How to Win in Afghanistan

[Video of Justin Kelly speaking at a Quadrant Dinner on “Winning in Afghanistan”]

Military activity is never directed against material force alone; it is always aimed simultaneously at the moral forces which give it life, and the two cannot be separated.

General Sir Gerald Templar’s admonition during the Malayan Emergency that “the answer [to the insurgency] lies not in pouring more troops into the jungle, but in the hearts and the minds of the people” has echoed through the ensuing half-century and has become the basic precept on which counter-insurgency campaigns are—or apparently should be—designed. Nowadays, hardly a day passes in which some journalist or general is not reminding us that there is no military solution to the war in Afghanistan.[1] Echoing this proposition, in January 2009, the Secretary General of NATO argued that good governance “would suck the oxygen out of the insurgency”.[2] Similar statements were made about the war in Iraq; to argue against Bush’s 2007 “surge” of troops and to emphasise that here lay a “quagmire”—dreaded by all in the US Congress and the New York Times—from which immediate withdrawal was the only solution.[3]

This essay argues that aspects of the above propositions may be true—but they are irrelevant. That, in reality, there is no military solution to any war; that “hearts and minds” might hold the solution but they are beyond our immediate reach; that good governance (and its corollaries of law and order and national infrastructure meeting the physical needs of the community) might suck the oxygen out of an insurgency but is at best a secondary factor unattainable for many years; and that we are, in our timeless way, attempting to fit square Malayan pegs into round Middle Eastern holes. The essay concludes that until there is security there be no real progress and, as a result, we should be doing more fighting and fewer good deeds.

It is not clear from where our present woolly thinking emerged. It is a characteristic trait of humans that we try to understand events and decide on actions by the application of metaphor: “this situation looks like the one last week, Action A worked then, I’ll try Action A again today”. In many situations this works perfectly well, in some it does not.[4] The present application of the “British Model” of counter-insurgency to quite different contexts may be an example of this approach to problem solving. Certainly, the media, the public and politicians find it easier to argue for the benefits of reconstruction, education, political reform—hearts and minds—than they do for the remorseless hunting down and destruction of insurgents.

Equally, perhaps, part of our problem may be that, because of some its specific attributes, the military has tended to conceptually separate counter-insurgency from the rest of its understanding of war, giving it a level of uniqueness which it does no warrant and perhaps clouding our understanding of it. Although in both Iraq and Afghanistan, on the balance of probabilities, we will eventually muddle through and bring the war to some kind of acceptable conclusion, it would be better if we understood what it was that we were about.

Why Fight? The Limits of “Hearts and Minds”

Originally law belonged to a people. It was a common possession which defined the group to which individuals “belonged” and which was marked by their subscription to the weight of custom, ritual and obligation entailed. In return, membership of the group regulated the interactions between individuals and families within the group and offered advantages in dealings with other groups. The law applied to members of the group regardless of their geographic location. The application of the precepts of religions, like Islam or Catholicism, is an example of this early idea of the law not geographically bounded and constantly requiring deconfliction with the laws shared by other groups. The idea that the law had a geographic extent, rather than a purely personal one, emerged quite late (around the seventh century) in the West beginning with the production of a common code of laws for both Roman and Gothic subjects of the Visigothic empire and spreading unevenly across Europe thereafter.[5]

From this germ evolved the idea of the modern state as a geographically bounded area within which “a law” prevailed. The extent of the state was marked by its ability to extend its coercive power to enforce internal peace—that is to enforce obedience to its laws. We obey the directions of young and spotty police constables not because of their personal authority or physical puissance but because they represent the coercive power of the state and because we accept that we gain more by surrendering to the state some aspects of personal sovereignty than we would by remaining aloof. Similarly, when we travel to foreign countries we abide by its laws because we accept that in their territory their laws prevail.

These two conceptions of law—as belonging either to a people or to a state—are irreconcilable and the conflict between them is being played out in domestic and international politics across the world. Insurgency and counter-insurgency is a competition to establish whose law will prevail in an area. The counter-insurgent force is attempting to establish its coercive authority in areas in which that authority is contested by insurgents. In Afghanistan, NATO forces are acting as proxies for the government of Afghanistan in the extension of its authority. The Taliban is resisting that attempt while also endeavouring to extend its authority over the remainder of the country.

