Small Wars Journal

You Can’t Play Chess When the Taliban is Playing Poker

Thu, 01/05/2012 - 5:36am

The Mystery of This War

For Taylor[1] the ability of the insurgents continuously to rebuild their units and make good their losses is one of the mysteries of this war.'[2]

Reading the above statement one would think that someone is describing situation in Afghanistan today (late 2011), even though it refers to something that was happening 40 years ago.  The ability of the insurgency to rebuild and conduct a protracted war is a mystery only to people who lack any sensible understanding of insurgency warfare.  It is unfortunate, and to a certain degree understandable, that high ranking army officers like Taylor, seem to be a group of people who either do not understand or refuse to accept the realities of counterinsurgency (COIN).  U.S. Army and South Vietnamese forces were truly killing Viet Cong fighters at a high rate, and it was hard to understand for a conventional-minded observer why they were not winning.  Something similar is happening in Afghanistan right now. The U.S. Army led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Coalition is employing a COIN strategy in Afghanistan that has a low chance of success – one that is again focused on killing insurgents and not on eliminating the infiltrated unarmed political-administrative network that is truly the driving force behind any successful insurgency.  To be fair, one must admit that there is a substantial amount of development and nation building because it is common knowledge that COIN is not only military effort.  However, these soft power capabilities also seem to be misdirected and used in a way that does not produce any significant effect on insurgency.  Sir Robert Thomson, British expert on insurgencies, said that “inability to match the insurgent's concept with an appropriate government one is like . . . attempting to play chess whilst the enemy is actually playing poker . . . [Therefore, it] is conceptually flawed and will not achieve success.”[3]  The Taliban are subverting and controlling the population while the Coalition is trying to find the armed Taliban, not the unarmed ones who actually subvert and infiltrate the population – chess and poker.

Ten years into the insurgency, ISAF has not provided security to the Afghan people and has not given them a chance to stand against the Taliban.  Despite wishful thinking on behalf of policy makers in Washington, other NATO capitals, and Kabul, the Taliban do not have a ‘broken back’.  There are no signs that the insurgency is getting weaker.  On the contrary, there was a large number of high-profile attacks and assassinations, among them an attack in the Ministry of Defense, one on the military hospital in Kabul, the assassinations of Hamid Karzai’s brother, of several governors, of the mayor of Kandahar, commander of police forces in the entire north, and the wounding of a German general commanding ISAF forces in the north.[4]  IED attacks are on the rise; small arms attacks were an everyday occurrence countrywide during Taliban 2011 Badr offensive.  The Taliban are as strong as ever and will not be broken for a long time, if ever considering that strategy might be changing from bad to worse after President Obama approved a significant reduction of troop levels in the next 18 months.  The failure on the Coalition’s part is even greater if we consider that the Taliban don’t even have the most important prerequisite for a successful insurgency – a political platform that would motivate and mobilize the population against government.  As Mao noted, ''Without a political goal, guerrilla warfare must fail, as it must if its political objectives do not coincide with the aspirations of the people.''[5]  Revered COIN experts, including Roger Trinquier, David Galula, Bernard Fall, agree with Mao that in this kind of conflict, political aspects of the war are of highest importance.  The Taliban offers the promise of an Islamic Emirate and an expulsion of foreign forces; Afghans do not truly want either.  They had Islamic Emirate in late 1990s and they did not like it. Additionally, Afghans understand that overwhelming majority of money in this country comes from foreign military spending and development.  Why are Coalition and Government of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) not capable of defeating an insurgency that does not offer true incentive to great majority of population?  The answer is that they are engaged in a strategy of half-measures and wishful thinking.

ISAF strategy in Afghanistan is failing for two basic reasons.  The first reason is an astonishing lack of pacification.  True pacification involves deployment of security forces in a way that will physically provide security for the population and remove the insurgent political-administrative network.  Unless this network is eliminated, the insurgents retain the ability to rebuild and reorganize and to hold control over the population through intimidation and terror.  Providing security to the population, however, allows the counterinsurgent to gain control of it.  This is what military strategists call ‘population-centric COIN’ and falsely claim to be implementing it in the field.  What the Coalition is implementing is ‘population-visiting COIN’ in which troops go on raids and patrols to contested territory and rapidly return to the unit’s base.  Such mode of operation was called ‘firebase psychosis’ in Vietnam[6].  No COIN will be successful unless the population is secured from intimidation and control of insurgents and security forces manage to achieve the control themselves.  At this point the Taliban led insurgency has control over large part of the population.

The second reason for the failing is an insensible effort by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the U.S. Army for sponsoring development projects in areas that are controlled by the insurgents.  These organizations are operating under the false assumption that these projects will reduce the cash-based insurgency and give incentive for some insurgents to switch sides.  Such projects do provide work and improve access to some critical requirements for impoverished population and are humanitarian in nature, but they do not have significant and lasting effect on reducing the level of insurgency threat.  Insurgents often use such projects to extort money for funding more insurgency activities and to gain political points at the expense of the government.  These two points will be addressed in detail throughout the rest of this text.  This is not to say that large levels of corruption, inefficient government, Taliban base areas in Pakistan, opium trafficking, and poorly trained and motivated local security forces do not affect COIN effort.  However, the strategy that the U.S. Army and USAID are implementing has not addressed effectively any of these issues, while trying to address pacification and development in a wrong way.  Many will say that pacification cannot be implemented because of the lack of available troops.  Lack of resources cannot be an excuse for bad strategy because a wrong strategy does not address the issue of resources; a bad strategy can only make an issue worse.  It is obvious that the Coalition does not have enough resources to conduct a true pacification strategy in the entire country, but Afghan security forces might have.  What the Coalition needs to do is conduct pacification operations in carefully selected critical areas, with and increase in Afghan participation, allowing them to point the way for the future.

I currently reside outside the wire in a Capital of a highly contested Province, and that gives me a unique perspective on the situation.  Geographically, terrain is representative of Afghanistan, with both high plateau and rugged Hindu Kush Mountains. There is an extremely strong Taliban-led insurgency in the Province as well as a strong presence of the Haqqani Network, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Islamic Jihad Group (IJG), and Al Qaida terrorists.  Due to these characteristics it is reasonable to assume that the strategy that would pacify this Province could probably be applied country wide for pacification with expectation of success, even though it would be very hard in the extremely xenophobic places along the Pakistani border.

It is important to note to the reader that my conclusions are based on my personal experiences living among the population and on open sources of information.  Therefore, it should be understood that I cannot have a complete picture of the conflict and I accept that some of my examples and conclusions could be flawed for this reason.  Also, my recommendations for future action are assumptions that would have to be proven in the field, and in the very unlikely event they are attempted, they might not live up to expectations.  It would probably do better than current strategy that has already not lived up to anybody’s expectations.

