As twenty years of counterinsurgent wars come to a close with the impending withdrawal from Afghanistan, the United States is still trying to make sense of why American efforts failed to reduce violence and stabilize the country. This failure is in part due to deliberate decisions made during the surge in Afghanistan, many of which were based on poorly drawn conclusions about what had occurred in Iraq a few years earlier. Scholars and practitioners alike are familiar with the axiom that one should avoid fighting the last war. It should go without saying, then, that one should also avoid trying to fight two distinct, concurrent wars as though they are the same conflict. While there are guiding principles for counterinsurgency, there is simply no one-size-fits-all template for success.
However, heavily relying on methods from a different conflict is roughly what the United States tried to do in Afghanistan in 2009 with the attempt to replicate the apparent successes of the surge in Iraq. The fatal flaw in this plan was predicated on a misunderstanding of the circumstances and the environment that had created the conditions for reduced violence in Iraq. Perhaps most disappointingly, these plans for Afghanistan were made and implemented by some of the same leaders who earned praise for having turned the Iraq War around when it was at its most bleak.
In early 2007, with domestic calls for withdrawal from a deteriorating Iraq steadily growing, the United States instead decided to increase its commitment in hopes of pressuring the insurgency and bringing growing sectarian violence to an end. While these additional forces undoubtedly added capability and provided greater flexibility to commanders in Iraq, the successful reduction in violence and stabilization in Iraq circa 2008–09 caused many to attribute a direct, causal link between these increased forces and subsequent successful counterinsurgency. The truth was that the successes were not a direct result of the additional troops, but rather of second-order effects from their deployment. This post hoc ergo propter hoc formulation in the minds of many military and political leaders misrepresented the underlying dynamics of the Iraq insurgency and set the stage for future flawed decision making in Afghanistan. This is probably most evident in the fact that the efforts of 2007–08 are most often referred to as “The Surge” (with the focus and attribution of success being on the increased US troop levels) as opposed to the more appropriate name—the Sahwa (Arabic for “awakening”).
The Sunni insurgency in Iraq was, like most insurgencies, a blanket term that encompassed loosely aligned parties with varied motivations and grievances. Some of the earliest elements were committed “former regime elements” hoping to force a US withdrawal and return of Ba’athist control, while others were jihadist extremists—both Iraqi and foreign—who took the opportunity to fight both Americans and Shias as part of a broader global effort. But many, especially after the bombing of Samarra’s al-Askari Mosque in 2006 and subsequent Shia retribution, were Sunnis who felt no choice but to align with insurgent, and even extremist, elements. For these factions, resistance seemed the only way to protect themselves from the Shia-controlled government—a government many Sunnis feared would maltreat and oppress them upon what seemed like the imminent US withdrawal.
The increased US deployments, therefore, had an additional, and far more impactful, effect than just increased combat power. It showed a renewed and undeterred US commitment to the conflict in Iraq. It demonstrated to a large portion of the Sunni population that the United States would not leave them to their fate in an Iraq torn apart by civil war and that, with the United States acting as the honest broker, cooperation with the government of Iraq seemed like a more guaranteed way to provide protection for their families and communities than continued alliance with extremist organizations such as al-Qaeda in Iraq. Coming at a time of discontent with Sunni extremists, which had been growing in Anbar since 2005, many Sunnis saw the increased US commitment as a key opportunity to rethink their calculus. This confluence of factors was the genesis of the Sahwa or “Anbar Awakening.”
The benefit of the Sahwa was not merely removing irregular combatant forces from the insurgency, but having them switch sides entirely. The coalition reached out to these irregular forces and brought them into the fold as semi-legitimate, government-sanctioned entities (under various names from the vague and innocuous “Concerned Local Citizens” to the more patriotic and inspiring “Sons of Iraq”). These organizations were particularly effective in establishing local control, primarily because they already had local control. The coalition did not create new formations to provide security in neighborhoods, villages, and along major roadways; they merely recognized the unofficial, but very real, systems of control that already existed there. Instead of fighting the power dynamics that had formed organically, which local citizens accepted as legitimate, the coalition and government of Iraq absorbed and recognized them. This sudden shift—from local control aligned with the insurgency to local control aligned with the coalition—was a major reason for the successes of 2007–08.
Trying to Re-create a Surge in Afghanistan
By late 2009, violence in the Iraq War, which had been the primary US effort since 2003, had dropped significantly and the Obama administration was turning its focus toward Afghanistan. To helm this effort President Obama appointed General Stanley McChrystal, who had achieved notoriety in Iraq as commander of a special operations task force through the years of hunting al-Qaeda in Iraq. McChrystal recommended a shift in strategy, focused primarily on providing protection to civilians and denying the Taliban control of major population centers. While these were admirable goals and in line with traditional counterinsurgent principles, the mechanism by which McChrystal sought to achieve these prevented the kind of progress that had been achieved a few years earlier in Iraq. In contrast with the Iraq example, which relied on local forces for success, McChrystal sought additional US forces to be the primary action arm in Afghanistan. To that end, he submitted a report and request for additional forces to President Obama which, as Peter Feaver summarizes, “basically call(ed) for an Iraq-type surge gambit, asking President Obama to do more or less what President Bush did in 2007: (i) change the strategy, (ii) adequately resource the new strategy, and (iii) overcome the strong domestic political opposition to doing (i) and (ii).”
President Obama agreed to a troop increase (albeit at a smaller level than that requested by McChrystal) and announced the beginning of an Afghanistan surge in a speech in December 2009. The speech itself made a direct connection to the perceived relationship between relative troop strengths and the success, or lack thereof, of the two counterinsurgent campaigns the United States had been fighting. “When I took office, we had just over 32,000 Americans serving in Afghanistan, compared to 160,000 in Iraq at the peak of the war. . . . And that’s why, shortly after taking office, I approved a longstanding request for more troops,” he explained. In the same speech, President Obama announced these increased troop levels would end within eighteen months, beginning what was intended to be a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan shortly thereafter.
