Small Wars Journal

A Winning Strategy for Afghanistan

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A Winning Strategy for Afghanistan

Stephen B. Young

The United States intelligence agencies and military commands can’t agree on whether to be “cautiously optimistic” or “cautiously pessimistic” on prospects for Afghanistan.

What both do agree on, however, is that the United States and its Afghan partners have not defeated the Taliban either on the battlefield or by bringing them to negotiated terms of living in peace with other Afghans.

The reasons for our failure are simple to understand but unacceptable for a great power.

First was the eager rush to forget our Vietnam experience – even the successful CORDS counterinsurgency program in the villages of South Vietnam after 1968.

Second was a narcissistic myopia at the level of strategic planning.  In the 1990s our foreign policy and national security elites fixated on only two kinds of unilateral power – hard and soft.  We suffered from the conceit that, after the fall of the Soviet Union and with the peaceful rise of China under Deng Xiaoping, the world was uni-polar, and we Americans were that single pole of international power with no need to cultivate other nations in alliances.

Thus, we could expect others to do what we wanted them to do out of fear of our bombs and bullets – hard power – or out of love for our values (democracy and human rights) – soft power.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban concluded that they could outlast our application of hard power and we had no soft power to deploy against the Taliban.  They don’t like us and they don’t want our democracy or our permissive cultural codes.

Our substitute for a successful counterinsurgency strategy is still largely an endless process of playing “whack a mole.”

When neither hard nor soft power could carry the day for our side, we have no third alternative way to win.

We conveniently overlooked the reality that most people do what they want for their own interests and values.  This is especially true in situations of low intensity conflict, small wars, and failed states, where coordinated political/military programs partnering with local communities are the only road to victory.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis testified last year that the United States was still in a “strategy free zone” and noted that we are not winning in Afghanistan where the Taliban control some 40% of the country. Nothing has occurred to cause us to challenge his conclusion.

Retired Admiral Stavridis correctly concluded that “You can't kill your way to success in a counter insurgency effort. You have to protect the people, get the civil military balance right, train the locals, and practice effective strategic communications.”  

Carl von Clausewitz gave us a good clue to the right strategy when he wrote “War is the continuation of politics by other means”, confirming that human conflict is a continuum stretching from peaceful politics and incentives through escalating degrees of violence from riots, local uprisings, terrorism, small insurgencies, and limited wars on up to conventional wars and, finally, to nuclear annihilation at the far end.

A very important modern corollary to Clausewitz was provided by Mao Zedong: “Guerillas are the fish which swim in the sea of the people.”  As long as there is a sea, the guerilla fish can still swim here and there as they like. 

In Afghanistan we have not yet dried up the sea which sustains the Taliban and other insurgents.  Terrorist attacks there continue with no end in sight.

An effective strategy to win a guerilla war must therefore combine the political with the military to “dry up” the sea and leave the guerillas to flounder about on dry land and die.

In a successful counter-insurgent strategy, the people must provide the front-line troops against the enemy.

Everyone else – police, salaried and uniformed local forces, central government battalions, air forces, artillery, tanks, ministries of health, education, agriculture and justice, district officers, NGOs and all foreign forces – is rear echelon support for the people.

But how are the people to be organized?  In their traditional and local communities.

But why should they agree to stand up and fight against the insurgents or the terrorists?

Giving them a reason to do so is the heart of any successful counter-insurgency strategy.

I call it finding “associative” power.

The deployment of “associative” power is forming alliances, joint ventures, and partnerships with local communities.  Once you have an alliance with the local people, you have power relevant to that community.  The bigger and more energetic the alliance, the smaller the pond sustaining the “fish” you want to catch and remove from the “sea of the people”.

Associative power requires fighting the insurgents from the bottom up, not from the top down.

Associative power also protects the people against government corruption and other abuses of bureaucratic and military power.

Oddly enough such a strategy was successfully used by the United States during the Vietnam War.

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in October 1966 admitted to President Lyndon Johnson that he could devise no strategy effective enough to defend South Vietnam from Communist aggression.  Johnson then turned to two civilians – Walt Rostow and Robert Komer – and they quickly proposed the use of associative power to change U.S. strategy in the war.

Johnson adopted their recommendation and improved U.S. war aims to build up the cultural, political, economic, and military power of the South Vietnamese nationalists from the villages on up.  Once the South Vietnamese people had been so empowered, U.S. forces would withdraw from combat.

