“Population is the prize”

Now that Election Day is over here in the United States, let’s go back to the politics of international intervention in Afghanistan. In class this week, we discussed the ambitious counterinsurgency strategy that has progressively replaced the light footprint in Afghanistan. Since 2002, the actual number of foreign troops in Afghanistan increased from approximately 15,000 to around 120,000 today. The light footprint is officially dead. Long live counterinsurgency (COIN)!

According to the December 2006 Field Manual 3-24 (FM 3-24), that establishes the U.S. doctrine for military operations in a counterinsurgency environment: “a counterinsurgency is military, paramilitary, political, economic, psychological and civic actions taken by a government to defeat insurgency” (for a definition of insurgency, see previous post). It is not about killing the enemy, but about looking more attractive, more convincing and more likely to succeed than our opponent in the eyes of the population. In military terms, COIN is population-centric, not enemy-centric. In a nutshell, “population is the prize” (David Galula).

One major consequence of a population-centric approach is the cultural revolution that it implies for the U.S. military. The implementation of a successful COIN strategy will require a complete change of mindset for an institution that has a preference for enemy-centric approaches. But do gigantic institutions such as the U.S. army have that ability? FM 3-24 states that “in COIN, the side that learns faster and adapts more rapidly – the better learning organization – usually wins.” Knowing the flexibility of the Taliban movement and terrorist networks such as Al-Qaeda, can we realistically believe that the U.S. army has the ability to win that one?

Of course the enemy and the terrain still matter. But the enemy needs to be isolated from the population first. The security vacuum has to be filled and the government’s legitimacy enhanced. Above all, COIN is a political process. An extremely ambitious one, that requires not only a high number of troops on the ground, but also leaders with political and diplomatic skills, well trained in a variety of fields (governance, security, reconstruction, finance, economics, etc.). Is it really feasible? Is it sustainable in the long term? In other words, do we have the means to achieve our ends or do we have to rely on partners we don’t trust?

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About Afghanopoly

I am an Assistant Professor of peace and conflict studies at Radboud University's Centre for International Conflict Analysis and Management (CICAM). I completed my PhD in Political Science at Northwestern University and Sciences Po under the supervision of Will Reno and Bertrand Badie. Among other things, I teach students about the politics of international intervention in Afghanistan and elsewhere. My research focuses on the political strategies that Afghan strongmen use to consolidate and legitimize their authority. I am particularly interested in how these actors manage to conduct their own forms of international relations. My field research brings me in contact with Afghan community leaders, politicians, diplomats and foreign military officers.
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12 Responses to “Population is the prize”

  1. Ahmad Muslem Hayat says:

    Insurgents, At the gorilla warfare always need population for their case supports, Also for recruitments and financial, logistic and
    shelters. like fish in the water,without population support the cant get their goals.
    To find out how to action be taken paramilitary, political, economic, psychological ,and civic actions taken by a government to defeat insurgency”.
    We have very old proverb in AFG ( ba zor ya zar) by forces or gold’s.
    For implementation of a successful COIN strategy .further steps has to be done.
    A . Full identification of the enemies ( Not representing Islam and Jihad ) for population also its more important to muslims in the globe as well,
    AQ and other terrorists groups in AF and other parts of the world the are enemies of Islam,Muslims olama scholars must issue( fatwa)
    To ask all muslims to stop this killers from committing crimes. most people are still Confuse knowing about all parties in the war.
    AF and US governments must have one policy toward the enemies. population Should be sure about the success of government,
    And enemies defeat.
    B . Vacuum of enemies control area,and bringing good governance, security, reconstruction, finance, economics, etc for population.
    C .To fill and the government’s legitimacy enhance choosing of local strong Leaders with government sustain supports to create security
    By locals it can be reached short team’s US has this abilities to win the war.
    We have to rely on partners we don’t trust

  2. Valkyrie says:

    Knowing the flexibility of the Taliban movement and terrorist networks such as Al-Qaeda, can we realistically believe that the U.S. army has the ability to win that one?

    Not if training to win conventional wars is the primary training that goes on in the U.S. Army. No one is going to compete with a behemoth conventional military force head-on if they are strategically wise (they cannot win that one).

    Speaking of flexibility and learning ability of the enemy, gee, you’d think they’d use their strategic brilliance to figure out that religious texts, written by imperfect human beings, are not to be taken literally (as some of these theocrats seem to do).

    Just baffled at how people can be so very functional in terms of survival skills, yet at the same time, still walk around with delusional views related to matters of spiritual concern. They’re capable of learning (certain things, at least), but still utterly clueless, overall.

    Go figure.

