There are moments that define a war. Just such a one occurred on June 21, when Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke and U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry helicoptered into Marjah for a photo op with the locals. It was to be a capstone event, the fruit of a four-month counterinsurgency offensive by Marines, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies, and the newly minted Afghan National Army (ANA) to drive the Taliban out of the area and bring in good government.
As the chopper swung around to land, the Taliban opened fire, sending journalists scrambling for cover and Marines into full combat mode. According to Matthew Green of the Financial Times, “The crackle of gunfire lasted about 20 minutes and continued in the background as a state department official gave a presentation to Mr. Holbrooke about U.S. and U.K. [United Kingdom] efforts to boost local government and promote agriculture in the town.”
The U.S. officials were then bundled into armored cars and whisked back to the helicopter. As the chopper took off, an enormous explosion shook the town’s bazaar.
When it was launched in March, the Marjah operation was billed as a “turning point” in the Afghan War, an acid test for the doctrine of counterinsurgency, or “COIN,” a carefully designed strategy to wrest a strategic area from insurgent forces, in this case the Taliban, and win the “hearts and minds” of the local people. In a sense Marjah has indeed defined COIN, just not quite in the way its advocates had hoped for.
The Missing Cornerstone
In his bible for counterinsurgency, Field Manual 3-24, General David Petraeus argues, “The cornerstone of any COIN effort is establishing security for the civilian populace.” As one village elder who attended the Holbrooke meeting — incognito for fear of being recognized by the Taliban — told Green, “There is no security in Marjah.”
Nor in much of the rest of the country. The latest United States assessment found only five out of 116 areas “secure,” and in 89 areas the government was “non-existent, dysfunctional or unproductive.”
That the war in Afghanistan is a failure will hardly come as news to most people. Our NATO allies are preparing to abandon the endeavor — the Dutch, Canadians and Poles have announced they are bailing — and the British, who have the second largest contingent in Afghanistan, are clamoring for peace talks. Opposition to the war in Britain is at 72 percent.
But there is a tendency to blame the growing debacle on conditions peculiar to Afghanistan. There are certainly things about that country that have stymied foreign invaders: It is landlocked, filled with daunting terrain, and populated by people who don’t cotton to outsiders. But it would be a serious error to attribute the current crisis to Afghanistan’s well-earned reputation as the “graveyard of empires.”
A Failing Doctrine
The problem is not Afghanistan, but the entire concept of COIN, and the debate around it is hardly academic. Counterinsurgency has seized the high ground in the Pentagon and the halls of Washington, and there are other places in the world where it is being deployed, from the jungles of Columbia to the dry lands that border the Sahara. If the COIN doctrine is not challenged, people in the United States may well find themselves debating its merits in places like Somalia, Yemen, or Mauritania.
“Counterinsurgency aims at reshaping a nation and its society over the long haul,” says military historian Frank Chadwick, and emphasizes “infrastructure improvements, ground-level security, and building a bond between the local population and the security forces.”
In theory, COIN sounds reasonable; in practice, it almost always fails. Where it has succeeded — the Philippines, Malaya, Bolivia, Sri Lanka, and the Boer War — the conditions were very special: island nations cut off from outside support (the Philippines and Sri Lanka), insurgencies that failed to develop a following (Bolivia) or were based in a minority ethnic community (Malaya, the Boer War).
COIN is always presented as politically neutral, a series of tactics aimed at winning hearts and minds. But in fact, COIN has always been part of a strategy of domination by a nation(s) and/or socioeconomic class.
The supposed threat of communism and its companion, domino theory, sent soldiers to countries from Grenada to Lebanon, and turned the Vietnamese civil war into a Cold War battleground. If we didn’t stop the communists in Vietnam, went the argument, eventually the Reds would storm the beaches at San Diego.
Replace communism with terrorism, and today’s rationales sound much the same. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates described Afghanistan as “the fountainhead of terrorism.” And when asked to explain why Germany was sending troops to Afghanistan, then-German Defense Minister Peter Strock argued that Berlin’s security would be “defended in the Hindu Kush.” British Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown routinely said that confronting “terrorism” in Afghanistan would protect the home-front.
But, as counterterrorism expert Richard Barrett points out, the Afghan Taliban have never been a threat to the West, and the idea that fighting the Taliban would reduce the threat of terrorism is “complete rubbish.” In any case, the al-Qaeda operatives who pulled off the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon got their training in Hamburg and south Florida, not Tora Bora.
Hearts, Minds, and Strategic Interests
The United States has strategic interests in Central Asia and the Middle East, and “terrorism” is a handy excuse to inject military power into these two energy-rich regions of the world. Whoever holds the energy high ground in the coming decades will exert enormous influence on world politics.
No, it is not all about oil and gas, but a lot of it is.
Winning “hearts and minds” is just a tactic aimed at insuring our paramount interests and the interests of the “friendly” governments that we fight for. Be nice to the locals unless the locals decide that they don’t much like long-term occupation, don’t trust their government, and might have some ideas about how they should run their own affairs.
Then “hearts and minds” turns nasty. U.S. Special Operations Forces carry out as many as five “kill and capture” raids a day in Afghanistan, and have assassinated or jailed more than 500 Afghans who are alleged insurgents in the past few months. Thousands of others languish in prisons.
The core of COIN is coercion, whether it is carried out with a gun or truckloads of money. If the majority of people accept coercion — and the COIN supported government doesn’t highjack the trucks — then it may work.
