Counterinsurgency Field Manual: Afghanistan Edition

Two years ago, a controversial military manual rewrote U.S. strategy in Iraq. Now, the doctrine's simple, powerful -- even radical -- tenets must be applied to the far different and neglected conflict in Afghanistan. 

For the past five years, the fight in Afghanistan has been hobbled by strategic drift, conflicting tactics, and too few troops. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, got it right when he bluntly told the U.S. Congress in 2007, "In Iraq, we do what we must." Of America's other war, he said, "In Afghanistan, we do what we can."

For the past five years, the fight in Afghanistan has been hobbled by strategic drift, conflicting tactics, and too few troops. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, got it right when he bluntly told the U.S. Congress in 2007, "In Iraq, we do what we must." Of America’s other war, he said, "In Afghanistan, we do what we can."

It is time this neglect is replaced with a more creative and aggressive strategy. U.S. Central Command, which oversees operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is now headed by Gen. David Petraeus, the architect of the U.S. military’s counterinsurgency strategy widely credited with pulling Iraq from the abyss. Many believe that, under Petraeus’s direction, Afghanistan can similarly pull back from the brink of failure.

Two years ago, General Petraeus oversaw the creation of a new counterinsurgency field manual for the U.S. military. Its release marked a definitive break with a losing strategy in Iraq and reflected a creeping realization in Washington: To avoid repeating the mistakes of the Vietnam War, the U.S. military would have to relearn and institutionalize that conflict’s key lessons. At the time, the doctrine the manual laid out was enormously controversial, both inside and outside the Pentagon. It remains so today. Its key tenets are simple, but radical: Focus on protecting civilians over killing the enemy. Assume greater risk. Use minimum, not maximum force.

For a military built on avoiding casualties with quick, decisive victories, many believe such precepts veer far too close to nation-building and other political tasks soldiers are ill-equipped to handle. Still others attack the philosophy as cynically justifying the United States’ continued presence in Iraq — neocolonialism dressed up in PowerPoint. Either way, the manual’s critics recognize a singular fact: The new counterinsurgency doctrine represents a near total rethinking of the way the United States should wage war.

But such a rethinking has never been more necessary. Technological advances and demographic shifts point to the possibility of an increasingly disorderly world — what some military strategists are calling "an era of persistent irregular warfare." The United States’ conventional military superiority has pushed its enemies inevitably toward insurgency to achieve their objectives. And in a multipolar world where small wars proliferate, there is reason to believe that this doctrine will shape not only the next phase of the fights in Afghanistan and Iraq, but the future of the U.S. military.

The surge in Iraq has been a primary consequence of the new counterinsurgency doctrine’s influence, and it has clearly succeeded in improving security there. The conventional wisdom about what to do in Afghanistan is now coalescing around two courses of action that mirror steps taken during the past 18 months in Iraq: a similar surge of more troops and a willingness to negotiate with at least some of the groups that oppose the coalition’s presence.

If it is true that a new plan is needed in Afghanistan, it is doubly true that Afghanistan is not Iraq. Conflating the two conflicts would be a dangerous oversimplification. The Iraq war has been mostly urban, largely sectarian, and contained within Iraq’s borders. The Afghan war has been intrinsically rural, mostly confined to the Pashtun belt across the country’s south and east, and inextricably linked to Pakistan. Because the natures of the conflicts are different, the strategies to fight them must be equally so. The very fact that Pakistan serves as a sanctuary for the Taliban and al Qaeda makes regional diplomacy far more necessary than it was in Iraq. Additional troops are certainly needed in Afghanistan, but a surge itself will not equal success.

Two myths persistently hamper U.S. policy in Afghanistan. First is the notion that the notorious border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan is ungovernable. The area, whose terrain resembles the front range of the U.S. Rocky Mountains along a border roughly the distance from Washington to Albuquerque, New Mexico, is home to the international headquarters of al Qaeda as well as much of the Taliban insurgency. However, the absence of a Western-style central government there should not be misconstrued as an absence of governance. The Pashtun tribes along the border have a long history of well-developed religious, social, and tribal structures, and they have developed their own governance and methods of resolving disputes. Today’s instability is not the continuation of some ancient condition; it is the direct result of decades of intentional dismantling of those traditional structures, leaving extremist groups to fill the vacuum. Re-empowering local leaders can help return the border region to an acceptable level of stability.

