There is an old adage that “you can catch more flies with honey than with salt.” The truth of that adage is being put to the test daily in Afghanistan and being to shown to be false under certain circumstances at least. ISAF is not winning currently, but they are not exactly losing either. At best from what I read, see, and hear ISAF is fighting a delaying action against the inevitable fall of the central government and rise of whatever Islamic extremist group bubbles up out of the morass of internal Afghan politics. I can almost guarantee it won´t be the Taliban, but probably someone very much like them.
A few weeks ago, a friend of mine was back from his current tour in Afghanistan for R&R, I got the opportunity to sit down and talk to him a little about what is going on in his unit´s AO and it was not heartening. That talk, combined with the generally dismal news coming out of that Godforsaken country has really started me wondering if we can achieve our goals there. I don´t think we need to pull out and wash our hands of Afghanistan just yet but the time is rapidly approaching when I may start advocating that.
It is obvious that COIN doctrine is a complete failure in the fractured society of Afghanistan. Mainly I think that is because above the level of the clan the average Afghan cannot really conceive of having loyalty to anything. That goes double for something as amorphous as a national state. The central government has not really done anything for them and furthermore, is almost nonexistent outside of the provincial capitals and bigger towns. The Taliban are everywhere though, what´s more, their justice is swift and uncompromising, and they can actually enforce their edicts.
The essential question right now for the US and the rest of ISAF is what is the way forward? Are they really only looking to 2014 and an exit strategy? What are the plans when/not if another pro-terrorist or tolerant regime comes to power? Lastly, if we are only looking to get out, are we achieving anything in terms of training and development right now that justifies staying for another two years? All are questions without good answers that I can see.
Getting back to the title of the post, is current COIN doctrine working in Afghanistan? From where I sit, the answer seems to be a resounding no. The number of incidents in which supposedly friendly Afghan troops turn their weapons on the ISAF troops they are working with is amazing as a simple Google search for ana-isaf shootings shows. It also does not help that simple YouTube search for U.S. Army Soldiers Helmet Cam Firefights, turns up a legion of videos that the Taliban can use to examine our squad level TTPs or Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures. These videos are a major OPSEC failure at a minimum and the guys posting them are putting themselves and all their comrades in danger no matter how cool or exciting the videos may be.
It is apparent to me that what the US and by extension the rest of ISAF has tried to do is take what worked in Iraq and transplant it to Afghanistan and it has signally failed as a doctrine for the conditions in Afghanistan. Perhaps ISAF needs to fight more as the Taliban do, and by that, I do not mean fighting from the shadows. I mean perhaps ISAF should start going after the thing that Afghans value the most, the families of known insurgents. We do not need to necessarily kill them; it would probably be enough to sequester them. I am thinking something more along the lines of what the British did in the Boer War, the original concentration camps.
With proper planning, ISAF could eliminate a source of support for the insurgents while at the same time applying pressure to the insurgents to come to an accommodation with the central government. They could also get the NGOs involved in running such camps helping to ensure the the people are treated well and the rest of the world knows that. Credible threats to apply a policy of collective guilt, a concept known in Islam, can also be used. It would probably take some executions of family members to make the insurgents realize ISAF was serious, but you can´t make an omelet without breaking eggs and aid to insurgents is virtually the same thing as detonating an IED. The family and other supporters of insurgents are just as responsible for violence as are the insurgents themselves. Some type of scorched earth policy would probably also be necessary.
What is even better is that such a plan has some chance of success because I does not treat the Afghans as if they are poor Westerners, which is the mistake Westerners often make when dealing with people of other cultures. Of course, if such a plan were implemented the Bleeding Hearts like Amnesty International and other likeminded groups would scream bloody murder. It would also be hard for Western governments to ignore these groups, there tentacles are so deep in the political left of the West.
In the end, I don’t think that Western Governments have the will to do what they have to do to achieve victory in Afghanistan and we are wasting our time and soldiers lives for an enterprise that is ultimately futile. I would love to see us win or at least eliminate the potential for radical Islamism to come out of Afghanistan again. I just don’t see that in the cards given the nature of Western politics and the established that elected leaders really plan no farther than the next election.
I sincerely hope that I am wrong though. That is something that only time will tell. I am pretty goo at describing the past but my powers of predicting the future are often not that great. May this prediction be one of those. Otherwise, I fear that the West will be back in that corner of the world in the not too distant future essentially trying to do the same thing we are doing now.
Ralph Peters had an excellent piece on RCP a few weeks ago that both elegantly and not so elegantly expresses the frustration that people with military backgrounds and no political ax to grind have with the conduct of the war in Afghanistan. His not so elegant yet oh so apt summation is “In war, soldiers die. But they shouldn’t die for bullshit.” The full piece is here: Soldiers Murder Afghans, Generals Murder Soldiers
It is not that I don’t think we should fight. I just think that if we are going to fight this war then lets fight to win and not fight to find a “honorable exit” similar to what we supposedly achieved in Vietnam in 1973.