FPI Policy Advisor John Noonan interviews CFR Senior Fellow Max Boot

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FPI Policy Advisor John Noonan recently discussed the situation in Afghanistan with Max Boot, the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.  This interview will be the first in an occasional series with leading figures in foreign policy. 

There have been accusations that our current COIN strategy doesn’t fit Afghanistan’s fragmented, tribal culture. Have there been historical examples of successful counterinsurgencies in geographically and demographically analogous nations, and how can NATO overcome the challenges posed by Afghanistan’s unique human terrain?

Every counterinsurgency is unique—and the same. Every such effort requires establishing governmental authority in a place where it has broken down; if it hadn’t broken down there would have been on insurgency to begin with. Significant obstacles often involve corruption, inefficiency, and the prevalence of local powerbrokers, some of whom make common cause with the insurgents, others of whom fight the insurgents but do so in ways that are so bloody as to alienate the population. A successful counterinsurgent must beat back the insurgency militarily while at the same time creating governmental institutions capable of addressing the peoples’ grievance and preventing a resurgence of the insurrection. The details of each such effort vary, because no country is the same as any other. But suffice it to say that most counterinsurgents do prevail (since 1945, they have won about 60% of the time) and that tribalism, of the kind found in Afghanistan, has never been an insuperable obstacle to counterinsurgency success. Iraq, most recently, was riven by tribal divisions, and the insurgency there has suffered numerous setbacks.  Iraq actually is more divided than Afghanistan because in Iraq there was a virtual civil war going on pitting Shiites vs Sunnis, whereas in Afghanistan the insurgency is confined to one ethnic group (the Pashtuns) who comprise less than 50% of the population.

Tribes exist in both countries but they are by no means the most important actors; indeed the power of tribal elders has declined over the years as various powerbrokers and warlords have risen to the fore.  In many ways the greatest difficulty in Afghanistan isn’t the “human terrain,” it’s the physical terrain—namely the fact that Afghanistan is a sprawling country with lots of mountainous areas where insurgents can hide and long, unpoliceable borders with Pakistan which is supporting the Taliban. That presents a real challenge for a force of fewer than 300,000 counterinsurgents (NATO troops + Afghan army). But such challenges too have been overcome before; rebels have been defeated in mountainous nations such as Peru and Colombia. Perhaps the most daunting challenge is the sanctuary the Taliban receives in Pakistan. We are not going to invade Pakistan to deny the terrorists safe haven and the government of Pakistan is probably not going to take decisive military action on its own, although it is doing more than it used to do. Nevertheless, it should be possible to improve the security and governance situation in Afghanistan; indeed the situation in Afghanistan was much better between 2002 and 2005 at a time when the people of Afghanistan were heartily sick of the Taliban and had great expectations of their own government and the international community.

Many of those expectations have been unmet in the years since; the people have especially been alienated by the behavior of predatory, corrupt officials who claim to speak in the name of the Afghan government. If the international community can reduce the level of corruption and improve slightly the delivery of services we are likely to find support for the Taliban evaporating notwithstanding tribalism, geography, or other factors.


President Obama’s timeline for withdrawal has come under intense scrutiny, particularly after the resignation of General McChrystal. Is the timeline hampering our efforts, or is it working as planned – helping to motivate and incentivize the Afghan government to reform into a competent administrative organization?

The timeline is a real problem. I see no evidence that it has provided an incentive for the Karzai government to get serious about reform; if anything it has led Karzai to try to strike deals (with Iran, Pakistan, even the Taliban) as a hedge against American withdrawal. The timeline has reinforced the feeling that the Taliban can wait us out. It would be very helpful if President Obama were to be more explicit in saying what most everyone in Washington understands—that he is interpreting the timeline loosely and will not necessarily demand a major withdrawal beginning next summer. Even Joe Biden, the leading opponent of the Afghan counterinsurgency strategy within the administration, has said that the drawdown may only amount to a few thousand troops. That gives Gen. Petraeus a year to show results and try to set back the Washington clock. That’s about the same amount of time he had in Iraq. Even though President Bush didn’t advertise a timeline in advance, there is little doubt that surge troops would have started coming home from Iraq in 2008 whether they had succeeded or not.

In Afghanistan, President Obama is actually said to be operating under a two-year rule—i.e., giving troops two years in any particular location to “clear, hold and build.” Considering that some surge forces are only hitting the ground now, and are entering areas where the coalition has not operated in size before, that means at least two more years of sustained counterinsurgency on the ground to turn around the situation.  That gives Petraeus a fighting chance to prevail.


There have been concerns about the competence of the Karzai government and US civilian leaders like Ambassador Eikenberry. What are we doing right on the non-military side of the fight, what are we doing wrong, and how can we improve the effectiveness of our civilian institutions in Afghanistan?

