Christopher Kinsey, Defence Studies Department, and Bob Parr, PhD student at King’s College London and a 25-year veteran of UK Special Forces
Images of appalling violence and humanitarian distress surrounding the recently completed crisis evacuations from Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul have brought into sharp relief the failure of the Afghan Armed Forces to contain a Taliban insurgency mounted by inferior numbers of poorly equipped men. Despite being resourced with a decade or more of training and sophisticated military hardware valued at more than 100 billion US dollars, soldiers of the Afghan state succumbed to a fractionalised force of religious zealots driving pick-up trucks and wearing leather sandals.
The reasons for this failure are manifold, and no doubt will be subject to commentary, analysis and debate for years to come. Whilst it appears self-evident that President Ashraf Ghani’s decision to flee overseas rather than remain in Afghanistan and exhort his soldiers to hold out played a big part in the rapid collapse of state resistance to the Taliban’s advance, the bigger question is why, after so much investment in the country’s Armed Forces across such a protracted period, had the insurgents not already been effectively contained, or even defeated?
One answer to this that has some merit is that it is simply impossible to defeat an ideology, particularly one that is driven by religious zealots. It is, however, possible to contain an armed insurgency, no matter what its cause, provided the strategies and tactics employed are appropriate for the situation at hand. History is littered with examples of such containment: communism in Malaysia and Colombia; Islamic separatism in the Philippines; and Dhofari separatism in the Sultanate of Oman, to name just a few. Given the proactive support of the United States and its Coalition partners in the so-called ‘War on Terror’, what appears to have been missing in Afghanistan, more than anything else, were appropriate counterinsurgency strategies and tactics.
Could it be fair to argue then, that the West has simply been getting it wrong? That the application of Western counterinsurgency doctrine is inappropriate and, more importantly, ineffective for a place like Afghanistan?
Comparisons with other countries where the West is engaged in the training of armed forces facing insurgency can be instructive. Nigeria is a case in point. The country’s struggle against Boko Haram, a fundamentalist Islamic grouping affiliated with the Islamic State, has ebbed and flowed through its north-eastern region since 2009 with only limited military success, despite the protracted training and arming of its state forces by the UK, the US and others. Approaching the presidential election of 2015, a private military company (PMC) called Specialised Tasks, Training, Equipment & Protection (STTEP) was contracted by the Nigerian government to raise and train a state military force that could push Boko Haram out of the region and reclaim an overrun swathe of the country as large as Belgium. This seemed to be a tall order, given its limited time, budget and resources. But this is exactly what the company managed to achieve, and in less than five weeks.
STTEP’s chairman, former South African Defence Force officer Eeben Barlow, is adamant that the reasons for the company’s success were centred around its intimate cultural knowledge of the operational theatre (STTEP’s men were all Africans); the application of an aggressive military doctrine known as ‘relentless pursuit’ aimed at the annihilation of the enemy; and the embedding of STTEP instructors alongside the Nigerian soldiers as they operationalised their mission. Barlow insists that capabilities taught by Western defence engagement programmes with the Nigerians had been ineffectual, as were UK counterinsurgency tactics taught to Sierra Leone’s soldiers in the mid-1990’s. Here, Barlow’s previous company Executive Outcomes took the fight to the enemy on behalf of Sierra Leone’s government using minimal resources, and in doing so prevented the near certainty of a genocide in the country’s capital city, Freetown.
So, what is the inference of all the above?
Firstly, it is very clear from President Joseph Biden’s decision to abruptly withdraw US forces from Afghanistan that his administration intends continuing Trump’s policy of ‘America First’. This inevitably means the withdrawal of US military forces from low intensity conflict arenas around the world. Secondly, the West retains an interest in such arenas, not least because left alone, they historically spawn antagonists such as al-Qaeda. Thirdly, if counterinsurgency strategies and tactics we are teaching our defence engagement partners are ineffectual, even when supported by the provision of resources on an heroic scale such as in Afghanistan, is there an alternative model?
Is it in fact time we stopped demonising companies such as STTEP and Executive Outcomes, and instead embrace what they have to offer? That is, to regard them as potential defence partners and force multipliers in a world where the complexities of conflict require the application of hybrid solutions rather than the predictability of outmoded, predictable and, as so tragically evidenced by recent events in Afghanistan, failed counterinsurgency doctrines? Russia is already doing this in Libya and elsewhere with Wagner Group, a Russian PMC providing an effective counterinsurgency response in coordination with Khalifa Haftar and the Libyan National Army. We in the West appear to be somewhat behind the curve, more concerned about how such actors might sully our image than countering insurgencies. A new era of cooperation between governments and what we tend to pejoratively term ‘mercenaries’ is upon us. Crucially, do we embrace the growing market for force and its potential for capacity building in difficult arenas, or do we ignore it?