Therefore, a strategy meant to imitate recent successes in Iraq was almost certainly doomed to failure from its inception, largely because of two critical miscalculations—one political and one operational. The political error was in immediately announcing a timeline for withdrawal, thus demonstrating the opposite of the renewed commitment shown during the Iraq War. The operational error was in planning for US soldiers and Marines to be the primary means by which security would be achieved instead of attempting to work by, with, and through local sources of power, security, and legitimacy. The overly simplified conclusion—more US troops would bring counterinsurgent victory—had glossed over the sequential steps and environmental factors that created a link between committing more troops and achieving success, and instead created a plan in which one was designed to directly achieve the other, and within a limited timeline.
Even the closest attempt at anything Sahwa-like during the surge in Afghanistan, the Village Stability Operations/Afghan Local Police program, was started too late, ended too early, and too burdened by cumbersome Afghan Ministry of the Interior bureaucracy. These forces, while taken from and serving in the local villages, were still reformed into something new. They were not standing militias like, for example, the 1920s Brigade was in Iraq. They never replicated the natural power—and often lacked the tribal history, leadership, and structure—of the Sons of Iraq.
The mistaken conclusions from the Iraq War during the Afghan surge were not limited to strategic-level decision makers. Brigade and battalion commanders, many of whom had cut their teeth in Iraq, tried to use the same tools to achieve success that had worked in previous experiences. The Commander’s Emergency Response Program, which allowed commanders to quickly undertake civil and infrastructure projects, had been a vastly effective game changer in Iraq. However, these projects in Iraq were often designed to rebuild infrastructure that had been damaged or disrupted during the invasion or subsequent fighting. In other words, these projects helped return a relatively modern and expected standard of living and reduce grievances that fueled the insurgency. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, these projects often were used to create new infrastructure, much of which was of marginal utility to a populace who had never had it and therefore did not miss it, and usually did not think the new projects were worth the Taliban retribution they often attracted. These projects had vastly diminished returns in Afghanistan and were another example of Americans falling back on what they felt were tried and true tools in their proverbial kit bags, not in the context of what the Afghan environment required.
The Enduring Legacy from Flawed Decisions
In hindsight, the Afghan surge did not achieve its stated goals, and the war in Afghanistan continues to this day as the United States prepares for withdrawal later this year. For most of the Afghan surge, the United States focused on conducting counterinsurgency directly by US troops or through corrupt, inefficient, and burdensome Afghan government structures that had developed over the previous decade. For much of the war, the focus was distracted from addressing underlying grievances that allowed the insurgency to flourish. Instead, many leaders focused on direct kinetic effects against insurgents, or on measures of performance in nation-building projects, without regard to those projects’ measures of effectiveness.
Likewise, there was a sad epilogue in Iraq, in large part because of a failure to understand the causes of one-time successes there. The fear of US abandonment to Shia retribution, which had fueled the insurgency prior to 2007, came to fruition after the Iraqi election of 2010. Despite receiving a minority of the parliamentary seats, a somewhat paranoid Nouri al-Maliki formed a governing coalition with the more extreme and Iranian-backed wings of Iraqi politics, with the backing and endorsement of the US government. After US withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, Maliki and his allies used the levers of state power to punish and oppress his Sunni rivals, which proved to be a key factor in the rise of ISIS. The US experience in Iraq is further evidence that, while militaries can achieve tactical or operational successes in a counterinsurgency campaign, the ultimate success or failure hinges on an acceptable political settlement.
All warfare is political, and all warfare shifts on human decisions made in complex circumstances. But this is doubly true of counterinsurgent warfare. It is a complicated endeavor that requires deft understanding of the motivations and goals of multiple actors. America’s mistake, in two theaters, was in trying to reduce one of the more complex forms of conflict into something simple, uniform, and replicable without regard to the environment. While the United States should not shy away from studying, determining principles of, developing doctrine for, and preparing to conduct counterinsurgency, we must remember that these guidelines are only as good as the means by which they are adapted to the fight at hand.
Lieutenant Colonel Michael D. Nelson is an Army Special Forces officer and veteran of Operations Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom, and Inherent Resolve, including as an ODA commander in Iraq during the Sahwa and as part of a special operations task force during the Afghan surge. He is a visiting fellow at the National Security Institute at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Senior Airman Eric Harris, US Air Force
So many “Mis-learnings” from the Iraq Surge Era. This article sets many of them straight. Unfortunate that the centrality of the Sahwa to the Iraq turnaround hasn’t penetrated institutional knowledge more deeply than it has.
Whether we are talking about the U.S./the West's efforts, of late, to alter the way of life, the way of governance, the values, etc., of states and societies in the U.S./the West itself — and/or those of states and societies elsewhere throughout the world, for example, in Iraq and Afghanistan today —
Whether we are talking about either or both of these such U.S./the West's efforts, what we must come to understand is that – in all such instances — the "transformative"/"modernizing" actions being undertaken by the U.S./the West today, these constitute:
a. Not so much "counterinsurgency" but, rather,
b. "Revolutionary warfare."
This understanding allowing that we might likewise come to understand that the "countering" actions being undertaken by our opponents today — those both here at home in the U.S./the West and/or there abroad in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan — these such "countering" actions constitute:
a. Not so much "insurgency" but, rather,
b. "Resistance warfare."
