June 1, 2010  

Afghanistan’s unique surge

The fight can only be won by listening to Afghan voices

Afghanistan operations have evolved from a Special Forces-centric campaign to one that extends across the general-purpose forces. This shift came when it was recognized that the Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) strategy needed to include a counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign that was embraced by all forces at all levels.

However, as the Counterinsurgency Field Manual points out, “Not everyone is good at COIN. Many leaders don’t understand it, and some who do can’t execute it. … In COIN, a few good troops under a smart junior noncommissioned officer doing the right things can succeed, while a large force doing the wrong things will fail.”

The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, understands the need to change the focus from defeating a simple enemy threat to focusing on a comprehensive COIN strategy; however, he is faced with the daunting task of defeating an insurgency model that hasn’t accurately been defined or understood, and may not be for some time because of its complexity. The strategy is further complicated by the need to build the country of Afghanistan. There are men and women across the full spectrum of international partners who thoroughly understand their specific area of operation or expertise, but synthesizing that information is another part of the missing linkage.

Myriad key factors will shape the future of the COIN campaign in Afghanistan, but it boils down to a need for an honest and determined effort that delivers the focus, funding and number of personnel on the ground needed to execute the COIN campaign effectively. Let’s take a minute to understand how things have played out in Afghanistan. During the initial invasion in 2001, the entry force consisted primarily of Special Forces and CIA teams.

They established contact with the Northern Alliance and went on to rout the Taliban. A conservative 700-man entry force accomplished this with minimal oversight and guidance and was resourced for success. What went wrong from there?

Not to disregard the efforts and sacrifices of the previous nine years, but we should ask ourselves, when did a full and honest level of effort for the support of the Afghan government really begin? A stream of statements by politicians, the international community and personnel conducting operations in Afghanistan sends messages such as, “We have been here since 2001” and “Why are we still in Afghanistan?” But the truth is that despite our best early “warm basing” tactics, we have really only been operating effectively for about 18 to 24 months. The real energy in Afghanistan began this past August with the introduction of the Integrated Civilian-Military Campaign Plan (ICMCP) and the announcement of a comprehensive COIN campaign strategy.

At the beginning of 2003, the total number of forces in Afghanistan was approximately 13,800. With the shifting of assets to support the looming invasion of Iraq, Afghanistan was relegated to a secondary effort. Forces dedicated to the mission in Afghanistan were handed a near-impossible task. The terrain and troop disposition didn’t realistically allow any unit to hold an area. This was exacerbated by units not being able to effectively patrol their areas of responsibility because of their composition, the amount of land they were assigned, the lack of supporting air assets, the serious lack of infrastructure and the unforgiving climate and terrain.

The lack of manpower did not begin to change until about 2006 when troop numbers increased to about 38,400. However, assets continued to remain limited, and funding for OEF was not at the top of anyone’s list. Of the total force in country, about one-third, or approximately 10,000 troops, was assigned to the Afghan National Security Force training mission. This left about 28,000 troops to cover Afghanistan security and development.

Presently, there are approximately 100,000 coalition forces from 42 nations on the ground in Afghanistan. In addition, the U.S. State Department, the Agency for International Development and the Agriculture Department have increased their presence, primarily within Regional Command-East. Total numbers are now about 170 personnel, with a planned increase to about 300. Though this is not a significant number in the grand scheme of things, the key takeaway is the increased potential for success because of the expertise, focus and specialized capability these civilians bring.

The insurgency in Afghanistan presents a multidimensional convolution of gamesmanship that involves practically every entity that operates with a degree of influence in the country. Many scholars and leaders across the full spectrum of U.S. government agencies and the international community have struggled with dissecting the insurgency and developing a sound COIN strategy for Afghanistan. The Afghanistan insurgency has been fueled by the country’s many conflicts throughout history, which stem from control of trade routes, power struggles, exploitation and religious ideology. With this in mind, there is no silver-bullet solution for Afghanistan. This situation is unique. Harsh geographical terrain isolates much of the insurgents’ area of operation, enabling them oftentimes to influence and intimidate the local population unfettered.


