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Turning corners in Afghanistan

by LAWRENCE SELLIN, PHD November 29, 2017

In the latest issue of Foreign Policy journal, Paul McLeary quotes Gen. John Nicholson, head of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, who claims, that after 16 years of war, the United States and its Afghan partners "have turned the corner," the "momentum is now with Afghan security forces," and we are now "on a path to a win."

McLeary notes that we also "turned corners" in 2007, 2011 and 2012 and Nicholson is the eighth commander in the last ten years to forecast a pathway to victory.

In contrast to Nicholson's upbeat assessment, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) reported in October 2017 that the Afghan government controls 56 percent of the country, down from 62 percent in 2016, the end result of over $60 billion of American taxpayer money spent to train and equip the Afghan security forces.

Using the same counterinsurgency and nation-building strategy, Nicholson promises to do with 14,000 troops what counterinsurgency guru Gen. David Petraeus couldn't do with 100,000 troops. That is, force the Taliban to "reconcile, face irrelevance, or die."

That may be difficult to accomplish when your "core mission" is, as stated by Petraeus in 2010, to protect and "win over" the Afghan population. Somehow I can't imagine Gen. George S. Patton being concerned about winning the hearts and minds of the German people as he pursued the destruction of the Nazi armies. Of course, Patton was focused on victory, not proving the validity of a field manual.

Counterinsurgency is based on a clear, hold and build strategy. Major General Andrew Mackay, British commander in Helmand Province in 2007-2008, called Petraeus' counterinsurgency manual FM 3-24 "coherent, up-to-date, full of ideas, a very, very good document for its time." Mackay also said that he wasn't going to clear unless he can hold and he definitely wasn't going to hold unless he could build. Whatever success Mackay might have had applying counterinsurgency theory during his tenure in Afghanistan, the British are now gone and the Taliban are in firm control of Helmand Province.

Written by Petraeus and Marine Corps Gen. James Amos, FM 3-24 is an impressive academic treatise, but the one-size-fits-all theory is largely based on a misunderstanding of history.

British operations in the communist "Malayan Emergency" in the late 1940s is often used as a model for a successful counterinsurgency campaign. Like all such conflicts, however, it had its unique aspects not universally applicable. The Malayan situation had a significant and clear ethnic element, Chinese versus Malay, and involved the massive physical relocation of communities, over 500,000 people, to deny the insurgents a basis of support. Although it had a "hearts and minds" component, distributing food and medicine, military operations were mainly conducted as an insurgency inside an insurgency, rather than reactively as a police force to protect the population. The British also had a 6:1 troop advantage over the insurgents.

Subsequent applications of counterinsurgency theory by the French in Indochina and the Americans in Vietnam failed for their own unique reasons.

As if on automatic pilot flying in the face of evidence to the contrary, Gen. Nicholson is continuing the yet unsuccessful counterinsurgency and nation-building strategy espoused by Petraeus and fostered by his acolyte, President Trump's National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster.

Nicholson said, "we will be here until the job is done."

Given the current trajectory, that could be a very long time indeed, maybe never.

If counterinsurgency and nation-building has not worked in Afghanistan, let us ponder for a moment what has.

In the first few months after 9/11, approximately 400 CIA operatives and U.S. Special Operations troops using American airpower and some paid Afghan tribal forces overthrew the Taliban government and defeated upwards of 60,000 Taliban fighters.

We have turned corners so many times in Afghanistan, we are back where we started.

Lawrence Sellin, Ph.D. is a retired colonel with 29 years of service in the US Army Reserve and a veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq. Colonel Sellin is the author of "Restoring the Republic: Arguments for a Second American Revolution ". He receives email at


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