Security, development and the British experience of counter-insurgency warfare in Afghanistan

Since 2006, Afghanistan has experienced a resurgence of the Taliban insurgency against external forces and the security apparatus of the domestic centralized government. As a part of the ISAF mission, the British forces have been tasked to take charge of the counter-insurgency campaign in the Helmand province known for its large opium production and links to the Taliban. Their ‘hearts and minds’ approach based on previous counter-insurgency experience coupled with contemporary international interventionist paradigm targeting ‘security-development nexus’ have hardly met the initial objectives. This gap can be attributed to the holistic doctrinal application of ‘development’ at the expense of understanding local complexities through the eyes of local population.

Author: Jakub Maco, post-graduate student of Geography and Politics (MA Hons) at  University of Edinburgh.


The aim of this essay is to assess the relationship between security and development with regard to the British experience of counter-insurgency in Afghanistan by employing the concept of the security-development nexus, as well as peacebuilding and statebuilding paradigms due to their interconnectedness with counter-insurgency in Afghanistan. Firstly, this essay analyzes the concepts of ‘security’, ‘development’ and the security-development nexus and their implications for peacebuilding and statebuilding paradigms since the end of the Cold War. Secondly, this essay demonstrates that peacebuilding and statebuilding aims regarding ‘security’ and ‘development’ and the British counter-insurgency considerably merged at the doctrinal level in Afghanistan. Thirdly, this essay discusses the actual British experience of counter-insurgency on the ground in Afghanistan by demonstrating profound gaps between initial aims and achievable objectives regarding security and development. Overall, this essay argues that rather than pursuing holistic doctrinal ‘development’ of the ‘West’ linked with democracy, liberal market economy, human security and security in the long run, the primary goal of the British (and their coalition partners) should have been to achieve security in the narrow sense by overcoming the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan and employing limited physical reconstruction. Only after this is achieved, specifically tailored development strategy should be pursued and should complement the Afghan-style long-term security and human security.

The security-development nexus

In order to assess the British experience of counter-insurgency warfare in Afghanistan, it is vital to present the relationship between security and development. Following the end of the Cold War, there has been an increased consensus among governments, non-governmental organizations, academic works and international institutions that “development requires security, and without security you cannot have development” (Duffield, 2007:1), that “development and security are inextricably linked” (Stern and Öjendal, 2010:5), or “no security without development, no development without security” (Trachsler, 2008:1). This intimate relationship between security and development, or ‘the security-development nexus’ “has been hailed as…a holistic, coherent or comprehensive approach [to intervention] in non-Western [failing or failed] states”, especially after 9/11 (Chandler, 2007:362-3). Despite Afghanistan being a somewhat distinct case from peacebuilding and statebuilding missions in the 1990s due to direct external military involvement on the ground and ongoing insurgency, it is crucial to understand the broader dynamics of these missions. They involve external interventionist mechanisms, employing multidimensional techniques in order to contain and consequently reverse insecurity and underdevelopment in societies devastated by an armed conflict. However, these ‘missions’ largely reflect liberal ideas, the consensus of international institutions and liberal states that insecurity and underdevelopment are interconnected and cause armed conflicts that threaten stable and lasting peace. Consequently, in order to overcome these threats of failing or failed states, they have to be transformed according to the ‘Western’ liberal consensus into “liberal market democracies as quickly as possible” by pursuing political and economic liberalization (Paris, 2004:5). However, in most of the cases this approach “produced destabilizing side effects that worked against the consolidation of peace” (Paris, 2004:151). By abstracting these cases from their specific historical, cultural and political context and employing “an ahistorical and static view of the challenges posed” (Berdal, 2009:19), the liberal consensus with regard to development and security is deemed to be overly self-celebratory and lacking realism and pragmatism.

‘Development’ and ‘security’

Before proceeding to the discussion of the British approach to counter-insurgency in Afghanistan that merged with peacebuilding and statebuilding practices, terms ‘development’ and ‘security’ require further analysis. To provide a single precise uncontested meaning of these terms is virtually impossible, because it would require a certain degree of politicization and reductionism that simplify the multidimensionality and complexity of security and development. Instead, there are multiple ‘developments’ and ‘securities’ that constitute the web of ‘nexuses’, for example, Stern and Öjendal (2010:21) identify six development-security nexuses. For the purpose of this essay, four of those are used: development-security as modern narrative, humanizing development-security, development-security as a technique of governmentality and globalized development-security (Stern and Öjendal, 2010:21). The first and the last dimensions were presented in the previous paragraph with regard to the liberal ‘modern’ consensus and global diffused norms regarding security and development. The key dimension to be discussed here is the humanization of security and development linked to the liberal modern narrative and global norms. Both security and development have been redefined from their initial sense, such as security of state or development as an indicator of GDP and trade to encompass the ‘human security’ and human well-being. The Voices of the Poor study of the World Bank indicated that “the number one priority for the poor was security” (Chandler, 2007:367).  Duffield (2007:111) notes with regard to human security that “international security is menaced by the modalities of underdevelopment … [and] demands that states play a central role in protecting and securing people”. The implication of ‘Western’ liberal humanization of development and security is the export and implementation of norms, such as good governance, human rights, democracy, sustainability, access to education, eradication of poverty, economic growth and conflict-prevention to ‘non-Western’, ‘underdeveloped’ and ‘insecure’ failing or failed states. Moreover, this relationship has been increasingly ‘securitized’ following the 9/11, with the preventive character of development “subordinated to security-relevant goals” (Trachsler, 2008:2). By having assessed ‘development’ and ‘security’ and their relationship, this essay proceeds to link peacebuilding and statebuilding practices with the British experience of counter-insurgency in Afghanistan.

