Small Wars Journal

COIN is Dead. Long Live COIN?

Wed, 11/02/2011 - 7:13pm

On a warm August afternoon, two dozen US and Afghan soldiers trudged through sticky corn fields to the village of Majiles in the contentious district of Sabari in Khost province, Afghanistan. The patrol’s original mission had been a Key Leader Engagement (KLE) to woo a local elder with influence over the area’s fractious tribal network, but it had been diverted to hunt for a recoilless rifle team that had taken part in an attack on a combat outpost earlier in the day.

As the US and Afghan team searched a series of walled compounds, conducting interviews and occasionally scanning the retina of a suspected insurgent (despite strong suspicions voiced by Afghan soldiers, no individuals were detained due to lack of evidence), a two-man Civil Affairs detachment attempted to make inroads with the community by offering agricultural assistance.

The reactions of the villagers varied: some were lukewarm, some aloof, and a few were openly hostile. The search took most of the time allotted for the mission, and the KLE, relegated to a secondary objective, was called off for another day. And at the very end of the patrol, insurgents tossed a pair of hand grenades into the midst of the American squad as it exited a courtyard, injuring six soldiers. The Afghan Army contingent returned fire but then fled to their vehicles and back to base, leaving the Americans stuck in the qalat. The US soldiers finally joined their Afghan partners perhaps an hour later, returning home to the combat outpost after treating the wounded and waiting for air cover.

The events on that mid-August patrol highlighted elements of the conflicted strategy being executed by US troops in Eastern Afghanistan. Certain components of counterinsurgency (COIN) remain on track, and a few seem relatively robust. And senior officers enthusiastically claim that COIN is still very much on the agenda in the Afghan east.

But in truth, the Obama administration's accelerated drawdown of US forces has undercut a needed infusion of forces from RC South to the Afghan east that was an unspoken second act to the US military’s 'surge' strategy for the stabilization of Afghanistan. The resulting resource issue has forced US forces to short shrift counterinsurgency doctrine: instead of living amongst the locals, troops attempt to woo an apathetic and sometimes hostile population from centralized combat outposts, while members of the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, Hizb-i-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG), and other insurgent and criminal patronage networks continue to exercise daily influence over the population.

The result is a strategy employing muscular offensive operations (that some delineate with the label “Counter-Terrorism” - CT) with other components of Counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine. The offensive aspect seems potent; most Afghan and US military officials at various levels agree that an incessant string of special operations forces night raids and conventional offensive operations are pressuring insurgent groups and bleeding their leadership, especially the ranks of middle-management. But the execution and impact of other counterinsurgency aspects are dubious. If true COIN doctrine is a delicate symphony that requires all components to be playing in time and tune, the strategy in RC East is currently missing a few instruments.

A Microcosm of Dysfunction in the East

In his briefing on his Area of Operations, Captain Aaron Tapalman, commander of Bravo Company of the 1/26th Infantry responsible for Sabari, cites the saying “As Sabari goes, Khost [province] goes.” His assessment is arguable, but it is essentially on point: The heart of the current fight in Khost province is in the northern districts of Sabari, Bak and Musa Khel, which are all provincial population centers and traditional seats of insurgent authority. Sabari specifically is a nexus of the insurgency in eastern Afghanistan: It is the second-most populous district in a province (Khost) that is the considered home turf for the Haqqani Network, which is regarded by ISAF leadership as the most dangerous insurgent group in Afghanistan.

The Haqqanis made their mark fighting the Soviet occupation; Jalauddin Haqqani, the organization’s patriarch, led the first successful sacking of a city by the mujahedeen when his forces won control of Khost City in 1991, and the man still enjoys legendary status today.  The Haqqanis then transitioned to governership of Khost under Taliban rule, and finally, after the American invasion in 2001, brutal insurgency and criminal patronage, both under the aegis of international jihad and the operational leadership of Jalauddin Haqqani’s more ruthless son, Sirajuddin Haqqani.

Sabari has presented a unique opportunity for the Haqqani Network and a number of other insurgent groups, including Hizb-i-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG) and local Taliban factions. With a bare handful of officials, the district government is nearly powerless. And an exceptionally splintered tribal network characterized by historically diminished authority and infighting fails to present a coherent alternative to official government or insurgent influence. Over the past few decades, the resulting power vacuum has been filled by criminals, warlords and insurgents who fight each other and Afghan and ISAF forces while trying to consolidate their own power and business interests.

American forces have maintained a presence in Khost, but operations against insurgent groups seemingly began in earnest within the last two years, as a surge of conventional forces was combined with a punishing onslaught of Special Operations Forces raids that have thinned insurgent leadership. Additionally, conventional clearing operations in Sabari and in the equally troublesome neighboring district of Bak (the latter a historical HIG stronghold) earlier this year have weakened the insurgency and effectively pushed rebels from operating with impunity inside the population centers of the province. One metric that emphasizes this change is a drastic reduction in rocket and indirect fire attacks on Combat Outpost Sabari, home to US and Afghan forces in the district. In 2009, the base was hit 520 times; in 2010, 390 times; and as of the end of October, 2011, the base had only been hit 81 times.

But down does not mean out, and many Afghan and US military personnel theorize that the Haqqanis and other insurgents maintain a minimum of operations in the province, while regrouping and waiting for the promised significant withdrawal of American forces. With redoubts and ISI patrons in Pakistan, insurgent groups are also believed to be focusing their attacks on Kabul in order to sap central government authority and hasten ISAF withdrawal, while patiently waiting to fully reassert themselves in traditional seats of power like Khost province.

In addition to striking hard at insurgent leadership to stop this reassertion of power, ISAF strategy is focused on defending Kabul with what one officer termed “an attack zone in depth:” essentially a network of ISAF personnel and surveillance resources blanketing the most commonly used approaches from Pakistan toward the capital, in a bid to make infiltration a daunting task.  Longer term, strategy is focused on accelerating the development of a competent Afghan security apparatus that can maintain itself independently in a protracted fight, and ISAF is also seeking to enable government and tribal alternatives to compete with the power of intractable insurgents. All of these more durable strategy components face stiff challenges, drastically augmented by the lack of resources necessary for a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy appropriate to the task.

A Skeleton Government

Apart from US and Afghan security operations, strategy in Sabari district is centered around the traditional counterinsurgency goal of building or enabling a coherent power structure that presents a viable alternative to the influence wielded by insurgent groups. Unfortunately, the challenges to effective Afghan governance in the district are significant. First and foremost, a continuing lack of security impedes more advanced aspects of counterinsurgency, such as reconstruction and economic development. But beyond basic insecurity, several steep hurdles remain: a sparse local government staff with little to no authority; a fractured tribal system that never fully recovered from the Soviet invasion; and the traditional and continuing authority of insurgent groups.

The Afghan government presence in the district is spearheaded by District Governor Quayumi, a former governor of both the Sabari and Tani districts in Khost, who was recently reappointed to head the district in May. Quayumi is described as “very capable” by a number of Americans who work with him, but their praise is qualified by the assessment that he wields a government with “zero strength,” according to Captain Aaron Tapalman.

American efforts hinge on the governor applying resources from the central government to use in his bid to legitimize governance, but some officers do not believe this is the case (“Even the chai he serves elders he has to pay for out of his own pocket,” notes one American). In addition, Quayumi leads only a handful of government officials, he has no traditional local authority, and he faces a dearth of local leaders willing to engage with the official Afghan government as a resource to address local concerns. Despite this, the governor is pressing ahead with a two-pronged strategy of engaging local leaders with traditional tribal authority while actively marginalizing others. American officials regard this attempt to legitimize the Afghan government as the most difficult and important component of their mission.

“We’ll cause governance to flourish in Sabari district by connecting [government officials] to the local tribal elders and getting the tribal shura connected to the government,” said Lieutenant Colonel Jesse Pearson, commander of the 1st Battalion of the 26th Infantry Regiment. “That is not easy; it is the most difficult thing we are attempting to do, but it’s the most important thing because it’s the thing that will have a lasting effect here in Sabari.”

