Counterinsurgency Field Manual: Afghanistan Edition

Two years ago, a controversial military manual rewrote U.S. strategy in Iraq. Now, the doctrine's simple, powerful -- even radical -- tenets must be applied to the far different and neglected conflict in Afghanistan. 

For the past five years, the fight in Afghanistan has been hobbled by strategic drift, conflicting tactics, and too few troops. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, got it right when he bluntly told the U.S. Congress in 2007, "In Iraq, we do what we must." Of America's other war, he said, "In Afghanistan, we do what we can."

It is time this neglect is replaced with a more creative and aggressive strategy. U.S. Central Command, which oversees operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is now headed by Gen. David Petraeus, the architect of the U.S. military's counterinsurgency strategy widely credited with pulling Iraq from the abyss. Many believe that, under Petraeus's direction, Afghanistan can similarly pull back from the brink of failure.

Two years ago, General Petraeus oversaw the creation of a new counterinsurgency field manual for the U.S. military. Its release marked a definitive break with a losing strategy in Iraq and reflected a creeping realization in Washington: To avoid repeating the mistakes of the Vietnam War, the U.S. military would have to relearn and institutionalize that conflict's key lessons. At the time, the doctrine the manual laid out was enormously controversial, both inside and outside the Pentagon. It remains so today. Its key tenets are simple, but radical: Focus on protecting civilians over killing the enemy. Assume greater risk. Use minimum, not maximum force.

For a military built on avoiding casualties with quick, decisive victories, many believe such precepts veer far too close to nation-building and other political tasks soldiers are ill-equipped to handle. Still others attack the philosophy as cynically justifying the United States' continued presence in Iraq -- neocolonialism dressed up in PowerPoint. Either way, the manual's critics recognize a singular fact: The new counterinsurgency doctrine represents a near total rethinking of the way the United States should wage war.

But such a rethinking has never been more necessary. Technological advances and demographic shifts point to the possibility of an increasingly disorderly world -- what some military strategists are calling "an era of persistent irregular warfare." The United States' conventional military superiority has pushed its enemies inevitably toward insurgency to achieve their objectives. And in a multipolar world where small wars proliferate, there is reason to believe that this doctrine will shape not only the next phase of the fights in Afghanistan and Iraq, but the future of the U.S. military.

The surge in Iraq has been a primary consequence of the new counterinsurgency doctrine's influence, and it has clearly succeeded in improving security there. The conventional wisdom about what to do in Afghanistan is now coalescing around two courses of action that mirror steps taken during the past 18 months in Iraq: a similar surge of more troops and a willingness to negotiate with at least some of the groups that oppose the coalition's presence.

If it is true that a new plan is needed in Afghanistan, it is doubly true that Afghanistan is not Iraq. Conflating the two conflicts would be a dangerous oversimplification. The Iraq war has been mostly urban, largely sectarian, and contained within Iraq's borders. The Afghan war has been intrinsically rural, mostly confined to the Pashtun belt across the country's south and east, and inextricably linked to Pakistan. Because the natures of the conflicts are different, the strategies to fight them must be equally so. The very fact that Pakistan serves as a sanctuary for the Taliban and al Qaeda makes regional diplomacy far more necessary than it was in Iraq. Additional troops are certainly needed in Afghanistan, but a surge itself will not equal success.

Two myths persistently hamper U.S. policy in Afghanistan. First is the notion that the notorious border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan is ungovernable. The area, whose terrain resembles the front range of the U.S. Rocky Mountains along a border roughly the distance from Washington to Albuquerque, New Mexico, is home to the international headquarters of al Qaeda as well as much of the Taliban insurgency. However, the absence of a Western-style central government there should not be misconstrued as an absence of governance. The Pashtun tribes along the border have a long history of well-developed religious, social, and tribal structures, and they have developed their own governance and methods of resolving disputes. Today's instability is not the continuation of some ancient condition; it is the direct result of decades of intentional dismantling of those traditional structures, leaving extremist groups to fill the vacuum. Re-empowering local leaders can help return the border region to an acceptable level of stability.

