Explaining British Counterinsurgency Failures in Afghanistan

Recent developments in the Northern Kunduz province of Afghanistan serve as a stark reminder of the unfinished mission that the West has sought to sweep under the rug of history. The War in Afghanistan was never won, and while an argument can be made that it was lost, it is much easier to argue that it never ended. As Afghanistan continues to spiral downward, a long-term and refined counterinsurgency strategy is needed. So while the West contemplates its future in Afghanistan, it must also make an effort to learn from past mistakes. The UK’s efforts in Helmand province in 2006 offer four critical lessons for any Afghan counterinsurgency campaign.

The first clear and unmitigated mistake was a severe lack of manpower. The common optimal force-to-population ratio for successful counterinsurgency requires 20 to 25 soldiers per one thousand civilians (a ratio of 1 soldier to 50 civilians). Although there is significant variety in the ratio itself, the UK’s light footprint approach in Afghanistan was shockingly out of touch with all but the most extreme optimistic estimates. The UK’s Defense Secretary, John Reid, in a House of Commons debate on deployments to Helmand, suggested that only 3,300 troops would be required to secure the province in 2006, with a potential peak of 5,700, aiming at a stable 4,700. He further stressed that this force size had been “guided by a careful assessment of the likely tasks and threats that it will face.” The lack of foresight in attempting to secure an area twice the size of Belgium with a brigade-sized force casts doubt on such claims. Initial deployment would have achieved a 1/272 ratio, peak levels would have seen this increased to 1/157, still over three times less troops than the US counterinsurgency manual suggests are essential to success.

The second major mistake in the British counterinsurgency approach was a grave misappropriation of lessons learned in another campaign half a century prior: the Counterinsurgency in Malaya (Malaysia). This counterinsurgency worked along the “ink spot” strategy, whereby security and control of the populace was established outwards from already secured areas on the map. British operations from 2006 to late 2008 in Afghanistan, however, emphasized kinetic efforts across vast areas, spreading already thin manpower. Consequently, UK forces never effectively held or created the security pockets required for development projects to win local support. Furthermore, the British strategy was rooted in a bout of historical amnesia and whitewashing. Despite the popular and often repeated idea that counterinsurgency in Malaya was fundamentally soft handed and peaceful, in truth its success also relied on heavily coercive methods and the forceful relocation of hundreds of thousands of civilians. The real lesson to take from the Malaya campaign is that carrot strategies always require an effective stick, demanding a constant coordination between coercion and socio-political reforms. Unified and clear objectives that integrate kinetic and non-kinetic approaches are paramount for counterinsurgency success.

The third major mistake was the attempt at integrating a counternarcotic mandate into a counterinsurgency campaign. The narcotics dimension in the country is simply too big to be superficially grafted onto a counterinsurgency. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s 2015 World Drug Report, nine out of every ten kilos of Opium worldwide comes from Afghanistan. It would be difficult to overstate its importance at the domestic level, with farmers consistently producing nearly 10% of the economy’s total GDP in poppy cultivation alone.

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Figure 1: The licit economy and the opiate industry in Afghanistan, 2006-2007
Source: UNODC, Figure 7, pp. 9 (October 2006); UNODC, Figure 9, pp. 17 (August 2007).

The literature suggesting such integration, such as David Kilcullen’s Accidental Guerrilla, overestimates its role in financing insurgents. For counterinsurgency purposes, narcotics trafficking at such scales becomes infinitely more valuable as a consistent provider of livelihood for local farmers and communities who seldom interact with government officers. Poppy eradication campaigns ensure such interactions become marked by the destruction of local crops by an absent and corrupt government. Rural populations predictably turn to the Taliban for protection, and counternarcotic efforts invariably provide insurgents with legitimacy at the government’s expense. To their credit, UK forces were quick to systematically ignore eradication guidelines, and one Foreign Affairs Committee even stated:

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Finally, the population-centric doctrine they sought to apply in Helmand possesses fundamental flaws, particularly the notion that providing local populations with livelihoods through economic development projects is productive for counterinsurgencies. Intuitively, the logic is clean, understandable, and tempting. Yet, several studies have established no such link exists, and the reverse may in fact be more likely. Robert Egnell, an expert in counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, suggests that Western notions of Modernization have distorted basic facts about the Afghan context and have resulted in a misguided doctrine. Egnell argues that, contrary to popular belief, the Coalition Forces are the revolutionaries attempting to bring systemic change in the country, and the Taliban are conversely, the agents of conservative social stability. The principle of an economic dimension to counterinsurgency dictates that as unemployment levels fall, larger sections of the population are motivated to support socio-economic conservative agents. When coalition forces are considered the proponents of revolutionary change, logic suggests that their presence is unwelcome to employed locals, being associated with social and economic instability.

Any future Western engagement in Afghanistan must learn from the UK’s experience in Helmand, or be condemned to the sidelines of a losing battle. History rarely provides states with second chances, so decisive action is needed before this opportunity is lost.

Photo is public domain


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