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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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"I think it's important to point out that we didn't start the war in Afghanistan, and I think that's an important lesson: We may not be interested in war but war may be interested in us," he says. "I hope that we will not have to intervene in a big way as we did after the September 11 attacks by working to avoid the instability that allowed Al Qaeda to find a home base in Afghanistan. With what the military calls phase zero, or shaping operations, small groups of American advisers [can] help our friends increase their stability."

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Yet when critics hear too much talk of winning over populations and reshaping societies, they get visions of the military turning into a global nanny. Col. Andrew Bacevich (ret.), a professor of international relations at Boston University, is among those who believe that America's emerging view of war is potentially dangerous to US interests. Bacevich notes that he was the "only Afghanistan skeptic" to speak at a CNAS conference held in June. He was particularly struck by the extent to which the belief that American power should be used to change foreign societies had taken root.

"It was at that CNAS meeting that I heard Nagl ... describe that we are in a global counterinsurgency campaign. My head snapped back," says Bacevich. "If counterinsurgency implies that we have to secure the people, that implies not only protecting them but providing them economic development, creating the institutions of good governance and the elimination of corruption, and that seems to imply that we have to do this everywhere. The phrase 'protecting the people' contains enormous ambitions."

He argues that if the US public and military become convinced that the way to defeat Al Qaeda means creating societies where they can't operate at all, the US may have to engage in warfare of one kind or another for decades. "If we win in Afghanistan and we deny the jihadists Afghanistan as a sanctuary, is it then that we have to deny them Somalia, then move on to Yemen?" he asks. "I'm a Vietnam-era guy and the big lesson of Vietnam was never again would the military allow itself to be dragged into this kind of open-ended conflict," he says. "Fast-forward 40 years ... and it seems likely."

Others concur that the US may be putting the cart before the cannon. Stephen Walt, a professor of international affairs at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass., notes that how America fights future wars isn't the question. First it has to decide whether it should be fighting them at all. He says that having spent about $1 trillion in Iraq already and about $60 billion a year in Afghanistan, America needs to do a "rigorous cost-benefit analysis."

"Is it really worth doing all this to stop the kinds of things jihadis might be able to accomplish?" he asks. "Even if Al Qaeda could pull off a 9/11 every 10 years, which I think is asking a lot of them, it's not obvious to me that committing the United States to a 10-, 20-, 30-year campaign to remake the politics of South Asia makes sense."

In other words, the war of words over war will continue.

Jane Arraf contributed to this report from Iraq.