Pearson and Quayumi’s focus on engaging traditional tribal authority figures faces a unique test in Sabari because of its bloody history and the diminution of tribal authority in northern Khost province.

“Pashtun Wali is Dead”

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and ensuing nine years of war had a dramatically disruptive effect on the traditional tribal networks in northern Khost province. The Soviets’ strategy of actively depopulating the countryside, which included killing tribal leaders, drove several local tribes from their traditional strongholds in Sabari, Bak and Terazai districts and into refugee status in Pakistan. Hardest hit were the traditionally strong Yaquabi and Sabari tribal confederations, the bulk of which fled across the border.

During their absence, much of the tribes’ territory, logging business interests, and property were encroached upon by members of the Mangal tribe based in the neighboring northeastern district of Musa Khel, and the Kuchian, a term that describes traditionally nomadic Afghans. When the Yaquabi and Sabari tribesmen returned to find interlopers squatting in their homes and cutting their wood, it precipitated two decades of sharp tribal conflict and enmity that weakened the traditional networks and authority that had provided some semblance of governance.

“[Before the Soviet invasion], you had a fairly strong tribal network, with … good strong shuras, good conflict resolution, etc.,” said Colonel Chris Toner, commander of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, aka Task Force Duke, which is responsible for Khost province. “The Soviets came in and two things occurred: the exodus into Pakistan, their best and the brightest, you also had some attrition (via killing). And so there was a vacuum that was created in terms of leadership and, no kidding, physical presence.”

Accordingly, as the present weak district government (with few employees and less authority) attempts to plug the resources of the Afghan central government in Kabul into traditional tribal authority structures, those structures themselves are barely functioning. What remains is a heterogeneous mishmash of tribes condensed into the Sabari district, including the Musa Khel, Yaquabi, Sabari, Mangal, and Balkhel tribes. Additionally, within these confederations also exist a number of subtribes. (Note: Given the influence of the Haqqani Network, whose leaders are members of the Zadran tribe, it is reasonable to speculate whether there is also some Zadran influence in the district, though the tribe is based in neighboring Paktika and Paktia provinces, along with the Spira, Qalandar and Nadar Shah Kot districts within Khost province.)

The resulting, sometimes bloody, tribal conflict adds further complexity to the general insecurity in the area, as tribes occasionally battle over territory, political authority, and logging rights. Open war between two major tribes specifically within Sabari (the Mangals and the Sabaris) took place as recently as six years ago, and lesser skirmishes over territory are not uncommon. (In larger Khost province, another historical example of fierce intertribal rivalries occurred within the Zadran tribe between factions that supported the Soviet-backed central government and those who advocated jihad). The result: an overall dilution of tribal authority and conflict resolution in Sabari specifically, as well as several other districts within Khost.

The intertribal shuras that once resolved many conflicts in large portions of the province were on hiatus for “maybe 10 years” prior to April 2011, suspects Toner. This abdication of traditional conflict resolution and authority has provided a power vacuum for insurgent groups like the Haqqani Network and Hizb-e-Islami Gulbuddin, who have moved in to buy off young males with the lure of money, fame, and glorious jihad. Tribesmen sometimes bemoan the loss of traditional power with the saying “Pashtun wali [Pashtun tribal code] is dead,” especially among the younger generation.

“This was an area that was absolutely ripe for the insurgency,” said Toner. “The insurgents can come in there with a lot of money in their pockets and recruit military age males, they can bring a sense of order, they can run some shadow legal systems, they can impose a justice system and rule with some authority, and that’s what they did.”

Despite this, a handful of tribal leaders maintain some relevant authority, and they have been singled out in Afghan and American efforts to enlist them to work with the government. Chief among them are two notable elders within the Rogha subtribe of the Sabari tribe, one widely believed to be the “most influential elder in the … AO (area of operations),” according to internal ISAF documents. The Americans and Afghan government officials have actively courted both men for months, and the tribal elders coyly engage them while asking for the release of “innocent men” wrapped up in night raids by special operations forces. But both individuals are also believed to actively take part in the Taliban’s shadow district government.

As a consequence, District Governor Quayumi has shifted his hopes to empowering younger, hungrier tribal leaders who are both at odds with the insurgency and willing to challenge the traditional tribal leadership. One example is his engagement of another Rogha elder and former Haqqani operative who was kicked out of the insurgent group for unspecified reasons. Afghan government attempts to concurrently recruit shadow Taliban officials while playing former Haqqani Network operatives off of them illustrates the byzantine, particularly dangerous political complexities of Sabari district. It also showcases the difficulty of making rapid counterinsurgency gains by plugging into a cohesive tribal structure, a la the dramatic turnaround spurred by Iraq’s “Awakening” in 2006-2007.   

“It’s a very delicate razor’s edge we're walking here in Sabari district,” said Pearson. “We’re trying to entice the tribal leaders to see that GiROA (the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan) is the future, and [that] we’re not going anywhere.”

Training the ANSF

In light of the impossibility of quickly defeating the insurgency and establishing the Afghan government as a viable power broker in areas such as Sabari, ISAF has also devoted its limited resources to accelerating the development of Afghan security forces, including the Afghan National Army (ANA), Afghan National (or Uniform) Police (ANP, AUP), Afghan Border Police (ABP), and Afghan Local Police (ALP).

US officials have asserted the Afghan training initiative is on track. In an August interview with The Long War Journal, Regional Command East Commanding General Daniel Allyn described the mentorship effort as “on a glide path to success” with current troop levels. But this new (yet old) focus, which vaguely resembles the pre-surge strategy in Iraq (and Vietnamization many decades before that) is beset with challenges. Most notably, many American advisors assess that the Afghan security structure is a long way off from functioning independently, and progress, while unmistakable, is uneven.

Some Afghan security forces, such as the local militias trained by US Special Forces and border police in districts like Jaji Mayden, immediately east of Bak, are judged extremely competent by US military officials and exhibit control of their areas. But security forces in the province’s most contested districts – Sabari, Bak and Musa Khel – are arguably undermanned; they are unable to maintain logistics, intelligence and other support functions without American help; they are beset by poor senior leadership; and they are operationally incapable of holding the districts themselves.

The latter two issues are especially challenging and pervasive, and both are exacerbated by limited US resources as the Afghan units attempt to secure their areas. Leadership is uneven and plagued by tribal politics, and Americans have found themselves generally impotent to influence the removal of incompetent leaders. This problem has plagued US training efforts for many years, in both Iraq and Afghanistan, but seems especially pointed in Sabari.

In one example, a perpetually hash-smoking Afghan platoon leader has remained in place due to tribal ties, despite the fact that one of his disputes with American partners resulted in the Afghan platoon pointing their weapons at US advisors. American trainers are frustrated by their powerlessness to remove such dangerously incompetent leaders, combined with their inability to promote the careers of brave Afghan standouts who may possess requisite initiative and leadership ability, but lack political ties.

“You have some real superstars who are capable, and motivated,” said Lieutenant Andrew Docksey, a civil affairs team leader who works with the ANA on a daily basis. “And then there are others, what we’re seeing with some of their officers is they are placed because of family ties. They’re lazy, incapable, they don’t know what they’re doing, they don’t care, and they drag their enlisted guys down with them when they do stupid stuff.”

Again, this is not a new issue to US nation-building efforts; most embedded American trainers in Iraq and Afghanistan have voiced similar complaints at one point or another in the past decade. But while the problem is common and navigable with time and effort, it is one that holds up the rapid development of an Afghan security structure that can function independently of US efforts. And as the number of US trainers diminishes, so will their influence.

Operationally, at such a late date in the conduct of the war, the Afghan forces are still uneven and incapable of operating independently in a particularly contentious district like Sabari. On the positive side, overall, US trainers from Helmand to Khost have generally assessed that their Afghan security partners will usually stand and fight (or “at least shoot,” according to one trainer in Sabari) when encountering the enemy. But many American advisors also believe that their Afghan partners are still less disciplined and tactically capable than they need to be in order to hold their own against the dedicated insurgents looking to slug it out once ISAF draws down.

