Small Wars Journal

Secure the cities first?

Wed, 08/12/2009 - 10:31am

Taking inspiration from Dave's "Back Off" post, I was disturbed to read this Huffington Post commentary highlighted at the always readable Abu Muqawama. The assessment comes from a human rights researcher in Kabul asserting the Taliban effectively control Kandahar outside the gates of our bases. It would be presumptuous to rule on the accuracy of the claim, but the assessment (echoed elsewhere) sparks an interesting set of questions about our potential courses of action in Afghanistan.

Noted classical counterinsurgency author and Vietnam War veteran Jack McCuen argued in his excellent book The Art of Counter-Revolutionary War that chasing guerrillas around the countryside while leaving the critical provincial and national population centers uncovered played into the hands of the insurgent. McCuen argued allowing the insurgent to establish networks, shadow governments, recruitment cells, and support networks in the cities created a far greater risk than the loss of rural hamlets. Motivated by McCuen's book and some other reads, I suggested consideration of a city based approach in a Small Wars Council thread about a year ago. COIN savant David Kilcullen suggested the same strategy in a New Yorker interview not long thereafter. Kilcullen articulated the problem far better than I:

"Meanwhile, the population in major towns and villages is vulnerable because we are off elsewhere chasing the enemy main-force guerrillas, allowing terrorist and insurgent cells based in the populated areas to intimidate people where they live. As an example, eighty per cent of people in the southern half of Afghanistan live in one of two places: Kandahar city, or Lashkar Gah city. If we were to focus on living amongst these people and protecting them, on an intimate basis 24/7, just in those two areas, we would not need markedly more ground troops than we have now (in fact, we could probably do it with current force levels). We could use Afghan National Army and police, with mentors and support from us, as well as Special Forces teams, to secure the other major population centers. That, rather than chasing the enemy, is the key."

Although some have disputed his eighty percent figure, the question remains -- should the bulk of our forces conducting "clear, hold, build" efforts be spread among outposts in the Korengal Valley and Helmand province, or focused on securing the cities while conducting precision raids on the outside?

The disruption of security in the capital and major cities is a major information narrative victory for those who oppose the government. After all, if a government cannot secure its own provincial capitals and government officials, can it reasonably be expected to gain the allegiance and confidence of its citizens? We saw a major confidence setback in the infamous daylight Kandahar prison break last year, which shook the confidence of the entire nation. The Taliban have increasingly mounted multiple suicide attacks in the major cities to undermine confidence in the government. When combined with the rampant corruption alleged in Kandahar, is it any wonder the Taliban are gaining ground?

On the flip side, one can argue that a defensive orientation doesn't win wars. Such a discussion is beyond this blog post, but I was impressed with the statement from Lieutenant Colonel Chris Cavoli in Chapter 2 of the Accidental Guerrilla that "defensive" COIN operations were the best way of seizing the initiative from the enemy. (p. 96) Would we better off with a "cities first" COIN strategy, or does the rural character of Afghanistan demand our main effort focus in the rural areas? Sound off in the comments or at the Council.

Image credit and background - U.S. Army Sgt. Robert Newman, Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment, U.S. Army Europe, watches the sunrise after a dismounted patrol mission near Forward Operating Base Baylough, Zabul, Afghanistan, March 19, 2009. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Adam Mancini/Released)


blert (not verified)

Fri, 08/14/2009 - 9:56pm

Non-combatant casualties were fantastically high for the Soviets. Russian archives show that in a typical year these ran over 40% of the deployed force. Hence, the Soviets defeated themselves.

Combat casualties were much, much lower.


I do fear that we are permitting mission creep. We must consider our limits and acknowledge that fixing Afghanistan/nation-building is to tilt at a windmill.

Yon reports that many villagers think British and American forces are RUSSIANS... they are that out of touch.


We must stop the urge to modernize Afghanistan: any attempt to do so endangers the mission. Bringing an education to backward Afghanistani girls is to put them in the line of fire: most unwise.

Getting off track, trying to make them in our own image is the height of folly.


If I could receive a dollar for every time I have to read that the Taliban are 'insurgents' my troubles would be over.

The Taliban come from Pakistan: they are NOT natives. Here and there a local boy may be drafted but the cadres come from Pakistan.

The locals can barely stand the Talibs: no music, no business, unhappy wives and family... they're Forest Gump without the chocolate or the luck.


The only way we should provide for the education and stabilization of the tribes is with electronic toys: solar powered direct broadcast TV, solar powered radios....

The message should be manly: hunting, herding, animal husbandry, fishing, fish farming, etc.

In exchange for the toys the tribe is expected to join the team and report any trouble-makers.

Stop fighting and start deal-making. Use trade goods instead of money. Use the S&H Green Stamps catalog of goodies approach.

