How is it that time and time again we are persuaded to hang on for another year in Afghanistan with the mantra that counterinsurgency (a.k.a. COIN) will really work this time. While I certainly acknowledge the limited range of alternative options and oppose any peace agreement with the Taliban, I think that putting our faith in COIN time and time again is problematic… To understand why, perhaps a (not so brief) recap of how the discourse of COIN has mutated in Afghanistan would be helpful…

From late 2003 to mid 2004, Robert Andrews, a CIA and DoD official and Donald Rumsfeld’s head of special operations, began urging the US to undertake a “countrywide counterinsurgency” campaign in Afghanistan (WaPo, 8 August 2004). However, COIN in Andrew’s outlook mainly entailed an effort to broaden the manhunt for terrorists by attempting to target drug lords who were thought to be propping up the warlords, the Taliban, and Al Qaeda. (In actuality, of course, it was the US which has paid, armed, and legitimated Afghanistan’s warlords since 9/11. In turn, those warlords helped to maintain the central government’s weakness thereby fueling the dramatic growth of narco-trafficking — but these inconvenient contradictions in US policy were ignored by experts who never seriously contemplated the idea that the US itself could be the heart of the problem they were trying to manage.) Andrews, like his boss Donald Rumsfeld, thought that the idea of counterinsurgency could be used as an antidote to “overmilitarization” of the conflict. They still seemed to envision counterinsurgency as reliant on light, fast moving elite units linked to “local allies.”

Other military experts did articulate a more conventional understanding of COIN doctrine, for example US CENTCOM Director, Brigadier General Douglas Lute, argued that COIN required a separation between the insurgent and his base of support.  However, Lute said that it takes 20 years to develop a seasoned civil affairs officer or to train a linguist (Tampa Tribune 26 August 2004). In other words, he was skeptical of the ability to transform the US military to engage in a counterinsurgency mission in Afghanistan. Such frank and pessimistic comments would become a rarity or heavily diluted in order to be used as a plea for patience with an ever expansive COIN strategy in the years to come.

In November 2004, the US Army re-issued its counterinsurgency manual for the first time since the American defeat in Vietnam. Although the release of the manual was intended to address challenges being faced in Iraq, it would obviously become relevant in Afghanistan once the Taliban’s Maoist-style insurgency would move into a more confrontational phase (Giustozzi 2008).  Notably, this manual advised against a prolonged counterinsurgency campaign stating that the longer a counterinsurgency strategy is used the more resentment it breeds. Despite its flaws, the hastily published manual replaced the woefully outdated and Orientalist “Small Wars Manual” then being used in Iraq:

“One purpose for the manual, Colonel Horvath said, was to update archaic language and concepts. The ‘Small Wars Manual,’ which many Marines carried to Iraq, includes sections on the ‘management of animals’ like mules, and assertions like a warning that mixed-race societies are ‘always difficult to govern, if not ungovernable, owing to the absence of a fixed character,'” (NY Times, 13 November 2004).

Nevertheless, the existence of the Small Wars Manual calls into question some revisionist claims in the mainstream press that the US military had no framework for thinking about an insurgency prior to 2004.

By 2005, the US began to talk openly of handing off the Afghanistan campaign to NATO and cutting the 20,000 US troops by at least 20% the next spring in order to focus on the Iraq War. NATO initially balked at the idea of being drawn into a counterinsurgency campaign commanded by the Americans (NY Times 14 September 2005).  Defense Secretary Rumsfeld insisted that the US could manage the counterinsurgency with the current level of troops until NATO was ready. In October, NATO caved to US pressure and agreed to increase its troops from 9,000 to 15,000, move away from its existing peacekeeping mission, and take on the counterinsurgency mission minus the counter-narcotics mission (NY Times, 7 October 2005).  The US still hoped that it could hand off the entire COIN mission to NATO’s 15,000 troops in the near future. (In other words, this was basically a mini-surge). Lt. General Barno predicted in April 2005 that the insurgency would collapse in about a year.

As it turned out, 2005 was the most lethal year for American soldiers in Afghanistan since the war began. But American commanders claimed to have killed 600 insurgents and had plans to “step-up” attacks in insurgent areas and to train Afghan troops to fight through the winter. The US also hoped that spending $68 million on “development” projects would help win over hearts and minds in southern Afghanistan the next spring. The relative absence of Taliban attacks during the 2004 Presidential elections and the 2005 Parliamentary elections, which we now know was mainly due to intense US pressure on Pakistan to seal its borders (Rashid 2008, 259), bolstered the idea that counterinsurgency efforts were working.  US advisors boasted that the 20,000 strong ANA was ready to safeguard the country and that they had already performed admirably under fire. Defense Intelligence advisors told reporters that the ANA was stocked with former mujahideen who had fought the Soviets in the 1980s.  Hence, the Afghan troops were considered “competent and capable,” (Daily News [New York] 18 September 2005).

