Afghanistan: What to do

In several places, I’ve made the case that a proper counterinsurgency needs to be implemented in Afghanistan, along the lines of what is being done in Iraq. Because of differences in geography, culture, urbanization and other factors, the tactics in will be assuredly different in Afghanistan, but the general principles of clear-hold-build should apply. Am I absolutely sure about this? No, but I’ve seen some materials that are persuasive. The Atlantic is one.

Politically and strategically, the most important level of governance in Afghanistan is neither national nor regional nor provincial. Afghan identity is rooted in the woleswali: the districts within each province that are typically home to a single clan or tribe. Historically, unrest has always bubbled up from this stratum—whether against Alexander, the Victorian British, or the Soviet Union. Yet the woleswali are last, not first, in U.S. military and political strategy.

Large numbers of U.S. and NATO troops are now heavily concentrated in Kabul, Kandahar, and other major cities. Thousands of U.S. personnel are stationed at Bagram Air Force Base, for instance, which is complete with Burger King, Dairy Queen, and a shopping center, but is hundreds of miles from the heart of the insurgency. Meanwhile, the military’s contact with villagers in remote areas where the Taliban operate is rare, typically brief, and almost always limited to daylight hours.

The Taliban are well aware that the center of gravity in Afghanistan is the rural Pashtun district and village, and that Afghan army and coalition forces are seldom seen there. With one hand, the Taliban threaten tribal elders who do not welcome them. With the other, they offer assistance. (As one U.S. officer recently noted, they’re “taking a page from the Hezbollah organizations in Lebanon, with their own public works to assist the tribes in villages that are deep in the inaccessible regions of the country. This helps support their cause with the population, making it hard to turn the population in support of the Afghan government and the coalition.”)

The rural Pashtun south has its own systems of tribal governance and law, and its people don’t want Western styles of either. But nor are they predisposed to support the Taliban, which espouses an alien and intolerant form of Islam, and goes against the grain of traditional respect for elders and decision by consensus. Re-empowering the village coun­cils of elders and restoring their community leadership is the only way to re-create the traditional check against the powerful political network of rural mullahs, who have been radicalized by the Taliban. But the elders won’t commit to opposing the Taliban if they and their families are vulnerable to Taliban torture and murder, and they can hardly be blamed for that.

To reverse its fortunes in Afghanistan, the U.S. needs to fundamentally reconfigure its operations, creating small development and security teams posted at new compounds in every district in the south and east of the country. This approach would not necessarily require adding troops, although that would help—200 district-based teams of 100 people each would require 20,000 personnel, one-third of the 60,000 foreign troops currently in the country.

Each new compound would become home to roughly 60 to 70 NATO security personnel, 30 to 40 support staff to manage logistics and supervise local development efforts, and an additional 30 to 40 Afghan National Army soldiers. The troops would provide a steady security presence, strengthen the position of tribal elders, and bolster the district police. Today, Afghan police often run away from the superior firepower of attacking Taliban forces. It’s hard to fault them—more than 900 police were killed in such attacks last year alone. But with better daily training and help only minutes away, local police would be far more likely to put up a good fight, and win. Indirectly, the daily presence of embedded police trainers would also prevent much of the police corruption that fuels resentment against the government. And regular contact at the district and village levels would greatly improve the collection and analysis of intelligence.

Perhaps most important, district-based teams would serve as the primary organization for Afghan rural development. Currently, “Provincial Reconstruction Teams,” based in each provincial capital, are responsible for the U.S. military’s local development efforts. These teams have had no strategic impact on the insurgency, because they are too thin on the ground—the ratio of impoverished Afghan Pashtuns to provincial reconstruction teams is roughly a million to one. Few teams are able to visit every district in their province even once a month; it’s no wonder that rural development has been marred by poor design and ineffective execution.

Local teams with on-site development personnel—“District Development Teams,” if you will—could change all that, and also serve to support nonmilitary development projects. State Department and USAID personnel, along with medics, veterinarians, engineers, agricultural experts, hydrologists, and so on, could live on the local compounds and work in their districts daily, building trust and confidence.

Deploying relatively small units in numerous forward positions would undoubtedly put more troops in harm’s way. But the Taliban have not demonstrated the ability to overrun international elements of this size, and the teams could be mutually reinforcing. (Air support would be critical.) Ultimately, we have to accept a certain amount of risk; you can’t beat a rural insurgency without a rural security presence.