Instead of operating like an army we need to operate like the only merchant in town -- and we even extend credit, too!

The American West was civilized by MERCHANTS who linked the frontier essentials: general store, blacksmith with stable after which development flowed.

The pots and pans are going to appeal to the ladies. The kids can learn baseball.

Giving the locals a stake in something more than dirt will cause political change from the ground up.

Ken White (not verified)

Thu, 08/13/2009 - 1:24am

The Taliban came on scene in large numbers in 1994 and effectively took over about 90% of Afghanistan in 1996. The Soviets had departed in 1989. It is noteworthy that there were several groups of Student s (Talib an) but the Kanadahar crowd was, with ISI backing, the one that led the takeover of the country. From 1989 until 1993 or so, the nation was simply a battleground between opposing warlords. A fairly common state there...

The Soviets were effectively run out of the country -- not defeated -- by a combination of all the factors you cite plus a number of upset Mothers back in the USSR. Their concentration on the wrong targets (the cities) and applying the tenets of 'counterinsurgency' while failing to realize the rural nature and the toughness and patience of their opponents led to the other factors being exacerbated. I suspect Russian Mothers are like American Mothers -- they'll give you their sons -- but they expect you to use them properly and obtain results in reasonable time.

All lessons can be applied with caveats -- the issue is applying the correct modifications, adapting, as John T. said...

<b>Boatspace</b> has it right, time is on their side and only if you convince them you can do more damage to them than anything they've seen before -- and some of them have seen a lot -- do you even have a hope of getting a 'good' outcome (there will be no win by anyone, no defeat of anyone) as opposed to an 'acceptable' outcome.

Boatspace (not verified)

Thu, 08/13/2009 - 1:17am

Indeed Peter Mansoor, Clausewitz does state that the defense in the stronger, but goes on to say "the effort for the destruction of the enemy's force, is the firstborn son of war."

The Taliban have no where to go and know we can't stay forever. How does one break their will to fight us?

Good comments above. Reaction to this has been more positive than I expected.

@ Stephanie - I like Trinquier a lot. Good suggestion. He certainly makes clear that he believes that destroying the insurgent is useless without destroying the infrastructure.

@ Paul - I am not an Afghan expert by any means, but were the Soviets defeated by their city orientation or the costs, military and political, of their adventure? The cities didn't actually fall to the Taliban until 1994, IIRC.

@ Ken/John. Good debate. I tend to side with John though, that lessons can be cross applied with caveats. I just read an excellent 1982 Parameters article on the subject as well.

@ Peter - I hadn't thought of the Clausewitz tie. Good catch. Something I will have to think about. Perhaps some of the readers could educate me about the impacts of shifting to disruption operations the rural areas (for now) in order to focus on the cities?

@ David. Excellent point as well. However, most city governments aren't in direct competition with the criminal elements. The gangs don't want to provide essential services and run courts. They want to make money. Have to think on this more.

Keep it coming. I learn through dialogue!

Ken White (not verified)

Thu, 08/13/2009 - 1:02am

<b>John T. Fishel:</b><blockquote>"The trick is how to adapt lessons from another place and time to the war you are currently fighting. The key word is ADAPT."</blockquote>Couldn't agree more, John. I see some glimmers that is being successfully done.

<b>Peter Mansoor</b>

Yes, CvC did indeed say that. Does it apply to counterinsurgncy as well? Yes and no. Yes in broad measure, certainly -- but perhaps no if you have impatient politicians involved...

If your enemy knows that they are impatient and potentially involved -- and he cruises the internet -- he need not come to you, he'd be foolish to do so because he'd get his clock cleaned and he knows that. He can and will just stay in the hills, organize merrily and wait until you depart the cities. While of course wandering into town to glare at you as you drive through and smile obsequiously if accosted by you and then smiling knowingly at your back.

If there are resources in Afganistan, they are decidely not in the cities; <a href=…;, <a href=>LINK</a&gt;. Nor is the bulk of the population in the cities, Afghanistan is only about 24% urban -- three out of four are rural dwellers. Iraq has city Arabs, most not comfortable in the desert. Afghanistan has hill people -- most not comfortable in cities. Hill people are not flatlanders. Anywhere in the world. Many have tried to treat them the same; it's never worked out very well.

Consider also that of the four largest cities Mazar E Sharif (2.5M), Kabul (2.4M), Kandahr (225K) and Herat (177K) only Kanadahar is in contest with Kabul not impervious to attack but basically moderately secure; the other two are not problematic at all. Kunduz and Jalalabad have less than 100K each.

