learning and adapting counterinsurgency in afghanistan l.
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learning and adapting counterinsurgency in afghanistan


Dr Daniel Marston


I'm generally reluctant to talk about myself when I'm making a presentation; in fact, I have been known in the past to plunge straight into my topic without telling anyone my name. However, I've been advised that for this group, I need to provide a bit of background information. Since I'm not that comfortable with the idea, I've decided to let someone else do the job, and provide you with a summary of my involvement with the Iraq campaign written by a senior British officer.
opening thoughts
Opening Thoughts
  • I am not an expert—one is not learning if one calls himself an expert
  • Learning and adapting are key in all aspects of warfare, not just COIN
  • Met and worked with Australian officers and NCOs since 2004
  • Do not formally speak for the US or UK armies, however, I am involved with many of the discussions
  • Will discuss learning curve in MND SE first and then Afghan
The British campaign in MND (SE) was not a glowing success, as some within Whitehall and PJHQ may try to claim. The fact that it will end on a positive note, as of the summer of 2009, has more to do with bottom-up reform within units and formations in theatre, and less to do with planners in Whitehall and PJHQ. The war has been changing in Iraq since the beginning of 2007, and many within MND (SE) recognised early on that different approaches might be needed. Some British commanders expressed concern that the ‘withdrawal’ strategy from Basra to the COB would cause major splits with MNF-I. The decisions taken in Whitehall in 2006 and 2007 promoting Provincial Iraqi Control and handover, as well as withdrawal to the COB, were not linked to the eventual success of the CotK; they could not have been, since the COTK was not part of this strategy. In some significant ways, they were two different campaigns.
The British Army’s campaign in Iraq, its overall impact, and whether it has been a success or failure, are currently topics of intense discussion in the UK press, military and government communities. Recently, the Chief of Defence Staff referred to Britain as having become “too complacent” and “smug” about its experiences in Northern Ireland and Bosnia and their application to operations in Iraq. Many within the Army do not dispute this, but I think the opposite viewpoint is also worth stating: that there were an equal number, if not more officers, NCOs and soldiers who were not smug, and who actively sought to know more about how to reform and adapt for the counter-insurgency (COIN) campaign in Iraq
learning and adapting in mnd se
Learning and adapting in MND SE
  • What was the mission?
  • Arrogance
  • Hands off approach with ISF
  • Many mistakes by US and UK that forced decisions—changed in 2007
  • Envy for success of al Anbar and the north
  • Distrust of British position
  • Recognition to learn from mistakes and humility to learn from others—bottom up reform and did not wait for mother army to fix things
  • Frustration by many
  • Things finally changed for the better—Charge of the Knights and MiTTs
  • Honour was restored
  • Major tactical, operational and strategic assessment taking place about what happened in Iraq and the need to avoid similar pitfalls in Afghanistan
  • Reform was disjointed and needed to be better unified and this is now being worked out
  • Many know there is a need for long and deep reform and no ‘band-aid’ applications for the fight in Afghanistan
training issues identified in iraq
Training issues identified in Iraq

‘Once a unit is warned off for operations, it should be taken off any other taskings and left to use the limited time training and preparing for operations.’

‘Prior to deployment, opportunities must be made to conduct training for COIN rather than traditional warfighting.’

‘Lack of knowledge of the incoming troops in regard to TTPs and theatre specific issues.’

‘Have a team commander per multiple deploy earlier to embed with outgoing BG/COY to deepen the understanding of TTPs and theatre specific issues.’

