The crux of counter insurgency strategy is coaxing the population to support you rather than the insurgency – the winning of hearts and minds. To do this, the counter insurgency force must protect the population; the counter insurgency force must also define itself in opposition to the insurgency: counter insurgents can provide security, insurgents cannot; counter insurgents can provide justice, insurgents cannot; counter insurgents protect the population, insurgents cannot.
On this last point, protecting the population, NATO’s forces in Afghanistan have been dreadful. Instances of ISAF airstrikes killing dozens of Afghan civilians have been abundant over the last eight years. It is to Gen. McChrystal’s credit that in response to the disastrous airstrike in May that he issued an order acknowledging the counter productive nature of airstrikes and heavily restricting their use.
So, one would think, today’s report of 30 Afghan civilians killed when their passenger bus struck a roadside bomb near Kandahar would work to NATO’s favor, beginning to wean the population of Kandahar from the insurgents. However, in today’s bombing, we can see the paradoxes of counter insurgency well illustrated. While the population will turn against NATO for collateral damage emanating from its use of air strikes, a bombing like today’s will not compel the same reaction vis-à-vis the insurgents. Rather, the population will look at today’s bombing and ask, “Why can’t NATO secure the highways, and prevent bombings of passenger busses?” The question is a fair one. NATO cannot secure the highways for many reasons, not least of which is that there are too few NATO troops in Afghanistan generally, and in Kandahar province in particular.
Afghans will not countenance the indiscriminant killing of their brothers and sisters by either NATO or the Pashtu insurgency. But, the technological advantage, the foreign origins, and the transitory nature of the ISAF sets the standard of conduct for NATO much higher – and for the insurgency, much lower. The careful, conscientious use of force by a sufficiently large contingent of NATO troops is the only way forward in Afghanistan.