Small Wars Journal

Fighting the Insurgents' War in Afghanistan

Thu, 01/12/2012 - 11:10am

In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There the eponymous heroine is transported through a mirror to an unfamiliar world. Surveying the country on the other side she declares that the terrain resembles a chess board; that the whole thing is ‘a great huge game of chess that’s being played – all over the world – if this is the world at all, you know.’[1] To understand it, Alice decides to take a grand survey of the country concluding: ‘It’s something very like learning geography.’[2] Encountering foreign landscapes requires a frame of reference: in unfamiliar territory Alice constructed the alien terrain according to the architecture of her own experience.

Like Alice through the looking-glass, the United States has been confronted with unfamiliar political and social terrain in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet has nevertheless sought to impose centrality of government, democratic representation and Westernized bureaucracy. Predictably, the interim and elected coalition-supported elites failed to win popular endorsement being plagued by corruption and lacking reciprocal relationships with the people. Recent surveys have found fraud and corruption reaching comparable levels of concern to Afghans as insecurity.[3] A functioning state is as much about IOUs as it is about IEDs: social inequality, corruption and injustice have, for example, led to recent upheaval in the Maghreb and Middle East.

Unlike Alice through the looking-glass, the United States struggled to develop a coherent strategy because it failed to learn its geography, attempting nation-building in the Western image to offset the risk from terrorists using the territory as a haven, a concern foregrounded in the 2002 United States National Security Strategy which stated: ‘America is threatened less by conquering states than we are by failing ones.’[4] This security assessment highlights both the United States’ conventional military dominance and its fears of the dangers posed by ‘asymmetric’ adversaries operating from failed states.

The failed state[5] is characterized by weak central authority in which exists little reciprocal relations between the government and the governed. The contrast is made with Western state structures which evolved through the levying of taxes and enlargement of the military from which necessarily grew bureaucracies of administration and societal institutions to provide for the population. Taxation was a symbiotic relationship between the government and the governed, an economic contract.

To mould in the Western image was to hope to create law and order from injustice and chaos. To that end, intervention aimed at nation-building became an ascendant trope in military planning highlighted by the December 2001 Bonn Conference which sought to centralize Afghanistan’s mode of government, in which the interim authority would be the sole repository of sovereignty, deferring all armed factions including mujahideen to their control.[6]

As the curtain comes down on the campaign in Iraq and shortly in Afghanistan the examination of these conflicts as historic events begins in earnest; to learn from the wars as the United States’ relative decline in the world escalates, forcing it into greater global engagement with all its commensurate distinctions and antagonisms. This essay argues that difficulties encountered across the spectrum of nation-building will in the future escalate the use of proxies. The argument is made in three steps. The first step exposes the paradoxical nature of prosecuting nation-building as a military-civilian project. The second step argues that counter-insurgency doctrine was hamstrung by an incoherent narrative. The third step highlights the advantages of utilizing proxies in foreign theatres.

Nation-building as paradox

Attempts at nation-building require considerable military, civilian and economic exposure. To promote support for an enterprise that would cost treasure and lives, the intervention in Afghanistan was accompanied by two different narratives relating to the failed state. The first was a security concern borne of the terrorist havens that these areas - absent of a central monopoly on violence - create. President Obama addressing troops in Afghanistan in 2010 said: ‘If this region slides backwards […] if al-Qaeda can operate with impunity then more American lives will be at stake.’[7] This was an argument reinforced by Brigadier General McMaster in an address at the Naval War College: ‘battlegrounds overseas are inexorably connected to our own security.’[8] The second narrative was ethical; that the intervention is a necessity from a humanitarian perspective. As Richard Holbrooke emphasized concerning the civilian element: ‘we have to remember why we’re here; we’re here to help the Afghan people stand up on their own feet.’[9]

The coalition saw an alien landscape through the looking-glass and projected its own template into the vacuum. The two goals, homeland security and Afghan security, were conflated beneath the nation-building banner. Yet whereas in the first instance the military campaign could be conducted with few limitations placed upon it, the presence of the second narrative imposed many restrictions on the means through which the political aims could be achieved. Arguing that kinetic methods should be subservient to civilian operations, in 2007 then Secretary-General of NATO Jaap de Hoop Scheffer stressed: ‘the final answer in Afghanistan is called reconstruction, development and nation-building.’[10]