Modern-day Afghanistan is largely a figment of the Western imagination. Its present boundaries emerged only during the nineteenth century as a result of imperial competition between Persia, Russia and Britain. It is the rump of a larger Pashtun empire (the term Afghan having its roots in the Persian for Pashtun) that had previously extended well into modern-day Pakistan and Iran. The northern boundary, only stabilised in the 1870s, was originally a zone through which Pashtun influence was in balance with that of the steppe-dwelling Uzbek, Tajiks and Turkmen, who remain ethnic minorities in northern Afghanistan today. Peshawar, in Pakistan, was until the early nineteenth century the winter capital and “pearl of the [Pashtun] Durani Empire”.[6]

The imposition of internationally recognised boundaries on Afghanistan failed to resolve the conflict between the two conceptions of law described above. Afghanistan’s recent history has been shaped by warlords in constant competition with other tribal and ethnic groups to extend their own influence or resist the extension of that of their neighbours. The Pashtuns, especially, find themselves as an ethnically and religiously homogenous confederation with traditional homelands split between Pakistan and Afghanistan and denied hegemony over the country which they founded. In its historical context, the insurgency in Afghanistan is an attempt to resist the extension of the coercive power of the ersatz Afghan state, created by international fiat in 2003, in order to re-establish traditional Pashtun rule. The Taliban is a political movement rooted in Pashtun culture and forming the spearhead for Pashtun ethnocentrism.

Azar Gat, in War in Human Civilization, describes in great detail the anthropological sources of ethnocentrism which he describes an “an innate disposition to divide the world sharply between the superior ethnic ‘us’ and all ‘others’”.[7] In his view the inter-relationship of kinship, social co-operation and culture enables groups to co-operate much more effectively because the benefits of belonging to the group encourage individuals to take personal risks in order to advance the welfare of the group as a whole. Altruistic behaviour of this sort is expressed both by adherence to “the law” but also by the suppression, at least temporarily and with qualification, of rivalry, feuds and other disruptive behaviour between subdivisions of the larger cultural group. On this basis, co-operation of Pashtun individuals or tribes with the Taliban need not rest on political alignment but is as likely to be the result of the web of custom, kinship, language and obligation that has sustained the Pashtun culture—the source of individual identity and genetic continuance—until today.

A hearts-and-minds approach is predicated on the proposition that we foreign, Western, culturally Christian, invaders can persuade a sizeable proportion of the Pashtun population to cut themselves off from their cultural roots; subject themselves to an equally foreign and incomprehensible form of government resting largely on the customs of the tribes of pre-Roman Germany; and abandon their cultural birthright of unrivalled hegemony over “Pashtunistan”. To do this we offer some new buildings, some cash and more reliable electricity—none of which have been important to them so far in their history.[8] Attendant on these “inducements” of course is the removal of their ability to generate cash by farming poppies and the destruction of cultural mores—the subjection of women and the application of traditional law for example—that define them as a cultural group.

Acceptance of Western largesse is practical cultural annihilation.[9] This seems to me to be a bargain which is unlikely to be taken up. In fact, in Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of its Enemies, Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit argue at length that the kind of “modernisation” that we equate with “good governance” is, and is perceived as, “Westernisation” and is actually the root of the Islamo-fascism that underlies global Jihad. If they are right, our attempts to win hearts and minds may be stoking the fires of resistance rather than dousing them.

The evidence from Afghanistan today is that the bargain being offered is being rejected. Peace and prosperity are growing in those areas populated by ethnic minorities for whom the Afghan state provides a shield against Pashtun dominance but is being rejected in those areas in which Pashtuns are predominant. On this basis, “hearts and minds” is bad strategy because the willing acceptance by the Pashtuns, who are the soul of the insurgency, of the governance of a truly foreign state, parliamentary Afghanistan, is unattainable. Apart from it being highly unlikely to work it is also, however, bad strategy because it exposes rather than shields our critical vulnerabilities.

