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The counterinsurgency myth

US failure in Afghanistan was not the result of a plan poorly executed. Rather, it reveals the violent logic at the heart of American power

Nicholas Guarnaccia
13 September 2021, 2.04pm
Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan did what it has always done: wage war on people
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US Navy Photo / Alamy Stock Photo

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.

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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.

Counterinsurgency’s political rigidity leads to an obsession with order, control and obedience

When American troops did engage on the ground, it was most commonly through night raids and kill/capture missions that violated local cultural and religious norms and frequently led to civilian casualties. Those who were lucky enough to be captured and not killed during the night raids were often detained, tortured and interrogated by coalition personnel. Each of these operations relied heavily on ‘intelligence’, in many cases misinformation obtained extrajudicially. This technologically sophisticated apparatus was supposed to surgically remove the insurgency while limiting the cost of war. Defined by its precision firepower and electronic remote weaponry, it was termed by retired Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl America’s “industrial-scale counter-terrorism killing machine”.

Word of the humiliation and devastation of night raids travelled quickly, however. The killing and capture of community leaders upended social structures and resentment proliferated from civilian massacres and their cover-ups. In a matter of a few years, US counterinsurgency had managed to reinvigorate the Taliban, increasing its legitimacy, and providing fresh recruits eager to join its ranks. By late 2005, the Taliban had regained prominence and the US was rapidly losing the support of the people. Despite this, the US largely persisted with these same tactics for the entirety of the two decades.

Counterinsurgency did not fail in Afghanistan because it was poorly executed. Instead, it failed precisely because counterinsurgency is incapable of accomplishing its purported aim: to win the support of the population by engaging with it politically.

The central contradiction

The logic of counterinsurgency, as it is conceived by its designers, is contradictory. It is a strategy that purports to be political in nature, as it attempts to win ‘hearts and minds’, yet as political theorist Laleh Khalili has argued, “Counterinsurgency refuses politics… transform[ing] political conflicts and contestations, revolts and insurgencies, into technical problems to be solved.” This renders the political ‘battlefield’ as zero-sum terrain – “either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists” – whereby the legitimacy of the counterinsurgency is contingent upon the insurgency’s illegitimacy.

The political inflexibility inherent to the counterinsurgency doctrine negates and demonises the opposition, resulting in a misunderstanding of what the ‘insurgency’ is seeking to achieve and how it will go about doing it. As the US manual states, “The insurgent succeeds by sowing chaos and disorder everywhere… [and is] constrained by neither the law of war nor the bounds of human decency.” This leads to a fundamental misrepresentation of the insurgency’s goals and tactics. In fact, rather than being some inexplicably malevolent force, an insurgency – which is always under-resourced and under-manned – relies on its ability to gain the support of the people and morally isolate the counterinsurgent effort.

The result is that counterinsurgency oversimplifies and misjudges the relationship between the insurgency and the general population, since its strategy and tactics are based on a clear distinction between the two. Mao Zedong famously characterised the relationship between guerrillas and the people as that of fish to water. The counterinsurgency’s tactical response is to ‘drain the water’. But the line between the two constitutive groups, people and insurgents, is indistinct.

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The artificiality of this line is reflected in the experience of the counterinsurgent soldier, who is constantly unsure whether the local stranger walking towards him should be shot or embraced. The ‘people’ are simultaneously viewed as passive, desperate and ‘self-interested’ as well as suspicious, conniving, and dangerous. Trust the people and risk being killed by the insurgents; shoot the people, and create more insurgents. The safest move for the soldier is usually at odds with the aim of the mission. Thus, it is no accident that counterinsurgency tends to reproduce the very enemies it aims to eliminate.

The great strength of counterinsurgency is supposed to be its adaptiveness and dynamism. It employs military tactics as well as capacity-building ones. Yet its political rigidity leads to an obsession with order, control, obedience and stability over participation, consent and change, which makes people the objects of policy in such a way that renders the incorporation of contextually specific and well-intentioned tactics largely irrelevant.

Counterinsurgency’s contradictory nature sheds light on how this ‘limited’ form of warfare so often reproduces the conditions of its own downfall and relies on brutality, destruction, and terror for ‘success’.

