Col. (ret) W. Patrick Lang, Dr. Will, Mr. Greenwald, Professor Cole, Abu Muqawama, and many others have been writing about the Obama Administration's new policies in Afghanistan, GEN McChrystal's orders intended to reduce the number of Afghan casualties and collateral damage, whether there should be a debate over current and future operations in Afghanistan, and whether or not the US should just pull out of Afghanistan. Within these discussions runs a thread that is not always made explicit: should we be pursuing a Counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy in Afghanistan or using COIN as a tactic and why would one be better than the other. The former would seem to lead to a full scale, open ended, nation building project, while the latter would allow for focused development, reconstruction, and reconciliation, done over a fixed time table, from the bottom up in Afghanistan.
In an 11 July post Col. Lang wrote that COIN has three basic elements:
"Political warfare designed to eliminate the symbolic causes of revolt, economic development that provides incomes sufficiently large for the masses so that they are not inclined to risk the hazards of support for insurgents, and counter-guerrilla operations."
These three elements can be pursued either as a strategy or as tactics that are part of another strategy. Moreover, these elements, as well as the COIN doctrine, are themselves conceptually backstopped by the principles of working from the bottom up, empowering the lowest levels, and nonlethal operations create better results than lethal ones.
In the case of Afghanistan the history, institutions, structures, and societal elements would all seem to point towards the efficacy of COIN as a tactic and not as a strategy. In the Phase IV environment of stabilization and reconstruction (hold and build) COIN as a tactical approach has a great deal of utility. If you can't or won't just pummel people and things, then COIN as a tactic can help to create an opportunity for success. The whole point of COIN is to create the stability to horizontally tether the societal elements to each other through reconciliation. If this is successful, then it is possible that the opportunity could be expanded to allow for the vertical reconciliation and tethering of the societal elements to the State, its structures and institutions.
The Afghan reality makes doing COIN as a strategy very, very difficult. Specifically Afghanistan's history of little to no centralized government, the inability of a centralized government to effectively and positively penetrate into Afghan society, its socio-cultural makeup of over 130 societal elements that are ethno-linguistically and geographically differentiated, and the large rural to urban ratio, which also corresponds to literacy and educational rates. Afghanistan is, perhaps, the best example of the limitations of the Westphalian conceptualization of the nation-state, where the political entity geographically conforms to a largely homogenous ethno-national, ethno-linguistic, and ethno-religious population. This dynamic just does not exist in Afghanistan. Trying to implement US strategic interests in Afghanistan by building a sovereign, democratic nation-state will require lots of money, manpower, and time. The current US policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan, as laid out in the interagency white paper
clearly indicates that America's overarching interest is in addressing the current and potential extremist threats to Afghanistan and Pakistan. GEN Jones, the current National Security Adviser, has specifically stated that the US strategy in Afghanistan will be the creation of more security, economic development, and better local governance and that America will not be operating in Afghanistan in ten years
Based on the National Security Advisor's remarks, COIN as a tactical approach would seem to make the most sense for success in Afghanistan. Secure the population from the lowest level up, by disrupting the various anti-Afghan forces (warlords, the various Taliban groups, organized crime/drug networks) and providing them with economic and political opportunities, reconcile these societal elements to each other, and then tether them up to the district/regional level of government. By limiting stabilization and reconstruction to the local to regional/district level it will be possible to disaggregate the various societal elements, anti-Afghan forces, and achieve positive results in a reasonable amount of time. The focus needs to be on stability and quality of life for the Afghan population, not necessarily the creation of an Afghan nation state that is recognizable to those of us who grew up in a Westphalian state.
Adam L. Silverman, PhD was deployed to Iraq as the Field Social Scientist and Team Lead on Human Terrain Team Iraq 6 during 2008. He was then the Strategic Communications Adviser and a Staff Social Scientist for the US Army's Human Terrain System. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the US Army Human Terrain System, the US Army Training and Doctrine Command, or the US Army.