From Kandahar, a View of a ‘Counterproductive Counterinsurgency’

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Wednesday, May 12, 2010 at 9:42 am

Presidents Hamid Karzai and Barack Obama at the White House on Wednesday (EPA/ZUMApress.com)

At the White House this afternoon, Presidents Barack Obama and Hamid Karzai committed themselves to a “long-term partnership,” in Obama’s words, “that is not simply defined by our military presence.” Both expressed confidence in the ultimate success of a war in its ninth year.

All this happens as thousands of U.S., NATO and Afghan forces are moving into the city and surrounding environs of Kandahar. Senior officials in charge of shaping the operation have cautioned against viewing Kandahar as an iconic invasion campaign. Unlike the February operation in Marja, where 15,000 NATO and Afghan troops invaded and a governance structure of unproven capability was essentially airlifted into an area under Taliban control, the approach to Kandahar involves bolstering governance and economic efforts in parts of Kandahar currently under government control and expanding them outwards into Taliban-held territory. That will require intense and persistent coordination between NATO militaries, NATO civilians, their governments back home, Afghan security forces, local Afghan government officials and national Afghan government officials. A source in Kandahar considers it all a pipe dream.

[Security1] That source passed on the following assessment of how counterinsurgency efforts across Afghanistan are shaping up, over a year after Obama embraced them at the strategic level and nearly a year after Obama tapped Gen. Stanley McChrystal and Amb. Karl Eikenberry to implement them. The source’s reluctant viewpoint, which is making its way through official channels in Afghanistan, is that the coordination necessary for successful counterinsurgency between civilian and military forces is not in evidence. Neither is the coordination between NATO and Afghan forces. Lumbering bureaucracy inhibits the rapid application of services and economic aid after military forces clear an area, as Joe Klein recently documented with an Army company based on the outskirts of Kandahar. NATO forces do not adequately control information operations; they do not adequately explain to Afghan civilians the purpose of military or governance operations; and what understanding they have of their area of operations, they don’t adequately share with their partner units.

“It is evident that there is little attention to ensuring that the local population is prepared for the transition of combat troops occupying their home one month and then smiling faces knocking on their doors the next,” the source writes, comparing the difference between counterinsurgency theory and practice to the same experienced under communism. “The enemy still has the discipline to outlast our commitment to the area.”

The source’s assessment, titled “A Counterproductive Counterinsurgency,” is reprinted below in full, with minor interruptions in the text for clarity.

A Counterproductive Counterinsurgency

The counterinsurgency methodology which is currently being employed in Afghanistan is not going to lead coalition forces to victory in this war.

The idea of “counterinsurgency” appears to be a viable way for success on paper. Military units, along with NGO’s [non-governmental organizations], the Department of State, GIRoA [the Afghanistan government], and other government agencies work together to emplace the clear, hold, build strategy in key areas of the battlefield. Like communism, however, counterinsurgency methods are not proving to be effective in practice.

Counterinsurgency methods must make quick and effective use of information. However, the joint environment of the theater of operation makes it difficult for efficient information dissemination. Coalition units are still apprehensive about distributing information to consumers who do not wear the same uniform — and many units still have major breakdowns in following guidance directing the flow of information up to higher decision-making elements; or down to the soldiers on the ground. The result of stove-piped information sharing channels maximizes the amount of time that insurgent forces have to seek out coalition vulnerabilities and exploit them.

The passive approach taken to reintegrate the enemy is also proving to be ineffective. Coalition forces who are using the idea of projects and Provincial Reconstruction Teams to pacify local insurgents are experiencing long delays in getting their recommended courses of action approved, funded and then complete. Additionally, there is often a poor hand-off from kinetic [read: military] forces who relinquish control of a previously hostile area to non-kinetic groups who are empowered to “win hearts and minds.” It is evident that there is little attention to ensuring that the local population is prepared for the transition of combat troops occupying their home one month and then smiling faces knocking on their doors the next. Additionally, coalition participants are not yet capable of recognizing the human terrain of their area once they assume control of it.

The human terrain layer of the battlefield is a necessary component of mission planning and success in a counterinsurgency environment. Coalition forces have become aware of the utility of understanding it but have failed to quantify their efforts in exploiting it. The fact that insurgent groups are still integrated within the population of areas that have been under coalition control for long periods of time is indicative of their ability to more effectively exploit the human layer of the battlefield and mitigate the effects of a counterinsurgency campaign. The adage still holds true today that “we have the watches, but they have the time.” The enemy still has the discipline to outlast our commitment to the area.

As if the breakdown of communication and process methodology in place isn’t enough to negate the effectiveness of counterinsurgency operations, we must also contend with the effects of the media, and a world population that cringes when it is witness to overt aggression and the marginalization of people. In this response, the leaders of this campaign have taken too many precautions to ensure that everyone is content with the tact taken. An effective counterinsurgency can only be waged by an organization that is capable of committing to support only those it empowers, remains quiet until it strikes, and effectively owns the world of information. Once it is capable of identifying the vulnerabilities in core infrastructure before the enemy is able to exploit them—and strikes with precision to seal them up, the enemy will dissolve and we will find the war is won.

The author of this paper clearly accepts several of the premises of counterinsurgency theory — in particular, the recognition that the sentiments of the local population are what McChrystal called “strategically decisive.” I asked what the author meant by the “core infrastructure” he identified as the key objective for operations in the memo’s last paragraph. The answer? All of the relevant considerations that shape an Afghan’s assessment of whether to side with the Taliban or with the Afghan government — the economic environment, the local power structure, and so forth. Spoken like a true counterinsurgent.

