Since the December 2001 Bonn Agreement, which established an interim Afghan government, the United States and international community have focused on building Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP) forces as the linchpin to security. While necessary, national security forces have never been sufficient to establish security in Afghanistan. This strategy reflects a Western understanding of the "state," more appropriate for U.S. efforts in Germany and Japan after World War II. Both of these nations had histories of strong central governmental institutions and competent technocrats. But Afghanistan is a much different state and combines a central government in Kabul, fiercely independent tribes in Nuristan and Pashtun areas, and a range of ethnic minorities in the west, north, and center. As illustrated during Afghanistan's most recent stable period, from 1929 to 1978, security has historically required a synergy of top-down efforts from the central government and bottom-up efforts from local tribes and other communities. Based on this reality, America's counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy needs to better incorporate working with tribal and other community forces in Afghanistan, with a direct link to the Afghan government.
This article outlines the development of local defense forces in Afghanistan, which should be leveraged along with other efforts to build the ANA and ANP, counter the pervasive corruption, and improve governance. (1) It begins by outlining the importance of protecting the local population, especially the challenge of relying only on Afghan National Security Forces to establish order in rural areas. It then examines the historical precedent for working with tribal and other local defense forces. It concludes by outlining a community defense initiative that needs to be carefully monitored and shaped by the Afghan government and international community.
Protecting the Population
Successful counterinsurgency requires protecting the local population and gaining its support--or at least acquiescence. Both insurgents and counterinsurgents need the support of the population to win. "The only territory you want to hold," one study concluded, "is the six inches between the ears of the campesino [peasant]." (2) British General Sir Frank Kitson argued that the population is a critical element in COIN operations, as "this represents the water in which the fish swims." (3) Kitson borrowed the reference to the water and fish from one of the 20th century's most successful insurgents, Chinese leader Mao Tsetung, who wrote that there is an inextricable link in insurgencies "between the people and the troops. The former may be likened to water and the latter to the fish who inhabit it." (4)
One of the most significant challenges in Afghanistan has been protecting the local population, especially in rural areas. Some studies argue that a rough estimate needed to win a counterinsurgency is 20 security forces per 1,000 inhabitants. (5) As the U.S. Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Manual notes, "Twenty counterinsurgents per 1,000 residents is often considered the minimum troop density required for effective COIN operations; however, as with any fixed ratio, such calculations remain very dependent upon the situation." (6) This ratio translates into a force requirement of approximately 660,000 troops for Afghanistan, which has approximately 33 million people. Yet these numbers do not provide a clear roadmap, and they certainly do not take into consideration such variables as the competence of local forces and what types of forces should be used. For example, what percentage of the forces should be international versus Afghan? Among Afghan forces, what percentage should be national versus local?
There is no clear-cut answer--and certainly no magic number--of U.S. and Afghan forces to conduct a successful counterinsurgency campaign and establish security. …