Questioning COIN Assumptions in Afghanistan

Recently, Gen. David Petraeus issued new guidance for the members of the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) operating in Afghanistan. This guidance differed little from the direction offered by his fired predecessor, Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Petraeus’s memorandum states, “Secure and serve the population. The decisive terrain is the human terrain. The people are the center of gravity. Only by providing them security and earning their trust and confidence can the Afghan government and ISAF prevail.” (Emphasis in original.)

Implicit in the statement “the decisive terrain is the human terrain” is the idea that winning the support of the people will dry up support for the insurgency. Unfortunately, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that the insurgency already exists without popular support among Afghans. This means that further efforts to secure the support of the people will do little to end the insurgency.

According to this poll by Gallup, nearly 80 percent of Afghans say the Taliban is a negative influence. If this poll is taken at face value, it is pretty clear that Afghans, in general, do not provide the Taliban popular support. Even in the Taliban strongholds of southern Afghanistan, 59 percent of Afghans polled think the Taliban is a negative influence. It is possible that the Taliban, through threats and intimidation, hijacks support against the population’s will, but with the large majority opposed to the Taliban, an insurgency sustained primarily through intimidation seems unlikely.

If the Afghan population does not support the insurgency, then support must come from somewhere else. Recent reports have indicated that support for the Taliban insurgency comes from overseas, through the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and from a protection racket run on Afghanistan’s highways.

On June 5, 2009, the New York Times reported that the Taliban insurgency receives a large part of its funding from overseas donations. The Times reported that Richard Holbrooke, the Obama administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, believed that these donations were a “more important source of money than even the opium trade.” Given that the United Nations estimates the opium trade at about $300 million a year, these overseas donations represent a large haul for the Taliban.

It may be impossible for the United States to interdict these donations. These donations reach Afghanistan by courier or through the traditional “hawala” banking system that operates in the Muslim world. The United States has far too few soldiers in Afghanistan to stop individual couriers carrying money to the Taliban, and even if there were more soldiers, they could not confiscate an individual’s money without knowing its origin and intent.

One of the “bombshells” of the documents recently leaked by WikiLeaks was that the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) actively provides material support for the Taliban. In reality, this was not news. According to a June 2010 report by the London School of Economics, it was and is official policy of the ISI to support the Afghan Taliban. In fact, the ISI had a sitting representative at the Quetta Shura, said to be the Taliban leadership council led by former Afghan Emir Mullah Omar. This was acknowledged by Taliban commanders at every level, as the report called the relationship between the ISI and the Afghan Taliban “as clear as the sun in the sky.”

According to a Harvard Kennedy School of Government [.pdf] report, Pakistan has received over $2 billion in direct cash transfers from the United States since 2001. The United States had almost no oversight over this money, and according to the report, “The Pakistani military did not use most of the funds for the agreed objective of fighting terror.” It is entirely possible, maybe even probable, that American cash transfers to Pakistan were funnelled, via the ISI, to the Afghan Taliban. This is not the only example of the United States fighting itself.

Because of Afghanistan’s landlocked geography, most of the supplies necessary to sustain the American war effort must be trucked through Pakistan or through the Central Asian Republics. The U.S. military lacks the manpower to both run the logistics chain itself and secure the roads inside Afghanistan on which the trucks travel. According to ABC News, the military has largely outsourced the logistics effort to private firms. These private firms use U.S. taxpayer money to bribe the Taliban in order to ensure safe passage of the trucks. The U.S. “knowingly finance[s] a mafia-like collection of warlords and some of the very insurgents American troops are battling.” Sadly, American money finds its way into the hands of the people who kill American soldiers.

These reports call into question a basic assumption of Gen. Petraeus’s counterinsurgency: that winning the support of the population will reduce or eliminate support for the insurgency. It may be that the majority of Afghans do not support the insurgency, but the insurgency can sustain itself on American bribes and international hawala transfers from sympathetic Muslims. If this is the case, the population-centric counterinsurgency strategy favored by Gen. Petraeus addresses the wrong problem, and thus is doomed to fail.

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Author: Keith Boyea

Keith Boyea is a graduate student at Georgetown University studying international affairs. He works as an analyst for the U.S. Army. All opinions expressed here are his own and not those of the Department of Defense. Keith is an Air Force veteran of OIF and OEF. He can be contacted at keith.boyea[at]gmail[dot]com.