View Full Version : Afghanistan: colonialism or counterinsurgency?

06-04-2008, 06:30 AM
Americans bring Afghans their new 60-year plan
Globe and Mail, May 31, 2008

Within the U.S. military, this is known as population-centric counterinsurgency, an approach that has a cultish following among some officers. It was attempted and then dropped in the Vietnam War (the infamous "strategic hamlets" were at its centre) and there are still officers who believe that Vietnam would have been won if counterinsurgency had been practised to the end.

One of its strongest advocates happens to be General David Petraeus, who has just become the head of the U.S. Central Command, making him responsible for both the Iraq and the Afghanistan wars.

In practice, I found, it looks and sounds a lot more like old-fashioned colonialism. In the tents of Naray, I had the distinct feeling that I had strolled into Uttar Pradesh at some point after 1858, in the early days of the British Raj.

"We want to get to the point where there's long-term sustainable employment that leads to economic growth. … If the insurgents do decide to come back, they will face a great wall of resistance from a population that has experienced economic development."

It sounds good. But I should mention that eastern Afghanistan is facing the highest military casualty rate in the war's history at the moment, and a British report has just concluded that their heavy-handed poppy-eradication strategy is creating hundreds more Taliban fighters.

I ask one officer how long it is going to take to make this new strategy bear fruit.

"Look," he says, "we're still in Germany and Japan 60 years after that war ended. That's how long it can take. I fully expect to have grandchildren who will be fighting out here."


06-04-2008, 08:03 AM
The Canadian press article is very short, with numerous quotes from officers, both civil and military, visited in country. The 173rd Brigage in the Korengal Valley has been better reported before, in two lengthy articles (which are on SWC).

The suggestion that the West, or US / UK and others coalition, has a sixty year plan is plain foolish and making a comparison to post-WW2 Germany & Japan is false. If Afghanistan was peaceful 45000 soldiers, plus hardware, would not be needed; just a robust presence for training and support - with a larger civil presence. Perhaps less than 5000 people.

There is no chance politically that a Western governemnt could announce to it's parliament a sixty year plan to remain in Afghanistan. This has been debated before on other threads.

Yes, the Western presence can appear to be post-colonial. We need to increase the Afghan frontline role and slim our's down.


06-04-2008, 02:10 PM
With regards to slimming our role down, this is exactly the kind of wrongheaded thinking that got us into trouble in Afghanistan to begin with. And, it got us into trouble in Iraq before the surge.

To my British friend, the Brits were trying to make friends in Musa Qala, only to find that the Taliban came back, your "friends" (Abdul Salaam) were worthless and didn't fight, and it cost British and U.S. lives to take it back (with many purple hearts awarded). The Marines have been sent in to secure Helmand because of exactly what you are posting about. Difference in force size, difference in strategy, and difference in thinking. And secure Garmser they did in four days after the British tried for years.

The small footprint model is a loser in this part of the world. It isn't by accident that Bin Laden, in some of the initial recordings post 9/11, talked about whether the U.S. or they would be seen as the "stronger horse," because as he said, the people will side with the stronger horse.

I understand the need for standing down eventually, but until force projection is applied and the insurgency has been substantially militarily defeated, reconstruction won't work, the Afghan Army won't be able to stand on their own, roads will be a hazard due to IEDs, bombs will continue to detonate, the people will continue to beg for security, and Karzai will continue to blame the failing counterinsurgency on Western forces as he has just recently done.

More force now, not less, and then we can stand down later. I suppose this is simply the difference in the way we look at things, but you should consider the history of British efforts in recent campaigns (e.g., Basra, Musa Qala, etc.).

As for whether this is "seen" as colonialism, I wouldn't worry too much about that. The Afghanis have begged us for security (having been admonished by one of the moderators over posting links to my own site, I won't do that but if you want proof of the population's desire for security, see three quotes I provide in "Following the Marines Through Helmand III"). I assume that they are begging for it because they actually want it and that it isn't some elaborate ruse just to make life difficult for us here at the SWC.

