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.”
The apparent validation of this doctrine during the 2007 troop surge in Iraq increased its standing. When the Obama administration conducted a comprehensive Afghanistan strategy review in 2009, some military leaders, reinforced by some civilian analysts in influential think tanks, confidently pointed to Field Manual 3-24 as the authoritative playbook for success. When the president ordered the deployment of an additional 30,000 troops into Afghanistan at the end of that year, the military was successful in ensuring that the major tenets of COIN doctrine were also incorporated into the revised operational plan. The stated aim was to secure the Afghan people by employing the method of “clear, hold, and build” -- in other words, push the insurgents out, keep them out, and use the resulting space and time to establish a legitimate government, build capable security forces, and improve the Afghan economy. With persistent outside efforts, advocates of the COIN doctrine asserted, the capacity of the Afghan government would steadily grow, the levels of U.S. and international assistance would decline, and the insurgency would eventually be defeated.
More than three years after the Afghan surge’s implementation, what can be said about the efficacy of COIN and the U.S. experience in Afghanistan? Proponents might, with some merit, claim that the experiment was too little, too late -- too late because an industrial-strength COIN approach was not rigorously applied until eight years after the war began, and too little because even then, limits were placed on the size and duration of the surge, making it more difficult to change the calculations of Afghan friends and enemies. Moreover, even though President Barack Obama announced plans to end U.S. participation in combat operations in Afghanistan by 2014, the war continues and the outcome remains indeterminate. Still, it is possible to answer the question by examining the major principles of COIN and analyzing how these fared on the ground.
The COIN-surge plan for Afghanistan rested on three crucial assumptions: that the COIN goal of protecting the population was clear and attainable and would prove decisive, that higher levels of foreign assistance and support would substantially increase the Afghan government’s capacity and legitimacy, and that a COIN approach by the United States would be consistent with the political-military approach preferred by Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Unfortunately, all three assumptions were spectacularly incorrect, which, in turn, made the counterinsurgency campaign increasingly incoherent and difficult to prosecute. In short, COIN failed in Afghanistan.
PROTECTING THE POPULATION
The first principle of COIN doctrine is the need to secure the indigenous population in areas deemed centers of gravity politically, economically, and militarily. Surge advocates argued that behind the protective shield of increasing numbers of foreign and Afghan security forces, good government would emerge, the rule of law would take root, and prosperity would grow. A more secure and content people would rally behind local elected and appointed officials, and peace and stability would follow.
“Protect the population” makes for a good bumper sticker, but it raises the question: Protect it from whom and against what? It certainly meant protecting the Afghan people from marauding Taliban insurgents. But what about criminal narcotraffickers, venal local police chiefs, or predatory government officials? What should be done about tribes that turn to the Taliban for help in fighting more powerful tribes with patrons in the Kabul government? And what about complex cases of ethnic violence with roots dating back a century or more? Young men without jobs are supposedly ripe for insurgent recruiting, so should protection be offered against unemployment? The provision of basic health care is frequently cited as a service the Taliban cannot offer. To make the Afghan government appear comparatively more effective, should the people be protected against illness? These were not hypothetical questions but rather very real challenges that U.S. military forces, civilian diplomatic personnel, and development specialists in Afghanistan struggled with daily as they sought to implement COIN doctrine.
Late in 2010, the comedian Kathleen Madigan, participating in a USO tour in Afghanistan, visited a forward operating base in Helmand Province. With some humorous exaggeration, she told a story about meeting a young Marine captain who pointed to a nearby Afghan village and enthusiastically described how his unit was busy building a school, establishing a health clinic, creating a local government center, training and reforming the police force, helping the people with grievance resolution, actively supporting gender rights via a U.S. Marine “female engagement team,” improving agricultural productivity, and more. As the list continued to grow, Madigan finally interrupted and asked, “Marine captain, when are you going to invade Detroit?”