Second, Afghans are not committed xenophobes, obsessed with driving out the coalition, as they did the British and the Soviets. Most Afghans are desperate to have the Taliban cleared from their villages, but they resent being exposed when forces are not left behind to hold what has been cleared. They also cannot understand why the coalition fails to provide the basic services they need. Afghans are not tired of the Western presence; they are frustrated with Western incompetence.

On a recent helicopter flight above the razor-sharp ridges of the Afghan southeast, a U.S. general noted to one of us that, just as the United States had failed to conduct counterinsurgency in Iraq effectively until 2007, it had similarly failed in Afghanistan by focusing too much on the enemy and not enough on providing security for the Afghan people.

It is almost too late. In the next phase of the Afghan war, the U.S. military must finally do what it has often failed to do in the past: follow some of the basic precepts of counterinsurgency, as detailed in the field manual, no matter how paradoxical they may appear.

Paradox 1: Some of the best weapons do not shoot.

1-1. Afghanistan is one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world. Per capita GDP is $350, just one tenth of Iraq’s. Life expectancy is 44 years. Nearly three quarters of the population is illiterate. The country has 50 percent more land than Iraq, but a fifth of the paved roads. Security is crucial, but it is development — enabled by responsible governance — that will secure a lasting peace.

1-2. Afghans’ greatest concerns, according to polling by the Asia Foundation, are access to electricity, jobs, water, and education. Those who think the country is moving in the right direction can rightly cite instances of successful reconstruction efforts as the primary cause for optimism. For these reasons, security must not be seen simply as a necessary precondition for development efforts. Development often creates security by bolstering people’s confidence in their government and providing a positive, tangible alternative to the Taliban. Take the National Solidarity Program. Under this initiative, villages elect a community council to oversee a development project chosen by village vote. Local people contribute a portion of the capital, labor, or materials, and allocated aid funds are distributed transparently. The results of this bottom-up process have been remarkable: Although the Taliban has burned hundreds of schools across Afghanistan, almost no schools built under this program have been destroyed, largely because the Taliban knows it would win no allies by destroying them.

1-3. Although all development is critical in this impoverished country, roads are the single most important path to success in Afghanistan. In Ghazni province last summer, one of us spoke with an Afghan road builder whose shirt was covered in dried blood. He’d been shot by the Taliban a day earlier for working with the coalition, but he was back the next morning with his paving crew because he thought that finishing that road was the best way to bolster security in his village. Indeed, the U.S. general who was critical of U.S. counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan pointed at Afghanistan’s ring road from the window of his Black Hawk helicopter, and declared, "Where the road ends, the Taliban begins."

Paradox 2: Sometimes the more you protect your force, the less secure you may be.

2-1. The U.S. military, designed to inflict overwhelming and disproportionate losses on the enemy, tends to equate victory with very few body bags. So does the American public. The new counterinsurgency doctrine upends this perceived immunity from casualties by demanding that manpower replace firepower. Soldiers in Afghanistan must get out among the people, building and staffing joint security stations with Afghan security forces. That is the only way to disconnect the enemy from the civilians. Persistent presence — living among the population in small groups, staying in villages overnight for months at a time—is dangerous, and it will mean more casualties, but it’s the only way to protect the population effectively. And it will make U.S. troops more secure in the long run.

2-2. This imperative to get out among the people extends to U.S. civilians as well. U.S. Embassy staff are almost completely forbidden from moving around Kabul on their own. Diplomacy is, of course, about relationships, and rules that discourage relationships fundamentally limit the ability of American diplomats to do their jobs. The mission in Afghanistan is to stabilize the country, not to secure the embassy.

2-3. Counterinsurgency strategy suggests that victory requires 20 to 25 counterinsurgents for every 1,000 residents. Current troop strength in Afghanistan, including Afghan forces, are about a third of that level. The stark alternatives are to deploy more troops or to change the mission.

Paradox 3: The hosts doing something tolerably is often better than foreigners doing it well.