    Above all, COIN is a political process. An extremely ambitious one, that requires not only a high number of troops on the ground, but also leaders with political and diplomatic skills, well trained in a variety of fields (governance, security, reconstruction, finance, economics, etc.). Is it really feasible? Is it sustainable in the long term? In other words, do we have the means to achieve our ends or do we have to rely on partners we don’t trust?

    The U.S. would have to begin a massive jobs program to hire people specifically for COIN operations. In short, we’d need two forces, one conventional (designed to win conventional wars) and an entirely parallel force dedicated to COIN operations.

    Is it feasible?

    Are we not broke?

    In theory, it would be a fabulous idea; in reality, the U.S. is broke, so therefore, this would have to be an international effort, actually (because collectively, it would work a lot better than the U.S. just trying to do it all, just as playing Globocop in traditional wars tends to spread the U.S. military thin and drain resources).

  3. Kredox says:

    I want to argue with Valkyrie about her last point.
    “In theory, it would be a fabulous idea; in reality, the U.S. is broke, so therefore, this would have to be an international effort, actually (because collectively, it would work a lot better than the U.S. just trying to do it all, just as playing Globocop in traditional wars tends to spread the U.S. military thin and drain resources).”

    I agree that US alone doesn’t have enough money and human resources to win the war in Afghanistan, but would international effort be any better than US alone? As it seems in the past if countries get involved in helping win the war in Afghanistan they want to do it their way and not US way. So is it possible to involve international help but stick to US strategy? The example in the past is Germany that wanted to train policing forces in Afghanistan and look how that turned out. Ideally US needs to be the leader and the planner of Afghanistan’s intervention where other countries need to provide financial support and troops and trust the US to use it in proper way. Realistic? No.
    I agree that international support is a key, but it is completely impossible to think that NATO and US would be involved in Afghanistan long enough to win the war and rebuild the country.

    • Valkyrie says:

      So is it possible to involve international help but stick to US strategy?

      If done right, it would never be seen as a “US strategy,” but simply the correct strategy to pursue, given evaluation of empirical data (which should inform any appropriate strategy, no matter who is in the lead).

      Besides, we’ve seen the result of “US strategy” so far (short-term successful; long-term not-so-successful). If bringing more into the equation helps cancel out errors in judgment that are made, then wouldn’t we all (internationally) have a better chance at coming up with better strategies?

      I admit to not being a very mathematically-oriented person (I get really bored when working with numbers, even though I always manage to end up dealing with sales figures, or in healthcare finance, in terms of work), but it’s not hard to comprehend that you’re going to get all of these errors in decision-making, and so more involvement of multiple heads would seem to be the best way to cancel out some of the errors in judgment, no? W0uld the US have made the same long-term tactical, strategic and political errors had others been involved in the decision-making, as well?

      We were the only ones capable, militarily, of getting something done in the short-term, but at some point, after the initial military success in toppling the regime that allowed militants to train in their safe havens, it should have immediately gone on to involve the international community (as far as securing the peace). It’s like calling the cops in to break up a domestic brawl, or something; they can initially break it up, but they’re not going to be able to provide any kind of serious and long-term social work for the family involved (that’s a more long-term issue).

      I think the point is that conventional forces can only do much, after which it becomes an issue that requires much more strategic input to come up with the best way forward.

      Or perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps more involvement of others (internationally) would just result in a huge bureaucratic nightmare that takes forever to get moving along.

      What I think would help, more than hinder, though, is the involvement of many nations in terms of hammering out an actual long-term strategy, regardless of who ends up taking the lead to implement it. I think that’s the best way to phrase it.

  4. Durkeim says:

    “One major consequence of a population-centric approach is the cultural revolution that it implies for the U.S. military. The implementation of a successful COIN strategy will require a complete change of mindset for an institution that has a preference for enemy-centric approaches. But do gigantic institutions such as the U.S. army have that ability? ”
    The population-centric approach is a step in the right direction but the implementation of this strategy came much too late. Efforts to win over the population’s hearts and minds should have been as important as defeating al-Qaeda in the first place, or at least been considered in strategic planning. The initial focus on short-term stability compromised long-term efficacy. After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, the U.S. backed a government of war criminals that committed heinous atrocities in the past. Upon the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 Afghanistan plummeted into a state of anomie perpetrated by warlords. Rape, murder, and corruption plagued everyday life until the Taliban took power. The U.S. granted these same warlords extensive monetary and political power, an opportunity they used to settle old scores. The weak central government implemented by the U.S. failed to claim a legitimate monopoly of the use of force and violence in Afghanistan, and the warlords were more than happy to fill this security vacuum which created a warlord culture that allowed for the resurgence of the Taliban insurgency. Today, warlords monopolize the security vacuum, many of whom have ties to the Taliban. Not only did the act of putting the warlords back in power insult the Afghan population, but created long-term insecurity. Moreover, it ruined our chances to instill a lasting stable regime and bring security to Afghanistan. The fact that the U.S. failed to consider the population in the first place, even though history demonstrates that such an approach is ideal, does not give me much hope that our military will be able to transition its approach in such a short period of time effectively. I understand that we needed to attack the enemy, but the way we went about it detracted from the goal of population support.

