Exploring America’s use of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan

Since 1945, most notable military conflicts have involved irregular means of warfare, specifically counterinsurgency. While conflict between multiple global powers remains a legitimate possibility, nation states have chosen and will likely continue to choose to exert their military power toward suppressing insurgencies. One need only look to Afghanistan to see this concept in action.

The fundamental goal of counterinsurgency is to reinforce a stable government that has the support of the civilian population. Military superiority is essential but not the determining factor of a successful counterinsurgency; the confluence of nation-building and military force is key to achieving victory. In the words of British Field Marshal, Gerald Templer, “The shooting side of the business is only 25 percent of the trouble and the other 75 percent lies in getting the people of the country behind us.”

In an age of complex political environments, is this goal attainable? Since the withdrawal of American forces in Afghanistan and the subsequent chaos, politicians have criticized America’s execution of counterinsurgency. Some think-tankers inside the Capitol Beltway question the effectiveness of the military doctrine as a whole, debating whether counterinsurgency is possible in a non-colonial setting. Seeing that America’s failed campaign in Afghanistan was certainly non-colonial, these arguments are not unreasonable. However, when the use of counterinsurgency is examined at a global level, America’s failure in Afghanistan appears to be the exception, not the rule. Blaming America’s defeat in Afghanistan on the ‘ineffectiveness’ of counterinsurgency as a military doctrine is not only untrue, but intellectually lazy. America did not fail in Afghanistan because counterinsurgency is inherently ineffective: they failed because counterinsurgency is ineffective in Afghanistan.

“Since 1945, counterinsurgents have arguably won more often than not,” says Professor Ian Ona Johnson, the P.J. Moran Family Assistant Professor of Military History at the University of Notre Dame. Successful British operations in Malaya, French efforts in Algeria, and Soviet operations in Poland, Ukraine, and the Baltic States all support Professor Johnson’s assessment. A multitude of counterinsurgency campaigns spanning across four continents since 1945 succeeded in quelling unpopular rebellions.

Afghanistan, however, is one place in which counterinsurgency operations proved to be especially challenging. Before the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, both Britain and the Soviet Union were unsuccessful in their attempts to quell insurgencies within the country. The George W. Bush adminstration was quite aware of this history, which likely explains America’s emphasis on counter-terrorism and lack of “nation-building” in Afganistan during the first years of the conflict. In fact, it is not until 2007 that the U.S. started to shift their mission from counter-terrorism, which places greater emphasis on offensive military operation than on counterinsurgency. At this point, U.S. involvement in Afghanistan took a turn for the worse. After this transition took place, casualties among American troops went from less than 50 in 2004 to nearly 500 in 2010. The American government quickly discovered that it was difficult to win over the civilian population and the corrupt, unstable Afghan government similarly earned little trust from the populace.

Counterinsurgency as a military doctrine is not the issue. Rather, the issue is the geographic, political, and ethnic divide of Afghanistan. Johnson notes, “Afghanistan provides a particularly difficult environment for counterinsurgency operations.” Mountainous terrain, isolated villages, and lack of proper infrastructure make maintaining control and security of the country challenging. The presence of nearly 60 different languages within the country makes communication between the government and the populace extremely difficult. Fostering public support back home for such a campaign has also proven challenging. In 2011, a record number of Americans did not support the war in Afghanistan, weary of sending more young Americans to prop up a state thousands of miles away.

Ultimately, the lack of support for the war in both Afghanistan and the United States led to President Obama’s 2014 decision to substantially decrease the number of troops in Afghanistan. President Trump briefly reversed this action before reinstating it toward the end of his term. President Biden ultimately completed the withdrawal. “In the end, U.S. COIN [counterinsurgency] operations proved incapable of creating a stable regime with the broad support of the public,” notes Johnson. Further, “the shifting U.S. mission complicated the creation of effective and coherent strategy.”

With their withdrawal from Afghanistan in August, the United States joins the list of major global powers who have unsuccessfully carried out counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. Given that several presidential administrations were seemingly aware of the inherent difficulties with the use of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, why was it pursued by our leaders for so long? Of course, this is a question for another time, but American foreign policy thinkers should study history more closely in the future.

Michael Bender is a sophomore history major with a concentration in modern Europe. In his spare time, he can be found watching baseball or playing board games. He can be reached at mbender2@nd.edu.

Photo credit: Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter visits Afghanistan in May 2013. (Glenn Fawcett/Department of Defense, CC BY 2.0)