As long as the compounds are discreetly sited, house Afghan soldiers to provide the most visible security presence, and fly the Afghan flag, they need not exacerbate fears of foreign occupation. Instead, they would reinforce the country’s most important, most neglected political units; strengthen the tribal elders; win local support; and reverse the slow slide into strategic failure.

This strategy appears to be in synch with the latest Army field manual, FM 3.07, Stability Operations, and it looks like a natural extension of the counterinsurgency manual (FM 3.24). Mountainrunner has a summary of FM 3.07, but the bottom line is that it focuses on a comprehensive approach, and it challenges every soldier to be more than just a warrior:

The manual honestly realizes that the Soldiers (it is an Army document) are public diplomats and must intelligently operate in a local and global information environment where perceptions matter.

2-74. Stability operations are conducted among the people, in the spotlight of international news media, and under the umbrella of international law. The actions of Soldiers communicate American values and beliefs more effectively than words alone. Therefore, military forces ensure consistency in their actions and messages. They provide the media with prompt, factual information to quell rumors and misinformation. They grant media representatives access to information within the limits of operations security. Finally, they understand the culture of each audience and tailor the message appropriately.

2-75. No other military activity has as significant a human component as operations that occur among the people. With urbanization, these operations will be increasingly conducted among concentrations of people and thus significantly affect their psyche. Human beings capture information and form perceptions based on inputs received through all the senses. They see actions and hear words. They compare gestures and expressions with the spoken word. They weigh the messages presented to them with the conditions that surround them. When the local and national news media are unavailable or unreliable, people often rely on “word of mouth” to gain information or turn to the Internet, where unverified information flows freely at unimaginable speeds. To the people, perception equals reality. Creating favorable perceptions requires an understanding of the psychological motivations of the populace and shaping messages according to how people absorb and interpret information to ensure broad appeal and acceptance.

At Registan.net, Joshua Foust highlighted how we’ve screwed up in terms of civilian casualties and poor information ops. We can’t prevail in this kind of conflict when more civilians are killed than militants. This is no way to conduct a COIN campaign.

Another critical component to a successful plan is to work toward political solutions. The structure of the government matters less than its legitimacy and its ability to represent the people. In this New York Times piece, a couple of veterans from Afghanistan have some ways to get the Afghan government to a better place:

First, the Afghan government must confront corruption in its own ranks. Tribal elders in Ghazni told us that they are “slapped on one cheek by the Taliban, and on the other cheek by the government.” They talked of extortion by the police, dysfunctional courts and rampant bribery in government offices. The average Afghan spends one-fifth of his income on bribes. It’s no surprise so many actively or passively support the Taliban.

To fight corruption, President Hamid Karzai should immediately do three things: fire those seen as the most corrupt cabinet ministers, provincial governors and district governors; arrest and prosecute the most notorious warlords from the civil war in the 1990s, who committed unspeakable atrocities but are living openly in Kabul or the provinces; and break the relationship between the government and the country’s largest industry, the poppy trade.

The coalition can assist in these reforms by “embedding” Western civilian experts in law, government and business management at every level of the Afghan government. This can improve performance and transparency. For example, one government worker described to us how a corrupt land deal was reversed because “locals were able to confront the governor together with a coalition representative, which made the issue hard to ignore.”

Second, the Afghan government must rethink its approach to extending central government control throughout the country. Afghanistan’s remote valleys have long sheltered tribesmen with an antibody reaction to outside power. Yet the Afghan Constitution, drafted under close American tutelage, posits a highly centralized government, with the leaders of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces appointed by and beholden to Kabul, rather than to their own people.

Decentralizing power does not necessarily require amending the Constitution, but it does demand that central authorities in Afghanistan focus on providing services of national scope: an army and police force, roads, electricity, a postal service and the like. Actual governance at the district level must stem from traditional tribal, social and religious structures.

Third, the Afghan government must negotiate with Taliban groups that have shown an honest willingness to renounce violence in exchange for a path back into the country’s political life. Most Afghans we spoke with drew a sharp distinction between Afghan Taliban and other groups opposing the government — Al Qaeda, Arab foreign fighters and members of the Pakistani Taliban. They view Afghan Taliban as “sons of Afghanistan” who deserve to be treated differently than their more extreme foreign counterparts.

Afghanistan is a rural, conservative country, and there will inevitably be districts where the people elect local Taliban rule. What’s essential is that these places don’t provide a staging area for a coup against the Kabul government or terrorist plots beyond Afghanistan. Incorporating the unarmed Taliban members into the government would give them something to lose, thus providing Kabul with new leverage over them.