From Kilcullen's "Counterinsurgency Redux:"
"Similarly, in classical theory, the insurgent initiates. Thus, Galula asserts that ‘whereas in conventional war, either side can initiate the conflict, only one – the insurgent – can initiate a revolutionary war, for counter-insurgency is only an effect of insurgency’. Classical theorists therefore emphasise the problem of recognising insurgency early. Thompson observes that ‘at the first signs of an incipient insurgency … no one likes to admit that anything is going wrong. This automatically leads to a situation where government countermeasures are too little and too late.’ But, in several modern campaigns – Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Chechnya, for example – the government or invading coalition forces initiated the campaign, whereas insurgents are strategically reactive (as in ‘resistance warfare’). Such patterns are readily recognisable in historical examples of resistance warfare, but less so in classical counter-insurgency theory.
Politically, in many cases today, the counter-insurgent represents revolutionary change, while the insurgent fights to preserve the status quo of ungoverned spaces, or to repel an occupier – a political relationship opposite to that envisaged in classical counter-insurgency. Pakistan's campaign in Waziristan since 2003 exemplifies this. The enemy includes al-Qaeda-linked extremists and Taliban, but also local tribesmen fighting to preserve their traditional culture against twenty-first-century encroachment. The problem of weaning these fighters away from extremist sponsors, while simultaneously supporting modernisation, does somewhat resemble pacification in traditional counter-insurgency. But it also echoes colonial campaigns, and includes entirely new elements arising from the effects of globalisation.
Bottom Line Thought — Based on the Above:
If we were to look at this sentence from last paragraph of my quoted item above:
"The enemy includes al-Qaeda-linked extremists and Taliban, but also local tribesmen fighting to preserve their traditional culture against twenty-first-century encroachment."
And if we were to change this sentence to reflect U.S./Western difficulties here at home today:
"The enemy includes Right-Wing extremists but also other local population groups fighting to preserve their traditional culture against twenty-first-century encroachments,"
Then would this help us to both understand — and to agree with — Kilcullen's "revolutionary warfare" and "resistance warfare" thesis above?
Your problem would be, first, identifying American citizens in a Constitutional Republic requesting redress of grievances as "the enemy" and the second would be calling them "Right Wing Extremists". Perhaps, rather, the "extremists" are those who have an avowed aim of "fundamentally transforming" the Constitutional Republic into a different, socialist entity? You know, those "initiating revolution" or "resistance" (which you might recognize) who are the "insurgents". So I think your own ideology has led you to misidentify and mischaracterize the players in our own political sphere.
As to the Middle East, as shown in Iraq it is always the "strongest horse" that gets support. We are also working against the meme of the last 40 years that we will cut and run if you just make it painful enough. To paraphrase Grant on Lee, "It is time to stop worrying about what pain they are going to cause and let them worry about what we are going to do". Per our lesson, seize the initiative rather than ceding it to the enemy. As pointed out in the article, Obama was working at cross purposes from the beginning so no wonder the strategy was weak and muddled.
One thing that is elided here, though, is the power of money. We BOUGHT many of those Sunni tribes in Anbar. By taking over as their source of income, we became their "allies" because they saw 1) a way to get more and 2) a way to get us to leave (which is what we were trying to get them to realize – "you settle down and we have no reason to stay and then you can do what you want as long as you don't attack anyone").
In Afghanistan, their chief source of income is the heroin from growing poppies – not just bakshish or Diya – so that is the income source we were trying to replace with the tribes and the base of their "loyalty" and survival. We tried to interdict this trade and shift the economy away from illicit drugs – so it wasn't only the Taliban or ISI or anybody we were fighting politically or ideologically, it was the criminals in EACH of them (along with Russia, China and everywhere else) that were in the heroin business and pumping funds into the enemy to KEEP Afghanistan as open and lawless as possible so they could operate their drug trade. That this made things difficult for us was just a side benefit to the criminals, but the Russians and Chinese (working with elements of the Pakistan ISI) WANTED to keep us there to bleed resources and keep our eye OFF the ball elsewhere (some mischief and some real strategy).
So let's not act like either of these were simple or, as covered, provide any OTHER lesson than, perhaps, we need to prove to people (again, as they learned in WWII) that the price upfront for messing with us is too high to bring down on you and your group/country and that, if you do, the pain will not only be high but enduring as we will see the fight through to the end. They have to believe this, not us…and that requires lessons, too.
Indeed, Kilcullen, in his "Counterinsurgency Redux" above, seems to take great pains; this, to tell us that he does, indeed, believe that:
a. It is governments today who are the actual insurgents; this, given that it is governments today who he sees as the ones engaged in "revolutionary" activities, for example, activities designed to advance the political, economic, social and/value "changes" necessary for (a) globalization and thus necessary for (b) national security. And that, accordingly,
b. It is the more-conservative/the more-traditional, the more-no-change (and/or reverse unwanted change) elements within various states and societies today who — because they oppose these such government "change" initiatives — are now considered to be (a) the actual "counter-insurgents" and, thus in this such context, (b) "the enemy."
Below are some examples of the rationale that governments use today (in this case, the rationale of the element of the United States government known as the U.S. Supreme Court); this, for governments making arguments that (a) the political, economic, social and/or value changes they believe they must support and undertake make, these are (b) necessary for national security.
((These quoted matters were taken from the Catholic University of America paper: "Moral Communities or a Market State," by Antonio F. Perez and Robert J. Delahunty.)
"In taking this course, the Court has increasingly aligned itself with the prescriptive views of American business and political elites, for whom globalization is understood 'not merely [as] a diagnostic tool but also [as] an action program.' From this perspective, globalization 'represents a great virtue: the transcendence of the traditional restrictions on worldwide economic activity.., inherent' in the era of Nation States. Proponents of this vision of a globalized economy characterize the United States as 'a giant corporation locked in a fierce competitive struggle with other nations for economic survival,' so that 'the central task of the federal government' is 'to increase the international competitiveness of the American economy'."
(As to this first quoted item, see Page 643 of the referenced Catholic University of America paper above; therein, see the paragraph which starts with "We agree with Bobbitt that a global transition from Nation States to Market States is now well underway.")
