Courtesy Reuters

Groundhog War

The Limits of Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan

In the decade after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, U.S. movie studios released more than 200 war movies. During World War II, 65 percent of Americans saw at least one movie a week. Theaters showed newsreels with patriotic music prior to the feature film, delivering both information and entertainment to the American public to boost the collective commitment to winning the war.

In the 1960s, weekly movie attendance fell to less than ten percent of the population; television became Americans' principal entertainment medium, as well as their window onto the war in Vietnam. And as the war escalated, so did the negative tone of the nightly broadcasts: this was the era of network television news that stressed, "If it bleeds, it leads," an attitude that, in contrast to the movies of the 1940s, helped erode public morale.

After the Vietnam War, the Pentagon concluded that it was self-defeating to let cameramen ride military helicopters so that they could capture 30 seconds of gory footage and then broadcast it without context. Thus, beginning with the invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11 and then continuing in the war in Iraq, the U.S. military allowed correspondents onto the battlefields only if they embedded with military units. This practice created bonds between correspondents and soldiers that mitigated the journalists' impulse to focus on covering the violence and carnage alone. Embedding also helped limit regular nightly news broadcasts about the wars. Considering the large overall number of units deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq, firefights were relatively rare; in fact, most U.S. units experienced long periods of boredom. And for many networks in a television news industry already battered by financial losses, the cost of embedding camera crews in remote locations where nothing visually memorable happened for months at a time proved too expensive and unsustainable.

At the same time, the soldiers themselves emerged as both actors and producers. Inexpensive digital technology has allowed U.S. troops to take cameras into battle, record firefights, and upload these scenes onto the Internet. In doing so, today's soldiers are able to present their points of view to an audience that is both larger and more fragmented than others in the past. The Internet is now full of clips that show firefights, replete with all the sound and fury of battle. So it goes, too, for the other side: Islamist militants post macabre videos of beheadings or combat clips featuring insurgents shooting and yelling much in the way that U.S. troops do. The result has been a deluge of videos that show off the risk and danger faced by the fighters but not much of the suffering inflicted on combatants and civilians.

Meanwhile, in the decade since 9/11, Hollywood has produced not a single popular war movie about Afghanistan. Digital video has supplanted film, and documentaries have replaced scripted dramas. Shot with hand-held cameras and distributed via small theaters or online, these documentaries have shaped the narrative of twenty-first-century irregular warfare. None will attain the epic stature of Victory at Sea, a series on naval warfare during World War II released in the early 1950s, because the current conflict in Afghanistan is not a string of titanic battles leading up to a world-altering conclusion. The conflict is, rather, a pastiche of brief clashes in valleys and farmlands. Much like the Indian Wars in the American West in the 1870s, the war in Afghanistan is defined by small-unit dramas in varying locales.

Two documentaries released in the last year convey the nature of modern combat and illustrate how the U.S. and NATO mission in Afghanistan differs from previous wars. The first is Restrepo, directed by Sebastian Junger, a journalist and author, and Tim Hetherington, a photojournalist who was killed in Libya in April. The film follows a U.S. Army platoon as it holds an outpost in the Korengal Valley, in northeastern Afghanistan, near the Pakistan border. The second is Armadillo, directed and shot, respectively, by two Danish filmmakers, Janus Metz and Lars Skree; it features a Danish army platoon in an outpost in the farmlands of southern Afghanistan. Both films concentrate on battle and the attitudes of the platoons, showing Western soldiers confronting a wily enemy.

Taken together, the films show how advanced technology and scholarly thinking do not always translate into victory on the battlefield. U.S. and NATO soldiers have access to precision firepower and astonishing technologies that can track anyone moving. They are akin to starship troopers set down on an alien planet where the tribes are a thousand years less advanced. At the beginning of the documentaries, the soldiers dutifully proclaim a counterinsurgency strategy that emphasizes winning the commitment of local tribes. Yet in practice, the films show the reality of grim daily patrols focused on confronting an invisible enemy, while the villagers stand on the sidelines. Neither documentary suggests that such U.S. and NATO patrols, as the fulcrum for counterinsurgency, result in any tribal support for the Afghan government in Kabul.

