The early course of the war in Afghanistan since the U.S. invasion in 2001 has also substantiated the inability of western forces to destroy an entrenched insurgency through offensive operations. U.S. ground forces launched a number of large unit operations to destroy Al Qaeda and Taliban forces, with mixed results. Despite suffering significant losses to air strikes and ground combat, Taliban forces grew in numbers and capability.

Complicating matters, the Pashtun areas of western Pakistan provided safe havens for Taliban forces. Occasional strikes by armed unmanned aerial vehicles killed a number of Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders, but also produced a backlash among the Pakistani public, who widely condemned the violation of their sovereignty. By 2008 the Taliban had gained control of significant swaths of Afghan territory and put in doubt the outcome of the conflict.

The Key to Successful Counterinsurgency Warfare – the Population

If destruction of insurgent forces is not today the key to victory in counterinsurgency warfare, then what is?

In a seminal work on counterinsurgency theory written in 1964, French Army Colonel David Galula (who served with French forces in the Algerian conflict in the 1950s) hypothesized the protection of the population as the key to a successful counterinsurgency strategy.

Since insurgents cannot normally win an outright military victory against the conventional forces of a state, they must control and gain the support of the people in order to exercise political power and render the government powerless.

To be successful, the counterinsurgent must contend for the support of the population and protect the people from insurgent violence, intimidation, and coercion. The goal is to make it impossible for the insurgents to live among the people and use them as a base of support; killing or capturing enemy forces is a secondary objective.

If the population is the decisive element in counterinsurgency warfare, then convincing the people that a better life lays ahead is essential to restoring the legitimacy of the governing authority. Often deemed the battle over "hearts and minds"—a phrase used by British General Sir Gerald Templer, Director of Operations and High Commissioner for Malaya, regarding his strategy to defeat the Communist guerrillas in that country in the 1950s—this field of activity is really a contest for the people's trust and confidence.

The people must be convinced that support for the legitimate governing authority is not only preferable to support for the insurgent cause, but also clearly in their best interests. Executed properly, civic action and humanitarian assistance are undertaken to require the people to make an active choice in favor of supporting the legitimate governing authority. This choice has little to do with gratitude, which cannot survive first contact with terrorism and intimidation, and much to do with enlightened self interest.

Many armies, configured both physically and intellectually for conventional, high intensity combat, have difficulty adjusting to these realities.

During the Vietnam War, the U.S. Army for several years persisted in applying a conventional war-fighting doctrine to irregular warfare. The resulting strategy of attrition, exemplified by search and destroy operations focused on body counts of dead guerrilla fighters, failed to lessen significantly the strength of the National Liberation Front.

While combat against North Vietnamese Army regiments may have necessitated a degree of high intensity combat, the need to secure the South Vietnamese population from Communist guerrillas required a different approach. The situation only changed after the Tet offensive in 1968 when the new commander of Military Assistance Command-Vietnam, General Creighton Abrams, embraced a revised strategy focused on protecting the population.

Innovation from Below

Regrettably, for three decades after the end of the Vietnam War, the U.S. professional military education system all but ignored counterinsurgency operations.

Instructors from the Command and General Staff College, trying to create a course on low intensity conflict in the 1980s, looked in vain for help from the Special Operations School at Fort Bragg. They found that the staff there had been ordered to throw away their counterinsurgency files in the 1970s, since presumably the United States would never fight that kind of war again.

As a result, U.S. military commanders struggled from a conceptual shortfall in the first years after 9/11.

There were exceptions, however. In 2005-2006, the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, under the commander of Colonel H. R. McMaster, conducted an inspired operation in the city of Tal Afar in northwestern Iraq that became a model for operations elsewhere in the country.

When McMaster's unit arrived in Tal Afar in the spring of 2005, the city was under the control of foreign jihadists and their Iraqi allies, who used it as a base of operations and a transit point for men and materiel smuggled into the country from neighboring Syria.