Steve Blair
06-04-2008, 02:29 PM
I don't think David's arguing for a "slim-down" in the sense that you mean, Danny. The way I read his post indicated to me that what he's hoping for is an Afghan force that allows such a reduction to take place. Is it there now? No. Does that mean that we shouldn't keep trying to train and mobilize one? Obviously not. It's important to prevent the accusation of colonialism that we prepare the Afganis to defend themselves, and part of that is the inevitable hand-over of security duties. With that should come a reduction in outside military presence. It may not happen tomorrow, but it should be on the horizon in planning terms (and certainly not 60 years out).

06-04-2008, 02:46 PM
Well, very well then. But it's important how and how quickly we go about this slimming down of forces, both in Iraq and Afghanistan. Slimming down in Iraq in the wrong way will lead to the conglomeration of Iranian power. Slimming down in the wrong way in Afghanistan - and talking to hard core Taliban as the Brits have recently recommended - will put the same people back into power that allowed AQ safe haven.

There is a right way and wrong way, and right time and wrong time to do all of this. Now is not the time to be standing down anywhere. Of course, a new administration may not care what I think. :D

06-04-2008, 03:21 PM
I should add a couple of things. I consider the poppy eradication to be one of the most stupid blunders in any of the hard work so far in Iraq or Afghanistan (and have said so on my site). Take careful note that (1) the Marines have specifically stated that they aren't after poppy - they are after Taliban, and they ignored the poppy in the Helmand Province, (2) poppy is giving way to wheat as the money crop all over Afghanistan. The market is taking care of it. We shouldn't confuse the warr on terror with the war on drugs. As for cash influx to the Taliban, it really doesn't matter if the farmers grow wheat or poppy. It's a cash crop, and if the Taliban take a cut of the profit, the problem is the Taliban, not the crop. Again, dumb idea, destroying the crops of farmers. But this strategy was approved all the way up through McNeill. I simply don't get it.

Next, I want to see all troops home as quickly as possible (of course I do - I have a son in this fight). But what I wish for and what will happen are two different things.

Finally, use of the term "60 years" in the article is for literary affect. We don't know what the situation will look like in 6 years.

Although it should also be pointed out that being in SK for 60 years has led to the implementation of the ridiculous "sunshine diplomacy" of SK. Welfare, just on an international scale. Counterinsurgency may take longer than a few months, but international welfare can last a century.

Rank amateur
06-04-2008, 05:08 PM
Counterinsurgency may take longer than a few months, but international welfare can last a century.

Excellent point. How do you ensure that economic development doesn't become economic dependency? (The longer the sons of Iraq are on the payroll the unhappier they'll likely be if we try to remove them.)

Tom Odom
06-04-2008, 06:32 PM
(2) poppy is giving way to wheat as the money crop all over Afghanistan.

given that opium production has set new records in Afghanistan for the past 2-3 years in a row, I don't think wheat is winning so convincingly.

I would agree that a counter-drug agenda can be counter to stabilization but the drug issue in relationship to OEF has just gotten worse each year. We tried ignoring it. That has not worked.

From the preface of UNDOC Feb 2008 Winter Survey: (http://www.unodc.org/documents/crop-monitoring/Afghan-winter-survey-Feb08-short.pdf)

The opium poppy seedlings are still under the ground or snow in most parts of Afghanistan, but this Winter Assessment broadly anticipates what can be expected when they bloom this spring. Several findings deserve attention.
First, field visits and interviews with village leaders indicate that cultivation levels will be broadly similar to, perhaps slightly lower than, last year’s record harvest. While it is encouraging that the dramatic increases of the past few years seem to be leveling off, the total amount of opium being harvested remains shockingly high. Europe, and other major heroin markets, should brace themselves for the health and security consequences.

Second, the cultivation trends for 2008 deepen a dichotomy evident last year: a possibly growing number of opium-free provinces in the north and center of the country; and possibly higher levels of cultivation in the south and west – the areas of greatest instability.

Third, the positive trend in the north is enhanced by decreases in cultivation in Nangarhar and Badakhshan. This is excellent news since these two provinces have been significant exceptions to the rule of an opium-free north-east.

Fourth, the south and southwest continues to grow opium at an alarming rate, perhaps greater than last year when it accounted for 78 percent of total opium cultivation in Afghanistan. This is a windfall for
anti-Government forces who take a tax (usher) of approximately 10 per cent of opium cultivation in regions under their control – further evidence of the dangerous link between opium and insurgency.

