Home NATO/ISAF COIN Strategy in Afghanistan | Seminar

NATO/ISAF COIN Strategy in Afghanistan

November 03, 2010
By Centre for Land Warfare Studies


A Seminar on “'NATO/ISAF COIN Strategy in Afghanistan” was held at CLAWS on 03 November 2010. A team from Brookings Institute comprising Dr Michael E. O’ Hanlon, Dr Stephen P. Cohen and Dr Cheng Li spoke on the subject. The session was chaired by Lt Gen RK Sawhney, PVSM, AVSM (Retd), former DGMI.

Opening Remarks: Brig Gurmeet Kanwal (Retd), Director CLAWS

Counter-insurgency Operations in Afghanistan are clearly not going well despite the surge. The policy of clear, hold and transfer has not worked very well in the region and Helmand is the classic illustration of the same. The emergence of a situation of strategic stalemate is evident but what is the future course of action that can be undertaken to improve the situation? Will India be part of the final solution? How will Pakistan influence the future of this conflict?

Lt Gen Ravi Sawhney, PVSM, AVSM (Retd)

One needs to sympathise with the ISAF troops especially because they have been given a complex and unrealistic task. With limited resources, expectations are very high. The boots on ground are missing which adds up to the complexities. The time period given is highly unrealistic and it is very difficult to achieve considering the present circumstance and strategy in Afghanistan.

Michael Edward O'Hanlon

The war in Afghanistan is very important for the US and President Obama is committed to the cause. The strategy in Afghanistan is to enable the Afghan government to prevent the territory of Afghanistan from being used as a safe haven for terrorists. Issues like health care, education etc are included in US’s ‘nice to do if you can’ category but are not very crucial because it is tough to reengineer the complete country. Other things being done in Afghanistan are only to serve major/broad objectives. These include small scale development operations and do not have any military angle. The average monthly Department of Defense (DoD) spending in Afghanistan grew from USD 3.5 billion to USD 5.7 billion in June 2010 and the troop strength was increased to 98,000 in September 2010.

The July 2011 timeframe for withdrawal is not realistic. It refers to the commencement of withdrawal and not actual withdrawal. The US is not looking to establish a permanent military base in Afghanistan and only wishes to keep a check on the insurgency and to bring stability to Afghanistan. The Democratic Party in the US cannot get re-elected if it is seen to be losing this war. Therefore, President Obama is more committed to this war than most people think.

In terms of its counter-insurgency operational philosophy, the US does not simply clear and leave, it clears and ‘tries’ to hold but the enemy knows how to infiltrate while holding, because they use the powers of the fence-sitters. The current strategy of the Obama administration is to create conditions for a possible exit plan. When we revisit the strategy in summer 2011, then one would have more information to judge the success or failure of the strategy being employed in Afghanistan. The information released by ISAF is very limited and they need to be more open for proper assessment.

If the strategy fails, then President Obama may accelerate the withdrawal process after stabilising all that is in the control of the ISAF forces. Those provinces would then be handed over to the Afghan government. There are no plans to partition the country as proposed by Robert Blackwill. There is a strong focus on Plan-B which is based on the reduction of US forces and targeted counter-insurgency operations. The US forces will eventually train, mentor and partner with the Afghan Army and there may be modifications but one should not expect a radical change. Obama clearly wants the strategy to work because of which he has tripled the strength of combat forces in Afghanistan.

Stephen Cohen

It is important to realise that the future of Pakistan is more important than the future of Afghanistan. Pakistan is easily accessible and is also a nuclear power. Pakistan has four goals in Afghanistan:

• Pakistan is obsessed with its anti-India stance which has exacerbated post-1971. Pakistan wishes to counter India’s presence. An illustration of this is the fact that Indian consulates in Afghanistan have come down to 16 from the earlier 24 consulates and the numbers are going down further. 

• Pakistan wants the US to remain engaged in Pakistan as it sees US as a ‘cash cow’.

• Pakistan is concerned about the ethnic overlap with Afghan Pashtun and the concern is legitimate.

• They have to deal with the hard blowback of terrorism from within and the recent floods have made things worse.

Pakistan’s counter-insurgency operations despite military successes are handicapped due to lack of a strong civil government. COIN without a strong civil government is futile. It would have been a prudent option to focus on the region earlier.  However, with President Bush committing himself to Iraq, the war in Afghanistan was ignored, which appears to be a strategic miscalculation. The present circumstances are a result of those miscalculations and Pakistan should be included in a long term solution for the region.


• The key to stabilisation in Afghanistan is to have the right numbers  in the Afghan National Army. The present numbers are inadequate. There is also a need to involve more Muslim countries because this helps the Afghans to identify with them as opposed to their western counterparts.

• Any Indian role in the Afghan conflict is far more positive than Pakistan’s involvement but it is important to understand the constraints under which the US is operating. Any Indian presence exacerbates the problem due to its tensions with Pakistan.

• The terrorists groups operating from Pakistan are a cause of serious concern. NATO/ISAF forces can counter them in Afghanistan but it is difficult to handle them in Pakistan, especially after the limitations that Islamabad imposes on the troops.

(Report Compiled by Aditi Malhotra, Research Assistant, CLAWS)

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