Page 1 of 2 Afghanistan defies the US battle plan By Brian M Downing
The United States is entering a new phase in the war in Afghanistan. This
approach to fighting the Taliban is based on counter-insurgency thinking:
building indigenous police and military forces, providing services to
villagers, and winning support from fence-sitters and insurgent sympathizers.
It is hoped that in this way, years of neglect can be made up for.
Prior to the Vietnam War, counter-insurgency thinking became a new and even
adventurous way of defeating wars of national liberation. After the war it was
seen as the path not taken that accounted for the United States defeat there,
but the Pentagon
avoided making it part of its doctrine.
Since the remarkable turn of events in Iraq, where a counter-insurgency program
is said to have won over many Sunni fighters, the doctrine has recovered some
of its talismanic qualities in the public and has become a new creed in parts
of the US military. Although new thinking is needed in Afghanistan,
counter-insurgency will face organizational problems there.
A successful counter-insurgency depends on a complex set of assumptions,
observations and expectations, based more on a feel for the locale than on a
set of rules in a manual. When rendered into a creed and put into practice,
subtleties are lost and innovation suffers. An early counter-insurgency hand
saw this in the early and mid-1960s, during operations in Vietnam and Laos:
tendency developed to formularize into simple and rather simple-minded rules a
most complex group of concepts. This was perhaps an inevitable result of the
headlong attempt to indoctrinate a large number of soldiers and civilians who
approached the subject with little preparation or background ...
Whatever program is assembled at CENTCOM headquarters or in Kabul might bear
only some resemblance to what is implemented in Helmand or Ghazni.
Furthermore, counter-insurgency requires harmonious cooperation among numerous
and often antagonistic organizations. Military units must rid an area of
guerrillas then provide security to prevent their return. National police must
establish a presence and build intelligence networks.
Officials must also reassert judicial control over the counter-judiciary
established by insurgents. Development programs must determine local
sensitivities before building roads, irrigation ditches, and the like. Medical
and veterinary resources must be allocated and delivered. Finally, appropriate
ties between local and central governments must be carefully negotiated. These
sundry tasks are to be undertaken by numerous and conflicting bureaus.
The US Department of Defense might appear as a unified entity, but it has
important differences in outlook, expertise and priorities. Perhaps the most
important of differences is the tension between regular army units, which
stress numbers and firepower, and special forces units, which stress small
teams and stealth. This tension may be weaker today than it was during the
Vietnam War as counter-insurgency has apparently proved useful in Iraq and its
chief proponent, General David Petraeus, has gained influence in the Pentagon
and assumed command of the Central Asian theater.
Even deeper organizational difficulties lie with the military's relationship
with other parts of the effort. The State Department, the Agency for
International Development, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Health and
Human Services, the Treasury Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation,
the Department of Agriculture, and other bureaus will take part in the effort
and will do so without leaving their institutional preferences and parochialism
at Dulles airport.
The program will be an international effort. Britain, France, Canada and the
Netherlands provide infantry; German and Russian forces train the police; and
India and Iran play important parts as well, doubtless with their own national
security interests in mind. The breadth of experiences and approaches provide
the opportunity for an intricate plan, but aggregating various ideas into a
coherent strategy and specific programs is a daunting organizational challenge.
Placing each agency and bureau onto a large, integrated organizational chart
with clearly drawn lines of authority and cooperation, atop which stands an
ambassador or general, will do little to blend disparate views and conflicting
personalities. It would more likely be a source of institutional delusion. It
might be likened to assembling a number of musicians, each of whom may be
highly talented, but in different genres. Even a gifted maestro will be
hard-pressed to produce a mellifluous outcome.
Douglas Blaufarb's experiences caused him, on the first page of his study, to
[Advocates of counter-insurgency] were dismayed, as time went
on, to find that it had degenerated into a vague slogan behind which various
policy interests contended for their own goals, not all of which were in fact
consistent with the intentions of the originators of the ideas and policies
The number of bureaus has only increased in the
decades since Vietnam and it is doubtful that their capacity to cooperate on a
complex and remote problem has increased.
The various insurgent groups in Afghanistan and across the frontier in Pakistan
face organizational problems as well, though not of the same extent as their
opponents. The insurgency benefits from financial support flowing from Pashtun
businessmen mainly in Peshawar and Karachi, and from various Sunni Arabs,
mainly in the Gulf Region. The opium trade is another revenue source. The
Russian mafia gained control of considerable portions of the trade during the
Soviet occupation from 1979 to 1989 and continues to handle supplies through
Madrassas (seminaries) in Pakistan supply fervent recruits as they have
since the war with the Soviet Union when the schools were funded by the US and
Saudi Arabia. Arms are not hard to come by and open markets exist in Pakistan.
According to one source, "In Darra Adam Khel alone - the most famous of the
North-West Frontier Province's gun-producing towns - there are believed to be
3,500 gunsmiths working in 900 factories, with 150 gun shops. The local
gunsmiths can produce everything from imitation Kalashnikovs ... to
The Taliban, the largest part of the insurgency, have two principal councils
directing the war, one in Quetta, the second in Peshawar. Though the former
council is associated with the Durrani confederation of Pashtun tribes and the
latter with Ghilzai confederation of Pashtun tribes, this does not seem to
present sources of conflict.
