You say counterinsurgency (COIN) is a battlefield where ‘popular perceptions and rumour are more influential than the facts and more powerful than a hundred tanks.’ What are the battlefield perceptions and rumours in Afghanistan today?
It’s important to realize that some of the perceptions and attitudes of the population can seem perverse or completely unrealistic to us, until we try to see things from their standpoint. For example, one persistent rumour among Pashtuns is that the Americans are sponsoring the Taliban. Their theory goes that America is the most powerful nation on earth, we can put a man on the moon, so the so the only rational explanation for our failure to stabilize a little place like Afghanistan is that we must not want to.
So they talk about the ‘Pakistani Taliban’ (those sponsored by Pakistan), the ‘Iranian Taliban’ sponsored by Teheran, and the ‘American Taliban’ supposedly sponsored by us in order to keep the country weak and provide a pretext for our long-term colonization.
The recent media discussion over Afghanistan’s mineral deposits (actually something that has been well-known for years) played into this narrative—some people in Afghanistan rolled their eyes and said ‘now it all makes sense, the Americans want to stay here to control our mineral wealth’.
By far the most damaging perception to us, however, is the belief—based on President Obama’s speech of December 2009—that we are leaving in July 2011. This, of course, is not actually what the President said, but it was somewhat ‘lost in translation’ with the Taliban coming right out to exploit the locals’ belief that we’re planning to leave. A lot of the behaviour of Afghans—from President Karzai down to local village elders—that seems erratic to us, is perfectly rational when you look at it from their standpoint: they think we’re leaving, and they need to stay on the fence so they can survive once we go.
The next few questions come fromthe Twenty-Eight Articles you wrote in 2006 for soldiers working on the ground without much of a counterinsurgency roadmap. You said, ‘Exploit a “single narrative”—a simple, unifying, easily expressed story that organizes people’s experience and provides a framework for understanding events. Nationalist and ethnic historical myths, or sectarian creeds, provide such a narrative. The Iraqi insurgents have one, as do al-Qaeda and the Taliban.’ What’s the single narrative now operating in Afghanistan; which side is telling it? If you were crafting the narrative, what would it be?
Right now, the key propaganda themes emerging from the Taliban are mainly associated with supposedly imminent US departure. They say ‘The Americans are leaving next summer, but we are staying. If you choose to support them now, we will kill you after they leave.’ Another Taliban propaganda theme is that they represent clean and incorruptible government, in contrast to the abuses and corruption of the Karzai mafia network—the Taliban court system, administrative structure, taxation system and local committee structure are all part of this attempt to portray themselves as the real government while discrediting the Karzai government and the international effort. Another theme is to explain to the people how they, the Taliban, have learned from previous experience and that this time around they will be different—more effective at running the country, less oppressive, more responsive to the people. In respect to women, for example, the current Taliban theme is that all women will be able to work and girls will be able to go to school—just as soon as the Taliban control the whole country. ‘Trust us, we’ve changed’.
Also from the Twenty-Eight Articles: ‘Engage the women, beware the children…In traditional societies, women are hugely influential in forming the social networks that insurgents use for support. Win the women, and you own the family unit. Conversely, though, stop your people fraternizing with local children. Children are sharp-eyed, lacking in empathy, and willing to commit atrocities their elders would shrink from.’ What made you decide to offer this last statement on children committing atrocities?
Hard experience. Children have been involved in some of the worst atrocities of civil wars, including the fighting in Indonesia that I studied in my doctoral dissertation, and in conflicts in Africa where use of child soldiers is unfortunately extremely widespread. We also encounter extremely young fighters at times in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, and the Taliban and al-Qaeda are adept at exploiting young children—in one case with the Taliban, a child as young as six years-old—as suicide bombers. There’s a whole orphanage in the tribal areas in Pakistan filled with children whom the Pakistanis are attempting to deprogram, after the Taliban, using atrocious sexual and psychological abuse, turned them into fanatically suicidal zealots. It seems melodramatic, but soldiers and police on the streets need to be especially wary of children.
The world has seen so many photos of US soldiers acting kindly towards Iraqi and Afghan children. Is this idea of keeping children at arm’s length widely implemented in Afghanistan?