Second, Afghans are not committed xenophobes, obsessed with driving out the coalition, as they did the British and the Soviets. Most Afghans are desperate to have the Taliban cleared from their villages, but they resent being exposed when forces are not left behind to hold what has been cleared. They also cannot understand why the coalition fails to provide the basic services they need. Afghans are not tired of the Western presence; they are frustrated with Western incompetence.

On a recent helicopter flight above the razor-sharp ridges of the Afghan southeast, a U.S. general noted to one of us that, just as the United States had failed to conduct counterinsurgency in Iraq effectively until 2007, it had similarly failed in Afghanistan by focusing too much on the enemy and not enough on providing security for the Afghan people.

It is almost too late. In the next phase of the Afghan war, the U.S. military must finally do what it has often failed to do in the past: follow some of the basic precepts of counterinsurgency, as detailed in the field manual, no matter how paradoxical they may appear.

Paradox 1: Some of the best weapons do not shoot.

1-1. Afghanistan is one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world. Per capita GDP is $350, just one tenth of Iraq's. Life expectancy is 44 years. Nearly three quarters of the population is illiterate. The country has 50 percent more land than Iraq, but a fifth of the paved roads. Security is crucial, but it is development -- enabled by responsible governance -- that will secure a lasting peace.

1-2. Afghans' greatest concerns, according to polling by the Asia Foundation, are access to electricity, jobs, water, and education. Those who think the country is moving in the right direction can rightly cite instances of successful reconstruction efforts as the primary cause for optimism. For these reasons, security must not be seen simply as a necessary precondition for development efforts. Development often creates security by bolstering people's confidence in their government and providing a positive, tangible alternative to the Taliban. Take the National Solidarity Program. Under this initiative, villages elect a community council to oversee a development project chosen by village vote. Local people contribute a portion of the capital, labor, or materials, and allocated aid funds are distributed transparently. The results of this bottom-up process have been remarkable: Although the Taliban has burned hundreds of schools across Afghanistan, almost no schools built under this program have been destroyed, largely because the Taliban knows it would win no allies by destroying them.

1-3. Although all development is critical in this impoverished country, roads are the single most important path to success in Afghanistan. In Ghazni province last summer, one of us spoke with an Afghan road builder whose shirt was covered in dried blood. He’d been shot by the Taliban a day earlier for working with the coalition, but he was back the next morning with his paving crew because he thought that finishing that road was the best way to bolster security in his village. Indeed, the U.S. general who was critical of U.S. counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan pointed at Afghanistan's ring road from the window of his Black Hawk helicopter, and declared, "Where the road ends, the Taliban begins."

Paradox 2: Sometimes the more you protect your force, the less secure you may be.

2-1. The U.S. military, designed to inflict overwhelming and disproportionate losses on the enemy, tends to equate victory with very few body bags. So does the American public. The new counterinsurgency doctrine upends this perceived immunity from casualties by demanding that manpower replace firepower. Soldiers in Afghanistan must get out among the people, building and staffing joint security stations with Afghan security forces. That is the only way to disconnect the enemy from the civilians. Persistent presence -- living among the population in small groups, staying in villages overnight for months at a time—is dangerous, and it will mean more casualties, but it's the only way to protect the population effectively. And it will make U.S. troops more secure in the long run.

2-2. This imperative to get out among the people extends to U.S. civilians as well. U.S. Embassy staff are almost completely forbidden from moving around Kabul on their own. Diplomacy is, of course, about relationships, and rules that discourage relationships fundamentally limit the ability of American diplomats to do their jobs. The mission in Afghanistan is to stabilize the country, not to secure the embassy.

2-3. Counterinsurgency strategy suggests that victory requires 20 to 25 counterinsurgents for every 1,000 residents. Current troop strength in Afghanistan, including Afghan forces, are about a third of that level. The stark alternatives are to deploy more troops or to change the mission.

