Why a "Population-Centric" Approach Doesn't Go Far Enough

By Tom Brouns (in Brunssum, The Netherlands)

 "What the peasant wants to know is: Does the government mean to win the war? Because if not, he will have to support the insurgent."

--Sir Robert Thompson, Defeating Communist Insurgency: Experiences from Malaya and Vietnam

Recent months have seen a great deal of discussion concerning the merits of a "population-centric approach" in Afghanistan.  This approach, which focuses on protecting the population rather than killing or capturing insurgents (the "enemy-centric" approach) is based on sound counterinsurgency doctrine placing the population at the heart of any insurgency, and highlights the lessons – presumably re-learned over the past nine years – that going after the insurgents themselves is not only an endless proposition, but in many ways may actually exacerbate the situation.

Ensuring all military personnel in Afghanistan understand that their first priority is to ensure the safety of the Afghan people is necessary – but only a first step.  A deceptively simple proposition, it goes against the grain of military thinking.  At the level of the military planner, this thinking is based on the Cold War mentality that the path to victory requires, at some point, closing with and destroying the enemy.  At the individual level, this translates to killing those who shoot at you in order to survive on the battlefield.  It is therefore an extremely complex proposition to make it clear at all levels that protection, not destruction, both leads to victory and ensures individual survival in the long run.

The ultimate objective, however, is that the population of Afghanistan support their government.  They will only do this if they truly believe their government will win.  For the international effort to succeed, Afghans must take a public and irrevocable stand in support of their government.  And the Afghan population is particularly hesitant to do so, given the tumultuous changes they have witnessed nationally over the last three decades – and in many cases at the village-level over the last nine years.

It is certainly necessary to inculcate every individual serving in the military mission in Afghanistan with the instinct to protect rather than destroy.  This, however, only serves the purpose of ensuring the military can continue to perform its function without sustaining politically untenable losses.  This purpose goes hand in hand with the multitude of tactical directives that have been issued to prevent unintentional offense, damage or injury to the people we are there to protect.  However, this is a mitigating tactic, designed to buy time for the government of Afghanistan to get itself and its security forces on their feet.  The higher, longer-term aim is to build this capacity and communicate it to the Afghan people, who presumably will then determine who is "winning" and take a public stand in support of them.

The much-publicized "shape-clear-hold-build" strategy has a similar role.  It is neither enemy-centric nor population-centric.  It is terrain-centric.  In recent months we have seen newly-arrived forces conduct clearing operations in the Taliban heartland.  In some cases they have handed off control to the ANSF, while in other cases they were left asking when the ANSF would arrive.  This terrain-centric model will only be effective in the short-term.  To convince the population that the government of Afghanistan is succeeding, the ANSF will need to demonstrate their own ability to clear and hold, rather than accepting conquered terrain from Western forces.

Rather than a population-centric approach, I recommend a perception-centric approach.  That is, all actions undertaken should build a growing perception that success is inevitable for the growing Afghan government.  Efforts to curb corruption and enhance legitimacy, transparency, and responsibility are critical to this approach.  International development efforts also support this approach, especially if they can somehow be portrayed as the result of efforts and decisions by Afghan leaders.  However, the perception-centric approach must also be fully integrated in the military effort – to include policy (think detention and solatia payments), planning (are we seizing terrain or are we demonstrating Afghan capability?) and tactical operations (going beyond mitigation).  Former RC South Commander MG Ton van Loon stated, "Every course of action that is likely to antagonize the population should be removed from consideration."  To take this a step further, courses of action should be designed from the outset to increase popular support for their government.

Often, current operations seek to "bring security to an area." In Afghan eyes, however, operations often bring a temporary decrease in security.  This is acceptable from an Afghan point of view, only if there is a perceived "security dividend" in the form of improved living conditions or longer-term security.  This dividend is often provided in the form of "quick impact projects" that help mitigate damage – or in some cases, are likely to result in intelligence.  Instead, it may be more useful to deliberately plan operations which reinforce the perception that the Afghan government is winning, and will win – perhaps by deliberately placing Afghan security forces in the lead – and coupling development plans with the efforts of local leaders.

Widespread application of this approach will only be possible when the ANSF are actually capable of leading operations.  Therefore, our militaries' efforts ought to be on developing this capability rather than providing it themselves.  And providing development funds directly to Afghan leadership will often result in fraud and misuse of funds.  To correct this, PRTs which have been freed from the burden of providing development themselves could be relegated to ensuring proper stewardship and disbursement of funds.

The sacrifices that have been made by ISAF contributing nations – representing nearly 25% of the world's countries – have been huge in terms of blood and treasure.  In addition to giving countless lives, ISAF personnel have contributed roughly a billion man-hours to the effort in Afghanistan.  The shift from killing insurgents to protecting the population has helped and will continue to help shift the current stalemate.  However, only if we turn our eyes to the ultimate prize – a people who perceive their government to be representative, serving their needs, and in control of the use of violence by its citizens – can we begin to have a discussion about "exit strategies".

Tom Brouns is a US Army officer assigned to a NATO Headquarters.  He has been working on Afghanistan-related issues since early 2006.  His views are his own, and reflect neither those of the US Army nor of NATO.

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