The insurgents had intimidated the population into submission to their brutal authority. The Turkmen population, divided along Sunni-Shi'a lines, was engaged in horrific sectarian violence. For all intents and purposes, Tal Afar had become a dead city.

McMaster employed a strategy of "clear and hold" to restore Tal Afar to coalition control. His troops first surrounded the city with a berm to force traffic through security checkpoints and thereby isolated the insurgents and terrorists from outside support.

Leaders then spent countless hours engaging the people, sorting out the local power structures, and lending a sympathetic ear to grievances while slowly turning the narrative from a Sunni-Shi'a civil war to one of all Iraqis against the foreign jihadists who had taken control of and terrorized their city.

Instead of a massive assault to clear the city, as coalition forces had done the previous November in Fallujah, McMaster employed his forces in small combat outposts scattered throughout Tal Afar to provide the people with security against terrorist depredations.

He also worked diligently to recruit both Sunnis and Shi'ites to provide a sectarian balance within the police force. By the time the 3rd ACR departed Iraq in early 2006, Tal Afar was once again under coalition control.

The 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division (the "Ready First Combat Team"), under the command of Colonel Sean MacFarland, replaced McMaster's forces in Tal Afar and continued the campaign to hold the city while restoring government functions and essential services1.

The desperate situation further south in Al Anbar province, however, forced Multi-National Corps-Iraq (MNC-I) in June 2006 to move most of the brigade combat team to Ramadi, a city designated by Al Qaeda-Iraq as the capital of its future Iraqi caliphate. With the exception of a handful of Marine bases, Sunni insurgents enjoyed almost complete freedom of movement throughout the area. Jihadists had terrorized the population into submission, and their brutal administration of Islamic law left deep-seated scars on the community.

Faced with a problem in Ramadi similar to that encountered by McMaster in Tal Afar, MacFarland employed similar techniques to clear the city and then hold it against terrorists and insurgent forces.

Units of the Ready First Combat Team challenged terrorists and insurgents in their long held sanctuaries within the city by establishing combat outposts in their midst, occupied by U.S. troops, Iraqi security forces, and civil affairs teams.

MacFarland and his leaders engaged local tribal sheiks, fed up with Al Qaeda violence and their loss of prestige and influence, to solicit their cooperation and to recruit their young men into neighborhood watch units or into the Ramadi police force.

Resurgent Iraqi police and tribal elements raided Al Qaeda safe houses and seized hundreds of weapons caches. Slowly but surely, the advance of combat outposts, combined with support from the growing Sunni tribal rebellion against Al Qaeda, squeezed the insurgents out of Ramadi.

The Surge

Population security in Tal Afar and Ramadi exemplified the type of operations envisioned in the new, historically-grounded U.S. Army and Marine Corps counterinsurgency doctrine published in December 2006.

These successes came not a moment too soon; by the end of 2006 the Iraq War was nearly lost as Iraqi society tore itself apart in a spasm of sectarian bloodletting. Political progress toward reconciliation and an equitable distribution of power and resources among competing sectarian and ethnic groups was not possible until violence diminished.

Belatedly sensing the need for a change of course, President Bush in January 2007 ordered a "surge" of 40,000 troops to Iraq. These forces would conduct operations focused on population security under the leadership of General David Petraeus, who assumed command of MNF-I in February 2007, and Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno, who deployed to Iraq in command of MNC-I late in 2006.

The new strategy was more important than the additional forces.

While continuing operations to clear areas of an overt insurgent presence, Petraeus and Odierno ordered U.S. units to deploy off of the large forward operating bases where they had been stationed since the spring of 2004 and to establish smaller joint security stations and combat outposts in Iraqi neighborhoods and communities.