Military Effort-Less Flittin' and More Sittin'

I wouldn't care to be in [civilian administrator's] shoes tonight, when we pull out.  He's going to stay right here in the house which the [insurgent] commander still occupied yesterday, all by himself with the other four guys of his administrative team, with the nearest post three hundred yards away.  Hell, I'll bet he won't even sleep here but sleep in the post anyway ... and he'll immediately lose face with the population and become useless.  And if he doesn't, he'll probably be dead by tomorrow, and just as useless.  In any case, there goes the whole psychological effect of the operation and we can start the whole thing all over again three months from now. What a hopeless mess.[7] – French lieutenant during First Indochina War

The counterinsurgent has an inherent responsibility to protect the population.  What good is the government to the people if it cannot guarantee them security and freedom to live their life without fear?  It is completely irrelevant that the violence and terror is practiced by the insurgency; “[the] counterinsurgent cannot escape the responsibility for maintaining order.“[8]  This insurgency terror can come in two distinct forms.  One form is 'blind terrorism' in which insurgents target innocent civilians in order to discredit the government.  The other type, the terrorizing of the population on a village level that allows the insurgents to intimidate uncommitted majority of the population into supporting the insurgency, is even more dangerous to the COIN effort.  Any COIN strategy that intends to defeat the insurgency has to protect the population from both types of terror, especially the latter one.  According to Oliver Lyttelton, Colonial Secretary during the Malayan Emergency, "[one] cannot win the war without the help of the population and you cannot get the support of the population without at least beginning to win the war."[9]  In the mind of the population, the counterinsurgent will seem to be winning the war if he can protect them from insurgents.  Security forces have to create the conditions in which the minority that supports the government and the uncommitted majority has the option to choose the government’s side.  They cannot choose to do so if not properly protected.  In order to provide protection, security forces have to distribute their forces in small detachments, permanently stay inside the community and prove that they are going to stay as long as it is necessary.  This is what it means to win the minds of the people.

The type of strategy that “places a premium on the protection of the population”[10] can be called pacification.  It is much more than drinking tea with elders and giving candy to children as it is often mocked, even though that is a good thing to do.  Although the major issue behind pacification is population security, it needs to accomplish more than just prevent people being terrorized by armed terrorists.  The counterinsurgent has to be committed in the area long enough to identify and eliminate the infiltrated, and usually unarmed political-administrative network or insurgency facilitators.  Insurgents might not have a single armed fighter in the community, but they can still hold the population under control through facilitator intimidation.  Their elimination is hard and time consuming because they are hard to identify.  Facilitators are unarmed and their elimination cannot be achieved without support from the people.  This support does not come free, it has to be earned through proven commitment to stay and protect them in the long run.  Only then one can expect to get important intelligence on insurgents, armed or unarmed, first from the pro-government minority that was previously not able to act against the insurgents out of fear, and then from the rest of the community.  This is the most valuable result of successful population control. Securing and controlling the population enables the counterinsurgent to cut the insurgency from their source of recruits and supplies, the people.  This is the prize in an insurgency war.  The counterinsurgent can win it only through pacification.

Whatever the ISAF strategy in Afghanistan is, it is not pacification.  All of the 130,000 coalition forces are mostly stationed in large camps, Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) and smaller Combat Outposts (COPs).  From there they send patrols into the surrounding areas.  In my conversations with the local population in I found out that armed convoys pass through villages around the Capital from time to time and sometime they stop and patrol.  Sometimes these patrols search houses of relatives of some known insurgent.  These patrols are, understandably, usually quite uneventful.  As these convoys, made of several multi ton vehicles, make their course toward the target village, they are very hard not to notice.  Considering that almost every Afghan has a cell phone, by the time the convoy is anywhere near the village the armed insurgents, if there were any, have a lot of time to make their choice.  They can run away, as they mostly do and make soldiers waste their time, or they can do something even more detrimental to the COIN effort.  It takes only few insurgents, even one is enough, to shoot at a dismounted patrol and then run away.  The patrol will return fire to the house of a very likely innocent civilian and damage or destroy it.  Insurgents get a nice bonus if some civilian is killed in the process.  Patrols in the villages serve little purpose as long as the insurgents have control over the population because the true enemy those patrols are going to face are not armed and cannot be identified without local help.  Sometimes patrols run into armed Taliban and sometimes they kill a few (especially during night raids), but the main problem remains unsolved.  According to Roger Trinquier, killing the insurgents has only limited and temporary effect unless the war organization (as Trinquier calls facilitators) is destroyed.  At the time of writing this essay the Taliban and allied groups have control over population in majority of the Province and employ methods that further strengthen it.  Visiting will not gain people’s trust, only staying will, and visiting is what the Coalition does.  “As one airmobile commander stated after the [Vietnam] war, ‘we should have done less flittin’ and more sittin’.”[11]  If ISAF shows more of the same, and that is flittin’, the fight is already lost.  “The problem is that the insurgents come back, because you cannot be everywhere at once. There’s only so much you can do.’’[12]

The main enemy in this war is not the armed fighter roaming in the countryside from village to village.  The main enemy is the facilitator, the member of the political and administrative network that allows the Taliban to acquire supply, recruitment, hiding place, money and intelligence.  Facilitators are on the political frontline of subversion and in competition with the government over administration of the contested people.  “When a country is being subverted it is not being outfought; it is being out-administered. Subversion is literally administration with a minus sign in front.’’[13]  Facilitators intimidate the population into supporting the insurgency through their ability to harm everybody in the village who resist them as they have access to armed fighters. The mere fact that someone’s family can easily be killed is enough deterrent to stand against insurgency.  Once facilitators have this level of psychological control over the population they can easily perform their duties with only a small number of unarmed thugs. Clearly they kill somebody from time to time to prove their point. Many people wonder why the Taliban kill so many of their own people; the answer is to subvert the government and to intimidate the population. Bernard Fall explains the logic clearly:

'Any sound revolutionary warfare operator most of the time used small-war tactics, not to destroy the [counterinsurgent] army, of which they were thoroughly incapable, but to establish a competitive system of control over the population. Of course, in order to do this, here and there they had to kill some of the occupying forces and attack some of the military targets. But above all they had to kill their own people who collaborated with the enemy.'[14]

The facilitator cell performs several critical tasks for insurgency. It liaisons with the local armed band and provides accommodation and supplies, allowing them to continue the armed struggle while providing intelligence at the same time. If facilitators can be prevented from contacting and passing supplies and information to the armed bands, by occupying the village with security forces, guerrilla cannot continue to fight. Facilitators also collect money from the population. The more one has the more they take. Most targeted people are those who make money from foreign presence in the country. This money funds more insurgent attacks. It is known that the Taliban actually pay some fighters, give money to their families and are known to help the family of killed fighters. The last but very important facilitator task is provision of some administration and judiciary, according to Shariah law of course, to the population while subverting the government in doing the same as ''guerrilla warfare ... is as much a socio-economic problem as a purely military problem.''[15]  Because a large part of rural population in Afghanistan does not have any presence of government it is a field day for facilitator network. ''The race is on once more ... between the ability of the [guerrilla] infiltrator to disrupt the normal processes of government and that of the legal governments to impose law and order, as well as guarantee a modicum of material well-being to the population.''[16] During the 2011 fighting season local administrators were increasingly attacked and killed by Taliban, especially in the south of Afghanistan where they suffered some military setbacks, but they still maintain population control.  In order to take control of the population, security forces need to protect local administrators and eliminate insurgent facilitators who are in competition with government. The coalition has utterly failed to do so.

The Taliban have succeeded in gaining the upper hand in the strategic goal of every insurgency conflict: control of the population. It is interesting that the most dangerous part of the Province is a high plateau that does not have much rugged terrain.  It is indicative that the actual hiding of the insurgents is not done in the mountainous rugged terrain but among the population. Government representatives cannot even go to these areas without heavy armed protection.  Taliban put their main effort into expanding control.  On the other hand “complete destruction of organization that allows the enemy to control and manipulate the population”[17]  does not seem to be Coalition’s priority number one.  The Taliban do every action with political and psychological repercussions in mind.  Even though their methods are extremely brutal, they are completely logical and in line with successful insurgencies in the past.  Everything Taliban armed insurgents do is directed at the main goal, psychological hold of the population.  They destroy supply convoys, kill important public figures, shell an ISAF base or kill Coalition soldiers (they know they will kill only a very small number) to show to the people that they can.  When they kill a village elder they do it to prevent others from talking to security forces; they will attack a project site to show it is their turf.  They seem to learn, better than armies.

