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Research Essay on Effectiveness of the Counter-insurgency Strategies Used by the US and NATO to Fight against the Taliban

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Research Essay

Assess the effectiveness of the counter-insurgency strategies used by the US and NATO in Afghanistan between 2001-2014. What lessons can be drawn to improve counter-insurgency strategy in the future?

The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 on the World Trade Centre towers and the Pentagon shook the world from the heart of New York. The unprecedented lethality caused and the coordination of events on that day redefined terrorism. Yet, it also left the United States of America (US) with a tough decision to make in the aftermath. This essay will assess and in counter-insurgency strategies used by the US and NATO between 2001 and 2014 in Afghanistan, point out the reasons to why they failed in achieving their goals in winning the war and draw out lessons to be learned on how to improve counter-insurgency strategies in the future.

In a speech that received a standing ovation at the US Congress, George W. Bush’s declared the wat on terror just one week after the attacks (Staff, 2017). Two consecutive US administrations followed counter-insurgency strategies that focused on fighting the Taliban in its initial stages (Eikenberry, 2013); a classical shape-clear-hold strategy that was used in the Malaya emergency that prioritised killing over restoring government authority (Thruelsen, 2010).

Washington was not ready for war; however, the Bush Administration strongly believed that there was no other way to defeat Osama bin Laden but through a military intervention (Peceny and Bosin, 2011). The US’ unreadiness turned them to rely on Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance. Warlords who had been expelled Kabul government by the Taliban, the Northern Alliance were the best proponents to the US counter-insurgency (Witte, 2019). The joint surge was so successful that it was reported to be “one of the greatest military successes of the 21st century” (O’Hanlon apud Peceny and Bosin, 2011). Kabul was captured in only three months after September 11 attacks, Osama bin Laden’s forces fled to the neighbouring Pakistan and the Taliban regime was overthrown (Peceny and Bosin, 2011). Yet, this victory was only short lived.

The Bush administration’s counter-insurgency strategy also included a restoration of Afghanistan’s authority (Council on Foreign Relations, 2019). Northern Alliance relations remained on a military level and the US turned to develop an alliance with the Pashtun, a southern minority, in fears of any opposition, or worse, a support for the Taliban in retaliation (Peceny and Bosin, 2011).

Bringing the warlords’ power back into Afghanistan was only a beginning of a corruption that plagued the Afghan state that endued a hopeless future to Afghanistan. President Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun, was elected in October 2004 as a result of a trade-off between votes from warlords for local autonomy according to the Independent Election Commission (apud Peceny and Bosin, 2011). Subsequently, notorious warlords became members in parliament who used their power for the the mal distribution of foreign aid and control of opium cultivation, drug trafficking, foreign investment through security contracts and private enterprises through joint ventures (Peceny and Bosin, 2011).

The Afghans’ faith in their country’s future, in effect, began to drop according to the Asia Foundation’s Survey of the Afghan People (apud Thruelsen, 2010). Increased dissatisfaction combined with the deteriorating security situation was the perfect opportunity for the Taliban’s insurgents to return (Thruelsen, 2010). They continued targeting urban areas to damage any legitimacy of the Afghan government and intimidate the population. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, Taliban attacks quintupled within a year proving counter-insurgency attacks and enhancing national police and military efforts unsuccessful.

The US and NATO’s failed counter-insurgency strategies and corruption were not the only drivers for the growth of the Taliban. Thruelsen (2010) also credits Taliban’s success to a new and modern insurgency model that combined war and religious beliefs; much in contrast to traditional structures based on ethnic backgrounds. The lack of security mentioned previously also paved the way for the Taliban to move into urban centres which continue to weaken US and NATO’s credibility and military strength (Thruelsen, 2010).

The Taliban’s modern insurgency model also supported them in their information operations. According to Thruelsen (2010), they were able to reach international media before international forces did; for example, when a Taliban officer had placed an explosive device that killed women and children, the insurgents were able to spread the story first and accuse international forces (Thruelsen, 2010). Kilcullen (2006) explains that both classic and modern counter-insurgency is contingent on insurgents. However, this strategy gave the Taliban the ability to manipulate local perceptions and convince Afghans otherwise. In later years, we see that information operations also contributed insurgents’ global recruitment through new forms of media such as YouTube, dark web, immigrant communities in the west…etc. such as in the cases of ISIS fighters from Europe or even Australia.

