The Missing Civilians

We soldiers can't win the fight in Afghanistan on our own.

Getty images
Getty images

It is time for the U.S. military to develop an understanding of counterinsurgency that acknowledges the limits of what it can accomplish on its own. Without the close cooperation of civilian expertise, America’s armed forces are limited in what they can achieve in Afghanistan.

Having served with an infantry battalion and brigade in Kunar, Wardak, and Logar provinces in 2009, I know that American soldiers and their commanders are tasked with confronting an "insurgency" that is difficult to identify, much less defeat. As our recent withdrawal from the Korengal Valley so poignantly demonstrates, we are prone to initial missteps and miscalculations as we try to understand a culture that is wildly different from our own. We don’t yet fully understand our enemy: The insurgency is not a single entity, but a diverse collection of warlords, smugglers, and terrorist organizations, such as the Afghan Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, and others.

Many young leaders still arrive in Afghanistan with the mistaken urge to get into the mountains to "go after" the enemy, before realizing that there is more important, albeit less exciting, work to be done down in the valleys. The practical realities of counterinsurgency are mundane and exceptionally time-consuming. The life of a company commander in Afghanistan quickly takes on a routine of daily meetings with powerbrokers and tours through villages to assess development projects, visit schools, and connect with local people. Incoming soldiers are told what to expect, but the true complexity of the task often doesn’t sink in until they arrive.  Some young commanders, such as Capt. Michael Harrison, excel in this environment, but I can recall many more who were exasperated by the ambiguity of their mission.

And for every town like Baraki Barak, which was been singled out for praise by the military establishment as an example of effective counterinsurgency strategy, there are many areas like the nearby Tangi Valley, not 10 kilometers away, which in 2009 was known for having the greatest concentration of IEDs in Afghanistan. We shouldn’t be surprised that our progress is inconsistent. Not only are the dynamics of every district dramatically different, but we are simultaneously asking young captains to lead their companies, partner with the Afghan army, oversee the police, and develop the capacity for effective local self-governance. Few in that situation are able to establish a baseline of security while simultaneously wearing the hat of local potentate and development chief.  We ask our junior leaders to do too much with too little.

Conceptually, the military recognizes the need to understand the local political dynamics that lead to the formation and support of insurgent organizations. Yet our understanding of these dynamics is still superficial, maybe even nonexistent. Most officers and soldiers are broadly familiar with the "Taliban" prior to arriving in Afghanistan, but the only way to really understand the movement’s local variants, offshoots and competitors is through extended immersion in a particular province. Unfortunately, by the time units finally understand the nuances of local politics, it is time for them to depart, and another unit must start the process all over again.

Compounding the problem is what the Army calls its "operational tempo." The limited time between deployments means that units are hard-pressed for the time and resources to train young soldiers and officers. Leaders spend the 12 to 18 months they typically have between deployments in a dead sprint to cover the basics with their new soldiers. This is barely enough time for soldiers to establish basic standards of discipline; develop familiarity with a bewildering array of new vehicles and equipment; and establish proficiency in basic tactical maneuvers, to say nothing of taking the time to reconnect with their families. Intensive training in a complex and realistic counterinsurgency environment is typically limited to a few weeks at one of our training centers in the United States. This training offers superb replicas of the challenges we face in Afghanistan, but is by necessity generic and can only accomplish so much in the time that units spend in preparation for their departure.

The hard realities of the war in Afghanistan have lead to an increasing recognition in the military that it needs to embrace a partnership model of counterinsurgency. Company commanders responsible for towns and villages outside of Kabul need partners from the State Department to help them understand and cultivate local politicians. They also need embedded representatives from agencies like USAID to assist with efforts to initiate sustainable development. Similarly, Human Terrain Teams can illuminate the complexity of Afghan life, helping military leaders to understand a culture that is largely opaque to western eyes. All of these civilian partners would facilitate a cumulative understanding of local politics and culture. They would also assist in building local capacity for self-governance and economic development. 

There are efforts to increase civilian and military partnership at the local level underway, most notably through the District Support Team (DST) concept initiated in 2009.  The DST program has already led to a significant influx of civilian advisors and partners to a few select districts across Afghanistan, but that’s only a start. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will have to find a way to continue her successful ramp-up of civilian presence in Afghanistan. But the important thing is that the military is already acknowledging its need for help in navigating this multifaceted counterinsurgency struggle.

It won’t be easy to recruit the needed number of civilian political advisors and development experts — it will require a sustained, government-wide effort — but we owe our forces all the tools needed to implement our current strategy. This shouldn’t be interpreted as a slight against the military. Pundits and observers are correct to laud the Army’s embrace of counterinsurgency doctrine, but the public must acknowledge that there are limits to what the military can do on its own. Longing for the conventional wars of the past does us no good in Iraq and Afghanistan, but we also shouldn’t celebrate the unattainable ideal of a military that can single-handedly carry the counterinsurgency fight.

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