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Strategic Development and Irregular Warfare: Lessons from the High Water Mark of Full-Spectrum COIN
The high water mark of full-spectrum counterinsurgency (COIN) occurred in Afghanistan from 2010-2012. Military and civilian budgets were at their peaks, including Economic Support Funds (ESF), Commanders Emergency Response Funds (CERP), the Afghan Infrastructure Fund (AIF), and funding for the DoD Task Force for Business and Stability Operations (TFBSO). The Afghan surge was in place, the military footprint was at its maximum, and the drawdown of personnel and resources that followed President Obama’s 2009 announcement of U.S. withdrawal had not yet begun.
The new military COIN doctrine articulated in December 2006 had been applied to the surge in Iraq with some success, and it was being applied in Afghanistan under General Stanley McChrystal as Commander of the International Security Assistance Force (COMISAF). Both governance and socioeconomic development were integral elements of the COIN doctrine, as well as the ”3D” national security policy framework of Defense, Development, Diplomacy.
General David Petraeus took command of ISAF in June 2010. At his direction, German Major General Richard Rossmanith was brought in as DCOS Stability and instructed to ‘staff up development, pursue it aggressively, and get it into the game.’ Over the next seventeen months, STAB/Development formulated, articulated and executed the socioeconomic development part of the military campaign strategy. That work constituted a benchmark for operationalizing development intelligence in COIN, and established a way forward for similar future work in irregular warfare campaigns.
The Mandate: STAB/Development had three specific mandates:
- Integrate socioeconomic development into the military Campaign Plan;
- Analyze, facilitate and troubleshoot strategic development projects; and
- Provide the best counsel to COMISAF on strategic development issues.
The unit was a new kind of military organization, responsible for an admixture of strategic, intelligence, analytical, troubleshooting and advisory tasks. In execution, it evolved into what variously served as a development intelligence unit, an issues management cell, a think tank, deal brokers, problem troubleshooters, counselor to the Commander, advisor to subordinate commands, and clearinghouse for information on strategic development. But it operated without development funds. Instead, it pushed the diaspora of development organizations to execute projects with the greatest COIN impact, regardless of funding source.
The Staff: STAB/Development had about 75 staff, all but a few of them military. Most were U.S., but there were also representatives from nearly two dozen contributing countries over the duration of the operation. The development experience of the military staff was mixed, but it was supplemented with a handful of seasoned development professionals seconded over from other organizations. It also included the occasional world-class expert—for example in rail—“borrowed” from other military units.
Most importantly, the ability of the unit to operate successfully at the strategic level was enabled by fifteen or so Afghan Hands who were assigned to it. The Hands, a small cadre of U.S. military and civilians armed with Afghan language, culture and COIN training, were mostly attached to the Ministers or senior staff of key Afghan development ministries. Both individually and collectively, they became game-changers in the extreme.
The Campaign Plan: STAB/Development started formulating the development part of the Campaign Plan by articulating the role and importance of development in the 2010 Operational Plan (OPLAN). After a strategic approach was approved by Petraeus in January 2011, the unit began evolving a COIN Development Strategy for 2012-2014. That strategy established the foundation of the development part of OPLAN 38302, approved by COMISAF in November 2011 and by JFC-Brunssom after approval by DCOS/Stability in January 2012.
Operationally, the unit was made responsible for Line of Operation (LOO) #6 of the campaign—“enable socioeconomic development”. This recognized the role that poor social and economic conditions were playing in fueling instability in Afghanistan, and the role that delivery of basic social and economic services could play in legitimizing the government. The unit was also charged with two campaign strategic priorities, “enabling development of strategic infrastructure” and “enhancing border area management.”
The Developers: Socioeconomic development is planned, funded and executed by a wildly diverse array of international development agencies. In Afghanistan STAB/Development recorded well over 150 active development organizations, including multilateral development banks, bilateral donors, United Nations organizations, non-governmental organizations, military units, private organizations, and others. About twenty of these were key players which—knowingly or unknowingly—were executing projects important to the COIN campaign.
The Military as Development Agent: The US military was arguably the most important of these development agents. This was partly because of its focus on development as an element of COIN, and because of the many strengths, resources and specialized programs that it brought to enable COIN development in theater. Among the most important of these were its ability to shape, clear and hold terrain, its ability to enable other development agents to work in insecure areas, its presence throughout the war zone, and the ready access it provided to governors and ministers. The military also brought logistics, organization, superb personnel, intelligence resources, Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), CERP funding for local projects, AIF funding for larger projects, Special Forces tip-of-the-spear capabilities, Village Stability Operations, the Afghan Hands, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Civil Affairs units.