3-1. The United States and its allies cannot remain in Afghanistan indefinitely. Building a capable Afghan security force and a credible Afghan government is the fastest, most responsible exit strategy. U.S. efforts so far have been mixed. An army can only be as good as its government, and the government of President Hamid Karzai has been crippled by corruption and connections to narcotrafficking. His recent decision to replace the much-reviled minister of the interior is a sign that persistent U.S. complaints about poor governance might be getting through. National elections scheduled for this year provide an incentive for the Afghan government to continue to improve, and serve as a major point of leverage for U.S. policy.

3-2. At the end of the day, the coalition’s performance is less important than how well the Afghans themselves perform. Every coalition decision and every operation should be guided by two questions: Does this further the legitimacy of the Afghan government? And is that government deserving of our support? As tribal elders in Ghazni province recently said, they feel "slapped on one cheek by the government, and on the other cheek by the Taliban." The United States can and should take the lead in training Afghan soldiers and bureaucrats to be more effective, but even this task is not being given the commitment it deserves. Currently, the U.S. teams advising the Afghan Army are staffed at just half their authorized strength; the police mentor teams are manned at barely a third of the necessary staff. The low priority assigned to this keystone of any successful counterinsurgency strategy is an unacceptable flaw of U.S. policy to date.

Paradox 4: Sometimes the more force is used, the less effective it is.

4-1. In 2005, the coalition conducted 176 close air support missions (in which aircraft conduct bombing or strafing in support of ground troops) in Afghanistan. In 2007, it completed 3,572 such missions. Bombs — even "smart" bombs — are blunt instruments, and they inevitably kill people other than their intended targets. Each civilian death at the hands of the coalition further diminishes the finite amount of goodwill toward the United States among the Afghan people. Each civilian death undermines the legitimacy of the Afghan government the United States seeks to support. Each civilian death, when refracted through the Taliban’s propaganda campaign, strengthens the narrative of America’s enemies.

4-2. If military units commit to using less force, then it is imperative that others on the battlefield, particularly civilian security contractors, do the same. One of us had a nightmarish experience recently while riding in a convoy protected by Afghan security contractors on a dark highway near Jalalabad. We repeatedly hurtled through national police checkpoints without stopping and finally crashed into a stopped minibus filled with people. The momentum of our heavily armored SUV threw the bus off the roadway, but the guards refused our orders to stop and help, citing fears of ambush. Afghan civilians do not distinguish between excessive force used by soldiers and excessive force used by contractors. In a war where perception creates reality, we all suffer the consequences.

Paradox 5: Sometimes doing nothing is the best reaction.

5-1. Cross-border raids into Pakistan to pursue insurgents have strained U.S. relations with Pakistan at this critical juncture in the Afghan campaign. Pakistan is, of course, inextricably connected to the Afghan insurgency. The Pashtun belt, as the border area between the two countries is known, constitutes the real battleground in this war. Counterinsurgency operations in Pakistan, therefore, are a necessary component of any strategy in Afghanistan. Without Pakistani support, however, unilateral cross-border raids will create more blowback than they are worth.

5-2. A better strategy for persuading Pakistan to act as an ally — and not a spoiler — in Afghanistan involves giving up the short-term tactical gains of such raids in favor of the regional diplomacy necessary to broaden and deepen the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. Even after Islamist extremists bombed the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad in September in an attempt to assassinate the new civilian leadership of Pakistan, the Pakistani Army remains more focused on the perceived threat from India than on the actual threat from inside its own country’s borders. U.S. and international efforts to broker confidence-building measures between India and Pakistan are likely to have a far greater impact on Pakistani counterinsurgency efforts than any number of unilateral U.S. raids.

5-3. More U.S. troops are absolutely necessary to turn the tide in Afghanistan, but American troops are a short-term answer to a lasting set of problems. Supporting Afghan and Pakistani governments that can meet the needs of their own people — including security — must be the long-term solution. The paradoxes of counterinsurgency detailed here, counterintuitive though they may be, provide the best guideposts on the rocky trail toward success. It will not be the death or capture of every last enemy fighter that wins this war, but creating a position of strength from which to negotiate a lasting political solution to a cycle of conflict with no other end in sight.

Nathaniel C. Fick, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, served as a U.S. Marine infantry officer in Afghanistan and Iraq. John A. Nagl, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, served as a U.S. Army officer in Iraq and helped write The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual.

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