How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
THEORY VERSUS PRACTICE
In his analysis of the shortcomings of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, Bing West offers a compelling assessment that, as he writes, "counterinsurgency as nation building became a Sisyphean mission" ("Groundhog War," September/October 2011). But the real problem is not with counterinsurgency doctrine itself but rather with how it is being applied. U.S. military planners and officers should not entirely abandon counterinsurgency, as West predicts they will; instead, they should return to counterinsurgency's guiding principles and make sure they are properly implemented on the ground.
For starters, West argues that Western handouts have led to a culture of entitlement in Afghanistan, which, in turn, has bred opportunism rather than patriotism or a desire for self-improvement. This is a real concern: in 2010, foreign aid was equivalent to approximately 90 percent of Afghanistan's total GDP. To show the granular extent of such a culture of largess, West quotes a Danish soldier in the movie Armadillo encouraging his fellow soldiers to "give [food] to the children as a sign of goodwill." These handouts generate a sense of entitlement, and as West observes, the soldiers are soon "inundated with entreaties for money day after day."
But such actions do not comport with the underlying tenets of counterinsurgency doctrine. For example, engaging children is contrary to the advice given by David Kilcullen in "Twenty-eight Articles," the influential 2006 essay that established many of the fundamental principles of counterinsurgency. Kilcullen writes that to win over local families, foreign military forces should "engage the women, beware the children," because "children are sharp-eyed, lacking in empathy, and willing to commit atrocities their elders would shrink from."
Similarly, U.S. and NATO troops have gone out of their way to remain distant from Afghan women, citing cultural mores and Afghanistan's traditional patriarchy. As one British officer says in the BBC's documentary series Our War, "We got told certain things what not to do. . . . You don't talk to the women." Such instructions are widespread among U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. But this, too, flies in the face of counterinsurgency's basic guidelines as outlined by Kilcullen, who writes that "in traditional societies, women are hugely influential in forming the social networks which insurgents use for support," and thus, winning the hearts and minds of local women is paramount. Constructive engagement sends a more powerful message than does the blind acceptance of cultural norms. Thankfully, the U.S. military may finally be catching on: in 2010, aware that its attempts at cultural sensitivity were hindering its broader counterinsurgency mission, the U.S. military created "female engagement teams," which are all-female patrols dedicated to engaging local women.
The schizophrenia often found in counterinsurgency tactics is especially apparent in the distribution of money. Some analysts believe money to be an important part of counterinsurgency: in 2004, for example, the U.S. Marine Corps' first Regimental Combat Team handed out cash payments as compensation for property damage inflicted during their operation to secure Fallujah. Yet in the documentaries West reviews, Restrepo and Armadillo, there is no clear logic to such payments; money is withheld in one case and given in another. In one scene in Restrepo, U.S. military officers are approached by Afghans wanting remuneration for a cow killed by U.S. forces. The soldiers refuse; instead, they say they will offer an equivalent value in food but no dollars. In Armadillo, meanwhile, a Danish officer provides cash to a man whose house was leveled and whose mother and daughter were killed in a NATO bombing raid. The discrepancy between these two scenes shows the difficulty in determining how to quantify, and thus redress, the misery of a war zone.
Counterinsurgency doctrine also calls for limiting collateral damage as a central element of winning the support of the population. This led, for example, to the controversial 2009 decision of General Stanley McChrystal, then the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, to focus on protecting Afghans during military operations above all other objectives. But what officers call "courageous restraint" is not always so easy to implement during the adrenalin-fueled confusion of a firefight. As the Danish platoon commander in Armadillo tells his troops , if you cannot distinguish between an insurgent reaching for a weapon and one reaching his hands out to surrender, then shoot. Nation building is not what most infantry soldiers sign up for. "Imagine if our tour . . . was just boring patrols. It would be a lame way to go home," one soldier says in Armadillo.
Counterinsurgency doctrine has evolved, but most soldiers do not keep up, meaning that innovations in strategy often do not work their way down to the tactical level. For example, in a 2007 interview with The New York Times, U.S. Army Colonel Martin Schweitzer observed, "In '02 we used to kick in doors. In '07 the Afghan army or Afghan police knock on the door and request to come in." Yet in Armadillo, Danish troops blast into a civilian compound to hunt for insurgents, and in Restrepo, a U.S. air strike kills civilians during an anti-Taliban operation. Too few soldiers are familiar with the changing theories and guidelines of counterinsurgency. As one military intelligence officer in Afghanistan says in the 2007 documentary Taxi to the Dark Side, "I was working 16-hour days, so to sit down and read a field manual was not top of my priorities over there."
