Small Wars Journal

Waging COIN in Afghanistan: An Interview with Colonel Robert M. Cassidy

Fri, 06/15/2012 - 6:05am

OM:  Why did the Soviet Union fail in Afghanistan?  To what extent was the Russian army an organization optimized for dealing with an insurgency?

RC:  There are a lot of reasons why the Soviets had so many difficulties in Afghanistan, but one certainly is that their military organizationally, doctrinally, culturally was optimized for fighting a big war in Europe:  maneuver, firepower, artillery, lots of tanks and mechanized vehicles. They were not inclined to deploy too many forces, so they actually put too few of the wrong kind of forces into Afghanistan and they were prosecuting the wrong kind of operations, those suited for a large conventional war that involved a lot of lethal action, a lot of heavy bombing, targeting villages, and employing airpower excessively and indiscriminately.  Another reason was that they basically misunderstood the nature of Afghanistan and tried to impose a communist social design without asking the Afghan people if they wanted or not.

OM:  How much did the organizational culture of the Russian Army evolve in the art of putting together a counterinsurgency campaign? It seems that we see today a lot of the same problems in their efforts to pacify the North Caucasus region.

RC:  In terms of Afghanistan there was some adaptation like the increased use of airborne and Spetsnaz forces, but ultimately the Soviet military that waged war in Afghanistan did not see any wholesale change in terms of culture, mindset or the principal equipment they used (tanks, artillery). It is interesting to compare what happened to them in Afghanistan and their first war in Chechnya (1994-1996). If you consider that most experts on culture and military organizational culture posit that it usually takes 8 to 10 years to witness a significant change, so there should not have been an expectation to see a major change in terms of how the Russians waged their first war in Chechnya in comparison to the Soviet War in Afghanistan.  And, there was not much change in their methods.  If you compare what they did early on in Afghanistan with what they did during their first foray into Chechnya it was essentially the same, using tanks and a heavy hand to try to crush the insurgency.

OM:  How difficult is for a military leadership accustomed with a “big war” mindset and trained for regular war to respond to an insurgency? The most part of the U.S. military leadership in Afghanistan before 2009 seemed to have a conventional mindset.  Was this a major shortcoming? 

RC:  To be fair, over the last 10 years the US military has adapted quite a bit in Afghanistan and Iraq. In September 2001, the U.S. military was generally equipped, organized and optimized for conventional force-on-force wars and its doctrine essentially described an enemy much like itself.  It’s a rather large  impediment to begin countering insurgents when you are organized, equipped and your doctrine is focused primarily on conventional war, it makes a lot harder to sort out how to deal with an insurgency. A military with a big-war focused culture, organization, and doctrine is not the ideal instrument to counter insurgents.  Some of the actions that we undertook early on were harmful in the sense that they helped catalyze the support for insurgency. In Iraq in 2003, we put a heavy division and an armored cavalry regiment in the middle of the Sunni Triangle without anticipating the undesired reactions. Until 2004, American military culture exhibited an unambiguous preference for conventional warfare—combined arms maneuvers, mobile armor and airmobile formations, and massing effects while relying on technological superiority. But, in both Iraq and in Afghanistan, a military optimized for conventional war was forced to adapt with some degree of celerity. The first thing you adapt is your thinking and doctrine and then you try to get the equipment more suitable for the war you are currently waging. Back to Afghanistan though, there were a host of reasons why we had problems early on: a military optimized for big war; there was really no strategy; there was much arrogance and ignorance concerning what needed to be done or what the goals were. With the review of the theater strategy in February and March of 2009 there emerged a sound strategy, at least in writing, that was the White House codified a new strategic approach, there were more resources, not infinite but sufficient, resources to undertake focused comprehensive counterinsurgency, not everywhere but in those places that the Coalition  needed to turn the momentum against the Taliban and help the Afghan state to see some sort of security and to ultimately achieve durable stability.

