment.

As to judging the overall strategy then you are absolutely correct that it will take ISAF turning over responsibility and control of that terrain to the Afghan government at all levels. This is the test of the strategy as I see it.

But it will still remain to be seen whether 10 years down the road GIRoA can continue as the legitimate government of Afghans. The same in Iraq. Can those democracies withstand the test of time.

Bob's World

Sat, 01/15/2011 - 9:14am

"Henry Kissinger told Chinese Premier Zhou En-lai in 1972 that the United States was prepared to accept the unification of Vietnam under Communist rule. Kissingers only proviso was that he wished there would be a time interval between the American exit and South Vietnams collapse. In short, Kissinger offered Zhou En-lai U.S. withdrawal in return for a "decent interval." "

It is pretty clear that the current strategy in Afghanistan is the pursuit of a "decent interval." This is the problem with the colonial intervention doctrine that we have adopted from the European's and made our own. It does not work. The pursuit of such concepts as liberty and legitimacy, and self-determination of governance are not well suppressed by the security forces of the illegitimate governments that are challenged by the oppressed or excluded segments of their own populace; nor are they well suppressed by the efforts of the external powers who put such governments in power and work to sustain them.

Efforts to contain ideologies we disagree with (communism in the 50s-80s; Islamism over the past decade) don't work well. Ideas cannot be locked away in some dark corner; particularly when those ideas are being employed to motivate populaces held under such forms of illegitimate and/or oppressive governance.

The issue was not communism then, and it is not Islamism now. The issue was and is governance. True COIN is domestic, and focuses on the repairs of governance IAW the reasonable concerns of a governed populace. Colonial intervention is led by some intervening power and works to preserve the problem government through some mix of security and effectiveness operations.


Sat, 01/15/2011 - 4:23am

"The real test of the security gains in southern Afghanistan will come in late
summer 2011, when the insurgent fighting effort can be expected to reach
its peak. The seasonal nature of enemy activity makes judging the depth of
progress before then extremely difficult."

Nope...the real test will come when ISAF, NATO and, above all, the US start to down-size and withdraw and Afghanistan (or elements within it) gets to determine its own path again...

G Martin

Fri, 01/14/2011 - 11:29pm

I guess we're not agreeing to disagree! :)

The Kagans- yes. I must say they state a lot of assumptions as if they are facts.

I don't dispute that we may be "holding" in some key districts in RCs S and SW- and maybe even a few in RC-E. I just don't think that is sustainable or that we will be able to remove ourselves from holding in those areas and shift to other KTDs any time soon- if ever.

But- maybe you're right and we'll be long gone from Helmand's KTDs and Kandahar's KTDs come this summer- and they won't see the insurgents come back. We'll see.

James (not verified)

Fri, 01/14/2011 - 7:32pm…

Not sure if you have seen this one either.

"The insurgents do not have momentum anywhere in RC(East). Coalition operations continue to disrupt them in Greater Paktia and are increasingly pushing into their safe havens and support zones in Ghazni, Logar, and
Wardak. Insurgents have not been able to conduct a coordinated campaign in Nangarhar or Konar or to make much use of isolated safe havens they retain in Nuristan."

"Despite alarmist reports from the Intelligence Community and elsewhere, the
insurgency is not gaining strength in northern Afghanistan and is extremely
unlikely to do so."

"The real test of the security gains in southern Afghanistan will come in late
summer 2011, when the insurgent fighting effort can be expected to reach
its peak. The seasonal nature of enemy activity makes judging the depth of
progress before then extremely difficult."

And for the record I made my assessment about waiting until late summer/early fall to truely judge attack levels before I read this report. :)

James (not verified)

Fri, 01/14/2011 - 7:17pm
An Institue for the Study of War detailed account of the clear/hold/build operations in Helmand. There is also one published about Kandahar.

A couple of my key highlights:
"Helmand was the first province in
Afghanistan to receive sufficient force to
engage in comprehensive, population-centric
counterinsurgency operations."

"In the southern district of Garmser, Marines constructed over fifty outposts, fourteen of which were manned entirely by Afghan forces.In all, Marines and their Afghan partners managed to clear and hold over twenty miles of terrain south of the district center..."

"The Marines constantly patrolled, observed the roads from outposts, and protected villages from Taliban intimidation during the night."

And that is just one of the districts in Helmand but the same thing has happened in virtually all the districts where clearing ops have taken place.

G Martin

Fri, 01/14/2011 - 5:41pm

Yes, we'll have to agree to disagree.

I didn't hear about any TB commanders reintegrating who were afraid for their security. There were some HIG fighters who didn't bring their weapons when they "surrendered" because they heard they'd be taken away and/or they'd get new ones. Since they were looking for support against TB and their traditional enemies- this caused a problem- but I didn't know anyone- outside of a few confused-about-the ALP folks- who supported turning reintegrees into Local Police.

