Afghanistan defies the US battle plan
The United States is entering a new phase in the war in Afghanistan. This approach to fighting the Taliban is based on counter-insurgency thinking: building indigenous police and military forces, providing services to villagers, and winning support from fence-sitters and insurgent sympathizers. It is hoped that in this way, years of neglect can be made up for.
Prior to the Vietnam War, counter-insurgency thinking became a new and even adventurous way of defeating wars of national liberation. After the war it was seen as the path not taken that accounted for the United States defeat there, but the Pentagon avoided making it part of its doctrine.
Since the remarkable turn of events in Iraq, where a counter-insurgency program is said to have won over many Sunni fighters, the doctrine has recovered some of its talismanic qualities in the public and has become a new creed in parts of the US military. Although new thinking is needed in Afghanistan, counter-insurgency will face organizational problems there.
A successful counter-insurgency depends on a complex set of assumptions, observations and expectations, based more on a feel for the locale than on a set of rules in a manual. When rendered into a creed and put into practice, subtleties are lost and innovation suffers. An early counter-insurgency hand saw this in the early and mid-1960s, during operations in Vietnam and Laos:
[A] tendency developed to formularize into simple and rather simple-minded rules a most complex group of concepts. This was perhaps an inevitable result of the headlong attempt to indoctrinate a large number of soldiers and civilians who approached the subject with little preparation or background ...
Whatever program is assembled at CENTCOM headquarters or in Kabul might bear only some resemblance to what is implemented in Helmand or Ghazni.
Furthermore, counter-insurgency requires harmonious cooperation among numerous and often antagonistic organizations. Military units must rid an area of guerrillas then provide security to prevent their return. National police must establish a presence and build intelligence networks.
Officials must also reassert judicial control over the counter-judiciary established by insurgents. Development programs must determine local sensitivities before building roads, irrigation ditches, and the like. Medical and veterinary resources must be allocated and delivered. Finally, appropriate ties between local and central governments must be carefully negotiated. These sundry tasks are to be undertaken by numerous and conflicting bureaus.
The US Department of Defense might appear as a unified entity, but it has important differences in outlook, expertise and priorities. Perhaps the most important of differences is the tension between regular army units, which stress numbers and firepower, and special forces units, which stress small teams and stealth. This tension may be weaker today than it was during the Vietnam War as counter-insurgency has apparently proved useful in Iraq and its chief proponent, General David Petraeus, has gained influence in the Pentagon and assumed command of the Central Asian theater.
Even deeper organizational difficulties lie with the military's relationship with other parts of the effort. The State Department, the Agency for International Development, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Health and Human Services, the Treasury Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Agriculture, and other bureaus will take part in the effort and will do so without leaving their institutional preferences and parochialism at Dulles airport.
The program will be an international effort. Britain, France, Canada and the Netherlands provide infantry; German and Russian forces train the police; and India and Iran play important parts as well, doubtless with their own national security interests in mind. The breadth of experiences and approaches provide the opportunity for an intricate plan, but aggregating various ideas into a coherent strategy and specific programs is a daunting organizational challenge.
Placing each agency and bureau onto a large, integrated organizational chart with clearly drawn lines of authority and cooperation, atop which stands an ambassador or general, will do little to blend disparate views and conflicting personalities. It would more likely be a source of institutional delusion. It might be likened to assembling a number of musicians, each of whom may be highly talented, but in different genres. Even a gifted maestro will be hard-pressed to produce a mellifluous outcome.
Douglas Blaufarb's experiences caused him, on the first page of his study, to state:
[Advocates of counter-insurgency] were dismayed, as time went on, to find that it had degenerated into a vague slogan behind which various policy interests contended for their own goals, not all of which were in fact consistent with the intentions of the originators of the ideas and policies involved.
The number of bureaus has only increased in the decades since Vietnam and it is doubtful that their capacity to cooperate on a complex and remote problem has increased.
The various insurgent groups in Afghanistan and across the frontier in Pakistan face organizational problems as well, though not of the same extent as their opponents. The insurgency benefits from financial support flowing from Pashtun businessmen mainly in Peshawar and Karachi, and from various Sunni Arabs, mainly in the Gulf Region. The opium trade is another revenue source. The Russian mafia gained control of considerable portions of the trade during the Soviet occupation from 1979 to 1989 and continues to handle supplies through Central Asia.
Madrassas (seminaries) in Pakistan supply fervent recruits as they have since the war with the Soviet Union when the schools were funded by the US and Saudi Arabia. Arms are not hard to come by and open markets exist in Pakistan. According to one source, "In Darra Adam Khel alone - the most famous of the North-West Frontier Province's gun-producing towns - there are believed to be 3,500 gunsmiths working in 900 factories, with 150 gun shops. The local gunsmiths can produce everything from imitation Kalashnikovs ... to antiaircraft guns."
