Dialogue  April-June, 2015, Volume 16 No. 4


Insurgency in Afghanistan and the COIN Approach

Ajit Lal*



In 2009, as a part of the US troop surge, the Counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine was first implemented in Afghanistan. This doctrine had accompanied a similar troop surge in Iraq in 2007, where it had won acclaim. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who took over command in Afghanistan in the summer of 2009, and Gen. David Petraeus, who was then at the helm of the US Central Command, are credited with the switch to the COIN campaign. There are, however, divergent views on the efficacy and success of the Counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan.

      The COIN document was updated and codified in 2006 in Field Manual 3-24, jointly published by the US Army and Marines. The revised doctrine was meant to be implemented by military personnel who were to engage directly with the indigenous population throughout the conflict zone. In broad terms, the COIN doctrine laid emphasis on the need to protect civilian population, eliminate insurgent leaders and their support systems, and help establish a legitimate and accountable host-nation government that would be able to provide essential services to the people. The document holds that Insurgencies are protracted conflicts and demand considerable expenditure of time and resources. It employs the method of “clear, hold and build”. On ground in Afghanistan, this translated into pushing and keeping the Taliban out and building a strong and capable Afghan Security Force, even while reinforcing the government and its delivery systems.

        The advocates of the modern COIN doctrine often draw inspiration from the work of a mid-twentieth century French counterinsurgency expert, David Galula, who was a French Army captain in the Algerian War from 1956-58. Galula had proposed that army personnel, in the thick of Counterinsurgency operations, had to assume duties way beyond that of a soldier to include those of a “social worker, a civil engineer, a schoolteacher, a nurse, a boy scout”. He added that such multi-tasking was necessary in the early stages of the Counterinsurgency campaign when the military personnel were the only actors around, with the necessary resources but, eventually, such duties would have to be handed over to civic entities. A criticism leveled against Galula’s approach is that while it prescribes the line to be followed by the Counterinsurgency forces, it does not dwell on the contours of the political endgame of any insurgency. This could leave the Counterinsurgency exercise open-ended in terms of time and expenditure. Besides, a soldier’s training does not prepare him to assume all the additional duties recommended by Galula. It would be particularly so for Western troops in Afghanistan, given the country’s completely different cultural milieu and religious sensitivities. Moreover, the experience of the mid-50s Algeria could not be replicated in the early decades of the twenty-first century Afghanistan.

      The situation in Afghanistan had, in the meanwhile, been deteriorating since 2005-06 and in General McChrystal’s assessment, in 2009, the war against the Taliban could be lost, if the Taliban momentum was not checked within a year. He thus favoured a wider Counterinsurgency campaign as opposed to a narrowly focused Counterterrorism approach. This implied flooding South Afghanistan, the epicentre of the Taliban movement, with tens of thousands of extra troops as well as police to tamp down on the violence and intimidation by the Taliban and provide the people with a functioning government. In December 2009, President Obama announced that an additional 33,000 troops would be sent to Afghanistan. The surge was a major shift in approach and the plan, this time, was not only to rout the Taliban, which had happened earlier in 2001, but also to prevent their return by building and maintaining a strong Afghan Security force. The surge flooded the southern provinces with thousands of American troops as also double that number of Afghan soldiers and police. By 2013, there were 17000 American and coalition troops in the four provinces of the Regional Southern Command as well as 52000 Afghans including those from the Army, Police and intelligence. Kandhar alone had two Army brigades and 10,000 police manning checkpoints on virtually every road in the province. There were another 2000 local police in the villages. This stood out in sharp contrast to President Karzai not being able to accede to the demand, in 2006, of provincial governors for 200 police for each district. This was just a fraction of the force ultimately deployed six years later and could have saved the hardships people underwent in the intervening six years.