If it isn't classified- a list of the districts that we have persistent presence in every village and "valley" would be a start in convincing me we are holding anything. Outside of a few key districts in RC S, SW, and E- I am unaware of us "holding terrain". If "at any given time" we have a foot patrol going through an area means we are holding it- I disagree. Our foot patrols more than not in these areas we are clearing are re-clearing weekly or monthly and we are losing guys to snipers, IEDs, and ambushes. I fail to see that as "holding".

And if we really think that our building of local governance is going to be sustainable after we leave- I think we are naive.

Lastly- the TB commanders in the North ARE leading and sustaining their efforts since we moved into RC-S last summer. Hundreds of fighters at a time/place are being well-led and engaging with ANSF, Coalition (when they leave their bases), and other insurgents (lots of insurgent-on-insurgent fighting). HIG fighters were getting their butts kicked a few months ago by TB- so I'm not sure where your statement about TB commanders in the north comes from- but it isn't reflected in actual current events.

Dick Hoffmann (not verified)

Fri, 01/14/2011 - 1:41pm


Great points. ISAF can beat the Taliban and other malcontents on the security front with more troops. Where Afghanistan has trouble is in local governance. A staff officer described it poignantly: "GIRoA needs to out govern the Taliban."

At the local level the Taliban shadow governments often still have too much influence. One of the more encouraging developments was the IDLG Afghan Social Outreach Program (ASOP). The important advance here is that ASOP is conducting jirgas to stand up district councils..."we" are not holding the jirgas, GIRoA is. That is a big step in the right direction for local governance. The program is still in its early stages, and there are still a host of local problems with some district governors, but again, mixed but encouraging signs that they are starting to figure things out and stabilize more territory.

Add to this progress in local governance the expansion of their cellular networks, and gradually improving road networks, and now you have local district centers able to communicate with provincial centers and Kabul for development, and with ISAF/ANSF for security.

Nothing watershed here. Just incremental, valley by valley, district by district progress. That's why it'll take 'til 2014. There are 364 districts.

James (not verified)

Fri, 01/14/2011 - 11:35am

OBTW that was me not some anonymous person randomly chiming in, lol.

Anonymous (not verified)

Fri, 01/14/2011 - 11:32am


We will just have to agree to disagree on this one. While I respect your perspective on this what I am seeing is different. I realize that a lot of what we are doing is very similar to what we were doing a few years ago; however, the differences, no matter how suttle they may seem, are what I think will have strategic impacts.
Disarming and reintegrating a TB commander without providing him true security through whateven means neccesary is ineffective. One of 3 things happens: 1 he is intimidated into rejoining the TB, 2 he is intimidated into exile, or 3 he is killed. No matter which one that happens he becomes a public example.
The fact that we are pushing out of our FOBs/FBs to establish CPs/OPs throughout the valleys shows that we are holding the terrain. The fact that at any given time there is a foot patrol going through the villages in those valleys that have been cleared also supports this. But simply holding the terrian will do nothing. We are building in these areas. And actually building physical buildings is not what is important. We are building LOCAL governance capacity. We have switched from conducting shuras and are instead now holding jurgas. Most non-Afghan don't even understand that different but it is huge. I won't insult your intelligence by explaining it but if you want me to than just let me know. The bottom line is that GIRoA will never rule the country of Afghanistan from Kabul. We have to build that governance that the everyday Afghan living in the village will see.
And the point about the rising insurgent activities in the north/west: without the safe havens in the south and key areas in the east the Taliban cannot sustain any sort of operations in the north. A TB commander from Helmand/Kandahar could never lead there.
The insurgency in the east is totally different than in the south/southwest and likely doesn't require a troop surge but instead simply a better use of the troops that we have there. The exeption to this IMO is P2K.

G Martin

Fri, 01/14/2011 - 10:52am

Oh- and to them asking for more- I can't go into specifics, but suffice it to say that ISAF is asking for more. The main "more" right now are trainers and staff- and the number is in the thousands. It is just interesting to hear people blog about having the right number now and yet sit in on staff meetings daily where we conclude we need many more folks.

G Martin

Fri, 01/14/2011 - 10:42am

James- I'll have to surf to see if there's anything on the troop level request- but my buds on the DA G-3 and ISAF staffs at the time told me they asked for 80k. There were scenarios for what we could accomplish with less- no doubt- and the President accepted those risks and went with the lowest amount (which I don't disagree with)- but 80k was DoD's "most preferred" surge amount. I was even in on a discussion on capitol hill in 2009 that was discussing 100k+, but the political will for that high of a number just wasn't there on any side. Some Army reps were arguing that since Afghanistan had more people and more land than Iraq- shouldn't we get at least the amount of troops that Iraq had--? That none of the reps/senators knew those facts of Afghanistan- nor knew what HIG and HIK were- shows you where we were as a country in '09- less than 2 years ago...