There they would partner with Iraqi security forces, support local neighborhood watch groups (nicknamed the "Sons of Iraq," which grew to over 100,000 strong by mid-2008), and provide much-needed security to the Iraqi people to insulate them from terrorist violence and militia intimidation. From these outposts combat forces would conduct dismounted patrols and thereby benefit from more intimate contact with the people living in their assigned zones.

U.S. commanders introduced other techniques as well. In conjunction with community leaders, coalition forces emplaced cement barriers to wall off neighborhoods and markets to impede the movement of terrorists, insurgents, and militiamen. Iraqi units manned numerous checkpoints that made terrorist and insurgent movement more difficult.

U.S. units conducted comprehensive censuses to identify exactly who lived in each neighborhood, to catalog their sect and ethnicity, and to gather other important identifiers that could help determine local social structures. They also enrolled Iraqis into biometric databases so that soldiers could quickly determine local residents from outsiders.

These measures were a more humane alternative to the use of concentration camps to control civilian movement and make it more difficult for insurgents to live among the people.

The revised counterinsurgency strategy, the improved techniques used by U.S. commanders, and the provision of more security forces served as the catalyst to significantly improve security in Iraq.

The arrival of U.S. reinforcements signaled renewed resolve and assured Sunni tribal leaders that they would not be abandoned once they turned their guns against Al Qaeda-Iraq, as had happened once before in 2005. The tribal rebellion accelerated after the surge forces arrived and U.S. and Iraqi units moved to secure communities by living among the people.

Improved security also led to a loosening of the grip by Shi'ite militias on a number of key areas. Amnesty legislation and local cease fires reduced the number of fighters opposing the government.

Finally, the increase of Iraqi security forces by more than 140,000 troops in 2007 and 2008, along with their improved capabilities, emboldened Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to confront the Jaish al-Mahdi militia in its strongholds in Basra, Amarah, and Sadr City, and to bring the vast majority of southern and central Iraq under Iraqi government control.

By the summer of 2008, violence in Iraq had abated by 85 percent from its peak at the end of 2006. [See the latest statistics on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at http://www.cnas.org/node/2898] The change in strategy and additional forces provided by the surge made these significant security improvements possible and thereby gave Iraqi leaders the opportunity—if not the certainty—to settle the competition for power and resources through more peaceful political means.

The Future in Afghanistan

It is too early to tell how counterinsurgency operations will play out in Afghanistan. The new commander of U.S. forces, General Stan McChrystal, has stated that protection of the Afghan people will be his top priority, an indication that he intends to implement the population-focused strategy employed successfully by coalition forces in Iraq.

Nevertheless, Afghanistan is a much different country. It lacks Iraq's economic viability, its tribal structure is much more deeply embedded, the Afghan government is even more inept and corrupt than the Iraqi government, and the Taliban insurgents enjoy sanctuary across the border in western Pakistan.

Additionally, the Afghan army and police are woefully undersized and under-resourced for the tasks they must perform. Historically, counterinsurgents are successful when they field 20-25 security personnel for every 1,000 people. The war in Iraq finally turned around when the number of Iraqi, coalition, and tribal security personnel approached this figure.

Today in Afghanistan there are fewer than half the number of security forces needed to reach the desired ratio for population protection. A large increase in the number of Afghan army and police, along with U.S. and NATO advisors to train and assist them, should therefore be one of the most pressing priorities in the near future.

In the meantime, increased numbers of U.S. forces will pick up the slack in the battle against Taliban forces, while American and European civilian advisors assist the Afghan government in improving its governance and capacity to provide for the needs of the people.

All of these factors point to a long slog ahead as U.S., NATO, and Afghan forces battle the Taliban militants in the midst of a substantial and extremely difficult exercise in nation-building.

If history is any guide, in the end the Afghan government and people will play the most important role in determining their own fate. Meanwhile, the struggle for their trust and confidence continues in the river valleys, deserts, and mountains of Central Asia.


The author commanded the Ready First Combat Team in Iraq in 2003-2004, and turned command of the organization over to Colonel MacFarland the following year.