Is US strategy in Afghanistan working?
The debate over sending more US troops frames a larger clash over counterinsurgency strategy as the new template for war.
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To proponents of counterinsurgency warfare, this strategy represents the best chance the US has of achieving some sort of enduring victory in a country that has denied invaders for centuries. More than that, they see it as the archetype of how the US should fight the "long war" against terrorism around the globe.Skip to next paragraph
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Yet critics say the US is discovering in Afghanistan that counterinsurgency is no silver, or even lead, bullet. Many worry that the US has tilted too far toward a trendy new type of warfare that is eroding its conventional capabilities and might lead it to commit to more expensive, open-ended conflicts 40 years after Vietnam.
AS RECENTLY AS SEVEN years ago, counterinsurgency tactics, or COIN as it is known, was an arcane debating topic among academics, military tacticians, and the denizens of think tanks. One among the cognoscenti was John Nagl. In 1991, he was a young officer in charge of a tank platoon that helped crush Saddam Hussein's conventional forces in the Gulf War.
After the conflict, he took time off to earn his PhD in international relations at Oxford University in England, where his research took him in a direction far from the military fashion of the time: COIN. His doctoral thesis focused on the successful British counterinsurgency campaign in Malaya (now Malaysia) against a communist uprising in the 1950s and the American experience in Vietnam. He argued that the key to Britain's success was to avoid civilian casualties as much as possible and have a robust strategy to win uncommitted local populations to the British side. In Vietnam, he concluded, the US relied on firepower and "kill ratios" to the detriment of winning over locals.
The book that emerged from his thesis, "Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife," was probably destined for good reviews, appreciation among specialists, and public obscurity. But when it was published in 2002, the US was confronting the trauma of Sept. 11. Two years later, as a largely Sunni Arab insurgency blossomed against US forces in Iraq (where Mr. Nagl was serving not far from Fallujah), many politicians and commanders came to believe that something different had to be done. Counterinsurgency doctrine beckoned, and Nagl was charged with helping to change the way the Army thinks about war.
Of course, the tactic of using light forces that blend among local populations to defeat insurgents is probably as old as organized warfare itself. Herodotus recorded a successful insurgency campaign the Scythians waged against Darius of Persia 450 years before the birth of Christ, and insurgents harassed the British Empire on its fringes for centuries. The US Marines carried out counterinsurgency campaigns in a number of contexts in the last half of the 19th century. The hard lessons they learned in places like the Philippines, China, and Haiti were compiled in the "Small Wars Manual" in 1935. And while there was much talk of "kill ratios" in Vietnam, the US also applied – however unevenly – counterinsurgency tactics there.