One minor example of this was evident on another routine patrol near the Sabari district center in August. An American MRAP armored vehicle had gotten bogged down in a muddy field, and US and Afghan soldiers dismounted to pull security as it was being towed. While the Americans established themselves in a dispersed circle facing outward, the Afghans sat in clumps and looked inward and at each other, with various soldiers nonchalantly migrating from group to group in order to socialize. If they didn’t have US chaperones, they almost certainly would have been hit and likely taken casualties.

Other examples lie in the carelessness with which Afghans will operate, unnecessarily risking their lives. For instance, despite the high threat level from insurgents who regard them as collaborators, the ANA will often walk into hostile markets in small groups, or even ones and twos. This quickly marks them as easy targets, and frequently draws attacks that get many injured or killed. And a third example lies in the incident described in the introduction to this piece, where ANA fired at insurgents but fled back to base, instead of maneuvering on insurgent attackers and/or staying to protect wounded American counterparts.

I have witnessed other Afghan forces (notably in Helmand province) operate with greater competence, and the above examples in Sabari should not be extrapolated to describe the entire Afghan Army or security structure. But these types of basic deficiencies in Sabari are especially notable because it is a force responsible for one of the most contentious districts in the Afghan East, among Afghan soldiers tasked with fighting the Afghan government’s most dangerous foe: the Haqqanis. The bottom line: company-level US advisors maintain a dim view of the security forces in northern Khost, especially the ANA, and some conclude it will be some time, if ever, before the trainees meet the standard for self-sufficiency.

“If we were to leave? They’d be done,” assessed Docksey. “They’d get rolled over so fast.”

For his part, the Afghan Army officer responsible for Sabari (as well as Bak, Jaji Maidan, Khalander, and Musa Khel districts) generally concurs, with the caveat that he doesn’t believe the US will really withdraw from his province or country.

“Of course security will go bad [if Americans withdraw],” assessed Lieutenant Colonel Nasratullah Nasrat, the commanding officer of the 3rd Kandak (Battalion) of the 1st Brigade of the 203rd Afghan Army. “I don't think just here [in Sabari], I think international security will worsen. In my opinion, I don't think the US will really withdraw anytime soon.”

Development, Soft Power

Beyond security and the establishment of governance, counterinsurgency doctrine heavily relies on economic incentives such as reconstruction and economic development. But ISAF and Afghan government efforts are dealing with two big hurdles: the prospect of diminishing US resources, the infancy of applied Afghan resources (and their dilution via corruption), and local hostility to outside patronage.

Some aspects of Civil Affairs doctrine appear relatively advanced in the Afghan east. For one example, the US Department of Agriculture advisory teams and alternate seed programs have a known presence in an area where more than 90% of the economy revolves around farming. (Ironically, these efforts were barely noticeable last year during my embed in northern Helmand province, which is an area that has much greater need of such assistance. But that is another topic). In addition, the Afghan provincial government, with the aid of US Provincial Reconstruction Teams, has begun to lead some development projects around Khost City, such as the newly started Khost airport, the Khost Olympic Stadium and a proposed Customs and Revenue Center, and American PRT officials believe there is a strong project submission apparatus in the area around the provincial capital.

For every Civil Affairs component that is present, however, others are missing. While some of the slack is taken up by Non-Governmental Organizations, development needs in many of the province’s districts remain unmet. Unit-level Commander’s Emergency Response Program (CERP) resources used to quickly execute small-scale reconstruction projects to fill the gaps are barely being employed by company and platoon-level officers and NCOs in the Sabari district, for example. When pressed as to why, small unit leaders are unsure, but speculate it is part of a general pattern of disengagement as US forces scale back their efforts while attempting to hand responsibilities over to the Afghan government. Officers at higher levels have disputed this, asserting that the funding remains intact, but cannot be smartly applied in an insecure environment. Whatever the correct rationale or availability of funds, the fact remains that officers and NCOs on the ground do not seem to be applying them, and the Afghan provincial government is only now implementing a formalized process to get funds from the central government to district-level projects.

“With the introduction of the Pilot Budgeting Program and the District Delivery program, the ministries and districts will execute top-down budgeting from Kabul based on district level inputs,” explains Commander Bradley E. Brewer, Commanding Officer of the Khost PRT. “This will add spark to the now primed Khost provincial process whereby there will be fewer projects that fall through the cracks as unmet/unfunded. Likewise there will be less CERP needed to fill gaps … [We] see this process development as a success.”

But even if US resources were to remain constant and were aggressively utilized, or Afghan government resources are applied to pick up 100% of the slack as US forces draw down (which seems unlikely), a greater challenge remains for the “build” portion of COIN doctrine: Locals in Sabari remain hostile to foreign assistance and highly skeptical of Afghan government assistance. Many tribal leaders openly reject offers of help, noting that “the Soviets tried to buy us too,” according to Tapalman.

Other tribal leaders will take resources, while simply playing the other side of the fence by courting insurgent groups. Again, these problems are not unique to Sabari district, Khost province, or even Afghanistan as a whole; US forces have navigated similar issues during the two major counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. But what is clear is that within portions of the current Afghan fight, American efforts to make inroads with the population via economic incentives are nowhere close to mature, and certainly not being conducted on a level that is holistic or aggressive enough to succeed in shaping the “human terrain.”

The inadequacy of reconstruction and development is partially a consequence of continuing insecurity in these areas, in addition to being a resource and cultural issue. But the insecurity itself is also a resource issue, leading one to the pivotal question: If the US isn’t going to do all or even nearly enough of the components of counterinsurgency doctrine that are required to achieve counterinsurgency objectives, why do any at all?

And if US political leadership decided to execute a surge of forces coupled with a counterinsurgency strategy as recently as 2009, why pull the rug out from under the effort less than two years later?

The Endgame

Despite the dogged efforts of small units, the fight in Sabari ultimately constitutes a microcosmic model for ISAF failure in Afghanistan, if success is defined as the achievement of near- to mid-term stability. Extrapolating from the examples of Sabari and Khost province, the following argument can be made about the fight in the Afghan East:


  1. American forces are indeed punishing the leadership of insurgent groups such as Haqqani and HIG, especially the mid-level ranks, via both incessant JSOC night raids and conventional operations.
  1. ISAF and Afghan forces have made historical progress pushing insurgent groups from open operation in the population centers of Khost province.
  1. Some components of counterinsurgency are robust.
  1. ISAF efforts to train Afghan forces are aggressive and ongoing, and Afghan forces in select areas are operationally independent.


  1. The hostility and tribal power vacuum in large portions of Khost province is exceptional, not unique to the province, and prevents the type of sweeping improvement that led some to believe Afghanistan could be quickly addressed with counterinsurgency, as happened in Iraq in 2006-2007.
  1. COIN efforts are haphazard to the point of dysfunction: Provincial Reconstruction Teams and Afghan government development efforts are of limited utility in areas that lack enough resources to provide basic security. In addition, the inability of US and Afghan Army units to project into the population with a sustained presence (as the Marines have done in Helmand with decentralized patrol bases, and the Army has executed in Kandahar), makes them fundamentally unable to protect the population from insurgent influence and intimidation, which is a key pillar of COIN.
  1. Most Afghan security forces are currently unable to maintain support operations (logistics and intelligence), and many are operationally incapable of maintaining the fight without direct ISAF combat support. Depending on the real pace of the planned withdrawal schedule, this calls into question the ISAF strategy of accelerating the development of Afghan replacements to maintain the fight. Afghan security force improvement is possible and is occurring, but obviously will take adequate time. Any acceleration of the current withdrawal schedule will likely doom this effort, and current withdrawal plans are far from ideal.
  1. The redoubts in Pakistan remain open for business. Official US government rebukes of Pakistan’s support of insurgent networks like Haqqani have stepped up in the past month, and drone strikes in the Haqqani stronghold of Miramshah, Pakistan have killed some high-level leaders. But the insurgent networks that rely on Afghan government and tribal weakness in provinces like Khost still maintain safe havens across the border, and thus have the option to wait for partial US withdrawal before redoubling their efforts to destabilize the Afghan government and security apparatus in the provinces.