A genealogy of US counterinsurgency

Western media coverage of the Afghanistan withdrawal gives the impression that violence and brutality throughout the war merely reflected the difficulties and insufficiencies of the situation, rather than being the logical result of counterinsurgency warfare. However, four centuries of American counterinsurgency, waged at home and abroad, reveal similar patterns that lay bare its central contradiction and propensity for extreme violence.

The founding of the US took place through a genocidal campaign of decentralised war waged on indigenous peoples and their way of life. “A war tradition that saw non-professional soldiers pursue unlimited objectives, often through irregular means,” in the words of military historian John Grenier, cohered, he suggested, around three central pillars: unlimited or total war; the creation of special forces, known as rangers, used to penetrate and harass indigenous groups deep in their territory; and the privatisation of the war effort, in the form of scalping bounties, to mobilise the civilian population with economic incentives. These nascent counterinsurgency techniques, which Grenier termed America’s “first way of war”, ensured the settler-colonial project achieved its agenda of conquest and erasure.

Chattel slavery provided a sufficient internal threat to ensure the development of the other side of early counterinsurgency tactics: policing. A regime of surveillance and terror was developed by white settlers – outnumbered by slaves in the southern states – and carried out by slave patrols, groups of citizens who enforced the institution of slavery through physical and psychological brutality.

The ‘people’ are viewed as passive and desperate... as well as suspicious, conniving, and dangerous

The US colonisation of the Philippines in 1898 consolidated this approach into America’s main tool of foreign conquest. Over the course of 13 years, the US army launched a brutal counterinsurgency campaign relying on the use of torture, especially waterboarding; large-scale extrajudicial killings; forced starvation by destroying vital food sources; and massive displacement into some of the earliest concentration camps. It is estimated that 20% of the Filipino population was killed during the campaign.

This same era is characterised by the formal bureaucratisation of domestic counterinsurgency operations. By the 1880s, all major US cities had established police departments, creating a paradigm shift from policing as a reactive decentralised enterprise to a centralised one focused on ‘preventive’ measures to ensure order. This approach placed a particular emphasis on surveillance, large-scale arrests and the use of performative violence against the ‘dangerous classes’: freed blacks, poor whites and immigrants.

After emerging from the Second World War as the global hegemon, and having to navigate the politics of decolonisation and the Cold War, the US transformed and implemented its counterinsurgency agenda through policing. This helped it combat the image of its empire at home and abroad: reforming policing at home, to ensure that it became nominally divorced from Jim Crow racial apartheid; and training police abroad, so that foreign interventions were carried out by native soldiers in police uniforms.

Training largely focused on professionalising policing – the use of standards, routines, and protocols to help separate the institution from its overtly political origins – and modernising police forces with new technology that enhanced communication and surveillance capabilities. This global initiative led to some of the most abhorrent moments of the Cold War: the arrest and assassination of countless Black liberation, left-wing and indigenous revolutionaries, the massacre of one million communists in Indonesia, the practice of ‘disappearing’ people across Latin America, and the ruthless destruction of Vietnam.

The period since 2000 has seen the modern iteration of US counterinsurgency on full display. Abroad, unending wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been waged in the name of combatting the amorphous and existential threat of terrorism. Modern counterinsurgency has been neo-liberalised, relying heavily on private military forces, contractors, and proxies, who remain insulated from financial or democratic accountability, reaping enormous profits for defence corporations and their investors.

At home, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests of 2014-15 and 2020 are responses to centuries of racialised apartheid experienced through the lens of counterinsurgency’s most recent morbid symptoms: militarised police, mass surveillance and, as always, gratuitous violence. The incorporation of surveillance technologies, ‘non-lethal’ weaponry and police training attempt to sanitise domestic counterinsurgent violence and to create the illusion of change while never disrupting its fundamental nature.

The coincidence of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and the US withdrawal from Afghanistan calls not only for a reflection of the past two decades of US warfare but an indictment of more than four centuries of American warmongering, of which counterinsurgency has been the most central feature. Counterinsurgency’s propensity to reproduce the conditions of its own defeat is the result of its internal logic, exemplified par excellence in Afghanistan. Its propensity towards extravagant violence is there because it was forged in a settler-colonial project, chattel slavery, imperial excursions, neo-colonial domination, and racial apartheid. Understanding and highlighting the history and logic of counterinsurgency will be crucial to challenging the US’s next imperial impulse.


This is an edited version of an article that was first published by the Transnational Institute.

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