More widely than you might think. Of course it’s hard to keep kids completely at arm’s length, but over time our experience has been that it’s better to do it that way. One example from Iraq—our troops gave soccer balls to a group of children, and one of the fathers of these kids was subsequently picked up as a member of an insurgent group. He claimed we had dishonoured him by giving his kids something he was unable to give them, and to defend his honor he had to fight back. Our guys will always want to engage with kids—the intent of my admonition in Twenty-Eight Articles was just to make them think carefully about it first.
Another quote from Twenty-Eight Articles: ‘Counterinsurgency is armed social work; an attempt to redress basic social and political problems while being shot at. This makes civil affairs a central counterinsurgency activity. Your role is to provide protection, identify needs, facilitate civil affairs and use improvements in social conditions as leverage to build networks and mobilize the population.’ How do you reconcile the fact that US soldiers are trained in-depth for ‘hunt and kill’ warfare, but in these 21st century counterinsurgency campaigns, we also ask them to fill political, economic, and civil affairs roles they weren’t trained for?
This is a point of view I hear a lot, but it’s frankly very outdated, at this late stage in the war. We’ve been at this for a decade—much more than that actually, if you count the experience of peacekeeping in the Balkans and Africa in the 1990s. Pretty much any junior officer, NCO or soldier out in the field today cut their teeth on these conflicts, and they are very comfortable and at home with the complexity, and they understand what has to be done.
I’ve fought in seven counterinsurgency campaigns, and have worked in the field on operations with more than twenty different militaries in my 25 years of doing this. I have never seen any organization with anything close to the level of competence and capability of today’s US military. Our men and women know how to do this. They do it extremely well, and Americans should be very proud of them.
You advise the military to ‘keep your extraction plan secret’. Is this realistic in this globalized media age where ‘exit strategies and dates’ readily become public knowledge?
Well, it may not be perfectly feasible, but announcing a specific date on national TV 18 months out isn’t recommended either! In general terms, the important thing is to realize that when you leave, people who supported you will be at risk from insurgents, and so they have an incentive to turn against you in order to demonstrate their ‘anti-occupation credentials’ while there’s still time—something I call ‘Aden Syndrome’ after the British experience in their colony of Aden (today part of Yemen) in the 1960s.
The only way to prevent people from turning on you as they realize you’re planning to leave is to give them the survival resources to enable them to survive after you go. That’s a lot of what the last few years in Iraq have been about, since we broke the back of the insurgency during the surge of 2007-2008.
President Karzai has been called the ‘mayor of Kabul’—a derisive title alluding to his inability to establish and keep a resilient system of control and his unwillingness to travel outside the capital. You believe that the one who gains the people’s support and provides real security will win. Is President Karzai a major obstacle to the counterinsurgency?
One of the harsh but inescapable lessons of counterinsurgency, over the 385 or so examples that we know of since the early 19th century, is that an intervening force (such as ourselves in Afghanistan) is only as good as its local partner. In Vietnam, one of the post-mortem analyses of the war pointed out that no amount of enthusiasm or know-how on the part of Americans could make up for lack of commitment or legitimacy on the part of Vietnamese government counterparts. In Afghanistan we need to be putting much, much more effort into reform of the Afghan government—remedying the abuse, corruption and oppression on the part of local and central government officials that empower the Taliban. General Petraeus is an expert in this kind of thing, and specifically mentioned this as a key objective in his recent guidance to the force. Expect to see this as one of the main efforts in the operation in Afghanistan over the next few months.
Do the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Afghan leadership have a ‘shared diagnosis of the problem’ there?
No. Efforts like the Kabul Conference of July this year, and previous international agreements, have tried to create a shared diagnosis. At the end of the day, however, any local ally has differing interests from those of the intervening international community institutions. This isn’t unique to Afghanistan. As the war develops, people should again expect to see this as a continuing area of emphasis from the international and US leadership.
In the Preface to the 2010 paperback edition of your book, you note that your thoughts on COIN are still developing. What is the idea or perspective that has changed the most in your mind in the past decade?
I think I misinterpreted the Afghan Taliban at first, seeing them as less of a classical insurgency, with less of an intent to govern and control territory and population, than they actually are1over the past few years they’ve taught me my error.
You argue that despite the United States use of the phrase ‘war on terrorism’, we are actually engaged in a campaign to counter a globalized Islamist insurgency. Can a counter-terrorism and counterinsurgency campaign co-exist?
