RUSI News Release: Coalition forces in Afghanistan have ‘now reached their limit’

RUSI JOURNAL: Coalition forces in Afghanistan have ‘now reached their limit’

Journal Oct 08There are simply not enough combat troops to carry out all the necessary tasks if momentum against the Taliban is to be maintained; this is the assessment from General Sir Michael Rose after returning from Afghanistan recently.

Although the military war against the Taliban ‘is being slowly won’ and they are being forced to adopt a terrorist strategy, General Rose outlines a ‘number of serious operational problems’ which could still undo the NATO mission in Afghanistan.

Writing exclusively in the Journal of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) General Rose, who commanded the UN protection force in Bosnia, said ‘it is clear that in Afghanistan Coalition forces have now reached their limit of exploitation with regards to manpower’.

‘In Afghanistan today there exists an evident political determination to succeed. This is backed by a comprehensive development plan, and with the exception of manpower, the necessary resources have been committed to do so.’

‘The number of British troops in Afghanistan has increased from 1,000 in 2003 to around 8,000 in 2008, but this is still far from adequate to secure Helmand Province where the population totals 1.2m people and is furthermore scattered over a vast territory. It was a US Marine Unit that drove the Taliban from the strategically important town of Garmsir in Helmand Province in the spring of 2008 because there were insufficient troops available. At present, there is a difficulty in securing Musa Qala and its outlying areas once again because of a shortage of combat troops,’ writes General Rose.

Offering a solution to the lack of manpower, ‘exacerbated’ by the different rules of engagement subscribed to by contributing NATO nations, General Rose claims raising irregular militias from the Afghan tribal areas would not only to help with ‘hearts and minds’, but also could act as a ‘force multiplier’.

Countering an increasingly held view that the US and NATO are involved in an ‘unwinnable war’ in Afghanistan, General Rose’s article suggests it is ‘undoubtedly being won – at least on the military level’; but warns security gains will not endure without greater numbers of soldiers, good governance and swift reconstruction affecting ordinary Afghans, in particular in the regional tribal areas.

‘Today 77 per cent of incidents that take place in Afghanistan occur within only 10 per cent of the country – and these are mainly in the form of terrorism. There will, of course, be occasion when the Taliban are able to mount conventional operations against the Coalition forces… But the underlying nature of the conflict remains that of a limited insurgency fought by a minority of Pashtun tribal groups operating under the banner of the Taliban.

‘Success or failure will ultimately depend on the ability of the Afghan Government to reach out to the deeply conservative Pashtun tribes who support the Taliban… The key to success in Afghanistan is to persuade the Afghan Pashtun tribes that they have a future in a modern Afghanistan rather than with the Taliban.’

‘As in all insurgency wars, winning the confidence and consent of the people of Afghanistan will always be more important than winning any particular tactical level military battle…

‘The loose administrative connections between Kabul and the regions also create difficulties – for decisions by powerful, and sometimes corrupt provincial governors do not always follow the national plan or agreed priorities.

‘Building confidence in good governance remains the single most important component in winning the insurgency in Afghanistan today.’

This RUSI Journal article follows the Defence Secretary, John Hutton, remarks at the weekend highlighting the long-term challenges in Afghanistan and also the comments made at RUSI last week by NATO’s highest military officer, General Craddock, who suggested the Afghanistan campaign suffered from manpower shortcomings and ‘wavering political will’ from NATO governments which impeded operational progress. Earlier this month the departing commander of British Forces in Helmand, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, said more troops were needed to ‘contain the insurgency’ to a level where it was no longer a strategic threat to the Afghan Government.


  1. RUSI is an independent think-tank for defence and security. RUSI is a unique institution; founded in 1831 by the Duke of Wellington, it embodies nearly two centuries of forward thinking, free discussion and careful reflection on defence and security matters.
  2. General Sir Michael Rose visited Afghanistan the summer of 2008.
  3. General Sir Michael Rose commanded the UN protection force in Bosnia in 1994. A former officer in the Coldstream Guards and commander of the SAS, he is the author of Washington’s War: From Independence To Iraq.
  4. General Rose is not based in London and has limited availability.


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