This program began in 1967 using elections nationally under a new constitution and the funding of village self-defense units, self-government councils and self-development projects.  This program was supervised by Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker.  The rural components under a new organization reporting through General William Westmoreland to Bunker – Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support or “CORDS” – were fine-tuned first by Komer and then by William Colby.  Improving the combat capabilities of the South Vietnamese military was guided by General Creighton Abrams.

As a result, by 1972, Hanoi’s southern followers, organized as the National Liberation Front or Viet Cong, had collapsed as an effective insurgent force.

As a mid-level CORDS strategist working for William Colby, I was an eye-witness to the success of these efforts. In particular, I worked with the Tan Dai Viet Party of Vietnamese nationalists which had been given special responsibility for implementing village programs.

The right kind of strategic instincts were also used by H.R. McMaster and several other local US commanders in Iraq when they formed partnerships with the Sunni tribal leaders to jointly fight the fundamentalist insurgents in Anbar Province.

A similar program can still be undertaken in Afghanistan.  It is never too late to trust the people.

As President Trump stated last year, “Ultimately, it is up to the people of Afghanistan to take ownership of their future, to govern their society, and to achieve an everlasting peace” adding “Afghans will secure and build their own nation and define their own future.” 


About the Author(s)

Stephen B. Young served with the CORDS program in the Republic of Vietnam from 1967 to 1971 as a Deputy District Advisor in Vinh Long province and as Chief, Village Government Branch. Young's service with CORDS was recognized by President Richard Nixon, Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker, and CIA Director William Colby. A fluent speaker of Vietnamese he has written on human rights in traditional Vietnam, Vietnamese legal history, Vietnamese nationalism, and with his wife translated Duong Thu Huong's novel The Zenith into English. Young is a graduate with honors of Harvard College and Harvard Law School. He is a former Assistant Dean of the Harvard Law School and Dean and Professor of Law at the Hamline University School of Law. He is Global Executive Director of the Caux Round Table and the author of Moral Capitalism and The Road to Moral Capitalism. His most recent book is The Theory and Practice of Associative Power: CORDS in the Villages of Vietnam 1967-1972.



Mon, 10/01/2018 - 6:40am

I can say that Afghanistan is good country which always stand against the terrorism and I have seen the people of Afghanistan are good by nature.This country is standing with america against the terrorist activity which I have read on essayroo reviews news channel.So I would say Afghanistan is standing with America in any situation.


Fri, 09/14/2018 - 7:34pm

As a former Air Force Systems Analyst Officer (1972-1976), the part of Vietnam that I remember is that in 11 days of unrestricted bombing and air dropped mines, Operation Linebacker II put all of North Vietnam's ports out of business.  This cut off all supplies, because the Red Chinese skimmed 90% plus of what was shipped overland.  If Linebacker II had been launched in 1965 instead of December, 1972, it would have saved a lot of lives and made COIN a lot more effective, a lot earlier.  We lost in Vietnam because between 1973 and 1975 Congress cut aid to South Vietnam by 75% and outlawed US air strikes anywhere in Southeast Asia.  Congress and the American people lost patience with the Vietnam War.  If we had bombed in 1965 and kept bombing, we would not have had Congress outlaw air strikes after we had won in 1967 or 1968.

The part of strategy in guerrilla war that the US has forgotten is that without supplies, guerrillas die. Guerrillas don't have the luxury of growing food or manufacturing ammunition for themselves.  They're on the run.  Rangers in the American Colonies originally got their name because they ranged through Indian territory and attacked Indian farming villages, which were the base of Indian supplies.  The US beat the Plains Indians by almost exterminating the American buffalo, which the Plains Indians used for food, clothing and shelter.  Hunting the American buffalo to extinction was an intentional strategy originally proposed by General William T. Sherman.  It was carried out ruthlessly, and it worked exactly as planned.  The Plains Indians moved onto reservations because they had nothing to eat.

Recently, we have watched ISIS go from strong to dead because we eliminated their source of income, oil sales, by bombing their tanker trucks, oil fields and oil handling facilities.  I don't mean to make light of the combat efforts it took to eliminate ISIS, but I do want to point out that ISIS was far less formidable broke than they were when they were rich.  Eliminating their financial resources made them far easier to defeat.

