The Rough Terrain in Afghanistan
John Nagl is the kind of guy who brings to mind F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wicked line in The Great Gatsby about people who succeed at such an early age that “everything afterward savors of anticlimax.” A star at West Point and a Rhodes scholar, the native Nebraskan was only 37 when he landed on the cover of The New York Times Magazine in January 2004. In that article, Nagl offered an inside-the-Sunni-Triangle tutorial on what he came to call “graduate-level war.” Nagl’s mantra: “We have to outthink the enemy, not just outfight him.” In an era when small but wily bands of nonuniformed insurgents could stymie America’s mighty military machine with stealthy guerrilla attacks and roadside bombs planted in the night, the U.S. had to figure out how to hunt down the bad guys and cut off their support from the local population. Nagl, after studying the British and French colonial experience, as well as America’s handling of the Vietnam War, helped to develop what has since become famous as U.S. “counterinsurgency doctrine,” or COIN. As his celebrity grew, Nagl proselytized about it everywhere, even on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.
By the late 2000s, the precocious Army major had become part of a brain trust around America’s uber-general, David Petraeus, the commander who implemented the Iraq troop surge. Commissioned by Petraeus, Nagl helped to author the official counterinsurgency manual that has since reoriented American military doctrine, shifting the center of gravity from rough-and-ready conventional war fighters to cerebral specialists in irregular warfare and targeted response. After retiring from the Army as a lieutenant colonel in early 2008—even though he seemed to be on the fast track to four-star fame—Nagl took over a little-known think tank, the Center for a New American Security, and turned it into what journalist Tara McKelvey called “counterinsurgency central in Washington.”
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Brilliant and brash as ever at the advanced age of 45, Nagl delivers a sober endorsement of the military’s current COIN strategy in Afghanistan, which, because it was adapted from Iraq, is partly his brainchild. It is a strategy that many experts believe is not working—and the skeptics may now include President Obama himself. “I think any sane person would be disillusioned,” Nagl says over a lunch of mussels and mozzarella salad at Finemondo, a lushly decorated restaurant around the corner from his office. Even some of those around Petraeus (who is retiring from the military to run the CIA) are losing heart. But Nagl says that the Janus-faced core of COIN strategy—winning over the Afghan population with kindness, aid, and a multibillion-dollar policy to “clear, hold, and build” towns and villages while ruthlessly killing off insurgents—is just starting to succeed. He laments that the debate in Washington is dominated by critics who complain that the war is almost 10 years long and already more hopeless than Vietnam.
What they don’t fully appreciate, according to Nagl, is that Washington, distracted by Iraq, had mostly neglected Afghanistan until two years ago. “We took a little eight-year goddamn vacation.” Grabbing a piece of paper, Nagl quickly sketches a map that shows how solvable the problem in Afghanistan is as long as COIN is applied. The mostly non-Pashtun (and therefore mostly non-Taliban) north largely takes care of itself; the strategy is working in the south under the Marines; and so the only task left is to secure the east. Meanwhile, Petraeus’s “Anaconda strategy” of attacking the Taliban and choking off its resources is sowing doubt among the insurgent leadership. “I think we’re on the verge of breaking the insurgency,” Nagl says. “It’s exactly the wrong time to change horses.”
Yet a surprising number of military experts seem sure that COIN is failing; that it is not even a real strategy; and that guys like John Nagl, who are perhaps a little too smart for their own good, have been snowing us all along. The newly vocal doubters include some of those who helped develop counterinsurgency in the first place. They run the spectrum from those who think COIN is pretty much a crock to those who still believe in the idea but doubt Washington’s ability to implement it. Among the latter is Lt. Gen. John Campbell, who just handed off command of Afghanistan Regional Command East, the most recalcitrant part of the country but the one Nagl has hopes for. Campbell notes that COIN typically takes a decade or more to work. “I think it’s the way to go, but I don’t think we have time,” he told National Journal in a June 14 interview. “If we don’t show progress, we’re not going to have the money.”
Already, Washington is losing patience. On Wednesday, Obama announced a faster-than-expected drawdown, saying he would bring home the entire 33,000-troop surge by the fall of 2012 and end the war by 2014. “It is time to focus on nation-building at home,” Obama said. As the 2012 presidential campaign gets under way and the political debate centers on the debt ceiling and the deficit, the mounting cost of the war has eclipsed the casualty rate as Topic A. A new poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press shows that nearly 60 percent of Americans believe that the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has contributed “a great deal” to the nation’s debt—more than, say, increased domestic spending or the tax cuts enacted over the past decade. The public is clearly growing disenchanted with COIN’s expense and incremental progress. Even traditionally hawkish Republicans, particularly in the House, have begun to balk. “The budget math has caught up to the theory,” says retired Gen. David Barno, who once commanded U.S. forces in Afghanistan but now works for Nagl. Counterinsurgency, the theory goes, can work only with the right balance of war-fighting to take down the bad guys and nation-building to win over the people. It seems suddenly clear that America doesn’t have the patience and cash for both.