The Taliban, the largest part of the insurgency, have two principal councils directing the war, one in Quetta, the second in Peshawar. Though the former council is associated with the Durrani confederation of Pashtun tribes and the latter with Ghilzai confederation of Pashtun tribes, this does not seem to present sources of conflict.
The Taliban have five regional commanders and personal rivalries have been in evidence. One of the fiercest was between Mullah Dadullah and Mullah Osmani, which was likely based on factions advocating retaking the entire country then pursuing an internationalist agenda and other factions favoring a limited program of governing the southern provinces. The matter was put to rest when each was killed in separate US air strikes.
The Taliban adopt local structures. They begin operations in a district with a group comprising members of several tribes so as to minimize inter-tribal rivalries, help with inter-tribal settlements, and appear as harbingers of a Pashtun nation. The Taliban then deal with local tribal authorities, help settle disputes through the authority of Islamic law, and either through threats or parley establish cooperation and control.
They are more successful in districts where tribal authority was badly damaged during the Soviet war as the landed elite fled, villages relocated, and casualties mounted. In such areas, the Taliban lay claim to being restorers of order and of the supportive networks that tribes had once provided. The Taliban can call for levies of local fighters, mostly part-timers designated by elders, who provide expertise on the district's trails and caves and government officials.
Insurgents can also win the allegiance of the local qawms (solidarity groups based on family, kinship, or occupation), which offer recruitment networks as well as cohesion in fighting units.
Notable here is the Taliban's relative lack of organizational structure, from their revenue sources to the part-timers that make up a good part of their fighting units - far less than there was in the Vietcong or the FLN in Algeria. While this limits internal conflict and allows for adaptability, it can present problems as well. The independence of tribal councils and the qawm afford an opportunity for negotiations and settlements with other powers, and dealing with those independent entities will be key parts of a counter-insurgency program.
Regional commanders enjoy considerable autonomy and use their judgment of local conditions to build the insurgency. Many locals are tied to the movement only through parley or threat and do not rely on the Taliban for money or resources to any meaningful extent. The immediacy of the war presents urgency and unity, and Mullah Omar's authority is not presently in doubt.
Tensions would be more problematic in the event of victory or the perception that victory were on the horizon. The insurgency today comprises the Taliban, al-Qaeda, Hizb-i-Islami, and to some extent the Pakistani Taliban - disparate groups led by ambitious men and unified chiefly by an ongoing war. Fissures between those with limited goals and those with internationalist visions could come to the fore.
Further, the Taliban leadership is mainly from the southern province of Kandahar and was loath to share military and political power with outsiders when they held Kabul (1996-2001). Many insurgent commanders know or at least suspect that a Taliban victory would lead to their marginalization.
The US military
The American military has only intermittently been keen on counter-insurgency doctrines and indeed has long been institutionally unsuited for it. Since at least the Civil War, the military has developed a "way of war". It applies superior amounts of resources - personnel and equipment - and wears down the enemy: the Confederacy, the Central Powers, Axis Powers, or People's Liberation Army. The approach served the country well in conventional wars.
In the early 1960s, however, following Fidel Castro's seizure of power in Cuba with only a small band of guerrillas, counter-insurgency ideas were developed at high levels, with assistant secretary of state Roger Hilsman, a veteran of guerrilla operations in Burma (Myanmar) during World War II, working with generals and intelligence officers. But the generals did not recognize counter-insurgency as a new form of warfare, rather it was something that a well-trained infantryman could readily switch to if need be.
The reliance of parley over firepower, and economic resources over military ones, was not grasped by the generals and counter-insurgency was seriously pursued only by special forces and intelligence operations. A marine program of placing a platoon in a village to provide security and separate villagers from insurgents showed promise. Locals provided intelligence and turned in some Vietcong. But the program was dropped by higher authority as a waste of personnel and the marines were sent back into conventional operations.
Most operations in Vietnam were large, conventional campaigns that relied greatly on artillery and air power. Though such ops would occasionally trap and maul a communist unit, the effect of large operations and massive firepower was less to wear down the enemy than to alienate the population. Civilians angered by excessive firepower were less likely to help against the insurgency and indeed were more likely to support it - a routinely encountered phenomenon that David Kilcullen calls the "accidental guerrilla".
The military opposed counter-insurgency warfare because it was deemed incompatible with proper discipline. Advisors and counter-insurgency officers were off in the field, outside ordinary command structures, relying far more on their own judgment than on directives from above. Such officers served with Vietnamese forces, lived in villages, and found the lessons learned out in the boonies far more insightful than the ones taught back at Fort Benning.
The chasm between the field and headquarters is conveyed in Lawrence of Arabia when a general asks on what authority a strategically important and successful attack was ordered:
T E Lawrence: Shouldn't officers use their initiative at all times?
