RAND Study on Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan

BY Herschel Smith
6 years, 2 months ago

Seth G. Jones of RAND National Defense Research Institute has published Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan.  It will required several assessments to analyze the entirety of the paper, and in lieu of attempting to assess the paper chronologically, we will address it thematically.  Several quotes will be supplied (mainly from Chapter 2 which is entitled Success in Counterinsurgency Warfare).  The last quote is from the recommendations section at the end of the paper.

RAND Study

One of the key challenges in waging effective counterinsurgency operations is understanding the variables that impact their success (or failure).  Most assessments of counterinsurgency operations tend to ignore or downplay the role of indigenous forces and mistakenly focus on how to improve the capabilities of outside forces to directly defeat insurgents. This might include revising the U.S. military’s organizationalstructure or increasing external resources (such as troops) to directly counterinsurgents. This approach assumes the recipe for a successful counterinsurgency is adapting the U.S. military’scapabilities so it can win the support of the local population and defeat insurgents. The problem with this approach is that it ignores or underestimates the most critical actor in a counterinsurgency campaign: the indigenous government and its security forces.

This mistake is common in the counterinsurgency literature. John Nagl argues, for example, that success in counterinsurgency operations is largely a function of an external military’s ability to adapt its organizational structure and strategy to win the support of the local population and directly defeat insurgents. But he largely ignores the role of the indigenous government and its security forces.

This focus on winning counterinsurgency campaigns by improving the capabilities of external actors has become conventional wisdom among numerous military officials and counterinsurgency experts. However, such a strategy is misplaced. While improving the U.S. military’sability to directly counter insurgents may be necessary to a successful counterinsurgency campaign, it is not sufficient. In particular, it underestimates the importance of indigenous forces: Most counterinsurgency campaigns are not won or lost by external forces, but by indigenous forces. The quality of indigenous forces and government has significantly impacted the outcome of past counterinsurgencies.

Indeed, there are dangers in focusing too heavily on a lead U.S. role and improving U.S. military capabilities to directly act against insurgents. First, U.S. forces are unlikely to remain for the duration of any counterinsurgency effort, at least as a major combatant force.  Insurgencies are usually of short duration only if the indigenous government collapses at an early stage. An analysis of all insurgencies since 1945 shows that successful counterinsurgency campaigns last for an average of 14 years, and unsuccessful ones last for an average of 11years. Many also end in a draw, with neither side winning. Insurgencies can also have long tails: Approximately 25 percent of insurgencies won by the government and 11 percent won by insurgents last more than 20 years.  Since indigenous forces eventually have to win the war on their own, they must develop the capacity to do so. If they do not develop this capacity, indigenous forces are likely to lose the war once international assistance ends.  Second, indigenous forces usually know the population and terrain better than external actors and are better able to gather intelligence. Third, a lead U.S. role may be interpreted by the population as an occupation, eliciting nationalist reactions that impede success.  Fourth, a lead indigenous role can provide a focus for national aspirations and show the population that they—and not foreign forces—control their destiny. Competent governments that can provide services to their population in a timely manner can best prevent and overcome insurgencies.

Recommendations section: Where possible, U.S. counterinsurgency forces should be kept to a minimum and supported with civil-affairs and psychological operations units.

Analysis & Commentary

Jones is obviously well-studied and presents the data clearly, and the citations above are all the more remarkable because of these facts.  Without even a careful reading of the text, Jones is calling for the small footprint model of counterinsurgency.

Jones presents data and analysis to support a number of self-evident truths, such as the need to stand up the country’s own counterinsurgency forces as U.S. forces stand down, the need for a government essentially without corruption, and so forth.  But the leap from these truths to the necessity for a small footprint is not obviously or logically a necessary one.

More to the point, it is remarkable that this analysis was written in 2008.  General Abizaid and his successors were under orders to train the Iraqi Security Forces, and while some forces were deployed in the field conducting regular counterinsurgency operations, many weren’t until the security plan.

The Marines didn’t pay much attention to things going on outside of the Anbar Province, having had that AO turned over to them in 2004.  After a halting start in Fallujah, al Fajr set the stage for things to come in the province.  To rehearse an old theme, the tribal turn against al Qaeda and the insurgency didn’t occur in a vacuum.  Not only did al Qaeda’s brutality aid the turning, Shiekh Abdul Abu Sattar Risha had smuggling lines completely cut by U.S. kinetic operations.  Al Qaeda had become brutal, but the U.S. was an impediment to the welfare of his tribe.  He chose to fight al Qaeda, and even after beginning this part of the awakening a U.S. tank was parked in his front yard to protect his home and family.  The Sunnis turned on al Qaeda and sided with the U.S. because it was advantageous to do so.

Force projection was the hallmark of the Marine campaign in Anbar, with constant contact with both the enemy and population.  The small footprint or minimal force projection model was not applied in Anbar.  Subsequently after implementation of the security plan in and around Baghdad, it is simply impossible to argue that the small footprint model was used by Petraeus.

In fact, the opposite is true.  If there is any legacy of the small footprint model it is that in part it led to the necessity for the surge and security plan.  The notion of standing up the Iraqi Army suffered in the wake of cultural differences (e.g., the foreign idea of NCOs) as well as porous borders and a transnational insurgency.  Without a heavier footprint than in the early phases of OIF, the institutions couldn’t stand up and become disentangled from corruption (and still haven’t completely).

Turning East to Operation Enduring Freedom, it is no secret that the campaign is under-resourced by a wide margin, as the retiring General McNeill has said so.  The strategy planned for the future of Afghanistan is to negotiate with the Taliban from a position of weakness rather than from a position of strength as was done with the Sunni insurgency in Anbar.  The desperation is obvious, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai while offering peace talks has said he would personally go and talk to the Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar if he knew his whereabouts or “his phone number.”  This last point should be reconsidered for its power and pedagogical value.  Karzai is talking about making peace with (and thus legitimizing) the very forces which made safe haven for al Qaeda prior to 9/11.

The most recent success in Afghanistan, the Helmand Province, is a success because of force projection by U.S. Marines.  Security is the necessary precondition for standing up the institutions that Jones wants to rely upon.  As one tribal elder in Garmser said to the Marines after entering, “When you protect us, we will be able to protect you.”

This protection doesn’t come with the small footprint model of COIN.  The two most recent insurgencies in history, involving not only radicalized elements but also transnational engagement, are evidence that the large footprint model for COIN is a winner.  Seth Jones has made a number of salient observations concerning COIN in the RAND paper, but almost-failed-nation-states which are vulnerable to criminals and transnational insurgents require nontrivial force size and obvious force projection (such as was the case in Anbar).  Whatever good might come from Jones’ study, his paper, at least on this point, seems badly dated and out of context given the recent conduct of COIN in OIF and OEF.

Further reading:

International Herald Tribune, U.S. think tank: Pakistan helped train Taliban, gave info on U.S. troops

MSNBC, U.S. think tank: Pakistan officials help Taliban


You are currently reading "RAND Study on Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan", entry #1139 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Counterinsurgency,The Anbar Narrative and was published June 9th, 2008 by Herschel Smith.

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