Escalation and Exit in Afghanistan

President Obama’s outline of the new policy in Afghanistan has been criticized as a weak, consensual decision that merely aggregates various views on the war. The decision was almost bound to be so, as there is no consensus on the war in the administration, congress, or the American public. There are problematic aspects, especially related to the troop escalation, but the strategy contains considerable craft, especially in aspects that affix responsibility – and blame – on the Afghan government, and hold the prospect of a withdrawal before the American public and over the head of the Kabul government.

Increased Troop Levels

The most salient aspect of the strategy, though not necessarily the most important one, is the deployment of thirty thousand more American troops and a smaller number of NATO troops. This of course is being done to increase the resources available for counter-insurgency programs begun last spring in Helmand province.

Counter-insurgency is mainly political and economic in nature, but there is a military aspect as well, which seeks to inflict casualties and wear down insurgent resolve. As President Magsaysay told his soldiers amid the Hukbalahap insurgency in the Philippines, they had to be ambassadors of good will to the people, but they also had to kill or capture Huks. So additional forces will seek to wear down the Afghan insurgents, but they will present problems as well.

In many parts of the country, especially in the Pashtun South and East where the insurgency is based, whatever welcome foreigners had in 2001 has been fading. Western troops and aid workers are becoming seen as another occupying power, which local custom and national honor insist be ousted. The sudden deployment of more troops, concentrated in the insurgent strongholds of course, will underscore local concerns and likely be a boon for insurgent propaganda and recruitment as well.

Training the Afghan Army

Critical to the Karzai government’s survival will be its ability to build an effective army capable of taking over counter-insurgency programs and combat operations. To date, the Afghan National Army has been severely hobbled by a (now-former) Tajik defense minister’s policy of making his people dominant in the officer corps.

However deserving the Tajiks might be after playing a critical role in ousting the Taliban in 2001, their predominance in the ANA is resented if not feared in Pashtun regions, where insurgents depict the army as an instrument of foreign rulers. Insular tribesmen see little to doubt such claims, even though a fellow Pashtun now stands as defense minister.

Thus far, the Afghan army’s performance has been poor. It has failed to seek out and fight the enemy. Several units have found the enemy if only to negotiate separate peaces. No one can question the fighting ability of Afghans; those that have questioned it have had to beat hasty retreats through mountain passes. Fighting spirit, however, is stifled by inept NCOs and officers, by uncertainty as to the reliability of adjacent forces, and perhaps most importantly, by having to serve in a distant province, far from one’s kith and kin.

The Afghan army’s evolution into a reliable fighting force in the next two years would be a remarkable achievement. An alternative would be building up tribal militias, which would serve only in their own districts, close to family. Problems will occur here as well. Militias fight on their own terms and like some ANA units, gladly forge truces with insurgents. They also compete with the army for men and materiel, leading to squabbles and lack of cooperation in battle. Furthermore, militias can be as hostile to the central government as the insurgents. The Taliban have exploited such hostility and presently enjoy an appreciable head start in recruiting tribal militias.

Withdrawal Beginning in 2011

This aspect has been criticized, mainly by the bumptious and captious, as signaling the insurgents just when western forces will leave, thereby allowing them to lay low until that day. The insurgents cannot lay low: any lull will benefit counter-insurgency programs and lead to disaffection and desertion in their bands.

In any case, the date only says when withdrawal begins. It says nothing about the pace or conclusion of the withdrawal. The pace and conclusion remain flexible instruments in the president’s hand, which he can use, gently or not, to press Karzai to govern like a statesman with an eye to the future, not like a kleptocrat with a jet on standby.

South Vietnam presents an interesting analogy, though not one with a felicitous outcome for US policy makers. The Saigon government was, from its inception in 1954, highly corrupt and ill-disposed to reform. American entreaties and even assistance in a coup brought little progress. It was only when American troops began to withdraw in 1969 that the government saw the need to build support in the countryside and legislate land reform and other neglected programs.

Karzai needn’t know any Vietnamese history to realize that without swift and far-reaching reforms, the US will have a compelling rationale to pull out, abandoning his government to its fate. Karzai must also realize that his fall would not be met with much dismay in US or elsewhere in the West.

Insurgent Response and a War of Attrition

Wars are dynamic processes. Each side responds to enemy innovations, clever or not. The insurgents will undoubtedly seek to disrupt counter-insurgency programs, prevent the Afghan army and state from coalescing into viable entities, and attrit western forces and public opinion. Their instruments will be assassination of administrators and those who cooperate with the counter-insurgency, large-scale attacks on firming army units, and negotiated settlements with local officials and commanders. Their most important weapon will likely be the continued and expanded use of IEDs against enemy soldiers and terror bombings against westerners in Kabul and other cities.

The insurgents are vulnerable to attrition themselves. Many are part-timers who are unwilling to fight indefinitely, regardless of the pleas or threats of zealous leaders. Insurgents have suffered high casualties over the last few years and passionate recruits from madrassas do not always make for disciplined fighters. Taliban commanders might well recall the disaffection and desertion they faced in the long civil war of the mid-nineties.

Attrition, war-weariness, and the dismal prospect of only more fighting may set the stage for a negotiated settlement, one begun by the major combatants, then ratified by an assembly of tribal leaders – a loya jirga. Perhaps a negotiated settlement is part of the American president’s strategy, one better left unstated in his recent address.

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 (Copyright 2015 Brian M Downing)