Kandahar is a problem area and always has been, one hard working Canadian Battalion Combat Team was not enough to prowl the <u>province</u> <i>and</i> the city of Kandahar. That Province is an area only slightly smaller than West Virginia. Bit much for one lonely Bn plus some SOF. The addition of the US 5/2 BCT in the Province should change things a bit. Of course, all their work studying Arabic for several months before deployment was for naught.

Hopefully, they'll adapt. I'm pretty sure they will -- and realize that Arabic and city centrism were for another war...

David Martin (not verified)

Thu, 08/13/2009 - 12:02am

Some would argue that Los Angeles isn't fully in the hands of the civil government. But at least the gangs seem fully preoccupied with fighting among themselves, so it isn't an insurrection and there aren't really shadow governments. I wonder what police chief Bratton would think of Kabul.

Peter Mansoor (not verified)

Wed, 08/12/2009 - 11:29pm

Didn't Clausewitz write that the defensive is the stronger form of warfare? Does that apply to counterinsurgency operations as well? We seem to wring our hands about considering a static posture, but sometimes that is exactly the posture needed - it forces the enemy to come to you.

The Taliban cannot win unless they eventually control the cities and villages of Afghanistan. The mountains lack people and resources.

John T. Fishel

Wed, 08/12/2009 - 10:32pm

As Ken says, every war is unique and as Dave says, the guys on the ground are the ones who really have to figure it out. Nevertheless, we cannot help but reason from analogy although it must be done with great care. (See Richard Neustadt and Ernest May, THINKING IN TIME - a classic cautionary study.) That said, our research (Manwaring & Fishel, various) strongly supports the existence of commonalities in small wars across cultures and across time. The trick is how to adapt lessons from another place and time to the war you are currently fighting. The key word is ADAPT.

Ken White (not verified)

Wed, 08/12/2009 - 3:18pm

Afghanistan is not Viet Nam, Algeria or Iraq. the Afghans have little in common with the residents of those other nations. This campaign has little in common with any of those predecessors. Any idea of 'ridding Afghanistan of corruption' (as we see it) is probably a non-starter. Kandahar, city and Province, has long been a focus of nonconformist attitudes; that too is unlikely to change. Attempting to predicate a campaign plan in one nation based on the others is probably ill advised. Planning one based even slightly on media reports -- which of necessity search for 'bad' news -- is probably less wise. Attempting to treat Afghanistan like any other place in the world with the possible exception of Somalia is probably unwise.

Every war is different. With that blatantly obvious reminder of what we all know but many seem to try to forget, I'll echo the comments of Phil Rifdderhof and Dave, the guys on the ground will work it out with no help from us and we should probably let them do that...

As Neil indicates, this indirectly ties to Dave Dilegge's earlier post on the increasing frequency of campaign rewrite suggestions. Not to argue the merits of city-first or rural-first COIN, the fact that we have to have the argument highlights the fact that we cannot do focus everywhere equally.

Classic COIN describes the oil-spot technique. Where you pick to begin is a fundamental aspect of campaign design. What the reports on Khandahar seem to indicate is that, by being in the rural areas, we are losing the cities. If we refocus on the cities, we will be accused of repeating the Soviet mistake of ceding the countryside.

I don't think its a lose-lose proposition, but it adds a level of complexity on the Information aspect of the campaign--how do you explain to the population of an area, and the global audience, that we just can't get to them right now?

Two comments:
1) You should read Trinquier: he designed an oil-spot strategy dealing with this dilemma and recommended to act first in cities by a tightened population control and only then with the countryside. The prerequisite of this second action was the destruction of the insurgent or terrorist political, military and administrative infrastructure in the cities.
2) Defensive actions and offensive actions can be articulated in many ways. For instance, one could manage, supervise and frame the population of urban areas through "quadrillage" aiming at securing the population and key points as well while at the same time a deterrent pressure could be used to target insurgent safe-haven or to interdict insurgent support zones.
Consider the "battle of the Bagdhad Belts" for an instance of this two principles. I acknowledge that A-Stan is not similar to Irak nor to Algeria. However, this operational question is more difficult to resolve when you lack troops to control the city and harass the insurgent, but it is not condemned to fail. Indeed, as soon as the first political progress are made in the cities, one can rely on the locals for the control (remember CHB).
To conclude, remember the following:
-in the cities: population control is achieved through administrative, political and police quadrillage.
-in the countryside, the control can be achieved through presence (either by COP or by "commandos de chasse") and negotiation with local communities.

John T. Fishel

Wed, 08/12/2009 - 1:38pm

Although the French lost the war in Algeria, i.e. Algeria became independent, it was successful in its military campaign. And, its success depended on clearing and holding the city of Algiers first. One can argue that the tactics used in the Battle of Algiers/Battle of the Casbah were counterproductive (as, indeed, I have)but the strategy was right on the mark. It is, as Niel suggests, a lesson to be adapted.