Which brings us to Afghanistan.  The Taliban runs on opium sales.  Everybody knows it.  To eliminate the Taliban, we need to eliminate their opium sales.  We can either legalize opium world wide, which would lower the value of the opium sold, or we can destroy all Taliban opium exports coming out of Afghanistan.  Since legalizing opium is highly unlikely, the only alternative is destroying all opium exports.  Anything less and we still have a rich Taliban who can hire soldiers and pay for food, guns and ammo.  We haven't done this because Afghanistan's main foreign exchange earning export is illegal opium sales.  However, unless we do something about Taliban opium, the best outcome we can hope for in Afghanistan is a steady state of what the Israelis call "mowing the lawn."  We can use air power and special forces to limit the Taliban to contolling 40% of Afghanistan.  We can't win in Afghanistan unless the Taliban can't sell their opium to finance operations. 

To defeat the Taliban, we would have to eradicate opium systematically, using air power, in all areas the Taliban controls or even partially controls.  If the Taliban controls your poppy field, the US will destroy your crop.  If you want to keep your crop, keep the Taliban out of your area.  Otherwise, the US puts napalm on your poppies.  Displaced farmers will move to areas under government control.  There will be no people, and no money, for the Taliban to use to support their operations.  At that point, COIN will work a whole lot better.

Terry Tucker

Fri, 09/14/2018 - 1:14pm

A name change for what is already written by Galula, John Cann (COIN In Africa), RAND,  "

"I call it finding “associative” power....The deployment of “associative” power is forming alliances, joint ventures, and partnerships with local communities.  Once you have an alliance with the local people, you have power relevant to that community.  The bigger and more energetic the alliance, the smaller the pond sustaining the “fish” you want to catch and remove from the “sea of the people”.

When I was in Afghanistan, we made every attempt to get Combatant Commands to work with NGO's and Joint Forces to build economic, political and social networks. That everything was not a nail and did not need a big hammer.

We also took some serious heat from the WAPO for that "Spaghetti Chart" they posted, practically, on the front page. But the interesting thing is that the chart showed linkage and complexity. Sadly,  no one really read with any intent FM 3-24 and never took any of our COIN classes at the COIN Center seriously - it was all a check the block;  and then  the military listened with glee when Gian Gentile said, essentially, that COIN was not a military mission. Well, yes,  it is and was, by Default, because the DoS never filled the positions that it said it would and USAID decided, with DoS support, not to play well with others and go off on their own. Granted, Commanders did not make it easy and many went out of their way to keep everyone out of their AOA.    

I wrote tons of lessons learned for the OSD and Combatant Commands. I don' think any of that was read no  Lastly,  

The blame here lies with many - The Pentagon, the General Officers at ISAF, Combatant Commands, USAID, DoS...The list can go on.     ONly a few really understood the linkage - but they were fast railroaded out of dodge and made to conform to "Kinetic" operations. 

There has been a "rush" to forget or even mention the Vietnam War for quite sometime now and the generals today were too young to have experienced it. Unfortunately, they are heavily influenced by texts from an increasing number of writers and "experts" who also didn't experience it.

By 1972, pacification had reached some 90%, PF/RF units stood up well against the NVA and some were incorporated into the ARVN to help against the NVA during the Easter Offensive.

Tet 1968 had virtually destroyed the VC, to the point that units were backfilled with regular NVA troops.

Phoenix and the continued destruction of main force units all played into the equation.

I'd also make a note of how good Army intel was, too.

Bill C.

Wed, 09/12/2018 - 11:03am

From Gian Gentile's "A Strategy of Tactics: Population-centric COIN and the Army:"


Instead of American Army officers reading the so-called COIN classic texts of Galula, Thompson, Kitson, and Nagl, they should be reading the history of the British Empire in the latter half of the nineteenth century. It is in this period that if they did nothing else right the British Army and government did understand the value of strategy. They understood the essence of linking means to ends. In other words, they did not see military operations as ends in themselves but instead as a means to achieve policy objectives. And they realized that there were costs that had to be paid. The new American way of war has eclipsed the execution of sound strategy, producing never-ending campaigns of nation-building and attempts to change entire societies in places like Afghanistan.


From Kilcullen's "Counterinsurgency Redux:"


Politically, in many cases today, the counterinsurgent represents revolutionary change (see "attempts to change entire societies" in the Gentile item above), while the insurgent fights to preserve the status quo of ungoverned spaces, or to repel an occupier -- a political relationship opposite to that envisaged in classical counterinsurgency. Pakistan’s campaign in Waziristan since 2003 exemplifies this. The enemy includes al-Qa’ida (AQ) linked extremists and Taliban, but also local tribesmen fighting to preserve their traditional culture against 21st century encroachment. The problem of weaning these fighters away from extremist sponsors, while simultaneously supporting modernization, does somewhat resemble pacification in traditional counterinsurgency. But it also echoes colonial campaigns, and includes entirely new elements arising from the effects of globalization. 