During the night the Taliban own the battlefield.  There is a changing of the guards at late afternoon.  Coalition and ANA (Afghan National Army) forces pretty much leave the area.  Not even the most important road that goes through the Province, one that is highly guarded, is safe for travel over night.  The driver is bound to be stopped by Taliban check point if trying to drive from the Capital in any direction.  The same is true with Taliban presence in populated areas.  ''Above all [the counterinsurgent] must avoid the classic situation where he rules during the day and his opponent during the night.''[18]  This makes it really easy for the Taliban to control the population.  Even if 30 soldiers came to a village during the day and managed to get some cooperation from the population, only two insurgents coming freely overnight and killing the village elder will prevent cooperation in the future.  The same was happening in Vietnam.  ''Sometime late in 1957, [Communist guerrillas] began a new terror offensive directed almost entirely against the village mayors and administrators who, in a rural country, are the backbone of the [South Vietnam] government.''[19]  Because the South-Vietnamese government failed to protect them, their villages were lost to the insurgency.  Bringing a division to the village the next day will not change that.  But leaving two squads would.

Bernard Fall claims that the most reveling metric of who has the control is the ability to collect taxes.  GIRoA is completely incapable of collecting any taxes outside of the Kabul area.  In a ridiculous attempt to solve this issue the government ordered foreign companies and NGOs operating in the country to prove that the suppliers of services pay taxes, like rental of cars, guesthouses and storage space.  On the other hand, Taliban money collectors take a ‘revolutionary tax’ from whoever they want in large parts of the country.  The price of renting a house went up because the owners have to pay.  Even ISAF supply contractors pay Taliban.  Majority of the villages that USAID has projects in ask permission from Taliban.  One group of elders from a District close to the Capital even went to Quetta because a local Taliban commander refused to allow the project.  The Quetta Shura allowed it.  

Locals talk of people whom they call Taliban ‘spies’ and claim that often they do not have a weapon.  It is a fair to assume that they are facilitators.  Almost everybody knows who they are.  In the eastern province of Paktia (mostly infiltrated by the Haqqani Network) "80 percent of administrative posts are vacant."[20]  This is very significant because it shows that despite poverty and unemployment, educated people simply do not want to work for the government.  They value their life more than a decent job.  All this shows the level of insurgent control over Afghans.  The following is an example of some techniques Taliban use to gain and maintain control over the population:

The Taliban hanged the eight-year-old son of a policeman who refused to cooperate with them in Helmand province ... The Taliban are clearly seeking to intimidate the police in the south. In one district in Uruzgan, the Taliban appear to have been successful.  Eleven policemen surrendered to the Taliban and turned over their weapons and a police pickup truck after their police commander was assassinated.[21]

Coalition forces love their bases; the commanders love them even more.  The fact that forces that are safe behind walls have little effect on the population outside the base does not seem to matter.  In May 2011 there was a group of foreign fighters in a mosque right next to the FOB.  They were doing armed missions overnight and were resting in a mosque and administering/intimidating the population over the day.  It was common knowledge among the population in the Capital area.  This was positively confirmed afterward.  Foreign insurgents were able to intimidate and control the population of a village right next to several hundred Coalition soldiers with impunity.  That shows how useless it is in counterinsurgency environment to mass a large group of soldiers in one easy to defend base.  ''The counterinsurgent must eliminate the tendency ... to cluster his forces in large units.''[22]

Even smaller posts that are on the outside of the community have little effect on insurgency.  In his excellent book ‘Street without Joy’ on the First Indochina War, Bernard Fall describes a small fort on a dominating hill over a village in the Red River Delta in North Vietnam.  The commanding NCO lost contact with the population because it was heavily infiltrated by the Viet-Minh while they were in the relative safety of the compound.  The administrator left because it was unsafe for him, and the people refused to communicate with the French.  ''The post had lost its usefulness as a link in the chain of forts of the [defensive line]; as an obstacle to Communist operations in the area and, most importantly, as a symbol of French authority.  In a very real sense, it had become 'non-existent'.  It was there, on the map, not yet a prisoner but no longer integrated into the defensive fabric. Remaining where it was, it could do the Viet-Minh no harm but deprived the French of men and weapons who could have been profitably used elsewhere.''[23]  Posts are only good as resting places for raids that aim to kill insurgent fighters.  As elimination of insurgents has only temporary effect, such operating mode is not decisive in defeating the insurgency.  It is reactionary and promoting status-quo, relying on attrition of insurgent ability to replace fighters. 

The counterinsurgent has never and never will manage to defeat an insurgent through attrition.  Insurgencies’ primary weapon is the protraction of the war and attrition of the counterinsurgent’s will to fight.  Due to the control of the population and the fact that insurgents resources expenditure is meager compared to the opponent, attrition is always on the side of the insurgency.  The insurgency also has a much stronger immunity to effects of loosing fighters than, for example, the American public has.  America lost the war in Vietnam mainly because it tried to defeat the insurgency in its strongest weapon, attrition, allowing the Viet-Minh to exhaust America’s will to continue through protraction.  The Coalition strategy in Afghanistan is not as bad as one in Vietnam, but there is still the avoidance of pacification and some reliance on attrition.  The U.S. Army in Vietnam, with some exceptions, also refused to deploy forces in a way that would support pacification.  ‘’Westmoreland (commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam) explicitly rejected . . . breaking down U.S. units into smaller groups to concentrate on pacification.  That [the U.S. Army] possessed [the] quick-reaction forces in the form of its airmobile forces and thus could afford to concentrate heavily on pacification was lost in [Westmoreland’s] Staff and their superior’s mind.’’[24]  One of the reasons why American command didn’t distribute its forces in smaller units was fear, probably unreasonable, of invasion from North Vietnam.  A similar contingency is not possible in Afghanistan.  I can only speculate that the reasons behind armies’ refusal to fight insurgencies the proper way are fear of small units being overrun, logistical challenges of supplying large number of posts, aversion toward policing work, and fear of rejection from the communities.  The main one would probably be fear of increased casualty rates and piecemeal destruction of small units by the enemy.  This assumption bears little evidence in past insurgency wars.

If this was a conventional war, then breaking forces into small units would be disastrous.  But this is not a conventional war.  Security largely lies in the ability of the counterinsurgent to control the population.  One of the strengths of the insurgents is their ability to strike at will because they always have more information than the counterinsurgent about the presence and movement of enemy forces.  The main reason for this is very large intelligence gathering.  Most of the eyes are watching for the insurgent, and sometimes not willingly.  When Roger Trinquier wanted to warn a commander of a Viet-Minh independent company, who was giving him important information, of an imminent attack, the Captain answered ironically: "That's quite unnecessary, I'm always aware of your operations at least twenty-four hours in advance.  There will be plenty of time for me to withdraw to another sector."[25]  Another great strength of the insurgent is their ability to blend in among the innocent population who, out of sympathy or fear, are not willing to identify them to the counterinsurgent.  If the counterinsurgent can remove insurgents from the population and break their control over it, the insurgent will lose those advantages.  Having this in mind, the ability of the insurgent to mass at will and attack isolated posts diminishes significantly, especially if friendly forces employ precautionary measures like aggressive patrolling and reconnaissance around the pacification areas.  