General Murray: Not really. It's awfully dangerous.
Soldiers involved in the counter-insurgency in Vietnam were often deemed unruly mavericks and potential embarrassments. Promotion beyond full colonel came only slowly and grudgingly, if at all.
Communications now allow for greater control over counter-insurgency programs. Whereas advisers in say, remote parts of Vietnam's Central Highlands and the Parrot's Beak enjoyed independence of action, their peers today in Afghanistan often must seek approval from headquarters in Kabul and sometimes in Tampa, Florida, where CENTCOM is located.
The effect on innovation and feel for the locale is unlikely to be helpful.
In the aftermath of Vietnam, the military diligently avoided adopting counter-insurgency doctrine because such expertise could lead to deployment into another guerrilla quagmire. Vietnam had gravely damaged its cohesion and prestige and avoiding another such war was foremost in the minds of the officer corps. It was best to focus on fighting the Soviet Union in Central Europe. There was more to learn by studying the Plain of Westphalia than the Plain of Reeds.
Most of the wars the US engaged in after Vietnam were short, successful and deceptive. The US never faced a formidable opponent in Grenada, Panama or Iraq, nor did it face an insurgency until after Baghdad had fallen in 2003.
Conventional warfare had worked in defeating the Iraqi army, but an insurgency developed. Many officers argued for a response based on counter-insurgency and such approaches were conducted by skilled local commanders, but heavy-handed measures continued as well. The destruction of city blocks and rounding up hapless passersby at a bombing site left a firmer impression on the minds of civilians than did new schools and electricity production.
Similarly, the US response to insurgents in Afghanistan has too often relied on air power, which reduces US casualties but inflicts high civilian losses. The response is a veritable instinct in NCOs and officers - one widely criticized by North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) partners, especially the Netherlands. Insurgents now seem to wait for air strikes after attacking an outpost. They know the "accidental guerrilla" dynamic quite well, as did the Vietcong, who employed a similar tactic.
Fortunately, many NATO partners, after long and often hard experience with colonies, are better suited for counter-insurgency. Counter-insurgency doctrine developed as European powers tried to hold on to overseas possessions in the immense wake of World War II - principally the British in Malaya and the French in Indochina and North Africa - though a good deal of it was based on previous metropole efforts to rule indigenous peoples through parleys and power sharing.
Tribal negotiations and fighting guerrillas have been part of their militaries' experience for over a century and counter-insurgency is in their training and doctrine.
The government of Afghanistan
On ridding an area of insurgents and establishing security, a political dimension of counter-insurgency comes into play. The government seeks to win over support from local peoples by providing an array of services - schools, medical and veterinary help, and resources for economic development. This may prove particularly difficult in Afghanistan.
Counter-insurgency programs in Malaya, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Iraq took place in countries where dialogue and exchange had long taken place between the central state and villages. While not absent in Afghanistan, relations between state and locality have historically been limited and filled with mistrust.
Tribal areas tolerated efforts by monarchs to bring fiscal and military reform but deeply resented any attendant attitude that held tribal life as something the country had to be rid of. Government offices in the villages were seen as foreign intrusions, an outlook strengthened by the different attire and language of officials. Localities bribed officials to leave them alone, infiltrated officialdom with members of sympathetic qawm, and invoked religion to limit the state's purview.
It was the prospect of sweeping, state-directed change that triggered the revolt against Kabul in the late 1970s that led to Soviet intervention.
The experience of turning the Sunni tribes in Iraq from insurgents to allies probably serves as a template for programs in Afghanistan. This could be misleading because state-tribe relations were considerably different in Iraq before the US arrived.
Saddam Hussein, having come to power in a coup directed by a small number of officers and their troops, knew well that another such coup could one day oust him, and so he developed patronage networks with tribes, linking them to his state. Oil wealth was doled out to key tribes, and leading families were awarded pivotal government posts, especially in the army and security services.
War brought changes that strengthened the position of tribes vis-a-vis the state. During the long war with Iran, the state's repressive capacity declined. State propaganda lauded the greatness of tribal societies in order to rally support and sustain morale among tribal conscripts on the front. After the First Gulf War in 2001, Saddam faced disaffection within the army and security services, which had paid the price for his reckless ambition far more than he and his political apparatus had. He shored up his position by building support from the tribes, more through politicking than with money, as oil revenue had collapsed under the UN embargo.
The government of President Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan has been less skillful in using tribes in state-building. It is frequently noted that he has appointed family and members of his Popalzai tribe (part of the Durrani confederation of the Pashtun nation) to provincial government posts, and that appointees are corrupt and sometimes tied to the opium trade. But nepotism and drug trafficking are not always offensive in Afghanistan and are not the worst of the government's mistakes.