To understand what the COIN campaign must achieve, you must first understand Afghanistan and its government. Pinning a label on the various insurgent groups operating in Afghanistan is difficult. Insurgents are described as “accidental,” “economic,” “day-hire,” “criminal” and “terrorist.” Insurgency may simply be caused by boredom, so one can add to the list “the bored or mischievous insurgent.” Regardless of terminology, we must step outside of ourselves and walk a mile in the shoes of the Afghan. The Afghan society has been presented as a story of epic tragedy and hardship that has caused its members to live life on a cycle of survival: Where will the next meal come from, who will be the next local boss to satisfy, who will be in charge and for how long? The history of Afghanistan has presented the majority of its population with a sense of helpless abandonment toward future potential and success.

This fundamental understanding has been the biggest issue facing the international community in its attempt to come to the aid of the Afghan. The international community should understand that the Afghan people will go on living their lives. They are survivalists. But in the attempt to define the insurgency in Afghanistan, the fundamental skill of listening is being ignored. The international community needs to listen to the people and build a relationship of mutual trust, as opposed to saying, “We are here to help, and this is what you need.” An Afghan village elder advised an ISAF commander early this year, “You will gain more friends in two months by becoming interested in others than in two years of trying to get them interested in you.”

In Afghanistan, the provincial governors are the government’s representatives to the people, and the elected parliamentarians are the people’s representative to the government. These two offices or individuals, in most instances, do not interact. The Afghan Parliament is broken into two houses: the Wolesi Jirga (lower house), known as the House of the People, which consists of 249 seats; and the Meshrano Jirga (upper house), known as the House of the Elders, which consists of 102 members. In the Parliament, there are unofficial regional or zone responsibilities, with one key parliamentarian responsible for a specific region or zone of Afghanistan. Unless there is interaction with these members of parliament from the regional level of commands or the embassies, there is potentially a missed level of integration.

The complexity of the COIN environment in Afghanistan, therefore, is counterintuitive. The basic principles of engaging an insurgency are undeniably vital to the understanding of the execution of a counterinsurgency strategy in any environment. However, each district offers different challenges and dynamics than its neighbor. Fighting the insurgency in Afghanistan is like fighting a thousand little insurgencies at the village level. Each of these micro-insurgencies requires a customized approach to security, governance and development. It begins with establishing relationships with both the community elders and appointed governmental leaders. Relationships are a salient piece to the success of a COIN strategy. They could actually be the single point of failure. Disagreements and conflicts are caused by failed relationships. Commanders at all levels have demonstrated understanding of this factor, but none more than at the battalion, company and platoon level. It is at these levels where first contact with the local population begins, and a level of trust is essential. A relationship with the local population increases the unit’s situational awareness and level of security as long as the interaction is genuine. The ICMCP recommends that authority and decision making be pushed down to the lowest level. That recommendation should be enforced. The success of units at the lowest level will reverberate throughout the chain of command.


The information-sharing struggle and gap across Afghanistan is another goal that has been outside of anyone’s grasp since the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom. Multiple organizations complain about not being able to share information across the spectrum of coalition security forces, nongovernmental agencies, the State Department, USAID, private security companies, Afghan agencies and Afghan ministries.

Understanding and then closing the information gap in a COIN environment is no easy task. Information is being passed across multiple entities, and that information tends to move in stovepipes. There is an enormous amount of interest in sharing information by a multitude of organizations, governmental and nongovernmental. Any one of the key agencies has the opportunity to access the numerous assets in Afghanistan. However, accomplishing it appears to remain just beyond their reach.

What we have witnessed is an unwillingness of a few that affects the masses. The salient idea to close the information gap is to bring all players to one single point, provide what information they can and hyperlink their sites in order to share their knowledge with a cleared client for specific or more in-depth information on a subject. The difficulty is making contact with the multitude of potential clients and building the infrastructure and information technology architecture to support the operations of a situational-awareness information coordination center. Conceptualizing and theorizing this capability is the simple part, but to put it all together without having done it before would be a daunting task to anyone. The initial challenge on the information-technology piece would be to understand the need for increased network connectivity throughout Afghanistan rather than just in Kabul.

