COIN’s Funeral

How the United States and NATO came to pursue the counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan -- and why it might never be used again.

Spc. April York/DVIDS
Spc. April York/DVIDS

If Iraq was, very arguably, counterinsurgency’s success story, Afghanistan looks increasingly like the place COIN went to die. Half of the soldiers NATO tried to train can’t read. They spent billions on roads leading nowhere, schools with no teachers, and efforts to halt a heroin trade that has hit all-time highs. And in exchange for these labors and over 3,400 fatalities, we’ve seen President Karzai’s February prisoner release and bilateral security agreement negotiations — which look more like NATO is being shown the door than being asked to help stave off an all but inevitable civil war. Even leaders who implemented the strategy, most notably former U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, have been singing COIN’s funeral dirge.

This all begs the question of how the United States and NATO came to pursue a COIN strategy in Afghanistan. If eliminating al Qaeda was the top objective, why didn’t they stick with counterterrorism, namely, targeted strikes against members of the Taliban deemed to be "irreconcilable," or U.S. Vice President Biden’s infamous "CT-plus," a slightly beefed-up version that still fell short of the robust assistance to the Afghan government that characterized COIN? Why did they pursue a strategy that many believed was deeply flawed, or at least very risky? Looking at how the strategy evolved, particularly after 2008, the answer that emerges is that COIN looked like the least bad option and the best chance to create some semblance of stability under which to defeat the Taliban and, in turn, al Qaeda.

In 2007 and 2008, COIN seemed to be working in Iraq, even creating a cadre of evangelists in Washington. But contrary to Eikenberry’s assertions, this was more than just fashion and groupthink. There were good reasons to think COIN might work in Afghanistan. Foremost was the Afghan people, the majority of whom had made clear that, on balance, they weren’t particularly fond of the Taliban, and they had submitted to Taliban rule largely because the government had not met their needs. So it stood to reason that creating a baseline level of security while bolstering the Afghan government’s ability to provide services could help solve what appeared otherwise to be an intractable problem — the intransigence of a Taliban movement that had sheltered al Qaeda, tortured its constituents, and showed no signs of ceasing to pose a threat to the United States and its allies.

A strategy built around improving the lives of Afghans also resonated with an international community moved by the plight of the Afghan people. After the invasion, NGOs of every creed poured money and personnel into the country, despite an infrastructure that couldn’t (and still can’t) absorb it. Congress allocated funding to humanitarian programs, presumably for altruistic reasons, though the secondary effect of degraded support for the Taliban was a plus. Afghan women in particular emerged as a cause célèbre.

There was, however, a hefty list of reasons why COIN may have been a bad fit for Afghanistan, many of which were trumpeted not only by critics but, perhaps as often, by those designing and executing the war. "Afghanistan is not Iraq," military and civilian leaders repeated, mantra-like, as if it was somehow exculpatory. Of course, there were also those who questioned whether COIN had turned the tide in Iraq (and remembered its shortcomings in Vietnam); for them, there should have been no question of its suitability elsewhere.

The most pressing difference between the wars was the Pakistani safe haven, where al Qaeda leadership was relatively sheltered and groups like the Haqqani network were protected by Pakistani intelligence. U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s 2009 strategic review, on which I advised, recognized the risk posed by that sanctuary, stating, "While the existence of safe havens in Pakistan does not guarantee [International Security Assistance Force] failure, Afghanistan does require Pakistani cooperation and action against violent militancy…" The question of whether the United States could "win" without real action from Pakistan — action few believed was forthcoming — weighed heavily on policymakers.

Many also saw corruption as impeding the execution of COIN in Afghanistan. Sarah Chayes, a former NPR reporter and advisor to ISAF and the Joint Staff, devoted an entire book to the ways in which wanton graft by Afghan officials, and NATO’s complicity through its support for those officials, was alienating Afghans from their own government. Her message was often heard but rarely acted upon, primarily because U.S. intelligence and force-protection efforts relied on the same corrupt Afghan officials who preyed on everyday Afghans. Prosecuting them for raiding their own state’s coffers was in many cases simply not an option.