Her quip hit the mark. “Protect the population” is a vague and open-ended guide to action, with increased effort alone regarded as an end in itself. But COIN adherents believed that even if the goals were not well defined, such an approach vigorously and simultaneously applied at the national, provincial, and district levels would steadily reduce the ground on which the Taliban stood and inevitably cause their defeat. Every military leader, traditionally a professional specializing in the management of violence, was now instructed that he must be prepared, in the words of the mid-twentieth-century French counterinsurgency expert David Galula, “to become . . . a social worker, a civil engineer, a schoolteacher, a nurse, a boy scout. But only for as long as he cannot be replaced, for it is better to entrust civilian tasks to civilians.” Given the prestige Galula is accorded by enthusiasts of modern COIN doctrine, it is worth parsing his guidance.
First, deploying highly trained U.S. soldiers and marines to Afghanistan to serve as social workers or to manage development projects comes at a very high price. The U.S. government spends about $1 million per year per soldier deployed in Afghanistan. At the height of the surge, Washington had about 100,000 troops in theater, costing about $100 billion annually. Moreover, it was sheer hubris to think that American military personnel without the appropriate language skills and with only a superficial understanding of Afghan culture could, on six- or 12-month tours, somehow deliver to Afghan villages everything asked of them by the COIN manual. The typical 21-year-old marine is hard-pressed to win the heart and mind of his mother-in-law; can he really be expected to do the same with an ethnocentric Pashtun tribal elder?
Second, Galula tempered his enthusiasm for assigning armed forces personnel such a broad range of tasks by stipulating that an army had to perform those tasks only in the early stages of a counterinsurgency campaign, when it was the only actor around with the necessary capabilities and resources to do so. But eventually, he argued, the military should be relieved of civic duties by capable civilian entities. Yet experience has shown that the required civilian capacity will never emerge, because no U.S. government department or agency will make the major investments necessary to develop highly specialized niche skills that would be utilized only briefly and rarely. Nor will Congress authorize additional department or agency funding to encourage such efforts. With no squadrons of civilian cavalry on the horizon in Afghanistan, the U.S. military, with stated reluctance but genuine verve, moved to fill the gaps. Over time, it even arrogated to itself the responsibility for deciding where these gaps existed, and then it methodically developed plans and relentlessly acquired the resources from the Pentagon and Congress needed to take action. Some examples include spending hundreds of millions of dollars on fiscally unsustainable diesel generators to power Kandahar City, paradoxically assigning a U.S. Army brigadier general to mentor Afghan officials on the importance of civilian leadership and the rule of law, and deploying multimillion-dollar female engagement teams without a clear purpose. But these expensive ad hoc efforts, while well intentioned, simply did little to pave the way for the establishment of good Afghan governance and economic prosperity.
Moreover, although reasonably competent at establishing and training foreign military forces -- and, to a lesser extent, foreign police forces -- the U.S. military has overly optimistic expectations about the timelines required to build healthy local civilian institutions, such as a competent civil service or a functioning justice system. Civilian government organizations require more highly educated work forces than their military counterparts, are often only one component within a complex bureaucracy, and are more susceptible to domestic political interference. The growth rates of organic government and civil society are sociologically constrained, and at some point, adding larger and larger doses of foreign resources and assistance becomes counterproductive.
Commentators would occasionally highlight extraordinary “COIN successes,” supposedly achieved by certain uniquely talented U.S. civilian and military officials in parts of Afghanistan, and conclude that the problem was not doctrinal inadequacy but the inadequacy of team members and their leaders. What was needed was many more Lawrences of Arabia. Of course, even a great professional basketball coach must occasionally dream of fielding a team whose players are all clones of Michael Jordan at his prime. However, the coach does not develop a winning strategy based on such flights of fancy. Moreover, T. E. Lawrence specialized in inciting revolts, not in state building. Historically, visionary indigenous leaders backed by native populations have been the key to building viable states -- not foreigners serving one-year tours of duty, no matter how passionate and skilled they might be.