The U.S didn’t do itself any service by demanding that a small force deploy into Afghanistan early, one aimed only on killing Al-Qaeda and ejecting the Taliban, with no plan or analysis for what to do after that. The Rumsfeld Pentagon opted for a very, small force because it misconstrued the lessons from the Soviet war in Afghanistan, thinking the Soviets lost because they had too many forces. The Soviets failed not because they had too many troops but because they employed too few in waging the wrong kind of campaign.  The U.S. and Coalition were encumbered by some similar self-imposed impediments for several years and then when Iraq began they were more constrained by resources.

OM:  What kind of organizational culture do we currently see in action?

RC:  The U.S. military adapted its culture and counterinsurgency became a mission that we must be able to do. There was specific DOD guidance on balancing capacities and doctrine between conventional war and counterinsurgency and irregular warfare. It was a significant shift from a military that embraced almost exclusively the big war model to one that was capable of executing comprehensive counterinsurgency. But counterinsurgency is not in itself a strategy, but a methodology for undermining or mitigating the insurgents and their effects. You can do counterinsurgency continuously, but you may not achieve success if you don’t have a strategy to which that is linked. That is the challenge in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  The logic to the strategy is unfulfilled in terms of what is needed in Pakistan.

OM:  During the Afghan surge the whole effort was focused on laying the right framework for waging a comprehensive civil-mil counterinsurgency campaign. The leadership was focused on “getting the big ideas and inputs right”. What does the history of counterinsurgency campaigns tell us about the right framework/coordinating machinery to wage a counterinsurgency campaign?

RC:  Although I am an avid reader of history I would caution against overusing perceived lessons from history and taking practices from one theater and one counterinsurgency and applying them to another. But, I was always intrigued by the CORDS program because in time that whole experience was lost. From Vietnam the US military should have learned the imperative in counterinsurgency for a command and control structure that was capable of unifying and integrating indigenous and allied military forces, paramilitary organizations, both military and civilian effort. I think that something like CORDS modified to accommodate the international flavor of the international coalition in Afghanistan would have been more helpful early on than experimenting with much less effective command and control arrangements.   

OM:  What CORDS lessons are relevant also for the NATO Afghan counterinsurgency campaign?

RC:  It is very helpful to read and understand your history. Don’t over analyze it and don’t over analogize it. But, if you have no conception of what to do, it would be helpful to have read about CORDS. In context, it was about unifying the effort between civilian and the military from the very top to lowest levels. It was a framework for having civil-military coordination, integration and collaboration from the theater commander down to the district level. 

OM:  How critical is obtaining the unity of the interagency, civilian-military effort in a counterinsurgency campaign?

RC:  It is essential. What is highly important (and we’ve seen this in the past successful counterinsurgencies) is the logic underpinning the campaign, the unity of command, and how well the range of actors and forces work together toward common aims. The better you can do that the better you can achieve your objectives. The more you have interagency actors coordinate with the military, working on the same objectives and goals under some notion of unity of effort, the better off you will be. This is the clear difference between the early years and the later years in Afghanistan.

OM:  What kind of skills should be preserved in the organizational culture of the U.S. Army in order to maintain forces that remain agile and effective for both counterinsurgency and conventional war? What should a military organization be able to do in order to be effective in a hybrid warfare environment? I ask this question because there is a lot of talking these days about a pivot towards conventional missions and away from the counterinsurgency and stability operations.

RC:  There is some discernible debate and blog chatter about a shifting in focus with the emergence of the Air Sea Battle idea and a new momentum in the Army to reorganize and train for the force-on-force conventional fight. But, historically we have exhibited a very imperfect and flawed record in trying to predict the next war and balance in a way that allows us sufficient flexibility to undertake high intensity war and counterinsurgency.  The Strategic Defense Guidance stipulates that the military force in the Pacific has to be prepared to do whatever mission the U.S. Government gives it. We don’t have a choice in the wars we fight. We are a multipurpose instrument of the U.S. Government and we must avoid being a single-purpose instrument. The most important thing is to have organizations that are flexible and adaptable, but also people that are creative thinkers.  Developing and encouraging junior leaders to use their minds to out think potential enemies, is paramount.  Good critical and heterodox thinking will never become obsolete.  If you know how to think through and analyze the environment you operate in, you can adapt the force and equipment you have.   