My favorite words of warning were posed by then-Secretary Gates in a Senate hearing in 2009: "the Soviets were in there with 110,000 troops, didn’t care about civilian casualties, and couldn’t win." Even then, Gates viewed "caring about civilian casualties," an important aspect of COIN, as a questionable way of overcoming the same core issues that prevented the Russians from pacifying Afghanistan: Afghans’s disdain for outsiders, and the remoteness of the terrain, among others. Which begged the question, of course, as to why the United States and NATO thought they could. Gates sat at the helm of the surge and the COIN campaign. What convinced him, the rest of the U.S. government, and NATO that they could or needed to rebuild Afghanistan to defeat al Qaeda?

Again, the primary factor that led the coalition to COIN appears to be the lack of attractive alternatives. But this in itself cannot (or should not) dictate a nation’s approach to war. Having defended U.S. strategy while in government, I’ve done some soul-searching on this. Of course I could cite the reasons above (many Afghans hated the Taliban, and there was no other way to get them out), but I would add the strong belief that despite limiting factors, the United States and its allies were determined to make COIN work. Yes, they underestimated the resources required, political will back home, and the cooperation that could be wrenched from the Pakistanis. But the narrative behind COIN remained compelling, and despite what many have said since then, there were few if any detractors. Everyone was on board. It was the good war.

This attitude made statements like Gates’s easy to debunk. And debunk it I did, when it was posed to me at a party in Islamabad in 2009. When a handsome man wearing a shalwar kameez informed me that the United States would get "mired down" in Afghanistan, just like the Soviets, I launched into a defensive — but at the time common — refrain among Americans working in South Asia: "We are not the Soviet Union. We are trying to help the Afghans. This will help us win." To my surprise, he backed down. I was more surprised to later learn I had been speaking to Imran Khan, the he
ad of Tehreek-e-Insaf, a centrist political party in Pakistan, and a critic of U.S. policies in South Asia.

Despite my moment of chest puffing, I did not win over Khan, and he looks like the one on the right side of history. It is a tragedy to think the losses the United States and NATO have taken in this war were made in the name of a misguided strategy, even if it was widely supported and reasonable in the eyes of those who designed it. I would also hesitate to say that there wasn’t progress in many respects. But it does not appear that they brought many Afghans onto the side of the government, and they likely won’t leave an infrastructure that will allow the Afghans to keep the Taliban out once international forces withdraw. There is no way of knowing whether the type of Taliban that returns will offer safe haven to al Qaeda.

A presence of Special Operations Forces and intelligence infrastructure should remain to assist the Afghans in the fight that will inevitably come, but the rest of the mission will likely fade, leaving a footprint that, while certainly not the graveyards left by the Soviets, is not the one for which many had hoped. It is also far from the one that seemed most likely to achieve the U.S. and NATO objective of destroying al Qaeda, which, in the meantime, appears to have found greener pastures.

When Washington was in need of a strategy in Iraq, and later in Afghanistan, many in the U.S. defense community bemoaned the nation’s inability to retain the lessons of COIN after Vietnam. It seemed unthinkable that the United States did not preserve such critical skills, which were so clearly central to this kind of war. Now it appears they may be set aside again. This may reflect a shortsightedness, but it may also reflect a sense that COIN yet again seems to have fallen short of the mark. In fact, this type of war-fighting has yet to achieve success for the United States. It is possible — likely even — that the United States and its allies simply cannot stomach the loss and resources required for full-scale COIN. If that’s the case, then what alternative doctrines should they develop to better address the asymmetric wars of the future? The answer may be a long time coming, unlike the prospects for future conflict. 

Whitney Kassel is a foreign policy analyst based in New York City. Kassel spent four years with the secretary of defense, where she focused on special operations, counterterrorism, and Pakistan. She also served as a senior director focused on strategic analysis and risk management at The Arkin Group, a private intelligence firm. Twitter: @whitneykassel

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