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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Nowhere in McChrystal's memo did the words "Al Qaeda" appear. The definition of what it means to defeat Al Qaeda had expanded – from disrupting, capturing, or killing its operatives to creating conditions that wouldn't allow their return.Skip to next paragraph
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HOW WELL COIN IS WORKING on the ground remains the subject of fierce debate. In Iraq, the US is on schedule to end its combat presence there by the end of 2011, and the war has gone much better in the past two years than it did in the first four, at least in part due to the tactics favored by men like Nagl. The common narrative is that the surge – counterinsurgency strategy plus additional troops – helped turn the situation around.
But experts such as Gentile believe any progress was due more to a new US willingness to pay off Sunni insurgents. "I think we have a wrongheaded view of how the surge worked in Iraq," he says.
Nor does the endgame in Iraq now look much like what was promised at the beginning of the war – to transform Iraqi society and, by example, the Middle East. In interviews and conversations with numerous commanders over the past year, it's clear the goal posts have moved much closer in. US expectations now include keeping violence down to a level that Iraq security forces can handle and that doesn't threaten the viability of the central government. "Victory now is a stable, somewhat democratic Iraqi government – whatever this turns out to be," says Col. Pete Newell, who has served through all phases of the Iraq war. "Democratic is a very loose term – as democratic as you can be in this part of the world."
In 2004, Newell, who commands the 1st Armored Division's 4th Brigade, a prototype for the advisory and assistance forces the US intends to keep in Iraq after the withdrawal of combat troops, was focused on killing and disrupting Al Qaeda and their allies. Now he spends his time fostering relationships with Iraqi Army and police commanders.
"I think we have a much more realistic view than we did years ago," says Newell. "But the question is, did we do a poor job of managing expectations? Now, for me and for a lot of the soldiers who have invested two or three years of their lives in this, [victory means] being able to walk out of the country knowing there is a viable security force and a government that is reasonably functioning."
Afghanistan will provide a much fuller and more difficult test of COIN. To be sure, the success of any strategy may hinge as much on the size of the force in the country as its tactics. McChrystal has recommended sending in more troops – some experts have predicted as many as 15,000 could be added to the 68,000 already there by next spring – or risk "failure." But the Obama administration is reported to be reevaluating whether it wants to narrow the mission – away from protecting the Afghan population and rebuilding the government and more toward thwarting Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
On the ground, some commanders such as Stein, the officer training Afghan troops, see definite gains being made. He urges patience from politicians and increasingly restive civilians in the US.
"Wars are a lot like football games: You can have a game very close up through half time [that] ends up being a blowout," he says. "You don't know what the point in the game is going to be where you know that, but you know it's going to happen."