The Case for Continuing the Counterinsurgency Campaign in Afghanistan

Originally published in Foreign Affairs
December 16, 2011

U.S. Army Lt. Col. Darren C. Rickettes (left), Lt. Col. Donn H. Hill (2nd from left) and Deputy Commanding General of Afghan Development Brig. Gen. John Uberti, 101st Airborne Division, talk with an Afghan National Army commander during Operation Overlord in the Naka district of Paktika province, Afghanistan, on April 14, 2011. (U.S. Army)

This piece was published as part of The Future of Afghanistan and U.S. Foreign Policy, a collaboration between the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism and ForeignAffairs.com. 

U.S. and allied forces have made great progress in Afghanistan since the start of the counterinsurgency campaign in early 2010. But critical military tasks remain -- and these can only be accomplished by a substantial deployment of U.S. troops. Last May, U.S. President Barack Obama announced that he would be withdrawing 10,000 U.S. troops before the end of 2011 and the remaining 20,000 surge troops by September 2012, leaving a total of 68,000 in the country. He tabled further decisions on force levels prior to 2014, at which time Afghanistan will take full responsibility for its own security, according to the framework that NATO and Afghanistan established in Lisbon last November. The rapid dialing back of the surge is a risky strategy, though if executed correctly, and not rushed, it is workable.

Some members of the Obama administration, along with experts such as retired General David Barno and the journalist Linda Robinson, have recommended that Obama end the counterinsurgency mission next year and refocus U.S. troops on supporting the Afghan security forces. But that is a recipe for failure. Accelerating the drawdown and ending the counterinsurgency mission sooner than planned would not only squander the valuable gains made over the last two years but prevent both U.S. and Afghan forces from engaging decisively against insurgent and terrorist groups that threaten the security of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the United States.

Enemies determined to kill U.S. citizens and rebuild sanctuaries remain in Afghanistan. Insurgent groups closely affiliated with al Qaeda -- such as the Pakistani Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and the Islamic Jihad Union of Uzbekistan -- still have safe havens in eastern Afghanistan. Afghan security forces will not be able to eliminate those territories on their own, because they do not (and will never) have the sophisticated, high-end capabilities needed to conduct intelligence-driven, combined-arms operations in the mountainous terrain surrounding the capital and the populated areas along the roads. Even Washington's NATO allies generally lack the capability to execute combined-arms tasks, so it is unreasonable to expect the Afghans to acquire these skills, especially on such a short timetable. If American troops do not clear these safe havens, no one will. Over time, they will permit terrorists to operate more freely in Afghanistan, threatening the United States and its allies in the region and in Europe, where a number of groups based on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border have cells.

A continued counterinsurgency campaign would allow the United States, NATO, and Afghan forces to work side by side in reducing the capacity, coherence, and reconstitution of enemy groups while bringing greater government control to populated areas. Consider the real gains made in Helmand and Kandahar provinces in southern Afghanistan. Over the last two years, U.S., allied, and Afghan troops eliminated all of the strategically significant insurgent safe havens. They cleared the traditional Taliban strongholds, including those west of Kandahar that had seen the emergence of the Taliban movement and Mullah Omar in the 1990s. Now, the troops are in the process of establishing a combination of Afghan uniformed police, national army officers, and local police to ensure that insurgents cannot regain control of cleared areas. The fighting season of 2012 will be the acid test for that effort, but the indicators so far are positive.

Now, look east. U.S. and Afghan forces have been starved for combat power in eastern Afghanistan, even during Obama's 2009 surge; he did not fully resource General Stanley McChrystal's requests, sending only about 75 percent of the troops the general asked for. Consequently, McChrystal concentrated the reinforcements in the south rather than dispersing them thinly throughout the entire Pashtun belt. By shortchanging requests from his commanders, Obama effectively extended the time it would take to execute a successful counterinsurgency campaign, then he backed an even shorter timetable for withdrawal.

The east remains a significant threat not only to a viable government in Kabul but also to U.S. interests as well. Insurgents in eastern Afghanistan belong to various groups -- the al Qaeda-linked Haqqani network is predominant, but groups reporting directly to Mullah Omar and to the Hezb-e-Islami group led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, have a significant presence. And south of Kabul, Taliban safe havens persist in both rural and populated areas close to small cities and highways with access to the capital and international airports. Neither the coalition nor the Afghan forces have ever had the resources necessary to clear such delimited and long-standing safe havens in Ghazni, Khost, Logar, Paktia, and Wardak provinces. Efforts in 2011 have eliminated or contained some -- particularly near Kabul -- but many still remain.

There is a workable solution to eliminate enemy safe havens while restricting counterinsurgency operations to populated areas. Konar province offers a glimpse of the balanced effort that would be required across eastern Afghanistan. A mélange of insurgent and terrorist groups retain limited and generally isolated sanctuaries among the 10,000-foot mountains. But U.S. and Afghan forces have secured only the populated major valleys while conducting targeted strikes into the hinterland to ensure that isolated safe havens there do not become operationally or strategically dangerous.

But it takes U.S. troops to get this done, especially in the areas south of Kabul that are more populated and central than Konar and thus less suited to targeted strikes. The insurgent safe havens south of Kabul are too established, dispersed, and well situated on the terrain for Afghan security forces to clear them alone. Support from sanctuaries in nearby North Waziristan is very important for these groups. Insurgents, particularly along the ring road south of Kabul, have resilient local support networks that would endure even if backing from Pakistan came to a halt. The pattern of counterinsurgency success learned in Iraq, and now in southern Afghanistan, is proven. U.S. troops clear insurgent strongholds, then Afghan forces hold them against enemy attempts to re-infiltrate them. Throughout, both U.S. special operations forces and, increasingly, their indigenous partners conduct raids and strikes against particular network leaders.  

In war, as in so many things, the devil is in the details. The question facing the United States today is not whether the troops will come home but precisely when and with what consequences. Obama's current drawdown plan risks failure by making it more difficult for both coalition and Afghan security forces to sustain gains in the south; accelerating that plan would make its problems even worse. Should Obama move too hastily, he will fail to achieve the basic objectives he laid out in his own strategy.