Is the Counterinsurgency Strategy Winning the Afghan War?

April 25, 2011 Updated: May 1, 2011

FINDING COVERAGE: Two Afghan national army soldiers stand on top of a blast wall trying to get cell phone coverage. The promotion of economic development by U.S.-led military operations in the country, has seen an increase of cell phone use from zero to 50 percent over the last 10 years in Afghanistan. (Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images)
FINDING COVERAGE: Two Afghan national army soldiers stand on top of a blast wall trying to get cell phone coverage. The promotion of economic development by U.S.-led military operations in the country, has seen an increase of cell phone use from zero to 50 percent over the last 10 years in Afghanistan. (Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON—Eighteen months ago, the U.S.-led NATO war efforts in Afghanistan, launched a counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign, hoping to turn the tide in a war that was looking dauntingly unwinnable.

In terms of NATO’s military progress, we are told that over the last 18 months, the International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, has succeeded in greatly weakening the grip of the Taliban and Haqqani Network in the Pashtun areas in the south and east of the country, where most of the heavy fighting has been.

John Nagl, retired colonel, and counterinsurgency theorist and adviser to military figures in Iraq and Afghanistan, explains that insurgency campaigns are now able to “identify, track, target, locate, and remove from the battlefield individuals with a degree of precision.” Nagl, now president of the Center for a New American Security, gave his assessment of the war effort at a debate on the Afghan war at the Center for American Progress (CAP), April 19.

Cited intelligence reports, Nagl said that the Taliban is today having difficulties in recruiting replacements for their mid-level commanders, with some officers refusing promotions.

However, he called the gains fragile and reversible, borrowing from words used by Gen. David Patraeus before Congress. Nonetheless, they are “clear gains,” says Nagl.

This optimism was challenged by Brian Katulis, senior fellow at CAP. Katulis has spent many years focusing on U.S. national security policy in South Asia and the Middle East, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, and Yemen. He said that while there have been improvements in some parts of the country; the situation has deteriorated in other parts.

“2010 was a very bad year for protecting civilians—the worst,” he said.

One of the pillars of the COIN strategy, which Nagl is a well-known promoter of, is protecting the population that one is trying to win over.

Nonetheless, Katulis conceded that of the some 2,700 killed in 2010, the vast majority was killed by insurgents.

Weak Governance

Katulis also questions the sustainability of the so-called gains claimed by Nagl, with the U.S. pullout starting in July and NATO handing over the security to the Afghan government in 2014. “Here we are in 2011 and we are not much further along,” he said.

DEBATING: Two security experts with broad knowledge of the Middle East theater debated the U.S. counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan at the Center for American Progress (CAP), April 19. John Nagl (l), president from the Center for a New American Security, and Brian Katulis (r), senior fellow at the CAP, agree progress has been made over the last 18 months, but sustaining these gains will be a challenge. (Gary Feuerberg/ Epoch Times)
DEBATING: Two security experts with broad knowledge of the Middle East theater debated the U.S. counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan at the Center for American Progress (CAP), April 19. John Nagl (l), president from the Center for a New American Security, and Brian Katulis (r), senior fellow at the CAP, agree progress has been made over the last 18 months, but sustaining these gains will be a challenge. (Gary Feuerberg/ Epoch Times)
Nagl agreed that many problems persist in the efforts in Afghanistan, but that we are doing well on two of six components of COIN as spelled out by then-Maj. Gen. Peter Chiarelli (now Gen. Chiarelli): Combat and civil security operations, and building host nation security forces—both comprising the military side of COIN. We’ve seen “dramatic progress” on the latter, he said.

But COIN is not primarily military. On the nonmilitary side of the strategy—providing essential services to the people, promoting economic development and good governance, and improving the dispensing of information—the results have been much less successful, admits Nagl.

Economic development has done well, but the base for comparison was low to begin with in Afghanistan. As for communications, cell phone ownership has increased from zero to 50 percent in the last 10 years, said Nagl. Good governance, the weakest link, is improving, but again, the base was very low.

One major challenge in bringing the security forces up to par is the “deplorable” literacy rate. The soldiers are at a first-grade level and the noncommissioned officers at third grade. We have to train Afghan soldiers and technicians to read and write, says Nagl.

On the good governance goal, Katulis said this was the weakest part. The Kabul Bank fiasco, with nearly $1 billion in assets unaccounted for, is indicative of how corruption is pervasive in the Afghan state.

However, the COIN strategy to “clear, hold, and build” has been working well, says Nagl, but it has only been in place since October/November 2009. It is not that it’s been in place for a decade.

“We are five years behind where we ought to be,” said Nagl. He envisions leaving “a long tail to advise and assist” Afghan security and government following NATO’s disengagement in 2014.

Worth It?

The often cited objective of the Afghan war is “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda” and eliminate its safe havens within Afghanistan and Pakistan.

According to Katulis, the Obama administration recognizes two major impediments to succeeding in the Afghan war: Pakistan, and weak governance and corruption in Afghanistan.

From a strategic level, Katulis questions whether the costs of the COIN results are actually worth the benefits to U.S. national security interests. For example, Yemen may present an even more strategic threat to U.S. national interests, yet there is no similar effort there.

On the Pakistan front, cooperation is breaking down, despite the degree of threat emanated from inside its borders.

“I fear we are out of balance. We are focused on hamlets and villages in south Afghanistan when the real threat to our national security interests is across the border and we’ve got an imbalance of resources, both in terms of money and leadership attention,” says Katulis.

Nagl acknowledged the breakdown in Pakistan security coordination, but says, ”We need to work those relationships as best we can.” Pakistan provides safe havens for terrorists, serves as a base for al-Qaeda, and its growth in nuclear weapons makes the fragile ally “the most dangerous place in the world for the United States.”

Support for Foreign Service Civilians

Both speakers agree that COIN’s success depends on career civilians from the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), trained to work with the host nation. Nagl criticized Congress for not properly resourcing the civilian side of the war, leaving the work to the military that is not properly trained.

Nagl mentioned the Quadrennial Defense Review (2010), which identified a need to recruit “regionally aligned experts proficient in COIN doctrine,” with relevant knowledge of the languages and cultures of the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.

The review calls upon defense to work with the Department of State to create and train these career civilians. It placed language training in Dari and Pashtun as the foundation for the program in Afghanistan.

“The proposed cuts to the State Department and USAID put at risk all the gains that Gen. Petraeus and his team worked so hard to lock down,” said Nagl.

“We’ve got to get this right as a nation,” Nagl implored.