ISAF’s mission is to help the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) defeat the insurgency threatening their country. Protecting the Afghan people is the mission. The Afghan people will decide who wins this fight, and we (GIROA and ISAF) are in a struggle for their support. The effort to gain and maintain that support must inform every action we take. Essentially, we and the insurgents are presenting an argument for the future to the people of Afghanistan: they will decide which argument is the most attractive, most convincing, and has the greatest chance of success.


The Afghan people are a diverse mix of ethnicities and tribes with strong traditions and a fierce sense of independence. Their country has been scarred by 30 years of war, and the fabric of Afghan society has been badly damaged. Traditional tribal structures have been undermined deliberately by the insurgents; many communities have fractured. State weakness and corruption erode confidence in government. Nearly eight years of international presence has not brought the anticipated benefits. The Afghan people are skeptical and unwilling to commit to active support to either side until convinced of a winning proposition.

The above introduces the ISAF Commanders Counterinsurgency Guidance issued by General McCrystal on August 26, 2009. I read everything that follows these two paragraphs as tactical and operational guidance, not a strategic road map for Afghanistan. The guidance is useful in exploring, based on the tactical and operational guidance, what the objectives for a new strategy may be in Afghanistan as recommended by General McCrystal. Copies of this guidance can be found on Herschel Smith’s Captain’s Journal blog and at the Small Wars Journal, among other places.

Herschel Smith includes analysis and makes several points where he agrees and disagrees with this guidance, noting distinctions between what happened in Iraq and what is being prescribed for Afghanistan. For those who are inclined to engage that tactical exercise, that is an interesting discussion.

Classic Insurgency?

What concerns me is the strategy the US is considering for Afghanistan, and whether or not there are strategic alternatives being examined and compared to the widely reported counterinsurgency strategy being proposed. The advocates for COIN in Afghanistan are the same people who recognized Iraq as a classic insurgency, and drew from history the lessons necessary to develop and operationalize a COIN strategy for Iraq. What I have not seen is creative thinking intended to operationalize a military strategy tailored for the conditions in Afghanistan. For several reasons, I do not believe a credible counterinsurgency strategy can be developed as a successful option for the United States in Afghanistan, because I do not believe Afghanistan is suffering from a classic insurgency.

How does a counterinsurgency strategy work in Afghanistan when the government neither has legitimacy nor credibility to act as the authority over the people, and does not have the support of the people? While I am not an expert on Afghanistan history, it looks to me like Afghanistan has not had a consistent domestic government authority with the support of the people for nearly 5 centuries.

Counterinsurgency theory applies a population centric military strategy for promoting an existing credible governing body in a weak state where the government is facing an armed rebellion or occupation. Counterinsurgency is not the establishment of credible governing authority in a failed state where no credible governance exists. How does a counterinsurgency approach work in a failed state? I thought COIN was for weak states?

We are being told that Afghanistan is a weak state because there is an elected government in power today. How much control does that government have over the people even without the Taliban influence? The Taliban has not been the only problem in Afghanistan over the last eight years, and the governments authority didn’t exist over much of the country even when the Taliban wasn’t the main problem. I am having trouble digesting the suggestion that what we see in Afghanistan is a classic insurgency. Show me the evidence. Can someone please explain why the conditions are that of a classic insurgency, and not the chaotic soup one finds in a country suffering from 30 consecutive years of war caused primarily by foreign power influence compounded by centuries of tribal conflict and mistrust.

As a society, Afghanistan is still struggling to digest the Treaty of Westphalia, and to complicate things we have added the idealism of democracy. After thoroughly confusing the Afghan people in ways that fundamentally alter the historical tribal power structure, the suggested counterinsurgency military strategy is being sold as us needing to understanding the Afghanistan people. Unfortunately, the strategies success will almost entirely depend on the Afghanistan people conforming to the democratic government we have established to force their inclusion into the Westphalian world. From where I am sitting, it looks like the success of a counterinsurgency military strategy is dependent upon our non-military capability to successfully execute a broad social experiment intended to drag Afghanistan society out of the old testament. What are we doing?

Supporters for the COIN approach to Afghanistan, like John Nagl on Tuesday in Foreign Policy, suggests the problem is simply the lack of support for the Afghan National Army (ANA). If he believes that, I’d like to see how his calculations add up, because I don’t see the flaw in Professor Donald Snow’s calculations.

As noted earlier (at at the risk of being a “nag” on the subject), the Counterinsurgency Manual embraces the idea of pacification but also points out that it is very manpower intensive. To reiterate, an effective COIN force, in the manual’s own estimate, requires 20 counterinsurgents for every 1,000 in the population being protected. As previously noted, that literally means a force of 660,000 counterinsurgents, given the size of the Afghan population. Even fudging on the numbers, that adds up to over one half million forces confronting the Taliban, whose numbers of full-time fighters has been estimated at as little as 20,000, not including part-timers.

How do the numbers match up to fill this bill? Here we need some new math. Currently, there are 62,000 American forces in the country, scheduled to expand to about 68,000 by year’s end. With other NATO contributions, the number swells to about 100,000, although the NATO numbers are likely to shrivel. Current projections call for an Afghan National Army (ANA) force of around 134,000 by the end of 2011. Given the progress in recruiting and training those forces (and especially in making them ethnically representative enough for the Afghans themselves to think of them as “national”), we are talking about a total force of less than 250,000 by the end of next year. That does not even come close.

General McCrystal states in the August 26 guidance that “…an insurgency cannot be defeated by attrition; its supply of fighters, and even leadership, is effectively endless.” If the Taliban is estimated at 20,000 fighters, then the endless supply of fighters argument appears manufactured to meet a predetermined military strategy.

