I’ve been mulling over the dodgy answers (if you can even call them answers) given by Ambassador Holbrooke and Defense Secretary Gates when they were recently asked to define success in Afghanistan or to speculate about how long Americans should expect to be fighting a war there. In case you missed these, take a look.

Here’s my problem: this is a very basic question, and the answer is very simple. We’ve chosen counterinsurgency as our strategy in Afghanistan. Here’s the definition of victory according to The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, page six:

"Victory is achieved when the populace consents to the government’s legitimacy and stops actively and passively supporting the insurgency."

Also, not unrelated is this passage on page xxv:

"…civilians must be separated from insurgents to insulate them from insurgent pressure and to deny the insurgent "fish" the cover of the civilian ‘sea.’ By doing so, counterinsurgents can militarily isolate, weaken and defeat the insurgents."

Defining success in Afghanistan is thus a very simple matter: Because the insurgents are the Taliban (whom we seek to defeat because their victory in the Afghan civil conflict would supposedly create an al-Qaeda safe haven), and because the Taliban is a movement inside the Pashtun ethnicity, we can precisely define the target population as the Pashtuns, who form the "civilian sea" referenced above that actively and passively supports the insurgency. So, they are the population which we must separate from the Taliban. We can thus restate the manual’s definition of victory by making it specific to the current conflict. According to counterinsurgency doctrine:

Victory in Afghanistan will be achieved when the Pashtuns consent to the government’s legitimacy and stop actively and passively supporting the Taliban insurgency.

That took all of five minutes, and I don’t have a government bureaucracy at my disposal to aid in my research, nor did my department publish the book. With that in mind, there are really only two possibilities:

  1. The ambassador and defense secretary actually do not know how to define victory within the U.S.’s chosen strategic paradigm of counterinsurgency (in which case they are incompetent and should be dismissed immediately); or
  2. They do in fact know the answer to this very basic question, and they don’t want to give it.

I don’t believe that #1 is true (although other criteria may prove them incompetent), and that leaves us with #2. That, in turn, leaves us with a question: why would these men not want to publicize the simple answer to the question of "success"? The answer, I believe, is that stating the definition for success out loud would allow for public discussion and evaluation of our strategy. U.S. policymakers want to avoid such an evaluation of where we are in relation to COIN doctrine’s definition of success for a very simple reason: our attempt at counterinsurgency has already failed.

For those that are new to this discussion, here’s a map showing the geographic distribution of Afghanistan’s main ethnic groups.

That light green crescent in the south denotes the Pashtun homelands, which extend across the border into Pakistan.

Now take a look at this map from the BBC denoting the level of violence in each district in Afghanistan.

BBC explains:

The "areas of militant control" indicate Taliban strongholds; "high risk areas" where there has been major clashes with insurgents; and "medium" or "low risk" are where there has been some or little violence.

Reuters further explains that this map

was produced in April 2009, before a dramatic escalation of violence ahead of the August 20 ballot.

Note that the April 2009 date of the latter map means that it was produced before the launch of the major operation in Helmand earlier this year. The Afghan NGO Safety Office noted that the increase in troops in the first half of 2009 failed to disrupt insurgents abilities to plan and execute attacks against the U.S. and allies:

"attacks in Kandahar have grown >50% over the year and in Helmand they have stayed consistent with 2008 rates."

Not only do the insurgents continue to mount attacks from within the Pashtun "sea," but the Pashtuns have, by and large, rejected participation in the processes of the Afghan national government. In overwhelming numbers, they stayed home during last week’s election.

Meanwhile, turnout was paltry in southern districts where British forces and U.S. Marines all but held the door for Afghan voters. Obama dispatched 17,000 additional combat forces to Afghanistan ahead of the election, but the threat of Taliban violence and reprisal apparently kept voters at home.

The Times of London reported Thursday that only 150 of the several thousand Afghans eligible to vote in the Babaji area of Helmand province cast ballots. Four British soldiers were killed there this summer, a toll the newspaper recalled with the blunt headline: "Four British soldiers die for the sake of 150 votes."

This is a disaster for a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. The Obama Administration and the COIN afficionados within it were banking heavily on the election to flip the Pashtuns, who, according to Bruce Riedel (one of Obama’s trusted advisors on Afghanistan), had never bought into the central government’s legitimacy in the first place:

The Pashtun belt in the south has been disaffected from the beginning. I think when we look back at this, the Pashtun majority in the southern provinces, to a lesser extent than the eastern provinces but certainly in the southern provinces, have never bought into the legitimacy of what happened at the end of 2001. They may not all support the Taliban, but they have never bought into the legitimacy of erasing the Islamic emirate of Afghanistan.

The administration was counting on the election to draw the Pashtuns into the political process. The widespread fraud and the refusal of huge numbers of Pashtuns to head to the polls, however, shows that the strategy failed.

A report from AFP puts a fine point on it, emphasis mine:

In some Taliban strongholds, such as Logar province south of Kabul, residents said turnout was negligible.

"In my village there are more than 6,000 people. Only seven voted," mechanic Mansour Stanikzai told AFP in the provincial capital Pul-i-Alam.

"The reason we had the election was to give legitimacy to the government, and we have failed in that goal," said analyst Haroun Mir.

Taken together, the ongoing use of the Pashtun homelands as the base for the insurgency and the Pashtuns’ rejection of the processes of the central government show that after eight years, 807 U.S. military casualties, $228 billion dollars (so far; the full cost will exceed half-a-trillion dollars) and more than 20,000 Afghan civilian deaths, we have utterly failed to convince the Pashtuns in Afghanistan to "consent to the government’s legitimacy and stop actively and passively supporting the insurgency."

In fact, as Dexter Filkins’ article in The New York Times shows, the massive election fraud will make it impossible for even the United States to endorse the legitimacy of the Afghan national government until questions of election fraud are adequately addressed, putting the political element of counterinsurgency (referred to by the COIN field manual as the prime element of COIN) into indefinite limbo while more and more U.S. troops spill into the country.

In other words, the U.S. counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan has been a total failure.

Reports indicate General McChrystal will soon ask for 20,000 more troops for this debacle. The President and Congress should say no and end our military involvement in Afghanistan as quickly as possible. Americans know failure when they see it.

Derrick Crowe

Derrick Crowe