The Population is the Prize

31 August 2011
Kabul, Afghanistan

Things are going well here in Kabul, and our unit is nearly running on all cylinders—training as many Afghans, U.S., and Coalition troops as possible. Ramadan—the Islamic holy month of fasting—has encompassed the entire month of August, so our Afghan partners have been doing their best, in the August heat, on empty stomachs. At the same time, we have jumped headlong into the job, and are starting to understand what we do well and what we do not-so-well. Days are long, and the list of tasks endless—but the sense of purpose is intoxicating. We have a good group of soldiers, Marines, and sailors here, all dedicated to the mission at hand.

On the menial side, the food schedule—as with my previous deployments—has become predictable (thank God for cheeseburger Mondays!), but it could always be worse. In my downtime, options include the weight room, reading (I’m on a Churchill kick), the time-honored, military tradition of bull-sh*tting, and of course talking to the family over Skype. In fact, just last week, my fourteen-month-old son Gunner greeted me for the first time with “hi dada”—does it get any better than that? I cannot wait to see him, and my wife Samantha, when I go home on leave next month.

After my first email, the outpouring of support and prayers was humbling and heartening. Thank you. My family and I are truly blessed, and I cannot thank you enough. The volume of emails and letters was incredible, and a reminder of how much support we have back home. And thanks to all who sent pounds and pounds (and pounds!) of Dunkin Donuts coffee. Thanks to you, our entire unit is set for the remainder of the tour, and a sign next to our coffee station now reads: “Afghanistan Runs on Dunkin.” 

Below is my latest take on the war, based on what we’re learning, analyzing, and teaching here at the Counterinsurgency Training Center—Afghanistan. I hope you enjoy it.


In counterinsurgency warfare, the population is the prize. The strategic sympathies of people in cities, villages, and the countryside are what both insurgents and counterinsurgents seek. Population support—whether active or passive—determines physical freedom of movement, either stifling insurgent operations (see my 2008 articles from Baghdad and Samarra) or providing safe haven and support (Marjah, 2009). The same goes for counterinsurgents.

The means of acquiring population “support” differs from battlefield to battlefield. Historically, more coercive tactics like forced relocation, food rationing, and corporal punishment were used to “convince” the population to support the government and counterinsurgents. Today, with such tactics frowned upon, counterinsurgents target the population’s perceived self-interest (the oft-misunderstood “hearts and minds”), seeking to provide secure streets, effective governance, and economic opportunity. Of course, killing bad guys remains critical.

Such is the state of play for counterinsurgents in Afghanistan. The Government of Afghanistan, Afghan Security Forces, and our military forces use every (capable) asset available to garner population support; and the Taliban and other insurgent elements do the same. Lately, however, news reports from Afghanistan have made discerning battlefield trends difficult. Was the helicopter attack that took 30 American lives indicative of a desperate, weakened enemy? Or instead evidence of heightened insurgent sophistication? Is the reintroduction of U.S. troops into the critical Pech Valley in eastern Afghanistan evidence of an adaptive strategy? Or just another round of whack-a-mole? The answers are not immediately clear.

Likewise, recent media reports and official statements remain at odds. It seems that almost every press story talks of “deepened worries” and “escalating fears” amongst Afghans, especially after multiple assassinations and suicide bombings this summer. Some in the media would like us to believe (or at least paint the picture) that the hinges are close to coming off, and the prospects for success very low. On the other hand, our Commander, Marine Corps General John Allen recently emphasized that “all across Afghanistan, the insurgents are losing.” I heard him speak a few days ago, and he is impressive. Smart, tough, savvy, and unrelenting—he started his speech by saying “make no doubt about it, we will prevail.” Then, with a half-cocked smile, he reiterated that he has an open-door policy, and anyone who doesn’t think we can prevail should make an office call. I’d follow this guy anywhere.

Internal military indicators support the general’s near-term assessments, with attacks trending slightly downward this summer. However, at the same time, the number of IED attacks has hit all-time highs, with 1,600 strikes in June (we can thank Pakistani bomb-making materials). Again, is this evidence of a frightened enemy (IEDs require less tactical risk) or just a shift in strategy? All of this data is important, and helps paint the picture. But what really matters is how the Afghan people perceive their security and their future. It doesn’t really matter if we reduce attacks by 10% or insurgents increase suicide bombings by 20%. Nor does the number of dollars spent, the number of Afghan soldiers trained, or even the number of U.S. casualties ultimately determine mission success. Sure, they matter to you and me. But, how do those numbers impact the perception of the Afghan people? That is the consequential mission metric.

