COIN Meets Reality in Hindu Kush

Listen closely and you can hear the slow release of hot air. There’s a leak somewhere, and it appears to be coming from the giant red, white, and blue balloon set aloft some months ago by the counterinsurgency experts who convinced everyone in Washington that Afghanistan was one "graveyard of empires" that could be resurrected for the good of the world.

In fact, anxiety over the latest major U.S. offensive in Afghanistan is increasing among military officials and policymakers every day, sources tell us. News reports coming in from Helmand province and repeated public complaints from American and British leaders bear that out.

And the story is this: in order for so-called "population centric" counterinsurgency to work in a place as vast and geographically unrelenting as Afghanistan, there must be a lot of counterinsurgents (more than 600,000, according to the current Army counterinsurgency manual [.pdf]). Right now, there is a lid on the number of coalition forces approved for the mission, and worse, there are pathetically few Afghan troops and police available to do the most important work, which is to collaborate with the foreign forces to fight the Taliban and successfully hold areas on behalf of the Afghan government over the long term.

Even as 10,000 Marines pushed into the Hindu Kush bearing the talisman of David Petraeus and his patented COIN doctrine this month, it was clear to top U.S. commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal that something was amiss.

"The key to this is Afghan responsibility to the fight," he told the New York Times on July 15. "As a team we are better."

His anonymous lieutenants were much blunter. "There are not enough Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police for our forces to partner with in operations … and that gap will exist into the coming years even with the planned growth already budgeted for," an unnamed U.S. military official told the Washington Post four days earlier.

"The Afghan army has got to do more,” complained British Prime Minister Gordon Brown on July 16. He came under tremendous fire this month after eight British troops died in one day, making July the deadliest of months for the coalition and spurring criticism about the seeming lack of proper resources and the overall integrity of the mission. Brown blames the Afghans. "We need the complement of more Afghan troops and police."

Seemingly surprised that some 84,000 Afghan troops and 80,000 police (compare that to roughly 260,000 Iraqi troops and 348,000 Iraqi police on the other front) haven’t proven willing or capable enough to "complement" the foreign invasion into Afghanistan’s mountainous south (or, apparently, to help beat back surprising Taliban attacks in western and northern provinces), once cock-a-hoop COIN operators are starting to flag.

"I’m increasingly pessimistic about Afghanistan, and the inability of the ANA to rally (despite previous assertions that they’re supposed to be fairly competent) is a big reason why. The situation reminds of a comment made by an officer I interviewed about Iraq in early 2007: ‘How do you convince someone to fight for their country?’ In that light, it’s somewhat troubling that the U.S. focus is on expanding the Afghan forces when we can’t seem to get many of the existing ones into the fight. Or do the Afghans have a different strategy than the Americans do?"

This comes from this month’s guest blogger at Abu Muqawama, which roosts at the Center for a New American Security, the heart of the COIN establishment. The blog was founded by Andrew Exum, a former Army captain, now a fellow at CNAS, who wrote in a June report [.pdf] that "protecting the population in Afghanistan is the single most important task facing the United States and its allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan over the near term."

Exum and his COINdinista cohorts appeared at the time to acknowledge that "it will take years to train and deploy Afghan forces in sufficient numbers," but that didn’t seem to soften the blow of reality when it came, according to a Washington Post report on July 2, which said that Marines "have been vexed by a lack of Afghan security forces and a near-total absence of additional U.S. civilian reconstruction personnel. … Thus far, the Marines have been allotted only about 500 Afghan soldiers, which Brig. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson deems a ‘critical vulnerability.’"

What, No ‘Sons of Afghanistan’?

Worse, the Marines are finding out every day, and in nearly every village they present themselves, that the local police are often more of a problem than the Taliban. In a telling report by the Associated Press on July 13, Marines encountered what seems to be a typical small-town cop shop:

"Afghan villagers had complained to the U.S. Marines for days: The police are the problem, not the Taliban. They steal from villagers and beat them. Days later, the Marines learned firsthand what the villagers meant.

"As about 150 Marines and Afghan soldiers approached the police headquarters in the Helmand River town of Aynak, the police fired four gunshots at the combined force. No larger fight broke out, but once inside the headquarters the Marines found a raggedy force in a decrepit mud-brick compound that the police used as an open-pit toilet.

"The meeting was tense. Some police were smoking pot. Others loaded their guns in a threatening manner near the Marines."

The solution was to send Aynak’s finest packing for several weeks of "training" miles away, while Marines "installed" more favorable fuzz in town. "The encounter, witnessed last week by the Associated Press, highlights one of the largest problems facing the international effort to stabilize Afghanistan in the face of an increasingly violent Taliban insurgency: the need for competent, trustworthy police."

Absent from "Operation Strike of the Sword" is anything similar to the 90,000 hired fighters the U.S. relied on so heavily to protect Sunni neighborhoods from al-Qaeda and other miscreants during the now-vaunted Iraqi "surge." Meanwhile, crafty Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, sensing the surge was his best chance to consolidate and legitimize his own power, remained in step with the U.S., which in turn helped him smash the opposition and build up his nascent security forces.

In Afghanistan, coalition leaders are looking to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and they don’t see a Maliki. In fact, they’re wondering where his head is these days, besides shoring up (or downright rigging) support for next month’s presidential elections.

