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.
(Page 3 of 6)
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.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
But by and large since World War II, the US military has been designed to win conventional wars. America's loss in Vietnam spawned the Powell Doctrine – bringing absolute military force to bear on enemies to achieve narrowly defined objectives. This thinking led to successfully repelling Mr. Hussein's invasion of Kuwait and the choice to declare victory with the "butcher of Baghdad" still in power.
But later, after the US overthrew the governments of Afghanistan and Iraq, it discovered that accomplishing specific objectives – removing Hussein and the Taliban – did not necessarily lead to achieving broader ones of winning over local populations and ensuring that enemies wouldn't return. COIN gathered momentum.
"We did not adapt quickly for the first 15 years of the post-cold-war world," says Nagl, who now heads the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a think tank in Washington. "But driven by some of the mistakes we made in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the fact of change became inescapable."
In 2006, the military wrote a new counterinsurgency field manual, and Nagl was a lead author. The central lessons of the manual, as Nagl put it in a piece he co-wrote in Foreign Policy magazine in February, are "simple, but radical: Focus on protecting civilians over killing the enemy. Assume greater risk. Use minimum, not maximum, force."
Others were even more expansive in their vision of the future of war. Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell, who guides the development of Army doctrine as the commander of the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., put it this way in an article he co-wrote in Military Review last summer.
"The future is not one of major battles and engagements fought by armies on battlefields devoid of population; instead, the course of conflict will be decided by forces operating among the people of the world," he wrote. "Here, the margin of victory will be measured in far different terms than the wars of our past. The allegiance, trust, and confidence of populations will be the final arbiters of success."
That shift in focus may rankle some officers, but it is hardly radical today. On Aug. 26, McChrystal, head of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the NATO command for US and allied efforts in Afghanistan, issued a six-page memo on counterinsurgency guidance that showed how much he's committed to the new way of war. Its first two sentences: "ISAF's mission is to help the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan defeat the insurgency threatening their country. Protecting the Afghan people is the mission."