Staying the Course in Afghanistan

The Obama administration’s review of the war in Afghanistan came and went. A precis of the review and the ensuing agenda had been leaked well beforehand and excited little interest let alone debate ? public attention is elsewhere. The military presented scads of data that argued the Taliban had lost momentum and indeed was being rolled back in areas.

Accordingly, the US and many ISAF allies have committed to General Petraeus’s counterinsurgency program through 2014, after which the Afghan government and army will be charged with the effort. In the meantime, there will be several more years of counterinsurgency operations, which have thus far been far from impressive. There is good reason for skepticism about the prospects of counterinsurgency operations and the war seems headed for several more years of inconclusive fighting ? in effect, a war of attrition.

General Petraeus’s metrics were received not simply as numbers. They came endowed with the prestige of the US military and that of the man credited with breaking the Iraqi insurgency only three years ago. The presentation convinced most civilian policy makers few of whom have a background in the military or counterinsurgency doctrine ? an unfortunate state of affairs brought about by the chasm the Vietnam war created between the middle classes and military service. Demurrals were likely heard, though probably not probing questions let alone forceful opposition. General Petraeus’s views prevailed.

The assertion that the Taliban’s spread has stalled is likely true as it has been noted by independent sources such as NightWatch for several months now. But the bare statistics might be misleading. As Prime Minister Canning wryly noted almost two centuries ago, statistics can prove many things, but seldom the truth ? and little has changed in the field since.

At the height of its powers, the Taliban could never control all of Afghanistan. The Northern Alliance fought them to a standstill and insurgencies emerged in several areas of nominal Taliban control. Further, the Taliban was so brutal in parts of the country that their renewed presence there will be fought vigorously. The central provinces of the Shiite Hazaras, who were killed by the tens of thousand, are a grim case in point.

The Taliban, then, may well have acquired, through tribal parleys or guerrilla campaigns, most of the territory they can hope to expand into through an insurgency. Further expansion will entail fighting in conventional formations. This was how they fought back in the nineties, but this was also how they were swiftly driven out of the country back in 2001. Conventional warfare is not the Taliban’s forte, and without that ability, their capacity to expand into the North and West is limited.

Western forces have in recent months driven insurgents out of at least three areas in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar. Security there has improved and markets have reopened ? welcome events recalling those in the Sunni Awakening in Iraq, and to some, an augur of parallel developments in Afghanistan. But the return to sectarian conflict in Iraq over the last year calls for closer scrutiny of the bases and reliability of the surge there ? and in Afghanistan as well.

The presence of western forces in previously Taliban areas has driven insurgents away, or at least under cover, but there is scant evidence that locals no longer support ? or fear ? the Taliban. They accept aid programs and express gratitude for irrigation ditches, schoolhouses, medical care, and the like; but such behavior is consistent with fence-sitting or even with covert support for the insurgency. Many locals remain reluctant to even speak with westerners. Others openly express their reluctance to cooperate with outsiders.

Counterinsurgency experts (such as David Kilcullen) direct our attention to more substantive indicators of changing fortunes in a counterinsurgency. Are locals volunteering intelligence that leads to arrests of insurgent leaders and interdictions of supplies? Are locals serving eagerly with local militias or simply showing up to receive a paycheck? Are ground engagements begun by insurgents or counterinsurgent forces? In other words, who has the better local knowledge and who has the initiative? Where are locals turning for settlement of disputes: government courts or Taliban courts? Heretofore the latter have been widely deemed fairer. As reported by many recently returned military and aid personnel, these more substantive indicators of progress do not yet offer encouragement.

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A counterinsurgency is an effort not only to win popular support through development programs but also to attrit the insurgents through armed engagements. In the estimation of David Galula, the French officer who developed the craft during the Algerian war of independence, it is eighty percent the former, twenty percent the latter.

But if Pakistan continues to aid the insurgents, Karzai fails to build a competent government, and the ANA remains unprofessional and divided, the US and ISAF will have to rely at least as much on attriting the insurgents as on rallying the population to its side.

Future policy reviews are scheduled.

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)