Kapisa Province: A COIN Case Study in Afghanistan

Originally published at World Politics Review, March 31, 2009.

KAPISA PROVINCE, Afghanistan – Standing on the HESCO barriers that ring Forward Operating BaseMorales-Frazier in Kapisa Province, just north of Kabul, one can see three enormous, beautiful valleys.To the north lies the Nijrab, whose “fingers” are home to a mainly Tajik population, with some Pashtun areas. To the east sits Afghanya Valley, which hosts Pashtuns in its lower half and Pashai in its upper half. And to the south is Tagab Valley, an almost entirely Pashtun area that has become famous for its entrenched insurgency.

FOB Morales-Frazier, the soldiers it hosts, and the area it stands watch over represent a microcosm of the war in Afghanistan – its complexities, its successes and failures, and its challenges ahead. The French, as “battlespace owners,” operate the base, but an American Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) has responsibility for development efforts. Two detachments of special operations forces, one from theUnited States and one from Romania, call FOB Kutschbach, just south of Morales-Frazier, home. Split between both bases is an Afghan National Army battalion, and several embedded training elements that mentor and train the Afghan army and police.

Since 2005, Kapisa Province has been the site of several waves of U.S. and coalition operations. Without fail, each one has been lauded as a success by the media and the military command. Yet the problems facing Kapisa remain, and in some cases are worse than before the operations began: strong militancy in the south, and complaints of ethnic favoritism, underdevelopment, and a general lack of government attention in the middle areas. Stable areas have remained stable, and the north enjoys relative prosperity.But areas in the center of the province once patrolled regularly by U.S. forces now feature RPG-armed greeting parties. Clearly, something needs fixing in the way the U.S. military measures and maintains its successes.

Strategic Significance of Pre-Invasion Period

In strategic terms, Kapisa is one of the most vitally important yet understudied areas of the country. AsU.S. Air Force Lt. Col. William Andersen, the commander of the Kapisa PRT in 2008, explained, Kapisa’s significance lies not in the presence of militants, who are not especially concentrated there, but in its role as a staging ground for attacks on Kabul. Since the 1980s, mujahideen commanders have considered the area to be of vital strategic importance, as it guards the entrance to the Panjshir Valley.

The West is almost painfully ignorant of the area’s demographics: the last (and quite possibly only) significant study of the area – a doctoral dissertation in anthropology – was written in 1977. It examined a single ethnic group in the area – the Safi Pashtuns. They and many of the other groups in Kapisa – such as the Pashai, as well as lesser-known groups like the Parachi and Kuchi – are also found in other insurgency-ridden areas across eastern Afghanistan. What role they may play in fueling or undermining the insurgency is unclear precisely because the area and people within it are so understudied.

The map of identity in Kapisa is complex. There is the predominantly Tajik and fairly peaceful north; the ethnically mixed and politically unstable middle section; and the province’s Pashtun south, which is generally considered dangerous. The Pashtuns are just one of the “three P’s of ethnicity” – the Parachi and Pashai being the other two. Then there are various subtribes of the Safi Pashtuns and competing groups of Pashai communities.

But in addition to these ethnic identities, one’s tanzim affiliation also plays a role in determining political behavior and collective action. The tanzims were legendary religious-political parties based mostly inPeshawar during the 1980s, and the two principle tanzims in Kapisa – Jamiat-i Islami (Jamiat) and Hizb-i Islami Gulbuddin (HIG) – either traded or sparred over control of the province throughout the 1970s and1980s.

Jamiat’s luminaries include current Afghan MP and former President Burhannudin Rabbani and the legendary Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was assassinated by al-Qaida operativeson the eve of the September 11 terrorist attacks. HIG, meanwhile, is the party of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an American ally in the 1980s. In 2001, the two parties’ fortunes reversed: Hekmatyar’s opposition to the 2001 U.S. invasion led the United States to sponsor Jamiat, making it one of the primary recipients of money and arms during the Northern Alliance’s campaign against the Taliban.

Since 1973, these two political factions have violently fought for control of Kapisa, while a third, Harakat, has dominated areas in the province’s southern Tagab district, near Sarobi. More recently, both HIG and Taliban insurgents have used areas within the Tagab Valley to launch attacks on Kabul –including, most famously, the mortar attack on the Mujahideen Day parade in April 2008, and the assault on the luxurious Hotel Serena in January 2008.