In essence, Afghanistan remains a sprawling, complex problem. And US political realities, combined with waning commitment from its NATO partners, have caused strategy to settle on a scale that is clearly inadequate to the task. If fantastical success is defined as Western forces leaving behind a stable Afghan state, and more pragmatic success is defined as ISAF forces drawing down in significant numbers, but maintaining long-term support of a proxy war conducted by an allied, functioning Afghan government that continues to exist, the former scenario is impossible, and the latter is in jeopardy.

Despite the unique challenges of Afghanistan, American forces have proved that they can conduct successful counterinsurgency that shows tangible and potentially sustainable progress in the key southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand with proper resources and strategy. But the US government's recent commencement of a premature drawdown and its concurrent failure to supply necessary resources in the Afghan east, along with a high-level diplomatic failure to adequately address Pakistan’s support of the Afghan insurgency, has created fissures in strategy that may result in its failure.

Put more simply: effective counterinsurgency doctrine is more than the sum of its parts. And while current strategy that merges elements of COIN, including punishing offensive operations, with accelerated development of indigenous security forces may be making the absolute best of current resources, it remains inadequate to the task. US strategy in Afghanistan remains conflicted and lacks a clear path to success.

About the Author(s)

Bill Ardolino is a writer for The Long War Journal and an Adjunct Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who has embedded with US, Iraqi and Afghan security forces in Fallujah, Habbaniyah and Baghdad, Iraq, and Helmand and Khost provinces in Afghanistan.


Addendum to my comment immediately below:

Thus, as with "protecting the population" (under either the COIN and/or R2P concepts), likewise with "building a coherent power structure that presents a viable alternative to the influence wielded by insurgent groups;" either or both of these (because neither are the primary focus of our campaigns and initiatives) have to be tailored to (and, thus, can be compromised by) our irrational fixation on what should be considered very long-term (rather than near-term) goals and objectives.

From the article by Bill Ardolino above -- section entitled "A Skeleton Government:"

"Apart from US and Afghan security operations, strategy in Sabari district is centered around the traditional counterinsurgency goal of building or enabling a coherent power structure that presents a viable alternative to the influence wielded by the insurgent groups."

Here, I believe, may be where we make our mistake and get into trouble.

The goal of traditional and/or contemporary counterinsurgency operations would not seem to be "to present a viable alternative to the influence wielded by insurgent groups." If such were the case, then many different types and kinds of "coherent power structures" would be considered and evaluated for this job and the "most viable" -- FOR THIS PARTICULAR STATE AND SOCIETY AND ITS PARTICULAR INSURGENCY PROBLEM -- selected. But such would not seem to be the case re: either traditional and/or contemporary counterinsurgency operations.

Rather, the focus of strategy and the goal of traditional and contemporary counterinsurgency operations (and the selection of "power structures," etc., accordingly) would seem to be on providing for the wants, needs and desires of the foreign intervening powers and their populations (to transform these regions such that they might cause the foreign powers and their societies fewer problems and offer these greater usefulness instead) -- and not on whether these were "viable" from other important perspectives (such as defeating the insurgency).

Thus, as with other decisions and determinations taken in this vein, what is best re: defeating the insurgency; this seems to consistently have to take a back seat to (and be compromised by?) what is considered best re: transforming (Westernizing) these outlier states and societies.

As such, should we still call what we are doing "counterinsurgency?" Or would it be more appropriate to say that what we are doing is (1) using the opportunity presented by the insurgency to (2) "Westernize" states and societies (defeating the insurgency only being a subordinate aspect of this initiative)?

Accordingly, one must ask: Should these projects, to wit: (1) war fighting/war winning/COIN and (2) state and societal Westernization; should these be considered separate and distinct undertakings -- to be addressed by equally separate and distinct power elements. (The co-mingling of each with the other, as done presently, tending to significantly harm the chances of success re: both initiatives.)

G Martin

Wed, 11/09/2011 - 10:00am

In reply to by RandCorp

Bill- I don't know about you, but I'm beginning to feel dumber the more I read of this thread!!

100% agree with what you said. As for RC- I'm not really sure WHAT he said...


Bill M.

Wed, 11/09/2011 - 9:53am

In reply to by RandCorp


I admit my question was direct, but when someone is lobbying for more money for a niche capability I feel compelled to ask to determine if their reasoning is shaped by their organization's financial interests, or if their assessment is based on their logic. Since you have no financial influence, your arguments are based on your logic and can be discussed in a rational manner (which I still disagree with).

Why do you think we don't know how to wage asymmetric war? Obviously we could do it better, but to assume we don't know how to wage this type of war is an extreme assessment in my view that is often hyped by our media.

IEDs have killed tens of thousands, so have small arms, so has aerial bombing, so has artillery. IEDs aren't new, the Germans were very proficient using them, and inflicted a number of casualties against our forces in Italy. The IED threat was neutralized by defeating the Germans. That is tougher solution to come to when we're engaging global networks that adapt rapidly, so I do agree that the IED will remain a significant concern now and in the future, but that doesn't mean we need to stay in Afghanistan to learn to fight asymmetric warfare. We have been engaged in asymmetric warfare globally for over 200 years, and the bottom line is these types of conflict are ugly little wars, but being difficult and ugly doesn't mean we don't know how to do it (it does mean we think very hard before engaging). The problems we're having now are partly based on several incredibly stupid decisions made by the last administration that compounded the challenges. The issues that prevent us from achieving success currently are unrealistic objectives and other policy issues that constrain our actions.

Contrary to your opinion, 2 or 3 billion dollars is lot of money when DOD is looking for areas they can reduce spending. Fortunately JIEDDO has actually produced results with their funding. Their good work and many of the capabilities/processes they developed and fielded are valued added in C-IED efforts and well beyond the IED problem, so from my seat I think their funding has been a good investment (I don't work for them). However, I don't think they need more money than they're getting now, IEDs are not the only threat to our security interests, so I disagree with you that we need to invest more in that area.

To clarify my point on Pakistan, you can't defeat the network if they have a safehaven. Some terrorists, insurgents and facilitators enjoy a safehaven in Pakistan, and if it isn't addressed we'll continue to take losses and tread water in Afghanistan regardless of how much we invest we invest in C-IED technology. I'm not proposing a strategy for dealing with the problem in Pakistan, simply pointing out the obvious that we won't achieve our objectives in Afghanistan if this problem isn't resolved. I also don't think we disuade our enemies from using IEDs anymore than they'll dissuade us from using our weapons (where did I say that?).

I get tired of all the Nancy boys confusing downsizing and transitioning the lead to Afghanistan as leaving. ISAF isn't about to abandon the field, but they will turn over it over to the Afghans (it is their field, so why not?), and then continue to provide support. I think were learning that in what you're calling asymmetric warfare that strategy is king, and downsizing is the appropriate strategy that will lead to a local solution. Furthermore, we can't afford to keep spending billions to maintain a stalemate (since we can't defeat the network until we address the safehaven issue). Don't forget their strategy is to get us to do exactly what we're doing, punch ourselves out in the first few rounds by over reaching. Since this will be a long, long war we need to develop a sustainable strategy, or using the boxing analogy we need to pace ourselves so we can prevail in the long fight.


Wed, 11/09/2011 - 7:00am

In reply to by Bill M.

Firstly I do not have a commercial agenda regarding counter IED development nor any other aspect of the conflict. I could ask you the same question but that would be an insult.

Secondly I did not write "we need to stay to learn how to battle IEDs". I finished that sentence "...type of war." ie. asymmetric war. The JIEDDO (I suppose one could consider they have a distorting agenda) stated there has been a 700% increase in IED caused military causalities. God only knows the civilian toll but it is unlikely to be less. It is this spike which I believe is having a dramatic effect on the overall conflict and should receive more attention than it is receiving now.

Thirdly you express dismay at the enemy adapting to the situation on the battlefield and the never-ending cost. However that is the very nature of military force. My beef is if we can justify hundreds of billions on dollars being spent on the digitisation of this and that weapon system to prevent - " ..potential foes to achieve technical parity with us. " - then we can certainly justify major investment/development on the dangers which are here and now. And please don't try and tell me 2 or 3 billion on A-IED is a lot of money for the DoD.