OM:  General Stanley McChrystal said that “this is all a war of perceptions…This is all in the minds of the participants”. So how do you win a war of perceptions? What is the role of the military in winning a war of perceptions? This is because the military instruments are rarely the right tools for this endeavor.

RC:  The role of the military is to do security and that involves killing the insurgent leadership and targeting its infrastructure and helping protect the population. There are some critical things that the Coalition is trying to do in Afghanistan: security and governance.   One is to make Afghanistan sustainably stable relative to its neighbors. So you need the military to take away the safe havens inside Afghanistan from the Taliban, to kill the Taliban and to provide some notion of security to the people in order for them to feel confident enough to support their local governance. In order to support the government, the people want security, some notion of justice and some voice in who is actually governing their area. Reality is what the relevant populations believe and perceive. If the population is convinced that the government, security forces, and NATO are committed to bringing sustainable improvements in terms of administration, services, and security, then it will likely confer its support for the government.  In the end, counterinsurgency is an argument to mobilize the population. But for that you need the military and the civilians. The civilians can help the Afghan people to be better governors at the district level and the military can help to provide security with the Afghan forces until the Afghan forces are good enough to sustain security themselves. 

OM:  In early 2009 the ―Riedel Review called for the need of the Pakistani government to shut down the AQ and Taliban sanctuary on its territory. Since then we have seen uneven to poor efforts in Pakistan to clear some of the tribal areas controlled by the terrorists and insurgents. Since counterinsurgency is also about governance, and since in the end, when counterinsurgencies fail, it is as much about being out governed as being out fought, how would you assess the ability of the formal Pakistani state in out fighting or out-governing the Taliban insurgents inside FATA and in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province? In disrupting or eliminating away the AQ and Taliban sanctuary inside Pakistan? 

RC:  The short, and general, answer is that it has done this abysmally in all areas.  The Pakistani security elites and their security forces lack the will and the skill to do these things.  The Chief of Army Staff does not intend to adapt the Pakistani Army to undertake counterinsurgency or develop counterinsurgency doctrine.  In Swat during the Spring of 2009 and in South Waziristan in Fall of 2009, the Pakistani security forces did act with more purpose and effect to root out some Pakistani Taliban elements because at that time events led Pakistan to see the Pakistani Taliban as an existential threat.  However, to fully explain the security contradictions in Pakistan’s security policy, contradictions that make it unwilling and unable to eliminate the sanctuaries requires much more space than this answer can afford here.  Consider North Waziristan, a place where all sorts of insidious militants converge and collude around the Haqqani network, to plan, train, orchestrate, regenerate, and reach out to perpetrate some of the most lethal and grisly attacks in Kabul, and elsewhere in the region.  Even though the U.S. Government has laid out over $ 20 billion to Pakistan since 2001, the Pakistan security forces have been unwilling and unable to put together any serious operations there.  

In fact, there is not much to be at all sanguine about Pakistan as it has done or tolerated the most odious things in terms of regenerating and sustaining the Afghan Taliban and others groups.  And, the Coalition and the international community have allowed Pakistan to get away with this.  Pakistan essentially poses as a friend but perpetrates inimical actions like a foe.  The Afghan Taliban would likely have withered away over the last several years of the surge if Pakistan had stopped support for the regeneration, resting, recruitment, and retraining of militants, improvised explosive device makers, technology, and components of those devices in its tribal sanctuaries, Baluchistan, and in the heartland of Pakistan.  Pakistan has employed terrorism and unconventional warfare to ostensibly achieve strategic depth by supporting its proxies in Afghanistan for almost four decades.  However, the international community and the Coalition have not yet crafted a Pakistan strategy that employs their substantial but potential leverage to compel Pakistan to modify its strategic calculus.  A genuine Pakistan strategy, coupled with unambiguous momentum and perseverance in Afghanistan, could perhaps bring Pakistan to alter its strategic rationale and reduce support to the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network.  There needs to be a genuine strategy for Pakistan, one that is logically and temporally linked and integrated with the imperatives in Afghanistan.  A viable strategy must first recognize that there is considerable leverage over Pakistan.   And, there must be discernible results for the steady diet of carrots being fed to Pakistan though it has perfidiously abetted insurgents whose actions have killed thousands of Afghan and Coalition civilians and military personnel.

