In light of President Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s recent remarks regarding the new face of the American military, I felt that a look back into the successes and failures of the last decade could shed some truth on an increasingly complicated matter. Gone are the days of ambitious nation-building and an aggressive commitment to spread the American idea abroad. Gone is the sense of responsibility all Americans felt after 9/11, that our nation is responsible as the Global Superpower to show developing nations that totalitarianism and oppression are not the answers. The idealism of the last decade has been washed away in the very real tide of economic hardship. Yet perhaps a look back into the world just a few years ago can help us prevent ourselves from repeating the mistakes of the past. Although our amibitious ideals resulted in two ill-conceived interventions and a host of other problems, it did give birth to a great good, a new way of fighting wars: Counterinsurgency Strategy. Below I defend a strategy that is seemingly non existent.
The New Way of War
Iraq today looks much, much different than it did in 2004. Even as President Bush proudly declared an end to combat operations in Iraq and famously saluted the “Mission Accomplished” banner aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, an insurgency was forming throughout the war-torn country that would soon grow out of control. As the insurgency grew, the tactical ignorance of the military and civilian leaders in charge of operations in Iraq grew more and more clear. In A Time of War, Bill Murphy laments the wasted lives of American soldiers who were sent to Iraq “without their tanks” because they “were too imposing”; soldiers who were sent by the thousands to a country they knew nothing about to be shot at by people that they would never see (99). In the first year of the Iraqi insurgency, officers were told that “it was only a matter of time before one of their soldiers was wounded or killed by an I[mprovised] E[xplosive] D[evice]” without subsequently being informed how to spot or avoid these devices (113). Soldiers who had trained for their entire careers to fight a conventional war were being sent, knowingly, to their deaths in patrols that served no particular purpose save as target practice for Iraqi insurgents. For three more years violence grew un-contained. Causalities skyrocketed, and it appeared to many that there could be no victory in Iraq. Yet as the casualties mounted, change slowly took shape. Officers who before 2007 saw the war as a death-trap for men who were not trained to fight insurgents “[came] to believe that the war in Iraq was winnable”, for “the Army had finally seen the light: Get the Iraqi army and police…to start taking the lead” (308). Teaching “[the Iraqis] to secure their own country” would be no easy task, but the emphasis on restoring legitimacy to the Iraqi government would change the course of the war forever. Four thousand, four hundred and eighty-four American deaths later, the streets of Baghdad are mostly quiet. The walls that American forces built to separate Iraqi religious sects have become permanent fixtures in an increasingly divided nation, but there is peace. Even as “green Shiite flags line” Iraqi streets and Iran “has a close ally and trading partner in Iraq”, violence for the most part is no longer an option to the everyday Iraqi (Engel 1). The war has not been pretty, and American interests in the Middle East have been severely compromised, but they have not been devastated. But how can the United States transplant the successful neutralization of the Iraqi insurgency into Afghanistan? What have civilian and military leaders learned from the ill-fated expedition into Iraq?
To America’s Global War on Terror, Afghanistan means everything and nothing all at once. Victory has eluded the United States and her NATO allies for over a decade, and there are contradictory signs as to if victory is any closer now than it was when this war began. The stakes are too high to retreat, the risks too great to be ignored. What happens there could change things everywhere. America’s symbolic invincibility will without doubt not survive a retreat from Afghanistan, though in truth there are very few who still believe in the idea of limitless power anyway. No, the real consequences could be materially as well as financially devastating. As James Carafano writes in “Obama Must Win”:
Afghanistan could look a lot more like Vietnam in 1973… Most forget that throwing South Vietnam to the wolves made the world a far more dangerous place. The Soviets saw it as an unmistakable sign that America was in decline. They abetted military incursions in Africa, the Middle East, southern Asia and Latin America. They went on a conventional- and nuclear-arms spending spree. They stockpiled enough smallpox and anthrax to kill the world several times over…Osama bin Laden called America a “paper tiger.” If we live down to that moniker in Afghanistan, odds are the world will get a lot less safe. Al-Qaida would be back in the game. Regional terrorists would go after both Pakistan and India—potentially triggering a nuclear war…Iran and North Korea could shift their nuclear programs into overdrive, hoping to save their failing economies by selling their nuclear weapons and technologies to all comers. Their nervous neighbors would want nuclear arms of their own. The resulting nuclear arms race could be far more dangerous than the Cold War’s two-bloc standoff… the world would look a lot more like Europe in 1914.
