Governments and Mercenaries: A New Era of Cooperation after Afghanistan?

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?

7 thoughts on “Governments and Mercenaries: A New Era of Cooperation after Afghanistan?

  1. I suggest that the counter-insurgency in Afghanistan did not fail – and for sure the islamist insurgent forces did not win anything – they merely sat around in their caves and occupied the vacuum caused by the abject failure of the centralised (Western construct) government and what was no more than men in uniforms receiving wages that masqueraded as the Afghan National Army – a concept that is totally alien to the tribal structures of that country. The ‘soldiers’ were merely doing a job in receipt of pay – that is some way from being an army.

    The islamists were sure in the knowledge that the US hegemony was going to run out of steam – it was just a question of time – the question, therefore, is why did “a fractionalised force of religious zealots driving pick-up trucks and wearing leather sandals” know that this was the ultimate outcome of the campaign, when ‘greater minds’ in the West did not?

    In that sense, Afghanistan was not a military failure – it is plainly a political failure – you cannot turn a medieval, complex, tribal society into Hampshire, irrespective of the purity of the intent. It was a shallow, ill-thought-through policy promoted and maintained over a period of 20 years, and against all the evidence, by shallow, here-today-gone-tomorrow politicians and at an astronomical expense.

    So far as you propose taking a fresh look at more innovative means of conducting hybrid warfare employing private capability is concerned, I would offer the following:

    Western governments retain the right to employ lethal force and the means for deciding when that force is applied in support of foreign policy objectives.

    I suggest that the same process (in Western governments) that thought it ‘a great idea’ to deploy lethal force into Afghanistan on an ill-defined mission (from 2004) that no-one operating there really understood, is the same process that would/will react in absolute horror at your suggestion of an innovative, output measured, cost effective and private sector means of promoting foreign policy.

    Indeed, it is a fact that such an unconventional, light touch methodology was proposed in 2011, based upon the ancient, recognised tribal self defence system (Arbakai) that would have stabilised the societies within Afghanistan in the various groupings. This was discarded by those in control on the basis that it flew in the face of, and undermined, the establishment of the Afghan National Army.

    Therefore your hope/suggestion that anyone within the corridors of Western power has the wit or experience to understand such a proposal is for the birds – Afghanistan will be a model of political, foreign policy stupidity for the next century, but don’t expect any of the political class to agree with that fact. And for sure do not expect those same politicians to change their method anytime soon.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for this George. If it can be shared publicly, it might be instructive to hear what your proposed alternative model would have been.

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  2. The commentary by George Simms, above, hit that particular nail very soundly on the head – the entire concept of nation building and raising an Afghan National Army structured in the image of Western armies, was likely to fail, bringing with it the sacrifice of too many people, soldiers and innocents alike, in pursuit of policies that were poorly understood by the very political actors who continued to forcefully promote them. Add to that mixture the absurd levels of corruption, the self serving Afghan politicians at all levels, and the ineptitude of ANA command. A potent mix of failure. As to the use of PMC concepts in Africa, I full heartedly agree with this as I have had some broad experience of my own in this area. I do though challenge the notion, as promoted by Eeben Barlow, that “African problems require African solutions”. In my experience over a period of fifty years in my military and security career, there is no doubt in my mind that Tier 1 former Special Forces operators have every skillset necessary to achieve successful outcomes in Africa (and anywhere else really). Western concepts of battle have proven very effective over the past century, while counter insurgency is an evolving skill that needs tweaking according to the area of operations, but in all reality, Western soldiers with appropriate pedigrees can contribute substantially to developing African militaries, mentoring junior leaders, and advising combat formations in the field, on operations, where the skills they teach in the classroom can be implemented tactically under combat conditions. Continuity and commitment are the key components of this concept.

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  3. To win any war you must know what the enemy accepts as defeat (occupying the capital, destroying the army …). If you cannot be bothered to get a conclusive and unequivocal answer to the question you are condemned to such meta-victories as occupying hills, ‘strategic’ points, capitals etc. and believing you are winning.

    Russia didn’t accept that they were defeated in 1812 nor did Britain in 1940.

    Defeat for the Taliban might have meant loss of money (all the drugs bought by someone else) loss of moral ascendancy (they are not called on to settle local disputes, build roads, schools or hospitals), loss of religious ascendancy (other Ulemas have emerged). If no-one finds out all the COIN doctrines going will not prevail in the long term.

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