You make a good point - " we'll have super empowered terrorists who are used to fighting high tech western forces, which means they'll be an over match for most other nations.". Unfortunately that has already occurred and attempting to wash our hands of the region will only make the problem worse.

You and some of your colleagues have iterated an approach or a doctrine which will alter the motivation of why the insurgent chooses a violent approach or the strategy they are currently deploying. As I previously wrote I had wrongly assumed this was to attack them with ISAF forces within Pakistan. I can't for a moment imagine what the 'idea' might be but you delude yourselves if you think that the insurgents and those that support them are about to change what they consider a war-winning strategy. In fact I dare say they are about to ratchet up the pain factor.

Finally you wrote "IEDs will not defeat us, our losses from IEDs compared to other conflicts and more effective weapons are relatively low." In Vietnam the IED casualty rate was around 38% and as you rightly say a whole raft of sophisticated weapons "..sniper, machine gun, artillery, or aerial bombing.." played a large part in the US defeat. (At the time many vets from WW2 considered the casualties very low.) The full arsenal of the NVA required an incredible amount of resources from the USSR and China. In my opinion it is this complete lack of resource being expended by the enemy in Afghanistan in successfully forcing ISAF to abandon the field that has ominous implications for other countries in the region and around the globe.


Bill M.

Wed, 11/09/2011 - 2:29am

In reply to by RandCorp

RC, I think we're just going to have to agree to disagree on this one. G. Martin captured by thought accurately when he wrote, "My idea- and I think it was Bill's too- was that ideas are more important than the tools an insurgent uses. Stated another way: the strategy is more important than the tactics."

IEDs will not defeat us, our losses from IEDs compared to other conflicts and more effective weapons are relatively low, and I don't make that statement lightly, I lost good friends to IEDs and a number of other good soldiers I knew. Their loss would have been just as painful if they were killed by a sniper, machine gun, artillery, or aerial bombing. You to easily dismiss the requirement for advanced technology to support future conventional battles (and we'll have them), yet if you think about the numbers of people who will be killed in that type of conflict if we allow potential foes to achieve technical parity with us, it will make the IED casualties numbers look very small in contrast.

We have spent billions on C-IED technology, and not surprisingly to anyone who studies war the enemy adapted everytime. As long as we're in the conflict we're obligated to continue to do better and invest more in technology to make the infantry more effective, and part of that is improving their ability to mitigate the IED threat, but nothing is quite as effective as neutralizing the insurgents who emplace the IEDs.

You write as though you have an agenda, so I have to ask, do you work as a contractor for a C-IED related company? You stated we need to stay to learn how to battle IEDs, which quite frankly was stupid statement and hopefully not what you intended, but if it was consider this. The longer we stay the more effective the enemy becomes also (since we won't decisively defeat them). At the end of the day we'll have super empowered terrorists who are used to fighting high tech western forces, which means they'll be an over match for most other nations. To some extent we had that same situation after the Soviets left.

IEDs shape and will continue to influence future conflicts, but they will not be the decisive factor.


Tue, 11/08/2011 - 9:14pm

In reply to by G Martin

I'm glad to hear it.

Personally I think eliminating the threat of IEDs would have a profound effect on a local force being able to project security. But your point that there would still remain many problems is a valid one.

I must confess I assumed armed force was being forwarded as a solution to the insurgent networks based in Pak. Hence the subsequent alarm at a clash with the Pak armed forces. I haven't the remotest clue as how you'd get the Pak-based insurgents to stop what they are currently doing.

Even during the height of the war against the Soviets the US was openly despised by both the Muj and much of the ISI, Special Branch and most middle ranking Pak Army officers and rankers.

The fact that much of the military hardware going to the Muj and nearly all of the food to feed the millions of refugees was widely known to be US donated - barely tempered the resentment. It is something I always found very disturbing and baffling.

I sincerely hope you have a solution to what would now be sheer hatred throughout the Tribal Area towards the US. Overcoming that in order to have the Tribal Area authorities eliminate cross-border insurgency would be nothing short of a miracle.

I take your point about the idea shaping the tool. However I have met very few western educated people who have much of an insight into an Eastern mindset. The difficulty was once explained to me that "... if you agree with an Eastern educated person they become suspicious, if you agree with a Western educated person they believe you are intelligent."

On a more specific basis many western people believe that Pakistanis and Afghans are deeply religious people. I have always found this quite comical. If you ask them on what basis they believe this, they cite the adherence to the 5 daily prayers, the clothes and that they always uttering 'peace be upon you' etc etc.. And when you point out 99.9% of the population cannot read Koranic verse, and nearly as many have no idea what the 5 daily prayers actually mean in Pashto or Dari they are always astonished.

The spectacle of a room full of boys chanting religious verse for hundreds of hours always impresses the westerner however the fact the whole thing is a uncomprehending phonetic parrot of the spelling tends to be less apparent.

It is the same for the suicide bomber. If a westerner hears the murderer cry out 'God is Great' then he must be a religious fanatic. Whereas your average Pak CID officer will immediately suspect the assailant did it to get money for his family and had been completely stoned probably for weeks prior to the attack.

Vis-a-vis the "pulling out" I have always understood it was going to be a part withdrawal. But recent events in Iraq have shown a total withdrawal could very much happen despite the best laid plans.


G Martin

Tue, 11/08/2011 - 5:27pm

In reply to by RandCorp


I don't think you are offending anyone, just stating things in a way that is difficult to follow.

I still don't understand your fascination with fertilizer bombs or your implication that insurgents' creativity ends there. I wish I only knew what was next- but that's the point- prediction is just a little bit difficult as a concept.

My idea- and I think it was Bill's too- was that ideas are more important than the tools an insurgent uses. Stated another way: the strategy is more important than the tactics. If we figured out a way to disable every fertilizer bomb from the air within a second of it being planted- we still wouldn't have peace breaking out.

Our diplomatic and intel capabilities were severely gutted since the 70s at least- that's why I'd argue it "isn't working" in Pakistan (or elsewhere for that matter). Too bad too- the maintenance of an empire doesn't work well without spies and diplomats IMO.

I am confused about your points on Pakistan's army- who is talking about taking on Pakistan's army? Bill made a point about targeting insurgent networks over there- and I'm having a hard time following your leap to militarily engaging Pakistan's army from that point. You do follow that to target networks of insurgents in Pakistan we don't have to do it militarily nor do we have to target Pakistan's military- right?

Yes- we are now pulling combat troops out of Afghanistan (10k by this year's end) and our ISAF allies are too: UK, Poland, Germany, Canada, and France by the last headlines I have seen- I'm sure there's more.


Tue, 11/08/2011 - 4:07pm

In reply to by G Martin


Unfortunately my desire not to offend anyone has had the opposite effect. I recently conducted a similar correspondence with a women who had lost her son and she was very anti-military which was understandable and upsetting to say the least. I was just being overly cautious as to not causing offence to another stranger. Sorry for the misunderstanding.

Rightly or wrongly it is now believed by people who wish to kill ISAF personnel that the most effective method is to plant fertilizer bombs where people move about. The fact that 95% of the foot traffic is civilian is accepted by the bombers as a necessary evil. The absence of command wires for the vast majority suggests they are basically intent on killing anyone no matter what.

The message that sends to people the world over is that if you wish to seize power from governments supported by western democracy, or any other form of governance with regards for its citizen's well-being, all you need is fertilizer bombs and a degree of ruthlessness. I have absolutely no idea of your understanding of bomb making (please don't take that as an implication as to my judgement as to your thoughts or experience) but this material is found throughout the world - including Yemen, Somalia, Uganda, The Congo, Iraq, Iran, Sudan and right across the US - even Oklahoma City. It is literally everywhere.

I believe it is extremely important that this weapon and the mindset which deploys it is rendered obsolete otherwise it will in future kill many more people, including US personnel all around the globe. Furthermore it will embolden those who wish to seize power thru violence. If Afghanistan is allowed to fall into a failed state despite a huge western effort it will have demonstrated that the men of violence have an effective deterrent against possible military intervention by western democracies.