Official optimism, of course, still reigns. Marine Maj. Gen. Richard Mills, who until recently commanded the 1st Expeditionary Force in the Southwest—mainly Helmand and Nimruz provinces, considered partial success stories—says he believes that COIN can work even with limited troops and time. “Success can become a tidal wave, building momentum of its own,” Mills told National Journal. “As people become more confident in their Afghan security forces, I think you’re going to see a shift even in the troublesome areas.… It’s beginning to show success.”
As one piece of evidence of how the U.S. military “learns” (a key Nagl idea), Mills says he was not as interested in “body counts” as in other measures: the diminishing resources of the Taliban as they “search for old munitions and save expended cartridges”; the eagerness with which parents in his area sent their children to school; and the lower desertion rates among Afghan soldiers. At last count, the U.S. military said that the attrition rate had dropped from 70 to 30 percent. Mills says he saw, in just a year, dramatic improvement in “probably the most important metric: the separation between the insurgency and the population.… When you begin to see parents pushing their children to school, then that tells you that threat is diminishing.”
Petraeus’s successor, Marine Lt. Gen. John Allen, will follow a similar course. He perfectly fits the Nagl/Petraeus mold of the scholar-soldier. Adaptable and erudite (he has “one of the best libraries” in the military, according to retired Marine Col. Dan Kelly, an old friend), Allen also has considerable hands-on experience in counterinsurgency. He directed governance and stability operations in Iraq’s Anbar province during the 2006-08 surge, helping to transform it from a hotbed of insurgency into a critical building block of stability.
But Allen may now have an impossible circle to square: He will preside over a drawdown at exactly the moment when COIN’s architects say it has just begun to receive the minimum resources necessary. Under COIN theory, there should ideally be about 20 security officers for every 1,000 civilians, which would mean that NATO and the U.S. need 600,000 troops in Afghanistan rather than the 140,000 or so there now—a number set to decline next month.
Not surprisingly, according to military officials, right now COIN is not working to protect—and thereby win over—most of the Afghan population. Earlier this month, the United Nations announced that May was the deadliest month for civilians there since it began keeping count in 2007. The Taliban and other insurgents caused most of the deaths, but at least 12 percent were ascribed to mistakes by NATO troops and Afghan forces. Because Afghan civilians are dying at higher rates, Campbell says, Western forces are not seeing the population come over to their side in large numbers—something that’s crucial for the strategy to succeed. The people, he concedes, believe that the coalition doesn’t do enough to protect them, and neither the Afghan army nor some 20,000 police are yet up to that task. “We’re not going to kill our way out,” Campbell says.
Another problem for counterinsurgency is its mind-boggling cost—and its meager return on investment. Even with the United States spending $80 billion per year, Campbell says that “the full spectrum of COIN” is being applied only in a relatively small section of the country’s south and southwest, centered on Kandahar, with a population of about 2.1 million. The 14 provinces of the battle-stricken east have a population nine times that size, constituting more than half of Afghanistan’s total population of 30 million. Nagl may be right in saying that Regional Command East is “all we have to do,” but it’s bigger by far than anything the U.S. has yet tried. Campbell says it “will be the last place we leave.” Meanwhile, it appears that Obama has decided not to press for a larger COIN approach in the east, which Petraeus wanted, so that he can withdraw from Afghanistan more quickly, according to a senior administration official. Petraeus “wanted to move some of the [south] folks into [the east] to repeat the counterinsurgency campaign there. The president doesn’t think that’s necessary,” the official said.
Two further problems are the absence of a legitimate and trusted government that the U.S. and NATO can hand off to—this is absolutely critical and perhaps the most Vietnamesque aspect of Afghanistan—and the Taliban’s safe haven across the border in Pakistan, which has possibly grown even safer as relations between the U.S. and Pakistan continue to deteriorate.
Before Obama settled on his current strategy and ordered the surge, Vice President Joe Biden argued vehemently in 2009 for a pared-back approach that discarded COIN, admitted that Afghan President Hamid Karzai wouldn’t be much help, and focused mainly on attacking terrorists. Today, the problems of counterinsurgency are rapidly reducing American strategy to something that looks more and more like this. “Essentially what’s happening now is the Biden plan on steroids,” says retired Army Lt. Col. Douglas Ollivant, Campbell’s former military aide and an ex-White House staffer focused on Afghanistan.