Information operations are also struggling to make a significant impact in the COIN environment. The Western world is bombarded with creative ways to sway population groups on what to buy, think and vote. If getting the messaging right is too difficult, then an outside professional should be consulted to produce a fresh and aggressive messaging methodology that would shape and support the COIN strategy and persuade selected target audiences to turn away from the insurgency. The initiatives are in place to increase the COIN and communication capability, but without an infusion of creativity and adaptability, it will continue to be relegated to a second thought. The information operations (IO) line of operation should stand alone because it has the potential to touch and influence those who are critical to defeating the insurgents. Information operations cross the separate lines of operation, but in this COIN fight, those lines are supporting efforts that achieve the effects being sought. IO can continue to be incorporated into the other lines of operation, but should not be lost in them.

The essence of a COIN operation is a battle of beliefs; the entity that wakes up every day and is tasked and trained to change beliefs is the information operations enabler of psychological operations. Yet at the regional commands, information operations are constantly overlooked despite being probably the greatest combat multiplier in the COIN environment. The insurgents recognize the importance of media attention, and they plan operations to gain that attention. The COIN information-operations practitioner must seize the initiative from the insurgent.

Combined action at the ISAF battalion level has progressed and continues to progress weekly. The ISAF has undertaken, at some locations, the development of different leadership courses for Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers who show potential for levels of increased responsibility as well as courses that combine integrated teams of ANA, Afghan Uniformed Police and ISAF soldiers to build camaraderie and awareness. There are also contests where combined teams from combat outposts compete in a series of military skill-level tasks for recognition.

The integration of the civilian agencies across all levels of command is a highly effective force multiplier. The civilians are subject-matter experts when it comes to governance and development. They have been given this responsibility by the ISAF, which understands that it is not trained or equipped to execute this with any long-term success. At the regional-command level, the senior civilian representatives and all civilians are fully integrated with the military command structure. They share decision-making authority along the appropriate governance and development lines of operation, but the civilians are the chairpersons for those lines.

Forces carrying the heaviest burden every day are those on the ground who touch the population, build relationships and execute the COIN strategy. However, they are not manned equally or proportionally across the board, and some are responsible for the same sized area of responsibility as a traditional 100-man infantry company. For example, a cavalry troop is considered a company-sized element and is manned at half the strength of an infantry company. The disparity here is frustrating for the troop commander and first sergeant.

Another example is the company intelligence support team (COIST), which is manned from internal personnel. Therefore, the company commander identifies a team of individuals who may or may not want the responsibility. This is why the composition of the COISTs varies across the force. There are some COISTs with one individual and others with three, but overall the one individual who ultimately carries the load in the COIN fight at the company level is the fire support officer, normally a second lieutenant or junior first lieutenant. On top of his fire support responsibilities, he may also be responsible for managing the commander’s emergency relief program, other contracts and development projects, and information operations, to include messaging and the radio-in-the-box and the COIST. The fire support officer could be referred to as a one-man COIN machine. Although the job is getting done, one must ask, how effective is it and what is its potential?

A COIN fight is not won in briefings and working groups, but through the actions of the units on the ground interacting with the population. Additional personnel should be pushed to the company level to help execute the strategy at the lowest level and provide some focused effort. Currently, soldiers are doing the most they can with the least resources.

Six months into the 18-month timeline, it’s critical to ensure the appropriate resources get out on the ground where they are needed. A resource allocation to consider is the value added to the COIST of one civil-affairs soldier and one psychological operations soldier to exponentially increase the company’s ability to touch, affect and interact with the population at the right place and time. This would provide the right resources and capabilities to the young leaders on the ground who are most responsible for the success of the COIN strategy. AFJ

MAJ. RUSSELL HAMPSEY (RET.) is a former Army psychological operations officer and MAJ. SEAN P. McKENNA (RET.) is a former Special Forces and field artillery officer. Both are now working on the ISAF Counterinsurgency Advisory and Assistance Team in Afghanistan.