Treasure was expended: support for centralized rule ensured that the West became a generous patron to its client in Kabul. The aid afforded to the Karzai regime by international donors reduced incentives for the ruling elite to negotiate with its public for tax revenues and the elections - which in the presidential 2009 and the parliamentary 2010 votes were evidently fraudulent[11] - were no guarantors of democratic representation sought by the coalition since they were mere instruments for legitimating ruling entities interested largely in self-aggrandizement. The right to rule became a contract between the elite and foreign donors. It was ambitious at best to believe that the aims of these two entities were in any way similar; for the latter, ruling was as much an exercise in personal gain as an attempt to restore law and order.

An escalating insurgency further hindered nation-building. Examining the conflict from its own architecture, it was believed that the coalition confronted an asymmetrical adversary though to define the insurgency in this manner was to create an error of definition: any agent militarily engaged against the United States has to prosecute the conflict asymmetrically because the United States possesses a peerless fighting force. Yet the insurgents’ strategy did not require advanced weaponry. In counter-insurgency the pro-government force loses by not winning; conversely the insurgent wins by not losing. Therefore the insurgent strategy is to demonstrate that the terrain is not secure by generating casualties buttressed by severe injuries which gain media attention, negatively influencing domestic populations.

Conversely, in order for the coalition to hand over military power to the government it must ensure that the insurgent is denied space to operate in. In this campaign of attrition, the tactics have devolved into the least dangerous method through which to make a space untenable for the opponent. It is conflict by the lowest-common denominator: find the smallest number that will be able to both coerce a local population and make it potentially unsafe for the enemy.

He who cares, loses?

Because the doctrine of FM 3-24 was implemented neither homogeneously nor effectively but on an ad hoc basis a default setting was reached where the pro-government forces ending up simply responding to the moves of the opponent.[12] This flaw became exacerbated when the coalition campaign began to take as its points of reference those of the insurgent, to see the physical and cultural terrain as the enemy saw it and to prosecute the conflict in their manner. That the insurgents in Afghanistan had little materiel, were quite prepared to die, competed with coalition forces for space denial and often instigated engagements with inferior numbers had a psychological impact on coalition soldiers.[13]

In this atmosphere, advocates of remedial or novel approaches to war-fighting gained prominence; Donald Vandergriff asserted that beating the enemy would involve, ‘being better at their way of fighting than they are.’[14] Even experts directly involved in planning stressed the need to ape the enemy. David Kilcullen suggested that local forces should engage in mimesis: ‘Local forces should mirror the enemy, not ourselves.’[15] These assertions miss the point of the technological inferiority of the Afghan insurgents. The insurgent against the coalition by necessity prosecutes the conflict asymmetrically with whatever means at their disposal can accomplish the strategy. Why should the coalition or Afghan National Army be better at fighting with Improvised Explosive Devices or Rocket Propelled Grenades? The U.S.-led forces ape strategy but are greatly hindered by the humanitarian narrative, since cooperation by the population can be rewarded, but unlike the insurgent, support for the adversary cannot be punished.

The strategies being symmetric – denying the opponent freedom to operate amongst the population – only the means are asymmetric because the materiel available to each side differs enormously and there exist cultural peculiarities borne of an existential threat: the suicide bomber is an action the coalition would not nor could not utilize, its escalating use wrapped in a complex socio-cultural web.[16] But dwelling on means distorts the nature of the conflict for it is the ends rather than means which are symmetrical. In Afghanistan the asymmetric actor’s end becomes the norm through which the contest is conducted, devolving the hierarchical command structure of the military, decentralizing and flattening the nature of operations in a manner that seeks to mirror the insurgent’s own forces.

The insurgents have adapted in their ability to deny space to the adversary; rather than settling to eat soup with a knife they attempt to recast the knife as a spoon. Tellingly, and to the detriment of the nation-building enterprise, they have accelerated their use of Improvised Explosive Devices.[17] These devices are effective at denying the pro-government forces the security required to operate effectively without jeopardizing their own safety in confrontation. Suicide bombers operate likewise – they are cheap, extremely ‘smart’, not part of the group’s command structure, requiring no exit plan and with high psychological impact.