Although Jamiat is mostly Tajik, many of its members in Kapisa are Pashtun. Under the command of one of Jamiat’s prominent Pashtun commanders in Kapisa during the 1990s, Pashtuns and Tajiks banded together in the mountain passes between Nijrab and Mahmood Raqi to block an attempted Taliban advance up the Panjshir River. Since that effort, though, Jamiat in Kapisa has become increasingly fractured. Mutual recriminations, distrust and intra-Jamiat attacks by Tajiks against Pashtuns increased ast he 1990s wore on. By early 2001, the attacks and a subsequent arms embargo on Pashtun areas caused the Pashtun members of Jamiat in Kapisa to switch their allegiance to the Taliban in return for protection, effectively ceding the entire province to Taliban control.

After the Twin Towers fell, a U.S.-supported Tajik member of Jamiat swept through the province. For a couple of years after the invasion, Kapisa was a beautiful backwater and generally considered safe. (At least one provincial official maintains that the first suicide bomb didn’t explode there until 2006, though that information cannot be confirmed.) As the years progressed, however, political power and economic development were doled out to the well-connected and denied to the poor, resulting in almost all of the province’s political positions going to members of Jamiat. Many prominent, even powerful members of HIG were frozen out of provincial – and therefore national – politics. While some former HIG commanders are in positions of power in the southern Tagab district, the contrast between members of Jamiat, who seem to dominate provincial-level politics, and members of HIG, who seem to dominate the insurgency, is stark.

Among elders in Kapisa, the frustration with how things have progressed is evident. Even as they discuss the intricacies of the security situation, it is clear that many simply don’t know how to explain things to an outsider. HIG is clearly an enemy of the government, yet many in Kapisa remain proud of their association with that tanzim because it was so instrumental in defeating the Soviets.

‘Sweeping’ the Tagab

There have been at least two major campaigns in recent years to “sweep” the southern part of Kapisa, which is almost entirely taken up by the Tagab Valley. Little information is publicly available about the 2005 sweep other than the fact that it pushed a significant number of insurgent fighters into Pakistan, and that when U.S. special operations forces left the area to conduct operations elsewhere, those same militants returned to the valley.

The November 2006 sweep known as Operation Al Hasn, on the other hand, was meant to be a comprehensive, “full spectrum” push to permanently undermine the insurgency in the Tagab area. It was notable for the ways in which a Special Operations Task Force (SOTF) integrated its planning and operations with both the United Arab Emirates Army and the local Afghan government.

One of the intentions of the campaign was to use so-called non-kinetic operations – humanitarian assistance drops, psychological operations, and medical services – to permanently “separate the enemy from the population,” as counterinsurgency experts describe it. During the 11-day operation, these efforts were by all accounts quite successful, with hundreds of people arriving at the fire bases and staging areas – both Forward Operating Bases mentioned above were built during this time – to receive health care and blankets. Locals also began holding rallies in support of the provincial governor, Abdul Satar Murad, at the Tagab district center.

By the official end of the operation, Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry – then-commander of Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan and recently nominated to be the next U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan – declared, “This is the best example of full-spectrum counterinsurgency operations. This should be the model for COIN operations in Afghanistan.”

Nevertheless, by mid-summer 2007, the valley had once again become exceedingly dangerous.

Eikenberry’s premature optimism illustrates one of the challenges in measuring operational effectiveness in Afghanistan, namely that there is a significant seasonal element to fighting. It surges during the summer, usually reaches its peak in August or September, and then calms down as the commanders leave to spend their winters in Pakistan.

In 2007, coalition operations in Kapisa had become dominated by conventional forces: regular Army units from the 82nd Airborne Division moved into the province, and a Provincial Reconstruction Team established a permanent presence at FOB Morales-Frazier. While the presence of the Kapisa PRT might imply that the coalition’s focus in Kapisa had shifted to governance and development, the reality is that operations changed very little: Units from the Pennsylvania National Guard were in constant combat.

