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No COIN Left In Afghanistan – Or The Elephant In The Room That No One Is Talking About
Franz J. Marty
Although virtually all experts agree that the Taliban’s fight in Afghanistan is an insurgency and the key to success for the Afghan government and its international backers lies in counter-insurgency (COIN), not conventional warfare or solely counter-terrorism, Afghan forces apparently lack COIN training and understanding. While – probably for political reasons – Afghan officials outright deny the existence of an insurgency and, accordingly, the necessity of counter-insurgency without offering much of another strategy. The international coalition seems to simply look the other way, as erstwhile COIN training efforts in Afghanistan have disappeared.[i]
US Army/ US Marine Corps Field Manual/Warfighting Publication, Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies, defines an insurgency as the organized use of subversion and violence to seize, nullify, or challenge political control of a region[ii]. Given the Taliban’s frequently stated main objectives to end the “occupation” of Afghanistan by international troops and to replace the current republican constitution, that they denounce as a “western copy” forced upon the Afghan nation by invaders with a, according to their view, truly Islamic order[iii] in an armed struggle, seemingly clearly designates it as an insurgency.
The war in Afghanistan after the international intervention in 2001 – together with the conflict in Iraq after the invasion of 2003 – can be seen as the resurgence of COIN into modern military doctrine[iv], as Western forces realized that they are not able to win the war by simply destroying enemy forces as they vanished within the civilian population only to reemerge to fight another day. The newly (re)found approach was to win the often-quoted hearts and minds[v] of the population or – maybe less poetically, but probably more realistically speaking – to deny the insurgents the population’s (voluntarily or involuntarily) support without which they would become isolated and unable to operate.
Some main points of population-centric COIN[vi] are the need to mark presence and patrol in order to secure a given area and separate the population from the insurgents; to restrict the use of force to prevent escalation and alienating the population; addressing local grievances; and to “hold and build” once cleared areas which requires the co-operation between military forces, civil servants and other stakeholders (called a whole-of-government effort), as the optimal outcome would be to leave behind a legitimate and stable local government that does not need to be held in place by military force.[vii]
However, the situation on the ground in Afghanistan reveals an apparent lack of such a population-centric COIN approach. Reports indicate that Afghan National Army troops stopped patrolling areas in the southern province of Helmand[viii] and the northeastern province of Badakhshan[ix] at the latest in 2015 (a tendency that is most probably not limited to these provinces) and rather remain in their outposts leaving the initiative to the insurgents – according to renown COIN expert David Kilcullen the biggest sin in conducting COIN[x]. Another report accused Afghan National Defence and Security Forces of responding to even small Taliban ambushes or fires with disproportional and indiscriminate mortar shelling of residential areas killing and alienating civilians in the district of Zurmat in the southeastern province of Paktia in January 2016[xi]. This is probably not a singular case and the opposite of the restriction of the use of force that the US Army FM 3-24 advocates. Furthermore, a retired western officer that has participated in the coalition’s COIN efforts in Afghanistan simply stated that what we were not able to do was to address local grievances, mentioning well-intentioned development projects that often were missed in the eyes of the local population’s more pressing issues. Finally, and although Afghan officers and civil servants alike claim to co-operate well, there is seemingly no understanding of a unified military-civilian effort to stabilize cleared regions and incrementally transition them to civilian control.[xii] In fact, the mentioned officer described Afghan forces as being locked in a “survival mode”, more or less defending their positions and killing enemies to save their own lives. While facing a deteriorating situation this is understandable as it consequently leads to a war that would only end with – literally – the last man standing.
These dire impressions are not only confirmed by different Western security officials in Kabul, but also in conversations with officers and soldiers of the Afghan National Army, as virtually none of them grasp the concept of counter-insurgency.
While the absence of any COIN effort within the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces might come as a surprise to a Western observer thinking of the situation in Afghanistan as a clear insurgency, the Afghan perspective is apparently completely different. What do we need counter-insurgency training for?! There are no insurgents in Afghanistan – we are fighting foreign terrorists! angrily replied Brigadier General Dawlat Waziri, the spokesman of the Afghan Ministry of Defence, after being asked about the Afghan National Army’s COIN efforts in January 2016. And he is in good company with such a view: officials up to the highest echelons, including President Ashraf Ghani[xiii] and Chief Executive Abdullah[xiv], usually – and despite general agreement that the vast majority of anti-government fighters are locals – carefully refrain from using the term “insurgent”, displaying the fighting as a war “imposed from the outside”, a hardly hidden accusation of Pakistan’s alleged involvement with the Taliban. While such statements are clearly politically motivated and Ali Muhammad Ali, an Afghan security analyst, acknowledged the need for COIN, the effective absence of COIN efforts within the Afghan forces shows that the rejection of COIN is indeed real.
