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A CIA COINdinista’s Misgivings on Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan

The leak I got yesterday from Kandahar expressing skepticism that counterinsurgency can bring the nine-year war in Afghanistan to a successful conclusion has

Dexter Cooke
Last updated: Jul 31, 2020 | May 14, 2010

The leak I got yesterday from Kandahar expressing skepticism that counterinsurgency can bring the nine-year war in Afghanistan to a successful conclusion has inspired another one. This time, a former CIA counterterrorism operative who has served on the ground in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq agreed to pass along a memo he has briefed to top military leaders since the fall debate over Afghanistan strategy. It’s crossed desks at the White House, the Pentagon, U.S. Central Command and even Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s command in Afghanistan.

While I can’t go into the sourcing of this memo, it’s penned by someone who began embracing population-centric counterinsurgency to mitigate the deterioration of the Iraq war as far back as 2005 — something that not a lot of CIA operatives bought into, then or today. Despite that pedigree, the CIA operative contends that attempts to protect the population from the insurgency and facilitate the delivery of Afghan government services are fatally undermined by the persistent corruption and ineffectiveness of the Afghan government and its institutions.

His counterproposal, similar to a controversial approach advocated by an Army Special Forces major named Jim Gant, is to use Afghanistan’s various tribes as a proxy for both political legitimacy against the Taliban and a more effective and relevant structure for the provision of governance and economic development. He’s taken to calling it “Tribe-Centric Unconventional Warfare/Foreign Internal Defense.”

“Press reports indicate the Taliban are already making nighttime inroads back into Marjah, and the ‘government in a box‘ promised by Gen. McChrystal in February isn’t materializing,” the ex-CIA operative said. “That our strategy doesn’t work in a remote hamlet is indicative of what we can expect in Kandahar and elsewhere. Accordingly, Taliban confidence is increasing as they perceive having three key requirements of insurgents — unlimited manpower, unlimited time, and a safe haven in Pakistan.”

I won’t reprint the memo in full, because it contains several passages that would reveal this operative’s identity. Instead, I’m going to excerpt the major sections that explain the argument, with some minor edits for clarity. Here goes:

The best strategy for Afghanistan is a Tribe-Centric Unconventional Warfare/Foreign Internal Defense (TC UW/FID) approach executed by leveraging the social system that defines Afghan society.

This course of action is most likely to advance the policy goals of:

a) defeating Al Qaeda in the region

b) preventing a national Taliban takeover

c) ensuring nuclear security in Pakistan

d) bringing as many troops home as soon as we responsibly can…


Ask a person in Afghanistan, “Who are you?” and they will tell you about their tribe, ethnicity or sect –but not nationality. Deployed to Afghanistan and Pakistan as an operator for a CIA CT codeword program, I remember asking a local about himself whether he considered himself “Afghan.” He laughed and said, “Afghanistan is a line on a map — drawn by the British. There are no Afghan people,” he continued, “except in Kabul but only because it pays so well.”

One contributing factor toward this lack of understanding is how most cultural advisors to high-level US decision makers, as I learned from personal experience at Defense Department Forward Operating Bases, State Department Embassies and CIA Stations, come from a Kabul-centric background. After all, each proved educated and wealthy enough to leave Afghanistan, learn English, acquire a security clearance and secure lucrative western government employment.

Nonetheless, a vast majority of people in Afghanistan do not view as legitimate any national authority from Kabul. Further, Afghanistan lacks the infrastructure of commerce, transport and communication that facilitate the development of national identity. Finally, people throughout Afghanistan do not view Hamid Karzai as a legitimate leader, and that sentiment has hardened in the aftermath of the massive fraud uncovered in connection with the recent election.

Instead—and this is vital for policy makers to understand—the very tribal leaders we seek to influence in our efforts against the Taliban are actually threatened by our support of Karzai. Regardless of our intent, they perceive our actions as empowering his tribe and their tribal allies to dominate the other tribes via the Afghanistan National Army (ANA) and National Police (ANP) once the coalition eventually withdrawals its forces.