    “FM 3-24 states that ‘in COIN, the side that learns faster and adapts more rapidly – the better learning organization – usually wins.’ Knowing the flexibility of the Taliban movement and terrorist networks such as Al-Qaeda, can we realistically believe that the U.S. army has the ability to win that one?”
    Probably not. Given the level of cultural and geographic ignorance of Afghanistan embodied by the West, there is little we can do. Even though the ANA and NATO forces are capable of pushing insurgents out of rural areas, the police force is much too corrupt and ill-equipped to protect civilians and keep insurgents out once the troops leave. Furthermore, the international community refuses to commit a sufficient amount of resources needed to effectively train police. Insurgents have the upper hand because they have the support of the population through their control tactics and the fact that civilians are less than fond of foreign troops occupying their home (once again). As a result, individuals who oppose extremist views of Islam endorsed by insurgent groups will help them anyways, directly and/or indirectly.

  5. CPT Caveman says:

    Ive been in the Army since 1993. Back then, a successful officer was the one who didnt absolutely suck at NTC. The best of the best might win 2 or 3 battles against the OPFOR during a rotation. All our training and resources were focused on defeating the Russian Horde coming through the Fulda Gap.

    In less than 10 years we have gone from that mindset to having military teams focused on agriculture, water, electricity, waste management, etc. In addition to more traditional security roles. The average line grunt now gets training in culture, langauge and a lot of the small unit tactics once reserved for elite units. Those are monumental institutional changes in a VERY short amount of time.

    That said, the military isnt the best tool to do nation building (or even COIN) with. Its just the best tool we currently have because the other branches of the Federal government aren’t expeditionary.

    The bad guys will always out pace us in tactical innovation. But, because of the larger talent pool we have to draw on, we can outpace him operationally and strategically. Politics hinders our ability to ACT on those advantages at times, but, on the whole, we can more than hold our own until another concept can be funded and grown to replace the military, or mitigate the threat.

  6. Boyer says:

    First, COIN isn’t all handshaking and kissing. The dilemma between “population-centric” and “enemy-centric” is false. How are you supposed to win the population’s trust when you can’t provide security from the enemy? The enemy must be engaged and destroyed when he masses. Key leaders in the insurgency must be targeted and if not captured, also destroyed. This isn’t a total change of the Army’s mindset. Rather than looking for enemy BMP-2s or T-80 tanks, we’re looking for IEDs and insurgents. The enemy has changed, and the objective has changed, but the principles of war haven’t.

    As for the second part, you first need to decide what it means to truly “win” in an insurgency, let alone a “global insurgency” like Al Qaeda (see Kilcullen). For the insurgent, does it mean to be the last one standing, or to fully impose his will on his enemy? I see neither occurring in the conflict between the United States and Al Qaeda.

    The Taliban and Al Qaeda are flexible in that their structure is somewhat decentralized, and they require very little to maintain operational readiness. At the same time, their lack of structure makes coordination all the more difficult, and can result in fissures between rival leaders. Yes, they do learn quickly, but so do troops on the ground. Army and Marine Corps units develop tactics, techniques, and procedures in response to enemy tactics, techniques, and procedures. As an institution, the Army is comparatively slow to learn. It should be noted, however, that the Army is much larger than the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and its subordinate units do a fairly good job of picking up the slack (see 3ACR under BG McMaster).

    Is COIN a feasible national strategy to combat AQ? If we weren’t trillions of dollars in debt, I’d say maybe. We don’t have the resources to do COIN on one front, let alone two. Unfortunately, we don’t always get to decide who picks a fight with us. The military would be loathe to forget the hard lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan just because our national strategy isn’t geared toward global counterinsurgency.

    The final question is a bit vague and requires explanation. If the intent of the question is to ask whether we have to rely on local-national forces who we don’t trust, then my answer is this: 1) Ideally, we would develop mutual trust over time. I don’t see how embedded training in local-national units could be considered successful if there was a trust deficit; 2) If the endstate is to restore the local-national government’s sovereignty, then yes, their forces are going to have to take up the fight against the insurgency. The function of the third-party counterinsurgent, then, is one of triage. Provide security, operationally and politically marginalize the insurgents, and build the government to retake its country.