COIN training efforts have not always been absent from Afghanistan. Back in 2007, US forces established the Counterinsurgency Training Center - Afghanistan (CTC-A). The mission of CTC-A was not only to provide COIN training to US and coalition forces, but also to build the capabilities and capacity of the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces to professionalize their own COIN capabilities, Lieutenant Commander Ben Tisdale, a spokesman for the US Central Command (US CENTCOM) confirmed.[xv] At the peak in 2011 over 1,000 Afghan army and police officers were trained by CTC-A every month and those numbers were sustained for almost five months across the country, according to a source familiar with the CTC-A’s efforts that spoke on the condition of anonymity. Although US CENTCOM has not been able to confirm the numbers of Afghans trained by CTC-A, several thousands of the officially 352,000 men strong Afghan National Defence and Security Forces at received COIN training at least once.
But the CTC-A’s efforts were not lasting. In April 2012[xvi], CTC-A was transferred to Afghan forces and things became murky to say the least. The Afghan Ministry of Defence declined to comment on CTC-A and its transfer at all and referred to their own counterinsurgency school which was, however, quietly closed down sometime in late 2015, presumably October, without any further official explanation available.
In this regard, it is noteworthy that the Afghan Ministry of Defence apparently did not want this author to investigate Afghan COIN efforts – stalling several times and after giving the name and alleged current posting of the last director of the Afghan counterinsurgency school, a certain Colonel Haiotullah Safi, the Afghan Ministry of Defence suddenly claimed that they are not able to find this specific officer anymore and literally asked this author to drop the whole issue. While this could have been due to several reasons and another source described Col Safi as a “chequered person”, this author had the impression that the Afghan Ministry of Defence is aware of problems that clearly originate from an insurgency but deliberately chooses to blame everything on a “war imposed from the outside” and simply prefers to not talk at all about complicated internal grievances that are the root cause of the insurgency.
In any event, the demise of COIN training efforts in Afghanistan did not come as a surprise as different sources familiar with CTC-A and requesting anonymity stated. The transfer was described as an accelerated hand-over motivated largely by US domestic politics in view of the withdrawal of significant numbers of troops in 2012, one source claimed. The same source continued that the Afghans were in no way ready to assume control of the training as their understanding of COIN theory and doctrine was extremely limited and rudimentary at best. Another source added that COIN training efforts in Afghanistan had always been undermined by the United States’ lacking will to provide enough resources and time as well as the heavily centralized Afghan army that gave COIN little priority. A third source finally stated that Col Safi had reservations about that transition because he felt no one in the (Afghan Ministry of Defence) cared about what happened to them and that COIN training would die off.
Be it as it is, even at the peak of the CTC-A, COIN training efforts in Afghanistan seemingly suffered serious shortcomings. One of the above mentioned sources put it bluntly that the Afghan forces simply don’t have the basis or foundation for COIN. On a more specific note, another source claimed that the translation of nuanced COIN principles was a significant issue. As an example, he mentioned that the principle of using the minimum force necessary or – as the US Army FM 3-24 states – rather than overreact, doing nothing is sometimes the best action[xvii], was more or less translated as don’t shoot at the bad guys, which of course couldn’t be farther from the truth. Another fundamental issue asserted by two of the mentioned sources was that Afghan forces did not fully believe in the legitimacy of the Afghan government – given that a successful counter-insurgency depends on building a legitimate government, a very serious issue indeed. In summary, one of the retired western officers even went so far as saying that, due to lack of will and resources, they only played COIN without really going through with it, which would be worse than doing no COIN at all, as it involved all the risks of COIN without any of its rewards. To be fair though, it has to be kept in mind that COIN deviates significantly from conventional tactics and as even NATO forces had enough trouble understanding, accepting, and applying COIN theory, it was impossible to assume the Afghans would do so as one source put it.
Although Western diplomats in Kabul familiar with military matters claim that there are still some Afghan officers with counter-insurgency knowledge they admit that such officers cannot conduct COIN due to the lack of support and resources from their chain of command. In any event, they agree that there is virtually no specific COIN capabilities left within the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces and that this and the closing down of the Afghan COIN school is a serious problem as this undermines not only the effectiveness of the Afghan campaign, but also the coalition’s whole train, advise and assist efforts.
