The Pulse

The Problem With Afghanistan’s Counterinsurgency

Recent Features

The Pulse

The Problem With Afghanistan’s Counterinsurgency

Kabul is using a centralized approach to fight a decentralized insurgency.

The Problem With Afghanistan’s Counterinsurgency
Credit: Flickr/ ResoluteSupportMediaPhoto by Major Paul Smyth, RIFLES

The  Taliban have been seizing numerous districts throughout northern Afghanistan and even temporarily captured the provincial capital, Kunduz, in 2015. The level of the Taliban threat in half of the country’s 398 districts is considered either “high” or “extreme” and 30 districts are under Taliban control, according to the United Nations. This is the widest reach for the Taliban since 2001. The ultimate goals of the Afghan government and its international allies are forcing the Taliban to retreat and preventing the re-emergence of al-Qaeda. This is being held back by a centralized response to a decentralized insurgency.

Apart from an occasional but violent attack in the capital, Kabul, most of the battles between Afghan National Security Forces and the Taliban take place at the provincial level. However, administrations in the provinces are excluded; power is vested only in the faraway Kabul. It is this centralized decision making process, as much as questions of equipment and resources, that has contributed to the Afghan government’s poor record on maintaining security. The culture of local governance is not aligned with the culture of war — government in Afghanistan is highly centralized, while the insurgents are operating in a decentralized setting.

After 15 years, the size and capability of the Afghan government structure has developed to a large scale, but it suffers significant deficiencies at the sub-national level. Deficiencies in governance have been acknowledged as one of the factors that could jeopardize stability in Afghanistan beyond 2014. Institutions that were structured in the early years after 2001 are not able to deal with new crises. Prior to the withdrawal, NATO’s Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT) were supporting sub-national governments both in civilian and military capacities. As that support is not on the ground anymore, local governments have not been able to respond to the insurgency and provide services to the citizens effectively. In 2007, the Independent Directorate of Local Governance (IDLG) was established and a local governance policy was developed in 2010. However, this policy is quiet on provincial authorities’ decision making power over military matters. The weak structure of local institutions makes fighting the war difficult.

A recognition of the importance of engaging local actors in the process of counterinsurgency not only came late, but also was followed by improper and infeasible initiatives. Instead of empowering military institutions at the local level, the Afghan Local Police (ALP) was set up within villages to conduct local counterinsurgency missions. Unexpectedly, ALP forces have been accused of misusing power and violating human rights and, in some places, have emerged as a parallel power at the local level.

Centralized decision making authority has hindered effective bureaucracy as well as the efficient functioning of the military at local levels. Insurgents usually have very localized, short term tactical strategies. However, the ANSF structure allows senior leaders to be directly involved in tactical-level decisions, rather than maintaining a strategic level outlook. This means operational planning often fails to address dynamic operational realities at the brigade level. Corps commanders often fail to be proactive in response to insurgent threats and attacks. For example, senior leaders like Vice President General Abdul Rashid Dostum and Deputy Chief of the General Staff General Murad Ali Murad need to personally attend tougher operations at the corps level. This is mostly due to local administrations and commanders’ lack of authority on conducting big operations. It may be good for the short term but over the longer term sustainability will require effective leadership at the brigade level.

Furthermore, the absence of decision making authority at the provincial level has weakened strategic communication among security forces. Each of them ­­– police, army, NDS – needs to take commands from their line ministries in Kabul. The seizure of Kunduz by the Taliban gives a very plain picture of the problem. Reports indicate that the different security forces at the time had very different strategies for dealing with the situation and the command structure was far too complicated. Moreover, the findings of the presidential investigation team concluded that security forces had lacked coordination.

ANSF is reactive toward insurgents, failing to defend areas and then having to recapture them. This has not only undermined public confidence, but also allows the insurgents to take advantage of opportunities to attack when they have the tactical advantage. It also means the war is being fought in populated areas. Not surprisingly, Afghanistan has experienced an increase in the number of enemy-initiated attacks — the number hovered around 1,000 per month, with an increase in the number of ANSF and civilian casualties alike.

Disagreements within the national government in Kabul mean that politicians push the war strategy to further their own thinking, interests, and agenda. The result is military institutions losing their core function – attacking and weakening the insurgency. Shifting approaches to strategy have not only left military actors puzzled, but also misled local commanders’ reactions in the field. This often occurs when an army operation has been stopped by the central government because of negotiations with the Taliban or other insurgents. For instance, recent news from Helmand indicates that the government has stopped the police form destroying poppy fields, which provide one of the main means of income for Taliban. Drug trafficking generates an estimated $70 million-$100 million per year for insurgents—perhaps about 25 percent of the insurgents’ budget, which is estimated by some UN officials at about $400 million.

All this results in strategic incoherence—a gap between the explanation of the insurgent threat and the strategies the Afghan government and its international allies are following to counter it. Senior leaders in Kabul should understand that a top driven model that ignores different perspectives and the half-hearted military efforts they undertake are preventing military forces from being successful.

With the government expecting tougher combat this summer, the administration has to recognize these gaps and reshape the rules and norms governing its war against insurgents. They need to recognize insurgents are diverse and thus strategies need to be tailored and context specific. Effective civilian and military communication and engagement is critical to the framing of realistic policy objectives and effective strategy, as it brings greater understanding of context and thus substantial adjustments to operations in the field. The rules that govern the insurgents’ strategy on the battlefield are constantly changing in unpredictable ways, with different forms taken in different places. Therefore, extending decision making to the local level and strengthening local governance can address the constraints that hinder the counterinsurgency efforts of the Afghan government and its international allies.

Strong local governance across Afghanistan is necessary to support the military actions of the government. Considering Afghanistan’s difficult geography, religious supremacy, patriarchal society, ethnic divisions, and strong informal governance, effective counterinsurgency won’t be possible unless sub-national governance is strengthened. The current Sub-national Governance Policy was supposed to be renewed in 2014, but it is still being drafted. The new policy should consider the lessons learned from the past and increase the power of provincial governments. This would enable local authorities to be more responsive to the needs and problems of their constituents.

Metra Mehran is a Fulbright scholar studying public policy at Texas A&M University.

Abdul Waheed Ahmad is an Afghan Fulbright scholar currently studying a Master’s of Public Administration at the State University of New York, NY, U.S. Prior to that he worked as an adviser to IDLG (Independent Directorate of Local Governance), an Afghan government institution to improve local governance throughout the country.