A report written in 1967 (the Tet offensive was in January 1968) by a group of researchers in State Department states that “in no instance has a dug-in U.S. Company been overrun”[26] by Viet-Cong, and the VC was far more capable and formidable enemy than Taliban will ever be.  David Galula also claims in summer 1957, when the insurgency in Algeria was already in decline, that “so far in the history of the war in all Algeria, not a single isolated post . . . had been lost as a result of a determined attack by the rebels.”[27]  Captain Jim Cooper of the U.S. Marines in Vietnam, after being frustrated of his inability to separate insurgents from the population, conducted an experiment and moved his Marines inside the hamlet.  Working with the population and local militia forces, he “managed to disrupt insurgents’ plans and activities.  The result was the [insurgents’] abandonment of the village.”[28]  This experiment resulted in an extremely successful Combined Action Platoon (CAP) program conducted by the Marines.  CAP was one of the good things that came out of Vietnam; unfortunately it was cut short by Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV).  “All this was achieved at a casualty rate lower than that found in larger units operating in search-and-destroy missions.”[29]  Even though only 17 Marines formed each CAP “only one CAP was ever overrun.”[30]  In 1967 a study done by Wiliam Lederer concluded that “the number of villages under Communist control increased except in one small area where USMC CAPs were operating.”[31]  Some Combat Outposts (COP) in Afghanistan are already isolated and more vulnerable than small posts in villages would be.  Some of them have been attacked by company sized enemy unit and none were lost.  Such attack is very rare and only truly possible in area right along the Pakistani border.

Of course, the Taliban will not let go of their control of population that easily.  But a company distributed into a village is more likely to be attacked by a combination of suicide bomber and commando-style raids than by a conventional attack with several platoons of insurgents.  Even if they do that, a company with a fortified post, internal quick reaction forces (QRF), and external QRF from higher would have a chance to destroy the enemy band, especially if they have no place to run and hide because the Pakistani border is not near.  In addition, one needs to keep in mind that U.S. Army company (and companies of ISAF allies) is a very capable fighting force that insurgents can hardly match because in most parts of Afghanistan Taliban operate in first phase of insurgency.  They use terrorist style attacks and, for the most part, lack the capability to conduct an attack that is indicative of a second stage of insurgency (company size attack force).

Modern technologies, or combat multipliers, do not offer any combat multiplication in the most important arena of this war; population control.  Drones and helicopters can help identify and destroy armed insurgent bands.  They are a great tool for identification of potential larger attacks on isolated post and provide a means of enabling a timely response of the QRF, but they cannot provide the human intelligence that can eliminate the facilitator network, which can be eliminated only by the permanent presence of security forces in the area that can provide security from insurgent retribution.  Without it the villagers are going to have the same answer to any question about insurgents: “We do not know anything, we just work the field during the day.  At night we stay in our houses and see nothing.”  If staying in the village is what it takes to win, than that is what needs to be done.  ''Without fear of reaction from the enemy, the army will operate in light attachments.''[32]  Although it is somewhat counter intuitive, breaking down security forces and occupying the villages might provide greater security as the CAP example infers. There are other examples of imaginative commanders who tried the real pacification and succeeded.

During the First Indochina War a French airfield that was behind enemy lines was guarded by French regulars that were constantly harassed by Viet-Minh.  Local Vietnamese maquisards, who were loyal to the French, on the other hand “watched not the airfield, but rather the Vietminh themselves.  They placed their agents everywhere – in every village, in every house, and on all the trails of the area.  The entire population was responsible for watching the enemy, and nothing could escape its observation.  When the maquisards signaled [the French] that the area was free, [their] planes were able to land without risk on the airfield, to which it was unnecessary to give close protection.”[33]  David Galula was a company commander in Kabylie, Algeria, where he was responsible for the Aissa Mimoun sector consisting of several villages from mid 1956 to spring 1958.  Galula, being an expert in insurgency methods, which he learned from both the Chinese Communists and Viet-Minh, knew that the key to pacification was in population control.  By distributing his company to the villages in his sector he managed to completely pacify all the villages.  So successful was his course of action that by the end of his deployment he managed to have only 15 soldiers in each village and none of them were ever attacked, even though before his arrival the area was heavily infiltrated by the insurgents.  He managed to steal the control of the population from FLN (Front de Libération Nationale) insurgents.  ‘’Higher command objected on military grounds to this fragmentation of forces, but he was able to prove that the risks of such dispersal were smaller than the dangers of losing political control of the population; so successful was the purge of [this] area and his methods of safeguarding its results that the rebels’ higher echelons abandoned the Aissa Mimoun range as a lost cause.’’[34]  If the security forces keep on using raids and look for the insurgent fighters, they will lose credibility in the long run.  Galula said that ''if [one does] not have the means to occupy the intertested village, it is better to do nothing.''[35]  The reason is that the population can see that the Coalition is not really making progress.  They come and they leave, and sometimes they kill some insurgents, which are replaced as soon as they are killed.  The Taliban are staying.  Afgans have seen it before with the Soviets, and now they can see that after 10 years of the same, nothing is really changing.

If control of population is the ultimate goal, how it is to be achieved?  Of course, it cannot be achieved unless security can be guaranteed to the population.  As described above, this prerequisite can be achieved by distributing security forces into villages in small detachments.  At that point the hard work starts.  The control over the population is in a way a matter of winning the ‘contest of wills’[36] against the enemy.  Part of this contest of wills is also the contest in intelligence.  The side that gets more intelligence from the population has gained the upper hand in population control, and more chance of winning overall.  One of the ways in winning this contest of wills is through implementation of decisions.  The counterinsurgent can make a decision that needs enforcement.  The insurgent will try to prevent the same.  If the insurgency is not able to harm the village elders, and the counterinsurgent can inflict some kind of minor hardship for ones who refuse to obey (participate in a project for example) and reward those who do he can win the contest of wills.  The same goes for the fight in intelligence.  It is reasonable to expect that the anti-insurgency minority, that is always present in every insurgency environment, will provide information on insurgents and their facilitators if they feel safe enough and if they can do it in confidentiality.  It is up to the imagination of the local COIN commander to find the ways that will allow him to win the contest of wills and intelligence.  Another method of population control is census.  ‘’A thorough census was a first step toward controlling the population.  Control also meant that my soldiers had to know every villager at sight ... my soldiers knew every individual in their township.’’[37]  If COIN forces know all of the members of the community that are in their sector (sectors should be divided by platoons and squads), then they can notice outsiders that are suspicious.  All of the houses can be marked and the family head is held responsible to update the changes in census, account for family members who are absent and inform the authority of every visitor and departure out of the village for longer periods.

It is also required to control movement of goods that can be used by insurgency – food, medicine, and especially money.  In this way COIN forces can divide not only the majority of people from fighters, but they can also deny them any material support.  These measures enable the counterinsurgent to detect suspicious movement of people and useful supplies.   At least it will make it very hard for armed insurgents to receive information, money, supply and new recruits.  During the entire time that these, or similar, measures are enforced the hunt for facilitators goes on as a priority.

Once the population is secured from armed insurgents and reasonable protection from facilitator intimidation is provided, the benefits are likely to pay off.  At that point, local insurgents will have two options; move to another non-pacified area or fight to regain the control of the population.  The control of the population is the only way a counterinsurgent can really force insurgent into a fight, because an insurgent without population support is just a bandit and as such completely irrelevant.  If an insurgent chooses to move to another area, he will be less capable because insurgencies generally rely mostly on local guerrillas.  If the insurgent chooses to fight, he can be detected, fixed and destroyed.  Considering the Coalition’s large QRF capabilities (transportation and attack helicopters, artillery, armed and surveillance drones, Special Forces ...) this should not be a hard task for it.  As pacification progresses, the COIN commander needs to focus on the development and administration of the village and progressive development of local auxiliary forces that would one day be able to protect the village by themselves.  But for development to work and for local protection force to be valuable, the village needs to be separated from insurgents and completely cleared of facilitators.  This takes a lot of time and patience.