Finally, Galula described a path for counterinsurgents to follow but did not specify a destination. Absent clearly defined political goals, a COIN trek might continue for many years at extraordinary expense without ever knowing when and where the journey might end. Diplomats and soldiers both agree that conflicts are concluded only when the warring parties agree to the terms of a political settlement. By contrast, COIN partisans focus on the struggle between insurgents and the host-nation government, with conflict termination achieved principally through insurgent defeat or co-option. But a different theory of conflict resolution is required in Afghanistan, where the principal causes of insecurity arise from the absence of national reconciliation (predating the rise of the Taliban by several decades), coupled with the presence of ineffectual, corrosive governance.
Blindly following COIN doctrine led the U.S. military to fixate on defeating the insurgency while giving short shrift to Afghan politics and hence the political logic of the overarching campaign. U.S. military commanders became obsessed with convincing Commander in Chief Karzai to use his rapidly expanding and staggeringly expensive security forces to defeat the Taliban. However, their main efforts should have focused on helping President Karzai deliver an inclusive peace and Chief Executive Karzai build an adequate state apparatus.
Galula’s writings about counterinsurgency were inspired by his service as a French army captain in the Algerian War from 1956 to 1958. Ultimately, however, France lost. Although Algeria and Afghanistan mark two very different conflicts, they resonate in one important way. It was assumed in both campaigns that a grab bag of “doctrinally sound” military actions would somehow add up to a strategic win. In Algeria, that assumption proved to be erroneous, and a similar outcome appears likely in Afghanistan.
CREATING AN ACCOUNTABLE GOVERNMENT
Field Manual 3-24 states that as a counterinsurgency campaign is successfully prosecuted, the “government secures its citizens continuously, sustains and builds legitimacy through effective governance, . . . and can manage and meet the expectations of the nation’s entire population.” Unfortunately, the assumption that robust and well-designed foreign development assistance programs would, over time, yield effective governance and popular legitimacy proved to be a bad one in Afghanistan.
In theory, the president of a democratic republic enters into an implicit contract with the electorate. The president’s administration collects taxes in return for delivering services, such as security, justice, health care, and education. If the value of the benefits received is seen as less than the price charged, the president or his preferred successor will likely be defeated in the next election. Executive accountability and inducements to improve effectiveness are thus built into the political system. This theory, however, does not apply to the Karzai administration in Afghanistan.
The Afghan government collects an extremely low level of revenue (less than ten percent of GDP), and a large share of this comes from customs rather than taxation. In effect, Afghans are not really charged by their government for the services they are provided. Moreover, for the most part, the Afghan government neither funds nor delivers the key public services offered in the country. According to estimates by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, in recent years, the United States and other donors paid for about 90 percent of Afghanistan’s total public expenditures, including funding for the Afghan National Security Forces. In addition, the provision of many key services remains highly dependent on foreign advisers and experts.
In their 1967 book, The United States in Vietnam, George Kahin and John Lewis wrote that “U.S. aid thus provided [South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh] Diem with a degree of financial independence that isolated him from basic economic and political realities and reduced his need to appreciate or respond to his people’s wants and expectations.” Like Diem, Karzai has had little reason to improve his state’s effectiveness or accountability.
Americans tend to see Afghan political institutions as nonexistent or immature and therefore as requiring creation or further development. The traditional power brokers in and allied with the Karzai administration see matters differently. They consistently oppose foreign efforts to create transparent, rule-bound Afghan institutions because such projects threaten to undermine their political domination and economic banditry.
In the absence of an enforceable democratic contract between the ruler and the ruled, the U.S. embassy in Kabul, as an advocate of Afghan government reform, frequently served as the de facto political opposition. Such advocacy, however, found little support among U.S. military commanders, because with some 130,000 NATO-ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) troops on the ground, their top priority was to defeat the Taliban. The military had the resources and the potential leverage to influence and persuade Karzai to make the difficult decisions of state, but its leaders were focused on the tactical battlefield and the development of the Afghan National Security Forces rather than on political and economic reform. Most assumed that good governance would inevitably follow, rather than precede, the defeat of the Taliban insurgents, elections, and generous development assistance.
