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Why the United States and NATO are Losing the War in Afghanistan


Warfare remains a violent clash of interests between organised groups characterised by the use of force.

Achieving victory still depends on a group’s ability to mobilise support for its political interests and to generate enough violence to achieve political consequences.

Petraeus & Amos Counterinsurgency Fieldmanual FM 3-24


To understand if NATO and the US are failing to win the War in Afghanistan we first need to understand the context of the war and look at the political objectives of this particular conflict.

Kenneth Katzman has developed a formula to examine the political aspects of the War in Afghanistan which can be found in his Congressional Report. In this report Katzman has built a fully integrated policy approach analysing the political objectives of the war as;
• Disrupt terrorist networks in Afghanistan and Pakistan to degrade their ability to launch international terrorist attacks;
• Promote a more capable, accountable, and effective government in Afghanistan;
• Develop self-reliant Afghan security forces; and
• Involve the international community to actively assist in addressing these objectives.

To compliment this, the US Army has a similar approach which develops a system of MOE’s and this can be seen in David Barno’s Five Pillars of COIN for Afghanistan,

1. Defeat terrorism and deny sanctuary.
2. Enable the Afghan security structure.
3. Sustain area ownership.
4. Enable reconstruction and good governance.
5. Engage regional states.
In combining Katzman’s and Barno’s theories in this study I aim to show the fundamental floors in the approach to Counterinsurgency by the United States and NATO and the United States. The basic failure has been with their military war between 2001-09 with question surrounding the ability and commitment by the United States to generate enough violence in the right concentration to achieve their political goals.

The United States launched the War in Afghanistan with Operation Enduring Freedom on the 1st October, 2001 in which the US military worked in co-operation with the forces of the Northern Alliance. A concerted use of force helped achieve victory with the toppling of the Taliban regime in Kandahar on the 9th December 2001.

The co-operation with the Northern Alliance extended into Operation Anaconda at Tora Bora which saw the final military defeat of the Taliban’s and al-Qaeda conventional forces. These were conventional operations that resulted ‘in defeating the Taliban and their al-Qaeda allies and in liberating Afghanistan in a few short weeks’. One of the defining characteristics of the success of Operation Enduring Freedom was the Unity of Command emanating from Central Command (CentComm) in Tampa Florida.

The Unity in Command saw the merging of resources and capabilities from Department of Defence, the Central Intelligence Agency, the State Department and from several other US governments which provided timely outcomes. The initial phase of the conflict in Afghanistan was described by General Franks as an ‘unqualified and complete success’ . The United States won its war to defeat terrorism and deny sanctuary with operations Enduring Freedom and Anaconda in Afghanistan. These efforts had a major impact on the organisational ability of both the Taliban and al-Qaeda to inflict there fundamentalist theocracy upon the people of Afghanistan. The US victory in this phase of the war was achieved through a unity of command that allowed the concentrated use of overwhelming force. The defeat of the Taliban’s conventional force was so efficient that Marston points out that it, ‘left a political vacuum’ which was to have enormous ‘significant consequences’.

The Context of The War

The context of the War in Afghanistan changed significantly with NATO taking over control of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) form the US The handover of control of military forces to NATO control saw a change in the nature of the intervention from a militaristic seek and destroy mission to political mission of security and stability mission. To achieve this goal it was decided in August 2003 that ISAF should extend its influence outside of Kabul through the creation of Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT’s). As ISAF forces started to move out into the regions what they faced was not a conventional war but a low level insurgency against a reorganised Taliban groups comprising of less than one hundred men.
As NATO’s ability to rebuild rural Afghanistan was floundering, the reformed Taliban forces with the support of Pakistan and Iran started to up efforts utilising insurgent tactics to force ISAF out of Pashtun tribal areas. The over militarisation of NATO’s approach through PRT’s and the failure to adequately deal with the origins of the Afghan problem, which are according to Saikal are, ‘political, economic and regional’ led to the disenfranchisement of Pashtun’s in the new Afghan government. As Petraeus & Amos point out, ‘the primary struggle in an internal war is to mobilise people in a struggle for political control and legitimacy.’ As around 42% Afghanistan’s population are of Pashtun origin it is essential for any potential government in Afghanistan to gain the support of Pashtun tribes.
During late 2005 many US and NATO commanders believed that the war had been won due to a combination of military and political responses and that these had defeated the low-level insurgency. They were sadly mistaken and as a result NATO assumed responsibility for all security in Afghanistan by early 2006. As McCrystal stated in his Commanders Initial Assessment, ‘ISAF is a conventional force that is poorly configured for COIN, inexperienced in local languages and culture, and struggling with challenges inherent to coalition warfare.’ The failure of defeating a low-level insurgency combined with the absolute failure of ISAF’s PRT’s to win the support and trust of the Pashtun tribes in RC SOUTH and EAST saw the low level violence of Taliban remnants develop into a full blown insurgency by 2005-06.