education problems and solutions
Education problems and solutions
  • Education in COIN had been shown to be wanting from the lieutenants’ to the senior officers’ level
  • Lack of knowledge regarding previous successful and unsuccessful COIN campaigns across all ranks
  • Less than 15% of officers and NCOs had read the doctrine or understand what COIN was about
  • Reform began bottom up RMAS—ETS was against it as were some senior officers
  • This is now changing as many within the Army recognized the need to finally educate as well as train
  • It needs to be a building block piece from NCO, RMAS, Captains MOD, Staff College, RCDS
  • Things are finally shifting
  • Formal COIN Cadres—with input from academe, US and Coalition partners
  • COIN and Stability Centre finally set up
  • Support of CTC A in Afghanistan—will like to discuss the recent comments regarding CTC-A from CDF in the discussion period
feedback from captains coin course
Feedback from Captains COIN course
  • ‘I thoroughly enjoyed the course (MOD C). . . . I feel far better armed . . . to go forward and act pragmatically with the benefit of others’ hindsight for the mistakes of the past. I am more than slightly concerned that I have gone this far through my career without being armed with this knowledge of this sort!’
  • ‘Thank you again for the COIN module. Fascinating and professionally useful, I only wish that I had been taught that before Op TELIC 5!’
  • ‘COIN module was excellent—should this be pre-deployment education rather than Captains’ education? This should be for all officers.’
  • ‘Personally I feel that British doctrinal knowledge of COIN is actually a bit of a myth so to be taught it in the classroom prior to deploying to Afghanistan is extremely useful.’
feedback from cos for study nights in theatre
Feedback from Cos for study nights in theatre
  • ‘Thank you for your support and time you have given . . . [and for] an excellent insight into COIN. . . . This was valuable for the unit and helped us focus the minds of the officers and men.’
  • ‘You gave a fascinating insight into the recurring themes of British operations over the past fifty years and what you had to say has made us aware that we need to implement those lessons learnt by our predecessors. As a result of your talk the officers are now burying their heads into the doctrine and readings that you recommended so highly.’
issues with some commanders
Issues with some commanders

“I think you have got to recognise that if you took the attacks on the Coalition out of the equation, what you are left with is actually a very low level of residual violence within Iraqi society compared to anywhere else across Iraq. . . .This is not a war zone. This is nothing like you are seeing on the streets of Baghdad and here you have got to ask the question what is the most appropriate force or capability to deal with this problem and I would argue that a foreign army is particularly ill suited to resolving those kinds of societal problems.”

“Many of us feel that, notwithstanding limited political and popular support for the Iraq campaign, too much military advice from theatre was watered down on the basis of perceptions of what the market would bear. In contrast with the US our people in Basra struggled to get their views over, as reflected in our lukewarm response to the SSR challenge right up to Charge of the Knights (CotK). Personally I point the finger at PJHQ who, in my view, filter straight up advice on our requirements. The whole construct lacks the dynamism and necessary tension that you see in the US relationships.”
major issues with lack of continuity
Major issues with lack of continuity

‘Your points relating to rotation of commands through the 6 month tour structure is at the root of most of our problems from Basra and also now in Afghanistan. Not only does it work against our accumulation of knowledge and understanding of the situation, but it also ultimately undermines our reputation in the face of our US allies who think it's a joke that we scuttle back home after only 6 months in theatre. The extension to 9 months for Staff officers is an improvement but still doesn't compare to the American system. Collation of intelligence was dire when I was out there. It was clear that intelligence from the previous BG's in Maysaan had either been thrown away or never collected in the first place. We started on a blank canvas. My patrol reports were always praised for their level of detail, but there was never any follow-up, never any pursuit of some significant leads I uncovered when in lengthy dialogue with the local Sheikhs. I think this was inherent throughout the chain of command.’

4 th mech brigade how it changed
4th Mech Brigade how it changed
  • Meeting with Brigadier Julian Free
  • ‘General Mohan’s (COIN) plan for the retaking of BASRA is a key development—14 DIV must win this fight and the British must support it in all aspects
  • British assets in terms of 4 Brigade and future TELICs need to support this effort in many manners—this will provide a focus of effort for the British officers and soldiers as well as playing a role in the future pacification of BASRA and BASRA province
  • British officers, NCOs and soldiers can be embedded across many lines of operation within 14 DIV—from staff officers, ISTAR etc to platoon to coy embedded roles
  • This future plan will need to be briefed to MNC-I and MNF-I so they clearly see a plan developing for this important area of IRAQ with major British support—which will be well received by many sceptics in BAGHDAD.’
  • Urban ops center to train a coy for two weeks
  • Briefed across the BDE that mission is now MiTT throughout
  • Joint operations carried out along the Shatt
  • MNF-I staff what about PJHQ?
post cotk
Post CoTK
  • 3 of the 4 battlegroups were MiTTs
  • Working alongside the USMC/USA MiTTs
  • Campaign plan embedded within MNF-I
  • Marsh Arab Levy
  • Constant need to adapt—talks and working with 14 DIV as well as 7 Brigade—difficult at times
  • FP less of an issue
  • 1+3 in IA vehicles
  • At BN level
  • Last British GOC: “Thank you for all that you did for us.  Your advice proved prophetic - but I can't discuss over this means.  Keep in touch and I'll tell you why. Let's get together in the Autumn.”
new thinking on afghanistan
New thinking on Afghanistan

