Comments about those plans to clear-hold-build in Afghanistan, by James Morton

An analysis by James Morton that is well worth reading, lifted from the comments replying to The deteriorating situation in Helmand, by Jonathan Mueller (29 July 2009).

It’s interesting to note that Jonathan Mueller feels that the UK army is not on the same page as the US and have abandoned their clear-build-hold strategy. I came across this article by the M.O.D. — “Armored thrust clears final Taliban from ‘Panther’s Claw’“, 27 July 2009.  Strangely I kept hearing the voice of Bob Danvers Walker (the voice of British Pathe News back in the day) while reading this article. Very triumphalist piece where it seems we have prevailed over the enemy and cleared the Taliban out of the region. The article reads as if the operation was conducted against a conventional opponent and not a guerrilla army, that will disperse against overwhelming odds to hit back at another location and at a time of their choosing.

But we have to aks ourselves what extacly is the clear-build-hold strategy? Those 3 little words that the UK government and UK armed forces state so clearly as talking points in every interview. How exactly was it to be implemented?

1.  Clear

That seems to be about getting them out of the area and cutting them off from the locals. According to my government and the UK armed forces this has been done, so we can all sleep more soundly tonight — but (and this is a big but) this part of the plan always seems to assert that the Taliban are somehow “alien” to the rest of the population, not least in the Pashtun south. The reality, whether we like it or not, is that the social and cultural values represented by the Taliban have large areas of cross-over with substantial sections of the rest of Afghanistan. That logically means that what is being earmarked for destruction represents often commonly shared values.

Regardless of the above, This is the stated policy: that those opposing the coalition are simply to be destroyed and removed. This is based on the belief that the people can be split into categories. The good peace loving Afghans, the moderate Taliban who don’t fight us, so its ok to hold talks with them and the bad Taliban who have chosen the path of violence and can never be reconciled. It ignores as I have said those strong clan & religious based relationships.

2.  Hold

If clearing suggests the removal of the bad, irreconcilable elements of Afghan society, then second stage of the operation is equally challenging when examined. Despite 8 years in Afghanistan, and a procession of campaigns, US and UK forces are no closer to holding the ground than they were 3 years ago. Mueller is correct that we don’t have enough troops to do the “Hold” part of the plan. Which is why previous operations have failed.  We chased the Taliban out, declared victory, left the region and the Taliban magically return.

We keep hearing this in the media and in Government announcements: Resurgent Taliban or the Taliban have returned. I always hold that the Taliban never left, and that includes areas were we have supposedly driven them out.

So obviously it is vital to introduce elements of the Afghan army and police into the region to assist in this. But this is the problem. Where are these forces coming from? there is no such thing as local constabulary, or for that matter local army units. Let me clarify. By where? I don’t mean numbers of men and resources.  I mean from which region do they come from? If they are not local, and by local I mean Pashtuns, but for example say we bring Tajiks recruits and police from the north of Afghanistan then we are going to have problems. These men will be regarded every bit as foreign just as we ourselves are seen as foreign. They won’t speak Pashto, and the culture will be alien to them.

We’d have to build up local police and army units; but I can’t see that happening, sadly.

3. Build

I will be honest this is the part that is difficult for me to visualise. There seems to be a disturbing tendency by the politicians and military: to assume that if the first two parts of this plan works, the third will happen automatically. While politicians and military alike talk about strengthening institutional capacity towards the building a strong, democratic state, it is hard to see what that state would look like when we consider how fantastically corrupt it currently is. You must also consider the panic that was induced in the west when that same “democratic” government of Afghanistan came within a gnats hair of passing a “Marital” rape law. Then you begin to see how hard a slog it’s going to be.

Obviously various government departments including the DfID should step in. But their record is somewhat patchy in this regard and they seem to be incapable of following up the Army programme because, as Mueller stated, they have decided to try and help the Afghans help themselves…which means wasting time and resources working with corrupt Afghan government departments. Which means little actually gets through to where it is needed most. We cannot rely on NGOs to fill the gap. We continually forget that these groups are made up of volunteers from civilian life and we cannot expect them to follow us into areas were security cannot be guaranteed.