Reality shapes perception, but only when continually reinforced and usually with a serious lag time. For example, despite substantial improvements in the numbers and capability of the Afghan Army, many Afghans still doubt their ability to provide security when we leave. Likewise, we are shipping them $2.7 billion worth of military equipment (22,000 vehicles, 44 airplanes and helicopters, and 40,000 weapons) in the next eight months, but will it translate into enduring security? Over time, either the reality of Afghan capability will take root in the public consciousness, thereby bolstering public support; or insurgents will continue to stoke public doubt and the people will never turn, en masse, to Afghan forces. In the meantime, the Army struggles to prove its newly gained acumen in the face of years of public uncertainty.

Ultimately, if Afghans believe that we—the counterinsurgents and Government of Afghanistan—are winning and most capable of providing a better future, they will side with us. And if they believe that the Taliban remains sufficiently potent and will eventually carry the day (or outlast us), then they will side with the Islamists. Ultimately the people will decide, based on their perception of the “top dog” (see my clip). Of note, a grizzly Afghanistan veteran recently reminded me that “if the Afghan people really wanted us out, they could have risen up by now and made our lives hell.” He’s right, and that hasn’t happened (like it did to the Soviets), demonstrating that most Afghans see our utility but are waiting to see if our dog (the Afghan Army & Police) will be able to defeat the rabid dog (the Taliban) that nobody wants to return, but still lurks in the shadows of the national sub-consciousness.

Our goal is not to be “loved” by Afghans; however, U.S. national security interests are tied to the perceptions of the local population—whether we like it or not. Our approach is not about “nation building” or “soft power” (even though it includes elements of both), it is a comprehensive civil-military approach aimed at achieving our strategic objectives (the denial of radical Islamist safe havens). As an aside, if we’re serious about impacting national and local perception—and altering the trajectory of the war—we need to think creatively about how we conduct information operations inside Afghanistan. My idea: hire Karl Rove and James Carville, bring them to Kabul, and cut them loose. Our information operations and media engagement—especially at the national level—are slow and unresponsive, allowing the Taliban to shape the narrative of most events. Instead, we should treat this war as a campaign—how we portray our record, spin events, and project our plan impacts how Afghans perceive us, and whether they eventually “vote” for our side. Just one captain’s crack-pot idea…

That said, at the Counterinsurgency Training Center—Afghanistan we teach the eight historical “principles” of counterinsurgency. Derived from history (largely the French in Algeria, the Brits in Malaya, and our war in Vietnam) these principles represent a basic list of what counterinsurgents should emphasize in order to be successful. While every campaign is different, and nothing is set in stone, most successful counterinsurgencies employ these principles effectively, while unsuccessful efforts do not. All things being equal, if counterinsurgents employ these eight, they will influence popular perceptions, capture the strategic sympathies of the population, and—in short—win.  If they don’t, it usually doesn’t end well.

As General Allen reminded us, 2011 will be the apex of American influence and represents our best opportunity to degrade a “witch’s brew of insurgency.” So, in making sense of the trends in Afghanistan, I broke down the current state of each “principle.” Admittedly, my assessment is geared toward our deficiencies, so please don’t interpret this rundown as inherently pessimistic. Instead, I’ve tried to provide a realistic layout of what I’ve seen/heard/analyzed thus far. The results—while only one soldier’s opinion and by no means exhaustive—provide a glimpse into our impact on the population. As with the last email update, it’s lengthy; so grab a frosty beverage and proceed at your own risk.

The Principles of Counterinsurgency:

Legitimacy is the Main Objective. At the national level, with a full-fledged “constitutional crisis” recently averted (President Karzai finally dissolved his special election court), skepticism still remains about the functionality of parliament, the President, and the financial system. It doesn’t help that his brother (along with the First Vice President’s brother) was one of the largest benefactors of the “great Afghan bank heist,” personally pocketing tens of millions of dollars from Kabul Bank before being absolved by a Karzai-appointed “commission.” At the local level, urban and rural Afghans alike regularly pay sizable bribes to security forces and government officials, a staggering sum aggregated to 25% of Afghanistan’s GDP. The Taliban uses this information shrewdly, claiming to “cleanse” Afghanistan of corrupt officials with every assassination. Endemic corruption at all levels remains public enemy number one, undermining public perception of the government’s legitimacy.

Unity of Effort is Essential. With 48 nations contributing to the fight in Afghanistan—most saddled with “national caveats” that limit them to safe areas or “peacekeeping missions”—a unified effort is difficult to achieve. As a result the U.S. ends up carrying the load, while other countries do their best to contribute on the margins (some, like our Aussie and Brit friends, more than others). Such is the reality of “international counterinsurgency.” That said, our own agencies also don’t contribute equally. When the military “surged” earlier this year, we heard about a parallel “civilian surge” from the State Department. A well-informed friend calls this a “myth” and “a joke, if it weren’t so serious.” Many State Department folks do an excellent job, but across the board there still isn’t the talent, experience, or sheer number needed to provide badly-needed local governance expertise. As a result, this job falls to the military—because, as one Army Colonel put it, “there is no inter-agency tooth fairy.” The addition of Ryan Crocker (of Iraq fame) as the new U.S. Ambassador in Kabul will help in forging a “whole of government” approach, but there is still much work to be done.

