Is the Real Counterinsurgency Yet to Come?

It remains to be seen if the United States have the stomach for a prolonged, supportive role in Afghanistan.

A Canadian Leopard tank operates in Mushan, Kandahar, Afghanistan, August 1, 2009
A Canadian Leopard tank operates in Mushan, Kandahar, Afghanistan, August 1, 2009 (Canadian Army/Jonathan Johansen)

With American and NATO forces preparing to pull out of Afghanistan in 2014, will counterinsurgency soon be over? No, writes retired United States Army Colonel Robert Killebrew at Foreign Policy. The real counterinsurgency is only just beginning.

Killebrew defines counterinsurgency as the deployment of American power in support of local combat forces. If a foreign army becomes too involved in a local struggle, he points out, it risks “stealing the oxygen” from the essential relationship between native government and the insurgents who are fighting it.

It may be necessary for one of our troops to shoot an insurgent from the next village but killing somebody’s cousin isn’t going to make either us or the local government loved. If there ever was a doubt, look at the celebrations breaking out in Iraq with our departure.

The intense counterterrorism campaign that has been waged in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan for roughly the last two years hasn’t made the United States very popular there. Both Hamid Karzai’s government in Kabul and officials in Islamabad have demanded an end to nighttime raids by special forces and aerial bombardments by unmanned “drone” planes in the unruly tribal area along the frontier.

By 2014, American and other Western armies currently fighting in Afghanistan are scheduled to transfer security responsibility to the Afghan forces. “What this means,” writes Killebrew, “is that Afghan forces do the fighting, helped by small American advisory teams embedded in Afghan units, living and fighting alongside Afghan troops, and backed up by American airpower and logistics.” No longer would the Americans be perceived as meddling in an internal conflict, rather the central government bears responsibility for ending the insurgency.

“This is not new to us,” writes Killebrew. The United States have worked alongside and supported local troops in conflicts for decades, most recently in Vietnam, El Salvador, Colombia and the Philippines.

In Colombia, a success story, a Colombian general complimented the United States for getting it right and “letting us fight our own war.”

Colombia’s guerrilla against the FARC as well as Sri Lanka’s battle against Tamil insurgents provide lessons for counterinsurgencies elsewhere.

Niel Smith wrote about the Sri Lankan experience in Small Wars Journal more than two years ago. The conditions for a successful counterinsurgency, he argued, included an unwavering political will; disregard for international opinion and internal opposition distracting from the goal; no negotiations with the forces of terror and; complete freedom for the security forces.

Smith admitted that, “Most Western readers will find the lack of concern for civilian casualties in this strategy disconcerting.” A “ruthless” counterinsurgency however does resolve a conflict more quickly and therefore incurs less collateral damage whereas a “population centric” approach, aimed at winning the “hearts and minds” of the populace, “while humanistic, takes longer, with uncertain probabilities of success.”

So the question Killebrew raises is whether the Obama Administration, “the Defense Department and the services have the stomach for such a shift to the actual prosecution of a counterinsurgency effort.” This, he admits, is still an open question.

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