You claimed that a defeat of the fertilizer bomber would lead to a change in tactics that will cost more to defeat. I would be very interested in what exactly that would be and how long will this new threat take to equal the present one?

You pointed out that Bill suggested the solution to the problem was to engage the people residing in Pakistan who are responsible for much of the violence happening in Afghanistan. I assume you mean militarily i.e. with ISAF ground troops.

(It has just occurred to me you meant by diplomatic means. Sure that would be possible, but why isn't that happening now? And if it is, why is it failing badly)

The point I was making was in reference to a military intervention across the border. In my humble opinion the Pakistan Army would not tolerate it and would essentially declare war. Obviously that is just my opinion but I spent 4 years in the region dealing with military issues in the NWFP & eastern Afganistan and I have no doubt they will use their full arsenal.

That in turn would pose grave questions of their closest military ally; the People's Liberation Army.

I could be completely wrong but you'd have to be very sure of your judgement to play that card. I mean millions of people could lose their lives if you get it wrong.

I wasn't aware "...everyone,including ourselves are pulling out now."


G Martin

Tue, 11/08/2011 - 11:36am

In reply to by RandCorp

RC- I disagree with many of your assertions and logic:

1) I, like Bill, took your comment:

<em>"...I respect people who believe there should not be any military funding but in most western countries they are a tiny minority and, if I may say so, this isn't the correct forum for them..."</em>

to imply that for some reason you thought Bill shouldn't post here because you thought he was saying we shouldn't fund our military. I'm finding it difficult to understand why you had to "clarify" that- but, regardless- that's the first time I've ever seen anyone on SWJ- especially someone who is not an administrator- say who should or shouldn't comment on this forum. I think it is great that SWJ encourages all kinds of positions- I think that's what makes this site healthy. Surely we should not limit ourselves to imagining the only way to defeat an insurgency is to spend more of our defense dollars protecting infantry...??? Or maybe this is not the "correct" forum for me... ;)

2) <em>The US should remain in Afghanistan for the sole reason that it has to learn how to fight this type of war.</em>

This statement leaves me scratching my head. The sole reason you think we should stay in Afghanistan is to learn to fight "this type of war?" Even if military people agreed with you (I'd say, like Bill said, they don't)- that that is an infeasible option since I seriously doubt the American people would support that justification. I say that because they don't support us staying there based on the argument that AQ may come back if we leave.

3) But, the main thing I disagree with you on is your assertion that we just need to invest in different technological solutions. THAT is more of a losing proposition for us in my opinion as once we are able to detect/defeat fertilizer bombs- the "enemy" as you describe- will just change tactics. And make no doubt that usually their tactics will cost less than our solutions to those tactics. Instead, as Bill describes, targeting the network and the underlying infrastructure is how we should get at the problem- assuming, of course, our country supports that.

4) The other ancillary issues I have with your comments have to do with misunderstanding Bill's point on Pakistan- he wasn't advocating defeating Pakistan's military, he was talking about AQ and other "enemies" IN Pakistan; categorizing all insurgents as "the enemy"- try explaining to a group of average Americans why we should fight the Haqqani network, HIG, HIK, the Taliban, etc.- the point is that very few Americans see them as "the enemy" in a strategic sense; "the surge" had an effect- I'd argue it's a little premature to conclude if the effect was a) positive and b) sustainable; and finally- the insinuation that ISAF countries would care if we pulled our troops out of their countries because they don't send more totally escapes me in terms of logic: everyone, including ourselves are pulling out now.


Mon, 11/07/2011 - 1:40pm

In reply to by Bill M.

Some people on principle find military spending abhorrent I was basically clarifying I am not one of them and as you say neither are you.

I disagree on the upgrading of existing platforms which totally overmatch all potential opponents. I mean when was the last time a ship or a formation of fixed wing aircraft had 120 KIA in a month owing to enemy action. Having said that it is a pointless grudge on my behalf and threatening the latest non-infantry gold-plated upgrade will only cause problems.

The trick is to highlight the infantry are dying and being horribly wounded and they get this much and the fly-boys or the swabs who are in clover get a helluva lot more!

I must agree spending money on vehicles is a waste of time when the problem is where you put your feet. The solution is a question of detecting the device in the ground and detecting those in the act of placing the device in the ground.

In the late thirties no one outside of Marconi would have believed you could detect an aircraft a 100 miles away. Equally so no-one in 1939 would have believed you could detect a submarine 300 feet under the water at 1000 yards. The notion that a single bomb could cause the Japanese to surrender wasn't believed even after it actually happened. Something like penicillin, the end of polio etc etc. was considered a dangerous dream.

The problem is too many clever people in industry are not focussing on the problems which are killing the infantry. I suppose preventing trailer trash getting wasted isn't a big ticket option so they are forced to turn their attention elsewhere.

I must confess I do not know how to defeat the Pakistan Army. That would involve a nuclear exchange and it would probably cause the PLA to mobilise.

I think defeating fertilizer bombs on the battlefield has a lot more future for all of us.


Bill M.

Mon, 11/07/2011 - 11:56am


I'm not sure how you associated me with someone opposed to military funding based on my post. I recently retired with over 30 years in the Army, so I understand well the necessity of military funding, but like others have opinions on where to weight that spending. I asked you to explain why you think we should stay in Afghanistan just to learn tactics, and you still haven't answered that.

I suspect you understand that a new M1, new aircraft carriers, etc. are important investments to maintain our asymmetrical technical advantage over potential foes, which in turns goes a long way to deterring wars, which makes the return on these investments subjectively worth it in my view up to a point.

I agree that funding for currently relevant technology for the ground pounders has been inadequate, but to get to your point about the fertilizer bombs, I think that needs to be put in perspective. I guess we can endeavor to make tougher and tougher vehicles, but the real solution in my view is defeat the network emplacing the bombs, and we already know how to do that. Unfortunately policy issues concerning Pakistan sovereignty prevent us from executing it. Not to say that the risk versus gain is worth it, but better vehicles and other defensive measures that may save a few lives (always a good thing), won't get us one step closer to achieving our strategic objectives there.


Mon, 11/07/2011 - 8:47am

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

I am not privy to any grand strategy as to the war in Afghanistan other than that stated by the thousands of government officials from dozens of western democracies that the mission is to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a failed state. Call me a fool but there you are.

Nobody, including your good self, believes we care about the cultural traditions but it is the recent history of a terrorist network allowed to flourish there which the west is hoping to prevent returning. Once again thousands make this very clear but yes they could all be lying.

My comments were basically designed to highlight the simple failure to facilitate a landscape where simply walking around was not a lethal business for security forces - police, militia or soldiers. Certainly at the moment many of these patrols have foreign troops included but the hope is one day they will be totally Afghan in content. Currently highly trained western troops struggle to move around on foot. A local force (which would only be ground based) would find it suicidal.

I have re-read some of the comments and you are the first to mention the Taliband. I referred to Haq, Gul, Wahabis, drug dealers etc or I certainly meant to. My experience with the Taliband was as young lazy 'scholars' who were obsessed with facial hair (or lack of) and holding hands. Much like students the world over. I read somewhere they shot guns and stuff but can't say I've seen that happen. I imagine from time to time they are the enemy but then it wasn't that long ago that the US Congress hailed Jellauddin Haqqanni as 'goodness personified'.


Robert C. Jones

Mon, 11/07/2011 - 6:20am

In reply to by RandCorp


While your posts clearly demonstrate that you are indeed a master of the obvious: first hand and studied knowledge of the facts, doctrine, official positions, etc; it is equally obvious that you really do not understand insurgency or the nature of this conflict.

This is not a "war" we must win, nor are there "threats" we must help defeat. This is a country whose traditional and legitimate cultural, and governmental processes are every bit as disrupted by US intervention as they have been in recent years by Soviet or Pakistani interventions and manipulations.

