070719-A-6849A-335 - 1st Lt. Chris Richelderfer, Executive Officer of Headquarters and Headquarters Troop, 1st Squadron, 91st Cavalry Regiment (Airborne), looks at possible enemy positions during Operation Saray Has July 19 near Forward Operating Base Naray, Afghanistan.

Ending America’s Longest War

President Trump has gone back on his campaign promise by announcing a new strategy for Afghanistan that calls for a troop increase. Ending the 16 year conflict has eluded two former presidents. The war in Afghanistan is America’s longest running conflict and is far from a success; the Taliban are resurgent while rampant corruption continues to plague the Afghan government. Why has the war been such a failure? The population centric counterinsurgency (PC-COIN) strategy has not worked. While PC-COIN tactics may work in certain environments, enemy centric counterinsurgency (EC-COIN) operations, otherwise known as “scorched earth” tactics, could better suit Taliban and Islamic State strongholds in Afghanistan. Increasing troop numbers in itself will not ensure victory unless paired with proper strategy and tactics.


The government of Afghanistan lost control of fifteen percent of its districts between Nov. 2015 and Nov. 2016, according to figures from the Pentagon. Only about fifty seven percent of Afghanistan’s districts were under control of the Afghan government as of mid-November. What are the reasons for the Taliban’s resurgence? First, the end of the U.S. and NATO combat mission and the withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan reduced the risk of being bombed and raided. The lack of focus and the diversion of the U.S. military’s attention to crisis in other parts of the world, such as the growth of ISIS, opened room for the Taliban to maneuver. The Afghan security forces lack certain capabilities and equipment especially air power and reconnaissance. The Taliban has exploited the political infighting of the government in Kabul and has captured weapons and vehicles from Afghan forces to use against the government. Importantly, Taliban fighters continue to move back and forth from Pakistan. With Taliban territory and influence expanding, the US and our Afghan allies need to retake the initiative.

So far, U.S. policy has revolved around population centric operations. But can the U.S. military succeed at nation building? In his book, The Failure of Counterinsurgency: Why Hearts and Minds Are Seldom Won, Ivan Eland explores why counterinsurgency wars are so hard for great powers to win. Historically, democracy has to bubble up from below, with the proper culture of political compromise existing before institutions can govern in a democratic way. Furthermore, democracy has even less of a chance of lasting if a foreign power imposes it by force, especially in countries that have never before had much of a democratic tradition. Also, for a genuine democracy to sustain itself and flourish over the long-term, the nation must have a higher national income level, yet Afghanistan remains a very poor country. U.S. policy makers have been too preoccupied with erroneous nation building in Afghanistan.

In A Strategy of Tactics, Gian Gentile speaks against the U.S. military’s preoccupation with population centric strategy.. Gentile argues that prioritizing PC-COIN has overshadowed the American tradition of improvisation and practicality. PC-COIN may be a reasonable operational method to use in certain circumstances, but it is not an overall strategy. Rather, good strategy employs many alternatives. The American militaries fixation on PC-COIN removes alternatives for commanders. Gentile argues that tactics have eclipsed strategy in the American military. Gentile states, “But what is occurring now in Afghanistan, for example, at least for the American Army, is a ‘strategy of tactics.’ If strategy calls for nation building as an operational method to achieve policy objectives, and it is resourced correctly, then the population centric approach might make sense. But because the United States has ‘principilized’ population centric COIN into the only way of doing any kind of counterinsurgency, it dictates strategy.”

Major Nathan Springer would agree with Gentile. Major Springer analyzed case studies of several COIN operations. From his research, he argues for a balanced strategy, customized for each conflict area’s dynamics. Each approach contains elements necessary to win. Successful counterinsurgents both pursue the enemy and protect the population, integrating both strategies. Major Springer argues that the U.S. should integrate both tactics and free commanders to use every option, stating, “The consensus from a comprehensive study of multiple counterinsurgency models indicates that utilizing all available resources to achieve a balanced approach and providing the autonomy our commanders require to achieve success in their AO’s is the most effective way to deal with counterinsurgencies now and in the future.” Good counterinsurgency strategy requires all options on the table to achieve the victory.