Fearful of regionalism weakening his position, Karzai has placed outsiders in provincial government posts and charged them with limiting the power of tribal confederations and increasing the power of Kabul. This is especially pronounced in the flat southern provinces, where geography poses no obstacle to the coalescence of tribes into formidable confederations such as the Durrani.
Karzai's strategy has failed to build amiable relations with many southern tribes, resulting in local resentment and distrust - a sound basis for the insurgency. In the eastern provinces, however, mountains separate tribes and prevented the formation of confederations. The Karzai government feels no need to place outsiders in administrative posts and is more ready to work through local power holders. The insurgency there is weaker and the potential for a successful counter-insurgency program stronger.
The delivery of services to insurgent areas will be done more efficiently by US and NATO forces than by the government in Kabul, if for no other reason that their logistical capacities and medical and veterinary resources exceed those of the fledgling government. Recent pronouncements suggest that Washington has lost confidence in Kabul's ability to reach out to tribes and will rely mainly on the US military and NATO forces, and the coalition increasingly sees the Afghan National Army (ANA) as cooperating with the Taliban in southern and eastern provinces, giving money and arms to the Taliban so they will not attack ANA patrols.
Western predominance in this regard will underscore in the people's minds the view that they are foreign powers occupying their land, as did the Russians and British and Persians and Mughals before them. An opposite dynamic may emerge among some groups - one seen in US efforts in South Vietnam. American delivery of resources led to acceptance of American efforts but did not translate into support for the indigenous government. Indeed, it strengthened popular belief that the Saigon government was corrupt and indifferent. Both possibilities pose difficulties for the counter-insurgency effort in Afghanistan.
Key parts of a Western counter-insurgency program will cause concern if not dismay in the Kabul government. The US/NATO build-up of village and tribal defense forces will place military and, necessarily, political power in the hands of scores of Pashtun tribes and clans, which will be seen as weakening the state - if not as antithetical to it. Kabul's dismay could be shared by Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras in the North, who will see counter-insurgency as placing too much power in Pashtun hands. But defeating the insurgency is paramount to the US/NATO, regardless of political consequences.
The perils of modernization
Since counter-insurgency was first bandied about in US bureaus and agencies in the early 1960s, the idea has been associated with Western ideas of economic development and modernization - dissolving a backward traditional society and building a vigorous modern one. In the mind of many American policy makers, it is their nation's mission in the world to help this process along, inevitable though they believe it to be.
Western and Afghan bureaus must abandon this idea, as sweeping change will be opposed in tribal areas and elsewhere. In the late 1970s, the Afghan government embarked on a reform program of redistributing land, bringing education to the villages, and increasing the state's presence throughout the country to carry through reform - a program that will not strike many outsiders as problematic, resonant as it is with American aid plans dating back to the 1960s. The reforms led to opposition and later to open revolt in almost every quarter of the country, which in turn triggered the Soviet intervention and an agonizing war.
Even land reform - a hallmark of US development programs from post-war Japan to Vietnam and Central America - was opposed. Rural dwellers in Afghanistan felt little antipathy toward notables as long as they performed reciprocal duties and weren't overly grasping. Roy Prosterman once proclaimed of land reform in Vietnam, "We're going to breed capitalists like rabbits."
In Afghanistan it will breed more Taliban than capitalists.
One of the more visible aspects of ongoing development programs is road construction. Western, Indian, and Iranian engineers are building roads linking Kabul to various parts of the country, and proudly point to their achievements. Many people in previously isolated districts will look upon the roads as beneficial, but many will not. They will see them as ominous contrivances that will facilitate outside interference and control. Furthermore, roads link many parts of the country but bypass and isolate others. Established trade flows will be altered to the detriment of some.
Economic development is a dynamic process, even more so today than in centuries past. A development project in Kandahar or Paktia today can bring more disruption in a year than a new cotton mill did over a generation in Manchester or Birmingham two hundred years ago.
Older artisanal and trade patterns could be disrupted or ruined. Development programs in South Vietnam brought innovation and greater crop yields, but also unemployment for many rural laborers. Cast aside by outside forces, they were recruited by the Vietcong and a loyal worker became a dedicated guerrilla in a few months - confirmed by after-action intelligence. The Taliban have shown similar adroitness in the east, where government directives have restricted lumber production.
Organizations charged with counter-insurgency will face complexities unimagined by the early thinkers in the field. Modernization and related ideas of progress that are deeply embedded in the Western mind, must be set aside. They must build dialogue and reciprocity between state and society without fundamentally altering the latter.
Their efforts will be better devoted to restoring a traditional society that has been disrupted by decades of war and the destructiveness of the Taliban. Paradoxically, this counter-insurgency program will perhaps be the first whose task is in many respects to avoid modernization and all it portends - for men and women alike.
Brian M Downing is the author of several works of political and military history, including The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at [email protected]