       The widened Counterinsurgency approach had its opponents both in the Afghan government and among American military experts. President Karzai himself did not see the point of expanding the Counterinsurgency approach when, in his opinion, the problem lay across the border in Pakistan. U.S. military commanders, on the other hand, assessed the insurgency in Afghanistan as indigenous, though one exacerbated by the support emanating from Pakistan. Karzai certainly had a point since after their comprehensive defeat in 2001, the Taliban and the Al Qaeda, aided by Pakistan’s military and intelligence services, were able to revive and become a potent threat in another five years time. Karzai, as also Afghans, in general, saw the US silence on the issue as strange and strongly felt that the US should have taken action against them in Pakistan.

      As the surge rolled and the locus of the conflict shifted to the Afghan countryside and villages, Karzai came to frequently protest the aerial bombardments of Afghan villages, night raids that violated Afghan homes, detention of Afghan citizens by coalition forces and abuses by armed contractors and local militias patronized by the ISAF. Karzai acquiesced to the surge largely because it ensured continued international assistance but he was clear that the battle ought to have been taken to the Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan’s borderlands.

     The escalation of the conflict in 2009 doubled the number of American boots on the ground from around 50,000 to about a lakh in the following two years with concomitant increases in nighttime raids and detentions of Afghan nationals by international military forces. Foreign military commanders, flush with cash, and accompanied by development experts, suddenly became ubiquitous and attracted the self-serving provincial governors, district chiefs and tribal leaders out to make a quick buck. Karzai’s constant complaint was that this was leading to establishment of parallel government institutions and power centres while undermining the exercise of real sovereignty by the legally constituted government. Such parallel mechanisms also impeded the growth of organic Afghan governance and politics, besides fracturing the legitimacy of the Karzai government. In the Afghan context, it had always been important that the ruler in Kabul not appear to his people as a lackey of foreign powers even while he needed to cajole them for finances to fund his State and military. Karzai, accordingly, was always concerned that his people should not view him as a puppet propped up by a foreign “infidel” regime and was always at pains to reinforce his nativist credentials by criticizing the American influence.

     According to General Karl W. Eikenberry, who commanded the Combined Forces in Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007, and served as U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan from 2009 to 2011, Karzai disagreed “intellectually, politically, and viscerally with the key pillars of the COIN campaign. The result was that while American military commanders tirelessly worked to persuade the Afghan president through factual presentation, deference, and occasional humor that the plan was working, they never seemed to consider that Karzai might not be on board”. Such strategic divergence, in Eikenberry’s view, violated a fundamental COIN principle that the U.S. and host nation military commanders and government together devise a plan for attacking the insurgents’ strategy and focus the collective effort to bolster or restore government legitimacy. He added that blindly following the COIN doctrine led the U.S. army to focus on defeating the insurgency while neglecting its overall effect on Afghan politics and the larger end of the Afghan campaign.

      Notwithstanding such shortcomings, the U.S. and other NATO-ISAF forces still acquitted themselves creditably in the Counterinsurgency campaign and were generally successful in improving the security situation in their focus areas.  The surge routed the Taliban in much of Kandhar province in 2010 and it took another two years for the secondary and tertiary phases of the Counterinsurgency strategy, the “hold and build” stages to keep the Taliban out. The Taliban steadily ceded ground till 2013 and part of the reason for the retreat was the growing strength of the ANSF whose overall numbers had risen to 3,50,000 including 230000 army and 120000 police. Karzai, however, continued to distance himself from the campaign, rarely visiting or encouraging his own forces, and caring even less about the complex COIN metrics invented by foreign military staffs and think tanks. He seemed unconvinced by the argument of COIN advocates that all was going according to plan.

