Karzai’s Counterinsurgency Strategy

Marc Ambinder, politics editor of The Atlantic, explains that there exists a general perception among theorists and policy planners in the Pentagon’s policy shop that General McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy has failed to sustain Hamid Karzai’s government in critical areas and is therefore destined to ultimately fail.

“This is not how the war is supposed to be going. . .”

So, why isn’t the war going as planned? Maybe we should assess the counterinsurgency effort from President Karzai’s perspective and focus less on our Americo-centric point of view.

What is President Karzai’s counterinsurgency strategy?

President Karzai’s “clear-hold-build-consolidate” approach to counterinsurgency is mostly political. Politics in counterinsurgency is about the distribution of power and political strategy all about influencing the will and actions of both your allies and adversaries.

Afghanistan is a place where you fear your friends as much as you fear your enemies.

To “clear” the field of competitors in Kandahar, President Karzai installs his brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai to administer the province. Ahmed Wali Karzai enters into relevant patronage relationships with local families to “hold” and control the territory. The members of Ahmed Wali Karzai’s newly established patronage network then “build” and consolidate” control.

The Karzai administration now controls Kandahar.

If President Karzai trusts his brother to expand his patronage network in Kandahar, could this be why the local administration and Kabul are less than enthusiastic about our proposed military operations in the area?

President Karzai, through his brother Ahmed Wali Karzai, is also allied with Matiullah Khan in Uruzgan province. Matiullah Khan controls the northern approaches (trade routes) into Kandahar City and staging areas into Hazara territory. His militias will eventually be integrated into the central government security forces (if history is an indication for how local strongmen are integrated into the state security apparatus).

Now, let’s take it one step further. President Karzai is also allied with Nangahar Governor and Karzai loyalist (for now) Gul Agha Sherzai. Gul Agha Sherzai continues to undermine the local poppy economy and now controls the distribution of development aid to assist in consolidating his position and power in the province. A major trade route connecting Kabul, Jalalabad and Peshawar in Pakistan is located in Nangahar province.

President Karzai is presently engaged in direct and indirect negotiations with select Taliban factions to exploit the movement’s more ambitious leaders and inherent rivalries.

I personally give President Karzai a hell of a lot more credit for how he is managing his “clear-hold-build and consolidate” strategy than his naysayers. But then all that is needed to bring peace to Afghanistan and for the Karzai government to be considered legitimate is for him to eliminate corruption, distribute basic services and to administer the rule of law equitably amongst all Afghans—just like we do in the United States. . .

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  1. Wiz on July 16, 2010 at 3:06 pm

    Karzai’s “COIN” appraoch and the U.S. COIN approach realize different ends. They are opposite in both means and ends. Why is the U.S. so eager to prop up a centralized gov/leader then try and sell him to the populace? You don’t have to be a genius to figure most folks are going to see him as puppet or worse. Honestly, doesn’t the COIN doctrine say that to succeed you need to start locally? If you keep pushing a central leader that fails then you fail…HOW MANY TIMES MUST WE LEARN THE SAME LESSON?!!

    • "MAC" McCallister on July 17, 2010 at 7:47 am

      President Karzai’s approach expresses a quintessential Afghan strategy. It is all about strategy and strategy is all about ends, ways and means to realize a given goal. Doctrine alone doesn’t win wars. Appropriate strategy expressing appropriate ends, ways and means does. By the way, selling a leader, political party or platform to a given populace is what power politics is all about. I’ve been paying attention to the run-up to the mid-term elections in November. There is lots of selling of leaders, political parties and platforms going on as we speak.

      I recommend before we begin to discuss lessons learned and the implication that we are not learning those lessons in Afghanistan we revisit our assumptions and ideas that sustain our current COIN doctrine. I’d really like to know whether political and economic development theory (and indirect rule) upon which U.S. COIN doctrine is based actually holds an explanatory and prescriptive utility in Afghanistan. I submit that President Karzai and his allies, urban and rural, could care less about our theoretical and abstract constructs for how Afghanistan should work and are more concerned with securing and consolidating control in a manner that actually resonates with the locals.

      Thanks for your post.