As the Americans transferred authority to Canadian troops in Kandahar at the end of 2005, the Canadians stated they would use the same rules of engagement as the Americans. Canadian Col. S.J. Bowles stated that “We understand this is an active insurgency,” (NY Times, 31 December 2005). The US had encouraged such statements because it was concerned that a failure to vigorously pursue COIN tactics and strategy would endanger the “slow but steady political, economic, and security gains” they claimed to have achieved in southern Afghanistan. It was clear that the Americans thought holding on to territory in southern Afghanistan was critical to the counterinsurgency struggle. The US military continued to believe that the Taliban was some kind of ethnic insurgency rather than a ruthless, adaptive, and opportunistic set of loosely affiliated militant organizations that would recruit disaffected and frustrated young men wherever it was possible and convenient.  Hence the US continued to focus on clearing and holding southern Afghanistan when it should have realized that the Taliban were probably busy infiltrating the north in the same way they had gradually infiltrated the south.

By 2006, US military officials claimed that COIN doctrine had finally been incorporated into US military training centers. Army experts and commanders stated that prior applications of COIN (e.g. cordon and sweep) were incorrect and counterproductive due to inadequate training. General Petraeus stated that as the next crop of officers entered the field, COIN would be properly applied to “make a difference” in 2007 (WaPo, 21 January 2006). In reality, light infantry forces had been receiving at least some training in counterinsurgency since 1987 at the Joint Readiness Training Center in Fort Polk, Louisiana (Dallas Morning News, 20 March 2006) — but the General’s narrative was rarely challenged.

In May 2006, the Marines began drafting a new counterinsurgency manual apparently for the first time in 25 years.  This manual argued “The (counterinsurgency) effort requires a firm political will and extreme patience,” (China Daily, 23 May 2006). Military experts were quoted as saying that the operation could last another 3 to 12 years, some even said it could go on for any number of years. The mission to “push out timelines” was now in full swing (WaPo, 24 September 2006). A key element in gaining support for an indefinite timeline was to show sufficient progress to continue the campaign yet another year.

Thus, one of the most frequently cited statistics to show that counterinsurgency was working and hearts & minds were being won over related to the number of schools being built and the enrollment of girls in those schools. In fact, the school was usually the only sign of the central government’s penetration of remote rural areas. The fact that this strategy would make schools into a lightning rod for the insurgents, thereby endangering Afghan children, was either not thought through or simply ignored. School building should have followed other (gradual) development objectives rather than leading the attempt to penetrate rural areas (to the extent that a strategy based on the state’s penetration of rural areas has any wisdom in the Afghan historical and cultural context). Of course, with each school burning and attack on teachers and school children by the Taliban, the enemy was portrayed as even more ruthless and the counterinsurgency strategy was redoubled.

Another metric of demonstrating progress was counting bodies of dead insurgents — a practice which was contrary to the essence of standard counterinsurgency doctrine. If anything the reliance on such a metric at a time when COIN was supposedly becoming the core doctrine of western forces in Afghanistan indicated tensions within the US military as well as ISAF (Globe & Mail 3 November 2006). Perhaps there is/was a disagreement between soft, hard, and very hard COINistas in the military. Of course, even in a conventional conflict, body count data would only be meaningful if the Taliban had a limited stock of recruits or an inability to replenish its ranks continuously. As such an assumption was questionable, the repetition of official body count statistics by journalists was a relatively mindless activity.

A third metric to secure patience were statistics about the growing size of the ANA and ANP to which power would eventually be handed. The startling desertion rates and high levels of illiteracy among the recruits were rarely mentioned in the early years. It was also not generally acknowledged that the ANA had mainly been trained in a light infantry model to support US and ISAF operations. It was always unclear just how many ANA and ANP troops would ultimately be needed. There was no discussion of how an ever expanding Afghan military could be supported by the domestic economy of one of the poorest countries on Earth. The political ramifications of building a massive military and police force for Afghanistan’s democracy were also not articulated to the public. By 2007, the ANA had reached 37,000 soldiers and there were plans to double the size of the military. The fetish for “doubling” existing troop strength should have been a clue that military planners had no idea of what constituted a sufficient or sustainable military… ultimately, it did not matter how many troops were necessary, stating a goal of doubling troops by next year would help make the case for more patience and more funding for the strategy for at least another year.  So now in 2011 we have an ANA with 150,000 troops, with the goal of 260,000 by 2014, the ANP is now at 115,000 police officers with goal of 160,000 by 2014.

Finally, a revisionist chronology of the Anbar Awakening and the Surge in Iraq helped to build confidence that COIN can work in Afghanistan.

To skeptics who argued that the situation in Afghanistan increasingly seemed like a quagmire, COINistas would point out that classical counterinsurgency actually dictated a far higher level of troop strength and an 80/20 allocation of resources between nonmilitary and military efforts (New Yorker, 18 December 2006). Although the basis for such claims is questionable and reliant on deference to military authority, they create immense space for bureaucratic budgetary lobbying to “do it right, this time.” So today in 2011 we have 132,203 ISAF troops in Afghanistan, including 90,000 US soldiers.  There are also 18,919 private security contractors in Afghanistan. Will this be enough troop strength, particularly when combined with 260,000 ANA and 160,000 ANP to carry out counter-insurgency the “right way” against an estimated 36,000 Taliban? Check back in 2014…