Washington Losing Patience with Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan

All of these doubts about COIN add up to what retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert Scales calls "the slow gravitation of Afghanistan from a counterinsurgency-centered strategy to one tied more to direct action"--killing enough Taliban quickly enough to drive the leaders to the peace table, then getting out just as quickly. Ollivant, for one, says that because Allen will lose most of the 30,000 surge troops by 2012, "he needs a new strategy." A White House spokesman, Tommy Vietor, told National Journal that none is planned. "We are not fundamentally re-litigating where we ended up," he said. Nonetheless, administration officials increasingly talk of COIN as a one-off success in Iraq, and they emphasize that Obama always intended it for only parts of Afghanistan.

COIN strategy is complex and ambitious. On paper, it is impressive. It calls for a kind of nation-building: fostering reconstruction and economic progress; building up local governance, police, and security--all in an effort to engender popular faith in the government and to "reintegrate" former insurgents and their supporters into society.

But more and more, former counterinsurgency stars are realizing that their moment of favor may be brief--perhaps almost as brief as the flash of self-celebration that the neocons enjoyed nearly a decade ago between the moment Baghdad fell and Iraq went sour. And the argument is bigger than Afghanistan. "It's not so much a doctrinal debate as a struggle over the soul of the Army," says retired Army Col. Peter Mansoor, Petraeus's former executive officer in Iraq and a key member of his brain trust. "It's about whether the Army is primarily a force that fights and wins conventional wars or whether counterinsurgency is part and parcel of what the Army has to do.... As we pull out of Afghanistan, there will be a shift back to training for conventional wars," he says. "Counterinsurgency is going to slowly die out, just as it died out after Vietnam."

Even if the war in Afghanistan ends more successfully than the Vietnam War did, Mansoor says, "there's not going to be any stomach in the United States for this kind of thing going forward.... We're going to shy away from regime change or these really large-scale counterinsurgency conflicts. That's why you see, in Libya, the reluctance of the Obama administration to do more than what they're doing."

Barno says that COIN can't be permitted to atrophy again as a way of thinking. Even most skeptics concede that counterinsurgency thinking helped, at least in turning back the Iraq insurgency. "We snatched victory [in Iraq] from the jaws of defeat through a classic counterinsurgency campaign," Barno says. "You're never to see a conventional war ever again that doesn't not have a very robust irregular component to it."


Still, some critics are using this period of doctrinal doubt to attack the very idea of counterinsurgency as a profound self-deception--military fool's gold, in effect. Increasingly, these critics include NATO allies. Tom Johnson, a former adviser to the Canadian NATO command in Kabul, says he has come to believe that COIN "is a lot of smoke and mirrors." In truth, he says, "the United States and NATO only control the land they're standing on at any particular time." Even that advantage often disappears at night, when the Taliban return, and it will almost entirely disappear by 2014, Johnson believes. Worse, by supporting a corrupt government and pretending to protect the population, the U.S. may be creating more enemies than it would if it simply withdrew.

Douglas Porch, a military scholar at the Naval Postgraduate School, believes that Nagl and his band are guilty of mythologizing counterinsurgency as a kind of cleaned-up, civilized war, when in actuality it relies mainly on savage tactics--covert killing on a large scale by aerial drones and special-ops teams. They have also falsified history, he says: "COIN is not a separate category of warfare, as people like John and others try to make it out. It's really just a subset of minor tactics. It becomes a sort of competition of people who do big wars against people who do little wars. The little-wars guys think they're being looked down on, so they evolve a theology. That's counterinsurgency."

And, most of all, the truth about past counterinsurgency campaigns is often the opposite of what proponents say. The colonial British quashed an insurgency in Malaya, for example, not by winning over the population but by killing many of them, Porch says: "The tactics they employed were total brutality. What they did was lock these people in concentration camps and pitted one minority group against the other."

Nagl retorts: "While there were cases of British brutality against the local population, these decreased over time as the British army, empowered by its regimental system, learned and adapted." Nagl also says that the British successfully raised a home guard of some 250,000 soldiers in Malaya to protect the "New Villages" that the Brits had built to separate the population from the insurgents. Still, Nagl is the first to admit that the exact reasons for counterinsurgency success are never clear, just as it's not precisely clear whether parts of Iraq stabilized mainly because of COIN tactics or because the sectarian bloodletting was so terrible that the Sunnis finally rejected violence.

Porch also complains that the U.S. military is growing weaker as a fighting force, losing its war-waging abilities as it avoids anything more than the most surgical strikes and drains itself in fruitless efforts to succor the population. "It's much easier for the conventional military to adapt to COIN than the other way around," he says. "The French army COIN-ized in Algeria and Mexico in the 19th century, then confronted the Prussians in 1870 and got their butts kicked," he says. "Then the same thing happened to the British army through colonial warfare. In two world wars, they didn't do well. So in the end, you get bad armies that can't really adapt to big warfare."

Diehard COIN advocates respond simply: What's the alternative? Unless you give up Afghanistan--per the Biden plan--you don't have much choice but to try to pacify the population and set up a friendly government if the United States wants to get out with any sense of honor. "There have been times when I've been very frustrated, very frustrated, but I did see progress too," says Campbell, who still thinks that the current approach is the best one. Like Nagl, Mansoor stresses that Americans will support the effort if they understand that COIN is still largely untried in Afghanistan. "We really have not fought a counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan for 10 years," he says. "We've fought it for maybe a year-plus at this point. Maybe not even that much."

Others argue that we've been at this for years already. John Hillen, who was assistant secretary of State for political and military affairs under President George W. Bush, acknowledges that COIN was slow in getting started but that generals such as Barno were doing a lot of the same things (albeit with fewer troops) back in the mid-2000s. Barno himself argues that the U.S. has "already won the Afghan war twice--once in December 2001 and a second time by the end of 2004," before the Taliban began coming back. But journalist Ahmed Rashid, who has written authoritative books on the Taliban, says that the insurgents were filtering into Afghanistan as early as 2002 and were just waiting for their moment.

The question now is whether the Taliban will simply lie in wait until 2014 and come back one more time. It's no surprise that--accelerated by the bin Laden takedown and a sense that al-Qaida is waning, or at least hiding, in Pakistan--the U.S. strategy is shifting heavily toward the pared-down Biden focus.

Nagl and others sketch out a possible future in which Afghan forces are just capable of keeping the country together, with U.S. special-ops forces and the CIA providing guidance, technical support, and intelligence. "Ultimately, the war doesn't end in 2014 when we withdraw," Mansoor says. "The situation only needs to be stable enough so that Afghan forces exist and can function with some counterterrorism support from the U.S." And the government must be more legitimate than, say, South Vietnam's regime was. "If you look at the polls, as much as Karzai stuffed the ballot boxes, he still is one of the more popular politicians in Afghanistan, more than the series of military dictators who ruled Vietnam. He can't run for office again, so there will be another president of Afghanistan. I think, frankly, that transition of government is going to be really crucial."

By then, U.S. forces will be largely gone, and private-security contractors will fill the gaps, along with covert operations. The reconstruction, development, and reconciliation part of counterinsurgency will shrink every month. And so the population may be even further out of reach. All of which doesn't sound like a promising grade for graduate-level warfare.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Presented by

Michael Hirsh & Jamie Tarabay

Michael Hirsh is chief correspondent for National Journal, where Jamie Tarabay is Managing Editor of national security and foreign affairs for National Journal.

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