The Manley Panel convened last fall by Prime Minister Stephen Harper has now had its say about how it sees the way forward in Afghanistan. With its report as backdrop, it is important that parliamentarians and Canadians have an understanding of what to look for when weighing the merits of any future strategy for waging an irregular or counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign. In brief, what are the hallmarks of a successful Afghanistan COIN strategy?

An effective COIN strategy is accomplished in stages, neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood, community-by-community, city-by-city, province-by-province, region-by-region. The rate at which you develop local capacity drives the exit strategy. The faster effective indigenous security forces can be stood up and effective governance structures put in place the shorter the campaign.

In Malaya, the emergency extended from 1948 to 1960. But the Malayan Communist Party did not surrender until 1989. The British were there for 12 years, but 30 more years elapsed during which the insurgents remained and still threatened from the Thai-Malay border. Nevertheless, violence was reduced to a level where they could not threaten the existence of the Malayan state.

To help understand how a successful counterinsurgency battle is waged, it is first necessary to recognize that unlike two-sided conventional warfare where the focus is on struggles that seek to overcome an enemy by undermining and breaking his will to fight, outmanoeuvring him, and when necessary, destroying his war-making ability, counterinsurgencies concentrate their energies on a population rather than on the insurgents.

The better the population is protected the less effort and resources it takes to deal with the insurgents. A strong local ally with roots in the society, local support, and local men and women who are willing to get the job done is also required. In Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, a capable leader with a tribal base, and respect in the Pashtun community, was chosen in a Loya Jirga to become the interim leader, and later confirmed by the democratic national election. He then got the support of the international community via the Bonn process and allied partners.

The result is a solid national political leader at the top on which to craft the security, economic, and governance programs needed to conduct a successful counterinsurgency campaign. In counterinsurgency campaigns, boots on the ground are the commander’s tools; they are not his strategy. A COIN’s strategy gives priority to devising ways and means to motivate the population to turf out the insurgents. This is accomplished by tasking troops to protect the population and separate the insurgents from them.

In a conventional battle something that must be defended must first be successfully attacked and then exploited by subsequent manoeuver. But in counterinsurgency there is nothing the insurgent has to defend. When pressed too closely insurgents can just flee the field, go into hiding, and remain in the area to fight another day. On the other hand, the population, with its farms, livestock, crops, homes, relatives, and businesses must stay put.

As a result, you cannot defeat an insurgency by simply fighting insurgents; it’s like endlessly searching for a needle in a haystack, and only destroying the haystack. If you follow this tack, the population becomes alienated, a recruitment base for the insurgents is established, and another cycle of destruction begins.

So, the overarching counterinsurgency strategy is to work with the population. This may be accomplished, as it was in Iraq, for example, by first “surging” the number of troops to a level that allows them to selectively drive out the enemy. They then focus back on the population and help restructure its environment so that the insurgents cannot return when you leave.

To prevent the insurgents’ return also calls for counterintelligence work to search out the stay-behind sleeper cells, and the troops’ collaboration as partners with the population and its leadership in their communities and where they can see that their security needs are being met.
It also requires that bargains and mutual agreements be struck with community leaders to obtain their commitment to help drive out insurgents and defend themselves. The goal is to persuade the population to defend itself so that the insurgent can no longer find a safe haven, or control or intimidate. That’s the fundamental activity of counterinsurgency.

Insurgents strive to make the population react in ways that are favourable to them, e.g., lend support, sympathize with their cause, and help intimidate the unconvinced. When they are denied such support, however, it becomes extremely difficult to advance their aims. For that reason, it is not just a matter of putting more boots on the ground; it is what the troops do when they get there that matters. And what they must do once they have moved into an area is remain there. Troops must live with the population, partner with it, help it to defend itself, and help it restructure the community’s environment to ensure the insurgents are kept out. There must be no doubt in the minds of the population that the enemy might one day come back.

In Afghanistan, the NATO/ISAF strategy must be one with the Afghan government and AFNS (Afghan National Security Forces – Army & Police). Together, they must guarantee to protect the population so the enemy cannot return. And killing insurgents is one of the best ways of convincing the population that their antagonist is not going to come back.

This cannot be accomplished by a strategy that focuses only on the delivery of humanitarian aid and reconstruction projects. It is fundamentally about political manoeuver; demonstrating longevity to the population so that they feel confident to work with their government.

Measured against the key elements that constitute a successful COIN strategy it becomes readily apparent that thus far the Canadian Forces in Kandahar have got it right. But, insurgencies do not end like conventional warfare. The enemy is not defeated on a battlefield. There is no victory parade. Instead the insurgent threat is reduced to a level at which the government can handle it.

Then, and only then, will our troops have successfully accomplished Canada’s mission in
Afghanistan and be able to honourably return to their barracks and to their loved ones.

Colonel (Ret’d) Gary H. Rice, SMStJ., C.D., PCSC, has held command and staff appointments in Canada, Norway and North West Europe. A graduate of the first Canadian Forces Command and Staff College course, since 9/11 he has independently worked to strengthen Canada’s defence structure.