(The item in parenthesis -- in the Kilcullen quote above -- is mine.)


Both of our authors above (Gentile and Kilcullen) appear to suggest that -- given the context of today's wars (Western expansionism) -- it is the colonizing period of Western history (for example the 19th Century) that we should be looking toward; this, for a proper understanding of both (a) the type insurgencies that we are experiencing today (native resistance to unwanted political, economic, social and/or value change) and (b) the manner by which these western powers quelled these "resistance to change" insurgencies.  (This, while simultaneously achieving the state and societal changes that the western powers required of these states and societies.) 


With regard to the 19th Century/Western expansionist context offered above, which Gentile and Kilcullen appear to suggest is the conflict environment most closely resembling our conflict environment of today, how did the British, for example, in this period "dry up the sea and leave the guerillas to flounder about on dry land and die?" 

(If, in fact, this is the manner which the British used; this, to successfully quell the insurgencies that they encountered during this time.)

Jeff Goodson

Mon, 09/10/2018 - 2:04pm

Excellent piece.  Not nearly enough has been written on CORDS by those who were working with it on the ground, much less vis-a-vis its application to recent wars.  

When I first got to Afghanistan as USAID/Afghanistan's Chief of Staff in 2006, and head of civil-military planning and operations, my shorthand mandate was to "Get USAID into the damn war."  I started looking around for help in thinking through the best ways forward for getting a billion a year in development assistance integrated into the new COIN campaign, and one of the first steps was to try and find someone who had on-the-ground experience with CORDS.  Incredibly, there were five senior guys there--at the USAID office in Kabul at the time--who had each been deeply involved with CORDS.  They included one who claimed to have been a good friend of John Paul Vann's, and who identified his body when he went down in the infamous helicopter accident. 

These five came from all across the political spectrum, and I took them aside one-by-one and asked them about their experience with CORDS--including whether it had "worked."  Incredibly, all five had exactly the same answer: "It showed promise, but the war ended before it could prove itself one way or the other."  Since then, a fair bit has been written about how CORDS was back-burnered by imposition of a much more aggressive kinetic U.S. strategy around 1971 or so, resulting in the unfortunate end to the war that we all still keenly remember.  (Not that that's a perfect analogy for the recent U.S. strategic shift in Afghanistan, which is a different ball game in some important respects.)

Not nearly enough has been written on CORDS, especially about its application to COIN generally and Afghanistan specifically, by those who were on the ground there and executing it. 

Thanks for writing this.  It helps fill that gap, and the thinking looks to me like it's squarely on the right track. 

Jeff Goodson  




That's because we had spineless politicians who left S. Vietnam dangling on the vine and an all-knowing press and academia.

Just ask the 185,000 South Vietnamese who died in the re-education camps and the hundred of thousands who died on the ocean trying to escape how they feel about the communist government there.

Right after a fashion. In the small wars department, the Viet Cong were defeated. MACV order of battle for Jan 1973 lists Viet Cong units at strength of 25,000 totally dependent on PAVN regulars.  See Also Truong Nhu Tang's autobiography Viet Cong Memoir.  In the big war department (the war of the big battalions), PAVN strength inside South Vietnam in Jan 1973 was closer to 300,000. When Hanoi launched its final assault with its army, tanks, etc., in 1975, there was no Viet Cong component of any quality or consequence in the attacking forces. CORDS and the South Vietnamese RF and PF, police, PSDF and village leaders won their part of the war. As for what happened in the Paris talks, ask Henry Kissinger.


Mon, 09/10/2018 - 12:31pm

The author recommends using 'associative power' and he claims that "Oddly enough such a strategy was successfully used by the United States during the Vietnam War". Young had better check a current map. Saigon is now named Ho Chi Minh City. Such a success!


Mon, 09/10/2018 - 3:25am

For it must be noted that men must either be caressed or else destroyed, because they will revenge themselves for small injuries, but cannot do so for serious ones.  This, the injury done to a man must be such that there is no need to fear his vengeance.  But by keeping troops there instead of colonists, one will spend a great deal more, being obliged to consume all the revenues of the state in order to guard it, so that the acquisition turns into a loss, and much greater harm is done, since the entire state is injured by the army’s having to move its quarters from place to place.  This inconvenience is felt by all, and everyone becomes an enemy, and these are enemies who can do harm, because, though beaten, they remain in their own homes.  In every way, then, a garrison is as useless as colonies are useful.  (Machiavelli 12)