DOMINANCE ≠ INVINCIBILITY

Restrepo and Armadillo are named, respectively, after the two outposts where the films' action takes place -- two small, isolated bases representative of many others. Bristling with machine guns and mortars, these forts are virtually impregnable. Any sprinkling of enemy fire invites devastating counterbarrages, especially in Restrepo, in which hostile fire is met by heavy U.S. air and artillery attacks, with white phosphorous shells setting fire to the hillsides. From their remote bases, U.S. and NATO soldiers live in siege-like conditions, with Taliban fighters prowling within sight of the forts. The soldiers know the enemy is watching, and local villagers are standoffish and unhelpful. Mines lurk underfoot; an air of incipient danger surrounds every patrol. Near the start of Armadillo, a Danish soldier warns a group of newly arrived troops, "Ten Taliban might attack 40 of you; they're not afraid."

And yet from forts such as these across northeastern and southern Afghanistan, coalition patrols are expected to drive back the Taliban -- and thus, in theory, protect the Pashtun population, a fundamental goal of U.S. counterinsurgency strategy. The scenes of fighting in Afghanistan in both films are quick, intense, and, in some ways, opaque. Bullets snap past the camera with no enemy in sight. Soldiers shout, point vaguely, and unleash a torrent of return fire. All seems chaos; then, after a few minutes, the firing ceases. Because Taliban fighters tend to be terrible marksmen, the episodic skirmishes of Restrepo and Armadillo sound and feel like noisy computer war games and appear to inflict no damage. Compared with those of the Vietnam War, the casualties in Afghanistan have been light: over a decade, almost 60,000 U.S. soldiers were killed in Vietnam, whereas the war in Afghanistan, as of June 2011, has left 1,600 dead. The United States and the Taliban are such an extreme mismatch militarily -- U.S. forces possess overwhelmingly devastating firepower and the ability to target enemies both day and night using overhead imagery -- that Taliban fighters shoot only fleetingly. Often, they have little chance to even mount an attack: in Armadillo, video from cameras mounted on NATO drone aircraft shows insurgents taking positions behind compound walls, only to be quickly obliterated by artillery. Airborne surveillance and exact striking power prevent any enemy from sustaining a large presence for more than a few hours; as such, it is hard to envision a terrorist safe haven anywhere inside Afghanistan.

Yet as these films also show, military dominance does not mean invincibility. The viewers of Restrepo and Armadillo know that sooner or later someone will be hit; no infantry platoon emerges unscathed from Afghanistan. In a scene in Restrepo reminiscent of Apache attacks in old Hollywood Westerns, the U.S. platoon climbs a wooded ridgeline, knowing that insurgents lurk nearby. The soldiers listen to intercepts of Taliban radio traffic that suggest the enemy fighters are getting closer. Suddenly, Sergeant Larry Rougle is shot and killed. His assailants dart away before the rest of the platoon can react. The soldiers are stunned. One breaks down in tears, while Dan Kearney, the angry captain, searches for a target to hit. But the wraith-like Taliban have already faded away. Unencumbered by armor, the hardy insurgents trek swiftly along back trails, slipping back and forth from Afghanistan to Pakistan. U.S. forces, with surprisingly few helicopters, lack the mobility to control the mountains.

Throughout history, armies have been brutal in their efforts to pacify those local communities that have resisted foreign occupation. On the American frontier in the nineteenth century, settlers responded to Native American raids by attacking the fighters and their food supplies, tribes, and villages. In the nineteenth century, the British occupying force in Afghanistan retaliated for the occasional killings of their administrators by razing villages along the Afghan-Indian frontier. Today, the goal of the United States and its allies is not to punish but to win over the tribes that support the enemy. In both films, the soldiers' forbearance is shown time and again: thus, in Armadillo, the platoon commander cautions his troops, "We're also here to help these poor people."

PEOPLE FROM THE MOON

The primary mission of counterinsurgency is to form a protective, mutually beneficial bond with the local population. In Vietnam, this was achieved through combined platoons of U.S. troops and village militias; in Afghanistan today, U.S. Special Forces are doing much the same with village militias, albeit on a much smaller scale. The preponderance of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, however, have been trained as fighters, not advisers.

