Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan

Author: Colin Clarke


Following the Al-Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States intervened in Afghanistan to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure in that country. Sheltered by the Taliban, a Muslim Fundamentalist group that had seized power in the mid-1990s, Al-Qaeda had used Afghanistan as a safe haven for planning the attacks on the United States. After initial successes, however, the U.S. intervention ran into serious difficulties. By the end of 2009, despite an overwhelming advantage in firepower and technology, U.S. and NATO troops operating in Afghanistan had failed to dislodge a resurgent Taliban, while Al-Qaeda had largely regrouped across the border in neighboring Pakistan. Although drone strikes from Predator aircraft kept Al-Qaeda and its allies on the run, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in Pakistan emerged as a haven for terrorists from Chechnya, Kashmir, the Middle East, and elsewhere.

NATO in Afghanistan

American troops are fighting in Afghanistan along with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). In addition to defeating Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, coalition forces have the formidable tasks of stabilizing and reconstructing one of the poorest and least developed nations in the world. As of August 2009, ISAF had approximately 64,500 troops from 42 different countries, including the United States (30,000), the United Kingdom (9,000), Germany (4,000), Canada (2,800), Italy (2,700), France (3,100), the Netherlands (1,800), and Poland (2,000).1 Each country has a different set of rules of engagement (ROE), with some militaries well equipped for counterinsurgency (COIN) operations and others better suited for reconstruction and development projects.

A New Strategy Moving Forward

In 2009, the debate on formulating a new strategy for Afghanistan became the central foreign policy and national security issue for the Obama Administration. In essence, the debate centered around whether the military mission in Afghanistan (and Pakistan), should take the shape of a prolonged counterinsurgency operation, manpower intensive by its very nature, or be a scaled down counterterrorism approach, characterized by greater reliance on technology.

In August 2009 General Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, issued his long awaited report requesting more troops (roughly 40,000) and elucidating a new approach to conducting COIN in Afghanistan. McChrystal’s report very much reflects the tenets put forth in the Joint Publication 3-24 Counterinsurgency Operations.2 The crux of his analysis is that ISAF forces need to focus on the population as the center of gravity (COG), assume more risk to their own security in order to protect Afghan civilians, and to recognize the political and information dimensions of COIN.

Another option, which became known as the “Biden-Kilcullen Plan,” advocated a temporary surge adhering to the “clear, hold, build” approach, followed by a diplomatic offensive, not just in Afghanistan but also in the wider region. One thing is certain—any coherent plan for achieving success in Afghanistan must consider the situation across the border in Pakistan as well.

Even though President Obama decided to send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, the future of COIN in Afghanistan remains uncertain. Is Afghanistan destined to become another Vietnam, a sinkhole of troops and resources with no end in sight? At least one thing is clear: with 53 deaths in the month of October 2009, the deadliest month for U.S. troops since the war began, the stakes are higher than ever. If more countries withdraw troops, as the Dutch seem prepared to do, pacification and development, not to mention security, will become impossible. In effect, the debate over COIN vs. CT will become moot, and a shift to a counter-terrorism approach will become a fait accompli, necessitated by a dearth of troops and resources.

Nevertheless, the decision to introduce more troops into the Afghan theater is more than just simple mathematics. Tactical actions need to be married to an overall strategy in Afghanistan. Simply killing insurgents and holding territory are not enough. The ongoing operation in Marja has been described by General David Petraeus as the opening salvo in what could be a military campaign lasting for a year to a year and half. But Afghanistan is only one piece of a larger regional puzzle.

The Pakistan Link

Without question, one of the major obstacles preventing a lasting solution in Afghanistan is the overall lawlessness and extensive reach of the militants operating in Pakistan. Groomed by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) from the days of the Soviet-Afghan War (1979-1989) and cultivated as a source of strategic depth in Pakistan’s ongoing conflict with India over Kashmir, various militants groups in Pakistan receive assistance, training, and protection from the ISI. These groups are highly diverse, and include sectarian, anti-Indian, Afghan Taliban, Al-Qaeda and affiliated groups, as well as the Pakistani Taliban. They have the ability to carry out strikes across the region and beyond, have adopted increasingly lethal tactics, and retain the capability to conduct suicide attacks, execute kidnappings, construct and detonate improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and wage traditional guerilla warfare. They have also displayed a sophisticated understanding of the information element of COIN as evident in their use of propaganda and the Internet.

In addition to the FATA, Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants have also sought refuge in parts of Baluchistan and areas within the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP). In recent years, Al-Qaeda has regrouped and extended its activities in Pakistan. No longer satisfied with using Pakistan as a staging ground for attacks in Afghanistan, the group has directed its attention at the Pakistani state. Accordingly, Al-Qaeda has developed a three part strategy seeking to:

  • Act as a force multiplier by providing specific expertise to militant groups seeking to wage jihad
  • Provide religious justification and ideological support for militant activities
  • Serve as a mediator, facilitator, and interlocutor for the myriad groups, cells, and organizations operating in Pakistan
  • It is important not to underestimate this final point. Al-Qaeda’s ability to serve as a central node in the militant network enhances the legitimacy of both Al-Qaeda itself and its affiliates. Media savvy and technologically sound, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban exploit every COIN force misstep, highlighting the deaths of civilians while seeking to unite the umma in battling the infidels who have purportedly come to Afghanistan to install a puppet government while waging a war against Islam.

Future of COIN in Afghanistan

As Afghanistan’s 2009 election proved, the country still has a long way to go before it resembles anything like a functioning democracy with solid institutions and the ability to administer some of the most basic functions of government. With rampant corruption, a robust insurgency, and a flourishing drug trade, the prospects for success in Afghanistan indeed seem grim.

In his policy brief entitled “Afghanistan 2011: Three Scenarios,” Andrew Exum laid out three possible scenarios for the future of Afghanistan:

  • Best-case scenario- Afghanistan becomes a functioning state capable of defending its own territory from all enemies, both foreign and domestic. Furthermore, it denies sanctuary to insurgents and terrorists seeking to plot and execute terrorist attacks against the United States and its allies.
  • Worst-case scenario- Afghanistan descends into chaos and the Taliban reestablish control over large parts of the country. With their allies back in power, Al-Qaeda returns to Afghanistan in droves and begins plotting major terrorist attacks against the West while destabilizing nuclear-armed Pakistan.
  • Most-likely scenario- The United States and its allies realize the futility of waging a prolonged counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan and transition to a more limited engagement aimed at preventing the Taliban from threatening the government while retaining the ability to project at least a modicum of influence in the region.

It would be a fool’s errand to attempt to ascribe specific probabilities to any of these three scenarios. The most prudent option, as an “Afghanistan watcher”, is simply to continue to monitor the events on the ground until a more informed judgment can be rendered.

  1. The number of “boots-on-the-ground” are approximations due to regular unit rotations and the different ways in which the U.S. Joint Staff and ISAF account for personnel. See Morelli, Vincent, “NATO in Afghanistan: A Test of the Transatlantic Alliance,” Congressional Research Service (CRS), August 25, 2009, p.1, available online here, site accessed October 25, 2009.
  2. Since its release in 2006, military analysts have argued for a field manual that is unique to Afghanistan Fick, Nathaniel C. and John A. Nagl, “Counterinsurgency Field Manual: Afghanistan Edition,” Foreign Policy, January/February 2009, available online here, site accessed October 26, 2009.