7 February 2018

The Case for Counter Insurgency ‘Light’ in Afghanistan

By Charles Barham

"One man seemed to speak for everyone when he made a brief, impassioned plea to the visiting officials. “Our homes are being destroyed, our youths are being killed, people are suffering every day and being forgotten,” he said. “If, God forbid, we lose Lashkar Gah, then Helmand will collapse and the whole region and Afghanistan will collapse. Please save us from this chaos.”


The Taliban was and remains an insurgency. It must be dealt with as an insurgency by focusing on the human terrain. The Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) must develop and pursue an indigenous Counter Insurgency (COIN) campaign focused on the principles of security, governance, and basic services. This does not need to be the full spectrum, comprehensive COIN led by the U.S. from 2010 to 2012, but a “light” version of that campaign. Regardless, GIRoA will likely require coalition forces to work by, with, and through them, providing training, advising, and assistance (TAA) in order for GIRoA to identify and address the specific elements of security, governance, and basic services which are the most critical for winning over the population and bringing the Taliban insurgency to an end.

By 2016 the situation in Afghanistan had reached a point best described as a stalemate. The Taliban insurgents had been able to launch multiple concurrent offensives intended to seize four provincial capitals. The Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) were successful in defeating these operations, but in doing so demonstrated that they were still very dependent not only on U.S. enabler support such as fires and intelligence, but also support to man, train, equip, sustain, and regenerate units. Additionally, the efforts to defeat the Taliban offenses disrupted ANDSF plans to not only further secure territory already under GIRoA control, but also to expand this territory. ii Neither side possessed the strength to defeat the other.

By the fall of 2017 GIRoA only controlled territory containing less than 60% of the population which was down from over the 70% they held in 2016, and down from the 80% they held in 2014 when the lead for security operations transitioned from NATO to GIRoA. The remaining 40% was either controlled by the Taliban or was considered “contested.” iii The ANDSF were incapable of recapturing the contested portions of the country, or those portions under Taliban control without increased levels of U.S. support. 

This situation is amazing when one considers where Afghanistan was in 2011. Until 2009 the U.S. led coalition had prosecuted a fairly traditional combat campaign to defeat the Taliban. As we also saw in Iraq, it did not work. General McChrystal commented in 2009 as part of his initial assessment of the war in Afghanistan that “Although considerable effort and sacrifice have resulted in some progress, many indicators suggest the overall situation is deteriorating.” Further, he stated that “Success is achievable, but it will not be attained simply by trying harder or "doubling down" on the previous strategy.” He stated that what was needed was an “…integrated civilian-military counterinsurgency campaign that earns the support of the Afghan people and provides them with a secure environment." iv We realized we could not “kill” our way to victory.

From 2010 to 2012 the U.S. led coalition conducted a full spectrum, comprehensive COIN campaign aimed at defeating the Taliban. At its zenith in 2011, the surge of military forces was in place, and both governance and socioeconomic development (stability operations) were an integral part of the campaign plan designed to secure the “human terrain” by facilitating GIRoA’s ability to provide Afghans with security, governance, and basic services, while militarily defeating the Taliban.v The coalition, along with the ANDSF, was driving the Taliban, GIRoA had control over approximately 80% of the country, and security, governance, and basic services were largely in place. The ANDSF were maturing, and the transition of responsibility for security operations to Afghan control was underway.vi So what went wrong?

According to General Nicolson, the Commander of United States Forces – Afghanistan (USFOR-A) and the NATO Resolute Support Mission, the previous Administration’s plan to withdraw from Afghanistan was the problem. He states that “we’ve drawn down too far and too fast, we communicated to the enemy that we had lost our will to win…"vii It was just a matter of time, and the Taliban could simply wait us out. The NATO mission had transitioned from combat, to combat advising, to a functionally based security force assistance (SFA) model providing TAA support to the ANDSF on eight essential functions (EF) which were; Programming & Budgeting, Transparency & Oversight, Rule of Law, Force Generation, Sustainment, Planning, Intelligence, and Strategic Communications. However, this support was largely limited to conventional force TAA of the ANDSF at the Regional/Corps level and above. There was no intent for the SFA forces to conduct combat operations or advise below the Corps/Regional level.

