Strategy in Afghanistan: Population or Enemy-Centric?

BY Herschel Smith
10 years, 9 months ago

Yochi J. Dreazen opines in the Wall Street Journal concerning how the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan hinges upon far-flung outposts.  A few salient parts follow.

“You can’t commute to work in counterinsurgency,” Gen. Petraeus told a security conference in Munich. He declined requests to be interviewed for this article.

Afghanistan, however, is different from Iraq. It remains a destitute country with few roads and virtually no modern infrastructure, meaning the outposts are unusually isolated. Outposts in Iraq were located in major cities, so they were able to protect the vast majority of the Iraqi populace. In Afghanistan, most outposts are in rural areas like Seray. Often, these outposts can be reached only by air. That has prompted fears the bases could theoretically be overtaken by insurgents before reinforcements can arrive.

The article then turns to Wanat as an example of what can happen in what he calls “far-flung outposts.”  More on this in a minute.  Continuing with Dreazen’s article:

David Kilcullen, a counterinsurgency expert who has long advised Gen. Petraeus on Iraq and Afghanistan, supported the outpost strategy in Iraq. But he says the U.S. is making a mistake by deploying so many troops to remote bases in Afghanistan.

Mr. Kilcullen, a retired Australian military officer, notes that 80% of the population of southern Afghanistan lives in two cities, Kandahar and Lashkar Gah. The U.S. doesn’t have many troops in either one of them.

“The population in major towns and villages is vulnerable because we are off elsewhere chasing the enemy,” he said.

Andrew Exum picks up on this theme and poses a number of questions.

Afghanistan is a really big country — bigger than Iraq — and we are trying to protect more terrain with fewer troops. The old maxim that he who defends everything defends nothing seems to apply here. Are we, by putting troops in little far-flung outposts, setting them up for more Wanats? Should we instead be camped out in the big cities of Kabul, Kandahar and Lashkar Gah as Kilcullen suggests? Should not our first priority be to secure the Afghan people in order to reduce violence in the country and facilitate the upcoming national elections?

Joshua Foust responds to Exum’s questions thusly.

Umm, should not. The last people to assume that “the people” reside in the cities, and so there their operations should focus, were the Soviets. The Taliban run circles around the U.S. and ISAF precisely they control most of the countryside and not the cities. The problem isn’t Kabul, but the Tagab. The problem isn’t Kandahar but the hills above it. The problem isn’t Lashkar Gah, but Garmser. The problem isn’t Khowst, but Spera. The problem isn’t Herat, but Shindand. The problem… well, you get my point (and that list wasn’t meant to be comprehensive, merely illustrative, in case that weren’t obvious). If you want to do a population-centric COIN in Afghanistan, you do it in the countryside …

… this kind of flabbergastery is perfectly emblematic of why knowing buzzwords like “population-centric counterinsurgency” is really worthless without that other COIN buzzword, “intimate knowledge.” You can’t make a strategy population-centric if you don’t know the population, COINdinistas.

Without considering nuance and detail, it is easy to conflate issues.  We have extensively covered the Battle of Wanat, and while the base may have been “far-flung,” close air support was initiated within 27 minutes of the start of the battle, close combat aviation within 62 minutes, and reinforcement and relief within approximately 2 hours.  The Battle of Wanat happened and proceeded as it did in large part due to other decisions: Eight of the nine who perished did so as a result of defending Observation Post Top Side, U.S. forces didn’t occupy or control the high ground, intelligence failed as indications of massive Taliban troop movements were ignored, and a host of other issues.

Wanat is a sidebar discussion regarding the overall strategy of the campaign.  So who is right?  Should we protect the population in large urban centers as suggested by Kilcullen (and questioned by Exum), or is Foust right that properly engaging Afghanistan means doing so in the countryside?  The answer means everything to the campaign.

First off, it is important to correct wrong impressions that this information can give.  The U.S. doesn’t have troops in Kandahar, for instance, because that is a Canadian operation under the purview of the ISAF.  Canada currently has approximately 2700 troops in Kandahar, and this force presence is soon to double with the addition of a U.S. BCT.

Furthermore, part of the 10th Mountain Division is now garrisoned near Kabul in Maidan Wardak and Logar provinces to the south of Kabul.  So it simply isn’t true that the U.S. forces are all going to far-flung outposts as opposed to securing the population centers.

But at what price?  At Forward Operating Base Altimur, the 10th Mountain has access to Lobster tails, massage services, skype hookups, jewelry shops and six kinds of ice cream.  While no one should begrudge them their creature comforts, the most problematic of all concerns is that they are said to be “bored.”  So should these troops be in more rural locations instead of urban centers?

