Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Weak Anaconda: Why the American Surge Could Not Defeat the Taliban

A surge of American troops descended on the Taliban for 18 months beginning in 2010 and succeeded at taking key areas from the rebels. After 5 years of increasing Taliban resistance, the surge forced violence to its lowest level since 2005.[1]

The increased pressure succeeded in dropping insurgent gains and morale, pushing the Taliban to seek peace negotiations.[3] But, by the fall of 2011, it became clear that the surge was not able to crush the Taliban indefinitely.[4] The violence continued, and the Taliban waited patiently in their Pakistani safe heaven for the Coalition troops to leave and open the way for the Taliban to retake Afghanistan.[5] After all, coalition forces announced most of their troops would leave by the end of 2014.

If the surge was the silver bullet the Coalition had been seeking, what went wrong?

Before diving into that question, let us first review why the surge was deemed necessary.

Following 9/11 the United States attacked the Taliban in Afghanistan, a group that had been in power for years.  The American forces quickly removed the Taliban from power, and the insurgents retreated to the south of the country and into Pakistan.

However, the success faded within a few years, and the Taliban began to re-emerge – leading to increasing levels of violence.

Seeing the Coalition forces – composed of NATO countries like Canada and the United Kingdom – had not been able to crush the Taliban, Obama announced in 2009 he would send an additional 33 thousand troops into Afghanistan for 18 months to train more police and army forces, in addition to thousands of civilians to help build stronger institutions in the country. They dubbed this operation “Anaconda”: a counterinsurgency strategy whereby Coalition forces would apply pressure to all factors fuelling the insurgents, including attacking them militarily and “winning the hearts and minds” of the Afghan population – thus denying the Taliban potential soldiers.[2]

But as seen above, the Taliban was weakened but not crushed. Why?

A number of scholars pointed to the short attention paid by the civil-military Anaconda operation to building stronger accountable institutions in Afghanistan. In fact, Frances Z. Brown, an international fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations at the U.S. Institute of Peace, argues that the surge actually undermined the Coalition’s ability to foster local legitimacy of the Afghan government.

One of the elements of the surge included the provision of funds to build infrastructure such as hospitals and schools. The goal: to help the Afghan local governments win legitimacy among the population and, by doing so, to decrease their need to seek the Taliban for the provision of services. Brown argues that in this the surge succeeded – temporarily.[6] 

The majority of funds went to areas where governance was lowest, and where the Taliban was strongest.[7] Because of the weak government institutions, the money usually ended up with district governors rather than local ministries, like the education ministry.[8] As a result, while the power of the district governors increased, local institutions did not gain legitimacy or strength.[9]

But once the funds dried up, the district governors would lose their newfound legitimacy, local institutions would remain weak, and the population would once again seek local warlords for the services other institutions could not provide – including security.[10]

According to Brown the surge was not only unable to build stronger institutions, it may actually have made them weaker.[11] 

“Because these new, inflated budgets came directly from Uncle Sam, the district governors had every incentive to prioritize American requests,” Brown said.[12] 

As a result, the priority placed on engaging with local institutions and population came second – thus decreasing the strength of institutions that included local health ministries and the local police.[13]

Therefore, while the surge may have been effective at increasing the number of Afghan soldiers and police officers, it was not able to build strong institutions that were accountable to the population.[14] Corruption thus continued within the civil service and within military and police institutions – institutions that did not need the local population’s approval to survive.[15]

The police thus became more likely to coerce civilians and mistreat them, leading to increased insecurity and decreased legitimacy of the Afghan government.[16] Such behaviour failed to “win the hearts and minds” of the population.      

The Taliban used the population’s unhappiness with the government to their advantage, using it to to strengthen and widen popular support for the group.

The result: the surge’s success was temporary. This shows that while more money and troops can help hurt insurgents, they cannot destroy them without fixing an issue that strengthens the insurgency: weak governance. But building governance takes time.

[1] Jamie Lynn de Costier, “Negotiating the Great Game: Ending the U.S. Intervention in Afghanistan,” The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs, 38, no. 2 (Summer, 2014): 77,
[2] Ibid, 76.
[3] Ibid, 82.
[4] Ibid, 84.
[5] Ibid, 88.
[6] Frances Z. Brown, “Bureaucracy Does its Thing Again,” The American Interest 8, no. 2 (October 9, 2012): 41,
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid, 42.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid, 43.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Abdulkader Sinno, “Partisan Intervention and the Transformation of Afghanistan’s Civil War,” The American Historical Review, 120, no. 5 (2015): 1819, doi:10.1093/ahr/120.5.1811.

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