The South Asia Channel

From COIN to containment

By Sean Kay After eight years of war, the United States has developed its first comprehensive counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy for Afghanistan. There are, however, fundamental flaws of timing and resources making this plan the right idea, but tragically several years too late. Rather than sending even more troops, the United States should keep the existing ...


By Sean Kay

After eight years of war, the United States has developed its first comprehensive counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy for Afghanistan. There are, however, fundamental flaws of timing and resources making this plan the right idea, but tragically several years too late. Rather than sending even more troops, the United States should keep the existing numbers but redeploy, and then begin reducing them, in the service of a new strategy of containment.

The current plan for Afghanistan involves increases in combat forces, trainers for the Afghan army and police, a “civilian surge,” more comprehensive diplomatic engagement with Pakistan, and a new realism regarding the drug trade. Nonetheless, the mission is vague. The United States’ special envoy to the region, Amb. Richard Holbrooke, recently said of success: “We’ll know it when we see it.”

There has been progress relative to attitudes towards the Taliban in Pakistan — a welcome, but homegrown, change. The civilian surge, which was the right idea, has lagged. Most NATO allies continue to avoid combat and sustain caveats on what their forces do — damaging essential unity of command needed for effective counterinsurgency. Meanwhile the Taliban are stronger, and our casualties growing. According to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, the situation is “serious and deteriorating.”

Americans are asking core questions: What is the national interest? What is the mission? What is the exit strategy? In a recent Washington Post poll, 51% of Americans say the war in Afghanistan is not worth the fight. Only 24% supported sending additional troops. This is a serious problem — with current force levels, one can project a counterinsurgency campaign that will last five to ten more years. The way to reduce that would be to dramatically increase spending and significantly escalate the troop presence.

“Plan A” for Afghanistan would have been to resource the war, and win it. Eight years on, it appears regrettably too late. The time for “Plan B” is now. Five key elements, basic to national security, should guide a new strategy:

  1. Be clear on vital interests. The Taliban are horrible, and are tangled together with al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  But al Qaeda are the global threat.  Conflation of the two has drawn America into an Afghan civil war and a never-ending nation-building project, while efforts to separate the Taliban and al Qaeda have not been successfully engaged to date. Over-investing against the Taliban diverts resources from essential areas of national security. Nation-building in Afghanistan is a moral cause, and America should support the United Nations and NGOs. However, nation-building in Afghanistan is not a vital American interest.
  1. Define attainable success and timelines. Success currently means defeating the Taliban and al Qaeda, training and equipping the Afghan military and police, and rebuilding Afghanistan. Defeating the Taliban has proven militarily difficult, if not impossible. Training and equipping of sustainable Afghan forces is complicated and substantially under-resourced — but it is attainable. Army and police training should be the primary American military objective. The goal would be to enhance security for the Afghan population via local forces in the lead — allowing space for political and economic development where possible. Training and equipping of credible and self-sustaining Afghan forces is the exit strategy and requires clear timelines.
  1. Shift from COIN to containment: Rather than a heavier presence, the United States should limit its military operations in southern Afghanistan and consolidate existing gains. Where possible, U.S. officials can negotiate with Taliban in the south if they will turn against global jihadists. Many Afghans supporting the Taliban can be bought out — requiring financial incentives to persuade and empower populations to reject extremism. While several years ago major troop increases could have worked in southern Afghanistan, more troops now may be dangerously counterproductive. Increased presence in the south risks pushing Taliban over the mountains and into nuclear armed Pakistan. Meanwhile, previously secure areas of northern Afghanistan are falling under Taliban and al Qaeda influence — encircling Kabul and threatening NATO supply lines.
  1. Align strategy and tactics: Containment will not be easy against an unconventional threat. A softer footprint that emphasizes army and police training, economic progress in key cities, and supporting non-corrupt local leaders is the best route. Redeploying forces to consolidate gains in stable areas is a more effective use of troops than sustained combat operations. The promised civilian surge must be resourced, recruited, trained, exercised, and deployed. Continued pressure from Pakistan against the Taliban remains crucial. Counterterrorism efforts should be redoubled — mainly as an intelligence operation with military support. Pentagon and other planners need to develop clear operational concepts for an effective containment regime for southern Afghanistan — and, once established, implement plans for a steady decrease in overall troop numbers.
  1. Re-engage the American people: If an alternative strategy is not adopted, then a hard discussion must be had with the American public laying out the duration and costs of the war in Afghanistan. If a new strategy is adopted the American people must also be engaged in a frank assessment of national interest, mission, and exit strategy. Public support for war in Afghanistan can no longer be assumed.

The war in Afghanistan began justifiably in fall 2001 and troops are serving a noble cause. It was, also, a winnable war had America not invaded Iraq or had the Bush administration adopted the current strategy three years ago when the Taliban regrouped. While the Taliban have local territorial goals, al Qaeda is a global challenge. Its origins lie in Afghanistan and while global jihadists there must be defeated, there is no logic that says denying al Qaeda a base in Afghanistan eliminates their ability to operate elsewhere.

The status quo in Afghanistan is not sustainable. Metrics for success are unclear and absent prompt positive results, public support will likely erode further. The war in Afghanistan is taking an unsustainable toll in American life and resources.

If the United States and its allies are not providing the resources necessary for victory, the mission must be realigned. Plan B for Afghanistan is likely coming — the question is how long it will take to get there, and at what cost.

Sean Kay is a professor of politics and government at Ohio Wesleyan University and non-resident fellow in foreign policy at the Eisenhower Institute in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Global Security in the Twenty-first Century: The Quest for Power and the Search for Peace (Rowman and Littlefield).