It is impossible to understand the War in Afghanistan, now the longest war in American history, much less the motives for the United States to lead this international engagement, without first understanding Afghanistan itself and considering the historical context preceding and surrounding the war. After the attacks on September 11, 2001, the United States’ foreign policy focused on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency: namely, disbanding al-Qaeda and removing the Taliban from power in Afghanistan.
When the Taliban refused to hand over Osama bin Laden, a founding member of al-Qaeda wanted for his involvement in the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. launched Operation Enduring Freedom with the support of the United Kingdom on October 7, 2001. This bilateral alliance expanded into a multinational effort with the formation of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) by the United Nations Security Council in December 2001.
The ISAF divided Afghanistan into four regional commands (RCs) each one with troop contributions from a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member working together to prevent the fragile state from becoming/remaining a sanctuary for terrorism. The United States commanded the most unstable region with the highest level of insurgency activity, the RC-East, with a state-building mission: to improve security, build local governance, and encourage economic and social development.
Robert Kemp is an active-duty Foreign Service Officer who served in Afghanistan in 2004-2005 and 2007-2008 and published Counterinsurgency in Eastern Afghanistan 2004-2008: A Civilian Perspective in 2014 as part of the ADST Diplomats and Diplomacy Series. The excerpts from his book below explain Afghanistan’s fragile state — the corrupt government which failed to provide security to its citizens, tension among competing nations in a complex social structure of clashing ethno-linguistic identities, and the underdeveloped economy — which, along with an exhaustive history of war, rendered the country vulnerable to violent insurgent groups vying for power. Kemp also discusses how American development efforts fared against these challenges in this firsthand account.
History of Afghanistan since 1979: A Series of Wars
KEMP: Viewed during the years immediately following the U.S.-led overthrow of the Taliban, Afghanistan had suffered a tremendous amount of physical damage, inflicted by twenty-five years of war on an already minimal infrastructure.
Much of Kabul was ruined, highway bridges on the major routes out of town were destroyed, public services were minimal to non-existent, and the population was generally exhausted. This was the result of five periods of warfare with almost no intervening periods of peace.
The first period was the Soviet invasion, when uprisings against the government, notably in Herat Province in western Afghanistan and in Kunar Province in the east, were followed by the deployment of the Soviet 40th Army in December 1979. This war lasted ten years, reaching its height in 1985, when the Soviets made a final major push to win the war — while also devastating the countryside in a counterinsurgency strategy based on forced depopulation.
The results of this strategy can be seen to this day, not only in the Afghan refugees still living in Pakistan and Iran, but in destroyed irrigation systems, numerous minefields, and ruined villages.
The second period of warfare pitted the Communist regime of President Najibullah against the mujaheddin groups formed to fight the Soviets, ending in 1992 with the collapse of his regime.
Following this was a period many Afghans remember as worse than the Soviet war: the fighting between the various mujaheddin factions. This civil war resulted in the destruction of much of Kabul, particularly West Kabul, areas of which remained in ruin in 2004.
Partly in reaction to the resulting anarchy, a fourth period of fighting ensued with the Pakistani-backed Taliban beginning operations in Kandahar Province in November 1994 and subsequently advancing to capture Herat and eventually Kabul.
Finally, the fifth period of war began with the U.S.-sponsored defeat of the Taliban and al-Qaeda in late 2001. Following the October 2001 invasion by the U.S.-led coalition, the nature of the conflict along the border changed and evolved.
After clashing with coalition forces — including a battle in the Shah-i-Kot area of Paktia province — al-Qaeda and much of the Taliban leadership fled into Pakistan. There followed a period during which local strongmen struggled for power, while the coalition and Afghan government also acted to increase their control.
After appearing largely defeated, the Taliban and associated insurgents intensified their operations in the border provinces beginning in the spring of 2005, mostly through an increased quantity and sophistication of improvised explosive devices (IED) strikes but also through coordinated attacks on patrols, indirect fire attacks on bases, propaganda campaigns, and attacks on pro-government and pro-coalition Afghans….
General Overview of the Government of Afghanistan (GOA)
The general structure of local governance had been established over previous decades, although the series of wars had caused already weak structures to deteriorate. In theory, the Afghan government is a strongly centralized system, with power mostly flowing from Kabul. In practice, the central government had limited influence in much of RC-East, due to lack of financial and human resources, corruption, inefficiency, and the inherent difficulty of governing the border regions and its people.
Roles and responsibilities were defined in law, although in practice it was often ad hoc driven by personality and varied considerably between and within provinces. The relationship between the central government in Kabul and the provinces was not always clear and often depended on personal relationships.
