The Other Side of the COIN

On the heels of General Stanley McChrystal’s proposal for an overhaul of U.S. and NATO strategy in Afghanistan, the Obama administration is holding a series of high-level meetings to review the war. They will confront no shortage of questions and concerns about the direction of the current policy.

Q1: General McChrystal is expected to request up to 40,000 additional troops and recommend a greater focus on counterinsurgency operations. Is this approach likely to succeed in strengthening the Afghan state, defeating the Taliban, and advancing America’s fight against terrorism?

A1: Probably not. Counterinsurgency doctrine, or COIN, has captured the hearts and minds of many in the D.C. policy community. Upon close inspection, however, it becomes clear that COIN, at least as applied to Afghanistan, is built on a number of shaky assumptions. Consider:

  1. Even if General McChrystal gets all 40,000 troops he has requested, the combined International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), and Afghan contingent would still number less than 250,000—far fewer than the 670,000 troops the U.S. Army’s own Counterinsurgency Field Manual suggests is necessary to secure a state of Afghanistan’s size.
  2. Widespread corruption in the August 20 election has widened the trust gap between the Karzai government and the Afghan people. Because successful counterinsurgency requires a government that is credible and responsive to its citizens, these developments threaten to derail the U.S. and NATO mission. And as our experience in South Vietnam made painfully clear, the White House is usually powerless to force any host nation to enact good-government reforms.
  3. General McChrystal’s strategic review emphasizes “population protection” as the key to drying up support for the Taliban. The claim is based on the assumption that insurgencies require the backing, or at least acquiescence, of surrounding communities in order to function. But a recent article in the Washington Post noted that the Taliban rely primarily on foreign, rather than local, funding sources, a fact that suggests that population protection may ultimately do little to diminish the insurgency’s strength.
  4. Public support for a counterinsurgency campaign of such massive proportions simply does not exist. Recent polls suggest that over 50 percent of Americans are against sending more troops to Afghanistan. And our European allies are even less enthusiastic about escalating the war.
  5. Finally, the COIN framework is built on the larger assumption that eliminating the Taliban and stabilizing Afghanistan is the best use of American resources in the broader effort to combat terrorism. Al Qaeda’s presence in a pre-9/11, Taliban-controlled Afghanistan has convinced many officials that a Taliban takeover would result in al Qaeda’s inevitable return to the state. But al Qaeda already has established itself in Pakistan’s semi-governed spaces. Along with Taliban and other extremist militants, the group enjoys the relative safety of these territories, where Pakistani sovereignty precludes any substantive U.S. ground force. Even if al Qaeda were to reenter Afghanistan sometime in the future, the United States would face the same basic terrorist threats that it does today. Critics will argue that Afghanistan served as a base and planning center for 9/11. True enough; but al Qaeda, in establishing a presence in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen has already developed numerous “safe havens.” In short, our overwhelming focus on Afghanistan fails to serve a more nuanced counterterrorism strategy that acknowledges the many other areas in which al Qaeda operates.

Q2: So how should the United States approach the war?

A2: We need to reframe our thinking about U.S. goals and the means to achieve them. As outlined above, COIN in Afghanistan is only tenuously linked to counterterrorism, the original purpose of our efforts. The Obama administration should implement a more minimalist policy in the region, one that employs special operations forces and airstrikes to directly target terrorists, especially leaders of cells.

Critics charge that these operations are mere tactical successes, detached from any larger strategy. This is a disingenuous assessment. Targeted strikes do, in fact, serve the greater strategic purpose of disrupting the planning and execution of terrorist attacks. Unlike COIN—which seems to harbor the grandiose notion of eliminating terrorism by transforming societies, regardless of cost—counterterrorism acknowledges that radicalism will always exist and that policymakers should directly seek to contain it.

At the core of this shift is an acknowledgment that our best Afghanistan policy is no better than our best Pakistan policy. ISAF and Afghan forces can do everything imaginable to eliminate Taliban influence in the country, but any effort that does not address the presence of militants in Pakistan’s semi-governed spaces ultimately does little to reduce the threat posed by al Qaeda. At a most basic level, the Obama administration must change the calculus of the Pakistani military and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) with regard to extremists in the country’s northwest. Doing so will force the United States to play a central role in rapprochement between Pakistan and India—and be a fair broker to both parties.

What about Afghanistan? Proponents of an “all-in” approach tend to misrepresent a minimalist strategy as complete withdrawal, arguing that the United States abandoned Afghanistan after the Soviet war and that doing so again would plunge the country into anarchy. But few serious analysts are talking about abandoning Afghanistan, and there is no reason to believe that a smaller, more specialized force would not be able to confront any resumption of al Qaeda activity in the country. As far as the Taliban are concerned, there is reason to believe that an ever-larger foreign troop presence simply swells the movement’s ranks (to wit: it has been dismaying to watch increased troop levels correlate with recent Taliban gains). Until the administration can convincingly demonstrate how additional troops will, in fact, support broader national security and counterterrorism goals, the United States is better served by a strategy that minimizes the loss of life and dizzying levels of expenditure that any “all-in” approach would entail.

Rick Nelson is a senior fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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