Losing face and coin

The rush to deny the enemy space is accompanied by a narrative that legitimizes action and casts the enemy in a pejorative light. The humanitarian discourse centers upon emancipation and is accompanied by the evolution in media affording local events global exposure meaning that the counter-insurgent cannot dissuade the population from siding with the insurgents through harsh penalties: when engaging in nation-building it is a non sequitur to destroy either the nation or its nationals.

Emancipating the civilians of a foreign nation fails to manifest itself as an existential threat in the minds of a Western population. Dangerous though the threats from failed states may be, neither side in such a conflict can afford to risk large numbers of casualties; the insurgent because of limited manpower and the counter-insurgent through considerations of precarious domestic support (dissuaded from the necessity for combat casualties). The conflict spirals into a low-intensity campaign. Lengthening of the conflict through lack of critical engagements suits the insurgent, who is host rather than guest of the terrain and can exploit critical weaknesses in the opponent exposed by the time frame: the financial drain of deploying and servicing advanced-technology war materiel and the mutability of domestic opinion.

Financial drain

Where is the centre of gravity which affords the moral and physical power to act and which represents the core strength of the fighting force? The gravity is in both host and domestic populations. In democracies where candidates pander to the short-term considerations of the electorate, the economy is a critical consideration. War-fighting can only be supported if the threat posed by non-intervention is imminent and explicit: the decade long presence in Afghanistan does not fit the bill.

So too if finance is the oxygen through which insurgents and terrorists breathe, money is a necessity for the nation-state to prosecute a war. Since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been paid for in the United States by increasing national debt rather than raising taxes[18] there has been no reciprocity between the government at war and the civilians of the nation-state. This has been a leveraged conflict where the lack of concessions made by the population has created an ersatz peace at home in which the support for troop presence in these foreign theatres has waned.

Similarly, U.S.-led forces have sought to weaken the enemy by interdicting finances. Just as the insurgent creates new and develops existing parallel economies especially illicit economies – which can destabilize foreign societies – so too foreign agencies acting to offset these parallel activities attempt to provide new industries for former insurgents through disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programs such as the Afghanistan New Beginnings Programme implemented under the auspices of the UNDP in March 2003. In Afghanistan, attempts to extinguish illicit economies are difficult as a major illicit economy is also the most lucrative: opium. So too, the illicit economies rather than being marginal or aberrant actually were the more formal since they existed prior to artificial centralized authority and provided more principled relations of reciprocity between producer and distributor. 

Indeed, a major weakness of counter-insurgency doctrine is its ambiguity concerning money. The counter-insurgency field manual FM 3-24 observes that ‘money is ammunition’ but that money is also a motivation for insurgents. Such has been the application of money to finance local actors that a 2010 Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs report concluded: ‘Security for the U.S. Supply Chain Is Provided Principally by Warlords’ that ‘The Highway Warlords Run a Protection Racket’ and the ‘Protection Payments for Safe Passage Are a Significant Potential Source of Funding for the Taliban’.[19]  In fact, when remuneration for property damage or death is administered by the foreign military it in itself becomes an illicit economy in which the civilian administration and justice system is bypassed. The relationship is then between the foreign military and the civilians – an illicit economy in which the administration is not adequately represented. This is a major concern. Ideally, remuneration, so-called solatia and condolence payments, for damage caused by the military would be administered by civilian government, with oversight to reduce corruption, hence fostering legitimacy by establishing reciprocity between the governed and the government.

Winning the mob

In such a low intensity conflict as Afghanistan has become, popular support, both in the host and the home societies becomes central to the war’s continuation. As such the rhetoric and the manner in which the narrative are disseminated are crucial to the long campaign. The media method becomes a weapons system and the language employed its arsenal.