This debate falls into the trap of Clausewitz – that of trying to find a unitary focus for our efforts.  Both Exum and Foust favor a population-centric model, and yet The Captain’s Journal supports a different view.  U.S. forces are present in Afghanistan because there are enemies of the U.S. located there, and also those who harbor enemies of the U.S.  Without them, the likelihood of our presence is vanishingly small.  The enemy is our target.

If the enemy announced his presence and fought without the benefit of mixing with the population, the rate of the fight would be more productive.  This has occurred even recently in Afghanistan, when the Taliban evacuated Garmser of its population, dug in and unsuccessfully faced down the Marines of the 24th MEU.  During their deployment in Helmand, they killed some 400 hard core Taliban fighters in what was described at times as “full bore reloading.”  Yet the tribal elders also said that “When you protect us, we will be able to protect you,” showing little interest in reconstruction, programs and assistance.

But it will not always be this clear.  The enemy is who we are after, but to get to them at times requires focusing on the population.  Every situation is unique, and thus rather than finding a center of gravity, it is best to see the campaign as employing lines of effort.  In spite of the lack of adequate troops, the campaign will not be an either-or decision, focusing on the enemy or the population.  It will be both-and.

Foust is right.  The Russians focused on the large population centers, and left the countryside to the Taliban.  But Exum is also right to question only deploying in rural areas.  Kandahar has seen its share of troubles, and even the Canadians admit that the sense of security has plummeted because of Taliban activity.  The Taliban are there in force, the population has no security, and thus a force presence is required in Kandahar.

No single narrative is adequate to describe what is required to successfully prosecute the campaign, and buzzwords add little if anything to the discussion.  We must be smart and allow the local situation to dictate the plan of action.  Whether from tribal elders in Garmser or the more sophisticated population of Kandahar, the message is the same.  The enemy cannot be allowed to rule the population.


  1. On March 5, 2009 at 9:29 am, Warbucks said:

    I’m beginning to understand the problem. What this operation seems to need is “Brody” my Miniature Schnauzer. He controls everything in the house and the yard, and he is alert to high ground attacks from that damn squirrel that tries to invade from the oak tree.

  2. On March 5, 2009 at 9:35 am, Herschel Smith said:

    I have a Miniature Schnauzer as well, and I know exactly what you’re talking about.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

You are currently reading "Strategy in Afghanistan: Population or Enemy-Centric?", entry #2329 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Counterinsurgency,Featured and was published March 4th, 2009 by Herschel Smith.

If you're interested in what else the The Captain's Journal has to say, you might try thumbing through the archives and visiting the main index, or; perhaps you would like to learn more about TCJ.