Annihilation and Exhaustion

Victory through battle is the most important moment in war. Victory alone will break the will of the enemy and will subordinate his will to ours. Neither the capture of terrain, fortress, nor severance of lines of communication will achieve this objective. To achieve decision, breaking the will of the enemy through the destruction of his forces, that is the operational objective. This operational aim will then serve the needs of strategy.


There is a need to define terms. Annihilation and exhaustion are used here to differentiate between two broad strategic approaches. Annihilation is focused on the destruction of the military capacity of the enemy in order to be able to dictate the terms of the peace. Exhaustion is focused on denying a more powerful enemy victory long enough to exhaust him physically, morally or politically. Admittedly these are, in practice, two extremes on a continuum, with both being in play in most wars, but it is important for our purposes to isolate them in terms of their intent. Annihilation is the customary Western approach to war. Its underlying mechanism is explained by Clausewitz in his enumeration of the three main goals of any war as: [11]

To defeat the enemy armed force and destroy it. That means to direct the main effort first and always against the opponent’s main army.

To take possession of the enemy’s non-military resources, that is occupation of the country or at least action against the capital and other important strong points [at least partially because the enemy army was most likely to be found in front of such important assets]; and

To win over public opinion [that is to convince the population of the enemy state that they were defeated]. This goal may be achieved by great victories or possession of the capital.

The last point is critical. Wars don’t end until one of the belligerents accepts that they are beaten. Annihilation attempts to crush the enemy’s will to resist by destroying his ability to resist—allowing the victor to dictate subsequent events. A strategy of exhaustion, on the other hand, tries to get to the third point more directly, by convincing the enemy that victory is either unachievable or, if achievable, that the fruits of victory are not worth the trouble being taken.

Exhaustion is the classic strategy of the insurgent. Governments facing domestic insurgencies are compelled to take actions that tend to damage social and economic progress and which undermine their legitimacy and popularity. They also attract international media and NGO attention and opprobrium, often leading to international political pressure. In the end this pressure can build to the extent that political accommodation is forced on them or the state becomes too weak to counter the growth of the insurgency and succumbs to it.

For expeditionary counter-insurgents (that’s us in Afghanistan), an enemy pursuing a strategy of exhaustion is manifest in a steady trickle of casualties, the absence of discernable progress perhaps underlined by an occasional headline event and, often, an international media offensive focusing on the impact on individuals of military action and the proselytising of the insurgent’s political justification. The purpose of the media offensive is to undermine the international consensus supporting continued counter-insurgency and to constrain the ability of the counter-insurgent to apply force. In recent times strategies of exhaustion have been applied by insurgents in, at least, Vietnam, Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan. The extent to which a strategy of exhaustion seems likely to succeed depends very much on the issues at stake and the extent to which political support for counter-insurgency can be kept engaged.

Hearts-and-minds is also a strategy of exhaustion but one in which the enemy’s will to resist is undermined by largesse. It is widely accepted that Western liberal democracies (the world’s principal counter-insurgents) are casualty-averse and have short attention spans. We are seen by many putative enemies as effete, lacking a long-term view, suffocated by deluded notions of a universal humanity and unlikely to endure the moral impacts of a protracted war among the people. There is some historical justification for this view. American failure through exhaustion in Vietnam (1975), Lebanon (1983) and Somalia (1992) would have been mirrored in Iraq if not for the obduracy of the President.[12] American resolve seems to remain strong in Afghanistan, however the willingness of America’s European allies to remain engaged is more problematic and the withdrawal of any contingent will work strongly in favour of the insurgent. As the 9/11 attacks fade in the popular (and political) memory however, and as al Qaeda continues to decline in effectiveness and relevance (as seems likely), the threat posed by Afghanistan as a potential refuge for them will similarly decline.

As Afghanistan returns to strategic irrelevance, as its importance is shaded by events elsewhere and as progress fails to meet the imperatives of Western impatience, the pressures for abandonment of the mission are likely to build. The Pashtun of course are in no rush. They have, literally, an eternity and are dealing with existential anthropological challenges and not with the loss of a couple of skyscrapers and a few thousand nameless people a decade ago. The problem with a hearts-and-minds approach is that, apart from it not working, even if it did work as intended it would take time—a long time—and this time works in favour of the insurgent’s attempts to exhaust us. Hearts-and-minds is bad strategy both because it can’t work and because it directs an enemy onto one of our principal vulnerabilities.