At the top of the local political hierarchy were the provincial governments, headed by governors, appointed directly in Kabul for open-ended terms. Ministries’ representatives for provinces reported to Kabul and were not accountable to the governor. The district governors, also appointed [and] the only officials the majority of Afghans ever met, were on the bottom rung of governance. Municipal government was ill-defined in many ways, covering both urban and rural areas of varying sizes….
During this period, the Afghan government at all levels — national, provincial, district, and municipal — was undergoing a slow and difficult process of reestablishing itself. Rebuilding (or building) government in the middle of an insurgency, with limited human and financial resources, was difficult, and tribes and communities often provided governance where the reach of the formal government did not extend.
At least on paper, Afghanistan has one of the world’s most centralized governments, which put control of development planning and funding in the ministries in Kabul. At the same time, the ministries were “stove-piped,” with lines of authority extending directly to officials of that ministry in the provinces, often bypassing governors’ or mayors’ offices….
“Whoever could provide stability and an end to the violence had a chance to win popular support”
While the violence and dislocations of the last decades certainly had a strong impact on Afghanistan, the cultural constants that held the Afghans together still remained. Foremost was Islam, which reached every corner of society, and was an immensely strong influence at both the individual and community levels. The role of families was also very strong, along with kinship units. In Pashtun areas the “Pashtunwali” cultural code remained, and provided strong behavioral norms and social frameworks.
These were tough people, physically resilient, often willing to use violence, and often courageous (a bravery it seems in part driven by social norms and expectations but also perhaps by deep religious beliefs and the reality of short lifespans). Gender separation was often stark, particularly in rural areas where women spend much of their time in family compounds. Rules governing women’s behavior were often strict, especially in rural areas, and could be harshly enforced.
A significant percentage of the population had been displaced internally or externally by wars since 1979, adding another stress on this society, and many had spent time in nearby refugee camps in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA)… [in] Peshawar [the capital city of the Pakistani province Khyber Pakhtunkhwa].
As the Pakistani government closed the camps … during this period, thousands of refugees cross[ed] the border, often on short notice. While the government of Afghanistan and [United States] coalition would scramble to respond, extended families and tribal networks often absorb[ed] these populations.
The series of wars beginning in 1979 had, by 2004, exhausted much of the population in the border areas, which was probably bordering on collective post-traumatic stress disorder. This fatigue presented opportunities to both sides — whoever could provide stability and an end to the violence had a chance to win popular support. Security was most people’s highest priority —including protection from insurgents, thieves, militias, and enemy tribes, not to mention corrupt security forces. Economic prosperity — jobs and income — was a close second….
The main ethnic groups in RC-East were Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras and Nuristanis, with some smaller groups including the Pashai. Along the border areas, the Pashtuns were by far the largest group, with the Hazaras in the central highlands, the Nuristanis in the far northeastern part of the country and the Tajiks further north away from the border (see map).
Some of these groups, particularly in the cities, were ethnically mixed, and often spoke more than one language. The Kuchis, a mostly Pashtun nomadic group that migrated between Pakistan and Afghanistan looking for pasture for their animals, often caused friction with the settled populations. Where the lands of these ethnic groups met — particularly where Hazara and Pashtun groups came together — there were often tensions.
Tribes remained strong in some areas, particularly the Pashtun areas in Khost, Paktika, Paktia and Nangarhar. There were a bewildering array of tribes and sub-tribes with often contentious complex relations between themselves. Many of these border tribes claim swaths of territory on both sides of the frontier, and move across at will.
In others areas tribal influence had waned, due to historical, social or cultural factors, or had never been strong to begin with. The world of the border tribes was changing rapidly, as improved roads, communications, and increased government involvement came to the area. Clearly, understanding the people was vital to winning the counterinsurgency and to developing sustainable political and economic institutions….
Trying to rebuild one of the poorest countries in the world
Afghanistan was and is one of the poorest countries in the world: the United Nations Development Program’s (UNDP’s) 2004 report on Human Development Index noted that “Afghanistan’s  HDI value of 0.346 falls at the bottom of the list of low human development countries, just above Burundi, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Sierra Leone.” Life expectancy in 2002 was just over 44 years, and national literacy rate was just above 28% (but only 14.1 percent for females), one of the lowest among developing countries. Adjusted per-capita GDP was only $822.
Particularly in the rural areas of RC-East, the general lack of basic services and the meager gains from subsistence farming could be shocking to outsiders from developed countries. While these numbers improved by 2008, clearly this very low baseline was a challenge for development workers and counterinsurgency efforts.