The films show the U.S. and Danish soldiers to be hopelessly, almost comically separated from the day-to-day activities of the insular Islamic communities they seek to win over. The strained talk -- dialogue would be an overly generous description -- between the soldiers and local villagers borders on parody. The soldiers mean well, constantly proffering money in the hope of receiving some modicum of cooperation that never materializes. In Armadillo, teenagers openly mock the facial features and intelligence of a well-intentioned Danish soldier. Many Afghans see foreign troops "as people who've just landed from the moon," Metz, Armadillo's director, told a reporter.

Kearney, the company commander in Restrepo, offers to give fuel for the entire winter to a village if it will turn in just one machine gun to U.S. forces. An Afghan interpreter translates the proposal from English into Dari, another man translates that into Pashto, and then a tribesman translates that into the local dialect. The tribal leader sniggers; a trade with foreign infidels is inconceivable. I will "make you guys richer," Kearney pleads. "I'll flood this whole place with money."

Among other restrictions, NATO's rules of engagement forbid patrols from entering civilian compounds, except in extreme peril or when Afghan soldiers have entered first. In Restrepo, U.S. soldiers are left standing outside houses, expressing suspicion as residents proclaim their innocence of colluding with the Taliban. Insurgents walk among the farmers without fear of betrayal. In Armadillo, suspected insurgents drive around the district on motorcycles, indistinguishable from civilians. As a Danish soldier says, "You can't tell who's who."

Both the U.S. and the Danish soldiers began their deployments hopeful that their good intentions would win over the Afghans they came in contact with. The troops in Armadillo are particularly sympathetic: "Give [food] to the children as a sign of goodwill," one urges. But in short order, the Danish soldiers are surrounded by demanding youngsters whenever they set out on patrol -- an apt metaphor for how Western largess has created a culture of entitlement in Afghanistan. Inundated with entreaties for money day after day, the Danish troops grow suspicious of the loyalties and intentions of the Afghans around them. By the end, the soldiers have become cynical or flatly dispassionate.

Indeed, the locals do not cooperate, partly out of fear. In Vietnam, the local population was committed on both sides, with 200,000 members of the pro-U.S. South Vietnamese Popular Force guarding their villages against an estimated 80,000 Vietcong. The 11 million ethnic Pashtuns of northeastern and southern Afghanistan largely dislike the Taliban but rarely fight them; fewer than 100 self-defense militias have formed among thousands of villages. In Restrepo, a local explains why his family refuses to even answer the Westerners' questions: "If we let you know about Taliban, we will get killed." A mullah in Armadillo echoes the same belief: "If I talk, they'll cut my throat."

This mutual suspicion and alienation between the troops and the local tribes complicates hopes that U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine, which requires soldiers and marines to be nation builders as well as warriors, can be effectively implemented. This strategy is vastly more ambitious than during the Vietnam War, when the United States' focus was on destroying the Vietcong guerrillas and beating back the North Vietnamese regular army.

Although the lethal precision of U.S. weaponry has increased exponentially since the 1960s, the application of this firepower has become remarkably restrained. During the Vietnam War, about eight Vietnamese civilians were killed in the course of battle for every one U.S. soldier. In Afghanistan, this ratio has fallen to two Afghan civilians killed for every one Western soldier, largely because the U.S. and NATO coalition has imposed the strictest rules of engagement in the history of warfare. Soldiers are instructed to return fire only when they have positively identified an enemy and when nearby civilians are safe. Knowing this, Taliban fighters remain hidden or seek cover among the farmers. Both films show soldiers hesitating, debating, or refraining from shooting at the enemy out of concern for civilians. In Armadillo, a Danish soldier does not call for fire against three plainly suspicious Afghan men until one finally reveals a weapon.

In Vietnam, U.S. troops focused strictly on fighting, in the belief that the war would be decided on the battlefield and not by the ballot box. But in Afghanistan today, U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine gives equal weight to security and the promotion of good governance, economic development, and the rule of law. These priorities make U.S. soldiers essentially responsible for building a nation among unreceptive and recalcitrant Islamic tribes -- an impossible mission for foreigners. In Restrepo, in the middle of tense negotiations between Afghan locals and the U.S. soldiers, the village elders and Afghan army soldiers pause to pray together on the roof of a bunker, leaving the U.S. troops to watch. The U.S. soldiers stand on one side; the Afghans on the other.