Like most Americans you tend to overlook that the US is in Afghanistan for US purposes in pursuit of US interest and seeking to force a solution that we believe will best support both of those self-serving factors. I'm not judging that, that is what major powers have always done, but I am also not ignoring that either. Such solutions have always been unstable and have always disrupted local systems, and have always been met by resistance insurgency. We delude ourselves if we sincerely believe that the US version is so special, so different from that imposed by others that the affected populaces truly do admire, respect and want what we force upon them. Like our historic predecessors (in Afghanistan and elsewhere around the world) if we only read our own press clippings and only ask the locals who collaborate and profit by our presence, we will never have a sense of the reality necessary for some sense of natural stability to emerge.

It is well to remember that the Taliban are not "the enemy," at least certainly not a US enemy, but are part of the populace as well. Any solution that demands that some major portion of the populace be defeated and forced to submit in order for those who profit by the externally forced program to prevail is a solution doomed to fail.

Now, many will argue that the US is not like the Soviets at all; our tactics are far more gentle and good than their tactics. True and immaterial at the same time. The problems we face in Afghanistan are not rooted in our tactics (as flawed as they are) but rather in our Strategy. Our strategic goals and agenda are no better than any other foreign invader in terms of their abuse upon the sovereignty, dignity and legitimacy of the affected people as a whole.

When people these days debate the validity or invalidity of "COIN" they debate a collection of tactics and they debate a flawed overarching construct cobbled together from the Colonial and Containment TTPS of centuries of such Western interventions and occupations around the world. Best practices of how those nations adopted or created some government to exercise their goals on their behalf, to prioritize the interests of the foreign power over those the nation they rule; and then how to best protect such illegitimate structures from both external challengers and from the internal challenges that inevitably arise. That is not COIN.

Albert Einstein cautioned others to beware "intelligent fools," and certainly field of modern COIN SMES, foreign policy and military operational design for activities such as Afghanistan are filled with dedicated, smart, hard working, intelligent fools.

It is not HOW we go about what we do to impose and protect a Northern Alliance monopoly of governance that causes us to struggle with this problem, it is the WHYs and "WHATs" of our presence and efforts that put the "wicked" and the "complexity" into the problem.

Such approaches were already obsolete during the British Empire; many times so in the current information fueled environment. We need new policies and new strategies for the emerging era. Arguing tactics while clinging to old ones will never get us where we seek to be.

We can do better.




Mon, 11/07/2011 - 5:57am

In reply to by Bill M.

Bill M,
I assume you consider your taxes being spent on the military as a necessary evil at worst and an important thing at best. I respect people who believe there should not be any military funding but in most western countries they are a tiny minority and, if I may say so, this isn't the correct forum for them.

The enemy has considerable funds for a terrorist organisation. The Wahabbis at the top (dollar-wise)and Haqqanni, Gulbudeen et-al in the middle and the drug dealers toward the bottom. If all of them pooled their money they might be able to keep a US aircraft carrier running for a month and they would then be broke for the rest of the 'fighting season'.

As a consequence of this lopsided contest the enemy needs to focus his assets very carefully. He could go the MANPADS/ATGM route but he already knows this won't work. Human wave attacks ala Iran-Iraq War - didn't/doesn't work and really not his thing. In this part of the world the list of failed military tactics is very long for both the invader and the native.

Currently the weapon which is establishing ascendancy on the battlefield is the fertilizer bomb. Depending on whether you require 1st class or 2nd class (the market for third class has collapsed) the price starts at around 50 bucks and the full pimped bling model can go as high as $250 (less for cash).

Unfortunately this information has not reached the people building the ram-jet ASM, the folks working on the new stabilizer on the M 1 and the JSF boys have obviously not discovered the internet and god only knows what the cavitation boffins are doing trying to make a a 300 mph torpedo go faster! Essentially these and hundreds of thousands of like minded people are working for the enemy. You may think not but the Butcher Bill never lies and is unmercifully pitiless when it comes to friend and foe.

Billions are being spent on military development every week but we insist on getting the infantry to find fertilizer bombs with their feet.

The enemy understands the presence of well trained, disciplined and determined infantry within his '..sea of people..' spells defeat. Bridges, tarmac, clinics, mini hydro-electric sites, port-a-cabin mosques etc '... smell like victory...' to Haqquani and friends but good heavily armed men handing out candy to kids every day is a nightmare for him.

Take a US airport as an analogy. All the hardware at the disposal of the US military cannot stop someone seizing control of an aircraft immediately after take-off and flying it back into the terminal building whereby killing as many as died on 9/11. The military is helpless in this situation. What does work is a man or women on minimum wage literally standing at the lounge entrance and calmly and politely determining whether your intention is lawful.

The surge had an effect for the simple reason there were more people on the ground who wanted a peaceful situation than before. If ISAF allies refuse to provide personnel then the US should withdraw its men and women from these countries.

Obviously Haqqanni isn't the only person who understands this but until the technological resources western democracies allocate to the defense industry are focussed on the infantry his path to victory is assured.

Bill M.

Sun, 11/06/2011 - 7:53pm

In reply to by RandCorp

RandCorp, I think you make good points about traditional systems being destroyed, but I was taken back a couple of steps when you suggested that we stay in Afghanistan simply to learn to fight this type of war. What do you mean by that? What concepts/strategies do you recommend we embrace that we're not using now? Do you think the military is failing due to poor tactics and operational strategy, or due to unrealistic policies? I would like to see your thoughts on this if you have time. At this point I am not convinced that staying longer is going to force us to learn anything new.


Sun, 11/06/2011 - 5:16pm

In reply to by SWJED

Exactly, they were basically blasted out of their villages and millions of butterfly mines kept them away. The camps kept them alive and in reasonable health but any semblance of tradition was drained out of them over the 20 odd years they were stuck in the desert.- RC


Sun, 11/06/2011 - 4:55pm

In reply to by RandCorp

I worked Afghanistan for CENTCOM during the Soviet intervention. In my humble opinion the number one factor that destroyed tribal identity/loyalty/allegiance was the huge percentage of the population who sought refuge in Pakistan and subsequently found an entire generation plus of the young out from under the influence of tribe and family and subjected to the influence of Madrasah Islamic schools and other non-Afghan influences, especially from the Wahhabiism that spawned the Taliban. -Dave D.


Sun, 11/06/2011 - 4:43pm

I found the level of detail regarding the tribal soup and it's implications quite astounding - unbelievable even!

Paktia and particularly the region around the Soviet 10th Mechanised Division's garrison in the town (it is not a city) of Khost was completely destroyed out to at least BM 21 range as early as 1984. Beyond that the Soviet and Afghan Air Force basically bombed anything remotely resembling a house. In other words there was nothing left. To give some idea of the destruction an encampment with three or four single room buildings received no less than 110 air-strikes in the space of 10 days.

I find it incredible that any tribal identity/loyalty/allegiance could have survived.In fact it is my contention that it did not and the shura/ jirga / elder route is a total waste of time.

Even if there was somehow a resurrection of loyalty, no foreigner would be remotely welcomed into any dialogue. And one bearing gifts would be particularly despised.

You article touched briefly on the Marines and the degree of success they have experienced in their efforts. This is the key. It will have to be a feat of arms. Both figuratively and physically - a presence of arms and boots on the ground.

The Soviets used a scorched earth policy in the East because that is what their military machine was designed to do. It was a complete failure.

The ISAF is fighting a much smaller foe which is basically a narco army armed with small arms and fertilizer bombs. The sale of one Apache helicopter would probably fund Haqqani's entire force for another ten years. Even when Charlie Wilson was throwing his weight around, the amount of hardware and munitions crossing into Afghanistan was tiny; the present day input is a fraction of that!

The US should remain in Afghanistan for the sole reason that it has to learn how to fight this type of war. Sure all the other stuff essential to COIN has its place but it is the bearing of arms which is defective.

Eisenhower knew what he was talking about. The US has wasted so much treasure on buying complete junk since Ike's final speech. You may not agree with him but Jalauddin Haqqani certainly does.

G Martin

Sun, 11/06/2011 - 9:20am

This article, although full of great details, misses the boat on the conclusion in my opinion.

