Afghanistan’s Lessons for Iraq: What Strategy?

BY Herschel Smith
13 years, 1 month ago

If Afghanistan is the model for contemporary counterinsurgency operations, then the U.S. ought to rethink its strategy.  There is a role for both special operators and regulars in today’s warfare.  Cessation of regular operations too soon is counterproductive.

Bill Roggio is covering the fact that Pakistan has released more than 2500 al-Qaeda and Taliban, most of whom are heading to Waziristan.  Bill also covers the continuing operations in Afghanistan, stating that:

But the Afghan and Coalition efforts may merely be a holding action. Attempts to stabilize the provinces on the Pakistani border has been a difficult task as Taliban and al-Qaeda have used Pakistan’s Baluchistan and North West Frontier Provinces as bases of operations … The fighting in Afghanistan will only intensify.

Vital Perspective is reporting (from Jane’s Defence) that the Army and Marine Corps are putting the finishing touches on a new counter-insurgency manual that is designed to fill a crucial gap in U.S. military doctrine.  Afghanistan has lessons for our struggle in Iraq.  If this manual doesn’t mention and learn from our (at least partially) failed strategy in Afghanistan, then they should go back to the drawing board.

Much has been made about counterinsurgency warfare and the strategy the U.S. uses to attain peace and stability in Iraq.  The Washington Post recently published an article entitled In a Volatile Region of Iraq, U.S. Military Takes Two Paths.  In this article, the Staff Writer compares and contrasts two (allegedly) different approaches to securing peace and stability in the al Anbar province (the problems of which I have written on in my post Will We Lose the Anbar Province?).  I have also discussed the debate over force size and military footprint in my post The Debate Over Diminished Force Projection, which bears on the subject of force size and strategy and how various forces are utilized.

The Washington Post article is similar to those published previously, where the special forces operator is characterized as smart, patient, politically astute, and easily maleable and adaptable in new and challenging situations, while the non-special forces are depicted as dull, stolid, slow to adapt, and hopelessly educated and trained in the age-old military practices and stategy, much of which is too coarse and heavy-handed for the current situation in Iraq.  One is left to conclude that the regulars are knuckle-draggers.  It is an easy article to write — an easy story to tell.

The truth is neither of these depictions, and it is not somewhere in between.  The truth is more complicated.  As I have noted before from the U.S. Joint Forces Command’s Urban Resolve program:

In military operations since World War II, United States forces have preferred to bypass major urban areas to avoid the costly combat expected inside cities.

There is a huge difference between bypassing the troops (both regular and irregular such as the Fedayeen) on our advance to Baghdad, leaving the enemy behind, and killing the enemy if he can be identified and located, when he is identified and located.  The special forces might claim that the entire operation should have been a counterinsurgency operation, while the regulars might claim that we stopped conventional operations too soon, and much of the enemy was still intact when we switched over to counterinsurgency strategy.

There are those who are complaining that the regulars are not taking an approach that more closely resembles newer and more sophisticated counter-insurgency techniques.  But ironically, no one complains that the Afghanistan campaign was too “regular.”  In fact, it was nothing but irregular and Special Forces operations.  We primarily used the Northern Alliance to drive the Taliban from northern Afghanistan and Kabul, while we relied heavily on three tribal leaders / warlords, at least one of whom could not be trusted, to attempt closure with the enemy at Tora Bora.  The attitude of many of the fighters was in part responsible for the failure to close in on the enemy.  From the perspective of one fighter:

Awol Gul was calm and relaxed as B-52s pummeled a mountain behind him and Al Qaeda sniper fire rang out in the distance. “They’ve been under quite a bit of pressure inside there,” he said. “It is likely that they have made a tactical withdrawal farther south. They have good roads, safe passage, and Mr. bin Laden has plenty of friends.

“We are not interested in killing the Arabs,” Mr. Gul went on to say. “They are our Muslim brothers.”

We lost Osama bin Laden and hundreds (perhaps thousands) of Taliban fighters.  When the last cave was taken at Tora Bora:

On Dec. 16, Afghan warlords announced they had advanced into the last of the Tora Bora caves. One young commander fighting with 600 of his own troops alongside Ali and Ghamsharik, Haji Zahir, could not have been less pleased with the final prize. There were only 21 bedraggled Al Qaeda fighters who were taken prisoners. “No one told us to surround Tora Bora,” Mr. Zahir complained. “The only ones left inside for us were the stupid ones, the foolish and the weak.”

Today the Taliban and al Qaeda have control over Waziristan, have recently fought the Pakistani army to a draw, have seen 2500 of their fellow Taliban released, and have managed to inflict enough terror into Afghanistan that 267 schools have been forced to cease operations altogether.  If Afghanistan is the model for special operations, then we ought to rethink how we are conducting these operations.

There is a place for special operations, and certainly there is need always to adapt our techniques to the circumstances.  And with counterterrorist tactics being all the rage now, should I be bold enough to say that it is not the answer to all of our problems?

When we lose thousands of Taliban at Tora Bora, fighters are shooting at Marines and Soldiers in foxholes in Ramadi and U.S. forces will not hunt down and kill the enemy in response (while they also take bets as to when they will be attacked again), and no one in the chain of command can make a decision to kill 190 Taliban at a funeral because of “religious sensibilities,” may I suggest that we need to re-evaluate our strategy?  And to reflexively demur to special operations is easy, but not the answer. 

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You are currently reading "Afghanistan’s Lessons for Iraq: What Strategy?", entry #712 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Iraq,Small Wars,War & Warfare,Weapons and Tactics and was published September 17th, 2006 by Herschel Smith.

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