The Role of Force Projection in Counterinsurgency

BY Herschel Smith
10 years, 3 months ago

 Introduction and Background

 Regarding the resurgence of the Taliban, Lt. Gen. David Barno has an interesting perspective on his time in Afghanistan, as well as the evolution of the campaign since.

More than six years after they were toppled in Afghanistan, Taliban forces are resurgent. An average of 400 attacks occurred each month in 2006. That number rose to more than 500 a month in 2007.

“It appears to be a much more capable Taliban, a stronger Taliban than when I was there,” says retired Lt. Gen. David Barno, who was the top commander in Afghanistan from 2003 through 2005. “Just the size of engagements, the casualties reflected in the Taliban [attacks] show a stronger force.”

And Barno says that the United States may have unwittingly contributed to that resurgence beginning in 2005 — first, by announcing it was turning over responsibility for the Afghan military operation to NATO and second, by cutting 2,500 American combat troops. That sent a message to friend and foe alike, Barno says, that the U.S. was moving for the exits.

NATO commands most of the 54,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, nearly half of whom are American. Defense Secretary Robert Gates wanted NATO to send 7,000 more troops.

Appearing before Congress just last month, Gates wasn’t ready to mince words: American troops were stretched in Iraq, and NATO troops were needed in Afghanistan for combat duty and for training Afghan forces.

“I am not willing to let NATO off the hook in Afghanistan at this point,” Gates said.

By last week, Gates was ready to do just that. On his desk was a plan to send several thousand U.S. Marines to Afghanistan for combat and training duty. The proposal made him even more worried about the NATO alliance.

“I am concerned about relieving the pressure on our allies to fulfill their commitments,” Gates said.

But with violence flaring in Afghanistan, Gates had little choice but to turn to the Marines.

Meanwhile, other defense officials complain that NATO is not focused enough on the most important part of winning the insurgency in Afghanistan: Making life better by creating jobs, clinics and roads.

That left Gates in a recent appearance before Congress to question the future of NATO, an alliance created to fight the Soviets.

“The Afghan mission has exposed real limitations in the way the alliance is organized, operated and equipped,” Gates said. “We’re in a post-Cold War environment. We have to be ready to operate in distant locations against insurgencies and terrorist networks.”

Those problems are spurring several Pentagon reviews about the way ahead in Afghanistan. One option being discussed would give the U.S. an even greater combat role in the country’s restive south, now patrolled by Canadian, British and Dutch forces.

At the same time, there is talk of appointing a high-level envoy to better coordinate international aid for Afghanistan. One name being mentioned is Paddy Ashdown, a former member of the British Parliament who held a similar post in Bosnia.

That makes sense to American officers like Col. Martin Schweitzer, who commands the 4th Brigade Combat Team in Khost province in eastern Afghanistan. He says more experts are needed to give Afghans a better life.

“Specifically, we need assistance with agrarian development, natural resource development, like natural gas, etc., because there’s natural gas in the ground here,” Schweitzer said. “And we need those smart folks to come over here and help us get it out, so you can turn it into a product that can help sustain the government and the country.”

A more robust Afghan economy may help cut into Taliban recruitment of a large pool of the unemployed. But Barno and others caution that the Taliban are a regional problem. There’s a steady flow of radicalized recruits pouring over the border from Pakistan.

Analysis and Commentary

This account is pregnant with salient and important observations.  It is supplemented by Barno’s analysis Fighting the Other War: Counterinsurgency Strategy in Afghanistan, 2003-2005.  Only a short quote pertinent to our point will be cited below.

As we switched our focus from the enemy to the people, we did not neglect the operational tenet of main¬taining pressure on the enemy. Selected special operations forces (SOF) continued their full-time hunt for Al-Qaeda’s senior leaders. The blood debt of 9/11 was nowhere more keenly felt every day than in Afghanistan. No Soldier, Sailor, Airman, or Marine serving there ever needed an explanation for his or her presence—they “got it.” Dedicated units worked the Al-Qaeda fight on a 24-hour basis and continued to do so into 2004 and 2005.

In some ways, however, attacking enemy cells became a supporting effort: our primary objective was maintaining popular support. Thus, respect for the Afghan people’s customs, religion, tribal ways, and growing feelings of sovereignty became an inherent aspect of all military operations. As well, the “three-block war” construct became the norm for our conventional forces.  Any given tactical mission would likely include some mixture of kinetics (e.g., fighting insurgents), peacekeeping (e.g., negotiating between rival clans), and humanitarian relief (e.g., digging wells or assessing local needs). 2001-2003 notion of enemy-centric counterterrorist operations now became nested in a wholly different context, that of “war amongst the people,” in the words of British General Sir Rupert Smith.

General Barno poses and answers his objections in these two commentaries.  The debate between “enemy-centric” counterinsurgency and “population-centric” counterinsurgency is old and worn, and highly unnecessary and overblown.  It has never been and is not now an either-or relationship.  It is a both-and relationship, and this truth requires force projection.  Notice what Barno tells us regarding even the intial stages of the campaign in Afghanistan; special operations continued kinetic operations against the Taliban, and the balance of forces launched into the subsequent stages of COIN.  Yet his initial analysis charged that the U.S. contributed to the resurgence of the Taliban by the quick exit and trooper drawdown in Afghanistan.

NGOs can support the effort, but if terrorist activities are perpetrated on the infrastructure, it is to no avail.  Similarly, the Taliban and al Qaeda can be killed or captured, but if they are left unmolested on the other side of the Afghan-Pakistan border, the campaign goes on forever.  Also, if the infrastructure languishes, the insurgent recruiting field expands.

Force projection is not a mere byword.  It is literally the foundation upon which counterinsurgency is built.  The circumstances surrounding commanders in the field (along with political realities at home) convince them to believe that transition to phases can occur before doctrine would suggest, and also convinces them to believe that smaller force size can succeed in what really requires a much larger force size.  In other words, the small footprint model of counterinsurgency is tempting, but wrongheaded and terribly corrupting to a campaign.  Force projection doesn’t just include kinetic operations, although it does includes it.  The notion that killing or capturing the enemy is the sole province of a few special force operators is one key reason for the failure of the campaign in Afghanistan.  Yet apologies for failures to rebuild infrastructure are inappropriate.  We need them both, we needed them then, and we need them now.  This is the way it worked in Anbar, and it it will work in Afghanistan.


  1. On January 21, 2008 at 6:59 pm, Brian H said:

    NATO has signed its own death warrant by muffing this.

    The AQ-Taliban Axis will push from whatever base or direction is open to them. There is no such thing as a final victory, even locally; “eternal vigilance” is a motto with teeth in dealing with them.

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You are currently reading "The Role of Force Projection in Counterinsurgency", entry #903 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Counterinsurgency,Featured,Force Projection,Taliban,War & Warfare and was published January 21st, 2008 by Herschel Smith.

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