Enhancing the legitimacy of an elected, representative government is the coalition’s central task. With the help of “the lion of the people,” the Afghan government and the coalition can defeat all spoilers in Afghanistan; otherwise, no amount of force will ever be enough to win.

As with Iraq, we cannot achieve victory through military means alone. This was a lesson we did not learn in the Vietnam War. The South Vietnamese government had all kinds of problems, and we did little to reform it over all those years. In Iraq, Ryan Crocker and David Petraeus worked in concert, and it worked, combining military ops, political reforms and economic aid. A similar set-up is needed for Afghanistan. The NATO hierarchy is not working and it needs to be reorganized, and the nations that refuse to let their soldiers engage in kinetic operations need to send those soldiers home. Herschel Smith has had it up to here with NATO, saying it cannot be rehabilitated:

More than five months ago on the heels of a number of bureaucratic entanglements that had slowed the progress of recently deployed Marines in Afghanistan, The Captain’s Journal asked the question Can NATO Be Rehabilitated? We also predicted that in order to give Petraeus latitude to implement counterinsurgency doctrine, we would have to bring U.S. forces out from under the command of NATO, or possibly place a U.S. General in charge of NATO forces. This has come to pass as we predicted.

We have also noted that the campaign in Afghanistan relies heavily on special forces and raids against mid-level Taliban commanders rather than contact with the population and ensuring security. In other words, it is being treated as a counter-terrorism campaign rather than a counterinsurgency campaign. Australian infantry is not even allowed to engage in kinetic operations, and must sign documentation concerning their deployment that they have not provoked such fire fights.

Rather than making contact with the population, many NATO troops have been kept on Forward Operating Bases (FOBs); rather than finding and killing the enemy, NATO has placed emphasis on reconstruction efforts, reconstruction that goes unused in many cases because there is no security. Rather than conducting dismounted patrols, many troops have been confined to vehicles, obviously increasing the risk from IEDs.


Our question five months ago was prescient. There are individual countries who are assisting in Afghanistan, but as an organization, our judgment is that NATO cannot be rehabilitated. This is why, for all of his bluster about returning America to a position of respect across the globe, Barack Obama’s demand that NATO fulfill an increased role in Afghanistan is a doomed strategy. More troops to sit on FOBs and provide force protection for themselves (while Marines and British forces take the brunt of the battle in the South) won’t help the campaign.

Smith is making a lot of sense to me.

Michael Yon is in Afghanistan and he weighs in.

This is a land of paradox. The people here are friendly and hospitable, violent and suspicious. The war effort enjoys broad support, yet our alliance is unraveling. The Taliban are widely despised, and yet certain elements of it are integral parts of Afghan society. People want the national government to succeed, yet they have little or no faith in it. In many respects, while the country takes center stage in today’s geopolitics, it is stuck in the Middle Ages.

I’ve driven over a thousand miles up and down Afghan roads during the past few weeks to find that many locals are thankful to the coalition of American, British and other NATO forces that are trying to bring peace and stability to the country. Others say they hate us.

It has become clear to me that we’re losing this war. But losing doesn’t mean lost.

When someone says they know what to do in Afghanistan, it’s best to remain skeptical. Some folks are flat-out lying, like recent attempts to deny the existence of a secret report documenting how 10 French soldiers who were killed didn’t have enough ammo or working radios. Others are telling us what we want to hear, like it will just take a few more troops and some border incursions into Pakistan to straighten out this mess.

There are a few honest players in Afghanistan, and I’m listening carefully to them. But please understand this much: In a land whose paradoxes can confuse and even crush powerful empires, any solutions – if they even exist – will not be simple or painless.

When I traveled extensively in Iraq, I spent a lot of time with combat units that were consistently winning against the enemy, both in kinetic operations and gaining the support of the people. All the while, we were losing certain aspects of that war, both in Iraq and back on the home front. It wasn’t until our tactical superiority was supported by an effective strategy that we started turning things around. Iraq now has the chance to become a peaceful andprosperous country, and a good ally. I sense that the day will come when I will request a visa togo on vacation in Iraq.

Can the same thing happen in Afghanistan? I am less confident – for today, anyway.

Gen. David Petraeus, who recently assumed command of Centcom, responsible for U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq (and many other countries), knows that these two countries present different challenges. The counterinsurgency manual he revised, and his own doctoral dissertation on the effects of Vietnam on the American military and foreign policy, show an intellect that is subtle enough to recognize a paradox and honest enough not to try and hide behind it. One of the paradoxes described in the counterinsurgency manual is: “Tactical success guarantees nothing.”