The Taliban have five regional commanders and personal rivalries have been in
evidence. One of the fiercest was between Mullah Dadullah and Mullah Osmani,
which was likely based on factions advocating retaking the entire country then
pursuing an internationalist agenda and other factions favoring a limited
program of governing the southern provinces. The matter was put to rest when
each was killed in separate US air strikes.
The Taliban adopt local structures. They begin operations in a district with a
group comprising members of several tribes so as to minimize inter-tribal
rivalries, help with inter-tribal settlements, and appear as harbingers of a
Pashtun nation. The Taliban then deal with local tribal authorities, help
settle disputes through the authority of Islamic law, and either through
threats or parley establish cooperation and control.
They are more successful in districts where tribal authority was badly damaged
during the Soviet war as the landed elite fled, villages relocated, and
casualties mounted. In such areas, the Taliban lay claim to being restorers of
order and of the supportive networks that tribes had once provided. The Taliban
can call for levies of local fighters, mostly part-timers designated by elders,
who provide expertise on the district's trails and caves and government
Insurgents can also win the allegiance of the local qawms (solidarity
groups based on family, kinship, or occupation), which offer recruitment
networks as well as cohesion in fighting units.
Notable here is the Taliban's relative lack of organizational structure, from
their revenue sources to the part-timers that make up a good part of their
fighting units - far less than there was in the Vietcong or the FLN in Algeria.
While this limits internal conflict and allows for adaptability, it can present
problems as well. The independence of tribal councils and the qawm afford
an opportunity for negotiations and settlements with other powers, and dealing
with those independent entities will be key parts of a counter-insurgency
Regional commanders enjoy considerable autonomy and use their judgment of local
conditions to build the insurgency. Many locals are tied to the movement only
through parley or threat and do not rely on the Taliban for money or resources
to any meaningful extent. The immediacy of the war presents urgency and unity,
and Mullah Omar's authority is not presently in doubt.
Tensions would be more problematic in the event of victory or the perception
that victory were on the horizon. The insurgency today comprises the Taliban,
al-Qaeda, Hizb-i-Islami, and to some extent the Pakistani Taliban - disparate
groups led by ambitious men and unified chiefly by an ongoing war. Fissures
between those with limited goals and those with internationalist visions could
come to the fore.
Further, the Taliban leadership is mainly from the southern province of
Kandahar and was loath to share military and political power with outsiders
when they held Kabul (1996-2001). Many insurgent commanders know or at least
suspect that a Taliban victory would lead to their marginalization.
The US military
The American military has only intermittently been keen on counter-insurgency
doctrines and indeed has long been institutionally unsuited for it. Since at
least the Civil War, the military has developed a "way of war". It applies
superior amounts of resources - personnel and equipment - and wears down the
enemy: the Confederacy, the Central Powers, Axis Powers, or People's Liberation
Army. The approach served the country well in conventional wars.
In the early 1960s, however, following Fidel Castro's seizure of power in Cuba
with only a small band of guerrillas, counter-insurgency ideas were developed
at high levels, with assistant secretary of state Roger Hilsman, a veteran of
guerrilla operations in Burma (Myanmar) during World War II, working with
generals and intelligence officers. But the generals did not recognize
counter-insurgency as a new form of warfare, rather it was something that a
well-trained infantryman could readily switch to if need be.
The reliance of parley over firepower, and economic resources over military
ones, was not grasped by the generals and counter-insurgency was seriously
pursued only by special forces and intelligence operations. A marine program of
placing a platoon in a village to provide security and separate villagers from
insurgents showed promise. Locals provided intelligence and turned in some
Vietcong. But the program was dropped by higher authority as a waste of
personnel and the marines were sent back into conventional operations.
Most operations in Vietnam were large, conventional campaigns that relied
greatly on artillery and air power. Though such ops would occasionally trap and
maul a communist unit, the effect of large operations and massive firepower was
less to wear down the enemy than to alienate the population. Civilians angered
by excessive firepower were less likely to help against the insurgency and
indeed were more likely to support it - a routinely encountered phenomenon that
David Kilcullen calls the "accidental guerrilla".
The military opposed counter-insurgency warfare because it was deemed
incompatible with proper discipline. Advisors and counter-insurgency officers
were off in the field, outside ordinary command structures, relying far more on
their own judgment than on directives from above. Such officers served with
Vietnamese forces, lived in villages, and found the lessons learned out in the
boonies far more insightful than the ones taught back at Fort Benning.
The chasm between the field and headquarters is conveyed in Lawrence of Arabia
when a general asks on what authority a strategically important and successful
attack was ordered:
T E Lawrence: Shouldn't officers use their initiative at all times?
General Murray: Not really. It's awfully dangerous.
Soldiers involved in the counter-insurgency in Vietnam were often deemed unruly
mavericks and potential embarrassments. Promotion beyond full colonel came only
slowly and grudgingly, if at all.