This erroneous assumption damaged the U.S. war effort in various ways. It created a disjointed civil-military approach, allowing Karzai to operate in the seams, exploit bureaucratic differences, and attempt to pit the embassy against the military command (and often the intelligence agencies). It also damaged U.S. credibility with the Afghan people, who saw Americans less as protectors than as the supporters of the weak and predatory Karzai government (once again replaying the Vietnam dynamic). Ultimately, taking the legitimacy of the Karzai government as a given has even jeopardized the costly U.S.-led efforts to train and equip capable Afghan army and police forces, which, no matter how tactically proficient they might become, can contribute to stability only if they are reliably employed on behalf of a politically legitimate government.
The COIN field manual declares, “U.S. and [host-nation] military commanders and the [host-nation] government together must devise the plan for attacking the insurgents’ strategy and focusing the collective effort to bolster or restore government legitimacy.” Heavily influenced by COIN doctrine, the political-military strategy employed in Afghanistan during the surge (and to a lesser extent in the years prior) did not meet this criterion.
U.S. military commanders diagnosed Afghanistan’s problem as an indigenous insurgency, albeit one made worse by the insurgents’ access to sanctuaries in Pakistan. By contrast, Karzai and many of his compatriots diagnosed the problem as militant extremism, exported from Pakistan but cleverly masquerading itself in local garb. So while U.S. military commanders argued that a long, costly counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan was necessary to decisively defeat al Qaeda in the Central and South Asian region, Karzai consistently held that the so-called insurgency was mostly a “Made in Pakistan” product that Islamabad was forcefully exporting across the border. He had a point.
In late 2001, the world watched in awe as small numbers of U.S. ground forces, operating together with mostly Northern Alliance militias and enabled by twenty-first-century intelligence, communications, and precision strike ordnance, quickly routed the Taliban forces that had dominated Afghan battlefields for some five years. The Taliban regime was dismantled, but it was not destroyed. Aided by Pakistan’s military and intelligence services, the Taliban’s leadership began to reconstitute across the Durand Line, beyond the reach of the American military. In short order, the Taliban soon reestablished influence inside Afghanistan.
The Afghans observed these developments at first with puzzlement, then with frustration, and ultimately with anger. They were initially puzzled as to why the U.S. government and military generally refused to publicly admit for several years that the Afghan Taliban’s center of gravity had shifted from Kabul to Islamabad. They then became frustrated when they realized that the United States would not attack the Afghan Taliban inside Pakistan because of Washington’s worry that violations of Islamabad’s sovereignty would risk more important strategic objectives (such as defeating al Qaeda and preserving stability in a problematic, nuclear-armed power). And finally, they became angry when the costs of counterinsurgency seemed to far exceed the benefits delivered.
As the United States launched the surge, Karzai ever more frequently and publicly made such statements as “Al Qaeda was driven out of Afghanistan in 2001. They have no base in Afghanistan. The war against terrorism is not in Afghan villages and is not in the Afghan countryside.” Still, the southern Afghan countryside was designated ground zero of the counterinsurgency campaign by the U.S. military. Karzai came to regularly protest aerial bombardments of Afghan villages, coalition night raids that violated Afghan homes, detentions of Afghan citizens by international military forces, abuses by armed contractors and local militias paid by and loyal to foreign forces, and the rising tide of inadvertent but inevitable civilian casualties. American commanders always respectfully listened to such complaints and genuinely tried to make amends. Yet they never stepped back and asked whether Karzai’s list of grievances could properly be dealt with in a checklist fashion or if together they were actually symptomatic of strategic divergence. Getting the answer right mattered profoundly.
The irony was considerable. Karzai acquiesced to the surge because it guaranteed further U.S. and international commitment to the still fragile Afghan state, but he did not support its central premise. In a different world, he would have preferred that most of the surge forces be dispatched to Pakistan to attack Afghan Taliban sanctuaries, with perhaps others deployed to accelerate the training of the Afghan National Security Forces. Instead, the vast majority were sent to those locations where Karzai said there was no war on terror to be fought -- the Afghan countryside.