Fifth, this survey, for the first time, includes information about opium stocks. Readers will note a major difference between amounts stock-piled by farmers in villages in the south as opposed to limited reserves in the north. Nevertheless, taking into account the massive amounts of opium that have been produced in the past few years – which far exceed world demand – it would appear that the bulk of this surplus is not being stored by farmers. Which begs the question, where is it?

Sixth, another disturbing trend is the steady rise in cannabis cultivation, giving Afghanistan the dubious distinction of being one of the world’s biggest suppliers of cannabis in addition to providing over 90% of the world’s illicit opium.

These are order of magnitude figures – the actual harvest will depend on the effectiveness of eradication. The volume of opium production (and eventually heroin) will further depend on the yield, which last year was at a record level. Based on this evidence there is a good chance that the high-water
mark reached in 2007 will begin to recede.

06-04-2008, 08:25 PM
I don't think David's arguing for a "slim-down" in the sense that you mean, Danny. The way I read his post indicated to me that what he's hoping for is an Afghan force that allows such a reduction to take place. Is it there now? No.

Correct, My fear is that public and political patience will ebb away - for all manner of reasons. One way of avoiding this, alongside a "slim down" is a steady and visible increase in local security forces, ready to die for their home. This maybe too much like Vietnamisation for some.

As for the military tactics each nation pursues, that is what happens in an alliance; plus the political directions given or agreed to. I am not a spokesman for "Only the British Army knows how to win COIN" school of thought (if there is one). Time will tell which methods work best.

Having read a few books on British involvement in Afghanistan, in our imperial age, I am very wary of modern involvement. Nothing is ever very clear there. The drug trade aspect is not something I ignore (as per comments on other threads).


06-05-2008, 12:05 AM
I'd just buy the poppy crop each year. Give growers a choice - sell to us or get your crop eradicated. Then offer substantial subsidies for growing something different in following years.

06-05-2008, 12:31 PM
The drug problem in Afghanistan is hideously complex. I agree with Tom that optimism over wheat spontaneously replacing opium as a cash crop is misplaced. The question is whether or not NATO gets serious over eradication programs.

I believe that those who control the drug trade pose a greater long-term threat to Afghan development than the 'Taliban'. It is no longer a question of the Taliban protecting, supporting, and drawing financial resources from the drug trade - the drug traders are now subsidizing the Taliban and using them as convenient proxies to maintain the level of instability they require to conduct their business. In other words, as has happened elsewhere, the insurgent, terorist, and narcotic networks are becoming inextricably intertwined.

NATO has a choice: it can turn a blind eye to the narcotics trade in order to concentrate on rooting out the insurgents and buildling infrastructure. Unfortunately, this has an insidious affect on domestic politics - folks back home wondering why the various militaries are not fighting against the drugs trade - and on the development effort itself. Opium is a serious and growing problem in Afghanistan as it always is wherever poppies are cultivated for export. In the long run, as I have said, this will also weaken efforts to build a stronger central government.

On the other hand, taking on the drug lords in more than a cursory way will unleash a level of violence that will make the current troubles pale in comparison, and will cause the spread of violence to areas that are now considered fairly peaceful. And NATO is having enough trouble holding the coalition together now.

Clearly, the drug lords will have to be taken on at some point - either through violence or co-optation. The only question is when and how hard. And that is a genuinely difficult policy decision.

06-06-2008, 08:56 PM
I know we are straying from the initial topic, but here is a different angle: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=91118514&ft=1&f=1001

Summary - An excellent illustration of how providing alternative livelihoods for Afghan poppy-growing farmers is stymied not just by the Taliban, but by government corruption and weak institutions: a group of foreign and local businessmen – including noted Afghan expert Barnett Rubin – have been frustrated in their efforts to launch a small-scale perfume industry in eastern Afghanistan.

Additional comments by Mr Rubin: http://icga.blogspot.com/2008/01/erroneous-talking-points-on-opium-poppy.html


06-11-2008, 12:55 PM
I know we are straying from the initial topic....
For all: Afghan drug issues, the complex links with current ops, and random thoughts on options and solutions are discussed extensively in this thread: Afghanistan's Drug Problem (http://council.smallwarsjournal.com/showthread.php?t=1234)

Rather than repeatedly rehashing the same proposals/arguments, please read through the existing thread and post your commentary there as appropriate.