Regardless of whether or not American forces should have invaded Afghanistan or not, they are there. What policymakers and intellectuals alike should look to then is how to prevent Carafano’s nightmare scenario from coming to fruition. How can we win a war that seems unwinnable and prevent the growth of international terrorism? By studying the successes and failures of American interventions abroad, as well as understanding the strategies that the United States used in the context of modern international law, it becomes clear that a Counterinsurgency strategy is the only military model capable of neutralizing a threat that conventional warfare largely fails at dealing with. In assessing the validity of any military strategy in Afghanistan, it is important to look at its past successes, failures, and potential alternatives as well as its current level of success in the Central Asian region. The world may not be safer because the United States invaded Afghanistan, but if COIN has anything to say about it, it will be after the U.S has finished the job.
Counterinsurgency is as multifaceted as it is revolutionary, and coming to grips with the new role that it prescribes for American military forces is essential to understanding when it is an appropriate strategy to use. In the U.S Army Field Manual 3-24, known more widely as the Counterinsurgency Field Manual, General David Petraeus established in conjunction with a whole array of military and civilian contributors a strategy “cognizant of international rights standards, expectations of accountability, and transparency” (xxxiv). Counterinsurgency wins wars not by killing until the enemy surrenders in the conventional sense, but instead by seizing “the primacy of the political” so as to develop host government “leadership” that will eventually result in a “negotiated solution to…the insurgency” (xxix). It is not, as it was in Vietnam, a hollow call to win the hearts and minds of the occupied population. Instead, modern day counterinsurgency puts serious responsibility on civilian elements of the American national government in the form of concrete expectations for state department officials in the process of nation-building. Continuing to attempt to govern an occupied country would be a “fatal national flaw”, yet “effectively employing nonmilitary power…is not a responsibility that can be left to a beleaguered host nation” (xxxvii). Striking a critical balance between outsourcing government responsibilities to the newly formed host government and using the power of the America’s own resources to effectively rid the region of insurgents is essential. Creating a stable host government requires an expansion “along the rights continuum, beyond physical security” towards a more “holistic form of human security”, and “diplomats” as well as “contractors” are essential in achieving this objective (xxx). Human security allows indigenous populations to move beyond the immediate goal of survival and onwards towards civic and economic activism, which is an essential element in establishing stability anywhere.
In Iraq, this security gave rise to the Sunni awakening councils, village militias who rebelled against their Al-Qaeda leaders because of the American promise of stability coupled with a popular turn against Islamic fundamentalism. To the Iraqis, when the AQIM (Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia) militants “started imposing sharia law, beheading people on street corners and demanding access to their daughters, [Iraqi] hospitality turned into hostility” and the American promise of “law and order” became too enticing to pass up (Chulov 1). The Sons of Iraq remained loyal to the United States and “helped turn the tide of the insurgency” even after AQIM was defeated precisely because American leaders were able to effectively utilize COIN’s incentive structure when dealing with Awakening Council leaders (1). Local support spread like wildfire, and newly forming Awakening Councils provided invaluable assistance “in hunting down their former insurgent allies” and “members of the Islamic militias” whilst doing much to dispel the idea that the war was an exclusively foreign enterprise (1). To many Iraqis, the war was no longer Muslim versus infidel American; it had become a struggle of ideals. The foreign invaders slowly came to be identified as the Saudi, Pakistani, Yemeni, and Palestinian al-Qaeda in Iraq militants, not the Americans. A conventional force promising nothing to the population and remaining segregated from local politics could never have responded to the internal Sunni division the way that American forces did in Iraq. As FM 3-24 accurately points out, cooperation with former insurgents was not “simply a refinement on the margins of U.S. practice”, it represented a “paradigm shattering” reversal in American military strategy because tactical success was placed before ideological differences (xxxv). What was even more shocking was that many of the Sons of Iraq were former Ba’ath party loyalists or members of the Army who had lost their job after the U.S. occupying authority initially dissolved the Iraqi army after the invasion in 2003. It certainly makes one wonder how much sooner the war would have ended if the existing Iraqi Army had been used to calm sectarian tensions and restore faith in the emerging Iraqi government.