While military flacks and stateside pundits like to enumerate a million different reasons that the Afghan people don’t want the Taliban around, U.S. forces are finding that things are a bit more complicated: Kabul is as good as Oz to most of these remote villagers, who share more in blood and culture with the Pashtun insurgents than the urban dwellers of the central Afghan capital. In fact, reports say Karzai’s government controls only eight of the 13 districts in Helmand province.

So when the Afghan army does come knocking with coalition forces, both are seen as "foreign," asserted Jason Burke in The Observer on July 12.

“‘There are almost no recruits from the south,’ admitted General Ali Ahmed, the commander of the training center and himself a veteran of the war in the 1980s, during which he fought in the auxiliary army created and armed by Moscow. Adding to the image of the national troops as an ‘army of occupation’ in the restive south and east are their new weapons: American-supplied M16s."

"The problem is the failure of both generals and policymakers to recognize that the 43 million Pashtun in Pakistan and Afghanistan have withdrawn their loyalty and support from both Kabul and Islamabad," explained defense consultant and retired Col. Douglas McGregor in an interview with

Obama and His Generals

This puts the cohesiveness of the month-old operation into question. It also explains the not-so-subtle hand-wringing and lowered expectations. The COIN operators, always on point about this being a "long war," are nonetheless talking more soberly and regularly about needing 5-10 years before they see any results. Australian David Kilcullen, who helped to orchestrate the Iraq surge with Petraeus and has been on-hand as an adviser to CNAS, has been rather quiet in the press, except for this nugget in the Independent:

"We are looking at ten years at least in Afghanistan, and that is the best case scenario and at least half of that will be pretty major combat. This is the commitment needed, and this is what people in America and Britain should be told, and they should be told that there will be a cost involved.”

If the Afghans are completely unprepared, and fiscally unable, to fight, we will have to carry on until they are. That’s the implicit message from Kilcullen and McChrystal, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen, and others who have been pushing the "long, hard slog" scenario in recent days. In fact, they don’t call it a "surge," because that would imply it’s temporary. They all charge that more Afghan troops are critical – at least double the levels today – though it would require more money, more weapons, and more training by the coalition.

Therein lies the trap. The real undertone here is that more U.S. troops are necessary. Despite Bob Woodward’s laborious account of National Security Adviser James L. Jones’ chest bump with the in-theater command over limits to the troop strength there (Obama has promised 68,000 by the end of this year; Jones, according to Woodward, said Obama wouldn’t abide further requests), McChrystal insists a troop increase is not off the table and he will decide whether to seek more next month when his "assessment" of the conditions there is complete. Secretary of Defense Bob Gates reiterated this on July 16.

Andrew Exum took a hiatus from his blog in June for an undisclosed trip "out of the country," but he was coincidentally available July 11 for CBS war correspondent Kimberly Dozier:

“‘General McChrystal’s going to have a tough time figuring out how he’s going to protect as much of the population as possible,’ said Andrew Exum, with the Center for New American Security. ‘We simply don’t have enough troops to surge into all areas.’"

Another CNAS adviser, finger-to-the-wind defense pundit Michael O’Hanlon, leaped bravely to this conclusion in The Examiner July 7. "Unfortunately there are troubling signs that the Obama administration may be digging in against any future troop requirements," he wrote. "We may or may not have enough forces in Afghanistan to pull off this full range of activities. Right now, it is simply too soon to know. Let’s not close off the conversation until we learn a little bit more."

Interestingly, there might be some salience to what O’Hanlon and others have been saying, privately and publicly, about Obama. According to the Woodward piece – which was not directly denied by the White House (though Jones walks it back a bit in this report) – Obama recently exclaimed, “My strong view is that we are not going to succeed simply by piling on more and more troops.”

Last week as he spoke with the prime minister of the Netherlands, Obama told reporters that the Aug. 20 election might be a turning point in U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. “If we can get through a successful election in September and we continue to apply the training approach to the Afghan security forces and we combine that with a much more effective approach to economic development inside Afghanistan, then my hope is that we will be able to begin transitioning into a different phase in Afghanistan,” Obama said, noting that "all of us" want an effective "exit strategy."

Some experts note that this might be Obama’s true intent: to use the elections (if they run smoothly) as a first step to a gracious exit. Others see the president in the same old jam – if he stays the war could be his presidency’s undoing, if he leaves "too soon" he risks fulfilling all those Republican caricatures about Democrats being quitters and cowards. "As a result, the Obama administration wants to be a little bit pregnant," says MacGregor – in other words, not fully invested either way.

But mission creep has already set it in. By ignoring wiser voices that early on called for a more focused counterterror mission, taking the fight back to al-Qaeda, the original enemy, at the Pakistan border, Obama has already begun a massive nation-building effort that won’t be easily gotten out of. In fact, defense contractors Dyncorp International and Fluor Corp were just awarded contracts worth $15 billion over the next five years to build bases and other infrastructure for U.S. forces in the country.

Having put the balance of responsibility – and authority – on his "generals," Obama might just end up caving into their demands, which is to carry on the war for a decade if need be, with a continuous rotation of American men and women filling in where the Afghan security forces can’t or won’t keep up. Despite what Peter Bergen says in his latest treatise, "Winning the Good War," they don’t call Afghanistan a graveyard for nothing.

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.