One of the programs that seems to be in the spirit of good COIN practice is the Afghan Local Police (ALP) initiative.  It is very similar to the highly successful Civilian Irregular Defence Group (CIDG) program run by the CIA and executed by SF in 1960-1961 in Vietnam (also disbanded by MACV in 1961).  SF soldiers train a small group of selected men in a village and that group gets paid as auxiliary police.  Their task is to try to protect the village from insurgents attack and hopefully from facilitator extortion and intimidation.  But there might be a critical flaw in the process.  The village has to be pacified first and facilitators have to be eliminated before such program can be truly implemented.  Facilitators are usually very influential in a village and they can direct the program in wrong direction.  The ALP is a good initiative but needs some careful study.  It is unclear if an ALP unit can protect the village if the village and area around it has not been properly pacified by Coalition or ANA forces.

Development Effort- Threats and Assassinations

Threats and assasinations had greater effect on [population] than had better educational opportunities and land reform.[38]

The Taliban alliance insurgency is not just a religiously inspired insurgency that wants to gain power and expel foreign soldiers.  It is also an organized crime on steroids.  A lot of criminal activity is conducted under an aegis of Taliban (or Haqqanis and some other affiliated group), and a lot of criminal activity is disguised to appear as if Taliban are conducting it.  If attributed to Taliban it has lower chance of being prosecuted.  The criminal activity does not bypass the money that Coalition and development agencies bring into Afghanistan.  On the contrary it thrives on it.  Recently a congressional investigation found out that millions of dollars from U.S. Army transportation contracts ended up in criminal and even insurgent hands.

‘’[The military] was, in effect, supporting a vast protection racket that paid insurgents and corrupt middlemen to ensure safe passage of the truck convoys that move U.S. military supplies across Afghanistan.  Investigators estimated that the going rate for protection was $1,500 to $2,500 per truck, paid by contractors and their subs to private Afghan security companies allied with warlords or insurgents — or, in some cases, directly to militias or Taliban commanders.’’[39]

Such large cases that raise attention are probably just a part of the overall insurgent money collection effort.  Taliban money collectors get money from most of the people who do any kind of business with the Coalition forces. Many suppliers of goods and services to the Coalition pay a racket to Taliban extortionists.  They have no way of resisting because there is no one to protect them.  People simply do not have a choice.  But even more detrimental to the COIN effort is the fact that insurgents can steal material and political benefit from projects funded by USAID and PRTs because they often insist on projects in contested area that are infiltrated by Taliban fighters and/or facilitators.  Nobody has the resources or will to protect such projects, so communities ask permission from the Taliban to allow the project.  The Taliban often allow it and get political points.  Some community elders in Capital District gave credit to the Taliban for a USAID funded project.  The elders were probably Taliban sympathizers or facilitators themselves.  This war is a war of perceptions and insurgents allowing the project can easily override the fact that USAID gave the money and government allocated it to the community.  The project was stolen from the Coalition and GIRoA, which increases the perception that the insurgency is the real power in the area.  The average person or worker in the village does not have any connection with the donors and probably never sees a representative of the donor in their village.  All they know is that the money is coming, and that insurgents told them they can work.  Even if they know where the money is coming from, that will just make additional point to the strength of the insurgency.  The point is that people will not switch sides because they have gotten a nice project from the U.S. government.  They simply cannot even if they wanted to.

Most projects run by USAID implementers are subcontracted to local companies who rarely have to show the completion of the project.  The monitoring is very poor because of the security situation in contested areas.  It is questionable how many people in need actually get the money and how and to what level of quality the project has been implemented.  Very few implementers are direct implementers who actually monitor the project, verify quality and completion, and check who gets paid.  This is a perfect opportunity for corruption and extortion by insurgents.

Even if most projects were being completed and workers were really getting paid, the assumption that such situation reduces cash-based insurgency does not pass the test of reality.  In general, a very small percentage of the population in any insurgency, even successful ones, is actively participating.  Actual armed fighters most often make much less than one percent of the population.  Fox example, the accepted number of Taliban fighters is estimated at no more than 30,000 out of Afghanistan’s population of about 30 million.  If we assume that only about 20 million of Afghanistan’s population is affected by these insurgents it would still make only 0.15 percent of the population.  It is much harder to make an assumption on the number of active facilitators.  For the sake of argument let us take a guess of 1 percent, which is probably much more than the actual number.  That would mean that in a group of villages of 20,000 people that is contested there would be no more than 30 armed insurgents and no more than 200 facilitators.  A big project can employ 1,000 workers, and they will probably come from 19,970 who are not insurgents, and if they are facilitators, it bears no significance at all.  It is not very reasonable to expect an armed insurgent to stop his campaign for attaining power to work for $6-10 a day.  Insurgents can extort enough money from project suppliers and a small percentage from workers to get much more money for much less effort.  They can also intimidate project supervisors into putting false names on the worksheets and get paid without coming to work.  They do all of this, and they do it successfully.  But facilitators can easily show up to work and work during the day and still perform their duties to the insurgency.  There is no effect on a cash-based insurgency. Quite the opposite, these projects somewhat help the enemy by providing them opportunity to make additional money and increase their hold over populated areas.  As long as the population is under control of the insurgency and facilitators are not eliminated, development projects are counterproductive in a CION sense.  At the end people do have a new irrigation system, but everything else stays the same.

Basic reasons to why projects are pushed in insecure areas really do not hold.  All of these issues would be significantly reduced if development was actually pushed into areas that are pacified or are getting pacified.

The case of Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) is really an interesting one as well.  PRT personnel are really trying hard to implement the development part of the COIN, but unfortunately, it does not work for the same reason USAID’s and their implementer’s projects do not succeed.  I have attended one Provincial Development Committee (PDC) meeting.  It is a chance for Coalition development teams, led by the State Department and PRT representatives, to meet with the heads of the provincial institutions that are supposed to run projects.  The meeting lasts about 2 hours and nothing gets accomplished.  They simply cannot understand each other in any sensible way, and that is not because they speak a different language.  Basically, Afghans see the meeting as an opportunity to ask for money and complain why they didn’t get millions for their projects, and there are at least 20 of them, and they all have a need to say it.  PRT personnel, frustrated but composed and patient, try to explain that they need to set up priorities and then funding can be discussed.  Not to mention that Afghans do not seem to understand that funding is limited.  This lasts for the whole two hours and at the end everybody leaves visibly frustrated.  The atmosphere of futility at the PDC is very much representative of the development strategy in the field.

In their study Provincial Reconstruction Teams: How Do We Know They Work? Dr. Carter Melkansian and Dr. Gerald Meyerle, experts on insurgency, made a highly optimistic report on the value of PRT development projects.  They claim that the government was able to force contested communities to cooperate on security initiatives in order to get funding for projects.  The areas that are infiltrated by facilitators do not have a choice to cooperate on security with the government.  Threats and assasinations really do have greater effect on the population than promise of a better standard.  The majority of people will not cooperate with government because “[they’re] afraid that if they try to reconcile, the crazies will kill them.“[40]  Another wishful thinking claim is improved governance because projects gave the government “a carrot with which to increase political participation.“[41]  I have personally heard elders whose community benefited from a USAID project, introduced in cooperation with Provincial Governor, publically thank the Taliban for the project, because they allowed it.  Taliban were able to steal the carrot because the project was in a contested area.  Authors claim that the added value of PRTs is the fact that they can work in dangerous areas.  The reality is quite the opposite.  If insurgency has control over the population, they will steal the projects (politically and monetarily) and make them not only worthless to COIN but also counterproductive. These kinds of projects can only be called humanitarian.  For some reason, the authors believe that improving roads and seemingly making overall living standard better might convince insurgents to quit.  It might have done that for one or two, hardly a confirmation of a principle.  It is quite a stretch for these two academics to write that PRT spending prevented the security situation getting worse and improved governance based on inaccessible statistics from the Army (and Armies love to prove their success through statistics).  Especially heart-warming is the story of success of a road project in Pech valley in Kunar.  Everybody in the area turned against the insurgency.  The authors were impressed how local security guards exhibited great valour in defending the road, even though it is well known that the same group of people who protect the project often attack it just to raise the price.  All this might be true – I was not there at the time – but it seems hard to believe a few years later when that same area is one of the most dangerous places in Afghanistan.  The project there might have been very successful, but it seems to me that authors didn’t take into consideration many other aspects of insurgency environment.  What to think about the claim that random people “came out of their houses shooting at insurgents”[42] trying to protect PRT’s road project?  It is really hard to believe, but even if it was true it was completely temporary.  The fact remains that Khost, Kunar and Ghazni (provinces included into mentioned study) are worse today than at the time of the writing.  This makes it reasonable to accept that the PRTs’ counterinsurgency strategy is not working.  PRTs are, just like USAID is, necessary for good COIN strategy, but these projects will not have a significant positive impact on COIN if they are performed in an insurgency controlled area.  Even if the population wants to turn the side they do not have an option unless there is a permanent Coalition presence in the community. That is what PRTs should be looking at.