Political implications aside, what does Counterinsurgency strategy offer in terms of a change to the approach of actual combat situations? For one, not all “COIN efforts require large combat formations” to effectively neutralize a larger insurgent force (187). In fact, in drawing on the Combined Action Program (CAP), which was conceived and successfully implemented on a small scale in Vietnam by the Marine Corps, counterinsurgents are called on instead to focus on “advising security forces and providing fire support and sustainment” (187). Instead of displays of force and “shock and awe” tactics, American forces should emphasize the ability of host nation forces to protect the indigenous population. This not only creates conditions where killing is less necessary, it keeps American soldiers out of harm’s way because ideally, host nation forces are fighting the brunt of the insurgency. Regardless, combat in the context of counterinsurgency operations can be classified as the “clear” component of Counterinsurgencies’ now famous clear-hold-build strategy. FM 3-24 reminds commanders that “offensive operations are only the beginning” of success and that “[removing] entrenched insurgent infrastructure is just as if not more important to the ultimate success of COIN operations than the actual fighting (176). This represents a stark contrast from the United States’ first few years of involvement in Iraq, which over-emphasized the “clear” element of COIN strategy without creating a mechanism so as to insure that secured areas do not fall back into insurgent hands after American forces depart. This resulted both in frustrating patterns of clearing areas only to lose them hours later and also initially gave soldiers a false sense of security in areas that were previously secured. Learning the lessons of 21st century warfare was hard, but today’s Armed Forces are prepared to wage an international law abiding, humanitarian intervention without replicating the struggles of the United States’ first few years in Iraq.
Regardless of its changes to military strategy or its good intentions, the question still as to if COIN is desirable in Afghanistan has yet to be answered. In assessing strategic success at any level, it is important to find where the United States stands in the conflict today. What has counterinsurgency strategy up to this point accomplished, if anything? In comparing relative levels of violence in Afghanistan today with those of earlier points in the insurgency, progress is very clearly being made. As Defense Secretary Panetta exclaimed to American troops in mid-December of 2011, “the soldiers’ sacrifices are paying off” and “insurgent violence [has declined] to its lowest level in five years, despite recent high-profile attacks” (Shanker A6). Not only have overall levels of violence decreased, but additionally “U.S.-led NATO forces have weakened the Taliban to the point where the militants have not been able to regain” territory lost in last year’s troop surge, including “critical areas” in the “Taliban’s heartland” (A6). But even with all of the gains that Coalition forces have made in the last two years, the scaling back of European forces makes it very clear that NATO’s commitment to rebuilding Afghanistan has an expiration date. The solution to the problem of time is not a departure from COIN, but rather a shift in focus within it.
Afghanistan is distinct from Iraq in that its tribal structure is more engrained than its sectarian divides and also in that its population is far more spread out than that of Iraq. Where Iraqis congregated in dense cities surrounded by barren desert, Afghanistan’s tribes are unevenly dispersed throughout the country. Securing the few urban centers in Afghanistan has been no problem, but adapting COIN strategy to Afghanistan’s unique tactical environment is critical to long-term success. In The Wrong War, former Marine Bing West bemoans the drawbacks of certain elements of COIN strategy whilst emphasizing and applauding the success of others. In the context of the Afghan conflict, much of what FM 3-24 says about training competent host-government armed forces is not useful, because “Pashtun…khans…[do] not want protection by” the “Tajiks or Uzbeks” who “[fill] the ranks” of the Afghan National Army (244). To officers uneducated in Afghan cultural development, this initial rejection was nonsensical and frustrating. Instead of a national identity uniting the Pashtun populace against the Taliban, what is “key” is instead “local knowledge” (242). Tajiks are just as ignorant of Pashto culture as Americans are, and the elaborate system of informants and military support that the United States received from Awakening Councils in Iraq is nowhere to be found in Afghanistan because there has been no turning of the right Afghans against the Taliban.
But there have been successes in Afghanistan, and replicating these requires a distinct focus on CAP-centered integration and police training. In the Garmsir district of the heavily Pashto Helmand province, Marines stabilized a seemingly unstoppable insurgency by:
1) conducting a huge number of patrols to push out the local Taliban; 2) bringing in a tough top cop to root out the secret [weapons and infrastructure] cadres; and 3) sealing off the main infiltration point [for the local Taliban] (243).
Reflected clearly are the clear and hold elements of typical COIN strategy, but what proved to be remarkable is that the build step was done by the Afghans themselves. Once “the Americans, combined with the Afghan soldiers…pushed out the Taliban, the elders…offered young men from their [tribes] to serve as police” (244). The local knowledge that American forces so desperately needed came not from extensive focus on nation-building operations, but instead through adapting elements of COIN doctrine to situations that are most important for them. The Pashtun tribes respected the strength and fighting prowess of the Afghan National Army (ANA) forces to a level where they were comfortable supporting host-government police operations. What remains of American strength in Afghanistan must “[live] among the people” and “[hear] the local rumors”. They must simultaneously show these “professional chameleons” (i.e the Pashtun tribesmen) that ANA forces can prevail over the Taliban by patrolling “with [them]” (243). Coalition risk aversion continues to prevent this strategy from being utilized throughout Afghanistan, even as the idea of side-stepping risk runs explicitly and totally contrary to COIN doctrine.