26th MEU (10)
Abu Muqawama (12)
ACOG (2)
ACOGs (1)
Afghan National Army (36)
Afghan National Police (17)
Afghanistan (679)
Afghanistan SOFA (4)
Agriculture in COIN (3)
AGW (1)
Air Force (34)
Air Power (9)
al Qaeda (83)
Ali al-Sistani (1)
America (18)
Ammunition (85)
Animals (46)
Ansar al Sunna (15)
Anthropology (3)
Antonin Scalia (1)
AR-15s (197)
Arghandab River Valley (1)
Arlington Cemetery (2)
Army (74)
Assassinations (2)
Assault Weapon Ban (27)
Australian Army (6)
Azerbaijan (4)
Backpacking (2)
Badr Organization (8)
Baitullah Mehsud (21)
Basra (17)
BATFE (84)
Battle of Bari Alai (2)
Battle of Wanat (18)
Battle Space Weight (3)
Bin Laden (7)
Blogroll (2)
Blogs (16)
Body Armor (18)
Books (3)
Border War (11)
Brady Campaign (1)
Britain (38)
British Army (35)
Camping (4)
Canada (2)
Castle Doctrine (1)
Caucasus (6)
Center For a New American Security (8)
Charity (3)
China (10)
Christmas (10)
CIA (28)
Civilian National Security Force (3)
Col. Gian Gentile (9)
Combat Outposts (3)
Combat Video (2)
Concerned Citizens (6)
Constabulary Actions (3)
Coolness Factor (2)
COP Keating (4)
Corruption in COIN (4)
Council on Foreign Relations (1)
Counterinsurgency (216)
DADT (2)
David Rohde (1)
Defense Contractors (2)
Department of Defense (148)
Department of Homeland Security (23)
Disaster Preparedness (3)
Distributed Operations (5)
Dogs (12)
Donald Trump (25)
Drone Campaign (3)
EFV (3)
Egypt (12)
El Salvador (1)
Embassy Security (1)
Enemy Spotters (1)
Expeditionary Warfare (17)
F-22 (2)
F-35 (1)
Fallujah (17)
Far East (3)
Fathers and Sons (2)
Favorite (1)
Fazlullah (3)
FBI (30)
Featured (180)
Federal Firearms Laws (18)
Financing the Taliban (2)
Firearms (1,047)
Football (1)
Force Projection (35)
Force Protection (4)
Force Transformation (1)
Foreign Policy (27)
Fukushima Reactor Accident (6)
Ganjgal (1)
Garmsir (1)
general (15)
General Amos (1)
General James Mattis (1)
General McChrystal (43)
General McKiernan (6)
General Rodriguez (3)
General Suleimani (7)
Georgia (19)
Google (1)
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (1)
Gun Control (1,122)
Guns (1,549)
Guns In National Parks (3)
Haditha Roundup (10)
Haiti (2)
Haqqani Network (9)
Hate Mail (8)
Hekmatyar (1)
Heroism (4)
Hezbollah (12)
High Capacity Magazines (13)
High Value Targets (9)
Homecoming (1)
Homeland Security (1)
Horses (1)
Humor (23)
ICOS (1)
IEDs (7)
Immigration (85)
India (10)
Infantry (4)
Information Warfare (2)
Infrastructure (2)
Intelligence (23)
Intelligence Bulletin (6)
Iran (169)
Iraq (379)
Iraq SOFA (23)
Islamic Facism (62)
Islamists (92)
Israel (18)
Jaish al Mahdi (21)
Jalalabad (1)
Japan (2)
Jihadists (80)
John Nagl (5)
Joint Intelligence Centers (1)
JRTN (1)
Kabul (1)
Kajaki Dam (1)
Kamdesh (9)
Kandahar (12)
Karachi (7)
Kashmir (2)
Khost Province (1)
Khyber (11)
Knife Blogging (4)
Korea (4)
Korengal Valley (3)
Kunar Province (20)
Kurdistan (3)
Language in COIN (5)
Language in Statecraft (1)
Language Interpreters (2)
Lashkar-e-Taiba (2)
Law Enforcement (3)
Lawfare (7)
Leadership (6)
Lebanon (6)
Leon Panetta (2)
Let Them Fight (2)
Libya (14)
Lines of Effort (3)
Littoral Combat (8)
Logistics (50)
Long Guns (1)
Lt. Col. Allen West (2)
Marine Corps (258)
Marines in Bakwa (1)
Marines in Helmand (67)
Marjah (4)
Media (43)
Memorial Day (5)
Mexican Cartels (35)
Mexico (49)
Michael Yon (5)
Micromanaging the Military (7)
Middle East (1)
Military Blogging (26)
Military Contractors (4)
Military Equipment (24)
Militia (5)
Mitt Romney (3)
Monetary Policy (1)
Moqtada al Sadr (2)
Mosul (4)
Mountains (25)
MRAPs (1)
Mullah Baradar (1)
Mullah Fazlullah (1)
Mullah Omar (3)
Musa Qala (4)
Music (20)
Muslim Brotherhood (6)
Nation Building (2)
National Internet IDs (1)
National Rifle Association (64)
NATO (15)
Navy (22)
Navy Corpsman (1)
NCOs (3)
News (1)
NGOs (2)
Nicholas Schmidle (2)
Now Zad (19)
NSA (3)
NSA James L. Jones (6)
Nuclear (57)
Nuristan (8)
Obama Administration (219)
Offshore Balancing (1)
Operation Alljah (7)
Operation Khanjar (14)
Ossetia (7)
Pakistan (165)
Paktya Province (1)
Palestine (5)
Patriotism (7)
Patrolling (1)
Pech River Valley (11)
Personal (60)
Petraeus (14)
Pictures (1)
Piracy (13)
Pistol (2)
Pizzagate (21)
Police (434)
Police in COIN (3)
Policy (15)
Politics (483)
Poppy (2)
PPEs (1)
Prisons in Counterinsurgency (12)
Project Gunrunner (20)
PRTs (1)
Qatar (1)
Quadrennial Defense Review (2)
Quds Force (13)
Quetta Shura (1)
RAND (3)
Recommended Reading (14)
Refueling Tanker (1)
Religion (168)
Religion and Insurgency (19)
Reuters (1)
Rick Perry (4)
Rifles (1)
Roads (4)
Rolling Stone (1)
Ron Paul (1)
ROTC (1)
Rules of Engagement (75)
Rumsfeld (1)
Russia (29)
Sabbatical (1)
Sangin (1)
Saqlawiyah (1)
Satellite Patrols (2)
Saudi Arabia (4)
Scenes from Iraq (1)
Second Amendment (274)
Second Amendment Quick Hits (2)
Secretary Gates (9)
Sharia Law (3)
Shura Ittehad-ul-Mujahiden (1)
SIIC (2)
Sirajuddin Haqqani (1)
Small Wars (72)
Snipers (9)
Sniveling Lackeys (2)
Soft Power (4)
Somalia (8)
Sons of Afghanistan (1)
Sons of Iraq (2)
Special Forces (28)
Squad Rushes (1)
State Department (20)
Statistics (1)
Sunni Insurgency (10)
Support to Infantry Ratio (1)
Supreme Court (5)
Survival (27)
SWAT Raids (55)
Syria (38)
Tactical Drills (1)
Tactical Gear (4)
Taliban (167)
Taliban Massing of Forces (4)
Tarmiyah (1)
TBI (1)
Technology (17)
Tehrik-i-Taliban (78)
Terrain in Combat (1)
Terrorism (95)
Thanksgiving (9)
The Anbar Narrative (23)
The Art of War (5)
The Fallen (1)
The Long War (20)
The Surge (3)
The Wounded (13)
Thomas Barnett (1)
Transnational Insurgencies (5)
Tribes (5)
TSA (19)
TSA Ineptitude (12)
TTPs (1)
U.S. Border Patrol (5)
U.S. Border Security (14)
U.S. Sovereignty (17)
UAVs (2)
UBL (4)
Ukraine (3)
Uncategorized (56)
Universal Background Check (3)
Unrestricted Warfare (4)
USS Iwo Jima (2)
USS San Antonio (1)
Uzbekistan (1)
V-22 Osprey (4)
Veterans (3)
Vietnam (1)
War & Warfare (220)
War & Warfare (40)
War Movies (3)
War Reporting (19)
Wardak Province (1)
Warriors (6)
Waziristan (1)
Weapons and Tactics (63)
West Point (1)
Winter Operations (1)
Women in Combat (21)
WTF? (1)
Yemen (1)