Can We Give Them a Fighting Chance?

What to do to defeat a Taliban led insurgency?  This is a million dollar question that really does not have an answer.  The only thing than could be answered is what could be changed to increase the probability of winning the war against the insurgency?  A fundamental change in strategy is called for.  The coalition needs to start playing poker as well.  Two basic aspects of strategy have to be changed: deploy part of Coalition forces as true pacification forces, and push for development in pacified or pacifying areas.  As mentioned before, it is clear that Coalition forces do not have enough troops to conduct a Province wide pacification.  It is true for this Province as much as any other provinces in Afghanistan as well as in the country at large.  But the Coalition has enough resources for the pacification of several small localized areas.  ''Besides, once the selected area is pacified, it will be possible to withdraw from it an important share of our means and to assign them to neighboring areas, thus spreading like an oil slick on the water.''[43]   At the same time, the ANA and ANP (Afghan National Police) have more than 300,000 soldiers and policemen, who are of low quality for the most part, but they do have enough numbers to conduct country wide pacification if properly shown how to do it.  That is what the Coalition needs to do.  If ISAF can produce a reasonable COIN strategy for ANA and ANP, and if it can show by example how it is done through pacification of some critical areas, it has done as much as a foreign intervention can achieve in this country.  It would give GIRoA a fighting chance.  The Coalition could conduct complete pacification if it had 300,000 soldiers but that is simply not reasonable.  At this point, the ANA imitates the Coalition in their practice of raids and patrols and return to the bases at the end of the day.  It is clear that current strategy is not working.  The Coalition leadership must admit this and try something else.  Other solutions might not work, but an experiment could prove to be good and can be built upon.

The pacification effort should be focused on one district initially.  The most effect would be achieved from the Capital District.  The pacification of the Capital District should be conducted in four phases:

  • Phase One: One to three Coalition companies, three better than one, with one platoon of ANA junior leaders each, who would assist and be trained at the same time.  This phase would focus on one large village and last no less than 6 months. At the end, lessons learned should be published to improve during Phase Two.  After 6 months, the Coalition Company will be replaced with an ANA Company with Coalition personnel advising and monitoring (to prevent abuse, among other reasons).  This company stays in the village as long as necessary to achieve complete destruction of the facilitator network after which trained ALP can be entrusted to provide protection to the community.
  • Phase Two: Four companies of ANA (lead by junior leaders trained in Phase One) with one Coalition platoon assigned to each to assist and monitor, occupy four villages and conduct pacification according to lessons learned.  This phase should also last at least 6 months.  New lessons learned should be published.  ANA companies stay until village is completely pacified and ALP take responsibility for security.
  • Phase Three: Spreading the pacification to the rest of the District, ANA companies in the lead with some Coalition presence for advisory and monitoring.
  • Phase Four: Repeat the process in other district.

As in any good military practice, the goal of distribution of these forces into communities is to be defined, and the actual execution would depend on the commander in the field and the environment he or she faces.  The goal is to achieve protection of the population, elimination of the facilitator network, separation of insurgents from their support base, gain trust of the population though development and administration improvement as well as through psychological action.  Unfortunately, the number of Coalition troops is small and decreasing.  That means that in one province, commanders can assign a very small number of troops to pacification.  It should be started with one to three companies.  The commander should choose a group off villages of 3,000 to 4,000 inhabitants for each company that according to intelligence reports, shows neither the most nor least support to the insurgency.  This would ensure realistic results because a village that is not infiltrated does not need to be pacified (ALP program can start immediately in such villages) while troops that are not skilled in pacification would have too much trouble pacifying the worst village in the area of responsibility.  Occupied villages should be next to each other, or one large group of (9,000-12,000) villages can be occupied by three companies with one segment each.  It might prove favorable to choose a village that is close to the provincial Capital, not only for easier logistics but because a success in the capital’s vicinity would have larger effect on the most populated area of the Province.  Companies should be commanded by commanders who believe in this course of action.  During this first phase of the pacification experiment, each Coalition company should be accompanied by a group of ANA junior leaders who will help the company in establishing contact with the population and serve as translators while learning how to conduct pacification themselves.  They would be the core of future pacification in the Province by ANA and ALP.  The experiment should be conducted as quietly as possible.

As soon as the counterinsurgent occupies the village a search of houses needs to be conducted to remove armed insurgents, and if any incriminating assets are found, the house inhabitants can be arrested and interrogated.  During this search, a cordon of the village should be established to prevent escape.  This would provide first source of intelligence on the village’s facilitator network.  Company commanders (COs) need to select and pay for a rental of a compound that would serve as initial barracks and as a command post later into process.  The selection and refurbishment of a compound for a company-sized element will probably run into some troubles because most people will refuse to rent out with fear from insurgent retribution being the biggest reason.  This is a chance for a first battle of the wills with insurgents.  Obviously, installing a small base in or right next to the village will create turbulences.  But if the CO proves that he will stay in the village permanently and that constant patrols will protect the owners and people who work on the compound at all times this might change.  If not, some form of forceful action, with compensation, might be called for.  But it is critical that this first contest of the wills with the insurgent is won.  To a certain degree, people here appreciate strongmen, and the CO should be one as well.  During this initial period, these companies should be given priority in assets that would assist in case of insurgent attack.  Aggressive and incessant patrolling, especially at night must be conducted to disrupt attacks on the village and prevent contact between fighters in the countryside and facilitators from the village.  By this time it is reasonable to assume the all of the armed fighters have left the village on the news of large number of security forces arriving.  A combination of fortified command post, several fortified outposts, roving patrols and ambushes on the outskirts, internal QRF, priority in calling QRF from nearby FOB and priority on intelligence gathering assets (including drones) should be able to check any attempt by the enemy, however unlikely, in overrunning any small unit in the village.

Every platoon will be assigned part of the village to conduct census.  As Galula mentioned, soldiers need to get to know all of the regular inhabitants of the village.  All outsiders will be recognized and need to be accounted for by one family head.  As most villages are distributed on a large area, this company, after successfully imbedding itself in the village, needs to distribute platoons to outlying parts of the village.  Such distribution would be possible with slow improvement of security.  This would allow additional control of the population, especially through census.  Some kind of control of movement and goods (including larger sums of money) will be implemented.  In addition to that, curfew will be imposed.  Coalition soldiers will conduct constant patrols and ambushes on the outskirts of the village as well as patrol the village for curfew violators.  Over longer period of time information on facilitators will start to come in.  COs and assigned intelligence officer or NCO must ensure that people who are willing to give information can do so in confidentiality.  Violators of imposed measures of population control can be detained for some time as this offers ideal opportunity for intelligence gathering.  As soon as security starts to improve ALP program will be initiated to prepare the village for departure of Coalition forces, and later ANA troops as well.  It is clear that during this period constant psychological action must take place and COs must have a designated specialists in that area for assistance.