On the plus side there has been a civilian surge to go along with the military surge. The civilian side of the U.S. government should get credit for its participation in Provincial Reconstruction Teams and District Support Teams which, when well led, can be a valuable part of an overall counterinsurgency strategy. The problem has been that there has been too little coordination at the top—not only between the U.S. military and the U.S. Embassy but also between both of them and other foreign contributors, international agencies such as the UN, and  NGOs. It will be extremely difficult to get all of these institutions marching in lockstep but the starting point has to be a tight relationship between the senior U.S. military and civilian representatives—something that was lacking in the days of Gen. Stan McChrystal and Amb. Karl Eikenberry.

It is too soon to know how the Petraeus-Eikenberry relationship will work out but there are reasons to be hopeful: Petraeus is extremely adept at diplomacy himself and Eikenberry must realize that his time in the job will be limited if he doesn’t get along with a commander of Petraeus’s experience and stature. One of the key tasks for both men in the future is to establish a good working relationship with President Karzai—something that has been lacking in the past. Petraeus is off to a good start, meeting with the Afghan president virtually every day and declining to criticize him in public while, presumably, pushing him in private to make much-needed reforms. 


Your point that an insurgency cannot be defeated without firm entrenchment of constituted authorities is well taken. But how do US civilian and military leaders degrade the endemic corruption and inefficiency that’s come to be synonymous with Karzai rule? Defeating the enemy on the battlefield is one thing, but reforming allies is a much more thorny undertaking, is it not?

Reforming allies is tricky but not impossible. Petraeus did it in Iraq by pushing Maliki and other Shiite leaders to confront the Shiite militias, principally Moqtadqa al Sadr's Jaish al Mahdi. In Afghanistan he must push Karzai to confront malign actors including his own brothers. That's a tough sell, admittedly, but with 140,000 troops in the country, Petraeus has newfound leverage to achieve that objective: our forces can significantly impinge on the economic interests of corrupt officials and their cronies. The recent Central Bank takeover of the shady Kabul Bank, which has served as a piggy bank for Afghanistan's elites, is a good starting point in terms of cleaning out Afghanistan's rotten financial system. 


Some leading pundits and commentators in the United States have argued that regressing to a pre-9/11 paradigm in Afghanistan is strategically acceptable and preferable to sustaining a conflict already into its ninth year. What would be the consequences of a precipitous NATO withdrawal, would it be viewed as a defeat, and how would it effect the larger effort to combat terrorism globally?

A precipitous NATO withdrawal would be a disaster. Osama bin Laden & Co. would crow that they had defeated another superpower and their movement would be turbocharged across the world. The Taliban would take over much of southern Afghanistan and advance on Kabul, sparking a terrible civil war with the forces that once belonged to the Northern Alliance. In Pakistan Islamist extremists, including the Pakistan Taliban, will be spurred in their own drive on Islamabad. The US would have to deal with a strategic disaster the likes of which we have not seen since the fall of South Vietnam. 


The rules of engagement, which govern military operations in Afghanistan, have recently been criticized as overly restricting and potentially hazardous to American soldiers. Do you believe the current ROEs are too kinetically wary, or are they properly tailored for General Petraeus’ population-center strategy?

The Rules of Engagement, and their associated tactical directives, are designed to strike a balance by allowing troop to go aggressively after the enemy without harming too many civilians--which can create more enemies than we can eliminate. There is some evidence that the rules were interpreted too tightly by some units under Gen. McChrystal. Accordingly Gen. Petraeus is trying to clear away red tape and communicate his intent more clearly to the troops. They should never doubt that they can call on all the firepower they need to win a fight--but they should never use firepower so promiscuously or inexactly that they will alienate the population and thus lose the war.


You noted that it would take two years of sustained operations for the surge to have a meaningful, lasting impact. With the understanding that quantifiable progress in a counterinsurgency is often nebulous, what key indicators will measure the effectiveness of our strategy? In short, how will we know if we’re winning?

One big measurement of success or lack thereof is the number of civilian casualties. Typically these figures spike in the early stages of a tough COIN fight and then go down. I would expect to see that pattern in Afghanistan, while keeping in mind that violence is much lower overall and much less concentrated than it was in Iraq, so we will not see as big and immediate a drop in violence as we saw in Iraq in 2007. Some other factors to watch include public opinion (do the people favor the government or the insurgents? do they perceive the government as legitimate and representative? do they view corruption as a crippling problem?), the state of the legitimate economy (growing or shrinking?), the ability to move on the roads (is travel impeded by illegal checkpoints and bombs? what is the cost of transporting goods?), money outflows (is a lot of money leaving the country or is more of it staying at home?), public participation in shuras (are people taking part in government or are they too cowed to do so?), and the state of elections (free and fair, or corrupt and illegitimate?).

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