The "we need to provide security" argument and the "strongest tribe" hypothesis

Many COIN theorists and pro-Afghan "surge"(tm) pundits share a common assertion; the Western forces in Afghanistan supposedly need to provide security for the local population to succeed.

The COIN theorists tend to have a more sophisticated argument (and my mood deteriorates when I think of TV pundits), so I'll address theirs:

The typical line of thought is like this (no quote):

The pro-Western powers (the government) needs to earn the local's support and allegiance by providing services and constructing objects for better quality of life. This construction work and the maintenance of public services can only succeed if protected properly against enemy (Taliban) attack (and blackmail in case of NGOs).
Western troops need to move in, defeat (chase away) local insurgents and provide security to the pro-Western efforts to stabilize the area through popular support for the Western cause.
That's nice in theory, but it fails my plausibility check.

Western troops ride in armoured vehicles and live in guarded forts, yet they still suffer casualties.

How could Western troops - even assumed a high force density - hope to provide security for a population that outnumbers them 11 million (Afghan Pashtu) to much less than 600,000 (projected target strength Afghan National Army, Afghan National Police plus maximum imaginable quantity of pro-Western foreign combatants)?

This (future, dream) ratio doesn't look particularly terrible - until you consider more than half of the pro-Western troops are non-combat troops (much more among the foreigners) and remember that you would need to guard effectively every marketplace, every school, every isolated hamlet to provide real security and eliminate all safe havens.

The security problem isn't limited to the protection of pro-Western employees and institutions, after all. You would also need to protect the general population.

Afghanistan has a rather unstable allegiance culture: A village may be considered to be allied with a certain faction and provide fighters to that faction. Another faction may arrive, execute a show of force and can negotiate that the village switches sides. A refusal could lead to a massacre.
This fragile allegiance system is what made the then-surprisingly quick Taliban rout in 2001 possible; supposedly pro-Taliban settlements switched sides when the Taliban were losing and Northern Alliance forces arriving. This allegiance thing is also the core of the talk about "being the strongest tribe" that's popular among many COIN crowd members.

The "strongest tribe" idea means that locals ally with the strongest (and reliable) power and despise, even attack a weak or unreliable power.

It's a close relative of the "we must provide security" and "Afghan surge" concepts because it's all at least in part about having more forces in place.

I consider this "strongest tribe" idea to be very misled. It's not about strength or reliability. It's about threat value instead. There's little to no booty (the classic tribal warfare motivator) to gain in the Afghanistan conflict, therefore choosing sides is either about power (relevant only to a minority) or security.
The "strongest tribe" concept doesn't pass my plausibility check, a "most threatening power" concept could do so.

So there's our predicament: We are past the civilization stage where taking hostages and mass murder were considered viable tactics of warfare. We are not threatening (still dangerous, but not in a directed, useful and predictable way). We are not able to fully protect against other threats because such encompassing protection is impossible. The enemy will always find a way how to hit his targets in his own country/region.

This problem has its limits, of course. The Uzbek and Tajik communities are not as much inclined to bow to the Taliban as the Pashtu communities which often share culture, political goals and ethnicity with the Taliban.
The informed part of the pro-"we must provide security" crowd simply hopes that the difference between the Uzbeks/Tajiks on the one hand and the Pashtu on the other hand aren't that great, so imprefect security would suffice to even turn the tide in pro-Taliban communities.

I don't agree, for I do not support warfare that's critically based on hopes and dreams.

Some people assert that warfare should be continued until you found a way how to win. That may fit to those who remember their nation's history of first floundering and then winning in war after huge expenses. It doesn't fit my thinking, though: I expect wars to be only fought if waging war is the lesser evil in comparison to peace, which means that I don't accept high resource expenditures without having equally high expectations for the advantage gained by warfare.

Sven Ortmann


  1. The attitude you describe bothers me: why the Americans think they have to build foreign states? The Afghanis have attacked you, sort of; you crushed them - well and good, why not just get out of there?

  2. It's for a mix of reasons.

    * Neoconservative project of establishing a U.S.-friendly democracy that would exert social-political pressure on Central Asian and Iranian regimes.

    * "You broke it, you gotta fix it" attitude.

    * A certain inability to be satisfied with limited objectives.

    * Prestige. After about one year in-country and OBL still not captured, a withdrawal would have looked like a defeat.

    * Inertia. Being stuck in Afghanistan is what they did for years.

    * A new-found love for the poor Afghanis; certain Americans still dislike the memory of having left their South Vietnamese allies in the rain in '75. They fear that after a withdrawal their new Afghan allies would be slaughtered.

    * The plan is an Afghanization of the conflict - and since the Central Afghan authorities are incompetent/corrupt this Afghanization takes longer than a World War.

    * A lingering belief that Taliban would come back to power if the West left the country, and AQ would return with the Taliban and AQ would plan new strikes against the West (as if that was easier in AFG than in PAK).

  3. Sven,

    "Western troops ride in armoured vehicles and live in guarded forts, yet they still suffer casualties."

    Wouldn't COIN theorists argue that the fixation with the safety of soldiers (though increasingly armored vehicles, segregating forces on bases, etc.) leads directly to insecurity of the population and allow the influence of insurgents to spread, virtually unchecked?

  4. Yes they do. There's a "too much" for almost everything.

    That's not the point, though. It is impossible to provide security everywhere, and no matter how much Western troops attempt to provide security - the enemy could still kill and maim many civilians.
    Said civilians don't need to fear the Western troops' wrath in case of their support for Taliban, though.

    The most that Western troops can achieve is to make a region relatively disadvantageous for insurgents, thereby pushing them away. Now if they would succeed everywhere to make conditions disadvantageous, the insurgents wouldn't disappear, but continue to hit their targets with greater difficulty.

    We will never experience that, though; there aren't enough troops and there won't be enough troops to provide good security everywhere.

    Btw; my text wasn't meant to say that the West cannot win. It was meant to say that the indicators are very unfavourable and it's unlikely to be a good (advantageous) war.
    My opinion is that our direct involvement in that civil war will hurt us more than the consequences of no direct involvement.
    It's a stupid war.