      • wiz on July 20, 2010 at 9:59 am

        Your last sentence is exactly what I was getting at.

        • "MAC" McCallister on July 20, 2010 at 10:26 am


          We agree… cool… that is a good thing… right?


  2. Wiz on July 20, 2010 at 3:52 pm

    Absolutely a good thing. Now, what to do? Afghanistan has been the backwater of our two wars and we are just now coming around to try and solve this issue. Our military can destroy any enemy it faces. Can our diplomats and politicians handle this power? When I hear a President ask the State Department if it has “x” number of nation builders ready to go once we topple said country’s ruling power I will believe we are on the right track. But coming up with a strategy after we have destroyed the enemies forces is unacceptable. I wonder if we will ever “win” a war again. Just some random thoughts from a frustrated patriot.

  3. Renn on July 22, 2010 at 1:05 pm

    State’s nation builders have always been what’s missing from the picture. When you have a 25 year old NCO making deals with villagers as opposed to a degree-laden moron…wait, that would be even worse…

    • Wiz on July 25, 2010 at 6:10 pm

      I agree with you unless that degree is in liguistics and culture from said country. I’m just tired of the Military taking the heat for not being the Peace Corps. MAC, any thoughts here?

      • "MAC" McCallister on July 26, 2010 at 8:33 am


        I am with Renn, I also believe that the 25 year old non-commissioned officer (NCO) is as good a state builder as the highly educated technocrat… maybe even more so because the NCO is actually participating in shaping the conversation and renegotiating the social contract with those most impacted as we seek to introduce greater centralization, specialization, monopoly of violence and permanent institutions of governance.

        The challenge in Iraq and Afghanistan is that the locals are a product of their own philosophies of politics and society whose ramifications extend far beyond the structuralist/functionalist concerns of our present-day state-building technocrats. I fear that too many social-workers, armed or otherwise, operating in far-away places such as Iraq or Afghanistan assume that transferring an ideology (weltanschauung) of state to a different culture and society is simply a matter of access, rather than of cultural and social receptivity as well. Making information available or transferring technology in support of a given economic development strategy (theory) is not as important as the cultural receptivity of different nations, peoples, and cultures; to make the strategy their own and to modify further to suit their own purposes and circumstances as required.

        Finally, I’ll submit that acting like the Peace Corps with guns is actually in our military’s DNA. Check out COL Elwell Otis’ speech to the West Point graduating class of 1882:

        “Be not deceived and accept the foolish delusion…that the soldier’s obligations only begin when summoned to meet a foreign enemy or to put down armed resistance which has overthrown civil power… A soldier is now expected to exert himself within proper limits to preserve and organize peace. He should labor, in unison with the citizens and philanthropists (now anthropologists and state-building technocrats), to impress and extend our civilization. So vast is the field of operations of our small army, and so scattered are the troops, it is possible, if not extremely probable, that in a few short years, whatever may be your age and rank, you may be obliged to administer affairs wherein considerable knowledge of civil matters may be necessary.”

        Most military officers of the period agreed with the tenets of progressivism and shared the notion that informed and enlightened professionals, such as social scientists, engineers, or bureaucrats/technocrats could improve society from the top down by applying specialized knowledge to create more rational and efficient institutions. The military’s expertise in leadership and management made it the ideal instrument for social engineering. This ideology (weltanschauung) still permeates our COIN doctrine today.


        • J.D. Loftis on August 17, 2010 at 6:51 am

          I’m one of the few who has been in both the Peace Corps and the military, and I’m also laden with the regional degree and the language (Pashto). From my experience the transfer of the social contract is a key component that we’re missing. I remember many negotiations with village elders who seemed to be just waiting for what we (in support of their government) could do for them, without offering what they could do for us. The most successful negotiation I had was when I was willing to delay a bit (until the deputy governor returned from Hajj and could join us) and then actually specify conditions that they would have to meet. As far as I know that particular village has kept their side of the deal, and they were thrilled to sign up for it. They were happy about the tangible benefits they got (it was a school in the village), but they were also glad that their government was taking them seriously. I hope to get to return for the ribbon cutting.

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