“Major American businesses have made clear that the skills needed in today’s increasingly global marketplace can only be developed through exposure to widely diverse people, cultures, ideas, and viewpoints. What is more, high-ranking retired officers and civilian leaders of the United States military assert that ‘[based on their] decades of experience,’ a ‘highly qualified, racially diverse officer corps … is essential to the military’s ability to fulfill its principle mission to provide national security.’ …”
“In short, the Court based its constitutional reasoning on the contention of a group of the Nation’s key corporate, political, and military leaders that the Nation’s prospects of success in the face of international strategic threats, as well as continued stability and perceived legitimacy in its domestic political institutions, required racial preferences in elite formation through our major educational institutions.”
(As to this second quoted item above, see the bottom of Page 698 and and the top of Page 699 of the referenced paper.)
Bottom Line Thought — Based on the Above:
We should not be surprised by the fact that — throughout latter history — (a) those who oppose government-sponsored political, economic, social and/or value "change" initiatives; these can be (b) seen as "the enemy;"
This, given that the demands of capitalism — are various times like today — places the more-traditional, the more-conservative, the more-no-change (and/or reverse unwanted change) elements of states and societies IN THIS EXACT SUCH POSITION?:
“Capitalism is the most successful wealth-creating economic system that the world has ever known; no other system, as the distinguished economist Joseph Schumpeter pointed out, has benefited ‘the common people’ as much. Capitalism, he observed, creates wealth through advancing continuously to every higher levels of productivity and technological sophistication; this process requires that the ‘old’ be destroyed before the ‘new’ can take over. … This process of ‘creative destruction,’ to use Schumpeter’s term, produces many winners but also many losers, at least in the short term, and poses a serious threat to traditional social values, beliefs, and institutions.”
(From the book “The Challenge of the Global Capitalism: The World Economy in the 21st Century,” by Robert Gilpin, see the Introduction.)
Addendum to my comment above:
The following quoted items, taken from the first two paragraphs of Sir Adam Roberts 2006 “Transformative Military Occupations: Applying the Laws of War and Human Rights;” these also may support Kilcullen's "revolutionary warfare" and "resistance" warfare thesis above:
“Within the existing framework of international law, is it legitimate for an occupying power, in the name of creating the conditions for a more democratic and peaceful state, to introduce fundamental changes in the constitutional, social, economic, and legal order within an occupied territory?" …
These questions have arisen in various conflicts and occupations since 1945 — including the tragic situation in Iraq since the United States–led invasion of March–April 2003." …
10 March 2010
Is Afghanistan Another Vietnam?
Although now retired from the United States Army for nearly thirty years I still maintain a strong affinity for my assignments as a Special Forces soldier. First as an A-Detachment Commander in Vietnam in 1962; then as a Battalion (C-Detachment) Commander with the 5th Special Forces Group, Vietnam in 1969; and finally as the 7th Special Forces Group Commander, Fort Bragg, N.C. in 1973.
Special Forces continue to be utilized throughout the world in mostly underdeveloped countries by employing their unconventional skills mostly on covert missions of all types. Whether in Grenada, Panama, Iraq, the Philippines and most recently Afghanistan it has truly come a long way since 1962.
It is Afghanistan; however, that has most attracted my attention. The natural tendency has been to secure major urban areas and let remote, isolated and tribal areas manage as best they can. Increasingly larger military forces have been required to maintain an anti-Taliban/anti-Al-Qaeda urban oriented Afghan government. This abandonment of rural villages and vast peasant / tribal populations has widened the insurgency which has resulted in the loss of peasant support primarily because of inadequate protection and security from the insurgents.
Tribal Warfare in Afghanistan appears to have evolved from the rudimentary application of forming a tribal counterinsurgency force that was applied with the Rhade tribe in Vietnam in 1962; to the more sophisticated application of today. Regardless of new technology and a more astute enemy the basic principles for success remain the same.
They are to be adhered to with innovation and unbridled determination even in the face of
opposition. Some who question United States involvements in Afghanistan make comparisons to Vietnam. Although it is true that they are similar, they are not the same.
FOR THE SIMILARITIES
External forces ultimately succumbed.
After more than 100 years of French colonialism the Viet Minh defeated the French in 1954 and Vietnam was divided into North Vietnam and South Vietnam. Almost immediately North Vietnam, under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh, embarked on a communist inspired insurgency into South Vietnam to take control of the entire country.
The latest civil war in Afghanistan began in 1978 when an insurgency broke out against the government. This led to Soviet intervention supporting the Marxist government against the Mujahideen. The Soviets were defeated in 1989. Power fell to the Taliban in 2006 and today is leading the insurgency in Afghanistan.
The U.S. led support for the Republic of South Vietnam lasted ten years before succumbing in 1975 to the Democratic Republic of North Vietnam.
In Afghanistan it is the ninth year, and counting, when in 2001 American led NATO forces invaded Afghanistan to destroy Al-Qaeda and to topple the Taliban.
A weak government persisted
The South Vietnamese government wasn’t anymore popular with the urban peasantry than they were with their tribal outcasts. In the former they permitted religious discontent to sway their actions. In the latter group, they clearly lacked the knowledge, will and effective interface necessary to garnish their support.
The Afghan government was in turmoil from the start. With so many factions vying for political control it was the tribal clans that were left to provide for the needs of the people leaving the government hapless.
South Vietnam paid little attention as the communist Viet Minh were left unfettered to
infiltrate the south tribal areas until their control of the Central Highlands made the Vietnamese enclaves along the coastal and Delta regions vulnerable.
In Afghanistan, while the Al-Qaeda was being severely damaged militarily, the Taliban were left to organize, recruit and terrorize against the government until they became a formidable insurgent opponent.