Annihilation and the Problem of Control

One man with a gun can control 100 without one.


In 1967 Admiral J.C. Wylie gave us two timeless pieces of wisdom when he wrote: “The aim of war is some measure of control over the enemy”;[13] and “The ultimate determinant in war is the man on the scene with the gun. This man is the ultimate power in war. He is control. He determines who wins.”[14]

It was mentioned earlier that the existence and boundaries of a state are marked by its ability to apply its coercive authority—to impose its law. In an insurgency the extension of that authority is resisted and countered by attempts to extend the coercive authority of the insurgents. The competition is therefore about who is in control. If we accept Wylie’s proposition that the man on the scene with the gun “is control” then to be in control that man needs to be ours and not the enemy’s.

This idea is worthy of some expansion. Whatever government is in power and whatever your political leanings, unless you are confident in the ability of your government to enforce its peace then the man with an gun at your door at midnight is your master. It doesn’t matter if you are happy with your electricity, content with your children’s educational arrangements and satisfied with the government’s agenda—you are in thrall to the threat posed to you and your family by that man with the gun. His removal resolves the competition for control and is the first step towards establishing the coercive authority of the state in that place.

This is so glaringly obvious that it appears banal, but even something so obvious is not always apparent. A number of examples from Iraq are pertinent. The Anbar Awakening which began the process of the creation of Sunni militias to oppose Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and to protect Sunni populations from Shia militias did not arise without help. Having initially gained a toehold in Iraq as an aspect of the Sunni resistance to US occupation and the rise of a Shia dominated government, AQI—essentially foreign, unacceptably extreme and uncomfortably fundamentalist for secular nationalist Bedouins—quickly marginalised itself. It sustained its position only through fierce internal discipline and the elimination of any opposition. Over a period of many months, relentless US Army, Marine and Special Force operations eroded the capability and capacity of AQI to such an extent that it was no longer able to maintain its control over the Sunni population. As a result, when the Awakening began in far western Anbar, AQI was unable to suppress it. This demonstration of weakness was sufficient encouragement for tribal leaders closer to Baghdad to reassert themselves and follow suit. There was a local desire to move away from AQI control but that desire could only be pursued when the local control of gunmen and terrorists was removed by the counter-insurgents.

At the same time, in Basra, the British were responsible for a city under the control of Jaysh Al Mahdi (JAM). By late 2006 the British belief in victory had been sufficiently weakened that their principal objectives seemed to be the reduction of casualties, the handover to Iraqi control, and withdrawal, in that order. Their basic proposition was plausible, that is, that JAM was waving a nationalist flag claiming to oppose the occupation of the British. British withdrawal, initially to the outskirts of Basra, would remove that justification and expose them for what they really were—gang leaders intent on building personal wealth and power in the absence of an effective governance.[15]

This proposition, however, left unanswered the question of who would contest control with JAM once the British withdrew, since the nascent Iraqi Army was clearly still unready and the police in Basra were so comprehensively suborned that they were, in practice, an arm of JAM authority. In the end, British withdrawal did surrender Basra to practically uncontested JAM control. This was not removed until a year later when the increasingly assertive Iraqi government at the reins of an Iraqi Army growing in capability and confidence, and with comprehensive US Army support, entered the city, and fought and defeated JAM.

Some commentators have noted that one of the reasons for the success of the US Surge was Moqtada Al Sadr’s decision to declare a ceasefire in early 2007. What is not usually recognised is that at this time Moqtada had fled to Iran in fear of his life and that the leadership of JAM had either similarly fled in the face of increasing US military pressure, or were in hiding in provinces that had been returned to Iraqi control, or had already been killed or captured. The crisis in leadership was sufficiently grave that individuals in JAM were refusing promotion to more senior positions lest they become the focus of US military prowess. The ceasefire declared by Moqtada was essentially an emergency measure to avoid the destruction of the military capacity of JAM in and around Baghdad in the face of the US Surge.