Political Factors are Primary. Two paragraphs above, I mentioned legitimacy—which ties closely to political primacy. A perfect example: the Kabul Bank scandal. Not only did well-connected government officials make out with millions of dollars, but as a result of the capital loss, “the Afghan Ministry of Finance was given orders to increase tax collection in order to generate a portion of the $820 million needed to bailout Kabul bank [and] stay in good standing with the International Monetary Fund.” The corruption is bad enough, but the second and third order effects—in this case through taxing an already struggling population—are even more detrimental. Another small aside: without continued donor funding at current levels, the Afghan government would literally face insolvency within one month (one month!).

Politically, the question we have failed to prioritize over the last decade of war is: does the local population believe that their government is going to outlast the enemy’s alternative government structure, and ultimately provide services and security for the long term? And the more we view the Taliban as a terrorist organization—rather than a parallel government-in-exile—we will fail to address the political core of this conflict. To this end, internal polling in eastern Afghanistan (a key area) indicates that local Afghans believe [perceive] the Karzai Government will not last more than thirty days after we leave. Even more critically to the Afghan state, if the current political trajectory continues, the Afghan Army—no matter how large and how capable—may have no government left to defend. Security gains (especially in southern Afghanistan) can help create the necessary, but not yet the sufficient, conditions for the government to develop; but if it doesn’t happen soon, the Taliban will continue to fill the void though 2014 and beyond.

Counterinsurgents Must Understand the Environment. U.S. and Afghan forces have made strides in this area, slowly widening our aperture beyond a purely enemy-focused, kinetic strategy, and towards a population-centric approach. (The Marines, God bless them, took this to the hilarious extreme, banning “audible farting” because it’s offensive to Afghan civilians). Rather than spending 95% of our time on bad actors who constitute 5% of the population (think of that troublemaker in a 3rd grade classroom), we are finally attempting to understand the “human terrain” and target the core grievances of the population—chief among them security, dispute resolution, and economic options. None of this means we’ve effectively addressed these issues, but at least we’re starting to consider them. The first step to recovery, as they say, is recognizing you have a problem. This approach is admittedly a tight rope, as we mustn’t underestimate the enemy’s enduring influence in the process (insurgent combined strength estimates range from 25,000 – 40,000).

This issue also ties back to political primacy. We can kill all the bad guys in an area, but if the perceived (and very basic) needs of the population are not eventually addressed by some form of government, atmospherics will remain ripe for insurgent exploitation. With or without security, insurgents use their knowledge of local dynamics to exploit basic, and inexpensive, issues like land disputes (which are ubiquitous here) and drought (which has hit Afghanistan for the past three years). Issues like this, left unaddressed, can be far more dangerous to stability than an active Taliban cell.

Intelligence Drives Operations. A Marine in Helmand Province recently put it well: “the insurgents have more or less fallen on their backs in the south.” Our surge there, accompanied by a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy, has created protection for the people, leading to relationships, trust, and ultimately information and intelligence. As a result, Marines in the south are raiding the right homes and capturing the right people, slowly degrading Taliban networks and influence there. This approach—driven by the intelligence gathered through effective counterinsurgency operations—is much more effective then more conventional operations focused only on attempting to find bad guys, and defeating them in pitched mini-battles. On the Afghan side, their domestic intelligence agency (NDS) is contributing more and more to targeting, and initiating independent operations.

Ironically, however, our highly successful efforts to kill Taliban and Haqqani Network commanders sometimes have a perverse effect. In some cases, we are killing/capturing the very people who would be most likely to engage in any future negotiated “peace” process. Some of the old guard—who have indicated willingness to talk—have been replaced by younger, more radical commanders.  Many of the new guard were born and/or trained in Pakistan, with little regard for traditional—and moderating—tribal codes of honor. Many are more hardline, ruthless, and indoctrinated than their predecessors. This doesn’t mean we should stop killing Taliban, but it reminds us how much grey area exists on a battlefield that we’d all prefer to see as black and white.

Insurgents Must be Isolated From Their Cause and Support. In order to operate, insurgents require population support (or capitulation) along with some level of external support and financing. As we work to degrade their population support by clearing areas and creating the space for Afghan control/governance, it’s not immediately clear that we’re limiting their external support or cutting off their financial lifeblood. We have attempted to strengthen a layered defense along the Pakistan border—especially in the east—but fighters are still able to safely travel across the border to conduct attacks, and then slip back into Pakistan to rearm and refit. Likewise, the Taliban’s coffers are not empty. This year is projected to be one of the largest poppy crops in Afghanistan’s history, from which insurgents will pull multi-millions in “taxes.” Until we’re able to isolate the Taliban and Haqqani Network from sanctuary in Pakistan and financial resources from the drug trade, we will have trouble turning temporary tactical gains into durable security. These are huge problems, for which I don’t currently see an enduring solution.

