Counterinsurgency, What Do You Really Know?
Thesis: Counterinsurgency theory says that obtaining knowledge about the local human “terrain” will help the counterinsurgent win the support of the locals, thus helping to end the insurgency. Our experience in Afghanistan suggests this effort is useless.
The United States has spent a lot of effort trying to learn about the human terrain in Afghanistan. It developed a formal system (Human Terrain Teams) but more generally, knowing the locals is a key tenet of counterinsurgency. When Andrew Exum, one of America’s counterinsurgents, traveled to Afghanistan in the summer of 2009 as a member of Stanley McChrystal’s assessment team, he found the knowledge of the local terrain lacking. As related in Michael Hastings’s book The Operators:
In one meeting, Exum drills down on the briefers. Who controls the water? Who are the local power brokers? Tell me how they are related to the insurgency. The intel officers shrug… (Page 79)
The point here is that in 2009, according to the counterinsurgency experts, the US did not know the human terrain. We didn’t know the sources of the insurgency. In response, the military undertook a serious and concerted effort to fill in the knowledge gap. About 18 months later, in December 2010, Exum was impressed how well the intelligence officers had learned about the human geography:
1. Our intelligence at the tactical level is greatly improved. Eighteen months ago, as I traveled around Afghanistan for the former commander here, intelligence officers were outstanding in terms of providing information on the enemy: size, disposition, composition, most likely course of action, etc. When it came to providing political intelligence on “white actors” or explaining local tribal dynamics, though, most intelligence officers did not have much to offer. What a difference 18 months makes. This time around, when an intelligence officer began a briefing, he or she usually began by explaining the human geography of their area of operations and only later focused on the insurgency as a part of that human geography. I am so impressed with how sophisticated the analysis provided by intelligence officers today is when compared with not too long ago.
Here is my question: Has this acquired expertise helped end the insurgency?
It is, admittedly, a tough question to answer because insurgencies don’t end on the deck of the USS Missouri. But almost none of the trends appear to be trending towards the end of the insurgency. 2010 and 2011 were the deadliest two years for the US military. More Afghan civilians died in 2010 and 2011 than any years. Hamid Karzai does not appear to have increased his legitimacy among the Afghan population. There are still safe havens in Pakistan. Afghan support for the US Military has been trending downward since 2005. The insurgency still rages a full year after Exum said, “Counterinsurgency, as practiced at the tactical level, is the best I have ever seen it practiced.”
I am, obviously enough, against the war in Afghanistan. But I am willing to look for evidence that the insurgency is close to ending, and I just don’t see it. So what did our expertise in the local human geography get us?
The answer, I think, is that we know a whole lot more about the Afghan populace than we did in 2009,* but that information is almost perfectly useless. It turns out that knowing who controls the water in a specific valley in Afghanistan doesn’t really matter to the context of the Afghan insurgency. Let me put it another way: The information gleaned from studying Afghanistan’s human geography has not helped end the insurgency.
* I think there is another possibility here. When Exum first asked the intel officers his questions in 2009, they didn’t know what to expect. They were blindsided like a kid given a pop quiz who didn’t do the reading. When Exum came back in 2010, the intel officers knew what to expect, so they prepared accordingly. It may not reflect a real knowledge of human geography. (Which wouldn’t necessarily be useful anyway.)