Paradox 3: The hosts doing something tolerably is often better than foreigners doing it well.

3-1. The United States and its allies cannot remain in Afghanistan indefinitely. Building a capable Afghan security force and a credible Afghan government is the fastest, most responsible exit strategy. U.S. efforts so far have been mixed. An army can only be as good as its government, and the government of President Hamid Karzai has been crippled by corruption and connections to narcotrafficking. His recent decision to replace the much-reviled minister of the interior is a sign that persistent U.S. complaints about poor governance might be getting through. National elections scheduled for this year provide an incentive for the Afghan government to continue to improve, and serve as a major point of leverage for U.S. policy.

3-2. At the end of the day, the coalition’s performance is less important than how well the Afghans themselves perform. Every coalition decision and every operation should be guided by two questions: Does this further the legitimacy of the Afghan government? And is that government deserving of our support? As tribal elders in Ghazni province recently said, they feel "slapped on one cheek by the government, and on the other cheek by the Taliban." The United States can and should take the lead in training Afghan soldiers and bureaucrats to be more effective, but even this task is not being given the commitment it deserves. Currently, the U.S. teams advising the Afghan Army are staffed at just half their authorized strength; the police mentor teams are manned at barely a third of the necessary staff. The low priority assigned to this keystone of any successful counterinsurgency strategy is an unacceptable flaw of U.S. policy to date.

Paradox 4: Sometimes the more force is used, the less effective it is.

4-1. In 2005, the coalition conducted 176 close air support missions (in which aircraft conduct bombing or strafing in support of ground troops) in Afghanistan. In 2007, it completed 3,572 such missions. Bombs -- even "smart" bombs -- are blunt instruments, and they inevitably kill people other than their intended targets. Each civilian death at the hands of the coalition further diminishes the finite amount of goodwill toward the United States among the Afghan people. Each civilian death undermines the legitimacy of the Afghan government the United States seeks to support. Each civilian death, when refracted through the Taliban's propaganda campaign, strengthens the narrative of America's enemies.

4-2. If military units commit to using less force, then it is imperative that others on the battlefield, particularly civilian security contractors, do the same. One of us had a nightmarish experience recently while riding in a convoy protected by Afghan security contractors on a dark highway near Jalalabad. We repeatedly hurtled through national police checkpoints without stopping and finally crashed into a stopped minibus filled with people. The momentum of our heavily armored SUV threw the bus off the roadway, but the guards refused our orders to stop and help, citing fears of ambush. Afghan civilians do not distinguish between excessive force used by soldiers and excessive force used by contractors. In a war where perception creates reality, we all suffer the consequences.

Paradox 5: Sometimes doing nothing is the best reaction.

5-1. Cross-border raids into Pakistan to pursue insurgents have strained U.S. relations with Pakistan at this critical juncture in the Afghan campaign. Pakistan is, of course, inextricably connected to the Afghan insurgency. The Pashtun belt, as the border area between the two countries is known, constitutes the real battleground in this war. Counterinsurgency operations in Pakistan, therefore, are a necessary component of any strategy in Afghanistan. Without Pakistani support, however, unilateral cross-border raids will create more blowback than they are worth.

5-2. A better strategy for persuading Pakistan to act as an ally -- and not a spoiler -- in Afghanistan involves giving up the short-term tactical gains of such raids in favor of the regional diplomacy necessary to broaden and deepen the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. Even after Islamist extremists bombed the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad in September in an attempt to assassinate the new civilian leadership of Pakistan, the Pakistani Army remains more focused on the perceived threat from India than on the actual threat from inside its own country's borders. U.S. and international efforts to broker confidence-building measures between India and Pakistan are likely to have a far greater impact on Pakistani counterinsurgency efforts than any number of unilateral U.S. raids.

