US strategy in Afghanistan

Something from nothing

McChrystal’s announcements of new rules of engagement were part of a larger change of strategy in the eight-year-old war: a move to counterinsurgency (COIN).

In March 2009 the Obama administration gave itself one year to “shift the momentum” in the war—meaning, to stop losing. Three months later, Defense Secretary Robert Gates asked for McKiernan’s resignation. He was replaced by McChrystal, who, in late August, recommended increasing U.S.-troop deployment by 40,000 and implementing a COIN strategy. In his December 1 speech at West Point, Obama did not give McChrystal everything he asked for, but he largely embraced McChrystal’s analysis and fully accepted his COIN recommendations.

More than a specific code of action, COIN is about priorities. In a population-centric counterinsurgency campaign, the chief priority is protecting the population, not killing the enemy. The idea is to win over the people with security and services attentive to local needs, thereby depriving insurgents of popular support, dividing them from the people, and eventually affording an opportunity to kill or “reconcile” them.

In a near-fanatical fight for influence, proponents of COIN spent much of the past decade exhorting the U.S. military and government to embrace the strategy in the global war on terrorism. COIN shaped the “Surge” in Iraq in 2007, and its alleged success in reducing violence earned its military proponents a dominant role in strategic thinking. COIN’s biggest proponent is General David Petraeus, who is credited with designing the Surge and now oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as head of Central Command. Petraeus coauthored the latest edition of The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, a seminal book in the COIN community. The Field Manual cites the view of “General Chang Ting-chen of Mao Zedong’s central committee . . . that revolutionary war was 80 percent political action and only 20 percent military.” According to the Field Manual, “such an assertion is arguable and certainly depends on the insurgency’s stage of development; it does, however, capture the fact that political factors have primacy in COIN” (emphasis added).

The team of ‘experts’ who advised McChrystal on his report—only one was expert on Afghanistan—included many celebrity pundits.

Opponents in the defense establishment warn that this emphasis on “political factors” undermines conventional war-fighting ability. They point to the Israeli military, bogged down as an occupying army for years and defeated by Hezbollah in conventional warfare in 2006. Some of these skeptics acknowledge COIN’s successes in the Iraq Surge. But Afghanistan, they argue, is a different case.

One circumstantial difference is that while General Petraeus conducted his Iraq review with people who knew the country well, McChrystal, a “hunter-killer” whose background in counterterrorism worried some supporters of COIN, called in advisors already committed to a population-centric COIN strategy. The team of “experts” who advised McChrystal on his August report—only one was expert on Afghanistan—included many celebrity pundits from both sides of the political divide in Washington, including Frederick Kagan, Stephen Biddle, Anthony Cordesman, and Michael O’Hanlon. It was a savvy move, sure to help win political support in Congress, but it had little to do with realities on the ground.

More fundamentally, COIN helped to control violence in Iraq because sectarian bloodshed—which changed the conflict from an anti-occupation struggle to a civil war, displaced millions, and resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands—was already exhausting itself when the Surge started in 2007. The Sunnis were willing to cooperate with the Americans because the Sunnis knew they had been defeated by the time the “Sunni Awakening” began in Anbar Province in September 2006; the victorious Shias were divided, and militias degenerated into gangsterism. In comparison with al Qaeda in Iraq and Shia gangs, the Americans looked good. They could step into the void without escalating the conflict, even as casualties rose temporarily. Moreover, with more than two-thirds of Iraqis in cities, the U.S. efforts could focus on large urban centers, especially Baghdad, the epicenter of the civil war.

In Afghanistan, there is no comparable exhaustion of the population, more than two-thirds of which lives in hard-to-reach rural areas. In addition, population protection—the core of COIN—is more complicated in Afghanistan. The Taliban only attack Afghan civilians who collaborate with the Americans and their puppet government or who are suspected of violating the extremely harsh interpretation of Islamic law that many Afghans accept. And unlike in Iraq, where innocent civilians were targeted only by predatory militias, civilians in Afghanistan are as likely to be targeted by their “own” government as by paramilitary groups. Afghanistan has not fallen into civil war—although tension between Pashtuns and Tajiks is increasing—so the United States cannot be its savior. You can’t build walls around thousands of remote Afghan villages; you can’t punish the entire Pashtun population, the largest group in the country, the way the minority Sunnis of Iraq were punished. [continued…]

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