Rethinking the Afghan Insurgency

A critical debate is underway to determine whether or not the US will send up to forty thousand more troops to Afghanistan. The debate is said to include a wide-range of opinion, but even at the top political and military levels, there isn’t profound understanding of insurgencies in general or the particular dynamics of the Afghan one.

The Afghan insurgency, we are repeatedly told, is based on intimidation and violence. This is true in parts of the country, but dubious in others. Indeed, seeing any insurgency as resting mainly on force is wrong and it will lead to wrong responses. Insurgencies develop when a non-government group builds rapport with at least parts of the populace. This was the case in Malaya, the Philippines, Algeria, and South Vietnam. And it is the case in Afghanistan.

Consider a few patterns:

Pashtun elders meet with western officers and accept development programs, yet too often they make only desultory efforts to fight insurgents. This is clear from numerous small engagements and glaringly so from attacks conducted by sizable insurgent forces such as those who assaulted US positions in Nuristan recently and in Kunar last year. Tribes are, among other things, intelligence networks, keeping watch and ward over their lands for trespassers, bandits, and enemies. The coalescence and deployment of large insurgent forces could not have gone undetected by herdsmen, traders, or hunters who traverse the district and report to elders. Something is amiss here.

The Pashtun tribes are vaunted warriors who repelled the Russians, British, Persians, and numerous lesser-known powers unwise enough to venture into their lands. Yet these same tribesmen are said to bow before a band of lightly-armed guerrillas. Elders have the authority, weapons, fighters, and local knowledge to mount formidable resistance, but they elect not to. Why is this?

The spread of the insurgency in recent years, according to many observers with local knowledge, is often based more on negotiation than on force. Insurgents cannot match the resources of western powers, but they are able to win local support in other ways. Taliban figures settle disputes in accordance with Islamic law, stand as opponents of northern/Tajik dominance, offer the prospect of fairer government, listen to local needs without the western assumption of superior knowledge, fight without the use of massive firepower, and represent the promise of restored Pashtun greatness. Most critically, they present themselves as an enduring, indigenous power adamantly opposed to the presence of transient, foreign ones.

The insurgents are more adept at negotiations and assurances than are the Kabul government or the western powers. Kabul’s preference for aggrandizement and the US’s ignorance of counterinsurgency have allowed the insurgents to win over large numbers of Pashtun people in the South and East. They have even been able to gain support from a few non-Pashtun groups in the North and West, in part by presenting them as an alternative to the foreigners who have overstayed whatever welcome they once had. An insurgency is in ways a debate, and thus far the insurgents’ arguments are more convincing. Pashtun elders vote with their sons by attaching local men to serve in the insurgent bands, which has helped the Taliban triple in size over the last two years.

What then of the troop surge in a country with an insurgency more entrenched than thought? More western troops in contested regions will almost certainly strengthen local beliefs and insurgent claims that US and NATO forces are another occupying force – a belief paradoxically supported by western assurances that they will stay on until the insurgents are defeated. More troops will step up the fighting, which will further alienate the support of locals who see westerners, not insurgents, as the cause of widespread destruction.

Several other questions must be central to the debate in Washington. Will the insurgents’ numbers and experience require far more western forces? Have the insurgents already consolidated in large parts of the country such that counterinsurgency is not feasible or will take a decade or more to work? Is the US public likely to support the war for another decade? What of European publics? Perhaps most importantly, can more US troops make up for the ineptitude and corruption of the Afghan army and state without becoming an occupying power?

BRIAN M. DOWNING is the author of several works of political and military history, including The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at:

Brian M Downing is a political-military analyst, author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam, and co-author with Danny Rittman of The Samson Heuristic. He can be reached at