There is no unjust war when seen through the eyes of those prosecuting it. All sides in conflict employ rhetoric to justify their own actions and denigrate those of their opponents. Gaining the moral high ground in a low-intensity conflict is as important as the physical high ground in a high-intensity encounter; to that end the enemy must be derided as cowardly and risk-averse. According to Osama bin Laden, the withdrawal of United States forces from Somalia in 1994 showed ‘the incredible weakness and cowardice of the American soldier,’ who ‘fled in total darkness in the middle of the night.’[20] John Keegan writing in the aftermath of 9.11 depicted the oriental as embodying a culture that ‘shrink from pitched battle, which they often deride as a sort of game, preferring ambush, surprise, treachery and deceit as the best way to overcome an enemy.’[21]

For the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, ‘The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.’[22] If language enables confrontation by critical framing of the enemy it must logically make engaging in post-conflict reconstruction more arduous.  In Iraq, at least some coalition forces ascribed the pejorative term haji indiscriminately to the civilians and insurgents alike.[23] Such blanket terminology creates difficulties when a granular understanding of the people is required. To go from war to reconstruction is inherently confused by language, since the space in which they operate is the same, the people are the same, but the idea of what the people represent, moving from threat to friend, has altered significantly whilst the language has remained on a war-footing. The frame of reference must be altered but just as the rifle makes a poor spade so the language of conflict cannot be easily changed to the language of equality and association.

Since support is vital then the media campaign is essential. To win hearts and minds away from the enemy, opposed forces stress the other as committing atrocities against civilians. The insurgents are adept at showing Western reporters supposedly civilian casualties from drone strikes, and the twitter spat that NATO and a Taliban spokesman had in the aftermath of the twenty-hour Kabul siege in September 2011 is instructive. The NATO spokesperson tweeted:  ‘the outcome is inevitable: question is how much longer will terrorist put Afghans in harm’s way?’ To which the Taliban affiliate replied: ‘u hve bn pttng thm n 'harm's way' fr da pst 10 yrs. Razd whole vllgs n mrkts.’[24]

Conventional media is fickle. Somalia in the early 1990s is an interesting case study. The United States military propagated the television focus as they came ashore, allowing reporters on the beach.[25] But the camera is fickle, subsequent images of dead Americans in Mogadishu influenced the United States’ decision to withdraw and reduced enthusiasm for further stabilization missions in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Rather than affording the conventional media the lead, it is thus of value to narrate and propagate your own story in the manner you want. Western technological innovation has enabled the dissemination of information globally at a cost of only the labor hours associated with its construction. Insurgent and terrorist figureheads are lauded on supporter websites and forums in text and images as masterminds, portrayed as semi-mythical beings. The Internet becomes a force-multiplier with the ability to negatively influence the domestic populations of the coalition. The internet-linked camera-phone is hence a device capable of a sophisticated cyber attack, uploading images instantaneously to YouTube or Bambuser and assaulting world opinion: every person with an internet-linked camera-phone becomes a de facto reporter.[26] Whereas British forces suppressing the Mau Mau rebellion could use systematic techniques of suppression which would remain secret for fifty years, current conflicts are prone to information leakage that can result in instantaneous global dissemination.[27]

Employing proxies

Conventional warfare against the United States courts annihilation presenting two alternatives: obtain nuclear strike capability to discourage military antagonism or propagate your war-fighting utilizing proxies. Nation-states will escalate the use of proxies in future wars fought for the control of third-party spaces because the use of proxies severely constrains conventional responses. For example, during the Cold War, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Saudi ruling house funded Afghan mujahideen groups in Afghanistan; they were ideally suited to the task being austere, devout and dedicated in their fight against Communism.[28]

Today, Pakistan uses proxies in its efforts to secure borders and implement military aspects of its belligerent foreign policy against its symmetric antagonist in the region, India. Pakistan has been linked to the group which launched suicide-assault attacks in Mumbai in 2008, and has admitted that planning for the attack took place on its own soil. Similarly the United States has accused Pakistan of using the Haqqani Network as a proxy in Afghanistan.[29] To Pakistan, such operations represent offensives action by the only means available to avoid retaliatory strikes or crippling economic sanctions.

Despite the rise of non-state actors with global aspirations, the Central Intelligence Agency continues to recognize the advantages of proxies, rumored, for instance, to finance and co-ordinate a three-thousand strong Afghan militia used to hunt down insurgent commanders.[30] Why should Alice travel through the looking-glass with all its inherent risk and uncertainty when she could ask a national to map the geography for her? In the future, Western policymakers will stress the advantages of being the puppet-master over being the puppet.