The limits of Western understanding of Kapisa also became apparent in 2007. That summer, the Afghan Ministry of the Interior fired Gov. Murad from his post. Rumors circulated that Murad was being punished for complaining about Afghan President Hamid Karzai to a Newsweek reporter. The ministry, meanwhile, claimed he was “sowing discord” in the province and providing the Coalition with faulty intelligence. It was a serious charge: Operation Al Hasn had been planned with information on militants and power brokers that was provided by Murad and his intelligence officials.

The challenge of finding the truth

Some U.S. media outlets published rumors that Murad was fired on the recommendation of a former commander in the anti-Soviet jihad and current member of Parliament who was allegedly running a militia linked to a Taliban commander in Kapisa. Observers of the politics of the area believe the latter charge is farfetched, another example of the gap between rumor and reality in the area. And it’s not just official provincial politics that are opaque. Local elders claim there are less than a dozen “actual Taliban” in the province, and that many of the attacks on coalition forces are executed by criminals falsely claiming the more intimidating mantle of Taliban or HIG. The challenge of finding the truth in such a confusing environment makes operational and analytical paralysis understandable.

By the end of summer 2007, the coalition began another clear-hold-build campaign, this one named Operation Nauroz Jhala. Instead of special operations forces, thinly stretched embedded elements with the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police drove operations. One embedded soldier who was active near the Tagab district center complained that for months his unit couldn’t “hold” any ground they cleared, since there were so few of them.

By the early part of 2008, government corruption was drastically affecting operations in Kapisa. A French-led ANA unit conducted a large operation to secure and hold the Alisay Valley. The original plan required the ANA to sweep the area and round up or kill any militants it could find so the police could move in and set up stations and checkpoints. According to a U.S. soldier embedded with the Afghan units, though, barely any police showed up. Following the Serena Hotel bombing and the April parade attack, which rattled Afghanistan’s top political leadership, the ANA units were pulled out to provide security in and around Kabul.

In June 2008, Jane’s Terrorism & Security Monitor reported that the two high-profile attacks in Kabul were linked to the top Taliban commander of Kapisa. Within months of withdrawing the ANA from Alisay, the entire Tagab area had descended into chaos. 2008 was the province’s worst year on record for ambushes, IED emplacements, and rocket attacks.

One month later, in July 2008, the French army took over operations in Kapisa. Currently they coordinate operations with the American PRT that remained in the province from a shared space on FOB Morales-Frazier. Shortly after taking over, 10 French soldiers died in a well-publicized ambush in the Sarobi district of Kabul province – just south of the Tagab Valley. Domestic political reaction to the ambush caused the French to dramatically modify their tactics. In some areas these changes have resulted in rising local anger against what is seen as a lack of respect, particularly with regard to French soldiers treatment of homes and women.

Current Points of Fracture

The nine months since the French takeover have seen an aggressive increase in home searches, a major effort to pave roads, and enormous infrastructure projects to build wells, schools, district centers and police stations. But the security outlook in the province has changed very little. Even relatively calm, steadily developing areas like Nijrab complain that they are underserved and subject to the whims of provincial-level ethnic politicking.

In many mixed districts, such as Nijrab, there is a stark division between Tajiks and Pashtuns. This has been the case since before the Taliban; now, the severity of the divide threatens to derail political reconciliation in the province. Tajik elders accuse Pashtuns of being uneducated and violent. Pashtun elders, on the other hand, complain that Tajiks are dominating the Kapisa government and withholding government services and development funds from Pashtun areas. Many locals interviewed for this article suggested that ethnic politics in the province are far more segregated than they were 30 years ago. The current split is disturbingly similar to the 2001 split that saw Pashtuns abandon Jamiat to join the Taliban.

The implications of past political affiliations on current local politics is little understood. The current provincial governor fought with HIG in the 1980s; the sub-governor for Tagab fought for Harakat; the sub-governor for Alisay fought for Jamiat; and the police chief of Nijrab District fought for Jamiat. All of these men are fiercely proud of their service, and it is unknown how that pride might affect their governing decisions.

There is also a lot of popular resentment toward the influence of the tanzims. An elder from Afghanya Valley complained that, during the civil war, fighters from both Jamiat and HIG extorted money from shop keepers, and stole money and food from the villages they claimed to fight for.

Complicating matters is how the ethnic and political divides influence intelligence collection. As a rule,Tajiks are more open and honest with Westerners, while Pashtuns can be more reticent (especially if they still associate themselves with HIG). In some cases, ethnically biased information has caused U.S. and Coaliton forces to misread certain situations.