Lastly, it is worth remembering that Afghanistan and Iraq were not the chosen wars of the warrior-intellectuals who came to be counterinsurgency's greatest champions. A project of nation building in which the central government is neither reflective of nor responsive to the needs of the people is not the desired terrain; Kilcullen, for example, has criticized the decision to invade Iraq. Yet the anthropological potion that he and others created -- modern counterinsurgency doctrine -- turned out to be a remedy for a seemingly incurable malady. It should not be abandoned because it has not been implemented effectively or homogeneously; it is an invaluable intellectual reservoir that the U.S. military should draw on, adapt, and modify for the future.
CHRISTOPHER SIMS is a doctoral candidate in the Department of War Studies at King's College London.
BEYOND GROUNDHOG DAY
Bing West uses a pair of documentary films, Restrepo and Armadillo, to illustrate grim realities in Afghanistan and to argue that the principles of counterinsurgency will soon "be rejected by the younger generation of company-grade officers who had to execute a flawed doctrine." But as a member of this younger generation of U.S. military officers, I disagree; in fact, I can speak for many of my peers in arguing that a wholesale rejection of counterinsurgency after Afghanistan and Iraq would be a grave error that would put the U.S. military on the path to irrelevance.
Whereas West has certainly served his time on the ground, the reader has probably not, and so should be cautioned that the experience of the soldiers in Restrepo is far from universal. (Indeed, trying to extrapolate lessons about counterinsurgency in Afghanistan from one documentary about a single platoon in the Korengal Valley is akin to trying to understand U.S. city life by renting an apartment in Detroit.) My most recent tour in Afghanistan serves as a counterpoint: from June 2010 to July 2011, I served on a small team of counterinsurgency advisers made up of U.S. Special Forces, cultural experts, and governance and development specialists. We embedded for weeks at a time with Afghan, U.S., and NATO units, with the aim of helping them apply the theory of counterinsurgency to their unique local circumstances, often under fire and among hostile populations.
The reality we observed -- gleaned from the struggles of over 100 platoons in combat at the height of the Afghan surge -- was much more complex and nuanced than any film or journalist can portray. To be sure, we saw many of the same frustrations that West describes: soldiers seen as spacemen by locals, "Groundhog Day" patrols that accomplish nothing, and a focus on fighting the enemy instead of training Afghan partners or co-opting local village leaders. But at the same time, we saw many places where coalition and Afghan units had broken this pattern and started to win the population's support. Oftentimes, local conditions made the difference. Restrepo's Korengal Valley is an example of one place where a perfect storm of unforgiving terrain and hostile tribes has made counterinsurgency virtually impossible. But just as important was the initiative, cultural savvy, and experience of the soldiers on the ground. When those dynamics come together, West's claim that "no matter their skills and good intentions, foreign troops cannot persuade the people of another nation to reject insurgents in their midst" does not hold up. Even in some of the most tightly controlled, longest-standing Taliban strongholds, U.S. and Afghan units working closely together have been able to draw the local populations to their side. This is an undeniable reality in large parts of Helmand and Kandahar, where villagers are responding to the presence of U.S. and Afghan troops and the relentless targeting of insurgent networks by returning to homes they have long abandoned, attending local weekly shuras (councils), offering information about the Taliban, and committing their own sons to the Afghan security forces.
The most successful military units have been those that learned the secret to overcoming the "Groundhog Day" phenomenon: stop trying to do it all yourself. Instead, reduce the footprint of foreign soldiers on patrols and coach Afghan soldiers and police on taking the lead. Ten Afghans and six U.S. soldiers can be infinitely more effective at approaching locals than the same ten Afghans with 100 U.S. soldiers in support.
U.S. units that only halfheartedly work with their Afghan counterparts become blind to their surroundings. Of course, a young lieutenant on his first tour overseas will feel like every patrol is the same if he does all the talking with villagers and his first question is always, "Have you seen the Taliban?" Instead, junior leaders should learn the names of the Pashto-speaking soldiers in the Afghan unit that sleeps in camp with them, and every day before they step on patrol, they should develop a plan together: let's tell people about the Taliban improvised explosive device that killed three children yesterday, let's find out who lives in the compounds on the south side of the village and build a relationship, let's see if we can get permission for the Afghan soldiers to pray in the local mosque.
At the same time, the most adept U.S. units have learned to stop playing Santa Claus with projects and aid money -- every dollar spent, every well dug or school built, is predicated on getting local leaders to step forward to make decisions as a community and then on connecting them to the Afghans working at the district center a few miles away. This often means forgoing expensive, high-profile projects built by outside contractors in favor of inexpensive mud huts built by local hands. The approach is aimed solely at promoting basic governance and has nothing to do with getting locals to like the foreign troops in their area.
