The roots of Obama's Afghanistan strategy


The Accidental Guerilla, by David KilcullenThis month, 4000 United States Marines launched Operation Khanjar (strike of the sword) into Helmand Province, Afghanistan. The images splashed across the media, of soldiers and helicopters in rugged desert, illustrate the bare facts of yet another US led operation. There have been so many since September 11, 2001, that it can be difficult to distinguish the latest.

But whether it succeeds or otherwise, Operation Khanjar is worth noting for the strategic change it represents.

On 4 July The Australian ran the headline 'Offensives reveal Obama's strategy'. Really, Operation Khanjar is not Obama's strategy at all. Behind this operation lies a strategic consensus on counter-insurgency that has been gaining ground since the 2007 'surge' in Iraq.

David Kilcullen, former Australian Army officer and senior counter-insurgency advisor to General David Petraeus, has been an emerging voice articulating new ways to combat insurgency. His book, The Accidental Guerrilla is a mind-boggling read and not just because it is a work of analytical depth.

Kilcullen's book rams home the almost overwhelming complexity of the Pashtun Taliban insurgency and the challenge of building an Afghan state, a project in which Australian troops are engaged.

His argument is that most of those Pashtun tribesmen fighting for the Taliban are 'accidental guerrillas' who are not ideological radicals, but tribesmen who have been provoked, bullied or bribed into attacking foreign troops.

To combat this 'accidental guerrilla syndrome' Kilcullen lays out what he calls a 'population centric approach,' which emphasises denying Taliban insurgents access to rural population centres rather than endlessly hunting them down in the countryside.

This approach to counter-insurgency, Kilcullen argues, proved its worth in the 2007 'surge', pulling Baghdad back from the brink of sectarian chaos. Kilcullen draws from his experience as one of the architects of that operation and applies it to Afghanistan, where, he argues, protecting the population from intimidation and coercion by the Taliban is a vital part of stifling the insurgency.

For the insurgents, he says, the populace is oxygen: deny them access and the Taliban will eventually wilt.

Operation Khanjar has Kilcullen's thesis written all over it. The central tenets have been echoed by US commanders. In particular, Kilcullen's argument that 'reforms targeting local and provincial government effectiveness are indispensable' seems to have been taken to heart.

As Marine Brigadier General Larry Nicholson said to his officers before the operation began: 'our focus is not on the Taliban' but 'on getting this government back up on its feet'. According to Nicholson, that means drinking tea and eating goat with the local people, over and above firing bullets.

The US commander in Afghanistan, Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal, has also emphasised that Operation Khanjar is aimed at 'developing government that can protect people' even at the local level.

The fact that the first major military operation launched under the Obama administration rests upon intellectual foundations laid by figures such as David Kilcullen and David Petraeus does suggest a shift in American thinking. But contrary to headlines in the mainstream media, this was not President Obama's brainchild. Interestingly, it took a lot of convincing for Obama to come to terms with the strategies now being employed.

At the Crocker US Senate Hearing into Iraq in September 2007, then Senators Obama and Biden were sceptical about the merits of the population centric surge operation. Obama argued that the impact had been 'relatively modest' and asked General Petraeus for an answer to the question, 'at what point do we say "enough"?'

Likewise, Biden pressed the General for a progress update on a scale of one to ten. In this he echoed the mainstream media which often represents the counter-insurgency effort in statistics. Given Kilcullen's description of the multi-faceted nature of counter-insurgency, this reduction of the issues must have tried the General.

But Obama's reservations have since been laid aside, and the counter-insurgency strategy developed by General Petraeus alongside advisors like Kilcullen has been restored. Operation Khanjar, taking place in the very environment discussed by Kilcullen in The Accidental Guerrilla, is a test case for this 'population centric' strategy.

Kilcullen points out that the results will not be immediate. Building local communities is a long term project. Indeed, as of 7 July, Brigadier General Nicholson has highlighted the immediate challenges facing the marines, lamenting the lack of available local Afghan troops. From Pashtun tribal sensitivities to tensions between local and government authorities, the difficulties of southern Afghanistan are relentless.

Afghan parliamentarian Malalai Joya has argued that 'no nation can donate liberation to another', and that Afghan people must be left to work things out for themselves. But General McChrystal represents Operation Khanjar, coming shortly before the Afghan presidential elections and focusing on the people, as less about 'liberation' than about providing the space in which Afghans might choose their own future.

Ben ColeridgeIn 2007 Ben Coleridge worked as a language assistant in Russia. He spent September 2008 in Israel and Palestine and is currently studying Arts at the University of Melbourne.

Topic tags: Accidental Guerrilla, David Kilcullen, United States Marines, Operation Khanjar, Afghanistan



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Existing comments

I couldn't agree more. After the early mistakes of Iraq (aside from going there in the first place) you would think the lessons from these mistakes could be better applied to the Afghanistan strategy.

Unlike the invasion of Iraq the war in Afghanistan is vital to stability in the Middle East. If we have any doubt of this we just have to look across the border to Pakistan and the Taliban insurgency there to see the results of failing in Afghanistan.

Without building infrastructure being at the forefront of the Afghanistan agenda the Taliban can never really be defeated. Counter-insurgency may combat the Taliban but it has no effect on the subversive culture the Taliban spreads.

oznewsmonitor | 10 July 2009  

Another factor in overcoming the problems of afghanistan is the question of opium production. It is no use destroying all the opium poppies if there are not alternative crops for farmers to grow in order to make a living.This probably means helping them to establish irrigation systems and other modern agricultural technologies to achieve this.

john ozanne | 13 July 2009  

I do not believe that the thesis of this article is correct. The Obama strategy comes from the Wehrmacht's playbook. The objective of US military operations is to drive the Taliban into Pakistan and then to act as an anvil on the border whilst the Pakistani army acts as a hammer by surging into the tribal areas. I note not a word here about the millions of refugees and other innocent victims. For something like this Milosevic went to the Hague, but Obama is a saint. All this is besides the point; the US presence is wrong period.

Marko | 14 July 2009  

Hi Marko - In fact Kilcullen argues that high profile ‘blitzkrieg’ style interventions (such as in Iraq) are strategically destructive. With General McChrystal in Afghanistan, he argues for low profile, community based security operations.

Operation Khanjar is not focused on hunting the Taliban. Kilcullen demonstrates that pursuing the Taliban into the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas of Pakistan is futile: insurgents often have personal ties to the local population who see not only the US but also the Pakistani army as foreigners. Thus the Pakistani army sustained very high casualties in recent operations in the region.

Instead, the marines are focusing on establishing a long term presence, thus denying the Taliban access to the population, their source of recruits and resources. By building local infrastructure, the marines hope to demonstrate that they can offer real benefits to the local people. The Taliban must return to fight the marines on home ground or else risk becoming irrelevant to the Afghan population.

As for civilian casualties, you're right, they’re a serious problem. Civilian casualties are the key cause of 'accidental guerrillas', Kilcullen explains, including for the reason that in Pashtun culture the death of a relative obliges the tribe to exact revenge.

Ben Coleridge | 15 July 2009  

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