Triaging Development: One strategic priority of the Campaign Plan approved by Petraeus in 2010 was to enable development of “strategic infrastructure”. He used the term “strategic” in conjunction with other development actions on multiple occasions, referring to ‘tactical effects with strategic implications’ in the context of Village Stability Operations in 2011, for example, and to ‘strategic CERP projects that emanated from the strategic level’ at ISAF HQ. In 15 March 2011 testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, he elaborated on the strategic implications of AIF projects:
“These are larger projects that…are central to the conduct of a counterinsurgency campaign. So these are not economic development and they’re not economic assistance or something. These are projects that directly enable the success of our troopers on the ground…(T)he first tranche of these, for example, is almost all energy related, infrastructure related…to enable the revival of the areas in Kandahar and the greater south, and then tying in a power grid to that as well.”
In execution, STAB/Development distinguished socioeconomic development from other activities like governance and humanitarian assistance that are often lumped into the “development” rubric. It then triaged the many hundreds of ongoing Afghan development projects into three categories: development, defined as all socioeconomic projects; COIN development, defined as those socioeconomic projects contributing materially to COIN objectives; and strategic development, defined as those COIN development projects that were—alone or in aggregate—critical to attaining COMISAF’s strategic objectives.
Focusing the Work: In the COIN development strategy, STAB/Development articulated an end state for Afghanistan that focused on ensuring that social and economic conditions wouldn’t derail the security transition after the announced end of the military campaign in 2014. The strategy had three elements: social infrastructure, economic infrastructure, and economic growth. In social infrastructure it focused primarily on access to basic health and education services, differentiating between physical infrastructure—the schools and clinics—and the operational infrastructure like the staff and recurring costs required to make them function. In economic infrastructure it focused on roads, rail, aviation, power, water, telecommunications, and borders. The unit tracked well over 200 COIN-critical infrastructure projects, and as in the social sectors it worked on both the operational and the physical plant.
The most complicated part of the strategy was economic growth because it is the hardest to operationalize. To simplify the problem, it was broken into economic governance (the legal, regulatory, judicial, and policy frameworks) and business support (business infrastructure, skills development, banking and finance, large investors, and small and medium enterprises). The work of Paul Brinkley and the TFBSO in Iraq was hugely consequential, and STAB/Development collaborated with them in Afghanistan extensively in the energy and mining sectors.
The Perfect Storm and Basic Services: There was an economic perfect storm brewing in Afghanistan at that time, making prospects for achieving sustainable economic growth poor over the mid-term. We recognized that the quickest way for social and economic conditions to derail the security transition after 2014 was if the modest but long-running streamflow of benefits that the Afghan government delivers to the grass roots level were to dry up. We therefore began to also focus on the sustainability of eight basic services programs—delivering health, education, rural roads, local power systems, agriculture, water/sanitation, employment and rural development. Each was addressed by proven, long-running programs that were funded by international donors, and executed by a few key ministries.
Results: In the seventeen months from September 2010-February 2012, STAB/Development tracked hundreds of development projects and analyzed, troubleshot or collaborated on well over a hundred major COIN- and strategic-level projects and issues. These included:
- Roads: Ring Road Northwest, the Salang Tunnel, Armalek-Lahman, Upper Route 611, the E-W and N-S corridors, Kabul-Jalalabad, Kandahar bypass, and Route Lithium;
- Rail: Hairatan-Mazar (Afghanistan’s first rail line), creation of a National Rail Authority, Northern Distribution site assessment, rail gauge analysis, and the rail-mining nexus;
- Aviation: The Civil Aviation Law and Civil Aviation authority, the national Area Control Center, ICAO standards at the national airports, and Kandahar airport funding;
- Power: Kajaki hydropower, Kandahar power, the NEPS-SEPS connection, Sheberghan gas, Naglu-Jalalabad and Jalalabad-Asadabad transmission, and the TAPI pipeline;
- Water: The Kajaki, Salma, Dahla, Kamal Khan, Darunta and Kunar dams, the Jowzjan pipeline, and water sector operations and maintenance;
- Telecommunications: Current State Assessment, National Optical Fiber Ring, 24/7 cellular, the National Data Center, and communications links to the ministries;
- Borders: Interdiction operations, synchronization, customs performance, key Border Control Point monitoring, and border problems with Pakistan;
- Health: Supported CJ-MED, which had the lead for HQ ISAF support in the critical health sector part of socioeconomic development, and developed sector strategy metrics;
- Education: Radio/television and higher education, ICT education, VTC training, religious engagement, community colleges, and the Communications Technology Institute;
- Mining: Mining tenders, the Afghan-Tajik Basin, Aynak copper, Bamyan coal, Hajigak iron, Zara Zaghan gold, Angot and Amu Darya oil fields, and the TAPI pipeline;
- Agriculture: Poppy cultivation alternatives, wheat distribution, saffron, emergency drought, seed distribution, agribusiness strategy, and agribusiness value chains;
- Basic Services: Identified eight COIN-critical basic services, tracked program coverage for those services, and troubleshot coverage shortfalls;
- Transition: Basic services, National and local governance connection in service provision, provincial Transition Implementation Plans, and transition metrics;
- Cross-Cutting: Donor financial streamflow analysis, COIN spending, the New Silk Road, private security contractors, budget execution, and operations & maintenance.
