Officials say a shift in U.S. war strategy has begun to take place in Afghanistan, away from classic counterinsurgency (protecting the population, providing basic services, promoting good government) and toward the traditional business of killing and capturing bad guys.
Counterinsurgency (or COIN, as it’s often called) is hardly dead. Many U.S. troops are still very much engaged in COIN operations. A surge of civilian officials and advisers, from several NATO countries, is well under way in Kabul’s ministries in and several provincial districts. And COIN is seen as vital to Afghanistan’s long-term stability.
However, U.S. and NATO officers, intelligence analysts, and other officials and advisers now believe that our objectives in the Afghanistan war can no longer be accomplished in sufficiently short time through COIN alone or even through a COIN-dominant strategy.
Hence the huge increase, just in the last three months, of military attacks—by drones, aircraft-launched smart bombs, and special-operations forces on the ground—against Taliban soldiers and, in many cases, specific midlevel Taliban leaders.
The intended effect is the same: to apply pressure on the Taliban insurgents, disrupt their command-control networks, create fissures between the insurgents fighting in the field and their leaders across the border in Pakistan—to the point where many of them surrender or negotiate a reconciliation with the Afghan government.
Under classic COIN strategy, this process would take place slowly but steadily, as the presence of security forces and the supply of basic services boost popular allegiance to the Afghan government, which in turn dries up the base of support for the insurgents.
However, it is now calculated, even by many COIN advocates, that this process would take too long—and be too corrupted by Afghan politics—to work in any practical sense.
As for the timing, President Barack Obama has repeatedly said that his much-publicized deadline of July 2011 will mark only the beginning of a U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and that the scope and pace of the pullout will be determined by conditions on the ground. Still, it’s clear that domestic support for this war is winding down. Some senior White House advisers (though just some) are seeking any excuse for an exit. In any case, the time needed for success through a COIN campaign alone—another six to 10 years, or more, the strategy’s most avid supporters estimate—is seen as politically unsustainable.
As for Afghan politics, COIN can succeed only by, with, and through the host government; U.S. troops in a COIN operation are—and advertise themselves to be—fighting on behalf of the host government. And yet, by all official accounts, Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government is so distrusted by its own people—and so incompetent at (or uninterested in) providing services—that it cannot really serve as a reliable partner in a COIN campaign.
So, U.S. and NATO forces are concentrating more on a different, possibly faster, explicitly more forceful means of pressuring the Taliban to the negotiating tables.
Airstrikes and commando killings have always been part of the operation. By the same token, COIN is still a part of this ramped-up killing campaign. Without the security provided by lots of U.S. troops on the ground—and without the human intelligence that these troops cultivate among the local population—the special-ops forces wouldn’t be able to function, and the air and drone pilots wouldn’t know where their targets were. The two strategies—counterinsurgency and counterterrorism—are, in this sense, connected. What’s recently changed is the emphasis on each, not just in degree and intensity but also in terms of which approach is seen as the spearhead to achieving the war’s objectives.
This shift in emphasis is not a subtle matter; it is altering the character of this war. The Army’s field manual on counterinsurgency—which was co-written by Gen. David Petraeus, who is now U.S. commander in Afghanistan—notes that COIN wars are “protracted by nature” and that they require “firm political will and extreme patience,” as well as “considerable expenditure of time and resources.” It orders all soldiers and officers to focus on protecting the population and to put much less priority on “killing and capturing the enemy.” At one point, the manual advises its readers: “Only attack insurgents when they get in the way.”
Since taking command of the Afghanistan war, Petraeus has said that Taliban fighters and their commanders wouldn’t seek a deal unless they thought they were losing. But in recent weeks, he has substantially stepped up this side of the campaign—the business of “killing and capturing the enemy,” which his field manual discouraged—to make the insurgents perceive that they’re losing much more quickly.
“Petraeus is unleashing the special-ops guys,” one U.S. official told me, in every area of Afghanistan where the Taliban are in force: north, east, and south.
It’s not just special-ops troops. According to the latest unclassified Air Force data, U.S. warplanes and drones dropped or fired 1,600 weapons on Afghan targets in the last three months, nearly half of them—700—in September alone. In the same three months last year, just 1,031 aerial weapons were released, 257 of them in that September. (Though the data are not entirely clear, it appears this more aggressive strategy has not resulted in an increase of civilian casualties. For more on this point, click here.)
This new twist in the strategy seems to be having some effect. One senior officer said (and other officials confirmed) that 300 midlevel Taliban have been killed or captured in the last three months, including a number of shadow provincial governors, district commanders, and trainers or facilitators in the use of roadside bombs. In addition, more than 800 rank-and-file insurgents have been killed, and more than 2,000 have been captured.
Intelligence intercepts indicate that Taliban insurgents in the field are more scattered and confused, that their leaders are slow to send new unit commanders when the old ones have been killed, and that the replacements are often less competent.
There have also been “a couple dozen instances” of surrenders, a senior officer said, involving anywhere from a handful to several dozen insurgents. In one incident still ongoing, about 200 insurgents who had been fighting in southern Helmand province marched northwest to Herat in order to surrender.
The officer stopped short of claiming that these surrenders signaled a large-scale or higher-level co-optation to come. First, those 200 insurgents marched from Helmand to Herat in order to evade reprisals from other Taliban—a sign that, even among those willing to do so, surrendering is risky. Second, Afghan fighters have a long tradition of switching sides and switching back again (see the first chapter of Dexter Filkins’ excellent book, The Forever War); those who surrender today might be back on the fighting fields tomorrow.
Still, the trends are unmistakable. One U.S. official, who has been very skeptical about the war in the past, said in a recent e-mail: “There’s a reasonable strategy in place with a reasonable chance for reasonable success.” A NATO adviser, who was downright pessimistic three months ago, said, “I’m now a glass-half-full guy.”
Two caveats, which these same sources are quick to point out: First, these comments are laced in caution; they’re not at all fist-in-the-air yelps of victory. Second, they speak to tactical progress, not strategic success.
If the airstrikes and special-ops raids continue to kill insurgents, ratchet up the pressure on the survivors, and force Taliban leaders to the negotiating table, that’s hardly the end of the game.
What kind of deal will these Taliban negotiate? One condition Gen. Petraeus has set is that any Taliban seeking reconciliation must pledge to support Afghanistan’s constitution and elected leaders. If they do so, will they cross their fingers and soon break the deal? Although U.S. troops might stick around to help enforce such accords, the ultimate guarantor must be Karzai. Will he hold up his end of the bargain without either demanding too much obeisance or cravenly caving in?
Finally, in order for any deal to take hold and result in political stability, there must be economic growth, credible institutions of justice, and a steady flow of basic services to the population. In that sense, COIN theory is still valid—and that leads back to the original concerns that have made a COIN campaign so slow and difficult: How can growth, good government, and basic services develop if the regime lacks political legitimacy?
There’s another wild card, rarely addressed in these sorts of discussions: the fighters of the Northern Alliance, the former insurgency group that helped U.S. special-ops forces overthrow Afghanistan’s Taliban regime in 2002. These fighters disarmed when Karzai came to power, but some intelligence analysts—and Afghans—worry that they might take up arms again if the Taliban were to come back into the government as part of a power-sharing deal. If that happens, civil war could once again break out.
The path to the end of this war is suddenly a bit clearer, but how this thing ends and what happens afterward remain as murky as ever.