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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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Yet even some officers like Stein are unsure what more US forces can do, since the end state the US seems to be after involves governance. "I don't think the majority of what's left is in the Afghan military's purview," says Stein. "I think what's left to do mainly falls into the areas of the civilian leadership."

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Others believe the US counterinsurgency strategy remains the right approach, but believe it's being carried out poorly. "US troops are not integrated in with the community," says Tim Lynch, a retired marine with 22 years of service who is now a private security and development contractor based in the Afghan city of Jalalabad. "If you aren't living in the community you can't protect them. That's what the Taliban do. That's how they send their night letters – they live there."

Some critics, however, wonder if the US military is going too far with its emphasis on COIN. Gentile, for one, doesn't have a problem with soldiers being schooled in such tactics. He just worries about soldiers learning too much Pashto at the expense of how to fire artillery accurately.

As the center of gravity has shifted to counterinsurgency, he believes a "serious degree of atrophy" has set in at senior Army levels. He thinks the same thing happened to the Israelis in their disastrous war against Hezbollah in Lebanon in the summer of 2006: their skills at "combined arms" – blending infantry, tanks, and artillery – had eroded because they had spent so much time carrying out counterinsurgency operations in the Palestinian territories.

IF IT IS AN AXIOM THAT THE WARS of the present prepare us for and determine the wars we fight in the future, then the conflict that is winding down in Iraq and our current open-ended military effort in Afghanistan will have a profound effect on the next generation of strategic thinkers. That's one reason the political and philosophical debate going on over COIN now is so important.

No one is suggesting the US is, or should be, adopting COIN at the expense of conventional warfare. As Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters earlier this year: "I think what people have lost sight of is [that] I'm not trying to have irregular capabilities take the place of the conventional capabilities. I'm just trying to get the irregular guys to have a seat at the table."

Even Nagl rejects the notion that the future will be an all-COIN-operated world. "We have to maintain the ability to deter and, if necessary, defeat adversaries in conventional combat, tank on tank, ship on ship, and plane on plane warfare," he says. "But that's not the only thing we're going to be asked to do. The key thing is to find the right balance, to maintain a deterrent and a fighting force ... while building the capabilities we need to succeed in the much more likely irregular wars."

He and others believe that 9/11 was as much a failure of foresight as it was of airport security. They argue the right mix of civilian and military expertise, coupled with a willingness to use it, could make future large-scale interventions unnecessary.