    • Valkyrie says:

      If we weren’t trillions of dollars in debt, I’d say maybe. We don’t have the resources to do COIN on one front, let alone two.

      Then shouldn’t this be an international effort? After all, it’s not just the USA that Al Qaeda thinks is full of so-called depraved infidels, but also our allies, because you know, they make (cough) “no distinction” between infidels and those who are allied with infidels (sort of the flip-side of what President Bush–as in G.W.–said about the US position on terrorists).

      So, after all the ad hominem name-calling (we’re “infidels,” or “the Great Satan,” or whatever else), they also target our allies, as well. Why this should not be an international effort is beyond me, but it’s not just the effort, but also the expense (financially) that seems to be a major issue.

      Ideally, we would develop mutual trust over time. I don’t see how embedded training in local-national units could be considered successful if there was a trust deficit

      It is repeated interactions with others that create trust or distrust (from game theory), so in theory, trust should not only become mutual over time, but both sides should be better able to gauge who is not to be trusted over time, as well (weed out anyone acting in bad faith).

      So far, there’s a history of mistrust after Afghanistan was left to destabilize and devolve into civil war after the Soviets withdrew (the US had little to do with the Afghans in the aftermath of that exit by the Soviets). That sounds like a huge problem, actually, mainly because members of the clan known as h. sapiens come into the world prepared to learn to recognize and to rapidly recall adaptive threats quite well (because those who better grasped potential threats survived better than those running around with rose-colored glasses on, obviously).

      In light of that little fact of human psychology, how on Earth do we build trust rapidly enough to make this work?

      • Valkyrie says:

        Just to clarify, btw…

        I know the US led an “international” coalition into Afghanistan, but the reason I asked if it should not be an “international” effort (COIN, not just conventional operations), is because someone else from the class had questioned if that would be a difficult issue.

        I know there’s already some international involvement (didn’t mean to make it sound like I missed that obvious fact, there).

      • Boyer says:

        Response below…forgot to hit the “reply” button….

  7. Boyer says:

    Thanks for the comments, Valkyrie! Responding to your responses…

    “Shouldn’t this be an international effort?”

    Well, I’d like to say that it should, but there are several problems with this line of thinking. First, as Templar notes, unity of command is essential in COIN. You need to have one “decider,” lest you have the arrows and the olive branches sent by two separate hands. The NATO countries that have the most troops in Afghanistan have different ways of approaching the conflict. This is my nice way of saying that aside from the Aussies and Brits, no one really does anything of consequence (and even the British element is too small to make an impact – see operations in Helmand). My friends in that area of the world tell me that a common joke is that ISAF stands for “I Suck At Fighting” or “I See Americans Fighting.” Europe is going through a demilitarization of sorts, and there is less public support for the war in Afghanistan. Therefore, it is difficult for our allies to deploy troops and fight like we do.

    “It is repeated interactions with others that create trust or distrust (from game theory), so in theory, trust should not only become mutual over time, but both sides should be better able to gauge who is not to be trusted over time, as well (weed out anyone acting in bad faith).

    So far, there’s a history of mistrust after Afghanistan was left to destabilize and devolve into civil war after the Soviets withdrew (the US had little to do with the Afghans in the aftermath of that exit by the Soviets).”

    My reading of the original question had more to do with US Military members trusting Afghan counterparts than the entire country of Afghanistan trusting American political and military actions. Yes, there is a history of Afghanistan being neglected by the United States – a very recent history. I think, though, that you’re looking at this from the wrong angle. I think the question pertained to how our military’s performance might be hindered by an uncertain partnership with a dodgy local-national force.

    The answer, then, lies with embedding small US units with partner Afghan units. The way that our fighting men and women build trust with Afghan men and women is to fight alongside them, share in the suffering of war, and ask nothing of them that they would not do themselves. It’s a formula Special Forces has used for many years to develop partner local-national forces, and it’s something the US Army and Marine Corps train every service member to appreciate. In fact, it’s something that’s going on right now in both Afghanistan and Iraq. I’m currently training for this type of mission.

    Local-national forces aren’t a panacea, but when they’re developed, they’re a tremendous asset.

    • Valkyrie says:

      I think, though, that you’re looking at this from the wrong angle. I think the question pertained to how our military’s performance might be hindered by an uncertain partnership with a dodgy local-national force.

      I think you’re right. Thanks for the clarification. Much appreciated.

      Good luck with your training! Cheers

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