How to beat an insurgency by killing fewer people

Progress in Afghanistan shouldn't be measured by the number of dead Taliban


The insurgency Canada and allied nations face in Afghanistan is a political problem and a battle in which the military should play a supporting role, according to General Walter Natynczyk, Canada’s Chief of the Defence Staff.

Speaking in Ottawa at the annual general meeting of the Conference of Defence Associations Institute (CDAI) on Friday, Natynczyk described a counter-insurgency doctrine that reflects the thinking outlined in a manual that the Department of National Defence distributed earlier last week. It stresses that simply killing insurgents in Afghanistan will not result in their defeat.

What’s required instead, Natynczyk said, is a “civilian surge” to win and hold the support of ordinary Afghans. The military’s goal is to provide cover and protection while an effective local government is established.

Natynczyk’s words may reflect, in part, the agenda of the Canadian government, which has pledged to end Canada’s combat role in Afghanistan by 2011. But over the past few years a new approach to counter-insurgency has taken hold in the United States after hard and painful lessons learned in Iraq. Natynczyk’s comments, and his ideas about how to defeat the insurgency in Afghanistan, likely owe much to this experience.

The United States invaded Iraq with the vision of a “decapitation campaign.” The centre of gravity was Baghdad, and toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime meant victory. How this strategy was executed, and the messy aftermath that resulted, has been most effectively documented by author Thomas Ricks in his 2006 book, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq. But not all of America’s generals on the ground bought into the decapitation strategy of winning the war-even before years of insurgency made it obvious how foolish was former president George W. Bush’s declaration of victory in May 2003.

At the time, David Petraeus was a major-general commanding the 101st Airborne Division in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. Petraeus had previously served in Haiti and Bosnia and, unlike many top commanders in the American defence establishment at the time, didn’t shy away from nation building. For Petraeus, the centre of gravity in the Iraq war was not the regime but the people. They had to be won over. By almost all accounts, Petraeus and the 101st Airborne were enormously successful. They interacted with ordinary Iraqis, tried to get local government functioning quickly, and launched numerous public works projects. (“Money is ammunition,” he told Coalition Provisional Authority director Paul Bremer during his first visit to Mosul.)

In February 2004, Petraeus and the 101st rotated out, and Mosul went to hell. The city was engulfed by the insurgency and became an extremely dangerous place, for American soldiers and Iraqi civilians alike. It’s been a long road back. One of the reasons for Mosul’s recovery, along with that of much of Iraq, has been the Americans’ new approach to counter-insurgency, which was applied during the 2007 “troop surge.”

The surge owes its success to many factors. It came at a time when Sunni tribes were willing to turn against al-Qaeda. Increased numbers of soldiers were a demonstration of American will. But more important than the number of troops was the way they were used. Petraeus, who by January 2007 commanded all American armed forces in Iraq, instructed his troops to leave their bases, dismount from their tanks, and live among and protect Iraqi civilians. The primary goal was not to seek out and kill insurgents but to hold territory and capture the hearts and minds of Iraqis.

There are countless ways in which Afghanistan and Iraq are different wars. But they are both insurgencies, and in both cases winning means winning the population. American General James N. Mattis, NATO Supreme Allied Commander for Transformation, directed the publication of the U.S. Army’s counter-insurgency field manual, which provided a conceptual framework for the surge in Iraq. Speaking at the CDAI’s meeting on Friday, he said NATO risks becoming a military force that is unmatchable in the air, on sea, and in mechanized battle, but that is nevertheless irrelevant because it has not mastered irregular warfare-meaning insurgencies and low-level conflicts fought among civilian populations.

This is the challenge Afghanistan represents. No one doubts NATO troops will always best the Taliban in open battle. But this hardly matters if battles are rarely open and if military victories come at the expense of civilian casualties. The Taliban doesn’t even have an air force. But if NATO’s air superiority means the alliance launches more air strikes that result in civilian deaths, and sends out fewer foot patrols that establish a reassuring presence in Afghan villages, mastery of the air is counter-productive.

It’s risky to read too much into Natynczyk’s brief address in Ottawa this week. Reports vary regarding how much time Canadian and other NATO soldiers spend off base, among local populations. And Natynczyk acknowledges there are not enough troops in Afghanistan to secure the entire country. This lack of force will undermine even the most effective counter-insurgency tactics. A population won’t support you if it doesn’t believe you can protect them once they do so. Nevertheless, Natynczyk’s approach to counter-insurgency is encouraging.

I do think it has at least one significant flaw, however. During his address, Natynczyk told an anecdote about Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan who want to stay there longer. Their families, of course, think the current deployments of six months are sufficient. Fair enough. But six months is not nearly enough time to develop the necessary relationships and trust with locals on which counter-insurgency depends. These things take time. Short tours don’t encourage long-term thinking. Projects cannot be seen through from start to finish. The sense of ownership and accountability diminishes.

In a 2007 interview with Maclean’s, Rory Stewart, the British author and diplomat, compared British colonial policy in India during the 19th century with the West’s intervention in Afghanistan today. British policy two hundred years ago was racist and exploitative, he said. But it was more professional.

“Colonial officers spent 40 years in the country to which they were posted,” Stewart said.

“They generally spoke the local languages fluently. They served in remote areas. If they didn’t balance the budgets, they would be bankrupt. If they didn’t keep security, they would be killed in their buildings. We have much more power and much less responsibility. We’re there on very short tours. We’re often moving between different postings. If we fail to balance the budgets, it doesn’t matter; we’ll bring in billions of dollars in international aid. If we fail to keep security, it doesn’t matter; we’ll evacuate ourselves and return home.”

It is of course unrealistic to expect Canadian soldiers, diplomats, and aid workers to volunteer for 40-year tours in Afghanistan. And Afghans wouldn’t want them around that long anyway. The strain a long deployment puts on families is also a real and valid concern. Nevertheless, in addition to rethinking how best to put down an insurgency, Canada should at least reconsider how long it takes for its soldiers to become effective at it. Defeating the insurgency in Afghanistan will require longer tours and fewer bullets.