USFOR-A did maintain a small Special Operations Forces (SOF) command that focused on Counter Terrorism (CT) operations and providing TAA support the Afghan SOF. CT was the sole U.S. combat mission and focused largely on ISIS-K and AQ. The Taliban were generally not targeted by the U.S. 

The shift to functionally based SFA created a gap. There was no transition of the stability operations that had enabled the successful prosecution of the COIN campaign. These stability tasks were not considered one of the EFs.viii At that point, the COIN campaign that the U.S. had led reverted to a simple conventional combat campaign led by the ANDSF. Over the course of about three years, GIRoA proceeded to lose about 20 percent of the population it had under their control at the transition. 

Interestingly enough, at the same time, the Taliban also demonstrated an inability to expand their control much beyond their current holdings. There are several reasons for this, and they include; an ideology that has become too extreme and brutal for many Afghans; the Taliban being largely a Pashtun movement which limits its support in Hazara, Tajik, and Uzbek areas; and a heavy reliance on support from neighboring countries such as Pakistan which is unpopular among many Afghans. Given these shortfalls, some would argue that the Taliban’s best option is to pursue a negotiated settlement.ix This may be true, but the Taliban may also need a little convincing to take that step. This is where a new strategy is needed. 

A Needed Change in Strategy

In 2017 the U.S. got a new administration and a new strategy. In August 2017 President Trump announced the new strategy for South Asia aimed at bolstering American security. The new strategy encompassed Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, the Central Asian nations and extended into Southeast Asia. He stressed the strategy would not have artificial timelines built into it but would be conditions-based. x The focus would be back on the Taliban. Specifically, "The ultimate goal is a negotiated peace settlement. So we continue to try to encourage peace process between the Afghan government and Taliban. We are not going to negotiate a separate peace with the Taliban. We want to see the Afghan government and the Taliban in negotiations."xi

With a negotiated peace settlement as the objective, we would want to bring the Taliban to the table in a position of weakness. To accomplish this, the U.S. is taking specific actions. There will be a surge of advisors who will operate at the kandak (battalion) level and provide enabling support to the ANDSF as they conduct operations to clear and hold various population centers that are either considered contested or under Taliban control.xii The ANDSF intend to increase the percentage of the population under their control to approximately 80%, the same position they were in when the transition occurred several years ago.xiii

Holding and controlling 80% of the population should place the Taliban in a position of weakness. Their ability to generate revenues through taxation and extortion would be greatly reduced, as will their ability to generate revenues via the drug trade. Finally, without the support of the local populace, the Taliban will not be able to fully reconstitute. But all this assumes GIRoA can “hold” the terrain and more importantly, the population.
The Strategy is at Risk

The enemy has a vote, and in this case, the Taliban has been a very resilient foe. It will likely take significant and prolonged (several years) effort to get them to participate in negotiations. This is still the Taliban that is an insurgency, and the human terrain is as important to them as it is to GIRoA. They rely on the population for financing and general support and sustainment.

If we learned nothing else from COIN in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is that the key terrain is the human terrain. Supporting GIRoA and the ANDSF kinetic efforts to clear population centers is good. Trying to hold those areas is also a good thought. However, to truly hold the population, to keep them from supporting the Taliban, and to get them to support GIRoA, there needs to be a full package of security, governance, and basic services. GIRoA needs to demonstrate that they bring more to the table than the Taliban. They will be able to clear terrain, but it is unlikely that will be able to hold this terrain and positively influence the population without the package of security, governance, and basic services. This potential inability to hold the terrain and influence the population is the risk in the new strategy.
Mitigating the Risk

For GIRoA to hold the terrain and the population contained therein, they must wage a true COIN campaign, albeit perhaps a “COIN Light” campaign and this campaign must contain a plan that provides for a package of security, governance that is responsive and acceptable to the Afghan population, and basic services. This plan should be designed by GIRoA, although parts may actually be delivered initially by members of the international community (IC). This statement implies two things; that GIRoA can develop such a plan, and that they can synchronize this plan with the ANDSF’s clear and hold operations.