Finally there are once again comments about British success in Malaysia. It does have to stated that the communist insurgency largely came from ethnic Chinese in the region. These were hated by the Malayans and so the CI doctrine worked well here. In Afghanistan we are dealing with a region of disparate ethnic groups, built along tribe/clan based loyalties, strong conservative religious and cultural values, and last but not least different languages. This is led, and I use this word in its broadest sense, by a weak, corrupt central Government that cannot extend its writ and the rule of law very far beyond the borders of Kabul.

In my own humble opinion, the lesson we should learn from successful CI operations is not to delude ourselves that there is such a thing as a one size fits all approach to democracy. I would also add to this the possibility that there is also no such thing as one size fits all approach to Counter Insurgency operations. Every situation will be unique and just as we should never judge a future war by the ones we fought in the past, we should also apply this to Counter insurgency.

About the author

Scottish, but born in Hanover, Germany where his father served with UK armed forces.   Currently working as a civil servant with the Land Registers of Scotland as a legal case officer.


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To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp interest these days:

Posts about the War in Afghanistan:

  1. Quote of the day: this is America’s geopolitical strategy in action, 26 February 2008 — George Friedman of Statfor on the Afghanistan War.
  2. Another perspective on Afghanistan, a reply to George Friedman, 27 February 2008
  3. Why are we are fighting in Afghanistan?, 9 April 2008 — A debate with Joshua Foust.
  4. We are withdrawing from Afghanistan, too (eventually), 21 April 2008
  5. Brilliant, insightful articles about the Afghanistan War, 8 June 2008
  6. The good news about COIN in Afghanistan is really bad news, 20 August 2008
  7. Pakistan warns America about their borders, and their sovereignty, 14 September 2008
  8. “Strategic Divergence: The War Against the Taliban and the War Against Al Qaeda” by George Friedman, 31 January 2009
  9. A joust between two schools of American military theory, 19 May 2009
  10. Troops without proper equipment in 2004, troops without proper equipment in 2009 – where’s the outrage?, 20 May 2009
  11. New bases in Afghanistan – more outposts of America’s Empire, 21 May 2009
  12. The simple, fool-proof plan for victory in Afghanistan , 1 June 2009
  13. Advice about our long war – “It’s the tribes, stupid”, 9 June 2009
  14. An expert explains why we must fight in Afghanistan, 11 June 2009
  15. Real experts review a presentation about the War (look here, if you’re looking for well-written analysis!), 21 June 2009
  16. The Big Lie at work in Afghanistan – an open discussion, 23 June 2009
  17. The trinity of modern warfare at work in Afghanistan, 13 July 2009

4 thoughts on “Comments about those plans to clear-hold-build in Afghanistan, by James Morton”

  1. The “clear-build-hold” strategy in fact boils down to the antique and long discredited tache d’huile “ink blot” strategy first espoused by French General Hubert Lyautey. His primary use of this doctrine appears to have occurred circa 1902 in Morocco (Lyautey was born in 1873); the alert observer need discern nothing more than that date to recognize how far removed Lyautey’s experience is from contemporary insurgencies. In 1902, the Battle of Omdurman lay only 4 years in the past. 110 years later, a similar group of insurgents effectively chased the American army out of Somalia. The difference in the intervening years lay not in men but materiel — the Somali irregulars had AK47s and RPGs, whereas the tribesmen at the Battle of Omdurman had spears and wicker shields with which to fight Maxim guns and Enfield rifles.

    Notwithstanding, the French have resurrected this hoary 19th century doctrine, with results which seem predictable. Why the Brits are following the French lemmings over this particular COIN cliff, however, I can’t fathom. It’s the Maginot Line of counterinsurgency.

    The tache d’huile represents a definitively failed COIN ideology because it was tried, at length, in Vietnam. The “pacification” program boiled down to Lyautey’s ink blot strategy, and as you’d predict, it failed spectacularly. What happens with the clear-build-hold/tache d’huile scheme is predictable. Your army comes in, cleans out the insurgents during the day — the insurgents creep back in during the night or percolate over into adjacent provinces. They murder or intimidate all the locals who swore allegiance to your army during the day. Then when your army comes back to build, you get ambushed and lose a bunch of troops. Eventually your army tires of getting attrited, and switches to full-on annihilation, at which point the ink blot strategy is toast, and so are your colonial ambition, because you can’t build or hold anything by bombing and strafing and artillery-barraging the population into a mountain of corpses.