Much of the population in RC-East is rural, subsisting on irrigated crops and livestock, while the towns support small shopkeepers and limited light industry. Overall, poverty is endemic, and even the most well-off towns are far from wealthy….
Local economies in Afghan border provinces had strong commercial ties across the border with some Pakistani towns acting as market and service hubs for Afghans. Pakistani rupees were used as a parallel currency. While most of this informal trade was benign, there was also considerable smuggling of merchandise, drugs, timber and gems from Afghanistan into Pakistan.
One of the driving factors was the Afghan Transit Trade Agreement, originally signed in 1965, and updated in June 2011. This agreement allowed some goods to be imported duty-free into Afghanistan for use there, but created a strong incentive to smuggle these items back into Pakistan at a profit.
The drug trade also drove cross-border smuggling with precursor chemicals coming into Afghanistan, and opium, heroin, and hashish moving in the opposite direction. Although poppy production in RC-East was small relative to southern Afghanistan, in some years Nangarhar had a significant crop, and labs in this province refined raw opium apparently brought from other parts of Afghanistan….
State and Social Disintegration
Although the physical damage resulting from the wars beginning in 1979 was what immediately struck any outsider,…various social classes during the 2003-2008 period made it clear that the damage to society was even more extensive. First was the sheer number of people killed, with more than one million Afghan civilians losing their lives in the war against the Soviets out of an estimated population of sixteen million in 1979.
Equally striking were the masses of refugees, with more than five million displaced mostly to Iran and Pakistan but also to Europe, North America, and Australia. More subtle damages were the cleavages within society primarily along ethnic lines. In some areas, such as Khost Province in the east, deep divisions existed between those who sided with the Communist regime and those who fought with the mujaheddin.
The Taliban years also left social rifts between those who fought with the Taliban and those (particularly in Tajik and Hazara areas) who opposed them. Adding to this is the fundamental disturbance to the tribal system, particularly in the Pashtun areas where it had been both a local government and a source of stability. On a larger scale, the last 25 years of Pakistani involvement in Afghan affairs had caused considerable resentment and suspicion on the part of Afghans….
Insurgent Groups and Their Strategies
The insurgency in RC-East was neither monolithic nor easily understood. Terms such as “anti-coalition militias” or “al-Qaeda and associated militias” were used by the United States as catch-all phrases but were not particularly useful in defining an insurgency composed of many factions. The number of players involved in the insurgency also did not allow an easy analysis of the goals of the insurgency other than a general intent of forcing the coalition out of Afghanistan, toppling the GOA, seizing power, and forming an Islamic state.
Along the frontier with Pakistan, the insurgency included not only the Taliban but also al-Qaeda, the Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG) [founded by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a U.S.-designated “global terrorist”], foreign jihadists (perhaps Pakistani extremists groups), and fighters associated with Jalaluddin Haqqani, a former minister in the Taliban government. The motivation and goals of these organizations differed… with some overlap and probably some degree of coordination between the groups. At the same time, not all of these groups were active in all border areas — Hekmatyar operated more in Kunar and Nangarhar, while Haqqani’s network focused on Khost, Paktia, and Paktika, later reaching Kabul.
In some cases, money rather than ideology drove attacks on coalition or Afghan forces, as in the case of a poor farmer receiving money from the Taliban to set off an IED. Similarly, some attacks may have been related to the narcotics business.
In other cases, Afghans in remote areas were hostile to outsiders in general, and would take pot-shots at any intruders into their valley. This complex situation at times made it difficult to know what adversary had initiated an attack and for what reason —and by extension, made it more difficult to develop an effective counterinsurgency strategy….
The Taliban was the largest and most important of the groups composing the insurgency during this period. It could be viewed in two, overlapping ways: as an ideological organization committed to spreading a conservative view of Islam and as an ethnic Pashtun organization, one that promoted Pashtun interests….
The locals viewed Taliban attacks on security forces and pro-government Afghans as a cause of further instability and violence in a population that badly wanted peace and stability….
Across the border in Peshawar, many educated Pashtuns had a more benign and supportive view of the Taliban. They saw the Taliban as promoting and protecting ethnic Pashtuns from threats … from other ethnic groups, governments, or military forces… although this appeared to change by 2008 as the Taliban increased its operations in Pakistan….
The insurgency was composed of several different groups with different goals. A UNAMA [United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan] political officer based out of Gardez [a district south of Kabul] during this time, Sebastian Trives, accurately describes the strategy of the insurgent groups in RC-East:
“Prevent government outreach by estranging the population from it. This is done through the intensification of propaganda, the targeting of government personnel and infrastructure, and the creation of an atmosphere of fear within communities fueled by intimidation as well as acts of violence and killings targeting individuals seen to be pro-government.