Then again, maybe not. Tufts University recently researched the impact of COIN aid and found little evidence that such projects win locals over. According to Tufts professor Andrew Wilder, “Many of the Afghans interviewed for our study identified their corrupt and predatory government as the most important cause of insecurity, and perceived international aid security contracts as enriching a kleptocratic elite.”
This should hardly come as a surprise. Most regimes the United States ends up supporting against insurgents are composed of a narrow class of elites, who rule through military power and political monopoly. Our backing of the El Salvador and Guatemalan governments during the 1980s comes to mind. Both were essentially death squads with national anthems.
The United States doesn’t care if a government is authoritarian and corrupt, or democratic — if it did, would countries like Egypt and Honduras be recipients of U.S. aid, and would we be cuddling up with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait? The priority for the United States is whether the local elites will serve Washington’s interests by giving it bases, resources, or commercial access.
Afghanistan is no different. The government of Hamid Karzai is a kleptocracy with little support or presence outside Kabul.
In many ways, COIN is the most destructive and self-defeating strategy a country can employ, and its toxicity is long-term. Take what didn’t get reported in the recent firing of former Afghan War commander General Stanley McChrystal.
COIN’s Long History
McChrystal cut his COIN teeth running Special Operations death squads in Iraq, similar to the Vietnam War’s Operation Phoenix, which killed upwards of 60,000 Viet Cong cadre and eventually led to the Mai Lai massacre. The success of Phoenix is best summed up by photos of desperate South Vietnamese soldiers clinging to U.S. helicopter skids as the Americans scrambled to get out before Saigon fell.
But COIN advocates read history selectively, and the loss in Vietnam was soon blamed on backstabbing journalists and pot-smoking hippies. The lessons were rewritten, the memories expunged, and the disasters reinterpreted.
So COIN is back. And it is working no better than it did in the 1960s. Take the counterterrorism portion of the doctrine.
Over the past several years, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency has been carrying out a sort of long-distance Phoenix program, using armed drones to assassinate insurgent leaders in Pakistan. The program has purportedly snuffed out about 150 such “leaders.” But it has also killed more than 1,000 civilians and inflamed not only the relatives of those killed or wounded in the attacks, but Pakistanis in general. According to an International Republican Institute poll, 80 percent of Pakistanis are now anti-American, and the killer drones are a major reason.
“Hearts and minds” soldiers like Petraeus don’t much like the drone attacks, because they alienate Pakistan and dry up intelligence sources in that country.
But McChrystal’s Phoenix program of killing Taliban “leaders” in Afghanistan is no better. As author and reporter Anne Jones notes, “Assassinating the ideological leaders, the true believers and organizers — those we call the ‘bad Taliban’ — actually leaves behind leaderless, undisciplined gangs of armed rent-a-guns who are more interested in living off the population we’re supposed to protect than being peeled off into abject Afghan poverty.”
The “hearts and minds” crew have their own problems. McChrystal and Petraeus have long stressed the counterproductive effect of using airpower and artillery against insurgents, because it inevitably produces civilian casualties. But this means that the war is now between two groups of infantry, one of which knows the terrain, speaks the local language, and can turn from a fighter to a farmer in a few minutes.
As the recent Rolling Stone article found, McChrystal was unpopular because his troops felt he put them in harm’s way. Firefights that used to be ended quickly by airstrikes go on for hours, and the Taliban are demonstrating that, given a level playing field, they are skilled fighters.
In his recent testimony before Congress, Petraeus said he would “bring all assets to bear” to ensure the safety of the troops and “re-examine” his ban on air power. But if he does, civilian casualties will rise, increasing local anger and recruits for the Taliban.
The war in Afghanistan is first about U.S. interests in Central Asia. It is also about honing a military for future irregular wars and projecting NATO as a worldwide alliance. Once the United States endorsed Karzai’s fraudulent election late last year, the Afghans knew it wasn’t about democracy.
One of the key COIN ingredients is a reliable local army, but U.S. soldiers no longer trust the ANA because they correctly suspect it is a conduit to the Taliban. “American soldiers in Kandahar report that, for their own security, they don’t tell their ANA colleagues when and where they are going on patrol,” writes Jones. Somebody told those insurgents that Holbrooke and Eikenberry were coming to Marjah.
Afghanistan is ethnically divided, desperately poor, and finishing its fourth decade of war. Morale among U.S. troops is plummeting. A U.S. military intelligence officer told The Washington Times, “We are a battle-hardened force but eight years in Afghanistan has worn us down.” As one staff sergeant told Rolling Stone, “We’re losing this f—ing thing!”
The sergeant is right, though the Afghans are the big losers. But as bad as Afghanistan is, things will be considerably worse if the U.S. draws the conclusion that “special circumstances” in Afghanistan are to blame for failure, not the nature of COIN itself.
There was a time when the old imperial powers and the United States could wage war without having to bank their home-fires. No longer. The United States has spent over $300 billion on the Afghan War, and is currently shelling out about $7 billion a month. In the meantime, 31 states are sliding toward insolvency, and 15 million people have lost their jobs. As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told the Huffington Post, “It just can’t be that we have a domestic agenda that is half the size of the defense budget.”
Empires can choose to step back with a certain grace, as the Dutch did in Southeast Asia. Or they can stubbornly hang on, casting about for the right military formula that will keep them on top. That fall is considerably harder.
The choice is ours.