The Military Failure of The United States and NATO

The failure of NATO and US efforts in the second phase of the Afghan War between 2003-06 can be seen as a failure to sustain area ownership of rural Afghanistan. As NATO and the US attempted to extend its mandate outside of Kabul from September 2003 the approach was one of clear and retreat and not one of Thompson’s clear, build and hold strategy which created enormous power vacuums which according to Petraeus & Amos ‘breed insurgencies’. NATO political efforts with their takeover of ISAF in 2003 were a complete failure and as a result in the summer of 2005-06 the low intensity insurgency being conducted by Taliban and Islamic remnants of previous Afghan governments was transformed into a full scale insurgency. A conflict that has the potential to not only bring down the Kazai regime but also to propel the whole region into a greater conflict.

ISAF’s failure to mobilise political support and generate concentrated violence were exasperated by the failure to establish a functional Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP) allowed the Taliban fighters to reform in contact in Afghanistan. Petraeus & Amos recommend a figure that ‘twenty counterinsurgents to 1000 residents… required for effective COIN operation’ . The figures in Afghanistan have been much lower than the recommend deployment with only 7 COIN operatives to one thousand citizens compared to the Iraqi surge which had a ratio of 28 COIN operatives per 1000 citizens. NATO’s leadership of the ISAF force from 2003-06 can be considered an absolute failure due to the over militarisation of its political approach.

The approach taken by NATO and the US post 2005 has had poor results and the outlook looks bleak seems considering the shortage of personal for the Afghanistan War efforts looks like continuing into the future. According to Smethurst, ‘seven years after their training the ANA still does not have the capability to conduct independent operations without coalition support’ and ‘the situation with the ANP is even worse’. Australia which has responsibility for the training of the ANA and ANP forces in Oruzgon Provence but problems such as the ‘infiltration by the Taliban, corruption, tribal factionalism and illiteracy’, still affects its capability. The building up of an independent Afghan security apparatus to help defeat the insurgency’s current struggles in which NATO and the US are failing.

The third phase of the campaign of the Afghan War can be seen as a classical COIN campaign launched by Petraeus upon his assumption to CentComm in 2005. These strategies were aimed at enabling social reconstruction and political engagement in Afghanistan. The overall strategy for counterinsurgency in Afghanistan is given as follows. The overall counter-insurgency strategy is intended to ‘clear, hold, build and transition’- to protect the population and allow time for Afghan governance and security forces to take leadership and for infrastructure and economic development to take root.

These principles are based on building of political support to complement the use of force by the military. The problem however has been the over militarisation of the counterinsurgency approach which has been an obvious failure.

The Treatment of Enemy Combatants

The treatment of foreign enemy combatants by the US and Afghan citizens by the Kazai regime has led to the disenfranchisement of the Afghan people from its which is a key indicator for unsuccessful counterinsurgency. The United States as part of its war on terror has relied heavily on detaining thousands of foreign enemy combatants and the rendering elsewhere for interrogation and torture. The official figures for rendition to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba are as follows. Between 2002 and 2005, the United States, brought about 750 individuals to Guantanamo. Since that time, the United States has brought only eighteen individuals to Guantanamo.

The dramatic drop in figures corresponds with and the appointment of Petraeus as ISAF commander and his decision to change the nature of the war from an anti-terror to a COIN campaign. The US response to render foreign nations fighting in Afghanistan and hold them without trial and with the use of torture has proven unpopular with its allies and as a resulted in a withdrawal of cooperation in Afghanistan.

The Kazai regime has added to the problems of these its treatment of Afghan prisoners in the war. It has been common practice for Kazai’s Northern Alliance allies to execute Taliban fighters as part of what Robert Fisk calls Afghanistan’s ‘tradition of revenge’. These actions undermine ISAF’s efforts to gain support of their rural Pashtun villages for the new Afghan regime. A study by Human Rights Watch (HRW) found that Pashtun’s in Northern Afghanistan were subject ‘to murder, beatings, sexual violence, abductions, looting, and extortion’ at the hands of the Northern Alliance. HRW go on to warn in 2002 that ‘the anti-Pashtun violence could threaten the success of refugee repatriation’ and ‘also undermine the Loya Jirga process, by which the interim authority will be replaced with a more permanent government.’ Yet despite all these reports of wrong doing the US Government continues to support the flawed election process which provides legitimacy for the regime in Kabul.