But, at least officially, the coalition does not seem to share these worries. US Army Colonel Michael T. Lawhorn, Director of Public Affairs of the coalition’s Resolute Support mission, stated that the National Unity government and Afghan security forces understand they are fighting a counterinsurgency – a seemingly stark contrast to the Afghan Ministry of Defence’s brushing away of the necessity of any COIN – and that Resolute Support indirectly helps that effort by giving the training and expertise they request.[xviii] This however, does not include specific COIN efforts as Col Lawhorn clarified that the coalition is not teaching COIN in the sense of using the COIN manual at the (Afghan) Corps level as part of the Resolute Support mission[xix].
Given the situation laid out above, one can hardly fight the impression that the coalition is aware of the issue, but simply chooses to look the other way, as, probably for political reasons, intervening is not appropriate or – due to lack of resources or will to (re)commit such resources which would contradict general drawdown plans from Afghanistan – feasible.
It goes without saying that there can’t be an endless international mission in Afghanistan and, in the end, it is the responsibility of Afghans to solve their problems. However at the moment, Afghan forces and their international backers seem to disagree on the fundamental approach of how to end the ongoing war in Afghanistan, with the latter seeing the need of a counter-insurgency and the former denying and/or not implementing it, which undermines the whole campaign. So it might be up to the coalition to ask Afghan forces to either accept a Western COIN approach and re-establish corresponding training and tactics or – given that the Afghan forces current strategy apparently is flawed, as they struggle to hold once cleared territory[xx] – suggest a better alternative. Of course this is easier said than done or as one source familiar with CTC-A said if Western forces refuse to use COIN tactics and prefer the more comfortable solution of trying to kill their way out of places like Afghanistan, then it’s hard to expect much out of the Afghans.
On a positive note, there seems to be some efforts to re-introduce COIN doctrine to Afghan forces, as a diplomatic source mentioned in January 2016 that the French Doctrine de Contre Rébellion has recently been translated into Dari and provided to the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces. However, it could not be determined if this translation is being used by Afghan forces.
While Western COIN doctrine might not be a magic bullet to end the war, it seems – at least unless the Afghans or someone else come up with an alternative – to be a better option than trying to kill their way out, in particular as this hasn’t worked in Afghanistan during the last nearly forty years. And not addressing the COIN elephant in the room, for sure won’t solve the situation.[xxi]
[i] Statements and information without a referenced source are based on interviews with persons that requested anonymity or assessments according to the author’s own impressions from the ground in Afghanistan.
[ii] US Army FM 3-24 (May 2014), para 1-3
[iv] COIN itself is nothing new, as, for example, the French Doctrine de Contre Rébellion from 2009 is mostly based on lessons from the French campaign in Algeria between 1954 and 1962 that has also heavily influenced the US COIN doctrine.
[v] Note that David Kilcullen in his 13th article of COIN (http://www.au.af.mil/info-ops/iosphere/iosphere_summer06_kilcullen.pdf) rightly points out that winning the hearts and minds of people does not necessarily mean to make them like the counter-insurgents. The objective is to build trusted networks that – in their own self-interest even if they might not like the counter-insurgents –support them while denying such support to the insurgents.
[vi] For the distinction of the two main COIN schools – enemy-centric and population-centric – see smallwarsjournal.com/blog/two-schools-of-classical-counterinsurgency
[vii] US Army FM 3-24 (May 2014); www.au.af.mil/info-ops/iosphere/iosphere_summer06_kilcullen.pdf
[xv] e-mail from Lt Cdr Ben Tisdale, Media Operations, US CENTCOM, to the author dated 14th of January 2016
[xvi] Despite requests to clarify this, neither the NATO-led Resolute Support mission nor US CENTCOM could confirm the month and date, but the transfer seemingly took place somewhen in April 2012.
[xvii] US Army FM 3-24, para 7-7
[xviii] e-mail from Resolute Support’s Public Affairs Office to the author dated 11th of January 2016
[xix] e-mail from Resolute Support’s Public Affairs Office to the author dated 20th of December 2015
[xxi] Note: despite the findings and opinions stated in this article, a report of the RAND Corporation published in early 2016 concludes that Afghanistan has an overall positive result on the Counterinsurgency Scorecard developed by the RAND Corporation (http://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1273.html). While explaining this, maybe only seeming, discrepancy would go beyond the scope of this article, possible reasons might be that the report itself mentions ambiguities and „critical shortcomings“, that the report is based on the situation in early 2015 when, as the report also admits, the situation probably appeared more optimistic and that the – compared to the report – more narrow focus of this article only affects certain, but not all factors on the Counterinsurgency Scorecard.