<em>"...American forces have proved that they can conduct successful counterinsurgency that shows tangible and potentially sustainable progress in the key southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand with proper resources and strategy. But the US government's recent commencement of a premature drawdown and its concurrent failure to supply necessary resources in the Afghan east, along with a high-level diplomatic failure to adequately address Pakistan’s support of the Afghan insurgency, has created fissures in strategy that may result in its failure..."</em>

I'd argue that we have yet to show any proof that what we have in Helmand and Kandahar- or anywhere in Afghanistan for that matter- is successful COIN or sustainable progress. In 2009 many in Afghanistan felt that the surge wouldn't offer the "necessary resources" in Afghanistan- as 30k more was a political consensus figure. The fissures in strategy come more from not having a sustainable strategy that takes into consideration the region- instead demanding everyone support our narrow objective of building a stable democracy in Afghanistan.

<em>"...while current strategy that merges elements of COIN, including punishing offensive operations, with accelerated development of indigenous security forces may be making the absolute best of current resources, it remains inadequate to the task..."</em>

I'd argue it remains inadequate to the task not because of current resource levels- but because- as COL Maxwell notes- there is no balance between ends, ways, and means. We might think if we set up democracies, spend development dollars we don't have, and carbon copy our security forces the world over it will make us safer (I'd argue it wouldn't), but we can't afford that strategy (in terms of absolute dollars AND political capital)- just like we can't afford what the author describes in Afghanistan.


Sat, 11/05/2011 - 4:45pm

While this centers around Afghanistan, it speaks to the larger issue and importance of carefully applied COIN.

So...several years from now...will we look back and say that 2011 was the beginnings of an "insurgency" in the United States of America that fancied itself as "Guy Fawkes" with a distinctly anti-Capitalist and some dare say even anti-American stance?...

Given that it is devolving into rhetoric, ideology, attitudes and actions that I disdain...and groups that are rapidly aligning themselves with "the movement"... not the least of which are anti-Semitic, fascist, Communist and even links to groups supporting Jihad, I do not find myself lending support to idiocy and subversion associated with the delusional "Guy Fawkes" crowd.

I believe political forces are anticipating a devastating loss in the upcoming elections and are preparing themselves, via their "Guy Fawkes" cover, for escalating civil unrest in order to undermine the next administration. As well as attempt to usher in a violent move to the political Left that has long been a source of ideological struggle in this nation.

In my estimation, there is a upwards of 30% chance that I could be right looking back several years from now. And if so, will COIN be of vital importance in a potential future ideological struggle in America and perhaps even it's survival as a Constitutional Republic vs a new era of increasing totalitarianism?


Sat, 11/05/2011 - 4:21pm

Nicely done. More quality reporting & analysis from SWJ.

G Martin

Sun, 11/06/2011 - 9:07am

In reply to by Khostwarrior

Although still disturbing, I'd offer this break-down of the actual motivation behind the failed strategy of which you speak:

- 1/3rd of those officers you mention actually believe what they are doing is helping make America safer. Although still disturbing, this is not a malicious or passive dereliction of duty.
- Between 1/3rd and 1/2 are sheeple who are playing the game the system has set-up: play along, don't make waves, show short-term progress and some competency towards short-term objectives- and you get promoted.
- The rest (somewhere between 10 and 33%) are fighting their own individual "wars" as a subversive effort against the "ruling class" in order to work on long-term objectives and fight for the soldiers, NCOs and lower officer levels who are taking the brunt of this strategy at the tactical level. They do this, however, at the risk of their careers- what General Dempsey- I think- wished we had more of: "career courage."

I think the top military leadership really needs to look long and hard at itself. I've heard political contacts bemoan the fact that they don't trust the military leadership today. If we truly hold the values we espouse as important- then we need to figure out what following those values really means- and get about the business of upholding those values in practice.


Sat, 11/05/2011 - 4:26pm

In reply to by Khostwarrior

Nicely done as well in your comments which I read in full. There was a reason Bush mostly dropped or vastly scaled back ambitions in Afghanistan. We will leave like the Soviets did. It's a basket case and would take a whole book to get into the details. Tribalism just covers the surface. The real question in my mind is which is worse? Afghanistan or Mexico? Compare homicide rates and other data, gentle readers.


Fri, 11/04/2011 - 10:45pm

As a former operative in Sabari I feel the article accurately reflects the conditions on the ground. To include the complex nature of the relationships that exist between Afgans, Americans, and the tribes to include both the good and bad guys of each. Unfortunately, what most articles about Afghanistan or Khost fail to reveal is our total ignorance of how to kill bad guys while trying to appeal to them as humanitarians and reconstruction gurus. We returned to Afghanistan in 2003/2004 believing we can deliver a 90/10 solution. With little understanding of the true politics of the country we selectively utilize our forces to make half ass attempts to kill ten percent of the population, an enemy we don't really even know, while hoping that if 90 percent of the time we throw enough of our (should I say China's) money at it, they will come to our side. This after we swear our allegiance to a corrupt central government that has absolutely no feelings for their rural provincial population nor the want to care for them. Generals and Colonels as well as department of state see an opportunity to exploit the situation to spend ever increasing sums of money, not for the Afghans but to enhance resumes and evaluations or to increase power bases and budgets as in the case of DOS. All I might add at the risk of human life, their soldiers lives. It's a sad and pathetic situation to watch otherwise incredibly smart commanders and diplomats sell out their own country, collapsing under it's own financial weight, by willingly spends hundreds of million of American dollars on projects they know for a fact make absolutely no difference in the struggle beyond advantages it brings to making themselves look better than the next for that next promotion or assignment. One does not need to trust my opinion here. There is a plethora congressional investigations, SIGAR reports, and commentary by think tanks outlining the worthless nature of the COIN strategy in Afghansitan and billions of wasted dollars in pursuit of it. Has the leadership of our country and its Army have no shame or enough patriotism left to stand up and be accountable. Apparently not as the investigation by Senator MCCAskill shows when she caled on DOD, DOS, and cntractors to account for how the billions are wasted and not one wned up to knowing any of it. If you are a Colonel and above or a diplomat of State you should truly be ashamed of yourselves and quietly leave this mans Army.

G Martin

Sun, 11/06/2011 - 8:50am

In reply to by Bill C.

Bill C- 100% agree with your implied concept- if we weren't attempting to carbon copy ourselves (security forces), our government (democracy), and our economic system ("forced" free-market development- which really isn't our economic system as much as it is the same system we have been attempting to make work in our inner cities and parts of the Third World for decades...), it probably would look much different and be much more "do-able". Sad that we have these assumptions about insurgencies that- if you ask the average Afghan minister about he'd totally disagree with. But- we have to be right, right?

Overall, re: COIN, the fly(ies) in the ointment would seem to be:

a. Our belief that the "root causes" of insurgencies generally (and/or genocide, terrorism, etc.) is that the subject states and societies do not have sufficiently "Western" political, economic and social systems. And,

b. Our determination to (1) use the opportunity presented by insurgencies (and/or other significant state/societal difficulties for that matter) to (2) address these "root cause" problems by (3) intervening (in various ways) with the goal of (4) installing a sufficiently "Western" political, economic and social system within these "deficient" states and societies.

Thus, American COIN (and/or American foreign policy for that matter) -- not hampered by the requirement to (a) use the opportunity presented by state and societal difficulty to (b) transform states and societies -- might look much different/be much more do-able?

Dave Maxwell

Thu, 11/03/2011 - 9:23am

Quite a thorough critique with a lot of interesting anecdotes. The concluding paragraph really sums it up:

"Put more simply: effective counterinsurgency doctrine is more than the sum of its parts. And while current strategy that merges elements of COIN, including punishing offensive operations, with accelerated development of indigenous security forces may be making the absolute best of current resources, it remains inadequate to the task. US strategy in Afghanistan remains conflicted and lacks a clear path to success."

I know I am beating the horse but Bill Ardolino teed this up and I cannot resist repeating this: this is another illustration of the need for a strategy that seeks balance and coherency among ends, ways, and means (while exploiting opportunities and accepting or mitigating risk).