The implication of these battlefield observations is that when it comes to counterinsurgency, less can be more. The recent surge of U.S. troops and resources in Afghanistan has brought many short-term gains, enabling coalition forces to reverse much of the Taliban's momentum, giving the Afghan government desperately needed breathing room, and expanding security deep into critical areas in the south. Yet this very abundance of resources can also inhibit the long-term viability of these achievements. More U.S. troops, for example, can mean less incentive to train Afghan counterparts; after all, why work through Afghans if you can do it yourself and do it better? More money for development projects, if not tied closely to promoting local governance, can create more opportunities for corruption and extortion by the Taliban or local power brokers. These various phenomena are the military version of what economists call "the resource curse" -- the more you have, the less you diversify and prepare for the future.
The rush to condemn counterinsurgency doctrine as a failed experiment is based on two myths. The first is that counterinsurgency is nothing more than a contest for hearts and minds, a squishy theory that looks to turn the army into the Peace Corps or buy popularity in conflict zones with lollipops and Band-Aids. The second is that counterinsurgency is nation building on a massive scale, reliant on tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers to succeed. Both of these myths transform the debate into a false dichotomy: counterinsurgency versus counterterrorism, hard tactics versus soft. To the men and women closest to the fight, counterinsurgency is about control and legitimacy on the ground, not popularity contests, and it is best done by small expert teams, steeped in local languages and cultures, comfortable with ambiguity, working in concert with indigenous forces. As important as shaping perceptions in villages or fostering governance is what special operations forces call "network overmatch," or killing and capturing irreconcilable fighters in order to dismantle the enemy's ability to organize.
It is also a mistake to see the counterinsurgency campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq as anything more than one extreme of a long continuum of policy options, undertaken only when rapidly collapsing host governments and burgeoning insurgencies left policymakers the choice of failed states or massive reinforcements. One should not forget that the United States has been fighting insurgencies -- engaging in what the U.S. Marines call "small wars" -- almost continuously over its entire history, from the Indian Wars of the late 1700s to the interventions in Colombia and the Philippines, among other places, today. Such operations, with a small number of troops and resources, are conducted quietly over many years, using Special Forces, intelligence operatives, foreign-area specialists, aid workers, and host-country military or police units, and are far removed from nation building. Yet they represent the very essence of counterinsurgency: helping a foreign government develop its security apparatus and deny sanctuary to armed insurgent groups and terrorists.
The real danger as the United States withdraws from Afghanistan and Iraq is that U.S. military commanders and civilian policymakers will purge the whole experience of counterinsurgency from institutional memory, as occurred in the aftermath of Vietnam, resetting the U.S. armed forces to fight large-scale wars against conventional enemies. This would only hurt the United States. Young, sharp military and civilian leaders who thrived in counterinsurgency operations over multiple deployments will be redirected toward preparing for tank battles, artillery duels, and traditional diplomacy. Hard-earned lessons will be unlearned; the competitive adaptation of tactics, procedures, and operational techniques, discarded. Yet no matter how much the various institutions of the U.S. military may prefer wars in which the enemy wears uniforms and fights in large formations, the United States is certain to face insurgencies again. The U.S. defense establishment must be prepared to deal with them effectively, with very limited resources, or face irrelevance.
Rather than demonizing a false, straw-man version of counterinsurgency that calls for tens of thousands of troops and a commitment to nation building, West and other defense leaders and theorists should focus on how to institutionalize the adaptations of the past decade and increase the military's capability for smaller-scale, but equally complex, counterinsurgency and stabilization efforts. To do any less is to embark on a "Groundhog Day" of the military's own making, denying the nature of today's security environment and condemning U.S. soldiers to repeat the mistakes of the past.
FERNANDO LUJAN is an International Affairs Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations based at the Center for a New American Security. He is a Major in the U.S. Special Forces and served in the Pentagon's AfPak Hands program.
Christopher Sims essentially argues that counterinsurgency theory is sound; the problem, he says, lies with the soldiers who do not know how to implement it. He observes that modern counterinsurgency doctrine was conceived by "warrior-intellectuals" who applied lessons from cultural sensitivity and anthropology and urged soldiers to act as therapists and conflict managers.
But such concepts are fundamentally incompatible with the reality of everyday combat. I spent many years on the battlefields and in the villages of Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. From what I saw at the ground level, counterinsurgency was -- and is -- a branch of warfare. War is the orchestration of violence in order to force your enemy to agree to your terms. U.S. soldiers carry rifles rather than checkbooks for a basic reason: to kill the enemy. To treat counterinsurgency as social science is to deny that violence remains at its essential center.