        An innovation that considerably aided the counter insurgency effort was the raising of the Afghan local police. The plan was centered on rural youth who were to be used to mobilize communities against the Taliban and serve as force multipliers for the Afghan and coalition forces. The program was not without its detractors who warned that they could become rapacious local militias by abusing their powers. Karzai was also wary of the programme fearing that it would create warlords who would end up eroding his powers. Others held that the Afghan society was too divided and the government too mistrusted for local uprisings to take place against the Taliban. Petraeus is credited with having reworked the programme, increasing the number of Special Forces mentors even while placing the local police under the Interior Ministry’s control. It took a year to recruit, train and mentor the local police force but some of its early victories won for it rapid acceptance from local leaders who saw it as a local solution to the insurgency. The strength of the local police, countrywide, grew to 20,000 with plans for further expansion. By the spring of 2013, the programme started showing results in Kandhar and by September local uprisings against the Taliban had been reported in half a dozen places in Ghazni, Wardak, Nuristan, Faryab, Ghor and Logar. However, such revolts did not presage any wide or coordinated popular movement against the Taliban and part of the reason for this lay in the structural deformities of the Kabul government, such as undue centralization, as also the widespread corruption by power brokers and the warlords, which seriously impaired delivery systems.

       Even as the COIN based Counterinsurgency progressed, there was a growing body of opinion, both in Afghanistan and the U.S. that was becoming increasingly convinced that there was no alternative to talks with the Taliban. In 2009, Richard Holbrooke, special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, began the first diplomatic efforts to open back-channel contacts with the Taliban. He used the services of the German diplomat, Michael Steiner, who had worked with him in the Dayton Peace talks, to make the first contacts with the Taliban. Separately, Karzai had also come to the conclusion that peace was the only way forward but he was clear that it had to be an Afghan led and Afghan owned process. While the Taliban refused to negotiate with the Karzai government, the Taliban opened an office at Doha, Qatar on June 18, 2013 after years of Western diplomatic efforts. The initiative, however, ran into rough weather at the inauguration itself over strong objections from the Karzai government over the use of Taliban flag and the sign “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” in the televised opening of the event. The Karzai backed Afghan High Peace Council also could not make progress on account of the non-cooperation of Pakistan, which was hosting most of the Taliban leaders. Even those Taliban leaders released from its custody were not made available for negotiations. The Doha fiasco, however, revealed the differences within the Taliban’s Political and Military Commissions, led by Mullah Mansoor Akhtar and Qayum Zakir respectively.

      There have been varying opinions on the success of the U.S./ NATO campaign in Afghanistan. First and foremost, it checked Afghanistan’s slide into becoming a regional threat by offering sanctuary to the top AL Qaeda leaders who would have continued their export of terrorism not only to neighboring countries but also beyond and this, in time, would have included India. Ayman al-Zawahiri announced on September 2014 the establishment of a South Asian franchise of Al Qaeda, led by one Maulana Asim Umar, said to be an Indian national. The ‘Islamic emirate’ paradigm was also becoming a beacon for radicalized youth in other countries who would have become carriers of radicalism back to their own countries and become agents of destabilization. Foreign insurgents, such as those from Uzbekistan and China (Xinjiang) have continued to train in the Af-Pak region, and the situation would have been much worse had the Taliban continued to be in power. It is no surprise then that there was no major criticism of the extended American presence in Afghanistan by powers in the region, the exception being Iran.

     With regard to Afghanistan itself, the picture is mixed. Any assessment of the Counterinsurgency campaign would have to be based on what the U.S./NATO set out to achieve and the end result. On many social and political metrics, the achievements have been laudable but purely in terms of Counterinsurgency, the result has been more debatable. There certainly was a missed opportunity in the early days of the U.S. intervention, around 2001-02, when the Taliban were comprehensively defeated, to put a peace plan in place and persuade the better lot, among the Taliban, to rejoin Afghan society. Karzai never offered a peace plan or safety for the defectors, given the strong anti-Taliban sentiments prevailing in his cabinet, as many of them had suffered/ been imprisoned by the Taliban regime. For the next five years, the Taliban were quietly allowed to rebuild in Pakistan. The U.S. could have selected to crush the Taliban and the Al Qaeda in Pakistan rather than divert its resources to the war in Iraq.