"A COOL FEELING"

In both Restrepo and Armadillo, the soldiers deal with the resulting claustrophobia of living "inside the wire" with martial camaraderie. In barracks that resemble a locker room, the troops goof around, play loud music, lift weights, and swap tales of past firefights. On camera at least, they do not much complain about the danger, the boredom, or the red tape that they face. They carry themselves with a quiet pride and look forward to the crucible of battle. In contrast to the troops in World War II and the Vietnam War, there are no reluctant draftees among today's fit and highly skilled soldiers. All U.S. troops on the frontlines in Afghanistan are two-time volunteers: first, they decided to join the military; then, they chose the infantry and near-certain combat.

At both outposts, the leadership is more consensual than inspiring. Officers, noncommissioned officers, and enlisted troops share the same cramped quarters and the same risks in the field. They train, deploy, bond, and fight as a pack. Commanding officers offer no exhortations about progress or winning, only the demand that the platoon remain diligent and tactically proficient, never to be caught off-guard. In both films, the soldiers pace themselves like long-distance runners, choosing when to be aggressive. They know their enemy will likely get off the first shot: they show respect for but not fear of the Taliban.

And when a platoon does take losses, each soldier killed receives individual recognition -- in Afghanistan more than in any previous war. In Restrepo, the platoon held a memorial service for the fallen Sergeant Rougle, who was on his sixth combat deployment in seven years; more honors were rendered when his casket was placed on a plane bound for the United States; and a large ceremony was later held at Arlington National Cemetery.

When U.S. and NATO forces do confront the enemy in Afghanistan, it is in quick, episodic bursts of violence. Although the soldiers respond to attacks with fusillades of fire, rarely do they see their attackers or discover enemy bodies after the fact. In one particularly tense scene in Armadillo, Danish soldiers trap some Taliban fighters in a canal only a few feet away from their position. The platoon's commander shouts for his troops to throw a grenade. Two soldiers then fire full rifle clips into the insurgents. Back at their outpost, the Danish soldiers joke triumphantly: "We finished them off," one says, before riding a dirt bike around the tiny compound. When Armadillo was released in Denmark, this clip of normal warrior behavior stirred public criticism, with people citing the human rights of the enemy -- an indication of the gulf between the norms of the primal battlefield and the peacetime attitudes of a contented society. When a Danish soldier in Armadillo sums up his feelings after a successful firefight by saying, "Making a difference is a cool feeling," he is talking about killing the enemy, not winning hearts and minds.

DOLLARS AND BULLETS

The U.S.-led coalition invaded Afghanistan in 2001 in order to destroy al Qaeda and drive out the Taliban government that had sheltered the group. This first phase worked: within a few months, both al Qaeda and the Taliban had fled into Pakistan. Rather than pursue them, the U.S. and NATO militaries undertook a second phase, choosing to remain in Afghanistan for the long haul in order to build a democratic nation there. The theory went that the West would offer protection and tangible goods, such as jobs, to the Afghan people and the people would reject the Taliban once and for all. Dollars would replace bullets, and development projects would replace shooting the enemy: enter the new military doctrine of economic determinism.

But as Restrepo and Armadillo show, money does not buy commitment. The handouts have bred opportunism rather than patriotism or a desire for selfimprovement. In Iraq, insurgent gangs dominated by al Qaeda brutalized local Sunni tribes and imposed harsh Islamist rules. In response, the Sunni tribes rebelled in 2006 and 2007 and joined forces with U.S. troops. In contrast, the Pashtun tribes in Afghanistan have clung to their culture and, believing the Taliban will eventually return to power, have avoided close association with the U.S.-led coalition. In the meantime, the entire Afghan hierarchy -- from President Hamid Karzai and his coterie down to village elders -- has sought to squeeze as much wealth as possible from the foreigners while they are there.