The failed Afghan economy also gave the Taliban the opportunity to reach out to the public through economic incentives and financial gain. For instance, they began safeguarding farmers’ opium fields, an important source of revenue (Thruelsen, 2010). It is also worth to mention that this a drastic change from when banned opium cultivation earlier; safeguarding field and controlling trade generated profits to the Taliban as a result of trafficking (Thruelsen, 2010).

Their quick response to the lack of trust in the central government and loss of confidence for a better future allowed the Taliban to grow in numbers and support by 2008 (Threulsen 2010). By the time the Obama administration stepped into office, more coalition troops in Afghanistan than in Iraq (Thruelsen, 2010). Nevertheless, the new administration that inherited this insurgency carried on with same strategy and deployed more troops in response (Council on Foreign Relations, 2019).

The military, political, economic and social, development of Afghanistan was carried out through means of institution building, providing basic services to the people and training local military and police forces…etc. (Thruelsen, 2010). Yet, the permeating corruption impeded every aspect of Afghan society (Indurthy, 2011). President Karzai’s re-election in November 2009 was covered in fraud; even his runoff victory remains a matter of question (Council on Foreign Affairs, 2000). He was still favoured by warlords who relied on him for continued foreign aid that they benefitted from (Peceny and Bosin, 2011). It was the same battle all over again.

It was not only President Karzai’s power that reinstated the warlord system in Afghanistan, however. According to Indurthy (2019), the US continued to rely on warlords for their own safety and paid them millions of dollars for the protection of NATO convoys; the warlords, in turn, bribed the Taliban to clear any attacks on those convoys.

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Consequently, warlords’ power became rivalled to that of national forces. Although the latter was better trained and equipped to fight the Taliban, they lacked the motivation to fight (Indurthy, 2011). The US even failed to win the support of locals, such as opium farmers for example, who were not convinced to switch to other cash crops that did not generate the same income (Indurthy, 2011).

A democratic, strong and prosperous Afghanistan was far from achieved. Warlords continued to shake the government’s stability and controlled private armies in their areas. According to Peceny and Bosin (2011), targeting warlords would have only intensified the war by creating a new enemy and an increased opposition from the population for the US to counter and handle. With the warlords in power, there were more losses than gain for the Afghan government and the US and NATO’s counter-insurgency strategies.

Former US Ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Einkenberry (2009), describes the Obama Administration’s new strategy in December 2009 as a far more expensive troop surge to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan and their safe havens in Pakistan and train national forces before their withdrawal from the region. Obama’s new goal was to withdraw US troops and leave the responsibility of fighting the Taliban under the Afghan government by 2014 (Council on Foreign Relations, 2000). Peceny and Bosin (2011), criticise that the administration was more concerned with building capacity rather than democracy.

Nevertheless, neither military nor civil surges saw any success. The operation on the Taliban governed city of Marjah, for example, was poorly planned. It came of no surprise to the public as they were forewarned of the attack which gave Taliban fighters the chance to flee the city and reappear again carrying out more terrorist activities (Indurthy, 2011). Members of the Afghan parliament also became concerned of their ability to take over the responsibility of the war (Council on Foreign Relations, 2000).

Yet, the administration remained committed to their strategy. Even firing Gen. McChrystal, who referred to the strategy as a ‘bleeding ulcer’ (Indurthy, 2011), or successfully killing Osama bin Laden in Pakistan did not lose sight on US and NATO’s goal (Council on Foreign Relations, 2000).

Expanding their strategy beyond Afghanistan to target Taliban havens in Pakistan may have reflected on awareness of the modern insurgent tactics. However, the continued drone strikes in Pakistan only generated more anti-American sentiments from the public thus contributing to the insurgence of the Taliban in the aftermath of Osama bin Laden’s killing (Einkenberry, 2013). Additionally, the Pakistani army needed the Taliban as potential loyal constituencies and continued to support them as a result and their insurgents continued to grow (Council on Foreign Relations, 2000).

Ultimately, the Obama administration was left with no choice but to negotiate with moderate members of the Taliban to fight off irreconcilable insurgents through similar deals and means provided to warlord allies in counter-insurgencies in 2001 (Peceny and Bosin, 2011); quite ironic and contradictory to what former President Bush had promised to eliminate all insurgents. Instead the strategy remained the same, but the actors were changed. So far, no talks have been finalised between both parties even after the withdrawal of international forces in 2014 (Council on Foreign Relations, 2000). The fact that the Taliban have established an active political office for negotiations in Doha according to Deutsche Welle (2019) only adds to their legitimacy and proves the failed counter-insurgency strategies by two consecutive US administrations and the NATO.

