The military dimension of the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan requires establishing a high enough degree of security in the country that the Afghan people will transfer their loyalty away from the Taliban (or will feel adequately unthreatened by the likelihood of a Taliban return to express opposition to the insurgents). As noted in a previous posting (”The Afghan ‘New Math’”), the prospects are daunting because of the size of the force necessary to secure and protect the entire Afghan population (a force in the range of 650,000 ocunterinsurgents). Current plans and projections call for a force around half that size that includes a quarter million Afghan troops and over 100,000 police the source of which is unclear. The result currently is a mission-force mismatch that can only be resolved if one assumes that only about half the population needs securing. That possibility is never publicly discussed, but since the Pashtuns make up about half the Afghan population and are the support base for the Taliban, a security strategy aimed at the Pashtun areas would at least match force size to mission. Whether it would successfully pacify Afghanistan is a separate question.

A sustainable COIN strategy must go beyond merely beating down insurgent forces to the point that they no longer pose a physical menace. Doing so (which is no small task) can leave a political vacuum where the only source of authority may the occupation forces posted as a barrier to the return and reimposition of authority by the insurgents. The occupiers, especially when they are foreigners as in Afghanistan, may provide the shield behind which positive development can occur in the battle for the hearts and minds of men. They cannot, however, carry out the political role of loyalty transfer to the counterinsurgency. Only the indigenous population can perform that role, and if those who support the counterinsurgency cannot gain the people’s trust and support, the counterinsurgency is likely doomed to fail to achieve its political objectives.

As FM-3-24 points out (and as quoted in the last posting), success in COIN occurs ”when the populace consents to the government’s legitimacy and drops actively and passively supporting the insurgency.” This construction depicts the task in reverse chronological order: before the populace can be attracted to support for the government, its ties to the insurgency must first be severed. This construction also obliquely admits the major barrier the counterinsurgency faces: a set of initial political perceptions that does not favor the counterinsurgents.

The point is obvious but cannot be overstated. Insurgencies neither rise or prosper to the point that they tthreaten a government if that government clearly deserves support. Insurgencies arise when people are discontented with governance, which they perceive as dishonest, unjust, corrupt, prejudicial against their group, or otherwise unattractive and undeserving of their support. Insurgents may–and do–accentuate and even distort the sins of the government and use force–including terror–to enforce disloyalty to the government and reinforce the appearence of support for the insurgency, and supporters of the counterinsurgency will latch onto these aspects of the insurgent campaign in order to provide a rationale for their own actions.

The simple point is that insurgencies arise because there are political problems that some members of society conclude can only be rectified by forcefully removing and replacing the government. If the insurgency survives and prospers, that in turn suggests that their message must resonate with at least part of the population. Thus, the COIN calculus must start from the recognition that there is a serious political problem that must be addressed and solved in order for the effort to succeed,

This political dimension of COIN is likely to be underestimated by a potential outside force, as are the possibilities of solving it. No country (including the United States) can long justify intervening on behalf of a government it finds reprehensible and maintaining the illusion that such a government is praiseworthy and deserving of continued support and sacrifice. Such a justification is easiest if the government being helped is (or appears to be) virtuous as seen through the eyes (and in terms of the values) of the outsider.  From an American viewpoint, this translates into political leaders and values that are western and pro-democratic. The espousal of values and appearances that please the outsider may, however, be quite irrelevant toand even be offensive to the indigenous population. It has always struck me, for instance, that the excellent English that Hamid Karzai speaks undoubtedly enhances American support for him and his regime, but is irrelevant and possibly offensive to most rural Afghans (especially Pashtuns), who see it as further evidence he is part of the corrupt Kabul-based elite against whom they are fighting.

If the government is both corrupt and venal, the problem is even worse, because that government may learn how to manipulate the outsider to its own narrow advantage in ways that actually worsen the prospects for the COIN effort and implicate the outsider in its venality. The case of South Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem comes to mind. Once the United States committed to buttressing Diem’s regime, the South Vietnamese president came to realize that the stake the U.S. developed in him made it impossible for the Americans to dump him. As a result, Diem concluded that he could ignore well-intentioned American advice to reform his practices to gain more popular support, because to punish him the United States would have to admit implicitly it had made a mistake backing him in the first place. The result was that American influence over Diem actually decreased, as did its ability to affect the political dimension of the counterinsurgency. This dynamic may also be at work in Iraq, whwere the American ability to influence the al-Maliki regime as steadily decreased over time.

Iraq also demonstrates another political dilemma acssociated with outside intervention in internal wars. The dilemma is this: outside intervention may be critical in avoiding the military success of the insurgency (South Vietnam would almost certainly have fallen in 1965 without American intervention), but the contionued presence of the outsider may make the COIN politically more problematical. This is true for at least two related reasons. First, the interveners are, after all, foreigners, and their presence serves as a rallying cry for the insurgents, who will promise to drive them out. Second, the association of the government with the outsiders is politically debilitating, because it allows insurgents to portray the regime as hapless incompetents who could not survive without the outsiders and as indigenous quislings beholden to the outsiders. It is not clear how, or if, an outsider can balance the positive military impact of its intervention with the corrosive political impact of its continued presence, or how the indigenous government can avoid being fatally tainted by its collaboration with the occupiers. Al Maliki is struggling with this problem, and Karzai undoubtedly will in the future.

The political battle to establish “legitimate authority” is thus a very difficult problem that tends to get downplayed in the desperate military struggle for control. The point is that the counterinsurgents enter the competition on this dimension with some disadvantages, including perceived shortcomings that were among the reasons for the insurgency in the first place. The presence of outside forces may exacerbate rather than helping the political situation. These perverse dynamics extend to the problems associated with the post-insurgent period if the COIN succeeds. These are the subject of Part V.

Donald M. Snow, Professor Emeritus at the University of Alabama, is the author of over 40 books on foreign policy, international relations and national security topics.  This essay was originally published at the What After Iraq? blog as “The Long Road Ahead in Afghanistan, IV.”