Historical Counterinsurgency and Afghanistan

Edward Kenney Afghanistan Study Group

Two papers published recently compare historical counterinsurgency experiences to the situation in Afghanistan.  The first, authored by Christopher Paul and published by RAND Corporation compares Afghanistan to 30 historical counterinsurgencies over the last thirty years.  The second, by Douglas Ollivant and published by the New America Foundation looks at lessons learned from the Iraqi surge.

Beginning with the Iraq Paper, Ollivant looks at the success of the surge and concludes that the military aspect of the surge is only a limited factor in the decrease in violence.   A big part of the explanation, according to is the so-called Sunni Awakening, but here Ollivant has a refreshing—although not entirely convincing argument.

“The fundamental truth of the Iraqi settlement is that the sectarian civil war ended—and the Sunni lost”

To Ollivant, the Sunni Awakening was not the rejection of al Qaeda, but rather the strategic calculation of the weaker side.

“[They] realized that only the United States had the “wasta”[1], to intervene for them with the central government and secure their minority interests…”

When you think about it, this explanation doesn’t make sense.  Why on earth did the Sunni militias trust the U.S. to act in their favor in Iraqi parliament?  Turning on al Qaeda was clearly a massive gamble—they could have found themselves entirely isolated—but this decision paid off in the end.

Applying this same scenario to Afghanistan, the Taliban find themselves in similar situation to the Sunnis circa 2007:  They are both unpopular and (as Ambassadors Pickering and Brahimi point out in chapter 1 of their report) lack a plausible path to power.  They could “switch sides” and gamble that the U.S. would then protect some of their interests in Afghanistan, but they haven’t.  Why hasn’t a “Taliban Awakening” occurred?  Well, you can look to either differences in practices or differences in conditions.  Ollivant looks at differences in practices, but the only real difference he can come up with is the President’s use of timetables along with the surge in troops.  This to my mind is not a compelling explanation.  For one thing, it’s hard to imagine presidential words carrying this much weight in the eyes of insurgents, and anecdotal evidence suggests that the Taliban are mostly concerned that we won’t leave when we say we will, not that the U.S. is commitment-phobic as Ollivant’s theory implies.

The great weakness in Ollivant’s paper is that he underestimates important differences between conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan. One key difference I would examine is the political structure of the insurgent groups.  As I have already noted, the decision to switch sides in Iraq was a major gamble.  This required a high level of legitimacy among the tribal sheiks.  I would wager, a careful examination of the Taliban would conclude that the Taliban leadership do not have this same level of legitimacy among their followers .

The RAND Paper covers many more insurgencies and is arguably more ambitious.  Identifying twelve COIN factors and practices, they place Afghanistan’s score in between success and failure with an overall score of 3.5.  Looking deeper at the Rand numbers the picture is less optimistic.  According to this report Afghanistan lacks three fundamental conditions for success: security, government legitimacy and insurgent support networks.

While I certainly agree with many of the conclusions, the paper has a significant weakness in that they lump together conditions and practices.  As the Iraq example hopefully illustrated, conditions on the ground should and often do determine “best practices”.  There is not a one-size fits all approach to defeating a counter insurgency.  To their credit, the experts sort of recognize this dilemma:

To maximize effectiveness in the area of strategic communication, COIN forces will not only need to firmly establish the presence of more strategic communication—related factors but, as noted earlier, they would also benefit from improving the underlying conditions that inform the themes and messages communicated—namely, government legitimacy and security.

Translation:  You can be the best car-salesman in the world, but if that automobile is a piece of junk, I ain’t buying.  The problem is not “strategic communication” (military-speak for PR); the security situation is deteriorating in much of Afghanistan.

To put it another way, conditions are much determinative of success or failure than we like to admit.
[1] Arabic translated by Ollivant to mean clout or influence

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