In Vietnam rampant corruption and political misdeeds adversely affected the counterinsurgency effort. As important was the mistreatment, neglect and the suffering
the tribal groups faced when they were denied most social programs.
In Afghanistan political corruption as well as illicit activities is tantamount to defeat. Without stability and development the government is considered to be weak.
Laos and Cambodia were ideal sanctuaries for the Viet Minh. They provided safe havens, supply routes, training camps, rest areas along the entire western border of Vietnam. Both Laos and Cambodia, under Chinese influence, denied the United States
permission to conduct cross border operations.
The problem in Afghanistan lies mostly in the southeast border with Pakistan. This is rugged terrain that abuts tribal groups that have a long history of support for the Taliban who moved there in large numbers when Russia invaded Afghanistan. Pakistan does not possess the capability or the will to eradicate this sanctuary due to their internal problems and interests.
In Vietnam the United States military was hesitant on taking on the Buon Enao Tribal
Counterinsurgency project as they believed it was improper for them to be conducting
covert operations without the knowledge of the Government of Vietnam. The project was defaulted to the CIA for whom clandestine missions was not new. It was also understood that if uncovered the public outcry would create a public relations nightmare.
In Afghanistan under today’s climate it has been politically correct to acknowledge that covert operations are being undertaken with the full knowledge of the Afghan Government; and the U.S. press as well. The only problem is that when each specific covert action is uncovered whether a drone attack, the killing or capture of an insurgent leader or the loss of special operation personnel the Afghan Government is either forced to condemn it or claim no knowledge of it; while the press clamors for details
A sitting Senator, John Kennedy, in 1962 became the newly elected President of the United States and was shortly faced with the decision to expand the counterinsurgency war in Vietnam.
A sitting Senator, Barack Obama, in 2008 became the newly elected President of the United States and was shortly faced with the decision to expand the counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan.
FOR THE DIFFERENCES
At the outset of the insurgency South Vietnam had an elected, functioning government in
place; as well as an Armed Force – weak as it was.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union intervention in Afghanistan one government after another was overthrown until 1992 when the Mujahideen assumed control and declared the Islamic State of Afghanistan. Almost immediately thereafter civil war continued among the various clans and religious groups. The only armed forces were the militias.
Vietnam had a market economy with many resources. Rubber, coffee, rice, lumber, fishing, tourism, agriculture and light industry were major products. They had a transportation system, communications system, education system and health system.
On the other hand Afghanistan is extremely poor, landlocked, and highly dependent on foreign aid, agriculture, and trade with neighboring countries. Sheep and sheep products, fruit, nuts, and precious and semi-precious gems offer a small export market. Much of the population continues to suffer from shortages of housing, clean water, electricity, medical care, and jobs. They lack developed natural resources with the exception of the poppy trade for which opium is their largest export.
In Vietnam the Viet Cong received major support from the Chinese and Russians. Financial aid, equipment and material, advisors, training and political backing was unrelenting and instrumental in the advances they made.
The Taliban receives the bulk of their support from Pakistan; and to a lesser extent from Saudi Arabia. This comes in the form of financing, military aid and political
The Viet Cong evolved into a large and well organized, equipped and dedicated external force referred to as the North Vietnamese Army. Capable of massing only to quickly
disperse and fade into the jungles they employed mostly guerrilla tactics.
The Taliban, on the other hand, is a relatively small number of determined locals working out of small cells mostly independently. They are tenacious and well trained for what they do. Creating chaos through acts of terrorism is their modus operandi either in the form of threats, suicide bombings or assassinations.
The infrastructure in Vietnam was modestly advanced so that there was little
discontentment of the living conditions that could easily detract from the counterinsurgency effort. That is, except for the tribal regions where the Viet Cong made their greatest inroads.
In Afghanistan infrastructure is almost non-existent. This makes it difficult to provide even the basic services the population expects to include security. This foments hatred and disrespect for the Kabul government.
In Vietnam over 40 Montagnard tribal groups with close similarities were found mostly in the Central Highlands covering nearly two thirds of the country. Both sides of the insurgency had generally conceded that “he who gained the Central Highlands would win the war”. The tribes themselves, though strategically located, did not possess the political influence or resistance capability to influence the government of South Vietnam.
Afghanistan, on the other hand, is loosely knit ethnic groups who have their own way of living and who are spread throughout the country. These are tribal groups
who self govern based on tradition; and who have leverage on political decisions.
The tribes of Vietnam occupied a vast territory that was dispersed, with the largest tribes,
the Rhade, Jarai, Bahnar and Sedang separated by distinct provinces. These tribes, collectively defined as Montagnards, were mutually supporting of one another.
In Afghanistan overlapping tribal areas create inter-tribal conflict. The Pashtuns, the country’s largest ethnic group, is particularly important.
In Vietnam the insurgency was fought with the technology available of that era. At the
outset a rudimentary form of warfare was fought by both sides with the Viet Cong the more austere of the two. As the insurgency expanded modern weapons were introduced.
In Afghanistan the most evident progress has been in the field of electronics. Lap Tops, cell phones, satellite navigation systems, drones and others have provided both the insurgents and counterinsurgents new capabilities.
In Vietnam counterinsurgency began on a small scale with U.S. involvement primarily that of training and assistance provided by the Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG). As the war escalated and large numbers of American troops were committed to the conflict the anti-war factions began to strengthen; and as American casualties mounted support was at its lowest ebb.
In Afghanistan the conflict began with an invasion of a U.S. led coalition supported in general by the American public. A counterinsurgency plan was not put into effect until years later. To date public support for this all-volunteer military force has remained relatively steady; but as the war drags on and American casualties increase support is faltering.
