Late August marked a significant milestone in U.S. foreign policy and military strategy, even if its implications are yet to be properly recognized. The death toll of U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan has now reached two thousand.
Half of that number came in the first nine years of the campaign. The second half came in just the past twenty-seven months, after the implementation of the counterinsurgency strategy (COIN) in Afghanistan. Five years after COIN’s ascendancy, it is time to critically analyze the empirical evidence from the strategy. The empirical data suggests that the predominant U.S. military strategy of the past half decade has not worked.
The death-toll figure of two thousand lives lost in Afghanistan represents a tragedy on several levels. It is of course a great loss for the families of those soldiers and their communities. But it is also a blow to U.S.-Afghan relations. In the past two weeks alone, at least nine Americans have been killed in insider attacks: Afghans dressed in the uniforms of Afghan Security Forces attacking U.S. soldiers.
The death toll also suggests that the lone superpower has not been able to master the art of small wars. That last point may be especially bothersome for the proponents of modern-day COIN. The implementation of COIN in Afghanistan was a mistake, even if this has only become apparent in retrospect. It is time to abandon the illusion that an effective counterinsurgency campaign will produce a decisive and apparent strategic victory in Afghanistan.
COIN’s Modern-Day Context
The implementation of modern-day COIN did not begin in Afghanistan. As a military strategy, counterinsurgency gained prominence in Iraq during 2006, when General David Petraeus and a group of advisors wrote Field Manual (FM) 3-24, the manual on counterinsurgency.
Their theory displayed an unusual level of brilliance and nuance. Most importantly, it was a strategy that stood in such sharp contrast to the “shock-and-awe” campaign that was successful in bringing down Saddam Hussein’s regime but failed in the reconstruction phase. With a focus on winning hearts and minds, an emphasis on ethics and the recognition that war is won by political (not military) victories, COIN seemed attractive to political leaders, military officials and foreign-policy experts who recognized that “hard power” and pure military might have reached the limits of their political utility in Iraq.
The resurgence of the COIN strategy should thus be viewed in the context of the times in which FM 3-24 was written: in 2006, U.S. forces were facing increasing violence in Iraq, the type of violence that sparked debates over whether Iraq was descending into a civil war or not. Old notions of military power had to be discarded because they were not only ineffective but also seemed to contribute to more violence.
COIN offered a way out. Military power did have utility in Iraq, the authors of COIN seemed to say, but only if it was infused with a lot of nonkinetic elements of warfare: ethics, culture awareness, sense of proportion.
COIN’s appeal stood out because it seemed like a sensible middle ground between military power and diplomacy, an attempt to resolve military dilemmas by indirect means. Rather than using kinetic means, COIN emphasized information operations and human intelligence. Whereas the target in “regular” warfare was the enemy (and thus the goal was to kill more of the enemy), in COIN it was the hearts and minds of the local population.
One of the strongest appeals of counterinsurgency was that it aimed to build the support of the local population for the government of the host nation. The idea that this was achievable offered a long-term exit strategy, whereby the United States could leave Iraq while a friendly government in Baghdad would continue running the country, respected by its people.
Aside from its political appeal, as a military strategy COIN seemed to have a solid foundation. Strategists from Sun Tzu to Liddell Hart to David Galula to Lawrence of Arabia offered theories that in one or more ways tied to COIN. These strategists also wrote on topics like insurgencies, indirect means of warfare, small wars and the importance of cultural factors in warfare. COIN theorists built their strategy on that rich historic literature. In combining all the excellent thoughts of previous strategies into modern-day COIN, strategists were able to fit all dimensions of power (political, military, economic, informational) into political-military strategies that were highly complex and nuanced.
With its political appeal and its apparent soundness, COIN was accepted by political leaders and military officers as the strategy in Afghanistan. Although COIN proponents argued that the counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan would not simply be a replicate of the one in Iraq, in essence it was also a large scale military campaign to win the support of the local population for the host nation government.
Democrats and Republicans, hawks and doves, foreign-policy professionals and laymen could all empathize with a strategy that, at the heart of it, was simply trying to win popular support. It was filled with the potential promise of showing the military’s soft side and demonstrating that soldiers could be culturally sensitive. Most importantly, the strategy was supposed to show Afghans that the United States and the host-nation government in Kabul could offer Afghans a better future than the Taliban ever could. The COIN strategy, in short, was all about good intentions.
Has the COIN strategy in Afghanistan worked? One way to measure the strategy’s effectiveness is by looking at the death toll of the military personnel who are implementing it. If more U.S. military personnel (the counterinsurgents who are executing the strategy) are killed after its implementation, then the battle for hearts and minds may be said to have failed.
The empirical data shows that in the first nine years of the war in Afghanistan, one thousand U.S. military personnel were killed. That same figure of one thousand killed was reached in just the past twenty-seven months after the U.S. officially adopted COIN as the strategy in Afghanistan. In other words, since the time that United States sent thirty-three thousand additional troops as part of the Afghan “surge” and issued guidance to its military forces in Afghanistan to follow the COIN strategy, the number of U.S. troops killed doubled.
The political decision to implement the COIN strategy failed to recognize that more people with more guns on foreign territory cannot win the battle for hearts and minds. COIN, for all its positives, seemed to offer too romantic a notion of what was actually achievable, especially in a large-scale military campaign such as the one that Afghanistan ultimately became. Regardless of whether new U.S. military personnel smiled more or were culturally attune or were more ethically upright or whether they now teamed up with diplomats, aid workers or anthropologists (who normally donned bullet-proof gear and carried weapons), building trust in such an environment was simply impossible.
Not all policy makers were persuaded by the utility of the COIN-based “surge” in Afghanistan. Vice President Biden expressed his doubts about the viability of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. The doubling in the number U.S. deaths since the implementation of COIN confirms Biden’s doubts.
Counterinsurgency proponents may argue that in the initial phase of a COIN-based surge strategy, there may be a natural spike in deaths (i.e. things may get worse before they get better.) But in a war that has gone on for eleven years, that argument can no longer be taken seriously, at least on political grounds.
COIN’s greatest tragedy was that it gave policy makers—who were facing difficult choices in Iraq and Afghanistan—the illusion that “victory” (or some sort of political resolution) was possible; that military power applied in a specific manner against an insurgency can lead to specific political outcomes.
In Iraq, it may have prevented a complete disaster (i.e. an all-out civil war), but it did not bring any clear strategic triumph. The ongoing COIN effort in Afghanistan may be too new to judge, but the recent data—especially the accelerating rate of U.S. casualties—seems to suggest that it has not worked either.
Henry Kissinger once wrote that “each generation is permitted only one effort of abstraction; it can attempt only one interpretation and a single experiment, for it is its own subject. This is the challenge of history and its tragedy.” Five years ago, COIN seemed like the right strategy. The empirical results on this experiment are now in, and they are not looking good.