Counterinsurgency (COIN) has gotten a black eye over the last few years. Some critics say that COIN doesn't work and we should stick to our traditional war fighting skills concentrating on a primary mission of defeating conventional armies on the battlefield. COIN advocates state that as long as insurgencies exist counterinsurgency forces will be needed. Many COIN advocates are looking hard at why COIN has not worked in Afghanistan.
A recent book review by Arnold R. Isaacs entitled "Why the US Needs to Learn the Counterinsurgency Lessons of the Vietnam War" (Business Insider, November 12, 2014) introduces us to a book that explores this topic. Isaacs reviews a new book out about the war in South Vietnam entitled Uphill Battle: Reflections on Viet Nam Counterinsurgency by Frank Scotton that will help in the examination of COIN in Afghanistan. The author of the book (Scotton) served in South Vietnam for over a decade and in his book he examines why the counterinsurgency effort failed. When one compares the South Vietnamese COIN effort with what is now happening in Afghanistan you find a lot of similarities. In the book review four main themes stood out for me:
1) Saigon Government. Scotton points out that the " . . . military-dominated Saigon government was never able to mobilize enough popular support or use its superior manpower and weapons effectively enough to meet the challenge of a far less well-armed but more disciplined, tenacious, and politically skilled enemy".
Popular Support. The Afghan government, like the South Vietnamese government, has not effectively mobilized popular support for its government to the extent necessary. The main source of discontent of the population with the government of Afghanistan is the corruption that exists from the district to national levels. There is a lack of competent government officials, professional police force, an Army that can provide security to all the people of Afghanistan (not just the major urban areas), district governmental offices that provide services, and signs of development in rural areas that show promise of a better life. Without good governance, development, security, and rule-of-law it is hard to generate popular support in the midst of an insurgency.
Superior Manpower and Weapons. Certainly the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), like the South Vietnamese Army, has superior manpower numbers and an abundance of modern weapons. The combined police and army personnel of the ANSF reaches almost 350,000. The Afghan Air Force (AAF) has over 100 helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. The Afghan National Army has D-30 122-mm Howitzers, mortars, armored personnel carriers, tanks, modern facilities for housing troops and police, and a robust support structure for its corps, brigades, and kandaks. A common refrain among ISAF generals is that when the ANSF (supported by fires and close air support) meet the Taliban on the battlefield they can "overmatch" the insurgents. Of course they can; but those types of battles are far and few between. Insurgents fight a guerrilla war where they don't have to face the armor, artillery, and air power of a more modern army.
The ANSF are opposed by small, mobile insurgent units whose numbers countrywide might number 30,000. The insurgents have no helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft, artillery, permanent structures, hospitals, tanks, or armored personnel carriers. While the ANSF is a robust force with lots of modern equipment it does not use its forces effectively. The ANSF is dismal at conducting small unit tactics necessary for an effective counterinsurgency campaign. For the counter-insurgent to win he must defeat the insurgent; for an insurgent to win he must survive. The Taliban have survived years of combat operations with ISAF and will likely survive for many more years in their fight against the ANSF.
2) Corruption of the Saigon Government and Military. Scotton says of South Vietnam that "there is a deadly correlation between corruption at high levels in an administrative system and the spread throughout the system of incompetence as higher-ups encourage and promote corrupt subordinates, and protect them from the consequences of poor performance of duty or direct disobedience of orders." Scotton continues with . . . the system doesn't only protect the corrupt but also "demoralizes and 'selects out' the able and the dedicated who do not play the game and thwarts any attempts at reform initiated at intermediate levels."
Afghan Corruption. A former commander of ISAF, General John Allen, once said that the biggest problem in Afghanistan is not the Taliban - it is corruption. The corruption in Afghanistan pervades all aspects of society. The Afghan police are notoriously corrupt. The judicial system is broke and the settlement of civil and criminal cases revolves around how much money passes to the judge. Provincial governors and district governors are political appointees of President Karzai who many times buy their positions so they in turn can manipulate the system for profit. Many of these provincial and district governors are incompetent and inept at administering within their provinces and districts. Many district governors do not live nor work in their districts due to a lack of security or lack of work ethic. For anything of consequence to happen (big or small) within some districts requires a bribe to the government official or servant. This huge problem of corruption impedes good governance, slows down or stops development, and diminishes security. This, in turn, sways members of the populace to non-support of the government security forces and in some cases to support of the insurgents.
3) U.S. Military. According to Scotton, the United States (even though it was a military powerhouse in the Vietnam era) ". . . never grasped the true nature of the war, consistently deluded itself about what it was accomplishing, and never found a way to remedy the host nation's (South Vietnam) fatal flaws".
Grasping the Nature of Afghan Conflict. The inability to grasp the nature of the conflict in Afghanistan is part of the problem of the United States involvement in Afghanistan. We continue to deploy leaders and advisors with a lack of understanding of Afghanistan's culture, politics, history of conflict, and no knowledge of the doctrine or concepts of counterinsurgency. Our selection and training process for the Security Force Assistance (SFA) advisor teams is hit or miss. For the most part the advisor selection isn't based on who is best for the advisor job but who is available. The U.S. military, except for SOF and a handful of conventional NCOs and officers, didn't really understand the counterinsurgency fight in Afghanistan from the lowest tactical level up to the highest echelons of leadership. To this day the U.S. military is concentrating on building a conventional Afghan National Army where "processes" and "systems" are developed and refined (see Functionally-based Security Force Assistance); instead of ensuring that infantry kandaks are proficient in small unit tactics and that Afghan army commanders are knowledgeable in how to conduct counterinsurgency operations against the Taliban.
4) Bottom Up Security. In the book review the writer says of Scotton: "During that time, Scotton made it his mission to inspire a more effective South Vietnamese war in the hamlets, the center of gravity in the contest between the US-backed government and its Communist enemy. His concept at the outset was to form and support local defense units on the model of the Communists 'armed propaganda teams.' They would not just fight the enemy but put into visible practice a political alternative to the Communists' revolutionary vision - avoiding corruption and mistreatment of civilians, and winning support for the government by demonstrating that it could rule fairly and justly".
Afghan Local Defense Forces (LDF). U.S. military was (and is) skittish about support to Local Defense Forces. Attempts by U.S. Army Special Forces, Marines, and others to establish local security forces such as the CBSS, ISCI, CIP, LDI, CDI, AP3, and AGF met great resistance from the higher level officers of the U.S. military conventional forces. The Afghan government (Karzai) did not want local defense forces that he could not control through his politically appointed cronies - he was less interested in establishing governance, security, and development in the remote areas of Afghanistan contested by the Taliban than ensuring that his political power base was strengthened and he gained wealth through his corrupt style of governing. It was only in the later years of the conflict that progress was made in the establishment of competent and effective local defense forces through the Afghan Local Police (ALP) and the Village Stability Operations (VSO) program. Unfortunately, for many areas of Afghanistan, it was too little too late; and ultimately handed over to the Afghan Ministry of Interior where it will likely languish due to lack of support.
The book review and the book are well worth reading to understand how it took so long to get to where we are today in Afghanistan and how far we have yet to go.