I disagree we are holding terrain. If you read the op reports on the Arghandab, RCs N, W and, E- and the non-key terrain districts in RCs S and SW- we are not holding- we are still clearing and re-clearing. The only places we have enough troops to hold are the key terrain districts in RC-S and SW (and arguably not even all of them). Add to that fact that there is a debate within ISAF about what "hold" is supposed to look like (ANSF holding or ISAF holding- or a mix? and who among the ANSF?)- and it gets murkier.

IJC would like to move on after clearing- to the next KTD and leave ANP in place (AUP)- but they can't because of the capability (or will??) of the ANSF. So- we haven't moved much beyond holding a few districts in Helmand and Kandahar. Kind of hard to hold if your HN force's government doesn't want to hold and/or the forces are unable to hold (unless we do it ourselves- but we don't have enough forces to hold every district we clear ourselves).

If the insurgents move to the neighboring "non-KTDs", just to wait until you leave- then what are we really holding? That is EXACTLY what I saw in 2007. I do agree with you that we weren't conducting COIN- but I don't think much has changed. Just because we are in a few KTDs in S and SW now doesn't convince me that what we are doing will be effective in the long-term. I submit we are effectively locked down in those KTDs- we can't leave them for fear they'd revert back and then we've "failed" because of bad metrics. If we don't start clearing/holding other KTDs in the next year- then what? What KTD have we "held" so far- that have no Coalition in them anymore? The answer is "none".

And being locked up on the FOBs is my experience NOW- this year and last. The experiences I had in Kabul, RC-S, and RC-E (admittedly not the entire battlespaces of RC-S and E, nor the whole country) showed me we were locked up on the FOBs. The bottom line of my experience: BSOs were too scared of anyone dying to trust Coalition mentors to travel with their ANSF counterparts, mentors too worried about their "combat OERs" to accompany their Afghans off of the FOBs, Coalition "partners" worried about Afghans filling out power point slides and signing Coalition-written policies, ANSF unpartnered or partnered by "drive-by", and FORCEPRO requirements that made changing any of the above tantamount to a UCMJ action. Your experiences may be different- but those were consistently mine. I am sure that a few units in RCs S and SW were different and some SOF as well- but I'd submit those examples were not the rule.

I agree we have to work towards transition- I just don't see the RCs as the vehicle to do that- I see them as a hindrance (their structure not matching the Afghan structure) to transition to Afghan lead.

Your comment on the APRP is a common misunderstanding of the process. APRP has NOTHING to do with providing security to one's village. It simply is a program to allow village-nominated people to be reintegrated into society. There is a possibility they could go into the ANSF or ALP- but no guarantee- the two processes are completely separate. This misunderstanding has led to several negative events where local fighters are manipulating the system to "reintegrate" so they can receive government backing to go and kill their local enemies. The bottom line: if every reintegree was allowed to join some kind of local police force- we would have little to no oversight of them, MoI would have no oversight of them, they'd be little more than militias, and most likely more than half would be guys we don't want to arm. The major flaw in the previous system was that "bad" guys were able to game the system. That is still a flaw in the current system.

The only differences I saw between '07 and today are that Kabul is much more secure. Other than that- what we are doing in Helmand and Kandahar was done to a degree in '07 in different areas- there's just more bubbas doing it and more money pouring in to those areas (neither of those are sustainable IMO). Oh- and RCs W and N are now more dangerous (water balloon effect?).

Many of the planners at IJC, ISAF, and NTM-A that I interacted with agreed that the solution is to follow the NATO concept of transition and make that priority #1- explaining to our political masters of the need to accept some short-term set-backs as the Afghans takeover (and/or adjust our metrics to stop measuring a Western expeditionary force and instead start measuring progress towards a garrison-occupation force). Stop clearing and holding- stop all combat ops now- and only support the efforts GIRoA dreams up (as long as we agree with them) and MoD/MoI write the plans for (without our initiative and power point requirements- let them brief off a map like they like to do and we used to do). Transfer the bulk of our combat forces to trainers/mentors/partners and send most of the rest home today- leaving only those needed to support MoD ops. Leave enough SOF to do CT and irregular force development- but make sure the CT is clearly connected to a U.S. threat- stop having SOF chasing down targets that have nothing to do with our domestic security. And lastly, get out of the governance and economic development realm. Those efforts are creating welfare dependencies and non-Afghan solutions that won't be sustainable and are hindering their own development.

I can't take credit for all of those solutions- and I don't think it would be easy to do or perhaps politically palatable. And it is based on the assumption that Afghanistan will revert to something wholly different than what we are driving for right now in 2014 (Kabul having a lot less influence than we'd like in the countryside). It is also based on the assumption that the Taliban won't necessarily harbor AQ and won't take over the country if we leave.

Grant Martin
MAJ, US Army

The above comments are the authors' own and do not represent the position of the US Army or DoD.

Grant Martin
MAJ, US Army

The above comments are the authors' own and do not reflect the position of the US Army or DoD.