Synchronous with the military pacification efforts, development must come to these villages as compared to ones that are not included in to the pacification experiment.  Either a military engineer or a civilian development worker should be present at the village to plan and implement development projects in coordination with community elders.  Something similar was conducted by the French in Algeria with SAS (Section Administrative Spécialisée) who ran development, administrative, health and educational projects.  There were almost 600 SAS officers in Algeria in 1957[44] and they ‘’made themselves much loved by the population.”[45]  A civilian could also serve as additional monitoring of the manner in which Coalition troops operate.  As armed fighters are removed from the villages and facilitators find it harder and harder to operate, if not yet eliminated, corruption would be minimized and development workers could exercise complete control and monitoring of the project.  Frequent visits from GIRoA representative are to be welcomed as well as frequent visits by both Coalition and government medical teams.  It is also very important to provide a way to solve disputes and enforce the decisions.  It would be preferable to resolve disputes through tribal leaders and Coalition troops can assist in enforcement.  Combined military, psychological, administration and development effort should in the longer term produce results and locally defeat the insurgency.  After that the same pattern needs to be repeated (incorporating lessons learned) to other villages and eventually to other districts.  But a prerequisite for all good administration, psychological and development work in a COIN context is the distribution of security forces to the villages and close protection and control of the population.  Other than simple population and material control measures that have to be imposed to the population the community should be allowed to govern itself according to their customs.  It should be clearly explained to the community that the nuisance of control measures will last as long as there is evidence of insurgency support.

This is an extremely generalized description of pacification measures and population control, which is largely taken from David Galula’s book Pacification of Algeria.  For more information on the very innovative and successful methods Galula used, refer the mentioned book as it is extremely informative and quite an entertaining read. A similar process was used by the French Army in most of Algeria.  Contrary to general belief, the French managed to completely defeat the FLN militarily.  By the end of 1958 the FLN was a meager threat to the security of Algeria and militarily on the run, exhausted, hiding their weapons, and numbering no more than 7,000.  The French lost the war because their political stance of French Algeria was unsustainable in post-World War II decolonization period, something Charles De Gaulle recognized and finished the war granting independence to Algeria.  Clearly, the French had much more resources (more than 400,000 in mid 1956[46]) and did not have nearly as bad a problem of border sanctuary as Afghanistan has, but I would argue that the main reason why the FLN almost ceased to exist was the French pacification strategy from 1956-1958.

What Else Needs to Be Addressed?

I am not trying to paint a simplistic picture of the war in Afghanistan.  It is more than just a simple local insurgency.  There are many other factors that affect the conflict as much as the actual fighting does, such as narcotics trafficking that funds the insurgency, the destabilizing effect of Pakistan along the border, political instability and widespread corruption, GIRoA’s lack of funds to pay  ANA and ANP, etc.  All of these are complex issues that require complex and long solutions, if any were possible.  But at the end of the day, the Taliban led insurgency cannot survive without the support of the local population, or at least it cannot be a significant threat to the government except in small parts of the country right next to the Pakistani border.  A lot of people in GIRoA like to say that if the border is closed the Taliban insurgency will stop to exist.  That is just an excuse for poor COIN conducted in last 10 years on their part as much as on ISAF’s part.  GIRoA has done very little to defeat the Taliban.  Firstly, they know it is not possible to close down the Pakistani border, and therefore their assumption cannot be tested. Secondly, if foreign fighters were a main problem in this insurgency, it would have been defeated long time ago.  A key to any successful insurgency are local fighters with local population support.  Outside sanctuary and assistance from other militant fighters are very helpful, but not sine qua non as it would be convenient for GIRoA.  Even if it was, it is irresponsible to propose a better control of the Pakistani border as a solution to the insurgency problem simply because it is very unlikely such an attempt would succeed.

Pakistani FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) is a big constraint to COIN in Afghanistan.  The U.S. and GIRoA can only put additional pressure on Pakistani authorities to exercise control over their tribal areas, which it has refused to so far.  Sealing the border is not possible because of its length and rough terrain and also because border troops are few in numbers, poorly trained, led, and equipped.  It is unlikely that Pakistan will go against the Afghan Taliban or the Haqqani Network because Pakistani security establishment seems to see them as a means of influence in the post-ISAF Afghanistan.  Even if Pakistan wanted to attack Afghan insurgent groups’ safe areas in Pakistan it is questionable if they are capable of doing so considering the level of the insurgent and terrorist threat in other parts of Pakistan.  If the pacification experiment shows success and if COIN strategy is shifted to real ‘population-centric COIN,’ then in the long run (after ISAF completes its mission in 2014) ANA/ANP could deny traveling insurgents/terrorists support from the people inside Afghanistan.  That would significantly decrease the danger of Pakistani terrorist safe heaven.

There is very little the Coalition can do in regards to political instability and political corruption, if anything.  All efforts in that direction show minimal progress.  In this case, all that can be done is close monitoring of funds that are donated to GIRoA.  One cannot change a society in 20 years that has always been doing business with corruption and bribery as part of it.  Afghanistan’s society cannot be held to standards of the European Union or the U.S. in financial accountability.  All that can be done is to increase civilian personnel who would more closely monitor implementation of projects that are funded by donated money.

The international community has put a lot of effort into drug eradication programs as a sideline to the COIN effort.  Not much has been accomplished. Some alternative crops initiatives achieved some success, but the problem has not been significantly reduced.  Of major concern to COIN is the fact that insurgents rely heavily on funding from drug trafficking.  Because there is a lot of money in the drug business a lot of power brokers in Afghanistan have their fingers in it, and a lot of them are in the government, ANA, ANP; it is unreasonable to expect any significant improvements in this area for a long time.

Even after the Coalition mostly departs Afghanistan, it will not stop spending enormous sums of money for stabilization and development.  One of the crucial issues is the actual running of the administration.  GIRoA simply doesn’t have enough money to pay ANA, ANP, and other national and local employees.  Once Coalition Armies leave the development will also decrease, and security will deteriorate as well.  Afghanistan spends $12 billion on training, pay and equipment for security forces.  All of that money comes from international donations (90% USA, EU and other developed countries 10%).  Afghanistan’s budget is $18 billion, and 95% comes from foreign military and developmental spending.  When foreign militaries and most development agencies leave an economic crisis of large proportions will further destabilize the country and help the insurgency.  Even after ISAF’s departure, U.S. and other international partners will still have to pay the bills for Afghanistan.

A purely political solution to the war before significant blows to the Taliban’s control over the population are inflicted is unlikely to provide desirable effect.  I am not sure what the goal of negotiations is, but negotiating with Taliban, Haqqanis, Hizb-e-Islami and other groups before they disarm is dangerous and would destabilize Afghanistan in the long run.[47]  They will not disarm because they feel that victory is close.  They have already survived the worst from the Coalition, the surge. Now they just have to wait it out.  ISAF is tired and slowly departing.  The writing on the wall is another civil war in Afghanistan, unfortunately.