Using proxies changes the character of conflict, becoming more like intervention in Libya or the training and support roles in Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines than Iraq or Afghanistan. Iraq and Afghanistan as bold ventures spurred by the events of 9.11 have drained the coffers; now with a more austere economic landscape, pragmatism in foreign affairs will likely prevail. The military must be streamlined and the acquisition of technology for technology’s sake must be re-evaluated; many over-budget advanced projects face increasing scrutiny in the face of a global economic malaise and a vacuum of known threats.

Special Operations involving U.S. military trainers represent a multiplication of manpower. Fully aware of the possible multiplication of dangers posed by the Shabab in Somalia, United States Special Forces train the Kenyan army in their fight against the Islamists. Funded by the State Department, the United States-based private contractor Bancroft Global Development trains Somali troops supporting the fragile Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu.[31] Drones are used in both Somalia and Yemen. Proxies reduce to nil Western casualties and employ in situ highly motivated groups with innate cultural understanding and language capabilities. The national has the de facto luxury of time; it is their place, their space – whether they die in peace or war, that soil is their cemetery.


Nation-building is a paradoxical undertaking in which intervention is undertaken in order to give a people independence. In the post-Afghanistan landscape, the use of proxies is destined to become the favored method through which to influence the security landscape in small wars. The employment of proxies offers emancipation from the difficulties of implementing counter-insurgency tactics. Moreover, counter-insurgency remains a perilous undertaking precisely because there are many invisible hands at work protecting their interests through third parties, interrupting and transforming geo-strategic balances.

Counter-insurgency when accompanied by dual humanitarian and security narratives restricts the methods of the modern campaign in the Internet-age rendering impotent a vastly superior force. The low-intensity war spirals downward, reducing the potential for mass casualties by deploying an inadequate number of troops to prosecute any of the more ambitious population-centric tactics. Thus mired, the counter-insurgent assumes the character of Prometheus from Greek myth; shackled from above by its own humanitarian narrative, from below by the inability of language on the frontline to adapt from conflict to post-conflict settings, the body contorted by pain from the attacking insurgent which although never enough to deal Prometheus a decisive blow, harries him for the duration of his incarceration.



[1] Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass (London: Penguin, 1998), p. 141

[2] Ibid., p. 145

[3] A 2010 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime interviewed 7,600 people in 12 provincial capitals, finding that bribery was the main concern of 59% of respondents. A 2011 poll by the U.S.-based Asia Foundation of 6,348 Afghan civilians across all provinces concluded that corruption was the third greatest problem in Afghanistan []. These findings indicate the ongoing and prominent concerns of bribery and corruption. 

[4] White House, The National Security Strategy of the United States of America (Washington, D.C.: White House, September 2002), p. 1

[5] For the purposes of this essay, the terms ‘failed’, ‘failing’, ‘weak’ and ‘collapsed’ states are conflated under a more general definition of a state lacking a centralized monopoly on violence. For clarification of the distinction between these states, see Robert Rotberg ed., When States Fail: Causes and Consequences (Princeton , NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004)

[6] The 2001 Agreement On Provisional Arrangements In Afghanistan Pending The Re-Establishment Of Permanent Government Institutions states that all mujahideen, ‘Afghan armed forces and armed groups in the country shall come under the command and control of the Interim Authority.’ These provisional arrangements established in Bonn, December 2001 were notable for the failure to consider any need to create incentive for disinterested or rival factions. Evident inability of Kabul to extend services to the provinces necessitated the creation of several granular-focused initiatives. The National Solidarity Program (NSP, created 2003), the National Area-based Development Program (NABDP, 2002), Independent Directorate for Local Governance (IDLG, 2007) and the Ministry for Rehabilitation and Rural Development (MRRD, recreated with new mandate in 2002) are such initiatives. At a Capacity Development Workshop in Kabul, 2009, Wais Barmak stressed that the MRRD was committed to a bottom-up approach, at the local, rural level. The IDLG was formed in response to a critical report from the World Bank on sub-national governance in Afghanistan.