COIN is a strategy not a tactic—CT is not the message anylonger

  • Population centric approach is needed (has occurred at tactical and maybe operational levels at time) lack of forces
  • It is not the simplistic hearts and minds as there will be some killing and dying in the coming years
  • Reconciliation is important and not new and very complicated
  • COIN through education and training reform has impacted the key military allies US/UK/Can (not so much with AuZ—according to many within the Army)
  • More forces, both Coalition and Afghan (ANA, local aux.) needed—also operating jointly
  • Advisory mission (civ/mil) has been a work in progress and still needs more work—major shifts are about to occur
  • There are major questions in regards to the selection of the OMLT or ETT concept within the US and UK militaries and different thinking
  • AATTV concepts of recruiting across Army needs to be discussed
mcchrystal to la times
McChrystal to LA Times
  • Do you think there has been too much focus on counter-terrorism? I think there hasn't been enough focus on counterinsurgency. I am certainly not in a position to criticize counter-terrorism. But at this point in the war, in Afghanistan, it is most important to focus on almost classic counterinsurgency.I don't want people to think it is inflexible; it should be uniquely adapted to the conditions in each part of the country.
mcchrystal la times
McChrystal La Times
  • Another priority you have outlined is the Afghan security forces. You want to expand their numbers faster. It sounds like the main way to do that is to expand the partnerships between Afghans and alliance forces. Is there a way to improve there?
  • After analysis, we've determined we could increase the rate of their growth and their target numbers. The results of our analysis are not approved up the chain of command yet. But all of our analysis tells us that is something we need to recommend, so that is my intent.Whether we grow the Afghan security forces larger or not, partnering closer is to our benefit and we can do it better than we have in the past.We need a combination of mentoring and partnering. Mentoring is people who stay with a unit all the time and teach and evolve as units. Partnering is where you operate together. Our thought is to bring the concepts much closer together. So a unit is partner, is partnering in a much tighter relationship. Then two things happen. The coalition force gets much better performance on the ground because Afghans are great soldiers and they have huge cultural acuity that a coalition soldier is not going to have. And the other part is as we operate we think we can give them best practices
gen mcc 8 imperatives for success 13 06 2009
GEN McC ‘8’ imperatives for success 13 06 2009

Protect and partner with the people

Conduct a comprehensive campaign

Understand the Environment

Ensure values underpin our effort

Listen closely—speak clearly

Act as one team

Constantly adapt

Act with courage and resolve


At the time [beginning of 2003] the US military had not published COIN doctrine since Vietnam, and units had relatively little training in COIN before their arrival in country. There was much learning by doing and even disagreement as to whether the fight in Afghanistan was a COIN fight at all. In fact unit commanders were forbidden to from using the word COIN in describing their missions—they were executing a CT mission in keeping with US strategic guidance and an operational focus on the enemy.’—COIN narrative in Australia?