5-3. More U.S. troops are absolutely necessary to turn the tide in Afghanistan, but American troops are a short-term answer to a lasting set of problems. Supporting Afghan and Pakistani governments that can meet the needs of their own people -- including security -- must be the long-term solution. The paradoxes of counterinsurgency detailed here, counterintuitive though they may be, provide the best guideposts on the rocky trail toward success. It will not be the death or capture of every last enemy fighter that wins this war, but creating a position of strength from which to negotiate a lasting political solution to a cycle of conflict with no other end in sight.


China's Team of Rivals

A financial meltdown in China promises to test the Communist Party's power in ways not seen since Tiananmen. But theirs is a house divided, as princelings take on populists and Pekinologists try to make sense of it all. Will this team built for economic success implode once the money dries up? An insider's guide to the leaders at China's controls.

The two dozen senior politicians who walk the halls of Zhongnanhai, the compound of the Chinese Communist Party's leadership in Beijing, are worried. What was inconceivable a year ago now threatens their rule: an economy in freefall. Exports, critical to China's searing economic growth, have plunged. Thousands of factories and businesses, especially those in the prosperous coastal regions, have closed. In the last six months of 2008, 10 million workers, plus 1 million new college graduates, joined the already gigantic ranks of the country's unemployed. During the same period, the Chinese stock market lost 65 percent of its value, equivalent to $3 trillion. The crisis, President Hu Jintao said recently, "is a test of our ability to control a complex situation, and also a test of our party's governing ability."

With this rapid downturn, the Chinese Communist Party suddenly looks vulnerable. Since Deng Xiaoping initiated economic reforms three decades ago, the party's legitimacy has relied upon its ability to keep the economy running at breakneck pace. If China is no longer able to maintain a high growth rate or provide jobs for its ever growing labor force, massive public dissatisfaction and social unrest could erupt. No one realizes this possibility more than the handful of people who steer China's massive economy. Double-digit growth has sheltered them through a SARS epidemic, massive earthquakes, and contamination scandals. Now, the crucial question is whether they are equipped to handle an economic crisis of this magnitude -- and survive the political challenges it will bring.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic, and the ruling party is no longer led by one strongman, like Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping. Instead, the Politburo and its Standing Committee, China's most powerful body, are run by two informal coalitions that compete against each other for power, influence, and control over policy. Competition in the Communist Party is, of course, nothing new. But the jockeying today is no longer a zero-sum game in which a winner takes all. It is worth remembering that when Jiang Zemin handed the reins to his successor, Hu Jintao, in 2002, it marked the first time in the republic's history that the transfer of power didn't involve bloodshed or purges. What's more, Hu was not a protégé of Jiang's; they belonged to competing factions. To borrow a phrase popular in Washington these days, post-Deng China has been run by a team of rivals.

This internal competition was enshrined as party practice a little more than a year ago. In October 2007, President Hu surprised many China watchers by abandoning the party's normally straightforward succession procedure and designating not one but two heirs apparent. The Central Committee named Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang -- two very different leaders in their early 50s -- to the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee, where the rulers of China are groomed. The future roles of these two men, who will essentially share power after the next party congress meets in 2012, have since been refined: Xi will be the candidate to succeed the president, and Li will succeed Premier Wen Jiabao. The two rising stars share little in terms of family background, political association, leadership skills, and policy orientation. But they are each heavily involved in shaping economic policy -- and they are expected to lead the two competing coalitions that will be relied upon to craft China's political and economic trajectory in the next decade and beyond.

One thing is for sure: They have the profoundly difficult task of quickly and effectively transforming the country's long-standing model of export-led development. That task will require a delicate balance of innovative reforms, further market liberalization, and occasionally, strong government intervention to reshape China's economy into one driven largely by domestic demand. It is a daunting challenge, particularly when the men at the helm differ so profoundly. There are bound to be power struggles. But there is also a good chance that these everyday rivals, understanding that the party's survival hangs in the balance, will put aside infighting to guide China out of the crisis.