Yes, in fact they almost always do coexist in reality, whatever the terms we use. I guess my key point is that we need to see campaigns like Afghanistan, Somalia, and other conflicts against Islamist movements primarily as being about stability rather than killing every last terrorist. In the case of the Taliban, we care about them mainly because they de-stabilize Afghanistan, and we care about Afghanistan being unstable mainly because instability there destabilizes Pakistan, where there’s a fragile government, more than a hundred nukes, and Osama bin Laden waiting in the wings. Much of what we do on a daily basis in Afghanistan—improving government, countering abuse, stabilizing society, helping economic development—seems far removed from defeating al-Qaeda. But if you realize that connection between them—the golden thread of logic that ties everything together, the maintenance of stability in order to prevent terrorists exploiting instability—then it all makes a lot of sense.
You dedicate your Counterinsurgency book in part to the Small Wars Journal as supporters of counterinsurgency in part because they able to ‘quietly prompt change’. How?
Dave Dilegge and Bill Nagle, founders of the Small Wars Journal, created a forum for discussion and an underground home for the counterinsurgency movement, at a time when the senior leaders in the US government didn’t want to hear about it—Secretary Rumsfeld even banned the use of the term ‘counterinsurgency’, even though we were busy losing one at the time in Iraq. Our whole generation owes these guys a debt of gratitude for keeping the flame alive.
You cite two fundamentals in COIN—local solutions and respect for non-combatants. The latter is right out of Just War theory. How much influence has Just War theory had in modern counterinsurgency campaigns?
A lot. But this is more than simple ethics; it’s a matter of practical utility. Most insurgencies last decades and mobilize millions, or at least hundreds of thousands, of people. Insurgents do that by exploiting and manipulating popular grievances. And if you, as a guerrilla leader, are going to mobilize that many people, for that long, the grievances need to be real grievances, things that genuinely motivate the majority of people – issues of abuse or oppression that really have legitimacy.
So, as the counterinsurgent, if you’re fighting the guerrillas but you have no plan to address the grievances that empower them—or worse, if your own actions make those grievances worse—and if you have no local constituency of your own, then you’re wasting your time. Quite possibly you’re only making things worse, and you should just go home.
You stress the importance of winning over the threatened local population. Coalition allies are expeditionary (foreign) forces in Afghanistan. The insurgents are locals. How can we be optimistic that when coalition leaves, the insurgents will have been neutralized?
We can’t, and in fact that’s not how it works. The way a successful counterinsurgency campaign develops is that we (the expeditionary counterinsurgent force) have to do two things. We have to reduce the capacity and threat of the insurgents, and we have to build the capacity and legitimacy of the local society. Once we get to the point where the locals are strong enough, and the insurgents are weak enough and that the locals can handle things on their own, and then we can leave.
That’s what just happened in Iraq, by the way—the insurgency is still there, but it’s weakened to the point where the Iraqis can handle it, so we can leave. The insurgency will continue, but on the current trajectory it won’t need the direct engagement of coalition combat troops in order for the Iraqis to handle it. Likewise, we don’t need to defeat the Taliban—we need to drive down the Taliban threat, and build the resilience of Afghan society—including, but not limited to, the government—to the point where Afghans can handle the Taliban on their own. Can we make a perfect government in Afghanistan? No. Can we destroy the Taliban? No. But we don’t need to do either of those things—we just need to weaken the Taliban and strengthen Afghan society until the locals can handle things on their own. Then we can leave.
Insurgents have intelligence networks. How accurate do you think US and coalition intelligence is in Afghanistan?
Our intelligence on the enemy is extremely, often devastatingly, accurate. Our intelligence on the local population, who’s who, who the key power brokers are, what the critical needs are, how the local governance and economic structures work—that’s an area which has been improving for some time, and is much better than it has been, but still needs work.
Where is the next insurgency the US may need to address?
We should be thinking extremely carefully before ever getting into these kinds of conflicts again. What we are seeing, both in Afghanistan and Iraq, is that bottom-up peace building efforts, and local solutions by local people, are the best approach. Sometimes they fail, but it’s almost always better than direct intervention by the international community.
This is an abridged version of an interview that originally appeared at International Affairs Forum. David Kilcullen was formerly the Senior Counterinsurgency Advisor to General David Patraeus in Iraq and also advisor to General Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan. Kilcullen is adjunct Professor of Security Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a Fellow at the Center for a New American Security.