The Washington Independent
The Washington Independent

From Kandahar, a View of a ‘Counterproductive Counterinsurgency’

As Presidents Obama and Karzai emphasize the strength of their countries’ relationship, a source in Kandahar has a bleaker take on the war in Afghanistan.

Elisa Mueller
News
Last updated: Jul 31, 2020 | May 12, 2010

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.

Elisa Mueller | Elisa Mueller was born in Kansas City, Missouri, to a mother who taught reading and a father who taught film. As a result, she spent an excessive amount of her childhood reading books and watching movies. She went to the University of Kansas for college, where she earned bachelor's degrees in English and journalism. She moved to New York City and worked for Entertainment Weekly magazine for ten years, visiting film sets all over the world.

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