A Basic COIN Strategy for Kapisa

A fundamental concept of counterinsurgency operations is the need to live for long periods of time with the local population, since “knowing the people” is the first step in learning how to separate them from the insurgents. At present, however, the units embedded with Afghan security forces are the only ones that have such a truly localized view of the province, making them by far the most effective elements of the foreign presence in Kapisa.

While many embedded units see combat on a routine basis, in Kapisa several successive waves of Embedded Trainers have also made a priority of drinking tea with locals when they could. Tea is the lifeblood of social life in Afghanistan: everything in the country happens through relationships, and conversation over tea is how relationships develop.

Previous waves of special operations forces in the province have shown an immediate ability to either kill or chase off most militants. But since these units are usually soon ordered to move on to other areas, militants have simply filtered back into swept areas. Similarly, numerous embedded soldiers have complained that unpredictable factors, like Karzai’s mid-2008 decision to withdraw the ANA and ANP from the Alisay and Ghayn Valleys, have frequently resulted in entire districts being abandoned to the insurgency. While there are small numbers of ANP in Alisay district, they remain ineffective due to poor logistics and few personnel.

Conversations with several current and former soldiers active in southern Kapisa made it clear that two main FOBs in the area, but rarely last longer than a few hours every couple of days. When troops, both local and Western, spend an extended period of time on the ground interacting with locals, they create amore lasting reduction in militancy.

Reduced militancy, in turn, gives the local PRT greater freedom in administering development projects. Development needs in Kapisa are fairly basic: During interviews conducted in December 2008, Afghans regularly questioned the point of improving the public education system when there is no work for educated people to do. Rather, they wanted wells and irrigation canals for their fields, retaining walls to mitigate erosion, and even mosque improvements. “If you fix the mosque,” one elder said in January, “I can tell my people that you [America] are not against Islam. Hizb-i Islami never built us a mosque.” In February, another elder specifically asked the Kapisa PRT to perform more QIPs, or Quick ImpactProjects, since they employ a lot of people, bring more immediate benefits to locals than a paved road, and provide ready examples of how the coalition can provide for local needs better than any insurgent group.

Another counterinsurgency challenge in Kapisa is what coalition soldiers call Key Leader Engagement, orKLE. At the moment, the KLE is an undefined activity: in PRT and battalion briefings, in doctrine and in person, few seem able to say what it involves other than in very vague terms (i.e. “engaging the key leaders in a community”). The Kapisa PRT is the primary vehicle for KLE, though battalions and brigades have their own KLE operations. All of these groups focus their KLE efforts on official leadership, and rarely get the chance to talk to unofficial community leaders. While speaking to a district sub-governor can reveal some things about a given area, it is only by talking with men of influence and elders that the “real” issues of a community can be discovered and then addressed.

Religious leaders are almost entirely excluded from coalition engagement efforts , as they don’t have any formal relationship with the government, despite exercising an enormous amount of influence in many communities. Consulting with mullahs and malawis for advice would not only add another layer of understanding for planning future operations, but would further undermine the insurgent narrative that the coalition is opposed to Islam.

Examining the past and current failures of coalition operations in this tiny province near the Afghan capital shows that effective counterinsurgency does not have to be overly complicated. For short periods of time in Kapisa, special operations forces and even conventional units have been hugely successful, but none have been able to properly capitalize on those gains and to make them permanent. As the pendulum of power in Kapisa continues to swing back and forth between the coalition and the insurgency, war fatigue is in danger of setting in. Before that happens, the coalition should begin to pay attention to the lessons it has already learned and avoid repeating its past mistakes . With minor changes to current operations, the coalition could permanently improve the security, political, and economic situation in Kapisa.

The same principles that would make permanent these halting and temporary security gains in this tiny province need to be applied to the country as a whole. Holding territory, incorporating domestic security forces, and having an understanding of the social and political fabric of the local population are all tenets of counterinsurgency theory. Unfortunately, these ideas are only being applied by U.S. and coalition militaries sporadically, without regularity and follow-up. Until the effort is concerted and systematic, theUnited States and its allies should dramatically lower their expectations of success in Afghanistan.