The successful Petraeus approach to counter-insurgency in Iraq has been characterised as Clear—Hold—Build. This involved the destruction of insurgent control of towns, villages or neighbourhoods, the prevention of insurgent return, the establishment of physical control of the population and then the gradual establishment of a degree of normalcy within the secured area. Although the economic and social activity associated with normalcy is important in the gradual advance of Iraq, it is sometimes forgotten, in our constant repetition of the mantra that there is no military solution to an insurgency, that there could be no solution without effective military action and that this action inevitably focused, in the first instance, on the annihilation of the enemy. Annihilation of the enemy is essential to the resolution of all insurgencies although in some, but not all, it is not of itself sufficient.

The NATO approach in Afghanistan is in stark contrast. In late August 2008 NATO forces in southern Afghanistan moved a new turbine to the Kajaki Dam.[16] Moving the 220-tonne turbine would have been a major undertaking in any circumstances but, in this case, the task was doubly difficult because NATO had to move the dam cross-country rather than down Highway 611 which was controlled by the Taliban and riddled with improvised explosive devices and mines. According to press reports, commanders “tried to persuade elders on one village near the dam, a known Taliban stronghold, to let them pass by offering them US$25,000, but local militants would not let them accept the money”. In summing up the operation at its conclusion one commander made the following comment: “It’s a very explicit demonstration on behalf of the Afghan citizens of Helmand that the international community means business here. I would sense that, in the sweep of the campaign, this marks the end of the beginning.”

It is worth pausing here to savour the full absurdity of that proposition. The Taliban denies NATO the use of the highway and forces them into the geographic space usually occupied by the insurgent: away from major roads and population centres. The Taliban has sufficient authority in a town near the dam to direct the actions of the elders. NATO is forced to mount an extensive deception operation to distract Taliban attention while it makes and uses a road to deliver reconstruction aid.

In the end, the turbine will not be commissioned for several years and so the “hearts and minds” benefits of the additional electricity (modest in the context of the associated perceived extinguishment of Pashtun culture and identity) will not be realised until much later. Any such benefits will, of course, accrue to whichever government is in power at the time that electricity begins to flow—a situation which this operation has done nothing to influence. At that time, if the Afghan government has survived and if the Taliban is undefeated, the problem of maintaining continuity of electricity supply switches to the protection of the transmission lines—long, linear, fragile tendrils of government influence that are enormously difficult to sustain intact.[17]

Surely, “in the sweep of the campaign”, this operation had a negative rather than a positive outcome. If it is accepted that the purpose of a counter-insurgency is to assert the coercive authority of the government, then in this case the NATO operation showed quite the opposite—that in this region at least, it is the Taliban that is able to assert its coercive authority and NATO that is forced to bend in the wind. Without security there can be no progress—good intentions and good deeds are not sufficient.

It is Not a “Chicken and Egg” Thing

Since war is armed politics, success in war, like success in politics, ultimately lies in winning the allegiance of sufficient of the population to make recidivists a law-and-order problem rather than one of military security. Success therefore ultimately lies in the minds of the target population. The counter-insurgent is trying to establish a government that meets sufficient of the needs and aspirations of the population to gain their willing subjection. Reconstruction (or construction) of infrastructure, the establishment of good governance and the rule of law and the nurturing of an economy that can support the population all have a role to play in the establishment of this willing subjection. The question is: “How do we get there from here?”

Good governance requires the presence not just of a political class able to arrive at some usable consensus, but also a bureaucracy covering all of the activities of government and combining educated bureaucrats with appropriate budgets, procedures and supporting legislation and enjoying an organisational culture that keeps corruption and other forms of malfeasance at levels that do not create unacceptable dysfunction.[18] Wherever this happens it is bound to take years rather than months to mature and, when starting from a very low base as in Afghanistan, might well take decades. Until then the ability of the nascent state to attract loyalty from its potential subjects necessarily rests on other inducements.