If anyone can unravel Afghanistan, it’s Petraeus. But that might be beyond even his talents.

Describing his successful partnership with the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, Petraeus recently said: “There has to be absolute unity of purpose, unity of effort, even if there cannot be and will not be unity of command.”

Right now, our enemies have unity of purpose: They want to kick us out of here. Meanwhile, we can’t even agree about whether or not this war can be won.

More troops alone will not solve the problem. Another veteran from Afghanistan offers a four-step plan:

(1) Increase the local and international security presence and its intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities; focus on population-centric operations. More international security forces, particularly in the east and south, are crucial. The increase must be accompanied by an intensified effort to raise and develop Afghan forces. Furthermore, we must devote more intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets to the contested areas. As a rule, each battalion-sized task force should have constant unmanned-aerial-vehicle and close-air-support coverage.

These forces must concentrate on protecting the population. To that end, they must build allies among the people; reduce the friction associated with the presence of foreign forces; work with local leaders to promote security in villages and on roads; promote local solutions to local problems; crush the militants when they reveal themselves; and give people compelling reasons to support the government and the counterinsurgency.

(2) Invest in bottom-up capability; attack the problem from both ends. Decentralization can be a powerful force on the side of the government if used responsibly. Afghan identity works from the inside out: Family, clan, village, and tribe are far more compelling to the individual than the nation. Afghans regard their elected village, district, and tribal shuras (councils) as their true representatives, not the appointed district administrators or provincial governors. Empowering these local councils to bring effective governance, basic services, and economic opportunity to their people in a manner integrated with national efforts is the best way to connect people to their government.

Local governments desperately need to draw on the expertise of civilian partners from the international community to develop durable systems relevant to everyday life. The military cannot do this alone. Ensuring these efforts are properly distributed and aligned with the national government will mitigate the very real risk of a return to the warlordism that racked the country after the Soviet war.

(3) Fix critical economic and fiscal policies at the national level. A functional economy, coupled with social and political institutions at the local level, would destroy the Taliban. The overwhelming majority of military-aged males in contested areas are unemployed outside subsistence farming. They fight for money. The economic logic of violence must change.

Afghanistan has considerable natural resources that could be harnessed to spur business and other economic growth. Sadly, national policy hamstrings efforts to do this. For instance, the timber trade has been virtually outlawed, preventing the development of local businesses while creating a black market that feeds the insurgency and resistance to the government. The underground timber economy has also resulted in significant deforestation. A smart timber policy would create incentives to manage forests in addition to generating business opportunities consonant with local interests and capabilities.

Tax policy is another study in dysfunction. According to local officials, a district is authorized to collect taxes on sales, but it must send all of the money to Kabul, which then redistributes it on the basis of perceived need. This encourages district officials to collect no taxes and claim poverty, thereby securing money from the national government. Enabling local governments to retain most of the taxes they collect, and creating systems to ensure transparency and accountability for how the money is spent, would end up bringing more money into the national coffers as well as providing better for the localities. Getting the economic and fiscal incentives right while improving local governance would also reduce the problem of government banditry.

Building systems and institutions that make local governments robust enough to earn the loyalty of their people while remaining tied to the national government is the heart of the matter in the long run. If this is done, local militant groups will die on the vine.

(4) Work with Pakistan to apply the same full-spectrum approach across the border. The socioeconomic dislocation seen in Afghanistan is similarly endemic in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan. Working with our allies in Pakistan to eliminate insurgent safe-havens is critical, but so is investment in local governance and development in the impoverished areas that have become breeding grounds for militants. Here too, potential recruits to the militant groups need a reason to support their government. The insurgencies must be defeated on both sides of the border in order for Afghanistan (and Pakistan) to have peace. Progress on these fronts, of course, would also support the counterterrorism campaign against the senior al Qaeda and Taliban leadership.

I haven’t talked much about Pakistan because, if we can’t send U.S. forces into Pakistani territory, there’s little we can do. The options are continued diplomacy and using economic incentives and sanctions. We might as well consider Pakistan just another border country, just like Syria and Iran are border countries with Iraq. Al Qaeda leadership and the nastier Taliban leaders have safe haven (more or less) in the Pakistani frontier, so perhaps the only thing we can do is pressure them from the west with a workable COIN strategy, and pressure them from the east by encouraging the Pakistani government to get off its ass and do something about its problem with Islamist militants.