A Royal Air Force Chinook Mk2 helicopter conducts a load transfer at Camp Bastion, Afghanistan (Source:

Peacebuilding, statebuilding and counter-insurgency

With regard to peacebuilding and statebuilding in the 1990s, strategies of security and development have been pursued after the formal termination of a given conflict, where some kind of political settlement was reached between competing forces. Consequently, the role of the peacekeeping military operating with an international mandate has been to maintain stability and act as a guardian of peace. This is in contrast to counter-insurgency, which involves an ongoing armed struggle between insurgents and counter-insurgents in the absence of political settlement between the two. Thus, strategies of development and security are pursued by counter-insurgency in a process of war-fighting in order to overcome the insurgency. However, peacebuilding, statebuilding and the British counter-insurgency approach, especially with regard to Afghanistan, overlap in certain strategies and mechanisms. They involve joint external civilian-military missions importing and employing ‘Western’ liberal conceptions of humanized development and security as preconditions to stability and sustainable absence of armed conflict. Arguably, the role of military involvement is much greater in counter-insurgency than in peacebuilding or statebuilding. However, political dimension is crucial across the whole spectrum. Galula (1964:88) described counter-insurgency as “80% political, 20% military”, while Kilcullen (2006:123) notes that “modern counter-insurgency may be 100% political”. Moreover, the open and frequent use of armed force by the external interveners is highly discouraged not only in post-conflict missions, but also in the Afghan counter-insurgency mission with “the people-centred human security-like discourse” supporting it (Gilmore, 2011:22). Additionally, the intimate relationship between security and development, or the security-development nexus, manifested itself at the doctrinal level as a comprehensive approach with regard to Afghanistan. Rather than providing security by military means alone, “it requires good governance, justice, and the rule of law, reinforced by reconstruction and development” (Williams, 2011:64). Having outlined the blurred character of peacebuilding, statebuilding and counter-insurgency with respect to development and security in Afghanistan, this essay subsequently discusses the British experience of counter-insurgency in Afghanistan in more detail.

Development, security and the British COIN in Afghanistan

There have been numerous gaps between the doctrinal ambitions outlined in the previous paragraph and the realization of these objectives in Afghanistan. These gaps are based on a somewhat flawed approach to counter-insurgency with regard to development and security, as well as lack of commitment, financial and non-financial resources, complexity and incoherence among actors. With regard to the British experience of counter-insurgency in the Helmand province since 2006, as well as numerous other provinces that are not under the exclusive Afghan central government or coalition control, they experience an ongoing Taliban-led insurgency. Therefore, counter-insurgency does not possess monopoly on armed violence and these areas lack security even in the narrow sense. Consequently, the civilian organizations are constrained to carry out humanized development strategies, when the military is unable to deal with the short-term and traditional conception of security. The British task force commander, Jerry Thomas, emphasized security as the “pre-eminent line of activity [and that] once security is in place, development will gather momentum and provide the best tool with which to counter this insurgency” (quoted in Egnell, 2011:304). However, there seems to be a contradiction between the doctrinal pursuit of the minimum force in the counter-insurgency campaign and the actual situation on the ground that would require a more intense and frequent use of armed forces in order to achieve security in the narrow sense. NATO, the US and even the UK – with their alleged ‘softer’ approach, have been extensively criticized by using too much force with regard to air strikes and ground fire resulting in the civilian deaths (Roberts, 2009:41).

