Afghanistan – what should we do? That’s the question that bedevils the Obama administration, even though the alleged Commander in Chief announced his decision for a counterinsurgency back in March to great fanfare, declaring the world’s safety was “at stake.” Then, having appointed a general to determine how that strategy would best be implemented, the President had a WTF moment when General McChrystal made it known he was going to ask for 40-50,000 more troops to implement that strategy. Now the White House has apparently decided to un-decide its March decision so it can again conduct a “top to bottom” review of Afghan policy in order to decide (again) on a strategy. (Much to the annoyance of Darth Vader Dick Cheney.)
Voices on the Right have supported an aggressive Afghan strategy to defeat al Qaeda and its Taliban allies (who are these days almost indistinguishable), but have differed sharply over how to do it. Some argue for a counterterrorism strategy, narrowly targeting al Qaeda with Special Forces and missile strikes and worrying far less about what they deride as “nation-building.” Others argue for a counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy that concentrates on protecting the Afghan population from the depredations of the Taliban, gaining their trust and cooperation, which would isolate the enemy and allow aggressive operations against them. Again, General McChrystal has recommended COIN.
Max Boot, a foreign policy and strategy analyst and former advisor to the McCain presidential campaign, argues for the COIN approach and believes in giving McChrystal all he wants and more. As part of his case, he cites the success already reached in small areas of Afghanistan with a limited COIN approach. There’s No Substitute for Troops on the Ground:
“I HOPE people who say this war is unwinnable see stories like this. This is what winning in a counterinsurgency looks like.”
Lt. Col. William F. McCollough, commander of the First Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment, is walking me around the center of Nawa, a poor, rural district in southern Afghanistan’s strategically vital Helmand River Valley. His Marines, who now number more than 1,000, arrived in June to clear out the Taliban stronghold. Two weeks of hard fighting killed two Marines and wounded 70 more but drove out the insurgents. Since then the colonel’s men, working with 400 Afghan soldiers and 100 policemen, have established a “security bubble” around Nawa.
Colonel McCollough recalls that when they first arrived the bazaar was mostly shuttered and the streets empty. “This town was strangled by the Taliban,” he says. “Anyone who was still here was beaten, taxed or intimidated.”
Today, Nawa is flourishing. Seventy stores are open, according to the colonel, and the streets are full of trucks and pedestrians. Security is so good we were able to walk around without body armor — unthinkable in most of Helmand, the country’s most dangerous province. The Marines are spending much of their time not in firefights but in clearing canals and building bridges and schools. On those rare occasions when the Taliban try to sneak back in to plant roadside bombs, the locals notify the Marines.
The key to success in Nawa — and in other key districts from Garmsir in the south to Baraki Barak in the center — has been the infusion of additional United States troops. The overall American force in Afghanistan has grown to 68,000 from 32,000 in 2008. That has made it possible to garrison parts of the country where few if any soldiers had been stationed before. Before the Marines arrived in Nawa, for instance, there were just 40 embattled British soldiers there.
This mirrors the Coalition experience in Afghanistan, where small examples of counterinsurgency’s effectiveness foreshadowed the immense success of the “surge” strategy in 2007-08. And while it’s foolhardy to apply a program as a one-size-fits-all template without considering local conditions, the Marines’ experience at Nawa and elsewhere indicates that COIN could work in Afghanistan, too, if given enough time and resources.
But there are serious questions, largely revolving around the hold of Islam on the population: Can a COIN strategy genuinely separate the population from the Taliban and al Qaeda, who claim to be mujahideen, “holy warriors?” Or will they only claim to be on our side, but instead practice taqiyya (religiously sanctioned deception), taking the goodies we offer but helping their Muslim brethren, fellow members of the Ummah? (Which I suspect would be the argument of Robert Spencer, an expert on Islam who grants great weight to its hold on the believer.) If the latter, then COIN would be a waste. I suspect the answer lies somewhere in the middle and that it will come down to “how many are there of each.” How many will genuinely back us, as opposed to those playing us for infidel suckers?
Based on our experiences in Iraq and the success of small COIN projects in Afghanistan, such as at Nawa, and given the expertise of Generals McChrystal and Petraeus (Servator Respublicae Iraqi!), I’m inclined to support the COIN strategy as “not guaranteed, but well-worth trying.” Afghanistan is the land from which the attacks of September 11th, 2001, were launched, and we can ill-afford to let the Taliban and al Qaeda come to dominate it again.
You decided on counterinsurgency once already, Mr. President. Now, act like a commander-in-chief and stick to it.
Related Reading: As I said, there’s been an argument on the Right about counterinsurgency versus counterterrorism. Following are links to five articles that I think capture this debate and are well-worth your time to read. All these authors are top-notch:
- Andy McCarthy writes against COIN, arguing that it’s folly to attempt “…the unlikeliest of social-engineering experiments: bringing big, modern, collectivist, secular government to a segmented, corrupt, tribal Islamic society”
- Ralph Peters contends angrily that COIN is crazy, and it’s getting our troops murdered.
- Max Boot has his own angry answer to McCarthy, and says McChrystal’s COIN strategy is the only way to win in Afghanistan and that the last eight years prove it.
- Frederick Kagan makes his own persuasive argument that counterinsurgency is the way to go and that counterterrorism’s kill-and-capture methods have been shown not to work in the long run.
- Finally, McCarthy replies to his critics to say that, if you don’t understand Islamic ideology, you don’t understand the problem in Afghanistan.
The articles are best read in the order presented, I think.