This means counterinsurgency in Afghanistan would be counterproductive because our expanded effort to bolster Karzai’s ANA/ANP will make tribal leaders more likely to tacitly or explicitly ally with the Taliban and, in Pakistan, al-Qaeda. They would do so as a pragmatic response to our strategy as it alters dramatically, even if unintentionally, the regional tribal balance of power.

For these vital differences, sending additional brigades to Afghanistan with the COIN-Iraq strategy as a roadmap is the policy equivalent of driving off a cliff, or perhaps more accurately, sending a fleet of new Humvees coasting into quicksand.

For Afghanistan, a better solution is applying an tribe-centric unconventional warfare/foreign internal defense (TC UW/FID) strategy that withdraws significant numbers of conventional forces other than from Kabul to Bagram, maintains a Special Operations Forces footprint, uses interagency personnel more effectively (especially CIA and State) — and empowers all of the above with the resources they need to exert influence on a local level. If our mission in Iraq required local focus, Afghanistan must be hyper-local — again, due to the lack of common national identity, heritage, ethnicity, or even language. In fact, Pashto and Dari are just two of Afghanistan’s dozens of languages or dialects so distinct that people from nearby valleys cannot even communicate with one another.

The execution of a TC UW/FID strategy involves refocusing Special Forces groups away from SOF-style door-kicking and back to their traditional mission of training and equipping indigenous forces. SF units should be engaging and equipping key tribal leaders, with CIA, State and other civilian departments such as Agriculture offering tailored incentives for cooperation, with coalition forces ready to assist if needed. Tribal leaders in Afghanistan will welcome a TC UW/FID approach because it respects their social hierarchy, preserves their prestige, and leverages their natural dislike for both the Taliban and al-Qaeda. In that light, TC UW/FID is the strategic path most likely to prevent the terrorist safe-havens that could incubate another 9/11.

There are a couple of points and observations worth making in the interests of balance. First, while I don’t pretend to have nearly the experience in Afghanistan that this ex-operative has, I’ve talked to many Afghans there who identify primarily as “Afghan.”

Second, a tribal-based approach has recently crashed and burned in eastern Afghanistan, where an effort to capitalize on the Shinwari tribe’s willingness to fight the Taliban in exchange for cold hard cash encountered the insurmountable obstacles of inter-tribal rivalries; hostile and threatened Afghan government structures; U.S. civilian unwillingness to risk alienating the Afghan government; and simply insufficient U.S. knowledge of the complexities of Afghan tribal structures and how to navigate them. Any proposed tribal-based strategy needs to explain why this time would be different.

Finally, there’s an ongoing debate in U.S. military and academic circles about whether “tribal structures” are even viable intellectual prisms through which to understand Afghanistan. That debate is too complex to adequately capture here. But if you’re interested, read through this colloquy at Small Wars Journal or the Cliff’s Notes version at Abu Muqawama.

But the ex-operative argued that applied carefully, a tribal approach could still yield promising results.

“The point that tribal engagement is tough holds true for the south, where tribal structure has been significantly weakened by the drug economy and the Soviet scorched-earth approach against tribes,” the ex-operative said. “The tribes have stayed intact in the east, so that’s where we start this.” He predicted southern Afghanistan would require up to a year to “reinvigorate” tribal structures. ”So drugs and Soviet impact make it tougher in the south, but it’s still the way they’ve lived for millenia and thus a natural outcome to re-establish.”

Dexter Cooke | He is an orthopedic surgeon who insists that a physician's first priority should be patient care. He specializes in minimally invasive complete knee replacement surgery and laparoscopic procedures that reduce pain and recovery time. He graduated from the Medical University of South Carolina with a medical degree and a postdoctoral fellowship in orthopedic medicine.


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