Yves here. The American fantasy of supporting counterinsurgency movements to change the fundamental values of countries we wanted to tame is utterly nuts when you unpack what its sponsors actually believed. It’s another layer of the propaganda devised to make the Project for a New American Century sound dimly feasible.
By Nicholas Guarnaccia, a freelance writer and researcher. His recent work focuses on militarization, particularly the connection between coloniality and counterinsurgency. He has a master’s degree from the Fletcher School at Tufts University in Boston where he studied conflict transformation and social/political movements. Originally published at openDemocracy
In early December 2001, just nine weeks after invading Afghanistan, the US military overthrew the Taliban government, accomplishing what it is most apt at doing: winning conventional military battles. In the following days, the deputy secretary of defense, Paul Wolfowitz, made it clear that “the war in Afghanistan is not won… We may be hunting Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan for months from now.”
Wolfowitz’s statement acknowledged the transition from conventional warfare aimed at overthrowing the Taliban regime to a concerted campaign of unconventional, irregular, and special operations warfare known as counterinsurgency. Over the next 19 years and eight months, the US and its allies’ counterinsurgency campaign terrorised and alienated the Afghan population, leading to the resuscitation of a defeated and unpopular Taliban – and, ultimately, the inevitable but potentially infinitely prolonged withdrawal of coalition forces.
It would be incorrect to say that counterinsurgency went awry in Afghanistan, because it did what it has always done: wage war on people and their livelihoods; treat politics as a zero-sum game; and use the guise of new technology and professionalism to inflict brutality upon civilian populations. The modern iteration of counterinsurgency doctrine implemented in Afghanistan mirrors four centuries of irregular, population-centred warfare carried out by the US, revealing the patterns of violence and the outcome in Afghanistan as not only likely, but logical.
Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan
In December 2001, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar offered a conditional surrender to the then-interim Afghan president, Hamid Karzai: the Taliban would lay down their weapons in exchange for an amnesty. However, the US had not come to Afghanistan just for regime change, but to fight a global ‘War on Terror’. The conditional surrender was rejected outright by the US, commencing what would become two decades of counterinsurgent warfare intended at weeding out ‘terrorism’ from the region.
The 2006 US military manual ‘Counterinsurgency’ codified the approach in Afghanistan (and Iraq). It defines counterinsurgency as “those political, economic, military, paramilitary, psychological, and civic actions taken… to defeat an insurgency”. In contrast to a conventional military operation, it is conceived as “a struggle for the support of the population”, where “political objectives must retain primacy” over military ones.
Following from that doctrine, the US and its coalition allies undertook what appears to be a highly counterintuitive approach. Their engagement was primarily militaristic outside of Kabul and other urban, government-controlled areas. They relied on minimal ground troops, preferring instead to use air power – strikes, drones and gunships that killed countless civilians and has led to immense psychological trauma. To create a façade of accountability, the US outsourced much of the violence to Afghan security forces and proxies, who were notorious for their war crimes and abuses.