Assuming the counterinsurgent partners (in this case, the Afghan and American governments) can agree on a desired outcome that consititutes its version of the better state of the peace (BSOP), the next question is how to achieve that condition? This means determining what political and military conditions must exist to be able to declare the counterinsurgency a “success,” and thus the effort to have attained “victory.” The key terms here have been put in quotation marks because neither is as intuitively obvious as is sometimes supposed in the political debate.


The goals agreed upon supposedly provide the central direction for the coinsurgency (COIN) effort. A good political objective (or goal) will provide both adequate guidance for those eeeking to achieve it and a rallying cry for popular support of the war effort, and especially its military dimension. That seems obvious enough on the face of it, but in fact, translating the objective into a COIN strategy that can succeed is more difficult than a simple construction suggests, for at least four possible reasons.

First is the problem of conflicting goals. As noted in the last posting, the US and the Afghans may indeed have very different acceptable outcomes that may lead to different means to achieve them. What, for instance, should happen to the Taliban? Are they to be defeated or destroyed? Accommodated into a new government? Or co-opted into opposing Al Qaeda? Each outcome may lead to different approaches to “victory,” since victory is defined differently depending on the outcome desired.

Second, the goals may too ambiguous to be translated into a coherent COIN military and political strategy. The current American goal, for instance, has much more to do with neutralizing an opponent, Al Qaeda, that is not even meaningfully present in Afghanistan, where the war is being conducted. What does the goal of disrupting Al Qaeda tell the military to do?

Third, the goals may be impossible to achieve. In Afghanistan, for instance, there is a long and well publicized history of foreign invaders entering that country, trying to reshape it to some image they have, and ultimately retiring in defeat or disgrace. Likewise, the United States apparently wants an outcome that includes a strong Afghan central government that will resist the return of Al Qaeda. But Afghanistan has never really had such a government for any sustained time. Exactly what are we supposed to do to reverse these two historical facts is not entirely clear.

Fourth, the means available may be inappropriate to the goals being pursued. As government experts will quickly acknowledge, the heart of a successful COIN effort involves both political and military activity aimed at weaning those parts of the population currently loyal to (or at least not opposed to) the Taliban to switch sides. Such a conversion would logically seem to fall to the Afghans themselves, but it is a task which the United States must currently shoulder. Can this possibly work? One particularly egregious example was made public in mid-September 2009, when the Americans announced that it would create a command to recruit native Afghan security forces that would be commanded by a three-star American or NATO (it was not clear which) general. Huh?!

A successful COIN strategy, of course, must contain both military and political dimensions, and the two are intimately related to one another. This is simply a part of the dynamics of insurgent warfare, and it creates particular unique characteristics for this kind of war. The heart of the matter is that insurgent wars are about gaining control of the common Center of Gravity in the country–that which is crucial to success. In this case, the center of gravity is the loyalty of the population, and both sides must compete for it. Part of the competition is military–one side appearing to defeat the other militarily and thus be seen as the winning side. Part of it is political, trying to appear more appealing than the enemy.

In practice, a major result is that military actions have a much more direct political impact than in non-insurgent warfare (i.e. interstate war), and combatants must weigh the military advantages of any action against possible adverse political effects. The American policy of bombing suspected Taliban strongholds is a particularly poighnant case in point. While such attacks may kill important Taliban, they also almost invariably also create casualties among the civilian population, and it is rarely the case that victims of bombings reward their bombers with political loyalty.

Within the military dimension of COIN, there can be two basic objectives: attrition and security. A strategy of attrition is aimed at killing the maximum number of enemy combatants, with the goal of attriting them to the point they can no longer be effective. The problem with attrition, as Admiral Mullen has put it, is that the Taliban has an “apparently inexhaustible” supply of recruits (which says something very important about the political battle for the country) and thus can replace fallen warriors as fast as they are “attrited” (indeed, since actions intended to kill the enemy also sometimes include killing civilians, those actions may stimulate recruitment).

A policy of attrition has been rejected by the US military as counterproductive. In the words of FM 3-24 (the Counterinsurgency Field Manual), it posits that “Sometimes, the more force is used, the less effective it is,” because “the more force applied, the greater the chance of collateral damage and mistakes.” Moreover, strategies of attrition may simply cause the insurgents to adapt their tactics to avoid attempts to isolate and extinguish them.

A strategy based in providing security has thus been adapted. Indeed, the basic definition of success in FM 3-24 reflects this position: “Victory is achieved when the populace consents to the government’s legitimacy and stops actively and passively supporting the insurgency.” The victor, in other words, is whoever wins Lynodon Johnson’s “battle for the hearts and minds of men.”

The problem is how to achieve that security, which is at the heart of the current controversy over whether to increase troops and other resources to Afghanistan. As FM 3-24 points out, it is a difficult task. “Maintaining security in an unstable environment requires vast resources. In contrast, a small number of highly motivsted insurgents with simple weapons, good operations security, and even limited mobility can undermine security over a large area.” Keeping people safe, in other words, is harder than making them feel unsafe, which is a fundamental advantage the insurgents have. If one is looking for personal example, contrast the US goverment’s attemptsd to keep Americans feeling safe against terrorists with the relative economy of Al Qaeda threats to us.

The implications of this asymmetry confound the problem faced by those tryint to implement a COIN strategy. For one thing, it requires a sustained commitment  to the operation. In FM 3-24’s own words, “successful COIN operations require a high ration of security forces to the protected population (20 soldiers for every 1,000 in the population). For that reason, protracted COIN operations are hard to sustain.”

The very difficult task of maintaining support for a protracted COIN is at the heart of the dilemma facing supporters of the American effort in Afghanistan: will the United States public support another five or more years of sacrifice in the name of the country’s longest war in a place where they are not entirely sure of the legitimacy of the goal? Moreover, as long as the effort at conversion is primarily being shouldered by outsiders rather than Afghans themselves, its success will be problematical.

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, III.”