About the Author(s)

Octavian Manea was a Fulbright Junior Scholar at Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs (Syracuse University) where he received an MA in International Relations and a Certificate of Advanced  Studies in Security Studies.

Dr. Robert Cassidy, Ph.D., is a retired U.S. Army colonel. He is a teaching fellow at Wesleyan University and a senior fellow with the Center for Advanced Defense Studies. He has served in Afghanistan and Iraq.



You assert that "The U.S. military adapted its culture and counterinsurgency became a mission that we must be able to do."

What proof do you have to claim this. The Big Army and Marine Corps saying they now have adapted? The proof is on the ground everyday in Afghanistan and Iraq and the proof is in Allen's testimony before Congress (and other conventional officers before him)...they don't have a clue, just another conventional officer talking like a conventional officer. Claiming to have adapted is this generations' Bright Shining Lie.

What I've observed from 2007 thru 2012 is an Army and Marine Corps that now can recite a few key phrases of counterinsurgency (as stated in FM 3-24 a flawed publication) but little else. If this is an adaptation as you suggest then it must be a matter of conventional force 'good enough'. It does not involve a understanding of the complex nature of insurgencies.

Big Army and Marine Corps officers are most similar to the Idiots of the Korengal (Kearney and Ostland-Restrepo) in their understanding and ability to conduct counterinsurgency operations. Arrogant and ignorant mistake after mistake without a realization of what is occurring or why it is occurring and at the end of the day like a whipped dog with it's tail between it's legs Kearney states the 'best thing that I accomplished was establishing COP Restrepo' (so we do not receive anymore fire into the primary FOB). What an outstanding accomplishment! Worthy of everyone gets a medal because in the conventional forces everyone is a hero/winner and everyone tries really hard (i.e we are really sacrificing)similar to the Special Olympics.

The only problem with the folks from the Special Olympics is you get Special Olympics results in an Olympic event war.

Really, what does the Big Army and Marine Corps understand about accommodation, Balance of Forces, reinforcement strategy, power ratio vs force ratio, tactical security vs strategic security, insurgent protection of the legal status of the population, insurgent use of legal, semi-legal and illegal LLOs, auxiliaries and the underground, and over/under the threshold etc.

Further, you claim "The Afghan Taliban would likely have withered away over the last several years of the surge if Pakistan had stopped support for the regeneration, resting, recruitment, and retraining of militants, improvised explosive device makers, technology, and components of those devices in its tribal sanctuaries, Baluchistan, and in the heartland of Pakistan."

Yes, this is an issue but likely to be used as a convenient excuse for the Big Army and Marine Corps to delude itself, Congress and the American people to explain it's failures and shift blame/responsibility. Also, it shows a lack of understanding of the nature of insurgencies and their support systems and harkens back to Westmoreland type of thinking.

I do believe that overt violent acts would of decreased with a solution to the Pakistan problem. However, a reduction of overt violent acts does not mean victory. It can mean a couple of things to include a fallback to Phase I and as long as an insurgency is able to fallback to Phase I it is still viable especially when conventional forces attempt to impose tactical security only and do not understand nor are capable of implementing strategic security.

A 'whack a mole' strategy (focus on the enemy as the dominant tactic) followed by a conventional focus on enemy logistic and productive systems combined with a reinforcement strategy and nation building is not counterinsurgency. It is amateur COIN as primarily employed by the the Big Army and Marine Corps, the French in Algeria and other assorted losers.

As long as we accept the notion that the Big Army and Marine Corps now know this business (just because they say so rather than looking at the results) and the longer we accept poor performance in unconventional environments that we face now and in the future the longer it will take the Big Army and Marine Corps to contribute in a meaningful manner. The BS card should be thrown in this type of situation.

Further, the apologists, 'shift the blame and responsibility' crowd and 'we are trying really hard' crowd in the conventional forces do a disservice to the nation.