Altogether, STAB/Development produced over 100 major written analytical or briefing products, about 75 of them directly for COMISAF. The consumers of these products, in addition to the Commanders, included intelligence agencies, subordinate commands, PRTs, incoming military units, visiting VIPs, governors, ministers, diplomats, key development agencies, and international conferences.
Why It Worked: At this place and time, having a robust military capability to strategize, track, analyze and troubleshoot strategic development worked. There were a number of reasons for this. First, it was a military operation. STAB/Development could never have succeeded at this work in either a U.S. diplomatic or, especially, U.S. development agency structure. Second, the unit was located physically and organizationally close to the ISAF Commanders, and had direct communications with them. Third, at the top there was a clear understanding of the importance of development to COIN, and commitment to operationalizing it as a central element of the Afghan COIN campaign. Fourth, the mandate was right and the work was made an integral part of the military campaign and operational plans. Fifth, it was resourced right: It had the right level of staff and assets for that specific campaign. Sixth, the DCOS Chief of Staff succeeded in recruiting not just high quality staff, but also a large number of Afghan Hands who greatly increased our ability to successfully conclude COIN-critical issues. And last, the unit was led by a seasoned development expert who was seconded over to the military and was in the military chain of command.
Transition and Debate: As force drawdown and budget cuts started to affect operations at NATO headquarters and STAB/Development in late 2011, the U.S. created a parallel unit in the ISAF Joint Command (IJC) that could sustain and further operationalize the strategic development work. That unit took over the lead for strategic development in 2012.
Troop drawdown marked the end of full-spectrum COIN in Afghanistan in 2012, and it may be the last time for the foreseeable future that COIN is applied in this way anywhere. The drawdown began a robust debate on the performance of COIN, and its potential applicability to future irregular warfare. Much of the results of that debate are embodied in the new COIN manual (FM 3-24) and Stability manual (FM 3-07), which were revised and re-issued in 2014. At the end of the campaign, though—analogous to what happened with the CORDS program in Vietnam—the short three-year application of full-spectrum COIN in Afghanistan ended before it could prove itself conclusively one way or the other.
Strategic Development and Irregular Warfare: Irregular warfare is defined as “a violent struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant populations.” Of the five kinds of warfare included under that typology—counter-terrorism, unconventional warfare, foreign internal defense, COIN, and stability operations—the work of strategic development is primarily integral only to COIN and stability ops.
Military priorities are in a state of rapid change, and the primary strategic focus in 2015 is on counter-terrorism and hybrid warfare. DoD policy, however, is to also remain proficient in the execution of irregular warfare, including both COIN and stability operations. That development is important to successfully fighting insurgencies is clear, and not just in COIN and stability doctrine. In 2013, for example, analyzing the relationship between successful COIN and 24 COIN “concepts”, the RAND Corporation found a “strong” linkage between the concept of development and COIN success and noted that “…the COIN force won every time it implemented…” the development concept.
The Future: It is also clear that insurgencies and stability operations are here to stay. The 2013 RAND analysis examined 71 insurgencies that started and ended since 1945, and the Council on Foreign Relations has enumerated an additional 74 post-WW II insurgencies that were still ongoing as of 2012. That’s 145 new insurgencies in 67 years, or a rate of about two new insurgencies a year.
There are, however, three inherent limitations that will always work against COIN: time, money, and political will. What is needed going forward is a refined “COIN light” approach that can better target specific elements on the critical path to defeating insurgencies that are of lesser scope and magnitude than the one in Afghanistan. For insurgencies that are truly religious in nature, those elements may not include socioeconomic factors at all. For most other insurgencies, however—and for virtually all stability operations—socioeconomics will likely play a significant role. And for those, fortunately, the strategic development work carried out at the high water mark of COIN is scalable.