Ollivant calls this “a realist version of COIN”: Practice counterinsurgency in places where it might work and leave the other places (for example, the unruly Pech Valley, from which Campbell simply withdrew) alone. If these regions become nests for Taliban, “then you do the Biden plan there” and launch missions, he says. “What Campbell tried to focus on was a more limited approach that tries to get the low-hanging fruit,” Ollivant says. “It connects the cities that want to be part of the solution.” COIN-istas like to compare their approach to the spread of ink spots on a paper towel; the secured (ink-spotted) area bleeds out to connect with other ink spots until important corridors of stability appear throughout the country. But the new skeptics, such as Ollivant, say that so many areas are irremediable that a few stray ink spots may never spread far enough—which is partly why a similar strategy failed in Vietnam.
Can such a partial solution, amounting to a kind of land-based island-hopping, ever work? Retired Marine Col. Thomas X. Hammes says it can’t, and he is in a position to know. Hammes, now a fellow at the National Defense University’s Center for Strategic Research, is a onetime COIN supporter who helped devise the current strategy. Outside pockets of success like Helmand province, “what Petraeus is doing is killing Taliban,” Hammes says, and that’s about it. Because of Karzai’s failures and Pakistan’s open door, a huge “strategic disconnect” exists between the COIN concept and the reality on the ground, he contends. “The counterinsurgency discussion led by John Nagl and his team” doesn’t acknowledge that.
Afghanistan is far more primitive than Iraq, where most of the COIN proponents cut their teeth. “Social and economic conditions are not the same as in Iraq, or Malaya in 1950,” Hammes says. Counterinsurgency requires at least “an 18th-century concept of representative government and a 19th-century concept of government providing services.” In Afghanistan, he says, “we think we’re going to leap from somewhere in the 7th-to-14th century into the 19th century—and do it in four years.” And although insurgents crossed from Syria and Saudi Arabia into Iraq, there was nothing like Afghanistan’s porous border and the sanctuary next door. Afghanistan “is a helluva lot larger,” Hammes says. “Pakistan can’t control the border as Syria or Saudi [Arabia] could.” And it doesn’t even want to. Campbell uses the word “biblical” to describe Afghanistan: “Iraq had water, infrastructure, oil, educated people. Afghanistan has none of that.” Beyond that, Campbell says, there is almost no one who can replace Karzai, meaning there may be no credible government to hand things off to. “The bench is not deep at all,” he says. “This is where it’s completely different from Iraq.”
All of these doubts about COIN add up to what retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert Scales calls “the slow gravitation of Afghanistan from a counterinsurgency-centered strategy to one tied more to direct action”—killing enough Taliban quickly enough to drive the leaders to the peace table, then getting out just as quickly. Ollivant, for one, says that because Allen will lose most of the 30,000 surge troops by 2012, “he needs a new strategy.” A White House spokesman, Tommy Vietor, told National Journal that none is planned. “We are not fundamentally re-litigating where we ended up,” he said. Nonetheless, administration officials increasingly talk of COIN as a one-off success in Iraq, and they emphasize that Obama always intended it for only parts of Afghanistan.
COIN strategy is complex and ambitious. On paper, it is impressive. It calls for a kind of nation-building: fostering reconstruction and economic progress; building up local governance, police, and security—all in an effort to engender popular faith in the government and to “reintegrate” former insurgents and their supporters into society.
But more and more, former counterinsurgency stars are realizing that their moment of favor may be brief—perhaps almost as brief as the flash of self-celebration that the neocons enjoyed nearly a decade ago between the moment Baghdad fell and Iraq went sour. And the argument is bigger than Afghanistan. “It’s not so much a doctrinal debate as a struggle over the soul of the Army,” says retired Army Col. Peter Mansoor, Petraeus’s former executive officer in Iraq and a key member of his brain trust. “It’s about whether the Army is primarily a force that fights and wins conventional wars or whether counterinsurgency is part and parcel of what the Army has to do.… As we pull out of Afghanistan, there will be a shift back to training for conventional wars,” he says. “Counterinsurgency is going to slowly die out, just as it died out after Vietnam.”
Even if the war in Afghanistan ends more successfully than the Vietnam War did, Mansoor says, “there’s not going to be any stomach in the United States for this kind of thing going forward…. We’re going to shy away from regime change or these really large-scale counterinsurgency conflicts. That’s why you see, in Libya, the reluctance of the Obama administration to do more than what they’re doing.”
Barno says that COIN can’t be permitted to atrophy again as a way of thinking. Even most skeptics concede that counterinsurgency thinking helped, at least in turning back the Iraq insurgency. “We snatched victory [in Iraq] from the jaws of defeat through a classic counterinsurgency campaign,” Barno says. “You’re never to see a conventional war ever again that doesn’t not have a very robust irregular component to it.”