British and Afghan Soldiers on joint patrol (Source:

Another relevant aspect to be discussed is the impact of the relationship between Taliban-led insurgency, counter-insurgency and Afghan population on security and development. The classical British approach to counter-insurgency since the campaign in Malaya has been to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the people, in the case of this essay the Afghan populace. Generally, this approach involves using carrots in the form of development projects, assurances of security and the minimum use of force in order to win over the local population, consequently defeating insurgent subversion and support (Crawshaw, 2012:1). However, the ‘hearts and minds’ approach “may be useful in public relations terms, but it undermines the theory as a guide to operations, because it can be interpreted in such divergent ways” (Dixon, 2009:353). Additionally, as the previous paragraph demonstrated, the application of the minimum use of force is highly difficult to pursue consistently in Afghanistan. Thus, by using force openly too much and its association with the civilian deaths, the local population feels increasingly alienated with the counter-insurgency and its false promise of security. This is jointly applicable to the internal and external dimension of counter-insurgency through the politicization and activation of local grievances by Taliban, pointing to the historical continuity and portraying the Afghan National Security Forces and the Afghan central government as puppets of the infidel external occupants.

Afghanistan has been shaped by the armed conflict for decades dating back to the Cold War activating and strengthening its contested tribal, ethnic or religious identities.  Historically, central state institutions in Afghanistan “have been notoriously weak” contributing to the local attachment rather than the state attachment among the diverse Afghan population (Roberts, 2009:38). In the current situation, the strong central presidency of Karzai, penetrated by insurgent groups and discredited by the rampant corruption reflects the unrealistic ambitions of the external Western powers to provide functioning democracy with the recognized central authority.

Furthermore, the Western coalition forces including the UK have “focused heavily on economic factors, structural incentives, and individual preferences [emphasizing] rationalist and materialist approaches” to address the counter-insurgency and development in Afghanistan (Fitzsimmons, 2008:356). This holistic doctrinal approach of the West by pursuing its own standards of democracy and liberal market economy neglects the distinctive Afghan internal and historical complexities that are incompatible with the Western vision. Rather, a more narrow approach of reconstruction should have been initially pursued, understood as “the restoration of the condition of the assets and infrastructure … to the same or similar state in which they were found before the outbreak of hostilities” (Etzioni, 2009:101).

Regarding the economic factors, the issue of illegal opium production in Afghanistan linking transnational criminal networks, insurgents and local farmers is both crucial and extremely difficult to address. There have been tensions among the US and the UK in destroying the opium poppy fields, with the UK being reluctant to destroy those “in Helmand province until alternative forms of income can be provided to the farmers” (Dixon, 2009:375). This has two contradictory implications. The first one is the aim to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the local population by not destroying their source of income, thus contributing to overcoming the insurgent subversion, the second being a financial income to the insurgents from illegal drug trafficking and opium production sustaining and strengthening the insurgency. The fact is that the opium poppy cultivation is on the rise since 2001 (Jones, 2008:81). This discredits plans of the Western coalition to provide an alternative agricultural cultivation on a large impactful scale that would limit the influence of the insurgents on the local population. Aside from the top tier core of the Taliban-led insurgency driven by radical Islamism, the low tier insurgents recruited from the local population and supported by it are motivated by unemployment, disenchantment or anger (Jones, 2008:60-61), further strengthened by the fear of personal insecurity.

A British paratrooper keeps watch from the roof of a compound in Afghanistan (Source:

Despite some success stories of the British experience of counter-insurgency in Helmand province, for example, limited strategic territorial gains in 2010 with the support of US marines, or the 2008 Afghan development zones strategy (Egnell, 2011:297), overall strategic objectives of the counter-insurgency have not been achieved by the British, possibly resulting in the “operational failure [or] strategic defeat” (Betz and Cormack, 2009:320). This has been largely due to the rapid and inappropriate application of the Western liberal consensus on the security-development nexus with their wrongly perceived long-term positive impact on Afghanistan. These have proved counterproductive, by further fuelling the insurgency, thus maintaining, or even strengthening insecurity in the narrow sense. Employing modest, short-term and achievable objectives firstly and then introducing gradual changes specifically tailored to Afghan complexity with the local consensus over several decades might have been a better approach for achieving security and development in the long-run. However, also the British (and coalition) domestic factors have been deficient to pursue a successful counter-insurgency campaign, with the British Government’s “lukewarm commitment to Afghanistan … in part as a reflection of public opinion” (Betz and Cormack, 2009:321).


To conclude, this essay demonstrated that the intimate relationship between security and development manifested in the security-development nexus is essentially a Western liberal construct seeking to diffuse the application of humanized character of these concepts to non-Western underdeveloped and insecure societies in conflict or post-conflict situations. As has been the case in numerous post-Cold War external interventionist missions, the pursuit of doctrinal holistic approach has had largely negative outcomes in Afghanistan. This has proved consistent with regard to the British experience of counter-insurgency in Afghanistan. Realities on the ground in Afghanistan indicate that there has been insecurity in the narrow sense, while pursuing wrongly designed development and security strategies. The Taliban-led insurgency is far from being overcome and ‘hearts and minds’ of the population are not won over. The primary initial objective should have been to decouple security from development in their Western liberal understanding in order to achieve security and stability in the narrow sense as the absence of regular armed violence, while pursuing limited physical reconstruction and empowering the local decentralized, even undemocratic governance.


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