2007 gen barno
2007 Gen Barno

Continual turnover of US senior leaders has made continuity of effort a recurrent challenge in this very complex fight… [S]ince mid-2005, the comprehensive US led [counterinsurgency] strategy…has been significantly altered by subsequent military and civilian leaders who held differing views. With the advent of NATO military leadership, there is today no single comprehensive strategy to guide the US, NATO, or international effort. Unity of purpose – both interagency and international – has suffered; unity of command is more fragmented.

practitioner uk iv examples of reform mindset
Practitioner UK IV Examples of reform mindset

‘Additionally as in previous counter-insurgency campaigns, WARFIGHTING is an element of COIN. . . . Many of the lessons learned from the BG’s resulting experiences are not new. Common themes from previous UK COIN campaigns and conflicts were all evident in operations conducted in HELMAND Province. The key lesson is that we ignore previous experience of such campaigns, and those of our allies, at our peril.’

practitioner uk vii coalition ability
Practitioner UK VII(coalition ability)

‘TASK FORCE FURY were highly experienced, having been in Afghanistan at that point for 12 months; and they were a very capable force. It was illuminating to see their approach to COIN and the extent that it had become a part of them. They were equipped for it, had the training and doctrine behind them, really understood it. . . You sensed in them the extent the US Armed Forces have transformed since it looked over the Iraqi precipice and did something about it. What, to my mind, is all the more remarkable is how they have undergone that transformation, the momentum that has been generated and the commitment and attention to detail that has left no stone unturned in seeking out better solutions.’

practitioner usmc
Practitioner USMC

‘The Marines and sailors leveraged Pashtunwali to our advantage when able. We sought to establish relationships, which incurs obligations of reciprocation for deeds and respect. This pulled some Afghan tribes and villagers to us. Understanding and use of Pashtunwali assisted in our understanding of the environment, maintaining the neutral to the positive outlook of our operations and presence, and countered Taliban information ops and resurgence. . . In general, people fight based upon the norms of their cultural, historical, economic and political influences that exist in their environment. Connect the critical cultural thinking and understanding in our training and education program. Do not make the assumption that it is too complicated for the junior Marines. They understand these concepts and will care about this if the leadership cares .’

where does australia go from here
Where does Australia go from here
  • The Rudd government needs to decide if the narrative for Afghanistan needs to change—alliance debate, in your national interests, CT not COIN; what is COIN
  • The narratives are changing in the northern hemisphere
  • Population focused COIN is the way forward in the East/South
  • Provincial boundaries are breaking down in the South
  • Advisory mission is a work in progress and major changes are being discussed
  • AATTV? Serve throughout the South? Selected from across Army?
  • The Australian Army prides itself in COIN training and tactical excellence, however, the US/UK militaries have now recognised the importance of education for all commanders and OGDs to implement a COIN strategy that is properly resourced and focused—major issues in Australia with OGDs
  • Education is key and there needs to be a building block system—Weston Creek is doing COIN education for Lt Colonels and Majors, is it linked with the Lts and Captains and the NCO courses? Do the other courses need to be expanded in terms of content?
  • Assessment of what happened in Iraq is being done, however, will it be as open and critical as other armies assessments? Advisory mission heavily questioned—2 BNs from 10 Div in surge
  • There is talk of reform within the Australian Army, however, how linked is it and does it go long and deep? Many within the Army are questioning this
keys to past success in coin
Keys to past success in COIN
  • Comprehension of existing doctrine
  • Adaptation to local situations and learning from mistakes—humility to learn from others
  • Risk-taking organizations
  • Harmony of effort
  • Small-unit approach
  • Corporate memory within theatre HQs
  • Appropriate training
  • Reconciliation amongst their enemies
  • Ongoing education in COIN
  • Population security
  • Understand local perspectives—non-western metrics
  • Raise, mentor and fight alongside indigenous forces (army/paramilitary police/local auxiliaries)
  • Regular and aux indigenous forces needed
thinking within the us uk
Thinking within the US/UK

‘We have seen that it is only by a close combination of civil and military measures that insurgency can be fought, so it is logical to expect soldiers whose business it is to know how to fight, to know also how to use civil measures in this way. Not only should the army officers know about the subject, they must also be prepared to pass on their knowledge to politicians, civil servants, economists, members of the local government and policemen where necessary. The educational function of the army at these critical moments is most important. Amongst senior officers in particular, ignorance or excessive diffidence in passing along such knowledge on can be disastrous.’

Kitson, Bunch of Five