On the right course
It is my opinion that the best condition for success in Afghanistan lies with the tribal
groups. Although special operation forces have been working with the tribes almost from the outset I sense that they are facing some of the same pitfalls that rendered the once highly successful Vietnam tribal program neutralized.
I recently read Major Gant’s “One Tribe at a Time” paper. It was no surprise to me that his approach much mirrored that which I employed in Vietnam in 1962. In each situation there were signs that the tribal groups offered the best hope against the insurgency – for both political and tactical reasons.
Before proceeding further let me be clear about one important consideration. Although this war can be classified as a “low intensity conflict” the conditions that existed for conducting Tribal Counterinsurgency against the Viet Cong in Vietnam were not as severe, nor as dangerous nor as complicated as they are today in Afghanistan.
Nevertheless Tribal Counterinsurgency has many similarities in Afghanistan today as they were in Vietnam in 1962. There are, therefore, lessons to be learned. Not everything done in Vietnam was done wrong! However, do not confuse the Viet Cong conflict in the early 1960’s with the conventional conflict against the North Vietnamese Army which later followed when the U.S. fully committed.
Not much more need be done than dust off the After Action reports and other studies to find that counterinsurgency succeeds when the right application and type of forces are utilized to fight an insurgent. The enemy needs to be fought as he fights us– tactically and psychologically. Support of the population for security and intelligence is as necessary for the Afghan government as it is for the Taliban.
Although one might compare NATO”s involvement in Afghanistan with the coalition involvement in Vietnam, I cannot fully accept that political comparison. However, it is an insurgent conflict and for that I must conclude that the activity at the grass roots level remains relatively unchanged. The conflict must be kept austere, rudimentary and with the local people and Civic Action foremost in mind. Physical security and personal protection; improved living conditions; and a better way of life – or at the very least the hope for this – is what will win the population over.
In any event, the indigenous forces need to be trained only to the extent necessary to do their job; equipped only to the extent to get the job done; and advised only to the extent of influencing what these needs should be. We do not want to make the mistake of arming them beyond their capability. It is not necessary to train, equip or organize them in the image of the American Army. Rather, we need to capitalize on their natural abilities and inherent capabilities, to build their confidence and strengthen their leadership. Civic Action programs must go hand in hand with military activity.
If there is anything new in counterinsurgency warfare it is only in its political application. Tools of the guerrilla have not changed as they remain primarily non-military. That is, they are all calculated to gain control of the people. Voluntary support at first; support through fear and intimidation if necessary. Tools of the counterinsurgency force must be the same. It does not want to nourish the insurgency or escalate it. It must determine what it wants in Afghanistan (mission); what if any limitations to impose; to what extent it is willing to go to reach its goal(s); and to allow the commander on the ground to do the job.
All NATO and Afghan agencies must coordinate and speak off the same sheet of music. The Afghan government must be made to respond positively to the general direction in which NATO thinks it should go. Do not expect them to buy each and every action proposed. Try to make them believe it is their idea. It must be the Afghan government that solves this problem if it is to be a lasting solution. Advantage must be taken of the capabilities of the government forces.
The NATO trained regular forces need to operate in the remote areas against strong Taliban resistance. Special Forces trained tribal groups must maintain security and population support in the rural and remote towns and villages. NATO trained police and security forces must maintain law and order in the cities. Unfortunately, to date, most of this training has been slow to reach the desired levels for the Afghans to take responsibility. Therefore the bulk of these responsibilities are being deferred to NATO forces as they were in Vietnam.
Tribal Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan has taken on an unconventional approach and that is as it should be. And who better trained than forces such as the “Green Berets”? They are trained to work with an indigenous population; they have the skills necessary to be deployed as an independent unit; they have the training to be innovative, to think on their feet, to improvise, to work as a team under stressful conditions. And if they are properly employed they are a cost effective force multiplier. They must be considered the experts in the field.
As such it is imperative that they have complete freedom from planning, organizing and execution of the mission. Very likely employed in remote areas they must have complete decision making authority and report to the single authority that is responsible for covert operations. Simply stated, complete autonomy comes to mind.
They must have full funding, the authority to make timely direct purchases of material and equipment off the local economy; for payment to the locals for support required; and for Civic Action projects. If at all possible they must be able to have access to artillery support; close air support and troop lift capability if a large Taliban force is engaged.
However, it is not prudent for them to go toe to toe with a large force when not necessary.
Building a Tribal Army is usually conducted in phases which can then become milestones as to the progress being made. The phases established by Special Forces detachments in Vietnam were as follows:
Phase I: Pre-deployment – The Detachment begins its preparation for the mission.
Phase II: Deployment – The Detachment is transported into the area of operations to begin the preparations for counterinsurgency.
Phase III: Growth – This will be based upon the progress made and the will of the tribe.
Phase IV: Expansion – This will be a major decision as it will require the establishment of sub-OBs and the necessary resources to support them.
Phase V: Sustainability – This program will endure only as long as the Afghan government maintains the trust of the tribe; continues to finance and support the program; incorporates humanitarian projects as promised; and maintains the U.S. Special Forces presence until the time is right to integrate the tribes into the national realm of things.
Phase V is that which is troublesome to me. In Vietnam it was called “Operation Switchback” whereby the Village Defense Program would convert to the Civilian Irregular Defense Group. What are some of the pitfalls of this Phase that occurred in Vietnam that I fear may now be trending in Afghanistan? Premature conversion is the most devastating for it leads to all the other problems. At first no one wants to become involved in organizing the tribes for counterinsurgency warfare. The local government has its political reasons; the U.S. leadership has the uncertainty of a covert operation.
In Vietnam the Village Defense Program began as a covert operation under the aegis of the Saigon stationed CIA’s Combined Studies Branch. Within two months the Village Defense Program showed such progress and promise that it was uncovered in a N.Y. Times article under the banner “U.S. Making Army of Vietnam Tribe”. Other than a Vietnamese government directed “down time” the program progressed relentlessly despite the following. The Vietnamese Government insisted that a Public Survey Officer, a civilian member of the Politburo, be assigned to Buon Enao to monitor the program
and be responsive to the Provincial Chief.
