Afghanistan and the big flaw in US counterinsurgency doctrine

Afghanistan and the big flaw in US counterinsurgency doctrine

While we struggle to understand the U.S. failure in Afghanistan, an important element that must be included in the discussion is a fundamental flaw at the heart of U.S. counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine. That doctrine has historical roots that go as far back as the Indian Wars and the Philippines. But in its contemporary iteration, American COIN doctrine is nearly synonymous with the U.S. Army’s Field Manual 3-24, originally published in 2006 under the imprimatur of General David Petraeus. Petraeus in turn drew heavily from French COIN doctrine, which itself has roots in France’s fin-de-siècle colonial adventures but achieved its fullest expression in the Algerian War (1954-1962). And that precisely is where the problem lies.

Petraeus’s direct inspiration was French Lieutenant Colonel David Galula (1919-1967), who was not the only French officer to develop COIN doctrine in the 1950s and not even necessarily the best, but he was the only one who wrote in English. Galula wrote convincingly about the need to provide security to local populations and to minimize combat operations in favor of hearts-and-minds efforts.

Galula had his men integrate themselves in local communities; he won the trust of villagers and succeeded in mobilizing locals to provide security and isolate insurgents. He did not do much fighting, and he criticized what Americans would later term “kinetic” operations as unlikely to achieve meaningful results. There is a direct line from his ideas to Petraeus’s, and later to the direction General Stanley McChrystal gave while in command in Afghanistan. 


Galula’s ideas are not without merit, and there is a lot the French did in Algeria that might be applicable elsewhere. But Petraeus and other American enthusiasts in the 2000s appear to have overlooked entirely the historical context in which Galula wrote and the fundamental difference between then and now: Galula wrote in a colonial context. We are operating in a post-colonial context. Galula’s objective was perpetuating colonial rule. He, as a French officer, was fighting in France’s name to shore up France’s legitimacy. In contrast, we fight in someone else’s name to shore up someone else’s legitimacy. 

At its most concrete, the difference between colonial and post-colonial settings boils down to what one can offer the population, which, per FM 3-24, is the true “center of gravity” in an insurgency. Galula emphasizes in his writing that a key part of the colonial regime’s pitch to the population is that the colonial power is not going anywhere. Therefore, siding with the colonial power and supporting it tacitly or actively is a reasonable choice. One can trust that which will always be there.

This argument undoubtedly helped France recruit large numbers of locals to fight under French colors. In contrast, the post-colonial foreign power that broadcasts its intention to leave from the moment it first arrives faces a far more difficult time rallying and sustaining support.

No one really has figured out how a third-party military intervention shores up the legitimacy of a client state in a post-colonial context. FM 3-24 has no answers. Interestingly, current French doctrine, updated in 2013, at least acknowledges explicitly that everything has changed, and it highlight the limits on what a post-colonial intervening force can do. In essence: The client state’s existing political leadership has to rewrite the social contract, the failure of which is what made insurgency thrive. But it is not the intervening force’s place to write it, nor is it its place to impose an alien order. 

All the intervening force can do is support the existing indigenous political structure, while the existing indigenous political structure orients “and even constrains” the intervention force. This approach necessarily demands great modesty on the part of the intervening country, as it places responsibility for success largely with the host nation. It also means that there is an almost inevitable tension between the intervening force’s agenda and its client, and between its timeline and the host’s own tempo.


The distinction between colonial and post-colonial and the modesty required in the latter context sheds considerable light on what went wrong for the U.S. in Afghanistan. Without the distinction in mind, our government and military fell victim to inappropriate levels of ambition and paid insufficient attention to the strengths and weaknesses of its Afghan partners, who were in the driver’s seat.

It also meant that whatever transpired would be according to their priorities, and at their rhythm, which we had no reason to expect would match our incessant need to achieve success before the end of each period of performance, deployment or presidential term.

Michael Shurkin is a former CIA officer and RAND senior political scientist. He is director of global programs at 14 North Strategies and the founder of Shurbros Global Strategies.