Counter-Insurgency in Afghanistan

I’d like to draw your attention to a new article by Donald Snow, Professor Emeritus at the University of Alabama and authority on foreign policy, international relations, and national security at New Atlanticist on the feasibility of counter-insurgency in Afghanistan. I won’t attempt to dissect Dr. Snow’s article but will only say that his observations jibe quite well with my own.

I would add, however, that an additional complication of the situation in Afghanistan is that not only is the country large but it has indefensible borders and several of its neighbors have a stake in the outcome there. Also, counter-insurgency is a doctrine invented more than a half century ago by the colonial powers to keep their errant colonies under control. While it may have made sense for the European colonialists, it doesn’t make nearly as much sense for us. We don’t own the territories where we’re trying to practice counter-insurgency and we don’t want to own them.

Here are Dr. Snow’s remarks on the relevancy of the Iraq experience to Afghanistan:

The US government likes to draw the analogy between Iraq and Afghanistan: COIN “worked in Iraq” and can be transferred to Afghanistan. Two rejoinders: the war in Iraq is not over, and will not be concluded until after the US leaves and the Iraqis sort things out,possibly violently. It’s not clear we “won.” Second, Afghanistan and Iraq are alike only in the sense of being in the same area of the world. One experience does not imply another.

They’re also alike in that both have large areas which have never been under the control of a central government, a characteristic common to a swath of territory that runs from the Bosporus to the Indus.

Read the whole thing.

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, Uncategorized, , , , ,
Dave Schuler
About Dave Schuler
Over the years Dave Schuler has worked as a martial arts instructor, a handyman, a musician, a cook, and a translator. He's owned his own company for the last thirty years and has a post-graduate degree in his field. He comes from a family of politicians, teachers, and vaudeville entertainers. All-in-all a pretty good preparation for blogging. He has contributed to OTB since November 2006 but mostly writes at his own blog, The Glittering Eye, which he started in March 2004.


  1. BJ says:

    The US government likes to draw the analogy between Iraq and Afghanistan: COIN “worked in Iraq” and can be transferred to Afghanistan.

    Not sure exactly what he means when he says US government, but from what I’ve read, people go out of their way to note the differences generally, and specially as it pertains to coin, between Iraq and Afghanistan. Am I picking a nit?

  2. Steve Hynd says:

    The public told Barack Obama that they didn’t want an endless occupation of Afghanistan, with no exit strategy beyond the possibility that one day Afghan-provided security, government and economic success might be raised, at great American expense in blood and treasure, to the level of – say – Chad. Accordingly, back in March, Obama announced that the mission would not be open-ended, would have strict benchmarks for success and would have a laser focus on killing the bad guys and getting out.

    Since then, however, we’ve seen “mission creep” party like it was the 1960’s, with exactly as little public knowledge about and debate over the changes as during the early days of Vietnam. The Bush-lite mission, and its requirements, have been incrementally escalated by an axis of Village pundits, military planners and neoliberal interventionists in such a way as to conceal the deep change from what Obama told us would happen to something very different indeed. Indeed, we’ve yet to see the benchmarks we were promised.

    The new motto at State, the Pentagon and the think tanks that bind the two together in the Obama administration is “Can we occupy it? Yes we can!”. The result is a long colonialist war, at least another decade, with a dollar price tag of over a trillion and at least as many injured and dead as we’ve seen in Iraq. And even then, the militarization of our efforts will guarantee failure because the U.S. cannot purge itself of its penchant for airstrikes, force protection at the expense of civilian protection, buying dodgy information, super-embassies that scream “colonial occupation” and other mistakes which make a nonsense of the notion of people-centric counterinsurgency as a real-life exercise rather than an on-paper fable. The evidence is that America can’t do COIN.

    Afghanistan and its neighbour Pakistan are a perfect Gordian Knot; when you tease out one bit to untangle it, another bit just gets pulled tighter, and there’s no sword sharp enough to cut it. Anyone (including myself) who puts forward a solution for one tangle without mentioning how their solution would make other bits of the knot more intransigent is just blowing smoke up their reader’s asses. Frankly, though, the notion that all of this can be untangled by military forces – practising counter-insurgency or otherwise – is truly worthy of the description “laughable”. The best bet remains that put forward by Rory Stewart.

    After seven years of refinement, the policy seems so buoyed by illusions, caulked in ambiguous language and encrusted with moral claims, analogies and political theories that it can seem futile to present an alternative. It is particularly difficult to argue not for a total withdrawal but for a more cautious approach. The best Afghan policy would be to reduce the number of foreign troops from the current level of 90,000 to far fewer — perhaps 20,000. In that case, two distinct objectives would remain for the international community: development and counter-terrorism. Neither would amount to the building of an Afghan state. If the West believed it essential to exclude al-Qaida from Afghanistan, then they could do it with special forces. (They have done it successfully since 2001 and could continue indefinitely, though the result has only been to move bin Laden across the border.) At the same time the West should provide generous development assistance — not only to keep consent for the counter-terrorism operations, but as an end in itself.

    A reduction in troop numbers and a turn away from state-building should not mean total withdrawal: good projects could continue to be undertaken in electricity, water, irrigation, health, education, agriculture, rural development and in other areas favoured by development agencies. We should not control and cannot predict the future of Afghanistan. It may in the future become more violent, or find a decentralised equilibrium or a new national unity, but if its communities continue to want to work with us, we can, over 30 years, encourage the more positive trends in Afghan society and help to contain the more negative.

    Likewise in Iraq, as Snow notes, the COIN war isn’t “won” – and increasing Kurdish unrest points towards the possibility that the worst Iraqi insurgency has yet to begin, with 100,000 re-labelled combat troops advisors still in the country ready to be re-quagmired at the generals’ behest. Oh what fun.