In August 2010, General David Petraeus issued a document called COMISAF's Counterinsurgency (COIN) Guidance and some of the most interesting points are:

  • Secure and serve the population - the decisive terrain is the human terrain.  The people are the center of gravity.  Only by providing them security and earning their trust and confidence can the Afghan government and ISAF prevail.
  • Live among the people - We can’t commute to the fight.  Position joint bases and combat outposts as close to those we’re seeking to secure as is feasible.  Decide on locations with input from our partners and after consultation with local citizens and informed by intelligence and security assessments.
  • Hold what we secure - People need to know that we will not abandon them. Prioritize population security over short-duration disruption operations.
  • Money is ammunition, don't put it in wrong hands - Institute “COIN contracting.”  Pay close attention to the impact of our spending and understand who benefits from it.  And remember, we are who we fund.  How we spend is often more important than how much we spend.[48]

ISAF does not secure the population because it comes and leaves, I am sure it is obvious that they do not live among the population, ISAF leaves after dark so it does not hold what is has secured, and finally money goes to wrong hands most of the time. If these guidelines were followed by the man who wrote them there would be little room for critique. It looks like Petraeus is not a demigod after all.

End of fighting season in fall 2011 marks 10 years of fighting in Afghanistan. ISAF had placed its hopes into Obama’s surge hoping that it would reverse the course of the war. However, the surge failed to deliver. Taliban fighting capabilities have been degraded but in no way decisively. Now that ISAF troop levels are decreasing, we can expect the situation to get worse rather than better. The Taliban-led insurgency has managed to survive, and probably will manage to survive two to three more years. This means that it has been winning and that it will probably win. The main reason for ISAF’s failure to defeat the insurgency is simply the wrong strategy. It has not provided security to the majority of the rural population. This allowed insurgents to gain control over large parts of the population and enjoy their support, voluntary of forced. As long as they have this support and control they will be impossible to defeat. ISAF is here until 2014, and it is clear now that it will not defeat the insurgency before departure. But what it can do is pacification of some critical parts of the country and show ANA and ANP what needs to be done to win a ‘small war’. Unlike the Coalition, they have the necessary resources, but they lack professionalism and knowledge. The Coalition can give them a direction and a fighting chance. If the ANA continues to conduct COIN the way ISAF has been conducting it, it will clearly not win. This is the last chance to do something about this war. The people of Afghanistan deserve it. The world expects it. Let’s not make this one more case of too little too late. We must not let that happen.



Fall, Bernard B. “Street Without Joy – Indochina at War, 1946-1954”, The Stockpile Company, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 1961

Fall, Bernard B. “The Theory and Practice of Insurgency and Counterinsurgency”, naval War College Review, Winter 1998 (

Galula, David “Counterinsurgency Warfare – Theory and Practice”, Frederick A. Praeger Inc, New York, 1964

Galula, David “Pacification of Algeria; foreword by Bruce Hoffman”, RAND Corporation, 2006

Horne, Alister “Savage War of Peace – Algeria 1954-1962”, New York Review Books, New York, Amazon Kindle edition

Kilcullen, David “Accidental Guerrilla – Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One”, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2009

Krepinevich, Jr, Andrew F. “The Army and Vietnam”, The John Hopkins Univeristy Press, Baltimore and London, 1986

Melkasian, Carter and Meyerle, Gerald “Provincial Reconstruction Teams: How Do We Know They Work?”, Strategic Studies Institute, May 2009

Nagl, John A. “Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam - Learning to Eat a Soup With a Knife”, Greenwood Publishing Company, Westport, Connecticut, 2002

Trinquier, Roger “Modern Warfare – A French View on Counterinsurgency”, U.S. Army Command and Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, January 1985

Tse-tung, Mao “On Guerrilla warfare”, Department of the Navy, Headquarters United States Marine Corps, Washington DC, April 1989

[1] Maxwell D. Taylor, ambassador to South Vietnam and a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the insurgents referred to are Viet Cong during the Second Indochina War, or Vietnam War.

[2] Andrew Krepinevich, The Army and Vietnam, p. 99.

[3] John A. Nagl, Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam - Learning to Eat a Soup With a Knife - , p. 27

[4] Recent assassination of former president and chairman of High Peace Council Berhanuddin Rabbani and attack on U.S. Embassy in Kabul further prove this point.

[5] Mao Tse-tung, On Guerrila Warfare, p. 43.

[6] Andrew Krepinevich, The Army and Vietnam, p. 265

[7] Bernard B. Fall, Street without Joy – Indochina at War, 1946-1954, p. 155.

[8] David Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare – Theory and Practice, p. 9.

[9] John A. Nagl, Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam - Learning to Eat a Soup With a Knife - , p. 87

[10] Andrew Krepinevich, The Army and Vietnam, p. 6.

[11] Andrew Krepinevich, The Army and Vietnam, p. 122.

[12] Five years in Afghanistan: fighting a war within a larger war, The Globe and Mail, 20/05/2011, Susan Sachs (

[13] Bernard B. Fall, The Theory and Practice of Insurgency and Counterinsurgency, Naval War College Review, (

[14] Ibid.

[15] Bernard B. Fall, Street Without Joy – Indochina at War, 1946-1954, p. 308.

[16] Ibid., p. 309.

[17] Roger Trinquier, Modern Warfare – A French View on Counterinsurgency, p. 64.

[18] David Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare – Theory and Practice, p. 86.

[19] Bernard B. Fall, Street Without Joy – Indochina at War, 1946-1954, p. 306.

[20] The Trouble With Transition , Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, Afghanistan, 09/07/2011, Muhhamad Tahir (

[21] Taliban hang 8-year old boy in Helmand, The long War Journal, 24/07/2011, Bill Roggio,

[22] Andrew Krepinevich, The Army and Vietnam, p. 12.

[23] Bernard B. Fall, Street Without Joy – Indochina at War, 1946-1954, p. 164.

[24] Andrew Krepinevich, The Army and Vietnam, p. 166.

[25] Roger Trinquier, Modern Warfare – A French View on Counterinsurgency, p. 60.

[26] Andrew Krepinevich, The Army and Vietnam, p. 189.

[27] David Galula, Pacification of Algeria, p. 130.

[28] Andrew Krepinevich, The Army and Vietnam, p. 173.

[29] Ibid., p. 174.

[30] Ibid., p. 175.

[31] John A. Nagl, Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam - Learning to Eat a Soup With a Knife - , p. 157

[32] Roger Trinquier, Modern Warfare – A French View on Counterinsurgency, p. 58.

[33] Ibid., p. 55.

[34] David Galula, Pacification of Algeria, p. xxi

[35] Ibid., p. 320.

[36] Term used many times by Galula in both Pacification of Algeria and Counterinsurgency Warfare – Theory and Practice

[37] Rand Review, From Algeria to Iraq – All But Forgotten Lessons From Nearly 50 years ago, reprint of original article by David Galula (

[38]  David Galula, Pacification of Algeria, p. 38.

[39] US Trucking Funds Reach Taliban Military Led Investigation Concludes, The Washington Post, 25/07/2011, Karen DeYoung,

[40] David Kilcullen, Accidental Guerrila – Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One, p. 39.

[41] Carter Malkasian and Gerald Meyerle, Provincial Reconstruction Teams:How Do We Know They Work?, Stratigic Studies Institute, p. 14

[42] Ibid., p. 21

[43] David Galula, Pacification of Algeria, p. 274.

[44] Alister Horne, A Savage War of Peace (Kindle e-book), loc. 2593.

[45] Ibid., loc. 780.

[46] David Galula, Pacification of Algeria, p. 41.

[47] Now that Rabbani has been assassinated it is reasonable to expect that negotiations will come to a grinding stop.

[48] COMISAF’s Counterinsurgency Guidance, 01/08/2010, David H. Petraeus, General, United States Army, Commander, International Security Assistance Force/United States Forces-Afghanistan


About the Author(s)

Neno Danovic (alias)

Stabilization Project Manager, Afghanistan