An image from Afghanistan in 2011. Firefight by US Army, Flickr Creative Commons

A Different Approach:

Field Marshal Horatio Kitchener was the commander in chief of British forces in South Africa during the Second Boer War. Despite the loss of their two capital cities and half of their army, the Boer commanders adopted guerrilla warfare tactics, primarily conducting raids against railways, resource and supply targets. These tactics aimed to disrupt the operational capacity of the British Army, while avoiding battles. To counter the insurgents, Kitchener’s strategy included: increasing blockhouses and zones of control to protect railroads, burning farms and homesteads to remove Boer insurgents’ supplies, concentration, or refugee camps, for civilians, and offers of peace with the more moderate opposition. Kitchener’s strategy was largely successful and would have been more so with modern weaponry and aerial reconnaissance.

A case in point was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. When Soviet forces invaded, they initially failed to protect their logistical and communications lines. But Soviet commanders corrected these mistakes and brought in better troops, including helicopter pilots trained for mountain warfare. When Soviet generals shifted, in mid-1983, to a counterinsurgency strategy of scorched earth tactics, their progress against the guerrillas accelerated. Over the next few years, the Soviets increased their control of Afghanistan. Had it not been for the immense support that the United States provided to the Afghan guerrillas, Soviet troops would have eventually achieved outright victory. When the last Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in early 1989, the situation on the ground was favorable to Moscow. Aided by huge inflows of Soviet weaponry, the pro-Soviet regime remained in power for the next three years.  Only after the Soviet Union collapsed and the new Russian government cut off military aid to Afghanistan did the regime fall to the Taliban.

This change in policy would especially be helpful with regards to Pakistan’s role in the conflict. The way that the Taliban use Pakistan’s tribal areas to launch cross-border attacks inside Afghanistan is perhaps the most contentious issue between Pakistan and the United States. “The next pillar of our new strategy is to change the approach in how to deal with Pakistan,” President Trump announced, calling out the contradiction of paying “billions and billions of dollars” to Pakistan while it is “housing the very terrorists we are fighting.” He highlighted that 20 U.S-designated terrorist organizations were operational in Pakistan and Afghanistan, making that the highest concentration of terrorist groups anywhere in the world.

Taliban fighters can cross the porous border and smuggle weapons and drugs, underscoring the challenge to the American war effort in Afghanistan. Yet, the border presents a firm barrier to the U.S., as Pakistan does not allow NATO or American military forces to cross. The result is that Taliban fighters and smugglers control much of the rugged 1,500 mile frontier between Afghanistan and Pakistan, creating a fluid battle space for the insurgents as the Taliban conducts a coordinated fight in both countries. Therefore, removing civilians along the border area and increasing the security at border crossings would allow U.S. and Afghan forces to more readily identify enemy combatants and would work to reduce the Taliban’s supply lines.


Some may argue against scorched earth tactics, stating that they are inhumane and will increase refugees. However, even following a population centric strategy, Afghanistan already has refugee camps and immense humanitarian problems. U.N. officials said they expect that 9.3 million Afghans, or nearly a third of the country’s population, will need some form of humanitarian or emergency aid. However, Afghan officials did not expect the flood of people displaced by conflict to keep pouring into the crowded capital, where there is no public housing and utilities are stretched thin. Not only does the U.S. have a duty to protect and aid these refugees, it would be good strategy to do so. By building housing and infrastructure in friendly areas, the allied forces could not only help existing refugees but also allow military forces to remove civilians from Taliban held areas and place them in U.S. controlled environments.

What is to be done against a resilient Taliban? Security is the number one priority of the U.S. and the peaceful Afghans. Policymakers can learn from the past, by stop expecting development programs to be effective weapons of war. American commanders must remove the Taliban’s resources if the US is to defeat the Taliban or bring the rebels to the table for talks. To change course, U.S. defense officials could allow commanders to take different approaches. Instead of Washington dictating from half a world away, defense policymakers could free the theater commanders to use the strategies, operations, and tactics that are most likely to result in victory for the given scenario. A minimal troop surge will not do.

Featured Image: Afghanistan by US Army, Flickr Creative Commons (2006) 

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