The ongoing debate over the way forward in Afghanistan has settled into the “light footprint,” counterterrorism approach, versus the “heavy footprint,” population-centric counterinsurgency approach. Reportedly, what is about to emerge from the Obama administration is a hybrid of the two, with the vast majority of troops providing security in Afghanistan’s major population centers and pulling troops out of less populated rural zones. Drone strikes and periodic raids would be employed to check the Taliban in remote areas.
The danger in such an approach is that once rural villages are ceded to insurgent control, they may never be recaptured as the Taliban expands its shadow government.
Consider what could be called the “lone guerrilla paradox,” a concept that has vexed counterinsurgents from Algeria to Vietnam to now Afghanistan. In a remote rural village, a single insurgent fighter represents a “monopoly of force,” controlling that village even if challenged by an entire battalion of government troops doing continuous battalion sweeps. The only time the lone guerrilla doesn’t control the village is the few hours when the counterinsurgents sweep through, once they leave, the guerrilla’s monopoly is re-established.
I came across this balance of forces puzzle in Jeffrey Race’s excellent book, War Comes to Long An. Race, an Army officer who served in Vietnam, wrote about the war from the viewpoint of a single province adjacent to Saigon. In the Vietnam book club reportedly going on in high policy circles it’s regrettable that Race’s book is never mentioned as it is probably the best account of local level war in Vietnam.
The battalion of counterinsurgents, Race writes, “does not even represent a force as defined, because the only means by which a battalion can determine the actions of others – the threat of violence – is ineffective if the battalion is present only a few hours. In the same sense, artillery and air power, though they represent a considerable expenditure of resources, may not represent a force as defined, or they may represent a weaker force than a single man on the ground in the right place.”
Race explained the balance of forces in counterinsurgency as a function of location, persistent presence and social connections; these are, after all, wars amongst the people, and so they are of a social nature. The lone guerilla is one of and lives amongst the people. The instruments of government, primarily the police but also district governors and their henchmen, do not. In Vietnam, the important battle was for control of rural villages and hamlets, Race writes, “the only units of social and geographical significance to the rural Vietnamese.”
Staging international forces in the cities and sweeping rural villages from time to time to try and root out the insurgents would be counterproductive in Afghanistan, counterinsurgency adviser David Kilcullen has warned. The only way to wrest the rural areas from the Taliban is with a long term approach that establishes security first, 24 hours a day 7 days a week, with a permanent, preferably Afghan police, presence and then builds government capacity and pursues economic development; the classic “clear, hold, build” counterinsurgency approach.
The problem with the “oil spot” theory, where control is consolidated in the urban areas and then counterinsurgents gradually push out into the rural countryside to wear down the insurgency, is that the security challenge can grow rapidly as the Taliban consolidate its influence in the rural areas. When the counterinsurgents are ready to push into more remote areas, they can find that the contested areas have greatly expanded; suddenly the security challenge is too much for the available counterinsurgency forces.
Of course the difficulty of the permanent presence approach is that it requires lots of troops. In his strategic assessment, Afghan commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal said it was important to get sufficient numbers on the ground, what he called a “discrete jump” in troop levels, to regain the initiative and reverse Taliban momentum, or the U.S. and NATO “risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible.”
A hybrid strategy in Afghanistan that focuses primarily on the urban centers runs the risk of ceding too much territory to Taliban control; territory that once lost, may never be retaken.