    The “build” part of the equation proves impossible because you can never clear enough sectors. The underlying quadrillage conception, in which the occupiers grid off the occupied country into sectors and methodically work through ’em, fails for obvious reasons — insurgents infuriatingly refuse to recognize the artificial boundaries of gridlines on a map and they drift to and fro as required, swimming (in Mao’s phrase) like fish among the people.

    The “build” phase also fails because you need a gigantic colonial administration force behind your army. France and the other great powers had that back in 1902. No great power has it today. The personnel employed by the British Raj were an army unto themselves; an army of bookeepers, administrators, lawgivers, policemen, civil engineers. America has nothing like this today. The only organization in the modern world even remotely resembling the colonial administration upon which Lyautey relied for his ink blot (clear-build-hold) strategy is the Peace Corps, but even that is vastly smaller than the foreign administration corps France and Germany and particularly Britain could field in the early 1900s.

    As for the “hold” part of the equation, it’s laughable. To do that, you would have to eliminate corruption in the occupied country, measurably improve the conditions of life for the local people…in short, you would need to have a working British Raj of the kind that administrated entire countries at the zenith of the British Empire in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Nothing like that exists today anywhere in the world.

    Too, the “hold” part of the equation fails because today technology has largely equalized insurgents with occupiers. RPGs, stinger missiles, cellphone-detonated shaped-charge plastique IEDs, these can disable an M1A1 Abrams tank in its tracks or kill and entire humvee full of soldiers from a distance. The British never did manage to conquer Afghanistan. At the Battle of Maiwand on 27 July 1880, the Afghans famously slaughtered an entire British army, leaving only the surgeon alive to report back on the horrors he’d seen.

    The failed and foolish tache d’huile strategy represents a dead end, long discredited in the history of warfare. It wouldn’t work even in an optimal country: but the idea of using such a long-debunked 19th century strategy in Afghanistan, the graveyard of empires, where world-conquering Alexander the Great got into deep trouble and finally hit the end of his road, and where the mighty British Empire got defeated, crushed, and ignominiously humiliated, represents the very acme of folly, a veritable apotheosis of ignorantly hubristic self-delusion.

  2. Robert Petersen

    The odd thing about this whole Af-pak mess is that only a few years ago – as late as 2005 – I heard experts and politicians wonder about what had went wrong in Iraq compared to to the stunning success in Afghanistan in 2001. How sudden things can change. But perhaps what Afghanistan really needs is an Iraqi solution: A troop surge, a few dramatic battles, a decrease in violence and Fox News can declare victory! Minister Grigory Potyomkin was a Russian, but he could have been employed by the U.S. Government today.

    Modern policy is mostly about perception, not content. It doesn’t matter that Afghanistan will continue to be a mess as long as it won’t bother us. Perhaps somebody could tell Mullah Omar this and we would all be able to get along.

  3. McLaren

    You have more eloquently than I, got to the heart of the problem. The idea of taking a failed plan and making a few tweaks here and there is nothing new. But people buy into it as a new approach, and when it fails they just repeat the process. I guess this is what John Boyd was talking about when Doctrine becomes Dogma. we need to do as Boyd suggested and tear the whole thing up and start from scratch, and that the first rule should be to make no assumptions.

    I think most – if not all the problems we have encountered can be put down to our politicians and generals for having assumed too much concerning things they don’t understand. Why these assumptions are made is down to nothing more than the politicians belief that events in the past have no bearing on events happening now or in the future. Everything is unique and happens in a bubble in which “History” plays no part.

    What is past is Prologue.
    Those who fail to learn from History are doomed to repeat its mistakes.

    And sadly the US will inherit the mantle of Ignorant Hubristic self-delusion. A rather tatty hand-me-down from history. Trust me on this, you don’t want it!

  4. The problem with clear, hold and build is that it fails to account for the substantial financial investment it takes. How many trillions of dollars of capital investment and how many man-years of labor did it take to get a city like Los Angeles to where it is today? Or Abu Dhabi for that matter? Please keep in mind that by and large, construction workers in these areas are not constantly being shot at.

    For this to work, trillions of dollars will be required. We (the so called core nations) simply do not have the funds nor will to do so. We should just admit we were wrong and move on.
    Fabius Maximus replies: That’s a great point, and a substantial reason for our failure to date in Afghanistan. It’s structural. Not even the US can afford the cost of war and the necessary infrastructure investment — and other developed nations consider the project too daft to contribute much money.

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