The team of rivals arrangement is not a choice, but a new necessity for the Chinese leadership. In elevating both Xi and Li in 2007, Hu signaled the importance of the different constituencies each represents and the belief that only consensus-building will successfully forestall serious political upheaval in the so-called fifth generation of leaders, of which Xi and Li are members. The idea of turning rivals into allies "for the sake of the greater good," as Abraham Lincoln put it, has been widely cited in the Chinese media. A recent article published in China Youth Daily, one of the most popular newspapers in the country, called the "team of rivals" (zhengdi tuandui) a "brilliant idea to achieve political compromise in order to maximize common interest and political capital for survival."

The two groups can be identified as the "populists" and the "elitists." The populists are currently led by President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. Members of their core group, including Li Keqiang, Director of Party Organization Li Yuanchao, and Guangdong Party Secretary Wang Yang, are known as tuanpai, after the Chinese Communist Youth League through which they advanced their careers. Most tuanpai -- they now make up 23 percent of the Central Committee and 32 percent of the Politburo -- served as local and provincial leaders, often in poor inland provinces, and many have expertise in propaganda and legal affairs. President Hu is himself a tuanpai, and the leaders of this faction are widely regarded as his longtime confidants; most of them worked directly under Hu in the early 1980s, when he headed the youth league. Tuanpai are known for their organizational and propaganda skills, but they are lacking when it comes to handling the international economy. Their credentials weren't as highly valued in the Jiang Zemin era, when foreign investment and economic globalization were stressed above all else, but they are considered critical now as the risks of social unrest and political tensions increase.

The elitist coalition was born in that Jiang era, and though its two current leaders -- Wu Bangguo, chairman of the national legislature, and Jia Qinglin, head of a national political advisory body -- are little known outside China, they are among the country's highest-ranking political leaders. Members of the core group of the fifth generation elitists, including Xi Jinping, Vice Premier Wang Qishan, and Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai, are known as princelings because they are the children of former high-ranking officials. The fathers of Xi, Wang, and Bo, for example, all once served as vice premiers. Princelings command 28 percent of the seats in the Politburo today. Most princelings grew up in the richer coastal regions and pursued careers in finance, trade, foreign affairs, and technology. Although patron-client ties are not always strong among the princelings themselves, the shared need to protect their interests, especially in a time of growing public resentment against nepotism, is what binds them together.

Of the six members of the fifth generation serving on the Politburo today, three are tuanpai and three are princelings. The policy differences between these factions are as significant as the contrasts in their backgrounds. To a great extent, their differences reflect the country's competing socioeconomic forces: Princelings aim to advance the interests of entrepreneurs and the emerging middle class, while the tuanpai often call for building a harmonious society, with more attention to vulnerable social groups such as farmers, migrant workers, and the urban poor.

The platforms of Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, for example, are strikingly divergent. Xi's enthusiasm for market liberalization and the continued development of the private sector is well known to the international business community. Not surprisingly, his primary policy concerns include making the economy more efficient, keeping GDP growth high, and deepening China's integration into the world economy. Xi is particularly interested in keeping wealthy elites in China's eastern coastal region happy.

By contrast, Li Keqiang is more concerned about the plight of the country's unemployed. He has made affordable housing more widely available and understands the importance of developing a rudimentary social safety net, beginning with the provision of basic healthcare. The rejuvenation of the northeastern provinces, China's old industrial base and one of its most labor-intensive areas, appears to be Li's regional focus. For Li, reducing economic disparities is far more urgent than enhancing economic efficiency. These diverging policy priorities between Xi and Li will likely grow in importance as the men respond to pressing economic questions, such as how China should react to foreign pressure on the value of the yuan and how the government should proceed with its stimulus plan.

Despite their many differences, the fifth generation of tuanpai and princelings share a common trauma: They are part of China’s "lost generation." Born after the founding of the People's Republic, they were teenagers when the Cultural Revolution broke out in 1966. They lost the opportunity for formal schooling as a result of the political turmoil, and many of them were the "sent-down youths," young men and women who were moved from cities to rural areas and who worked for many years as farmers.