Security in Afghanistan drastically decreased as a result of the Pashtun tribes throwing their support behind the new insurgent movement. The Centre for Strategic and International Studies developed in 2008 a set of measures for analysing the efforts of NATO and U.S. in Afghanistan between 2003-06. Cordesman reports that ‘roadside bombing attacks increased from… 80 in 2003, 334 in 2004, 844 in 2005, 1,931 in 2006’ . Whilst security was rapidly decreasing the mishandling of development funds by the Kazai regime which saw support for the legitimacy of both the ISAF intervention and the Afghan regimes crumble.

The major problem in with legitimacy for the Afghanistan governments comes from its inability to mobilise support for law enforcement on Afghanistan is in relation to the production of opium for export. The US is currently sponsoring programs through the Afghan Ministry of the Interior and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) which seek to eradicate opium production. Opium production spiked in Afghanistan in 2006 at around 5,644 US metric tonnes from 430 000 US acres of land, which provided Afghanistan with US $2.6 billion in export income which accounted for around third of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product. The development widespread corruption based around Opium eradication within the ANA and ANP Kazai has stated ‘once we thought terrorism was Afghanistan’s biggest enemy’ but said that now ‘poppy, its cultivation and drugs are Afghanistan’s major enemy.’

Katzman states in his report that Afghanistan is now the source of ‘93% of the worlds’ illicit opium supply’. The dangers which surround this can be seen in the two major opium growing regions of Afghanistan, Helmand and Kandahar provinces which are the main base areas of the Taliban. The links between opium production and the Taliban insurgency are clearly shown in the US State Department’s Report, ‘Fighting Opium Trade in Afghanistan: Myths, Facts, Policy’, when they state,poppy cultivation is now confined almost entirely to Afghanistan’s insecure South, where it helps fund the Taliban and other insurgent and criminal groups and where the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan has difficulty delivering counternarcotics programs.

The connection between drug protection money and the funding of the insurgency in Afghanistan has led to catastrophic effects on the people in the areas affected. As the opium from Afghanistan ‘funds criminals, insurgents, and terrorists in Afghanistan and abroad’ , it is therefore is a global issue of the first scale.
The crackdown on drug based corruption in Afghanistan from 2006-09 has led to the transformation of the Taliban and al-Qaeda into South American style narco-cartels. The Afghan governments counter-narcotic campaign has seen insurgents as well as some corrupt government officials ‘opportunistically moving up the value chain: not just taxing supply, but getting involved in producing, processing, stocking and exporting drugs.’ Afghanistan is fast becoming a narco-state in which its economic reconstruction are restricted by what Saikal calls, ‘Kazai’s tainted family network corrupt officials, drug traffickers, criminal gangs and many self-seeking foreign agencies and contracts.’

The Links Between the Taliban and Opium Production

The links between the Taliban insurgency and opium production are now becoming much clearer as the Kabul based government along with its US and NATO allies move further out into rural Afghanistan and attempt to politically rebuild more areas. This has posed a major threat to the Taliban’s authority as more area and villages come under the influence of the central government with corrupt officials now competing with the Taliban for control of the drug trade. The most significant failure of both NATO and the US in Afghanistan in this area has been the failure to engage regional states including Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours to help in drug control.

The US and NATO have failed to engage Afghanistan’s regional partners Pakistan, Iran and India in helping to bring a resolution to Afghanistan’s political problems.. The development of a coordinated approach with Pakistan to the insurgency in the Pashtun Tribal areas on both sides the border is essential to delivering effective results as according to Marston, all four main insurgent groups of this period have relied upon the vast Pashtun belt, on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, for troops, supplies and support. The Pashtun areas of Pakistan have provided safe havens for insurgent troops and considerable scope for cross-border traffic and smuggling activities.

With the Pashtun insurgencies in Pakistan and Afghanistan feeding off one another and with Afghanistan being the source of 90% of the world’s heroin and around half of this being transited through it is essential that the problems of Afghanistan and Pakistan need to be examined in one clearly focused effort.
The failure to get Pakistan on board to confront the Taliban militants in its Pashtun areas has been the most serious failures of the NATO and the U.S. war efforts. As a result of these policy failures there has been a displacement of the insurgency in Southern Afghanistan and Pakistan with the combination of former Afghan Mujahedeen fighters forming a common front with Pakistani based Balochi nationalists groups purportedly with Indian support. These fighters are now waging a Maoist inspired insurgency in Balochi ethnic areas in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran taking on not only the Quetta Suria about also Pakistani and Iranian forces. The continuance of an insurgency in the Balochi areas is creating a potential threat of a regional war, which is greater threat than the one currently posed by the Taliban.

The Rejection of Indian Influence in Afghanistan

The rise of Indian influence in Afghanistan through its influence on the Kazai regime is raising tensions throughout the whole region. As the Turkish based International Security and Strategic Research Centre points out, ‘the main threat, which can be resulted from the India factor, is transforming Afghanistan into a proxy war field between Pakistan and India.’ India’s goal according to Katzman, ‘is to deny Pakistan, strategic depth in Afghanistan’ as well as disabling the support networks of radical Islamic organisations in Pakistan dedicated to ending Indian control of parts of Jammu and Kashmir.’ India however has important role to play in any future political settlement due to its historical association with the Northern Alliance and its connections to in the as Kazai regime many of whom received education in India.

The other major regional power that needs to be diplomatically engaged in helping bring order to Afghanistan is Iran. The major fear of Iran is that the U.S. if successful in its War in Afghanistan it will use this country to launch an attack on their territory. To help alleviate a successful outcome to the War in Afghanistan Iran has been reported as helping supply advanced weaponry to the alliance of the Taliban and Hekmatyar in Western Afghanistan. Rising tensions between the US, their NATO allies and Iran over nuclear ambitions had the potential to manifest in greater Iranian support for insurgent groups in Afghanistan.

In attempting to defeat the multi-layered insurgency in Afghanistan NATO and the U.S. have failed to adequately engage any of the regional powers that have a direct influence on the outcome on the War in Afghanistan. The failure to engage Pakistan has allowed Omar and Haqqani to rebuild their forces and reform the nature of their fight in the Pashtun tribal areas in Pakistan. The U.S. through its confrontation with Iran over its nuclear ambitions has resulted in Iranian sponsorship of Hekmatyar and the development of a close working relationship between his forces and those of the Taliban. Whilst engagement with India has been better the reported involvement of the Indian government in the Balochi led insurgency has the potential to change the nature of the Afghan conflict into a regional conflict.


So therefore in conclusion the results of this paper show that there are mixed results when it comes to analysing whether the NATO and the U.S. failed in their War in Afghanistan. The campaign to defeat al-Qaeda terrorists and disrupt their ability to attack the United States by ousting the Taliban from government in Afghanistan was an outstanding success. The U.S. success was however tempered by the failure to establish a legitimate authority in Kabul. The regime of Kazai has been plagued by corruption, the suspicious running of elections, human rights abuses, the involvement in drug production and distribution as well infiltration by the Taliban. All these have resulted in a dissatisfaction of the masses in the Kazai regime and the continued presence of NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

The failure to establish a legitimate government has resulted in patchy results in the reconstruction effort with foreign financial support disappearing into the pockets of corrupt government officials. As well the inability of the NATO and the U.S. to mobilise support for the ANA and ANP forces has led to most of the law enforcement being taken on by the ISAF forces. To add to this the failure to engage regional states that have an important role to play in the rebuilding of Afghanistan such as Pakistan, Iran and India has seen these nations support insurgent groups that are attempting to further undermine what little legitimacy of governments in Afghanistan and Pakistan have left. As a result there is a risk that the whole region may be destabilised and brought into a regional conflict a situation that would be worse than the current threat faced from the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

The basic failure of the NATO and the United States policy in Afghanistan has been its imposition of a militaristic Hobbesian paradigm upon the masses in Afghanistan especially in the Pashtun tribal areas. The development of a full scale insurgency in Afghanistan after 2006 can be seen as a direct result of the failure of NATO and U.S. in its attempt to impose legitimacy through violent force upon the masses instead of working through the masses to impose authority upon the regime in Kabul. So therefore just like Vietnam the United States and its allies are winning the military battles but have failed in their political efforts due to a fundamental failure in their approach to counterinsurgency.

The May 2014 The US Army counterinsurgency manuel FM 3-24 MCWP 3-33.5 INSURGENCIES ANDCOUNTERING INSURGENCIES is avaiable for downlaod from here http://www.fas.org/irp/doddir/army/fm3-24.pdf

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