Security Under the Rule of Law is Essential. According to a United Nation’s survey from late 2010, “three in five Afghans see the police as corrupt, more than a quarter have personally seen a policeman use narcotics, and more than half think filing a complaint will have no effect—or make it worse.” If the people don’t believe their government and security forces will secure them, or even follow the law, it’s tough to change the population’s perception of the government. Our training mission is working very hard to create a competent police force, but it’s an uphill battle. Illiteracy (and for some, innumeracy!), low pay, short training (6-8 weeks), and worse—a culture of being “above the law”—retard progress in this area.  As a result, a growing list of unresolved police violence and corruption cases exist—further alienating the people from their government.

Additionally, Afghan judicial systems are almost non-existent at the local level. Corrupt judges are common, and while some stable provinces have judges, that doesn’t mean they equitably uphold the law. By contrast, the Taliban is often able to provide swift justice at the village level. Even if the people don’t want the Taliban, they’re willing to accept rulings that provide resolution to longstanding disputes. In the courts, and across the Afghan governments, we’re doing our best to confront this ineptitude and corruption. A newly formed entity—called Shafafiyat (or “transparency”)—has had some success in identifying and exposing corrupt officials, but prosecutions lag (the Afghan Attorney General has prosecuted zero cases). There are signs of gathering momentum, hopefully bringing a sunset clause to the wild west of impunity.

Counterinsurgents Should Prepare for a Long-Term Commitment. As I mentioned in my previous email, the date “2014” rolls off the tongue of most everyone in Afghanistan—the population, insurgents, and counterinsurgents. Coalition efforts are geared towards that date, and our actions gauged in relation to its pressures. General Allen is transparent about the requirements (“I gotta take out 10,000 troops by December 31 and then another 23,000 by September 31 of next year”), but at the same time emphasizes that transition is not an end in-and-of itself, and the “successful application of combat power within counterinsurgency will facilitate transition.” Despite this correct formulation, we’ve seen this movie before, and it looks a lot like was Iraq in 2006. General Allen—and all of us—are determined to prevent that outcome by keeping up the pressure on the enemy and continuing to pursue our objectives while training counterparts who will continue the fight in perpetuity.

Even under the firm 2014 timeline, we still have a strong card to play. A strategic partnership between the U.S. and Afghanistan—which could happen ahead of the forthcoming Bonn conference—would codify our extended commitment, establishing a long-term partnership/presence in order to keep hard fought gains and continue to develop Afghan governance and control. Such a commitment—which would require minimal troops (mostly advisors, enablers, and special operators)—would be a smart way to ensure that our substantial investment here, in blood and treasure, is not ceded to the Taliban by a hasty exit.


That’s it for the principles; and, admittedly, this rundown doesn’t present a rosy picture of the war. To this, I say two things: First, do not underestimate the impact of our surge efforts—the Taliban in the south has been badly battered, and their momentum arrested. Likewise, the Haqqani Network in the east is taking a pounding, especially from our special operators. As the people sees the enemy being degraded, this will change the population’s calculus—both toward us, and toward the prospects of their Army and government. We are creating the space, now they must seize it.

Second, we cannot afford to be prisoners of the moment, and we certainly cannot assume a linear projection of where we are now. Remember the lessons of Iraq: all it takes is one group in one area taking a stand—and properly supported—to induce a “game-changing” opportunity. Small groups around the country—especially where Afghan local police have been stood up—have started to fight back. Likewise, political developments (like a strong parliament effectively checking the president) provide a glimpse of political possibilities. It’s too early to tell whether such opportunities will take hold, but many different scenarios—good, bad, and otherwise—are conceivable.

Finally, all that said, we may also have to come to terms with a modified definition of what constitutes “success” in Afghanistan. Michael O’Hanlon, an insightful foreign policy expert at the Brookings Institute, used this formulation:“I think an optimistic, hopeful outcome is nonetheless one in which some pockets of insurgency persist after 2014, but are contained and hopefully degraded over time primarily by the Afghans themselves… For us the key is that no large sanctuaries develop.” This simplified formulation protects U.S. interests, and is possible with enduring commitment, the right strategy, and capable Afghan partners. We shouldn’t be afraid of moving the goalposts, but not at the expense of our own security.

That’s it—now back to work; thank you for reading and have a great Labor Day weekend.

Godspeed my friends,

Pete Hegesth