The US should have been aware of the Taliban’s new structure and modernity through the execution style of the September 11 attacks. In his article, Young (2019) relates the US military intervention in Afghanistan to the US’ defeat in Vietnam. The similarities of how both corrupt governments bred armed insurgents prove that US national security rushed to forget the lessons from the Vietnam war and disregarded what was necessary to win (Young, 2019).

Although a short-term victory was achieved by driving out the Taliban in the beginning, it clearly proved that it did not bring an end to the war. Eikenberry (2013) argues that a more effective strategy would be to remove anarchy with security to avoid any growing perception of international forces as invaders. Modern counter-insurgency has become less military and more political (or possibly not military at all!) (Kilcullen, 2006). Avoiding a military surge requires a control of the environment (Kilcullen, 2006); henceforth a combination of political, military, social, infrastructure and information campaign was necessary to defeat the Taliban. As Young (2019) states, “Knowing how to kill people is far from sufficient to defeat insurgencies”.

Reviving the warlord system was another mistake that inadvertently placed them into power. Their abuse of their political power only weakened the Afghan state and brought corruption that added to the Afghans’ dismay that played in favour of the Taliban.

Kilcullen (2006) states that today’s insurgents no longer operate from one geographical point anymore; they can remotely recruit, and receive funding form a virtual sanctuary. Until December 2009, the US and NATO counter-insurgency only focused on Afghanistan. And ignored their growth and support from the neighbouring country of Pakistan.

The Taliban successfully adapted to new information operations for global outreach. They provided economic incentives that responded to different (and sometimes opposing) tribes and ethnicities in Afghanistan. With the Afghan state in anarchy, the Taliban was to win the war on local perceptions and gain further support.

Resorting to peace talks with moderate or reconcilable Taliban members does not mean that the US and NATO have won the fight. Rather, with the former establishing an office in Doha only legitimised their existence (Graham-Harrison and Roberts, 2017).

In short, modern-day insurgents are able to gather support and recruit globally using multiple resources (Kilcullen, 2006). The military dominant counter-insurgency strategy carried by both the Bush and Obama administrations revived weakening the Afghan state. Warlords’ political power impeded any development to the country. Growing resentment towards the new Kabul government only contributed to the Taliban’s insurgency that came back to threaten the former. The US and NATO lost the war against the Taliban.

Reference list

  1. Council on Foreign Relations. (2019). A Timeline of the U.S. War in Afghanistan. [online] Available at:
  2. Deutsche Welle ( (2019). Afghan war — What to expect from the US-Taliban Doha talks | DW | 27.08.2019. [online] DW.COM. Available at: [Accessed 29 Sep. 2019].
  3. Eikenberry, KW 2013, The Limits of Counterinsurgency Doctrine in Afghanistan : The Other Side of the COIN, Council On Foreign Relation, New York.
  4. Graham-Harrison, E. and Roberts, D. (2017). Taliban peace talks: “Peace and reconciliation” negotiations to take place in Qatar. [online] the Guardian. Available at: [Accessed 22 Sep. 2019].
  5. Indurthy, R. (2011). The Obama Administration’s Strategy In Afghanistan. International Journal on World Peace, [online] 28(3), pp.7–52. Available at:
  6. Kilcullen, D. (2006). Counter-insurgency Redux. Survival, 48(4), pp.111–130.
  7. Peceny, M. and Bosin, Y. (2011). Winning with warlords in Afghanistan. Small Wars & Insurgencies, 22(4), pp.603–618.
  8. Staff, G. (2017). Text of George Bush’s speech. [online] the Guardian. Available at: [Accessed 25 Feb. 2019].
  9. Thruelsen, P.D. (2010). The Taliban in southern Afghanistan: a localised insurgency with a local objective. Small Wars & Insurgencies, 21(2), pp.259–276.
  10. Witte, G. (2019). Afghanistan War | History, Combatants, Facts, & Timeline. In: Encyclopedia Britannica. [online] Available at: [Accessed 29 Sept. 2019].
  11. Young, S.B. (2019). Why America Lost in Afghanistan. [online] Foreign Policy. Available at: [Accessed 29 Sept. 2019].

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Research Essay on Effectiveness of the Counter-insurgency Strategies Used by the US and NATO to Fight against the Taliban. (2022, September 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 27, 2023, from
“Research Essay on Effectiveness of the Counter-insurgency Strategies Used by the US and NATO to Fight against the Taliban.” Edubirdie, 27 Sept. 2022,
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