Clear as Mud

The US strategic objective in Afghanistan should be the prevention of extremists in the region from marshaling forces for an attack against the United States; and preventing extremists from strengthening sufficiently to overthrow the Pakistan government. Those are clear strategic military objectives. If this Washington Post article by Ann Scott Tyson is accurate, then how does the square peg fit in the round hole:

Although the assessment, which runs more than 20 pages, has not been released, officials familiar with the report have said it represents a hard look at the challenges involved in implementing Obama’s strategy for Afghanistan. The administration has narrowly defined its goal as defeating al-Qaeda and other extremist groups and denying them sanctuary, but that in turn requires a sweeping counterinsurgency campaign aimed at protecting the Afghan population, establishing good governance and rebuilding the economy.

What? Is the strategic objective to defeat al-Qaeda and other extremist groups and deny them sanctuary or is it to protect the Afghan population, establish good governance, and rebuild the economy? Those are two entirely different strategic objectives, but both become the strategic objective when you add the words “that in turn requires a sweeping counterinsurgency campaign.”

Counterinsurgency has become the slipper that fits every foot, when in fact military history suggests there are other military strategies for military engagement in failed states when unity governance cannot be achieved or established by an external state. As Bryan observed on Tuesday, George Will came out in advocacy for an alternative military strategy that looks a bit like Offshore Balancing. Offshore balancing strategy has long been proven an effective grand strategy to balance the geopolitical environment, but is very poorly developed as a military strategy in a military campaign. Will’s suggestion falls apart because we are beyond the ability to leverage offshore balancing strategies in Afghanistan, which as a rule avoids “boots on the ground” in the first place, not substitutes for “boots on the ground” after the fact.

That doesn’t mean there are not other military strategies to be evaluated. The Obama administration is facing difficult political choices. Alternatives to counterinsurgency might include any number of conventional military campaigns absent nation building services. There are certainly risks involved, but those risks are no less than the obvious risks in counterinsurgency strategies being suggested. Risks might include many deaths of non US citizens by the hands of our adversaries, but it is hard to tell if that will be at any greater rate than what is already happening. If our military strategies stayed engaged and is centered upon killing bad guys, the Taliban wouldn’t want anything to do with centralized government, because it would make them easy to kill.

I personally believe there are chaotic conditions that the US can live with while meeting strategic objectives and avoiding major unintended consequences, but the US military campaign under an alternative strategy that rejects population centric activities and government military support would have to be very active and very lethal. It would likely entail leaving a military footprint in Afghanistan, but the tactics would be guerrilla style or hit and run in nature, and would avoid population centric promises. These alternatives are conventional military strategies that engage in unconventional warfare not much different than the initial invasion and overthrow of the Taliban in 2001. These alternative military strategies are less expensive, are designed to be disruptive, and are much less humanitarian. Like I said, difficult choices.

If we use history as our guide, how does history support a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan? By definition counterinsurgency strategies are designed to protect the recognized centralized government seen as the legitimate authority for the people. Afghanistan’s recognized government isn’t centralized, it is tribal. Is it fair to say the last effective domestic ‘centralized’ government was the Timurid Dynasty? I’m not counting when external powers ruled, because I don’t believe our objective is indefinite occupation.

If it is fair to note that small historical detail, then it should also be noted we are 500 years removed from the Timurid Dynasty, which suggests to me the counterinsurgency strategy intended to strengthen a centralized domestic government, protect the Afghan population, establish good governance, and rebuild the economy is not likely to be successful.

The Partisan Myth

I have only one more comment. A lot is made regarding the polls taken suggesting support for the war. The polls are deceptive. The President has yet to make a single prime time speech on the war that outlines his position. That is significant, because this President is one of the best communicators this country has seen in the White House in a long time. One would be foolish to underestimate the effect Obama can have in influencing public opinion regarding the war.

It is particularly noteworthy that all indications are the military strategy that will be recommended to him from the Pentagon will be the counterinsurgency strategy the opposition party would like to see. In other words, Obama needs only to get support from less than half his base and he will quickly achieve a majority position on the war issue.

Where all of this becomes interesting is if the President chooses an alternative military strategy in Afghanistan. This becomes a choice of political cost and financial cost. The counterinsurgency strategy requires the largest footprint and will carry the highest financial cost for military operations, and a strategy that increases military presence in Afghanistan is not widely supported by the presidents political base. An alternative strategy would be more conventional, likely avoid nation building as a primary strategic objective, require far fewer military forces, carry a much lower cost, but will almost certainly be more lethal for the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan in its execution.

It should also be noted that should the President favor a conventional military strategy his position would essentially represent the Republican 2000 Presidential platform for using military power as described by George Bush of avoiding nation building.

I note this collision of partisan policy choices the Obama administration is facing as an example why I avoid partisan politics when talking military strategy. I consistently find that over time, political positions are remarkably fungible when it comes to the military. Conservatives today are moaning George Will because he advocated a military strategy that Bush stood for in the 2000 election cycle. Should Obama ramp up a counterinsurgency strategy for Afghanistan, his base will note in many colorful ways how the Presidents position and the Republican position are remarkably similar, but his alternative squarely puts his policy in line with the George’s.

Thus is why I think partisan politics can be entertaining to observe here, but I do not find partisan politics as important to military strategy as some try to suggest.

Raymond Pritchett blogs under the pseudonym Galrahn at  Information Dissemination and the United States Naval Institute blog.  This article was originally published at Information Dissemination.