Every senior U.S. government official from the American Ambassador, the Commander in Chief Vietnam, the Commander in Chief Pacific, U.S. Army Chief of Staff; and throw in the Army Pictorial Service who produced a TV documentary, hastily visited Buon Enao for briefings. The pressure was now on from the Vietnamese Government for the U.S. to pass control of the Buon Enao Project to the Vietnamese Special Forces. While still working Phase III, and several months removed from reaching Phase IV of the plan, the Department of Defense agreed to “Operation Switchback”.
Then, in July 1962, only five months into our deployment, the Department of Defense made the decision to transfer complete responsibility for Special Forces operations to the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, thus making the Army responsible for U.S. support of the Civilian Irregular Defense Program. “Switchback” was to be accomplished in Phases to be completed by July 1963.
At the time of my Team’s departure in August 1962 there were 18 U.S. Special Forces
A-Detachments deployed in Vietnam. By November, assigned to the recently activated Headquarters, U.S. Army Special Forces (Provisional), Vietnam reporting to the Military Assistance Command Vietnam, there was a C-Detachment, three B-Detachments and twenty six A-Detachments who were operating in camps in each of the four Corps Tactical Zones. Needless to say, this expansion was so rapid that much of the criteria established for insuring success with the Rhade tribe was either overlooked or ignored. Instead the emphasis was on speed while the psychological impact went sorely lacking.
In December 1962 the Vietnamese Government declared the entire Rhade Area of Operation of Darlac Province “secure”. This triggered a shift in emphasis from the original sense of the Village Defense Program from an area development/denial project to Civilian Irregular Defense Group camps for offensive strike force operations. The Montagnards were no longer being utilized to secure, defend and support themselves from their own villages. Rather they were being employed in situations favorable to Vietnamese pacification programs. Civic Action programs for the Montagnards came to a halt. Village defenders were being disarmed; and the strike force was placed under the command of the Province Chief. The Montagnard camps were soon situated in remote areas along the western border with the primary mission of border surveillance. And there they remained until the war’s end.
Without getting into details needless to say the Vietnamese were not ready to gain control of this operation. They did not have the training, experience, financing or resources to support the Civilian Irregular Defense Group. The result turned out to be devastating. The entire concept of Tribal Counterinsurgency was turned on its head. The Montagnards became “Gypsies of the Battlefield”. Ever changing missions, misuse by Vietnamese commanders who knew little or nothing of their capabilities and limitations. They were relocated or resettled at the whim of the Vietnamese who did not take into account Montagnard culture. This was a prime factor when in 1963 eighteen Civilian Irregular Defense Group border camps were forced to close before becoming operational; and for the Montagnard uprising (FULRO Movement) that took place in Ban Me Thout (the heart of Rhade country) on 19 September 1964 when “more than 3,000 heavily armed tribesmen … were killing 29 Vietnamese, capturing a hundred more, and seizing twenty American Special Forces advisors as hostages”.
I cannot claim to have first hand information as to what the tribal counterinsurgency program is undergoing in Afghanistan. I can only surmise from written accounts that they may have already or are undergoing some of these same pitfalls. It is well known that in Afghanistan ‘tribal teams’ are being employed with much success and promise. Thus, they are being considered for a greater counterinsurgency role. But what is the trade off? Is the Afghan government associated with the Command and Control; are the Special Forces A-Detachment commanders located with the tribes now tied to a military chain-of-command; will financial and logistical support now be subject to the Afghan budget; will A-Detachments no longer have the autonomy heretofore mentioned as being necessary for the grass roots success? Will the Rules of Engagement be tailored to tribal warfare? These are questions I have no answer for.
I cannot predict the outcome of the war in Afghanistan. I am fairly certain, however, that a favorable outcome will not be accomplished without the participation of the tribal groups on both a military front and with a political/social contribution. But for the sake of argument let us assume that none of the impediments heretofore mentioned come to be and that the program succeeds as envisioned to reach Phase V: Sustainability. Will it then suffer the same fate as in Vietnam? The success of Phase V in Afghanistan can be enhanced when tribal cultures are considered in the National Strategy. Of utmost importance is that each tribe must be deployed in the area in which they live. They must be made to retain their culture and identity for as long as it is prudent.
The tribal groups secure their area one at a time; or in concert. As a tribal area is deemed “secure” it maintains this responsibility. Realignment in the make-up of the fighting force occurs so that tribesmen can return to a normal way of life in supporting themselves. This does not mean disarming tribesmen who consider owning a weapon a given right. Forming a ‘Home Force’ (National Guard/police force) is a consideration. Ongoing Civic Action programs must be expanded to include an infrastructure. Tribal leadership is maintained in accordance with their own customs. The tribe must be made to feel that the Afghan government by its actions is their government as well. As tribal villages become secure it expands to Districts, then Provinces and then Regions. These then enjoin with the cities and towns (which were secured by NATO/Afghan military forces) and which are now maintained by local police forces.
It is my judgment that the Afghan tribes are too headstrong to be made into “Gypsies of the Battlefield” as were made the tribes of Vietnam. Or will the Afghan tribes suffer the same fate as the Montagnards in Vietnam because, like the Vietnamese government, the Afghan government feels threatened by armed tribesmen who are by nature better combatants than the Afghan military?
10 March 2012
It has now been two years to the date that this manuscript was written. One cannot overlook the numerous missteps made by NATO in conducting this war from the outset foremost being the delay in a counterinsurgency strategy; nor can the serious shortcomings of the Afghan Government be ignored as contributing to the growing unrest and increasing outbursts – both from the Afghans and Americans as well – for getting NATO out of Afghanistan as quickly as it can be achieved.