But the problem, in this individual’s view, is that NATO and Afghan forces are insufficiently and inconsistently contending for those key counterinsurgency prizes. Which is another way of saying the strategy is not succeeding on its own terms.

Follow Spencer Ackerman on Twitter


Comments

64 Comments

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walterjesse
Comment posted May 12, 2010 @ 4:30 pm

Having spent two tours in Vietnam in USAF Special Operations, as a Combat Controller, I can say with a sad shake of the head: “Been there, seen it all.”

But you cannot tell that to politicians with no military experience, especially those like Obama and Clinton, who are mesmerized by all the pork salad on the chests of generals and admirals.

And you cannot get the press to stop drooling over a president who manages to keep his approval ratings hovering above the disaster zone when all the other politicians cannot get above that zone.

So, please, keep the reporting. Maybe the NYTimes & WAPO will wake up and smell the disaster when they can no longer ignore it. The TV herd will not notice until they see a good show in it.


lesleypalmer
Comment posted May 12, 2010 @ 5:00 pm

Remember Vietnam and Vietnamization? Remember all the corrupt politicians we propped up in Vietnam? I know the Congress and the current administration want to say that “This time it's different.” Wrong. It's not different. It's the same damn thing all over again. Afghanistan has been corrupt for centuries, whether it's warlords or coalition-imposed “democracy”. The military should not be in the business of propping up any Afghan government. No American “fix” will make this situation better. Save our soldiers from this insanity.

Withdraw NOW.


Aurelio
Comment posted May 12, 2010 @ 5:13 pm

This “leak” says nothing. Who wrote it? “A source”? What “source”? Some enlisted man without a college education? Who strings a bunch of Latinates together in an effort to appear “smart” and then misspells “tack” as “tact”? Jeebus this must be a slow news day.


stevethede
Comment posted May 12, 2010 @ 5:35 pm

Your response is confusing, coming from someone that has seen it all. I believe what is missing as most every war effort since world war II, is the fact that an invaded country is supposed to love the invaders. It does not work. Again no comment about the heros that as well as Clinton and Obama did NOT go to war, but got great tax payer contracts for business associates. Halliburton


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rogerhq
Comment posted May 12, 2010 @ 6:11 pm

Well, this soulds like an analysts interpretation. Hard to asses it's value. One thing is clear: Afghanistan is not Vietnam.


hwile
Comment posted May 12, 2010 @ 6:20 pm

This looks like an informed OPINION on why counterinsurgency is failing in Afghanistan. What he says is true… and he's given a pretty clear notion of MG Flynn's recommendations–by simply restating the problem.

Looks like he's a supporter of counterinsurgency–just pointing out it's in-effectiveness in practice so far…


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walterjesse
Comment posted May 12, 2010 @ 8:31 pm

If you had said what was confusing I would address that. I agree that post WWII war-making blatantly mocks the Declaration of Independence, by assuming the opposite of “…it is their right, it is their duty to throw off such government….” as the invaders (the USA) attempt to impose upon them.

It is also, in my opinion, unAmerican to tolerate our US Government's imperial impositions upon other people's, with invasions of their countries being perhaps the worst, but certainly not the only impositions.

Haliburton is but one of many possible examples, as is The Carlyle Group, Becthel, all the Big Oil greazies, and so on. Now, with the US setting up a military command to dominate Africa, the stakes are higher than ever for us citizens to work with all efforts to reverse the US Government's attempts to overthrow our political cultures entirely.

Bipartisan business as usual, like Obama's and as was Clinton's, and as was both Bushes, will lead that business as usual mess right where it consistently has since Truman abandoned our basic political values and initiated creation of a National Security State.


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Armchair Warlord
Comment posted May 12, 2010 @ 9:52 pm

In war you simply have to outfight the other guy, not execute all operations to some abstract standard of military effectiveness engraved in the halls of Valhalla.

Following the news in Afghanistan it appears that a relentlessly negative press has been unable to disguise the fact that the insurgency is being systematically defeated, so I would opine that although many of the author's points are probably entirely true (albeit that the real problems he highlights, which boil down to Information Operations and adequate knowledge of the human terrain, are being attacked very aggressively) his conclusion that these problems will lead to failure in Afghanistan is dubious.

I also note that his snide shot at the “leaders of this campaign” is deeply unprofessional (not to mention his decision to go leaking to the media) and the kind of thing that would only fly in anonymity, which makes me think that this “assessment” was written for the media and home audience he attacks in the last paragraph rather than for serious military analysis – where he would have some hard explaining to do. I am not particularly impressed.


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vet 335D1
Comment posted May 13, 2010 @ 4:52 am

No Afghanistan is not Viet Nam but we are fighting the “war” in Afghanistan on the same template that we fought in Viet Nam. We support a corrupt government seen as being non-legitimate in the eyes of the people of Afghanistan, a government that would not be in power without backing of the U.S. military. Some people in decision making capacities seem to believe that we can motivate and train the people of Afghanistan to kill their own countrymen on behalf of a foreign occupation. It will never work and will we never win a war of attrition there. This is human nature. We can't do COIN. All we know is drone attacks and night raids on suspected “militants”. This only serves to enrage the people and create more enemies.

The quagmire will continue until those in power realize the costs are not worth a “military victory”.

Deja vu.


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