[7] Barack Obama, ‘Remarks by the President to the Troops’, Clamshell, Bagram Airfield, 28 March 2010

[8] Brigadier General H. R. McMaster, ‘Moral, Ethical, and Psychological Preparation of Soldiers and Units for Combats’, Spring Ethics Conference, Naval War College, 14 May 2010

[9] Quoted in Marcela Gavira and Martin Smith, ‘Obama’s War’, PBS, 13 October 2009, transcript available at

[10] Quoted in ‘Force ‘cannot solve Afghanistan’’, BBC News, 8 May 2007, available at

[11] For concerns of fraud in the 2009 Presidential election, see for example, Sabrina Tavernise and Abdul Waheed Wafa, ‘U.N. Official Acknowledges “Widespread Fraud” in Afghan Election’, New York Times, 11 October 2009. For the 2010 parliamentary elections see ‘Fraud and corruption fears in Afghanistan elections’, BBC News, 17 September 2010, available at accessed same day.

[12] See Christopher Sims, ‘Theory Versus Practice’, Foreign Affairs, 2012, 91(1), pp. 178-180. Counter-insurgency doctrine remains an invaluable intellectual tool-box for military engagement with a civilian population.

[13] For insights into the psychological problems caused by an enemy integrated into the population see the 2011 BBC documentary series Our War which has value as being largely constructed from footage shot by the soldiers themselves in Afghanistan and subsequently  released by the Ministry of Defence.

[14] Quoted in Vernon Loeb, ‘‘Up or Out’ System Should Go, Army Author Writes in New Book’, Washington Post, 18 June 2002, p. A17

[15] David Kilcullen, ‘Twenty-eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-level Counterinsurgency’, Military Review, May-June 2006, 86(3), pp. 103-8

[16] For the difficulties of establishing the motivations of suicide bombers and the role of culture see Christopher Sims, ‘Black Widows and Internet Videos: Employing Women in Islamist Insurgencies’, Conference Paper, Gender and War, Newcastle University, 12 March, 2011. After 2005, there was a jump in the number of suicide bombings in Afghanistan, insurgents possibly having gleaned its value as a tactic from the Iraq theatre. The largest number of suicide bombings is in the Kandahar province, the so-called spiritual heartland of the Taliban. The data is from

[17] There has been a general increase in I.E.D. events in Afghanistan although from 2006 to 2007 there was a slight decrease. The data is from

[18] Steven Kosiak observed that in so doing, and continuing to use supplemental appropriations, the Bush Administration forfeited a ‘sound budgeting process [which] forces policymakers to recognize the true cost of their policy choices. Not only did we not raise taxes, we cut taxes and significantly expanded spending.’ Quoted in Mark Thompson, ‘The $1 Trillion Bill for Bush’s War on Terror’, Time, 26 December 2008

[19] ‘Warlord, Inc.: Extortion and Corruption Along the U.S. Supply Chain in Afghanistan’, Report of the Majority Staff, Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs, U.S. House of Representatives, June 2010, pp. 2-3

[20] Bruce Lawrence ed., James Howarth trans., Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden (London: Verso, 2005), p. 82

[21] John Keegan, ‘In this war of civilisations, the West will prevail’, The Daily Telegraph, 8 October 2001

[22] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (London: Routledge & Keegan Paul, 1960), p. 149

[23] Austin Bay, ‘Learning to ‘embrace the suck’ in Iraq’, Los Angeles Times, 28 January 2007

[24] Haroon Siddique, ‘Taliban and Nato-led forces engage in war of words on Twitter’, Guardian, 14 September 2001

[25] See

[26] Bambuser ( has been used to upload camera-phone footage of demonstrations in Homs during the Syrian uprising, for instance

[27] Documents relating to the detention and punishment of suspected rebels in the Mau Mau rebellion were only produced from Foreign Office archives in 2011 after a High Court order relating to a claim of torture from four Kenyans against the British Government. See Ben Macintyre, ‘50 years later: Britain’s Kenya cover-up revealed’, The Times, 5 April 2011 