Unlike the U.S. led COIN campaign of 2010-2012, this emerging COIN campaign will not be the U.S. or even coalition led. The development of a package of security, governance, and basic services will be a GIRoA product. The good news is that there are still many members of the IC operating in Afghanistan who are very willing to support governance and development projects. The issue is that some agency will need to take the lead and provide GIRoA with the guidance and support to organize these groups, to include their own various ministries, and harness these finite resources to maximum effect. The development of the governance and basic services portions of the COIN Light Plan must be informed by and integrated with the ANDSF and their plan to clear and hold specific areas. The packages can then be tailored to support those areas. IC donors will also be identified to execute portions of those packages, working projects in those designated areas vice in other areas where the impact may not be as great, or worse, in areas where the Taliban may be able to extort funds from them. Finally, the components of those packages should be in place and ready to begin as soon as possible once the clearing operations terminate. 

Essentially what is required is an Afghan Interagency Task Force (IATF) that includes IC membership in addition to GIRoA security and non-security ministries. U.S. Departments and Agencies can and should also be members of this IATF. Again, GIRoA will likely need support in operating this IATF, TAA support if you will. The best source of this TAA is the United States Military because we are talking about expeditionary governance and basic service delivery in a combat zone. 

Some readers may reject this article out of hand because it has “counterinsurgency” in the title. But those with an open mind should consider that for the new U.S. South Asia strategy to succeed and for the Taliban to be brought to the negotiating table, GIRoA needs to wage a COIN campaign. This does not need to be the full spectrum comprehensive COIN that the U.S. led coalition executed from 2010 to 2012, but it does need to be at least a “light” version of that campaign. The key point is that the United States does not have to do it or even pay for it, but it is very likely that we will have to guide or TAA it. The campaign, specifically the package of security, governance, and basic services does not have to be perfect. It does not need to result in the shinning democracy on a hill. It does not even need to be “Afghan good enough.” It just needs to better than what the Taliban offer. It should be designed by the Afghans in order to help Afghans and persuade the population to support GIRoA, not the Taliban. GIRoA needs to have a functioning COIN Light Campaign. With it, the South Asia Strategy and GIRoA stand a better chance at succeeding. Without it, GIRoA may clear some terrain, but the Taliban will absorb the body blows, eventually return, and will not be inclined to negotiate a peace settlement. 

Charles Barham is a retired U.S. Army Colonel with 29 years of service (1981-2010). He also served for four years as a Department of the Army Civilian Management and Program Analyst in the Afghanistan/Pakistan Hands Program (2010-2014). He currently serves as a Department of the Air Force Civilian Management and Program Analyst at USCENTCOM in an Interagency Planner capacity. He served for more than three years in Afghanistan as; Assistant Director of the Police Reform Directorate, Combined Security Transition Command - Afghanistan 2006-2007, Senior Socioeconomic Advisor in HQ ISAF-DCOS/STAB under Generals David Petraeus and John Allen 2011, as Deputy Director of the NATO/Afghan Transformation Task Force, HQ ISAF under General Joseph Dunford 2013, and as a Senior Planning, Programing and Budgeting Advisor to the Afghan National Army Special Operations Command. He has served for over six years in HQCENTCOM in positions including Senior Socioeconomic Advisor and Interagency Planner. He has a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration from the University of Richmond, a Master of Business Administration from Oklahoma City University, and a Master of Strategic Studies from the U.S. Army War College.

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