Still, some critics are using this period of doctrinal doubt to attack the very idea of counterinsurgency as a profound self-deception—military fool’s gold, in effect. Increasingly, these critics include NATO allies. Tom Johnson, a former adviser to the Canadian NATO command in Kabul, says he has come to believe that COIN “is a lot of smoke and mirrors.” In truth, he says, “the United States and NATO only control the land they’re standing on at any particular time.” Even that advantage often disappears at night, when the Taliban return, and it will almost entirely disappear by 2014, Johnson believes. Worse, by supporting a corrupt government and pretending to protect the population, the U.S. may be creating more enemies than it would if it simply withdrew.
Douglas Porch, a military scholar at the Naval Postgraduate School, believes that Nagl and his band are guilty of mythologizing counterinsurgency as a kind of cleaned-up, civilized war, when in actuality it relies mainly on savage tactics—covert killing on a large scale by aerial drones and special-ops teams. They have also falsified history, he says: “COIN is not a separate category of warfare, as people like John and others try to make it out. It’s really just a subset of minor tactics. It becomes a sort of competition of people who do big wars against people who do little wars. The little-wars guys think they’re being looked down on, so they evolve a theology. That’s counterinsurgency.”
And, most of all, the truth about past counterinsurgency campaigns is often the opposite of what proponents say. The colonial British quashed an insurgency in Malaya, for example, not by winning over the population but by killing many of them, Porch says: “The tactics they employed were total brutality. What they did was lock these people in concentration camps and pitted one minority group against the other.”
Nagl retorts: “While there were cases of British brutality against the local population, these decreased over time as the British army, empowered by its regimental system, learned and adapted.” Nagl also says that the British successfully raised a home guard of some 250,000 soldiers in Malaya to protect the “New Villages” that the Brits had built to separate the population from the insurgents. Still, Nagl is the first to admit that the exact reasons for counterinsurgency success are never clear, just as it’s not precisely clear whether parts of Iraq stabilized mainly because of COIN tactics or because the sectarian bloodletting was so terrible that the Sunnis finally rejected violence.
Porch also complains that the U.S. military is growing weaker as a fighting force, losing its war-waging abilities as it avoids anything more than the most surgical strikes and drains itself in fruitless efforts to succor the population. “It’s much easier for the conventional military to adapt to COIN than the other way around,” he says. “The French army COIN-ized in Algeria and Mexico in the 19th century, then confronted the Prussians in 1870 and got their butts kicked,” he says. “Then the same thing happened to the British army through colonial warfare. In two world wars, they didn’t do well. So in the end, you get bad armies that can’t really adapt to big warfare.”
Diehard COIN advocates respond simply: What’s the alternative? Unless you give up Afghanistan—per the Biden plan—you don’t have much choice but to try to pacify the population and set up a friendly government if the United States wants to get out with any sense of honor. “There have been times when I’ve been very frustrated, very frustrated, but I did see progress too,” says Campbell, who still thinks that the current approach is the best one. Like Nagl, Mansoor stresses that Americans will support the effort if they understand that COIN is still largely untried in Afghanistan. “We really have not fought a counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan for 10 years,” he says. “We’ve fought it for maybe a year-plus at this point. Maybe not even that much.”
Others argue that we’ve been at this for years already. John Hillen, who was assistant secretary of State for political and military affairs under President George W. Bush, acknowledges that COIN was slow in getting started but that generals such as Barno were doing a lot of the same things (albeit with fewer troops) back in the mid-2000s. Barno himself argues that the U.S. has “already won the Afghan war twice—once in December 2001 and a second time by the end of 2004,” before the Taliban began coming back. But journalist Ahmed Rashid, who has written authoritative books on the Taliban, says that the insurgents were filtering into Afghanistan as early as 2002 and were just waiting for their moment.
The question now is whether the Taliban will simply lie in wait until 2014 and come back one more time. It’s no surprise that—accelerated by the bin Laden takedown and a sense that al-Qaida is waning, or at least hiding, in Pakistan—the U.S. strategy is shifting heavily toward the pared-down Biden focus.
Nagl and others sketch out a possible future in which Afghan forces are just capable of keeping the country together, with U.S. special-ops forces and the CIA providing guidance, technical support, and intelligence. “Ultimately, the war doesn’t end in 2014 when we withdraw,” Mansoor says. “The situation only needs to be stable enough so that Afghan forces exist and can function with some counterterrorism support from the U.S.” And the government must be more legitimate than, say, South Vietnam’s regime was. “If you look at the polls, as much as Karzai stuffed the ballot boxes, he still is one of the more popular politicians in Afghanistan, more than the series of military dictators who ruled Vietnam. He can’t run for office again, so there will be another president of Afghanistan. I think, frankly, that transition of government is going to be really crucial.”
By then, U.S. forces will be largely gone, and private-security contractors will fill the gaps, along with covert operations. The reconstruction, development, and reconciliation part of counterinsurgency will shrink every month. And so the population may be even further out of reach. All of which doesn’t sound like a promising grade for graduate-level warfare.
This article appears in the June 25, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.