General's Paper Sheds Light on Counterinsurgency

A new guidance paper tells U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan to focus on more than security.
A new guidance paper tells U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan to focus on more than security. (By John Moore -- Getty Images)
By Walter Pincus
Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Claims that the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan handles only security "have no place in this campaign," Gen. David D. McKiernan, commander of the U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, wrote in a guidance paper sent to his troops.

Instead, he directed his command to "focus on governance, development and security concurrently" because "success in Afghanistan will not come from the sole pursuit of a security line of operations by military forces."

McKiernan's three-page counterinsurgency guidance paper, which was provided to the Senate Armed Services Committee last week by Gen. David H. Petraeus, puts in practical terms hard lessons learned by the U.S. military over the past eight years in Iraq and Afghanistan.

One tactical approach stands out: "Do not clear an area unless GIRoA [Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan] and the ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces] are able to hold it." Here McKiernan is dealing with the problem that haunted the United States in Vietnam, returned in Iraq and shows up again in Afghanistan. Namely, that U.S. and coalition forces control towns and villages during the day, but the insurgents come back at night and terrorize those who cooperated with the coalition.

McKiernan writes that the Afghan people in a contested area must be made to feel that "they can resist insurgents without fear of consequence or retribution." That happens only "if the population believes GIRoA will outlast the insurgents and, in the longer term, offer the population greater prospects for security and prosperity."

Reflecting the understanding that Afghanistan is a bewildering collection of tribal, religious, secular and jihadist groups, McKiernan directs his troops to "gain a nuanced understanding of the situation and dynamics at the local district and provincial levels." He writes that they should "identify the specific root causes of insecurity, criminality or support to the insurgency in your area of operations, gain understanding of what exactly 'governance' means to local Afghans and discern the influence of informal structures of power."

He recognizes that American officers will inevitably get involved in local disputes and directs that they "facilitate solutions . . . that reinforce the rule of law and GIRoA's legitimacy," taking care "not to strengthen local powerbrokers working outside governance structures." But McKiernan also understands that the Kabul central government is not always in the right, so he directs his troops to "always support the community's shura [the consultative body normally among local tribal leaders], whenever it truly represents the population." In this process, he said, "foster Afghan (not western) solutions."

He wants his troops to get out of their forward operating bases and carry out smaller patrols, and he directs them to encourage Afghan forces to do the same. In that way, McKiernan writes, "we legitimize the Afghan National Security Forces by linking the provision of security services" to the Kabul government.

"Build institutional and personal relationships with your Afghan counterparts," he writes in the guidelines distributed March 18, particularly noting the Afghan national army and police, as well as district and provincial governments. "Be more visible in the communities they serve," he writes, and "give them credit for joint efforts." In a more practical approach, McKiernan advises that whenever possible, "allow and encourage" Afghan soldiers "to search houses or fellow Afghans when it is required."

McKiernan describes the Afghan army as "the most effective security apparatus in Afghanistan" but recognizes "its reach is limited across the country." McKiernan describes the national police force, which is recognized for its ineffectiveness and corruption, as having "significant challenges." But, he writes, "Its reach extends across Afghanistan and is often the only link to the GIRoA for a majority of the population."

In a broader sense, McKiernan declares, "Political power is the central issue in insurgencies and counterinsurgencies; each side aims to influence the people to accept its governance or authority as legitimate." Along with providing security and governance, he writes, there is the need to "win the battle of perceptions."

He describes the insurgents as undertaking actions to force key population groups to join them or that exploit local displeasure with current leadership. "In the competition for influence, we must be more agile and effective than the enemy," McKiernan writes. His suggestion reflects the thrust of current Washington counterterrorism approaches: "Encourage moderate Afghan Islamic groups, mullahs, and citizens to challenge the legitimacy of the ideas and actions of extremist insurgent elements."

In the end, McKeirnan writes, "Our operational imperative is to protect the population while extending the legitimacy and effectiveness of the GIRoA and decreasing the effectiveness of insurgent elements."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company