The Limits of Counterinsurgency Doctrine in Afghanistan

The Other Side of the COIN

Eikenberry, Obama, and General Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan, March 2010.
Eikenberry, Obama, and General Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan, March 2010. (Pete Souza / White House)

Since 9/11, two consecutive U.S. administrations have labored mightily to help Afghanistan create a state inhospitable to terrorist organizations with transnational aspirations and capabilities. The goal has been clear enough, but its attainment has proved vexing. Officials have struggled to define the necessary attributes of a stable post-Taliban Afghan state and to agree on the best means for achieving them. This is not surprising. The U.S. intervention required improvisation in a distant, mountainous land with de jure, but not de facto, sovereignty; a traumatized and divided population; and staggering political, economic, and social problems. Achieving even minimal strategic objectives in such a context was never going to be quick, easy, or cheap.

Of the various strategies that the United States has employed in Afghanistan over the past dozen years, the 2009 troop surge was by far the most ambitious and expensive. Counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine was at the heart of the Afghan surge. Rediscovered by the U.S. military during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, counterinsurgency was updated and codified in 2006 in Field Manual 3-24, jointly published by the U.S. Army and the Marines. The revised doctrine placed high confidence in the infallibility of military leadership at all levels of engagement (from privates to generals) with the indigenous population throughout the conflict zone. Military doctrine provides guidelines that inform how armed forces contribute to campaigns, operations, and battles. Contingent on context, military doctrine is meant to be suggestive, not prescriptive.

Broadly stated, modern COIN doctrine stresses the need to protect civilian populations, eliminate insurgent leaders and infrastructure, and help establish a legitimate and accountable host-nation government able to deliver essential human services. Field Manual 3-24 also makes clear the extensive length and expense of COIN campaigns: “Insurgencies are protracted by nature. Thus, COIN operations always demand considerable expenditures of time and resources.”

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