December 2019
November 2019
October 2019
September 2019
August 2019
July 2019
June 2019
May 2019
April 2019
March 2019
February 2019
January 2019
December 2018
November 2018
October 2018
September 2018
August 2018
July 2018
June 2018
May 2018
April 2018
March 2018
February 2018
January 2018
December 2017
November 2017
October 2017
September 2017
August 2017
July 2017
June 2017
May 2017
April 2017
March 2017
February 2017
January 2017
December 2016
November 2016
October 2016
September 2016
August 2016
July 2016
June 2016
May 2016
April 2016
March 2016
February 2016
January 2016
December 2015
November 2015
October 2015
September 2015
August 2015
July 2015
June 2015
May 2015
April 2015
March 2015
February 2015
January 2015
December 2014
November 2014
October 2014
September 2014
August 2014
July 2014
June 2014
May 2014
April 2014
March 2014
February 2014
January 2014
December 2013
November 2013
October 2013
September 2013
August 2013
July 2013
June 2013
May 2013
April 2013
March 2013
February 2013
January 2013
December 2012
November 2012
October 2012
September 2012
August 2012
July 2012
June 2012
May 2012
April 2012
March 2012
February 2012
January 2012
December 2011
November 2011
October 2011
September 2011
August 2011
July 2011
June 2011
May 2011
April 2011
March 2011
February 2011
January 2011
December 2010
November 2010
October 2010
September 2010
August 2010
July 2010
June 2010
May 2010
April 2010
March 2010
February 2010
January 2010
December 2009
November 2009
October 2009
September 2009
August 2009
July 2009
June 2009
May 2009
April 2009
March 2009
February 2009
January 2009
December 2008
November 2008
October 2008
September 2008
August 2008
July 2008
June 2008
May 2008
April 2008
March 2008
February 2008
January 2008
December 2007
November 2007
October 2007
September 2007
August 2007
July 2007
June 2007
May 2007
April 2007
March 2007
February 2007
January 2007
December 2006
November 2006
October 2006
September 2006
August 2006
July 2006
June 2006
May 2006

about · archives · contact · register

Copyright © 2006-2019 Captain's Journal. All rights reserved.