Stability Operations: Lessons from Afghanistan
Charles T. Barham
The time period from 2010 to 2012 arguably saw the zenith of Counterinsurgency (COIN) operations in Afghanistan. These operations were comprehensive, full spectrum COIN, and certainly had a kinetic or lethal side, but they also had a nonlethal or Soft Power side which included COIN Development. This paper seeks to identify lessons from the Afghanistan “COIN Development” experience at the strategic level that will inform leaders who might find themselves planning or executing operations requiring a development or soft power component in the future.
The principle threat in Afghanistan following the initial removal of al-Qaeda, was the Taliban. The Taliban were and continue to be an insurgency (although they have used terrorist tactics from time to time). Root causes or motives for most insurgencies include; insecurity, political marginalization, and economic marginalization. Imbedded in these motives one might find poverty, unemployment, economic inequality, inadequate essential services, political marginalization, and repression.
In addition to combat operations, the NATO/ISAF COIN Campaign Plan sought to address the root causes of the insurgency through a combination of soft power options; governance and socioeconomic development initiatives & projects which helped provide basic social services to the Afghan people and thereby add legitimacy to the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA). Collectively these governance and socioeconomic development activities were known as Stability Operations. The staff organization responsible for developing and managing the Stability portion of the campaign plan was the office of the ISAF Deputy Chief of Staff for Stability Operations, and included its embedded Development Directorate.
The Salang Tunnel , Critical Economic Infrastructure on Highway 1
The Development Directorate was a unique organization comprised of both military and civilian personnel from across the coalition. Some were soldiers with engineering skills, or soldiers who had economic infrastructure backgrounds such as rail. Some civilians were economists, others were educators. The Directorate’s focus was on strategic level socioeconomic development projects. It worked with members of the international community to advocate for the execution of projects with the greatest positive COIN effect. This coordination was absolutely essential when one considers that the Development Directorate had no development budget at all and therefore had no ability to implement any projects or programs of its own. The Directorate tracked projects, gathered information, conducted analysis, and made recommendations to ISAF leadership with respect to development activities and the campaign plan.
The ISAF COIN campaign plan sought to ensure that the kinetic activities such as clear (usually military) and hold (usually police with some military support when required) were supported by non-kinetic or soft power build activities (usually international community developers, to include a robust U.S. effort under multiple funding sources which included the Afghan Infrastructure Fund and the Commanders Emergency Response Program). The various strategic socioeconomic activities and projects needed to be captured in a strategy, and then articulated in the ISAF Campaign Plan.
The Counterinsurgency Socioeconomic Development Strategy was designed to execute Line of Operation #6 of the ISAF Campaign Plan, “Enable sustainable economic growth and a population with sustainable access to basic social services.” To that end, it focused on ensuring that a requisite amount of; social infrastructure— enough to make basic health and education accessible to the people; and economic infrastructure—enough to support sustainable economic growth, were in place or planned; as well as creating within GIRoA the legal, regulatory and policy conditions for sustainable economic growth.
Two of the Three Hydro-electric Power Turbines at Kajaki Dam
However, by the end of 2011 many of the members of the coalition were tired of the war and were no longer interested in either fighting COIN (although COIN had only been underway for two years), to include its Stability component, or to continue to resource development projects in general. The rush was on for “Transition”, the transition of the lead for security operations to GIRoA with a target of 2014. The fight in Afghanistan was being turned over to the Afghans, but would it be a true COIN fight? The answer was no. The lead for security operations did transition to the Afghans, however, there was no corresponding effort to transition a Stability capability. Stability operations would terminate.
Although full spectrum, comprehensive Counterinsurgency Development in Afghanistan had only been in effect for three years we can glean lessons from it. This author suggests there are at least three significant lessons worth consideration prior to committing to future COIN operations and their stability component.
The first lesson one should take away from COIN in Afghanistan is a commitment to finish the job. COIN, to include stability, takes time. JP 3-24 cites studies that indicate the estimated average time for an insurgency to end successfully for a Host Nation is 12 years. As previously mentioned, full spectrum, comprehensive COIN was only conducted in Afghanistan for about three years before the lead for combat operations was transferred to the Afghans and the stability operations were terminated. COIN operations were having good effects, and some aspects of COIN Development were progressing apace. However, much of COIN Development (or simply “Development” once the COIN operation is terminated) can be generational and take decades. So leaders, both military and political, need to be prepared from the outset to commit to supporting these development activities in some form or fashion for the long-term.
A second lesson should be “dual transition”. In Afghanistan NATO/ISAF rushed to a security transition before the insurgency was defeated. They cited that the Afghans were prepared to continue the fight in the lead (although one might argue that they were not ready). However, there was no provision for a corresponding stability operations transition. The Afghans would now lead the fight, and a large part of the international community was still executing development projects, but there was no mechanism to stand up a Deputy Chief of Staff for Stability Operations “like” organization within the Afghan Ministry of Defense or anywhere else in GIRoA. Therefore, the critical task of coordinating and synchronizing development projects with security operations melted away. As the Afghans continued to conduct clear and hold operations, there was no build. There was no flow of basic social services, or the infrastructure to support it. Therefore the Afghans have found themselves clearing and trying to hold the same Districts over and over again.
A final lesson should be to take a more realistic approach to COIN stability and specifically development operations. Consider the country and its population, and perhaps not force too much change too fast. In Iraq, Stability operations sought to reconstruct a country that was already fairly well advanced, to 21st century standards. In Afghanistan the distance from where the country and the population were prior to Operation Enduring Freedom, to the vision expressed in documents such as the Afghan National Development Strategy, was significant as was the breath or scope of the effort required to achieve it. This was particularly true of the resources, such as time and money required in implementing these projects. Leaders planning future COIN development operations might consider focusing on fewer projects or groupings of projects that the population really needs and can eventually operate and maintain on their own, and then actually delivering it. By studying the population and its needs COIN Development should attempt to align the right project at the right place and at the right time, usually in coordination with a military or security operation, in order to add legitimacy to the Host Nation Government in the eyes of the population and to marginalize the insurgency. Placing cleared members of the host nation military and or government on the staff would also be helpful in terms of ensuring that the development activities being planned are actually needed or desired, and to better understand the COIN effects that these efforts are likely to generate. These efforts would allow for a more scalable version of COIN Development, a “COIN Light” approach as opposed to full spectrum, comprehensive COIN / COIN Development.
Given the current and projected threats around the world such as the Islamic State it is likely that there will be opportunities for leaders to plan and execute operations that will include soft power options. This is particularly true of the trans-regional area centered in Southwest Asia. But this is the subject of another paper.