Host government legitimacy is another thorn in the side of Coalition forces throughout Afghanistan. ANA forces are extremely loyal but poorly-equipped and ill-trained, and in contrast Afghan police forces are adequately armed and trained but often use their power not to “hunt down the Taliban” but rather to “extort the farmers” (242). As evidenced in Garmsir, the population centric Combined Action Program gives the best of both worlds, but this approach is still widely viewed as unsustainable given current resources for operations in Afghanistan. American leaders are then left with crossing their fingers and hoping for the best in terms of competent leadership, which has proven time and time again to be an elusive quality for Afghan officials. This dilemma, however, is not a result of COIN strategy but rather a byproduct of inadequate commitment to it. There can be no victory if American leaders do not commit themselves fully to the long war ahead. Our mortal enemy “al-Qaeda is confined to Pakistan only due to our forces in Afghanistan” and a premature withdraw “will result in a civil war likely to be won by the Taliban” (252). Setting up a permanent force deterrent in Afghanistan, which will also allow for adequate force training by CAP units, would do much to keep al-Qaeda confined to the Pakistani border and could potentially prevent the outbreak of such a civil conflict.
A long-term, smaller force commitment would also do much to solve the Karzai legitimacy question because even if the central government itself is not legitimate, Pashto elders will still respect the Karzai government if its army is seen as able to fend for itself. Even if “Karzai…has no intention of building a democracy”, Afghan forces can still “[perform] credibly on [their] own” against a possible Taliban civil war if American forces focus on training instead of nation-building (252). What makes COIN such an effective strategy is its lack of doctrinal rigidity, its flexibility and applicability in multiple wartime situations. Nation-building and law and order development appealed to the Iraqi Awakening Councils potentially as a result of their dense population and already-established idea of national identity. To the Pashtun tribes, what turns the elders against the Taliban is not a model democracy or even a very effective government, it is a government that can defend itself and prevail on its own against the Taliban. Going into “combat with Afghan forces, [providing] the link to fire support” when the ANA is outgunned, and “[having] a voice in who gets promoted” should be the centerpiece of America’s more limited involvement in Afghanistan (253). Counterterrorism kill teams, drone attacks, and displays of intimidating force may effectively eliminate Taliban leadership, but they run the risk of collateral damage and they do nothing to project the ANA’s effectiveness independent of American forces, which is essential to achieving victory.
There is no use in denying the truth; conventional Counterinsurgency strategy has not succeeded in the way that American forces need it to in Afghanistan. Although it has reduced overall levels of violence and cleared the Taliban from previously unbreakable strongholds in the south and along the Pakistani border, it has not given rise to the Awakening Councils that were so essential to turning popular support against the insurgency in Iraq. There is no home-grown counterinsurgency save for the ANA, and even the ANA is considered a foreign Tajik and Uzbek force in the heavily Pashtun south. Afghanistan’s Awakening will come only after the central government can fend for itself, until it has earned the respect of a tribal structure that is centuries old. There has been no public rejection of Afghanistan as there was of Iraq or Vietnam. Support “for the war can be sustained” until our advisers “hand off” the full responsibility of population protection to a legitimate and self-sustaining ANA, but such a process “will” certainly “take years” (253). This war can be won with neither conventional strength nor the promise of nation-building. The Afghan population is as unique as it is traditional, and victory is only achievable if Americans “commit to stay in Afghanistan” with a limited advisory force for “as long as it takes” (254). This is the war we chose to fight when we invaded Afghanistan. Victory is impossible any other way, and the cost of retreat is too great. COIN has taught us a new way to fight, and fight we must, but we are no longer alone and without hope.
Chulov, Martin. “Sons of Iraq Turned the Tide for the US. Now They Pay the Price.” The Guardian. 13 May 2010. Web. 15 Dec. 2011.
Engel, Richard. “Post-U.S Iraq: Welcome to Shia-Stan.” Times of Europe. 14 Dec. 2011. Web. 14 Dec. 2011.
Murphy Jr., Bill. In a Time of War: The Proud and Perilous Journey of West Point’s Class of 2002. New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2008. Print.
Shanker, Thom. “Panetta Says U.S., Allies Are Winning Afghan War.” San Francisco Chronicle 15 Dec. 2011: A6. Print.
United States of America. Department of Defense. United States Dept. of the Army. The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual : U.S. Army Field Manual No. 3-24 : Marine Corps Warfighting Publication No. 3-33.5. London: University of Chicago, 2006. Print.
West, Francis J. The Wrong War. New York: Random House, 2011. Print.
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