As shown in Restrepo and Armadillo , the soldiers were winning no hearts and minds. Their earnest efforts and offers of development assistance failed to persuade the Afghan people to assist them. After a decade of lavish aid, the Afghan government has also not established a bond of trust with the Pashtun tribes, nor has it deployed an army sufficiently motivated or well led to defeat the much smaller guerrilla force. In some ways, Restrepo and Armadillo are the Groundhog Day of the Afghan war, in which life repeats anew every morning: platoons venture out on patrol, attempt to talk to impassive villagers, are occasionally fired on, shoot back, and then return to base, day after day.

The platoons in Restrepo and Armadillo act as their own tribes, confident in their warrior skills and psychologically distant from their senior leaderships. Since 2001, not one person among the past nine successive U.S. commanding generals in Afghanistan and past two U.S. secretaries of defense has changed the war's five key premises: total domestic control for Afghan officials, billions of dollars for projects to woo the local tribes, a war of attrition to drive back the Taliban, toleration of Pakistan as a sanctuary for the enemy, and a slow buildup of Afghan forces to fight their own war. In essence, politicians and policymakers in Washington have handed the war over to those generals who have embraced nation building as a military mission.

U.S. President Barack Obama has pledged to steadily withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan and end the U.S. combat mission by 2014. Regardless of how the war turns out, the military lessons learned will be negative; the conflict has dragged on far too long to be considered a strategic success. Unlike in the years after World War II, the generals of this day will not gain in historical stature. The popularity of the idea of counterinsurgency as nation building reached its zenith when Iraq was stabilized in 2008. At the time, the U.S. military's counterinsurgency warriorintellectuals were in vogue. As happened to their predecessors after the Vietnam War, however, their concepts of war fighting will come to be rejected by the younger generation of company-grade officers who had to execute a flawed doctrine. No matter their skills and good intentions, foreign troops cannot persuade the people of another nation to reject insurgents in their midst. The people must convince themselves -- and be willing to sacrifice for that conviction.

After the United States and the United Nations handed full sovereignty to Karzai and his top officials in 2002, the U.S. military could only coax them to pursue, rather than directly institute itself, competent military and civilian leadership in Afghan institutions. Meanwhile, a strategy that rested on persuading the people to turn against the insurgents failed to win the commitment of the tribes. U.S. and NATO soldiers went on patrols until they were shot at and then returned fire discriminately. With Pakistan as their sanctuary, the Taliban controlled the tempo of the war. At the level of the rifle company, counterinsurgency as nation building became a Sisyphean mission. In 2010, the U.S. military pulled out of a string of outposts in the mountains, including Restrepo. "You can't force the local populace to accept you in their valley," Captain Mark Moretti, the company commander, said. "You can't make them want to work with us." With that as an epitaph to a five-year-long mission to hold a firebase, it is clear that the overall strategy should change.

By the time Lieutenant General John Allen, the war's tenth commanding general, took over in Kabul this past July, U.S. counterinsurgency strategy had indeed devolved. In a speech in June, Obama explained that his administration's goals in Afghanistan no longer were full-fledged nation building or counterinsurgency. Instead, the goal of U.S. and NATO forces was to prevent the reemergence of a safe haven for al Qaeda and its affiliates. This new emphasis was loosely termed "counterterrorism," to capture the focus on fighting, as distinct from counterinsurgency, which is based on protecting the population. Allen's strategy will focus on placing Afghan security forces in the lead and not, as shown in Restrepo and Armadillo, doing the fighting for them.

Washington's national security goal is to prevent the reemergence of a safe haven for al Qaeda inside Afghanistan. Today, no such safe haven is possible, thanks to U.S. special operations raids, a network of informants, and U.S. surveillance capabilities. A force of around 20,000 U.S. soldiers can prevent a safe haven indefinitely, as long as the Afghan army controls the cities and highways (which makes the cohesion of the Afghan army a key part of the U.S. and NATO drawdown).

When waging war in the future, U.S. military leaders will likely limit their objectives and their resources -- as befits a superpower that has been living beyond its bountiful means. In terms of counterinsurgency more narrowly, the most effective missions will be limited to the battlefield: detecting and destroying insurgent camps and safe havens and training and advising indigenous security forces. The United States is unlikely to try to defeat an insurgency by building a nation again. Before leaving office in July, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates put it bluntly: "Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined."