As twenty years of counterinsurgent wars come to a close with the impending withdrawal from Afghanistan, the United States is still trying to make sense of why American efforts failed to reduce violence and stabilize the country. This failure is in part due to deliberate decisions made during the surge in Afghanistan, many of which were based on poorly drawn conclusions about what had occurred in Iraq a few years earlier. Scholars and practitioners alike are familiar with the axiom that one should avoid fighting the last war. It should go without saying, then, that one should also avoid trying to fight two distinct, concurrent wars as though they are the same conflict. While there are guiding principles for counterinsurgency, there is simply no one-size-fits-all template for success.
However, heavily relying on methods from a different conflict is roughly what the United States tried to do in Afghanistan in 2009 with the attempt to replicate the apparent successes of the surge in Iraq. The fatal flaw in this plan was predicated on a misunderstanding of the circumstances and the environment that had created the conditions for reduced violence in Iraq. Perhaps most disappointingly, these plans for Afghanistan were made and implemented by some of the same leaders who earned praise for having turned the Iraq War around when it was at its most bleak.
In early 2007, with domestic calls for withdrawal from a deteriorating Iraq steadily growing, the United States instead decided to increase its commitment in hopes of pressuring the insurgency and bringing growing sectarian violence to an end. While these additional forces undoubtedly added capability and provided greater flexibility to commanders in Iraq, the successful reduction in violence and stabilization in Iraq circa 2008–09 caused many to attribute a direct, causal link between these increased forces and subsequent successful counterinsurgency. The truth was that the successes were not a direct result of the additional troops, but rather of second-order effects from their deployment. This post hoc ergo propter hoc formulation in the minds of many military and political leaders misrepresented the underlying dynamics of the Iraq insurgency and set the stage for future flawed decision making in Afghanistan. This is probably most evident in the fact that the efforts of 2007–08 are most often referred to as “The Surge” (with the focus and attribution of success being on the increased US troop levels) as opposed to the more appropriate name—the Sahwa (Arabic for “awakening”).
The Sunni insurgency in Iraq was, like most insurgencies, a blanket term that encompassed loosely aligned parties with varied motivations and grievances. Some of the earliest elements were committed “former regime elements” hoping to force a US withdrawal and return of Ba’athist control, while others were jihadist extremists—both Iraqi and foreign—who took the opportunity to fight both Americans and Shias as part of a broader global effort. But many, especially after the bombing of Samarra’s al-Askari Mosque in 2006 and subsequent Shia retribution, were Sunnis who felt no choice but to align with insurgent, and even extremist, elements. For these factions, resistance seemed the only way to protect themselves from the Shia-controlled government—a government many Sunnis feared would maltreat and oppress them upon what seemed like the imminent US withdrawal.
The increased US deployments, therefore, had an additional, and far more impactful, effect than just increased combat power. It showed a renewed and undeterred US commitment to the conflict in Iraq. It demonstrated to a large portion of the Sunni population that the United States would not leave them to their fate in an Iraq torn apart by civil war and that, with the United States acting as the honest broker, cooperation with the government of Iraq seemed like a more guaranteed way to provide protection for their families and communities than continued alliance with extremist organizations such as al-Qaeda in Iraq. Coming at a time of discontent with Sunni extremists, which had been growing in Anbar since 2005, many Sunnis saw the increased US commitment as a key opportunity to rethink their calculus. This confluence of factors was the genesis of the Sahwa or “Anbar Awakening.”
The benefit of the Sahwa was not merely removing irregular combatant forces from the insurgency, but having them switch sides entirely. The coalition reached out to these irregular forces and brought them into the fold as semi-legitimate, government-sanctioned entities (under various names from the vague and innocuous “Concerned Local Citizens” to the more patriotic and inspiring “Sons of Iraq”). These organizations were particularly effective in establishing local control, primarily because they already had local control. The coalition did not create new formations to provide security in neighborhoods, villages, and along major roadways; they merely recognized the unofficial, but very real, systems of control that already existed there. Instead of fighting the power dynamics that had formed organically, which local citizens accepted as legitimate, the coalition and government of Iraq absorbed and recognized them. This sudden shift—from local control aligned with the insurgency to local control aligned with the coalition—was a major reason for the successes of 2007–08.
Trying to Re-create a Surge in Afghanistan
By late 2009, violence in the Iraq War, which had been the primary US effort since 2003, had dropped significantly and the Obama administration was turning its focus toward Afghanistan. To helm this effort President Obama appointed General Stanley McChrystal, who had achieved notoriety in Iraq as commander of a special operations task force through the years of hunting al-Qaeda in Iraq. McChrystal recommended a shift in strategy, focused primarily on providing protection to civilians and denying the Taliban control of major population centers. While these were admirable goals and in line with traditional counterinsurgent principles, the mechanism by which McChrystal sought to achieve these prevented the kind of progress that had been achieved a few years earlier in Iraq. In contrast with the Iraq example, which relied on local forces for success, McChrystal sought additional US forces to be the primary action arm in Afghanistan. To that end, he submitted a report and request for additional forces to President Obama which, as Peter Feaver summarizes, “basically call(ed) for an Iraq-type surge gambit, asking President Obama to do more or less what President Bush did in 2007: (i) change the strategy, (ii) adequately resource the new strategy, and (iii) overcome the strong domestic political opposition to doing (i) and (ii).”
President Obama agreed to a troop increase (albeit at a smaller level than that requested by McChrystal) and announced the beginning of an Afghanistan surge in a speech in December 2009. The speech itself made a direct connection to the perceived relationship between relative troop strengths and the success, or lack thereof, of the two counterinsurgent campaigns the United States had been fighting. “When I took office, we had just over 32,000 Americans serving in Afghanistan, compared to 160,000 in Iraq at the peak of the war. . . . And that’s why, shortly after taking office, I approved a longstanding request for more troops,” he explained. In the same speech, President Obama announced these increased troop levels would end within eighteen months, beginning what was intended to be a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan shortly thereafter.
Therefore, a strategy meant to imitate recent successes in Iraq was almost certainly doomed to failure from its inception, largely because of two critical miscalculations—one political and one operational. The political error was in immediately announcing a timeline for withdrawal, thus demonstrating the opposite of the renewed commitment shown during the Iraq War. The operational error was in planning for US soldiers and Marines to be the primary means by which security would be achieved instead of attempting to work by, with, and through local sources of power, security, and legitimacy. The overly simplified conclusion—more US troops would bring counterinsurgent victory—had glossed over the sequential steps and environmental factors that created a link between committing more troops and achieving success, and instead created a plan in which one was designed to directly achieve the other, and within a limited timeline.
Even the closest attempt at anything Sahwa-like during the surge in Afghanistan, the Village Stability Operations/Afghan Local Police program, was started too late, ended too early, and too burdened by cumbersome Afghan Ministry of the Interior bureaucracy. These forces, while taken from and serving in the local villages, were still reformed into something new. They were not standing militias like, for example, the 1920s Brigade was in Iraq. They never replicated the natural power—and often lacked the tribal history, leadership, and structure—of the Sons of Iraq.
The mistaken conclusions from the Iraq War during the Afghan surge were not limited to strategic-level decision makers. Brigade and battalion commanders, many of whom had cut their teeth in Iraq, tried to use the same tools to achieve success that had worked in previous experiences. The Commander’s Emergency Response Program, which allowed commanders to quickly undertake civil and infrastructure projects, had been a vastly effective game changer in Iraq. However, these projects in Iraq were often designed to rebuild infrastructure that had been damaged or disrupted during the invasion or subsequent fighting. In other words, these projects helped return a relatively modern and expected standard of living and reduce grievances that fueled the insurgency. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, these projects often were used to create new infrastructure, much of which was of marginal utility to a populace who had never had it and therefore did not miss it, and usually did not think the new projects were worth the Taliban retribution they often attracted. These projects had vastly diminished returns in Afghanistan and were another example of Americans falling back on what they felt were tried and true tools in their proverbial kit bags, not in the context of what the Afghan environment required.
The Enduring Legacy from Flawed Decisions
In hindsight, the Afghan surge did not achieve its stated goals, and the war in Afghanistan continues to this day as the United States prepares for withdrawal later this year. For most of the Afghan surge, the United States focused on conducting counterinsurgency directly by US troops or through corrupt, inefficient, and burdensome Afghan government structures that had developed over the previous decade. For much of the war, the focus was distracted from addressing underlying grievances that allowed the insurgency to flourish. Instead, many leaders focused on direct kinetic effects against insurgents, or on measures of performance in nation-building projects, without regard to those projects’ measures of effectiveness.
Likewise, there was a sad epilogue in Iraq, in large part because of a failure to understand the causes of one-time successes there. The fear of US abandonment to Shia retribution, which had fueled the insurgency prior to 2007, came to fruition after the Iraqi election of 2010. Despite receiving a minority of the parliamentary seats, a somewhat paranoid Nouri al-Maliki formed a governing coalition with the more extreme and Iranian-backed wings of Iraqi politics, with the backing and endorsement of the US government. After US withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, Maliki and his allies used the levers of state power to punish and oppress his Sunni rivals, which proved to be a key factor in the rise of ISIS. The US experience in Iraq is further evidence that, while militaries can achieve tactical or operational successes in a counterinsurgency campaign, the ultimate success or failure hinges on an acceptable political settlement.
All warfare is political, and all warfare shifts on human decisions made in complex circumstances. But this is doubly true of counterinsurgent warfare. It is a complicated endeavor that requires deft understanding of the motivations and goals of multiple actors. America’s mistake, in two theaters, was in trying to reduce one of the more complex forms of conflict into something simple, uniform, and replicable without regard to the environment. While the United States should not shy away from studying, determining principles of, developing doctrine for, and preparing to conduct counterinsurgency, we must remember that these guidelines are only as good as the means by which they are adapted to the fight at hand.
Lieutenant Colonel Michael D. Nelson is an Army Special Forces officer and veteran of Operations Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom, and Inherent Resolve, including as an ODA commander in Iraq during the Sahwa and as part of a special operations task force during the Afghan surge. He is a visiting fellow at the National Security Institute at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Senior Airman Eric Harris, US Air Force