Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan: Is It Working?

Ten years of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan has changed minds, official says.

Oct. 9, 2011 -- Counterinsurgency may not be the buzzword it was in 2009, when President Obama was deliberating strategy for the war in Afghanistan -- but it is still the Army's prevailing strategy in the war that passed the 10-year mark this weekend, a military official said.

So how are we doing with our latest strategy?

It's not so easy to tell, according to the official, Lt. Col. John Paganini, the director of the U.S. Army Counterinsurgency Center, because there's no easy way to measure its success and no specific end date on the books, though officials are aware U.S. war resources may be limited.

Part of the problem with measuring success, Paganini said, is that a central point of the strategy is to be nimble and willing to change methods as needs change.

"Every day is a challenge to be adaptive," Paganini said. "So we can't say, 'Well, today we're doing really well,' because everything is adaptive."

The goal of the counterinsurgency strategy is to defeat Taliban and affiliated insurgents by helping to bolster the Afghan government and its security forces, winning the hearts and minds of Afghans, reintegrating and reconciling former insurgents into society and helping to kick-start a functioning national economy.

President Obama ordered a surge of U.S. military forces and government officials into Afghanistan 2009 to accomplish the strategy's early objectives.

Paganini said that the strategy has changed since the beginning of the war. In the last three or four years, the Army has shifted from focusing on the enemy to building sustainable, long-lasting programs run by Afghans at every government level.

"We are becoming adaptive to overcome the insurgency," Paganini said, "not just those who are out to kill us or apply military force against us, or the protectors of the society of the host nation, but it really also gets after, 'Why does the insurgency exist? What are the conditions that allow the population to either passively or actively support an external entity that wants to degrade the ability of the host nation government's security force?'"

For example, he said, the biggest thing the Army eliminated was "the idea in the minds of the Afghan citizenry and the Afghan leaders that this is an external problem with external solutions.

"Reinforce the notion that they already have that this is their problem, and their solutions are going to fix this problem," he said. "And I think what you've seen -- from the initial stages of an awareness of [the idea that Afghans hold the key to their fate], to an acceptance of that, to a practice of it -- that's where you've seen significant gains.

"It's not anything that you can put a number on the wall and say, 'Here's the metric we're going to measure that against. Here I can stand in front of the nation and say, 'We're winning the war because of this,'" Paganini said.

Paganini said changing the minds of Afghans could take generations.

"Is victory inevitable?" he asked. "No, because there are so many conditions that are out there. But we are clearly on the path for it. ... It could take generations. It could take, you know, the people of Afghanistan one or two iterations with some semblance of an election and feedback mechanisms that let them see that this is good."

Tactics used by the Taliban to intimidate Afghans from cooperating with the Western-backed Afghan government -- such as threatening letters left at Afghan homes during the night -- should not prevail, he said.

"Intimidation is a difficult factor, especially for a population that has experienced what they've experienced for the last 30 years," he said. "But having walked the streets with them, I can tell you they are proud and strong, and courageous people. Intimidation will affect certain things that they do, but they're willing to stand in the face of intimidation if there's a promise of something."

An element of the counterinsurgency strategy is "clear, hold, build and transfer" -- the process of creating a secure society in local hands -- but it's not so easy to assess the broad stage of the war by that measure, either, Paganini said.

"If you look at it from a national perspective, you know: Is the population too afraid to go outside? No. Is the population willing to participate in local governance? In a lot of places you'll see that," he said. "Shuras, open shuras [community-involved decision making forums] are generating a significant amount of participation from the local population. Well, those are conditions for the build.

"Is the host nation security force, the Afghan police, the Afghan border police, the Afghan Army, the ANCOP -- are they taking the lead on operations? Are they capable of independent self-sustaining operations? And in a lot of places they are. Those are conditions that say we're in the build. Is it nationwide? Probably not. But are the indicators pointing in the right direction? Clearly I think so."

He said there was progress in building the Afghan police and army, another part of the counterinsurgency strategy to bolster self-sustaining host-nation government and host-nation security forces.

"They have really taken a larger role in their own information operations, their own influence activities to get the word out to the population that, 'Hey we are the sole protectors of society. We are here to protect you, and when bad things happen we're the ones that are going to come help,'" he said. "So I think you're starting to see a lot more interaction between the population and the host nation security force, and just that mindset of, 'I can trust that guy to do his job.' That overcomes intimidation.

"One thing that always overcomes psychological effects is leadership," he added. "You have a strong Afghan leader at tribe, at village, at district, at provincial, whatever, that people are willing to follow -- that can inspire people's actions. It's going to overcome intimidation," he added.

Paganini acknowledged that Afghan leaders are targets for assassination by the Taliban, but said the conditions are getting "much better" to bring Afghan leaders further into the fold.

"They are passionate about their area, their province, their district, and this sense of nationalism that's growing; there's a lot of them," he said. "The ones that don't step forward, it's not because they're selfish or complacent or don't care. A lot of them really do it [stay on the sidelines] because they believe, 'I don't know that I'm the right person to lead right now.' But there are some absolutely phenomenal individuals. At the village level, there's some great people that step forward and say, 'If nobody else will do this, I will.'"

He also acknowledged there are drawbacks to focusing on Afghan-institution building versus the enemy.

"That has come at the balance of: We are not capable of doing as many or as dense, you know, enemy-centric focused patrols to eliminate the IEDs, cells, and the facilitators, and the financiers and all of that," he said. "So that's the cost. I think when you look at the end result, though, the benefit still outweighs the cost from a mission accomplishment perspective."

Paganini acknowledged the costs in resources and human treasure.

"It takes awhile, and the cost is extremely high," he said. "But there is that capability, this long term tremendous benefit, specifically for Afghanistan, but for a greater area. I mean, the region can look at that and say, 'I would have bet everything against that, but look at it, it's working.' And, I think, that has an impact."

Paganini was aware American public patience and willingness to fund the war was wearing thin, but he remained confident that the war would be won.

"We've got to work within the resources that we're capable of," he said. "I don't know that we necessarily need to sustain that amount of money, but what we need to sustain is that thought process of whatever resources we commit -- American treasure in soldiers or money or whatever it is -- it's got to be geared towards a specific effect, and how long-lasting do we want that effect to be, and how do we sustain the benefits of that effect. That's the critical thought that's got to go into it.. And we know as we talk about sustainment of that effect that the resources are not unlimited.

"So you do have to plan for: OK, at some point, how are we going to turn this over or scale down this and let the Afghans take more control of this," he said. "And it's not just in the south."

Paganini wears a black metal bracelet bearing all the names of the soldiers that didn't come home during his last tour in Afghanistan. He wears it every day, so as never to forget them, he said.

"I am really proud of the guys that are over there fighting it right now because it's tough," he said. "And they are doing tremendous work. It's really hard to look a kid in the eye and go, "Today, you are not going out there on a hunt, [even though] that's what you went into your recruiter's office to do. Today you're going out there to talk to an elder and find out why they didn't participate in a shura yesterday, and that's going to get us closer to winning than anything you're doing to do on the hunt.'

"And when soldiers accept that and internalize that and go out and execute that, that nests, that end state, all the way out to the ISAF level -- it's hugely important and tremendously difficult and they're doing it with absolute precision every day," he said.