Continue to target the international presence, both civil and military, in order to limit its operational space in the short term, while at the same time augmenting the political costs of involvement for the governments of the main contributing countries.”
The Haqqani network, an important insurgent group in eastern Afghanistan, intended to “force the departure of Coalition forces, primarily in their territory of Loya Paktia (the provinces of Paktika, Khost, and Paktia) through sustained harassment and persistent attacks aimed at creating an atmosphere of instability.”
In assessing the group’s current goals and projected activities, this same source indicates that the Haqqanis may also “seek to strengthen their negotiating position ahead of any reconciliation talks” and “may in fact be angling for de facto control of the Southeast;” in addition, the group wants to increase its influence in Logar and Ghazni in order to attack nearby Kabul, and control part of Route 1 that runs between Kabul and Kandahar.
Throughout the period 2004−2008, the insurgents were establishing shadow governments and justice systems, co-opting some tribes, establishing bases within Afghanistan, expanding the areas where they could operate, and hindering development projects. The ultimate goal of the Taliban was to regain control of Afghanistan.
The U.S.’s Three-Pillar Approach to COIN
In broadest terms, the strategy of the government of Afghanistan was reflected in the Afghan National Development Strategy (ANDS), adopted in 2008. This had as its main goals:
1. Security: Achieve nationwide stabilization, strengthen law enforcement, and improve personal security for every Afghan.
2. Governance, Rule of Law and human Rights: Strengthen democratic practice and institutions, human rights, rule of law, delivery of public services and government accountability.
3. Economic and Social Development: Reduce poverty, ensure sustainable development through a private sector-led market economy, improve human development indicators, and make significant progress towards the Millennium Development Goals.
In general, U.S. counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy in RC-East paralleled the GOA’s strategy, with a three-pillar approach. Counternarcotics and information operations were subordinate but important elements. Rule of law (which could be included under the governance pillar) and counterterrorism (CT) (which could be included under security) were also major elements of the strategy….
During the early part of this period, Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan (CFC-A), the overall command of U.S. forces including those in RC-East, had this mission statement:
“Conduct full-spectrum operations throughout the combined joint operations area to defeat al-Qaeda and associated movements, establish an enduring Afghan security structure and reshape its posture for the Long War in order to set the conditions for long-term stability in Afghanistan.”
This command mandated three main lines of effort for Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF): security; economic and strategic reconstruction; and governance and justice. The desired end-state of CFC-A was “a moderate, stable and representative Afghanistan capable of controlling and governing its territory.”
By 2007–8 additional troops were available in RC-East. These additional resources allowed for smaller bases and combat outposts to be established, moving forces off the larger bases and closer to the population. This made sense in terms of securing the local population from attacks or intimidation by the insurgents, an important factor in counterinsurgency. But it added to the logistical problems of supplying outposts in remote areas, particularly during the winter months; moreover, these outposts were vulnerable to enemy attacks.
By early 2009, the U.S. Military reported to Congress that
“The strategic goals of the U.S. are that Afghanistan is: 1) never again a safe haven for terrorists and is a reliable, stable ally in the War on Terror; 2) moderate and democratic, with a thriving private sector economy; 3) capable of governing its territory and borders; and 4) respectful of the rights of all its citizens.”
The Security Council originally delegated a range of responsibilities to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) — in particular managing relief, recovery and reconstruction, holding elections, and providing strategic advice to other actors such as the U.S. military. This has the ultimate goal of promoting peace and stability in order to achieve national reconciliation. UNAMA’s role in RC-East specifically was (and is) to implement the UN’s political strategy of Afghan relief, reconstruction, and development, with particular concern for the maintenance of schools and commitment to the completion of construction projects.
Improving security, expanding the reach of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF, pictured), and countering insurgents was the main effort in RC-East during this period, and considerable amounts of effort and money were expended towards this end.
U.S. counterinsurgency and counterterrorism efforts in eastern Afghanistan in 2004 and 2005 were predominantly focused on the border with Pakistan, where the majority of combat operations took place….
Considerable effort was put into targeting and fighting insurgent groups and eliminating individual terrorist leaders. At times this seemed to take on a momentum of its own, beyond or apart from securing the population as required by the COIN strategy. This may have reflected some units’ preference for taking the fight directly to those it perceived as the enemy. Also, the priority put on either the CT mission or the COIN missions by top leadership was different in different years, resulting in more direct action in some periods.
The U.S. military presence, coupled with the ANSF once it began to deploy in significant numbers, certainly hindered insurgent efforts. Arguably, this foreign presence may have also given the insurgents and jihadists a rallying point.