Princelings Xi Jinping and Wang Qishan were sent from Beijing to Yanan, in Shaanxi Province, where they spent years on farms. Tuanpai Li Keqiang and Li Yuanchao labored in some of the poorest rural areas in Anhui and Jiangsu provinces. Such arduous and humbling experiences forced these future leaders to cultivate certain traits, such as endurance, adaptability, foresightedness, and humility. They not only had the unusual opportunity to come to know rural China, but they also had to adjust to a completely different socioeconomic environment. This adjustment forced them to learn at an early age how to handle challenges and how to compromise. Xi Jinping recently told the Chinese media that his time in Yanan was a "defining experience," a "turning point" in his life.

If there is another event that approaches the importance of the Cultural Revolution in the lives of these men, it is undoubtedly the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989. We don't have much information about how the incident affected them individually, but they are a generation older than many of the protesters, and at the time, several were municipal leaders or chiefs of the youth league. It is clear that they appreciate, as a group, that China's leadership during Tiananmen was deeply divided over how to respond to the unrest. They also realize that the internal struggle aggravated the crisis and ultimately culminated in a brutal response.

These events taught the fifth generation two lessons: First, they must maintain political stability at all costs, and second, they should not reveal their fissures to the public. Although these leaders wear their differences on their sleeves, there is solidarity at the highest level, inspired by past unrest, to avoid any sign of a split in the leadership, which would be dangerous for the party and for the country.

So, what do these profound differences and influential shared experiences tell China watchers about how the next generation will steer the Chinese economy? The economic prowess of the princelings will be essential to responding to the macroeconomic challenges the country will face this year and beyond. And the sensibilities of the tuanpai, versed as they are in organization and propaganda, will be invaluable as China responds to social problems born of -- and exacerbated by -- economic stagnation.

The rise of the team of rivals arrangement may result in fewer policies aimed at maximizing GDP growth rates at all costs. Instead, it might give way to policies that provide due consideration to both economic efficiency and social justice. Already, the ongoing global financial crisis has driven the leadership to change its emphasis from export-led growth to encouraging domestic demand, which means addressing rural needs. An ambitious land reform plan, which was adopted in the fall of 2008, promises to give farmers more rights and market incentives to encourage them to subcontract and transfer land. This strategy aims to increase the income of farmers, reduce economic disparity, promote sustainable urbanization, and ultimately end the century-long segregation between rural and urban China. Some analysts think that this land reform, along with a nearly $600 billion stimulus plan announced in November that favors railroad construction and rural infrastructure development, will greatly boost the country's domestic economy and hopefully propel China through the current economic crisis.

Although the land reforms largely reflect President Hu's agenda and the influence of the populists, leaders from the elitist camp have also been supporters of these policy initiatives. Political compromise and consensus-building, not zero-sum factional infighting, have shaped the rural development and stimulus plans.

But China's new game of elite politics may fail. What will happen, for instance, if economic conditions continue to worsen? Factionalism at the top might grow out of control, perhaps even leading to deadlock or outright feuding. Different outlooks over many issues -- including how to redistribute resources, establish a public healthcare system, reform the financial sector, achieve energy security, maintain political order, and handle domestic ethnic tensions -- are already so contentious that the leadership might find it increasingly difficult to build the kind of consensus necessary to govern effectively.

Barring something entirely unexpected, though, the populist policy platform will prevail over the next three to four years, and the ongoing global financial crisis will likely push Chinese leaders to increase government intervention in the economy. Yet there may be a swing in the opposite direction in 2012 as princeling Xi Jinping succeeds Hu Jintao, similar to the transition from Jiang to Hu. The establishment of such shifts during transitions at the top can create a healthy political dynamic that prevents one faction from wielding excessive power. Because of new leaders' differences in expertise, credentials, and experiences, contending coalitions will realize that they need to find ways to coexist in order to remain in power. They do, after all, have a common interest in social stability and the shared aspiration to further China's rise on the world stage. Given China's long history of arbitrary decision-making by one individual leader, this "one party, two coalitions" practice represents a major step forward -- for the party and the people.