Despite the sharply contrasting perspectives, U.S. and other NATO-ISAF forces still managed to perform impressively, usually improving security in their areas of emphasis. Yet as these hard-won tactical wins were chalked up, Karzai seemed both uninterested in and unappreciative of what the COIN advocates took as mounting evidence that all was going according to plan. For his part, Karzai could not have cared less about complex COIN metrics invented by foreign military staffs and think tanks (such as trend lines on the number of attacks with improvised explosive devices being thwarted by tip-offs from Afghan civilians or the number of Afghan army battalions operating at the level called “capability milestone 1”). What mattered to him was achieving the interdependent aims of regaining Afghanistan’s de facto sovereignty, strengthening political legitimacy and control, and bringing peace and stability to his country. In his mind, the American military’s way of war did not appear to bring him closer to any of these goals.
The escalation of the war in 2009 delayed the exercise of real sovereignty, something all Afghans wanted. Over the next two years, the number of American boots on the ground essentially doubled, from about 50,000 to almost 100,000. Nighttime raids and detentions of Afghans by international military forces skyrocketed. Foreign military commanders, their pockets stuffed with cash (COIN disciples emphasize that, properly used, “cash is a weapon”) and accompanied by civilian diplomats and development specialists, were suddenly ubiquitous. Savvy provincial governors, district chiefs, and tribal elders all followed the bank robber Willie Sutton’s maxim and made their way to the NATO-ISAF military headquarters and provincial reconstruction teams because that was where the money was. Karzai’s constant complaint about the international community establishing “parallel government institutions” had merit.
None of this nurtured the growth of organic Afghan governance or politics, nor did it bolster the Karzai administration’s legitimacy. As the noted anthropologist Thomas Barfield has written, “The country’s past suggests that to be successful . . . a ruler will need to convince the Afghans that he will not be beholden to foreigners even as he convinces these very same foreigners to fund his state and its military.” Accordingly, Karzai often criticized the Afghan National Army as being more like indulged American mercenaries than an authentic native force. He frequently berated his technocratic expatriate cabinet ministers and agency heads (whose offices truly were overrun with foreign advisers and mentors) as American spies and lackeys. And he worried greatly that his people would see through the veneer designed by the U.S. military to portray him as a good leader, concluding instead that he was a puppet propped up by an infidel foreign coalition. The more resources the Americans threw into the Afghan cauldron, the more Karzai felt compelled to burnish his own nativist credentials by lashing out at what he decried as pernicious U.S. influence.
A final strategic conundrum was that the surge temporarily increased the importance of the NATO-ISAF logistical supply lines passing through Pakistan, further reducing Washington’s already weak leverage when it came to securing Islamabad’s cooperation in attacking insurgent sanctuaries. So while U.S. military commanders endlessly traveled to Pakistan bravely maintaining the pretense of consulting with “allies in the war on terror,” their troops and the Afghans continued to be hammered by the confederates of these same supposed allies. If Americans were merely confused, observant Afghans were increasingly disillusioned and disheartened.
The United States’ strategy suffered from a serious internal contradiction. Its military claimed to have a winning plan that it pretended was supported by the Afghan head of state and commander in chief. But this was a complete fiction. Karzai disagreed intellectually, politically, and viscerally with the key pillars of the COIN campaign. The result was that while American military commanders tirelessly worked to persuade the Afghan president through factual presentation, deference, and occasional humor that the plan was working, they never seemed to consider that Karzai just might not be on board.
None of this is meant to imply that Karzai’s approach to the conflict was better or worse than that pursued by the American military. Frankly, it is not clear that Karzai even had an alternative in mind. He liked to cast himself as a Gandhi-like figure, desperately trying to defend his people against the twin depredations of a self-serving superpower and a rapacious and extremist Pakistan. He also increasingly used the United States as a convenient scapegoat for his administration’s massive shortcomings in accountability and performance. Ultimately, however, a COIN approach is predicated on the general alignment of the foreign and host nations’ overarching political and military strategies -- and this was simply not the case in Afghanistan.
