NATO has only one realistic counterinsurgency option for Afghanistan: negotiating a political settlement.
By my reckoning, history suggests that, at the end of the day, there are only three ways to successfully counter an insurgency.
The most obvious technique is the one I set out in a previous article: suffocate the spark of resistance under the sheer weight of massive military occupation. Estimates vary, but the experience suggests that effective suffocation requires a ratio of soldiers to units of local population somewhere in the range of 1:10 to 1:100 or more, depending on the severity of the resistance encountered. For example, troop requirements in 2004 during the second battle for Fallujah in Iraq would have been on the high side of this scale, while in rural Malaysia, even at the height of the emergency in the mid to late 1950s, they would have been much lower.
In any case, and with the with relevant scope dependent upon particular local circumstances, resistance to occupation can be countered by the presence of sufficient numbers of boots on the ground.
A second counterinsurgency tactic was in widespread use from Roman times to the Third Reich, including during so-called Indian wars in the western U.S. and the Boer War in southern Africa. It involves some combination of harsh measures and extreme brutality wreaked upon civilians in a retaliatory manner far out of proportion to the counter insurgent force’s own losses – if the resistance kills a soldier, for instance, a village could be torched and its male population slaughtered.
Although this variant can almost certainly be counted on to dampen the enthusiasm of the population for rebellion, in the age of citizen journalists, digital media, and instantaneous messaging, recourse to gross human rights violations has become ethically unacceptable and strategically counterproductive. When word got out about the 1995 massacre of 8,000 Bosnians in Srebrenica, for instance, the international consequences for the Serbs were disastrous.
What, then, remains? There is a third option, which in my view represents by far the most effective and appealing of the lot. Warring parties can get at the roots of their differences by negotiating a political settlement.
All of which brings us back to Afghanistan today. Massive occupation – which, even with the current American surge, NATO does not come close to achieving – is clearly a non-starter. In the wake of the recent WikiLeaks revelations, and at a time of flagging public support for the intervention, NATO countries will never be politically able to field the 600,000 or more troops required to secure the population, impose its own will by force of arms, or defeat the insurgency militarily.
Similarly, it is unimaginable that NATO forces would ever seek victory through an explicit policy of repression, intimidation, or violence directed against the populace (although one might question the wisdom of employing tactics such as selective assassination and Predator drone strikes within the context of an overall counterinsurgency strategy). Publics on the home front have a very low tolerance for barbarism, and there has already been considerable backlash against rising civilian casualties and collateral damage.
By this logic, when it comes to assessing the way forward for ISAF’s counterinsurgency operation, diplomacy inevitably becomes the international policy instrument of choice.
Without question, establishing the basis for a durable settlement acceptable to all internal and external parties, including the regional powers, will be extremely difficult. But with the other two counterinsurgency options off the table, and compared to the alternatives of continuing an unwinnable war of attrition or withdrawing in haste and allowing Afghanistan to slide back into violent civil disorder, it is an objective well worth pursuing.
Eight years on, public confidence in ISAF’s management of the Afghanistan war is understandably slipping. It is time to partner with other organizations – not just the UN, but perhaps the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation or the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe – in advancing the negotiating process.
Decision-makers within interested governments, and the policy planners in their foreign ministries would be well advised to fully consider the immense difficulties associated with counterinsurgency warfare, and to provide their diplomats with the mandate to act accordingly.