New Afghanistan Strategy

Civilised Military Doctrine

Non-governmental organisations are warning against militarising development policy in Afghanistan. But as Hans Dembowski reports, US military doctrine has recently become far more geared towards civilian reconstruction than critics realise

photo: AP
Enabling US forces to operate in a more police-like manner: Barack Obama and David Petraeus

​​US military doctrine has historically alternated between conventional warfare and counter-insurgency approaches. President George W. Bush was following the conventional logic when he began the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Under the motto "search and destroy", he set out to obliterate enemies.

In both conflicts, however, commanders on the ground began to reconsider the effectiveness of counter-insurgency in the face of mounting problems. They understood that a "search and destroy" approach will never succeed when troops inflict so much suffering upon the civilian people that ever more recruits join the insurgents.

In late 2006, when George Bush was still in office, the US Army's new Field Manual Counter Insurgency (FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5, page 1-21) stated a new paradigm: "The primary objective of any COIN operation is to foster development of effective governance by a legitimate government."

The US military: less militaristic

This doctrine is in line with the notion of comprehensive security, which German governments composed of various parties have espoused in recent years. According to the German doctrine, security is based not only on military strength but also on societal legitimacy and effective government action.

US military and Afghan civilians (photo: AP)
"Only a tool of policymaking": under the new strategy, Dembowski surmises, the US military is not the only institution bearing responsibility

​​ Nonetheless, the German public still does not understand that President Barack Obama bolstered troop numbers in Afghanistan not to gain more firepower against the Taliban, but to enable forces to operate in a more police-like manner.

There are many reasons why the US military today portrays itself as a tool of policymaking rather than as the solution to the problem. In view of likely failure in Afghanistan, one reason is to involve as many actors as possible so as not to be the only institution bearing responsibility. After all, everyone now knows that Obama plans to start withdrawing troops in 2011.

Such considerations do not alter the fact, however, that the proclaimed military goal in Afghanistan is politically correct: effective governance by a legitimate government. Whether international non-governmental agencies subscribe to a military logic or not, they are serving military intentions and supporting NATO's troops as long as they manage to improve the situation for Afghanistan's people.

Not that military action should be beyond criticism. The point is that generic complaints about military semantics or the increase of troops are futile.

Critics must spell out precisely where and when soldiers are undermining the civilised military goal of effective governance by a legitimate government. Massacres are an obvious example – such as the one in Iraq that was recently documented on It is similarly unacceptable to count many civilian dead as "collateral damage", as was the case following the Kunduz airstrike initiated by a German officer in 2009.

A long run

Afghan farmers during poppy crop (photo: AP)
One of the many obstacles en route to societal stability in Afghanistan: According to a world bank report, the sheer size and illicit nature of the opium economy infiltrates and seriously affects Afghanistan's economy, state, society, and politics

​​ There are however many other obstacles en route to societal stability in Afghanistan. The drugs economy is one, and if the allied forces are serious about winning hearts and minds, then simply eliminating it can hardly be the right approach. Another dilemma is that nepotism is all too common in a society marked by deep ethnic divides, but people only tend to consider it legitimate when it occurs within their own respective clan.

Depressingly, the US only switched to counter insurgency very late. This strategy takes a lot of time. Effective governance and governmental legitimacy in the eyes of the people cannot be installed over night. Far more dubious than the military doctrine, therefore, is the time span in which Western leaders proclaim they will get things done.

If they are serious about counter insurgency, the start of next year's planned pull-out cannot be on a large scale, but will have to be initially quite marginal. Western governments' rhetoric suggests everything will be over in four years or so. That is hardly more credible than the German Left Party's stance of "development assistance instead of troops". If more than humanitarian aid is to be achieved in Afghanistan, then both of these will be needed for many more years to come.

Hans Dembowski

© Development and Cooperation 2010

Hans Dembowski is editor-in-chief of Development and Cooperation.

Editor: Lewis Gropp/

Related Topics
In submitting this comment, the reader accepts the following terms and conditions: reserves the right to edit or delete comments or not to publish them. This applies in particular to defamatory, racist, personal, or irrelevant comments or comments written in dialects or languages other than English. Comments submitted by readers using fantasy names or intentionally false names will not be published. will not provide information on the telephone. Readers' comments can be found by Google and other search engines.
To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.