[28] Rosanne Klass wrote in 1988 that, ‘a disproportionately large share of U.S. aid went to the most extreme, radical, anti-Western groups, which had no broad base of political support among the Afghan people but drew their strength from the financing they received from Libya, Iran, elements in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the radical international Muslim Brotherhood and the United States. This funding was used to create power bases that they would not have been able to win on their own.’ In Rosanne Klass, ‘Afghanistan: The Accords’, Foreign Affairs, 1988, 66(5), pp.  922-945. Thomas Hegghammer’s findings suggest though that there was no active state support to the Arab Afghans, only to the Afghan mujahideen thus questioning the popular “blowback’ theory” (p.62). Hegghammer further observes that foreign fighters are insurgents and too often conflated with al-Qaida, a terrorist organization. See Thomas Hegghammer, ‘The Rise of Muslim Foreign Fighters: Islam and the Globalization of Jihad’, International Security, 2010/2011, 35(3), pp. 53-94

[29] In ‘Address By Admiral Mike Mullen’, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 20 September 2011. The then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff stressed, ‘the need for the ISI to disconnect from Haqqani and from this proxy war that they’re fighting. And without that we can’t succeed in the overall effort as well.’ The general content of the speech placed less emphasis on nation-building and more on counter-terrorism efforts.

[30] Bob Woodward, Obama’s Wars (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2010)

[31] Jeffrey Gettleman et al., ‘U.S. Relies on Contractors in Somali Conflict’, The New York Times, 10 August 2011


About the Author(s)

Christopher Sims is a doctoral candidate in the department of War Studies, King's College London



Sat, 01/21/2012 - 4:05pm

Great article!

This article demonstrates how much America’s identity as a liberal, democratic nation has constrained its military options. These identities that America holds so close, combined with a prevailing preference among U.S. policymakers and civilians for low cost warfare (in blood and treasure), has put the US at a disadvantage when waging a counterinsurgency campaign that requires a great deal of time and costs, especially in a nation as large and rugged as Afghanistan.

Relying on third party proxies, who are often less constrained than the U.S. military, will be a logical choice for confronting future insurrections that challenge U.S. interests. Moreover, as the author notes, these third party proxies understand the terrain and should have more legitimacy among the locals than a foreign actor would. There are risks, however, as the U.S. won’t have complete control over these proxies, who may commit acts that upset our liberal, democratic ideals, which will put political pressure on U.S. policymakers.

Nevertheless, as Stephen Walt has argued in the past (see “Taming American Power”), America should return to its role as the offshore balancer, supporting our allies and proxies from afar. Unless vital national security interests are threated, which is not the case with the Taliban, direct military intervention should be limited. The more bellicose we appear and the more we overtly insert ourselves into foreign lands, the more likely we are to provoke other nations to oppose U.S. power, which undermines our long-term strategic interests.

Excellent article Chris.

We also got caught up in romancing the COIN. In the embarrassing stages of the war in Iraq and in 2005 – 06 when Afghanistan suddenly became a priority again, we were desperate to identify with our own modern day Lawrence, Galula, and Thompson. Lured by the romanticism surrounding historical published accomplishments in revolutionary wars and we found them in the likes of General Petreuas, Kilcullen and McCrystal. In their ray of light, we could understand the academic premise of COIN, we could devise the most complex presentations ever seen, but refused to accept the dirty, corrupt, irredeemable realities of the broken structure of Afghanistan. We then introduced nation building. Like some military version of a Bono and Geldoff BandAid.

The failure is not with counterinsurgency as a conceptual framework. In fact there is no magic or mystery with COIN. It is no more than a framework for building and/or maintaining a stable, civil society. It is what most governments do every day and yet just like any government not everyone within it is actually very good at implementing policy. Maintaining a stable, functioning society with citizens who on the whole respect the rule of law requires the commanding heights of the economy to be fully functioning in times of peace, let alone in the midst of war in a place like Afghanistan.

This is combined with confusing strategic objectives. As Col. Gentile stated in an earlier post. How can COIN, let alone a conventional military campaign succeed, when there was no clear, consistent and unambiguous strategy that underpinned measurable objectives in Afghanistan? This is a challenge to those military and policy decision makers now rushing to abandon counterinsurgency as quick as they were to embrace it at a time when nation building was a convenient and politically correct way to run a war in the modern era. It is a flaw within modern political leaders that they reframe, regurgitated age-old policy and principles to suit domestic political agendas, only to rapidly dump them like a fashion faux pas.