The Western view of law and order rests on sound laws, an impartial judiciary and a community policing approach in which police live in the community principally to protect it from itself. The problem with this model is that it assumes a general respect for the authority of the state, the willing surrender of aspects of personal sovereignty to it and an absence of organised resistance. In the absence of these conditions the establishment of a Western model of law and order is impractical. This impracticality rests mainly on the vulnerability of the judges (assuming suitably qualified individuals can be found) and the police, both of whom go home at night and have families. They are therefore subject to threats and intimidation from insurgents and liable to become vectors for subversion rather than agents of the authority of the state.

This was certainly the case in Iraq, where the attempt to create a police service from the ground up was severely undermined by the ability of JAM and other militias to compel obedience from individuals. This made the police service practically valueless in combating the insurgency. The same community policing model failed, for different reasons, in East Timor, and is failing in Afghanistan.[19] Establishment of effective community policing rests on the existence and acceptance of the coercive authority of the state, which in turn rests on the removal or reduction of the contending authority of the insurgents. Security allows law and order, it does not follow it.

Infrastructure projects, like the Kajaki Dam example above, take years to deliver improvements to the lives of the population and, at best, make a modest contribution to the reduction of discontent. No one places their life and the lives of their families at risk by rejecting Taliban authority merely because they have, or are promised, more electricity or cleaner water. In any event, genuine progress in reconstruction and economic development rests on adequate security. Contractors, the civilian economy and NGOs are the real engines of reconstruction but can’t operate unless roads are open and a degree of normalcy exists. Until then progress is restricted to already secured areas and to militarily delivered aid. In the former we are preaching to the converted and in the latter we are merely hoping for the best because the pace of improvement in the physical lives of the population is such that any tactical benefit can only be realised much later. The lives of Afghan citizens cannot be made materially better until security is established.

Even making citizens’ lives better, however, may not be a path to a stable state. The problem of reconstruction, economic stimulation and humanitarian aid is well known to pork-barrelling politicians around the world—when the pork stops: so does the loyalty. While barrels of pork might not be appropriate in Afghanistan, the injection of economic and infrastructure aid underpinning a hearts and minds approach does not buy the loyalty of the population—it only rents it. Unless people are forced to opt in to the counter-insurgency they remain at best passive observers. To make them stakeholders in the government they need to recognise themselves, and be recognised, as enemies of the Taliban. This is easy in those areas where the majority of the population consists of ethnic groups that would be threatened by Taliban rule—but they are not the problem. The question is: how can Pashtun populations be convinced to openly turn their backs on the ties of language, culture and kin?

Arguably they can”t be—at least not directly. Amin Saikal wrote in The Age that: “… the problem of Afghanistan is largely a political, not military, one. For as long as there is no effective Government under a widely acceptable leader, no amount of international military operations could prove to be fruitful”. [20]  This is mostly wrong. All wars are political problems and the one in Afghanistan is no different. In the absence of a unifying sense of Afghan nationalism there can be no “widely acceptable leader” and Karzai will remain a compromise leader forced to cut bargains in order to maintain a semblance of consensus. The inclusion of genuine Pashtun representation in this consensus is essential in the mid-term but any consensus that meets the core agenda of the Taliban is likely to be unacceptable to the other Afghan minorities and to the West.

To get to a reasonable outcome the Taliban’s bargaining power needs to be reduced. To do that its direct hold over the population and terrain of southern Afghanistan needs to be removed. To do that in turn requires, in the first instance, military action to destroy its ability to coerce the population, and subsequently the extension of Afghan government into the stabilized areas. Once this is done—coercively—the stage is set for an acceptable political accommodation. Inclusion of the Taliban that represented the present balance of power in Afghanistan would set the stage for western revulsion and withdrawal and the resumption of the warlord-ism that preceded the US invasion. The path forward needs to start with the practical removal of Taliban authority and this will necessarily rest on military action to destroy the insurgents.

It is important that we do not commit the error of applying inappropriate metaphors to the problem of Afghanistan. Iraq would here be such a metaphor. Iraq’s Sunnis saw themselves as Iraqis first and one of the weaknesses that eventually led to AQI’s defeat was its foreignness and the consequent affront it posed to Iraqi nationalism. Similarly “securing the people where they sleep” was appropriate in Iraq because Sunnis were being attacked by Shias and vice versa and protecting communities against outsiders made sense.