         It was no secret to anyone in the Af-Pak border region that Taliban and AQ fighters had escaped to Pakistan after 2001. Mullah Omar’s call to arms, given in Feb. 2003, after a long period of silence, helped revive the movement and police posts in Afghan districts started coming under frequent attacks along with fliers/ ‘night letters’ being distributed calling for jihad and warning against collaboration with the American forces or the Karzai government. By the beginning of 2003, militant training camps started forming along the Af-Pak border. The influx of foreign fighters served to radicalize Pashtun tribesmen in the border areas of Pakistan, even as Pashtun sentiments were inflamed by American bombings in Afghanistan. A combustible mix of tribal solidarity and religious fervour lay at the root of the aggravated militancy that arose on both sides of the border. The AQ’s exhortations and its condemnation of Pakistan’s collaboration with the U.S. drew the radicalized elements in tribal areas in confrontation with the Pakistani State, and in December 2003, Pervez Musharraf himself escaped two assassination attempts said to have been put in place by an AQ Libyan cadre. Musharraf ordered a major mobilization in South Waziristan in 2004, mainly in an area west of Wana, with the sweep directed against foreign fighters. However, the fierce resistance forced the Pak army to sue for peace with the agreement allowing the foreign fighters to continue to stay in the tribal areas. This was only the first of the peace agreements that followed over the next few years making the fighters bolder and the Pak army, instead of taking sustained action against them, sought to manage the situation by putting in place tactical compromises with the militants even while using them for mounting terror attacks in Afghanistan. Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at Brookings Institution, has argued that the “real problem has not changed: Pakistani support for the Talibani insurgency. Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, has been providing the Taliban with safe havens and sanctuary in Pakistan for over a decade. The ISI participates directly in planning Taliban operations and target selection against NATO and Afghan targets. It helps arm and fund the Taliban and assists its fundraising efforts in the Gulf States.”

       The crux of the problem thus lies in Pakistan and the Afghans have viewed with increasing bewilderment USA’s inability to tackle the problem at its core. The problem will continue to fester given the sanctuaries available in Pakistan and ISI’s support of the insurgents. Afghanistan and the U.S., meanwhile, have paid a heavy price in terms of lives and resources in fighting the insurgency. In the thirteen years, from 2001-2014, tens of thousands lives have been lost and over a trillion dollars spent with NATO troops numbering 1,20,000 at the height of deployment. Most analysts hold that the U.S. is departing Afghanistan with the job only half done.

       As the U.S./NATO role transforms from one of combat to training and advisory, with numbers limited to around 13000, the foremost question is whether the newly minted Afghan forces will be able to offset the Taliban challenge. The problem may even have become bigger with the ISIL entering the arena. President Ghani blamed the ISIL for an 18 April, 2015 militant attack in Nangarhar, in eastern Afghanistan, in which 35 were reported killed and over125 wounded. Ghani also put the blame for a recent attack on an army outpost, in which 18 soldiers were killed, eight of them beheaded, on “international terrorists.” However, most security experts are inclined to believe that the Afghan security forces, if supported and funded by Western powers, as per the international agreements, would be able to hold their own against the Taliban. At the same time, there are renewed efforts to renew the peace process with China also announcing support for negotiations with the Taliban and reportedly hasting a Taliban delegation in China. Ghani is being credited with showing greater realism by turning to Pakistan and China as against Karzai’s special relationship with India. There is even talk of increased cooperation between Pakistan and Afghanistan in Counter insurgency but the essential question remains whether Pakistan will change its spots, given its own quest for “strategic depth”. To those in the neighborhood this seems most unlikely but more importantly, is the West likely to fall for a Pakistani charade once again? With the West getting increasingly preoccupied with the ISIL, and the Afghan conundrum remaining as complex as ever, there is a danger of fading Western interest in Afghanistan which, in a time of an international resource crunch, can be truly detrimental to the sustainability of the Afghan government and its Security forces.


*Shri Ajit Lal is former Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) Govt. of India.

Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

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