Military force is the ultimate arbiter of Afghanistan's future -- and today, the Taliban are the superior fighting force. They have not won hearts and minds; most Pashtuns dislike them. But the Afghan army cannot yet stand up to their enemy due to poor civilian and military leadership, tribal affiliations, and corruption. Yes, the defects of the Kabul government are deplorable. Many states, however, have weathered insurgencies without building an honest government responsive to the people. Afghanistan can survive with a weak government and a subsistence economy, provided its armed forces can keep the Taliban at bay. Conversely, the country cannot survive with a weak military, regardless of the quality of the central government and the economy.
This means that the Taliban must be beaten on the battlefield. Of course, this task will require the Pashtun tribes to, at the very least, not actively support the Taliban. This requires that Afghan security forces actively protect the population. That is the fundamental military task of counterinsurgency. There should be no mincing of words about the role of force and violence. If Afghan soldiers shirk from patrols, refuse to drive down mine-laced roads, or avoid villages that fly Taliban flags, they will lose. The essential problem in Afghanistan is that the Taliban are a fierce, dedicated enemy, willing to risk death and to kill.
As the historian Victor Davis Hanson wrote in his 2001 book Carnage and Culture, "Military history must never stray from the tragic story of killing." Hanson argued that "to speak of war in any other fashion brings with it a sort of immorality." He continued: "Euphemism in battle narrative or the omission of graphic killing altogether is a near criminal offense of the military historian." In other words, the very term "warrior-intellectual" is an oxymoron because it suggests that killing is not the basic mission of the soldier challenged to battle.
Fernando Luján, meanwhile, argues that counterinsurgency as "nation building on a massive scale" is a "myth." He objects to "demonizing a false, straw-man version of counterinsurgency that calls for tens of thousands of troops and a commitment to nation building."
But like it or not, nation building has been the reality, not the myth. In Afghanistan, there are now 100,000 U.S. soldiers and 44,000 soldiers from other NATO countries responsible for safeguarding the Pashtun population while improving governance, combating corruption, delivering economic projects, and instituting the rule of law. These tasks are carried out in compliance with the joint U.S. Army-Marine Corps field Manual 3-24, entitled Counterinsurgency. That manual was signed in 2006 by General David Petraeus, now the director of the CIA, and General James Amos, currently the commandant of the Marine Corps. On the first page, the manual states, "Soldiers and Marines are expected to be nation-builders as well as warriors."
Luján argues that those units most successful at counterinsurgency "have learned to stop playing Santa Claus." Not quite. The U.S. military in Afghanistan has carried out 16,000 development projects since 2001. Overall, the United States has disbursed more than $18 billion in aid over the same period. Aid from Western countries accounts for most of Afghanistan's national budget and economic growth (aside from the annual opium crop).
As for what Luján identifies as the "undeniable reality" that "U.S. and Afghan units working closely together have been able to draw the local populations to their side" in large parts of Helmand and Kandahar, this would indeed be marvelous news, given that those regions are the heartland of the Taliban movement. But until U.S. forces depart, it is impossible to know how reliable the allegiance of local populations to the Kabul government actually is. After all, as Petraeus observed last year, the rural Pashtun people have survived through the years by being "professional chameleons."
On the whole, Luján's observations amount to a recommendation for fewer conventional battalions and for more Special Forces advisory teams. On that point, he and I are in complete agreement. In both Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. military should have concentrated from the start on building strong indigenous armed forces. But this did not happen; neither the U.S. Army nor the Marine Corps gave proper attention to the development of a U.S. adviser corps. Only recently has this changed. The current U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General John Allen, faces the challenge of increasing the number of military advisers while decreasing the size of the overall force.
Luján correctly points out that a robust advisory effort is a necessary but far from sufficient requirement for success, which is minimally deﬁned as preventing the Taliban from taking over major Afghan cities. Without advisers, the Afghan security forces are likely to fall apart. Advisers must share the risks on the battleﬁeld. "Having advisers outside the wire -- in the fight -- is not optional," General Allen told me last August. "It is required." With advisers, the military situation will remain perilous as long as Pakistan provides shelter to the Taliban and other terrorist organizations.
It is impossible to predict how the situation in Afghanistan will unfold, given that the outcome depends on Afghans and Pakistanis, not Americans. What is predictable, however, is that the younger generation of U.S. Army and Marine officers will reject the definition of counterinsurgency as requiring wholesale nation building. In Afghanistan, the U.S. military tried to do too much.