In Afghanistan the coercion is coming from within the community and so “defensive” protection is impractical. There is no obvious sense of Afghan nationalism around which all the cultural groups can coalesce and, in any event, it is hard to see a sense of Afghan nationalism outweighing Pashtun ethnocentrism in sufficient of the population to cause the political shift necessary for the establishment of a stable Afghan state. Therefore the same approach needs to be taken to rescue the Pashtun community from the Taliban that was taken to rescue the Shia community from JAM—direct military action to destroy the credibility of its claims of control. Once that is achieved the stage is set for the gradual extension of government authority and eventual political accommodation. Political inclusion of the Pashtun can only follow the establishment of security which can only follow from the effective destruction of Taliban military power.


The twin propositions that “there is no military solution” to insurgencies and that “hearts and minds” approaches are the only the way forward are based mostly on wishful thinking. Fighting is unattractive to liberal democracies while good deeds put a song in our hearts. All western countries would rather build a school than raze a village. Unfortunately, building schools is only marginally useful in creating an acceptable peace. The true worth of such actions is only realised after the war—in extending and solidifying a peace that can, invariably, only be achieved by the application of force.

A hearts and minds approach represents a strategy of exhaustion and typically engages one of the insurgent’s principal strengths—time. For the West, strategic exhaustion is a critical vulnerability: “if you”re not winning, you”re losing”. In any event a “heart’s and minds” approach cannot provide security in the first instance, and can’t be fully realised until there is security.

All wars are ultimately decided by the re-distribution of political power and that is decided by the bargaining power that each of the belligerents bring to the negotiating table. At the extreme, the side that finishes the war disarmed and helpless is compelled to accept the terms of the peace dictated to it. The application of military force is about reducing the bargaining power of the other belligerent. In countering an insurgency the reduction of this bargaining power involves the destruction of the insurgent’s ability to control a population and the establishment of countervailing government control. Different contexts require different approaches to achieving this and a careful choice of metaphors is needed. The approaches taken to countering insurgencies in Malaya, Vietnam, Northern Ireland and Iraq all contain some aspects that are transferable to Afghanistan but most are. The counter-insurgency in Afghanistan is more intractable than any of these others.[21]

In Afghanistan a strategy focusing on the annihilation of Taliban power is the only way to achieve broad political progress. Until that is done, Afghan institutions; political, bureaucratic, police and military, will be denied the time and space they need to achieve a robust maturity. There will be a time when reconstruction and other aid will begin to produce dividends and that time will be marked by the establishment of security which, in Afghanistan, requires the removal of the insurgent and the extension of the coercive authority of the Afghan state into Pashtun areas. Until then NATO must be prepared to act as the proxy for the Afghan state in establishing control over the Pashtun population.

Without security there is nothing.

Justin Kelly is a recently retired Australian army officer. He commanded the Peace Monitoring Group on Bougainville, was deputy commander of the peace keeping force in East Timor and was director of strategic operations in the US headquarters in Iraq from November 2006 until September 2007.


[1] For example: Wilson, Peter. “Situation Normal, All Fouled Up”, The Weekend Australian Nov 1-2 2008

[2] “More Good Governance Needed” , Washington Post 18 Jan 09

[3] Shawcross, William in “Hopes Surge with Iraq Ballot”, The Weekend Australian, Feb 7-8 2009 quotes a NYT editorial in which it demanded immediate withdrawal even while admitting that, as a result of US withdrawal, the country could become “much bloodier and more chaotic” with “further ethnic cleansing, even genocide” resulting.

[4] Neustadt R.E and May, E.R Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers, The Free Press, New York, 1986 discusses the implications of this approach for policy making in some detail 

[5] Sabine G. H., Thorson T.L. A History of political Theory, Dryden Press Hinsdale Ill, 1973 p.195

[6] Robson. B. The Road to Kabul: The Second Afghan War 1878-1881,Spellmount, Stroud UK, 1986, p.34

[7] Gat, Azar War in Human Civilization, oxford University Press, Oxford 2006, p.50.

[8] Samuel Huntington in The Clash of Civilizations: Remaking of the World Order, (Touchstone, NY, 1996) had earlier covered similar ground to Gat arguing that “civilization is culture writ large” (p.41) and proposing that, in times of uncertainty, cultural groups will become principal actors. He also describes responses to modernization (pp 72-78).