In its implementation of COIN doctrine in Afghanistan, the U.S. military was playing American football, so to speak. It was not at all clear what sport Karzai was playing, or indeed whether he was even in the same stadium as the Americans.
LEARNING THE RIGHT LESSONS
Waging war is serious business, and military commanders must ensure that their critical planning assumptions are based on empirical evidence and probabilities, not simply on hope. This was not done when the Afghan surge was designed in 2009.
“So what?” some might say. Even if the campaign plan was based on faulty assumptions, might not the final result still be an Afghanistan better off than before? That is possible. But while making Afghanistan a better place to live is certainly a noble goal, it is not necessarily a vital U.S. national interest, and the history is still worth revisiting so proper lessons can be learned.
First and foremost, the U.S. experience in Afghanistan should serve as a reminder that war should be waged only in pursuit of clear political goals -- ones informed by military advice but decided on by responsible civilian leaders. U.S. military leaders should not necessarily be criticized for devising plans to fill the gaping policy hole they stumbled on years into the Afghan war. But the public marketing of these plans by some of these generals in an effort to enlist support from members of Congress, sympathetic think tanks, and the media should serve as a warning against granting too much deference to military leadership.
Unbounded and unconstrained by civilian authorities, the commanders of the incredibly well-funded U.S. armed forces fixated on a way forward that was breathtakingly expansive and expensive. Citing the logic of COIN doctrine, senior U.S. military leaders insisted that there was no alternative to adopting a full-court press aimed at rapidly and simultaneously improving Afghanistan’s security, governance, judicial system, economy, educational standards, health-care delivery, and more. But as the ancient Chinese military sage Sun-tzu wrote, “There has never been a protracted war from which a country has benefited.” Even in the case of the United States, the high opportunity costs of these extended spendthrift campaigns matter. From the time he entered office, Obama recognized this fact, and he accordingly limited the deployment time of the surge forces in Afghanistan and subsequently set a date certain for the end of U.S. combat operations there. Still, he faced considerable political opposition in doing so, because he refused to make an open-ended commitment to those military commanders who favored withdrawal only after favorable tactical conditions emerged on the ground.
Second, the war in Afghanistan has demonstrated that for all of the vaunted agility and resourcefulness of the U.S. armed forces, the risk of senior commanders’ becoming intellectually arrogant and cognitively rigid is real. The COIN paradigm was applied with such unquestioning zeal that critical thought was often suspended. Countless commanders’ memorandums detail how their multibillion-dollar discretionary spending appropriations (known as the Commander’s Emergency Response Program) should be put into action across a mind-boggling array of socioeconomic conditions all in order to achieve variously described “COIN effects.” Military commanders elevated the program to the grand macroeconomic level and promoted projects such as the large-scale diesel generator power station in Kandahar in pursuit of these same vaguely defined COIN effects. A program to improve the transparency of U.S. military contracts was unsurprisingly named “COIN contracting.” And so it went, with groupthink becoming the norm.
“COIN” evolved from a noun to an adjective, and its overuse became almost a parody of faithful Red Guards chanting Maoist slogans during the Cultural Revolution. As a former U.S. military commander in Afghanistan who later served as the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, I developed deep appreciation and respect for various embassy civilian department and agency heads who, not wedded to a certain doctrinal framework, would offer analyses that in hindsight were often more sober and realistic than those of their military counterparts. Well-conceived plans are usually an antecedent to operational success, and unquestionably, the U.S. military excels at planning. The assumptions and risk analysis that underpin a plan, however, must be continuously challenged in a dynamic and complex conflict zone, lest commanders find themselves fighting the wrong war. The U.S. military and its civilian masters must find ways to avoid this trap in the future.