However, the insurgency would have occurred regardless, as the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, HIG, and other groups sought to assert control over parts of Afghanistan and weaken the Karzai [Hamid Karzai was the president of Afghanistan from 2004 to 2014] government….
Building Local Governance
Governance improved in RC-East during this time, starting from a very low initial baseline. By 2009 a foundation of provincial-level government was in place, including some good governors. Elections had been held for provincial councils, Afghans were becoming more accustomed to voting and representative government, and more attention and resources were going to district-level government. However, these gains were still reversible and uneven from place to place.
A clear weakness by 2009 was the lack of a large enough civil service cadre, and sufficient local training and mentoring programs to produce more of them. This was in sharp contrast to training levels of the Afghan National Army (ANA) and later the Afghan National Police (ANP), both of which eventually received considerable support.
Encouraging Economic and Social Development
During this period, several hundred million dollars of development assistance of various types flowed into RC-East. Certainly there was a need — this was a very poor area, and there was little private investment, with the exception of telecommunications. This large infusion of funds clearly supported COIN efforts at the tactical level by supporting military operations and the nascent GOA.
Some of these development programs, including the Commander’s Emergency Response Program (CERP), showed some degree of success.
During the earlier years of this period, most CERP projects were relatively small, including building or refurbishing of schools, health clinics, markets, irrigation systems, and the upgrading of existing roads. By 2007, large amounts of funding were being channeled through CERP, with some Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) handling tens of millions of dollars…. In the end, it was hard to determine how much impact this investment may have had either in terms of development or COIN.
Evaluating U.S. Engagement in RC-East from 2004 to 2008
Building up the local governance structure, bolstering the economy and infrastructure, and expanding the reach of the ANSF —while fighting an active insurgency — were tremendously difficult undertakings… and the odds were not favorable in 2004….
Against that yardstick, RC-East did well in the three main areas of security, governance, and development, as well as counternarcotics. However, progress was not what was hoped for in early days, and certainly did not reach what could have been achieved in a best-case scenario.
Much of this was due to security problems — fighting an insurgency and other “bad actors” took up a huge percentage of time and resources. The presence of insurgent sanctuaries across the border in Pakistan made a clear COIN “win” in RC-East extremely difficult to achieve, particularly given the porosity of this border. By 2008 there was a stalemate of sorts, with neither side able to prevail.
The Persistence and Pariah Status of Insurgents — “A battle of exhaustion”
The insurgents could (and did) claim successes in RC-East during this time. It was certainly easier for them to destabilize the nascent Afghan government than for the government to govern and pacify the provinces. It was much easier for the insurgents to carry out point attacks, bombings, or assassinations than for the government to protect itself and the population.
As the number of attacks on coalition forces mounted, the insurgents succeeded in separating the coalition from the population, as more and more security measures — including heavily armored convoys — were put in place.
A particularly pernicious and effective tactic was infiltrating the ANSF, which led to distrust between embedded trainers and mentors on the one hand, and Afghan soldiers and police on the other. If an insurgency wins by virtue of not losing and remaining a viable force, then by this yardstick the Taliban and other insurgents had some success.
However, the Afghan population during this time did not provide widespread support for the Taliban — the insurgents’ interpretation of Islam, along with their Kandahar origins, did not appeal to Pashtuns in the east (let alone to the Tajiks or Hazaras), [and] people were tired of violence and war…. At the same time, the Taliban’s tactics and ideology maintained their pariah status among much of the international community.
The struggle along the border was a battle of exhaustion … not one of attrition or one of decisive battles. The U.S. presence contributed to wearing down the insurgents, turning it into a long and grinding effort which increased the chances for negotiations and a political solution.
At the same time, the insurgents targeted Western public opinion, judging the Western publics would tire of a protracted war being waged far away with limited relevance to their daily lives — probably a correct strategy on the part of the insurgents. The insurgents could keep fighting for a long time, particularly given their steady financial and material support, either through state or other actors, narcotics, or criminal activity….
State-Building — Mission: (Not yet) Accomplished
The international engagement during the period 2004–2008 brought a large number of dedicated, courageous officers, soldiers, and development workers to eastern Afghanistan and presented them with a daunting set of challenges. In hindsight, their efforts to hold together a situation that could easily have spun off into a chaotic mess were admirable.
Clearly, more progress could have been made, but the impediments to progress, some very deep-seated and present long before 2004, make the actual progress accomplished remarkable. For the sake of these officers and soldiers, and the many innocent Afghans caught up in the repeated cycles of violence and insecurity, their efforts should not have been made in vain.