US and NATO Engagement in Post-2014 Afghanistan: Counterterrorism Plus Redux?

Jerry Hofhuis

At the Upcoming NATO Summit in Chicago the Allies are likely to announce some kind of post-2014 framework for engagement in Afghanistan. What you will hear will likely sound a lot like Counterterrorism Plus, a plan proposed by Joe Biden—amongst others—all the way back in 2009.  Looking back, was counterinsurgency ever going to work?

At the upcoming NATO Summit to be held in Chicago on May 20-21 the United States and its Allies are to work out the details of a framework for post-2014 commitment to Afghanistan, which President Obama has already given a broad outline of in his recent speeches at Bagram airbase.

It is likely this agreement will sound a lot like ‘Counterterrorism Plus’, a strategy advocated back in 2009 by the likes of Vice President Joe Biden who argued this is a far more cost-effective framework for staying engaged in Afghanistan.

Counterterrorism Plus advocates a much more limited but sustainable foreign troop presence in Afghanistan. Rather than a massive US and Allied troops presence, ‘CT+’ would focus on a counterterrorism mission in which a limited number of special forces and drones conduct strikes against foreign terrorist elements. A limited number of Allied trainers would remain behind to train Afghan troops and the international community would continue to support the growth and development of civilian Afghan institutions.

I remember first reading about CT+ in Bob Woodward’s ‘Obama’s Wars’ back in 2010 when I was still doing my Masters. Like many at the time I wasn’t a fan of Joe Biden. Loudmouthed, gaffe-prone, he was one of just a few at the time who was not on the side of the proponents of a greatly expanded counterinsurgency mission. As one commentator described it, Biden was ‘on the wrong side of history’. But with President Obama having just announced what amounts to an end to the counterinsurgency mission, the fact is Biden is likely to get his way—though not by his design.

The Failure of Counterinsurgency

Could counterinsurgency (COIN) as a strategy ever have worked in Afghanistan? I doubt it, and I’m sure the group of intellectuals, officers and advisors advocating the application of counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan must have had their doubts as well. Known as the ‘Coindinistas’ they sought guidance in for example the works of David Galula, a French officer who developed his thoughts on counterinsurgency theory while fighting an insurgency in the Algerian War in the 1950s—a conflict known for its brutality.

And look at The Accidental Guerilla and Counterinsurgency by David Kilcullen, one of the original ‘Coindinistas’ who in the words of Thomas Ricks “worked to steer the former Bush administration towards [counterinsurgency] from the inside.” The two books are both based on Kilcullen’s PhD thesis on mid-20th century counterinsurgency operations in Indonesia, but also draws on examples from the Malayan Emergency and Kilcullen’s operational experience in East Timor and Iraq.

The main point you walk away with after reading Kilcullen is how inherently violent counterinsurgency is in its application. For success the insurgent needs to literally and physically be separated from its possible support base, the general population. In 1950s Indonesia the military achieved this by surrounding the communist insurgents’ mountain hideouts with a human-chain of local villagers overseen by soldiers – forcing physical confrontation if the guerillas wanted to break out. In Malaya, villagers were put in concentration camps behind barbed wire to separate them from communist insurgents. Such strategies are simply inapplicable in our age of media, and at any rate Afghanistan’s geography would’ve made the application of COIN far more difficult than in for example Iraq.

It is now clear that counterinsurgency in Afghanistan is failing. The much-needed ‘Afghan partner’ never materialized in President Karzai, who now has taken to calling the Taliban ‘brothers.’ What was left of the Afghan’s populations support for the coalition took a severe beating over news of US troops burning Koran’s, desecrating the bodies of Afghan Taliban fighters and suicide bombers and a US enlisted soldier murdering 16 Afghan civilians. Perhaps most tellingly, the killings led to Karzai calling for US troops to be withdrawn from their forward bases in Afghan villages – their presence a central tenet of counterinsurgency theory.

Counterterrorism Plus Redux?

Once the US and NATO ‘surge’ in Afghanistan has peaked and the majority of international forces have started returning home by the middle of next year, the framework that will have to be agreed upon at the upcoming NATO Summit will come into force. Obama has just redefined the military mission to two narrow ones: counterterrorism and training. The US will maintain no permanent bases. There will be a civilian side-show consisting of aid to civilian institutions. In other words, Counterterrorism Plus. By that time we will be in a better position to ask ourselves whether the diversion to counterinsurgency has been worth the sacrifices it took in blood and treasure.

Jerry Hofhuis recently completed a Master’s Degree at the Centre for International Security Studies at the University of Sydney. He may be contacted at


‘When you have to kill a man it costs nothing to be polite’.

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