[9] Burama, Ian & Marjalit, Avishai, in Occidentalism: the West in the Eyes of its Enemies, Penguin, New York 2004

[10] Prussian Field Service Regulations 1869. Moltke and the Origins of the Operational Level of War, Michael D Krause Military Review Sep 1990

[11] Hans Gatzke (ed), Clausewitz Carl von, Principles of War, The Military Service Publishing Company, Harrisburg, Pa 1948, p.46

[12] Woodward, Bob. The War Within: A Secret Whitehouse History 2006-2008, presents a convincing case that the Pentagon and State Department, GEN Casey (the commander in Iraq until early 2007); ADM Fallon when he was CINCCENT, and congress as a whole (including some Republicans who had earlier supported the war) had, by early 2007, given up hope and were intent only on finding an honorable way out. It was, according to Woodward, only the resolve of an inner circle around the President that enabled the (probably) successful resolution of the war.

[13] Wylie, J.C. Strategy A General Theory of Power Control Annapolis Md 1967 p.66

[14] Wylie, J.C. Strategy A General Theory of Power Control Annapolis Md 1967 p.72

[15] This is not to ignore the presence of JAM “Special Groups” trained and financed by Iran, who used Basra as a secure base and conduit with Iran from which they could conduct operations against US forces further north in the primary role as a proxy for Iranian resistance to US presence in the Middle East.

[16] This account is taken from “Road to Dam and Salvation”, The Australian, 04 September 2008

[17] One of the compelling lessons of Iraqi reconstruction is that populations adapt to the complete absence of electricity but become much more restive when forced to endure intermittent supply.

[18] It is useful here to include an extended quote from Etzioni. Amatai, Reconstruction: A Damaging Fantasy? Military Review Nov/ Dec 2008 p.112.

 “A 2008 study by The Economist found that one of the main reasons that Afghanistan’s development is proceeding so poorly is the widespread corruption, cronyism and tribalism, lack of accountability, and gross mismanagement. The Economist recommended that the West lean on the president, Hamid Karzai, to introduce reforms. One cannot but wonder: How should Mr. Karzai proceed? Should he call in all the ministers and ask them to cease to take bribes and stop allocating public funds to their favorites? Fire them and replace them—and with whom? And if he did, what about their staffs? Many of the police, judges, jailors, customs officers, and civil servants in Afghanistan regularly accept bribes and grant strong preference to members of their family, clan, and tribal group. most are poorly trained and have no professional traditions to fall back on. How is a president (even backed up by foreign powers) to change these deeply ingrained habits and culture?” Further Dambisa Moyo in her book Dead Aid (Allen Lane, London 2009) argues that there is a difference between reconstruction and construction and, based on the experience of African countries, that large-scale long-term aid can actually build corruption as well as leading to aid dependency, the marginalization of entrepreneurs and the suppression of export growth. 

[19] In East Timor the attempt to create the rule of law was hampered by: the adoption of Portuguese as official language which meant that the body of Indonesian Law that was adopted by the fledgling country needed to be translated before it could be applied; the absence of qualified judges: the departure of the legal bureaucracy to Indonesia to benefit from Indonesian public service pensions; and, for the same reason, the need to establish a police service from scratch. Although the best and brightest high school graduates were taken up by the police service, the reality was that a bunch of brand new policemen in their late teens found themselves distributed around remote villages in which age, not position, conferred authority and where the authority of the state they represented was otherwise entirely unfelt.

[20] Amin, Saikal. More troops not the answer in Afghanistan The Age Melbourne Vic, 30 Jan 2009

[21] Vietnam incorporated simultaneously; an insurgency that was principally a proxy for North Vietnamese aggression; main force irregular and quasi-conventional warfare by North Vietnamese forces inserted into South Vietnam; and traditional state-on-state conventional war. The sum of these presented a hugely intractable problem but the actual insurgency / counter-insurgency aspect of the conflict was not overwhelmingly problematic and was brought to near success on a number of occasions necessitating large scale offensives by North Vietnamese forces to redress the situation.

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