Although many of the original U.S. war goals such as defeating the Taliban, installing democracy and abolishing corruption have largely been abandoned, it is my belief that the Administration’s policies have been based more and more on political decisions these past few years than on outcome considerations just as they were late into the Vietnam War. I can see the pattern developing whereby negotiations will begin with the Taliban, such as they began with Communist North Vietnam, only to have Vietnam ultimately under the control of the North.
In this regard, as in Vietnam, the United States is focused not on the mission, but on how soon it can leave Afghanistan while the Taliban are in no hurry and are willing to wait it out for their advantage. It won’t now be long before we will know the answer to “Is Afghanistan another Vietnam? Will the Taliban once again gain control over Afghanistan? I am not at all comfortable with what that answer will be!
10 March 2013
I have now concluded that the War in Afghanistan has been lost after eleven years of American lives and treasure being squandered due to the non-military decisions or lack of them. The Afghan Army is not now nor will it be capable of protecting the Afghan Government or population from the more dedicated and better trained Taliban. The Afghan Government remains corrupt and does not have the support or faith of the villagers that they can be protected from the Taliban who now control most of the remote areas. When the NATO forces depart next year the Afghan military will be mainly utilized to protect the populated cities leaving the village tribes to fend for themselves.
Because NATO never took serious to arming, training and supporting the Tribal Groups so those areas after eleven years would have been secured – and despite a corrupt and inept Afghan government could have been a formidable obstacle for the Taliban in their quest to take Afghanistan back. Now they will be the prime support that insurgents require to succeed. The current U.S. administration will have no remorse for our failure but will turn to the mostly uneducated public and claim an election promise which most will applaud!
The U.S. will do everything it can – less troops- to prop up Afghanistan from once again to become a Taliban stronghold. Peace talks, as in Vietnam, will only delay the eventual.
Nelson stresses that all war is political and it is because of the complexities that come with human decisions that result in many of the complications we have seen in the counterinsurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq. I wonder if there is a way that political change such as with a new presidential term can be mitigated. If requests were not simply asked of a new president but instead decisions made in wartime were agreed upon and followed by the new chief of command, then perhaps the political climate would not influence military decisions as much.
This article outlines the growing problem of insurgency in today's world. The problem isn't that the United States doesn't know how to achieve results in the conflicts. The problem lies in how fluid and unpredictable insurgencies are. The means and motivations for insurgency has changed over the course of centuries. Political unrest, monetary gain, submission of societies, the list goes on. What doesn't change the existence of these threats. There is no "cookie-cutter" answer for how to counter these threats. Years of analysis and effort may be necessary just to understand the threats and motivations at hand. Nelson outlines the shortcomings the US has had against these threats in the past, but the question still remains, "How can we destroy this threat for good?"
I find it very interesting that even the highest levels of US leadership couldn't even figure out why the surge in Iraq was successful (or at least draw the correct correlations). Then, they even made the mistake of announcing a withdrawal date from Afghanistan when planning an increase in troops, unlike the situation in Iraq, which proved that they weren't fully committed to the people of Afghanistan from the beginning.
It seems that a lot of problems in modern conflict stem from a misunderstanding of the political situation in the country and the inability to garner local support. In the conventional wars of WW1 and WW2, military strategy and firepower was the defining factor, whereas in today's world, a large part of warfare is politics. I think that we should learn from our shortcomings in Iraq and Afghanistan and integrate a more political view on military operations.
This was a perfect example that military strategy/counterinsurgency is not cookie-cutter, and can't be applied to every situation. We can't expect the same results in a place with different culture and different groups. I found it interesting to know that some of the key figures involved in making key strategic decisions in Iraq were also involved with Afghanistan. What worked in Iraq obviously did not work in Afghanistan. It is unfortunate that the miscalculations in Afghanistan costed the U.S. twenty years and the lives of too many soldiers.
The author brings up a very important point that the surge in Afghanistan failed as a result of the US attempting to replicate the surge in Iraq. The most important point the author brings up, which I wholeheartedly agree with, is that every insurgency is unique and has to be treated as such. Certainly, studying past insurgencies can allow comparisons to be drawn and similarities to be recognized. These similarities can allow for an easier development of a strategy to address the threat. At the same time though, the unique nature of the insurgency must be considered. Iraq is a nation that is relatively flat, and has significant urban centers while Afghanistan is significantly more mountainous and has large amounts of its population distributed to rural areas. The author brings up this distinction when discussing the need for infrastructure development in Iraq vs Afghanistan.
There's much to be learned from both conflicts but unfortunately a lot of incorrect lessons being learned and passed on. Afghanistan has not long had a centralized federal government – or at least not one that has stood a long time, whereas Baghdad has been Iraq's capital for nearly a century, now, and has been a power center of the region for centuries. Iraq had a history of federal, centralized governance and a culture that more or less was conducive to re-creating a similar form of government. Afghanistan, however, has had neither, and even the lesson of utilizing local militias was largely ignored when US opted for the from-scratch creation of a federal Army and national police instead. I think the biggest lesson is that we must look at conflicts, and especially insurgencies, through the cultural, political and historical lenses of the host-nation in order to better understand their ways, means, ends and most importantly their weaknesses. I think this alignment was perhaps accidental in Iraq and ignored in Afghanistan.
The difference in COIN operations throughout states such as Iraq and Afghanistan is still evident today. The varying groups such as the Taliban, ISIS-K, etc. emphasize this point. Describing COIN in Iraq as a blanket operation is an interesting, but clearly realist perspective, because COIN has always had to be dynamic in nature. Hindsight is 20/20, and a recreation of the surge in Iraq is an attempt that failed overall but was rooted in experience, which is hard to argue with.