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.

David Goldman/AP
US troops from the Army’s 10th Mountain Division in Fort Drum, N.Y., question village elders about notices posted by the Taliban leading up to the Aug. 20 presidential elections in eastern Afghanistan.
US Marines set fire to the village of Cam Ne during the Vietnam War in 1965. Some of today's advocates of counterinsurgency warfare believe the US relied too much on firepower in Vietnam to the detriment of winning over locals, a tactic the US military is now trying to do more of in Afghanistan.
Petros Giannakouris/AP
US soldiers searched the backyard of a house as an Iraqi girl hung out washing at a village south of Baghdad in February 2008. The US is scheduled to remove combat troops by the end of 2011.
Dima Gavrysh/AP
Sgt. Michael Fink of Geneva, Ohio, a member of a US Army battalion, trains his rifle on a shooting range in eastern Afghanistan.

Lt. Col. Edward Stein, a US Army Ranger, had a specific task for the Afghan soldiers he was training: Do a security check in Kabul ahead of a speech by President Hamid Karzai to mark Afghan Independence Day.

Not long into their sweep, the soldiers found something ominous: three heavily armed enemy fighters holed up in a bank that was under construction. The soldiers on patrol, members of the Afghan National Army (ANA), didn't storm the building as they might have in the past and settle the problem with the snout of a rifle.

Instead, they called in civilian police to secure the area and take the plotters into custody – just the way they had been trained by Stein and his officers. "They understand they are under civil control," says Stein, who calls the ANA's restraint an important achievement for the military in a nascent democracy like Afghanistan.

Stein's small victory is one example of the counterinsurgency warfare that has taken root in Afghanistan, which puts as much emphasis on institution- building and protecting populations as it does on killing the enemy.

Almost eight years into the war, Afghanistan, and to a lesser extent Iraq, now offer the purest test yet of a fighting doctrine that is rapidly sweeping the US military. While counter-insurgency methods were used by the US Army at various times throughout the 20th century, they have now become the preferred method of conducting warfare in an era of global terrorism and stateless enemies.

As wariness over the two wars mounts in the US, however, tension is building within the Obama administration over how much the US should embrace the use of counterinsurgency doctrine. Is it simply one tactic among many in the military tool box? Or should it be the central component of a grand strategy to pacify Afghanistan and guide the future development of US forces?

While President Obama has defined the mission in Afghanistan as rooting out Al Qaeda and preventing a return of the Taliban to power, a deeper debate over US strategy has surfaced with the recent leak of a confidential assessment of the situation by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the man Mr. Obama hired to turn around and win the war.

"This new strategy must also be properly resourced and executed through an integrated civilian-military counterinsurgency campaign that earns the support of the Afghan people and provides them with a secure environment," McChrystal wrote, appearing to ask for more troops.

If his advice is accepted, it will underscore how much the mission in Afghanistan has shifted from the narrow focus of "get Al Qaeda" that prevailed at the start of the war to one where US soldiers and civilian aid workers are expected to reduce corruption at the local and national levels, train Afghan cops and soldiers, improve local economies, and aid in building a democratic central government.

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.

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.

"I think the notion of using the Army to change entire societies ... is highly problematic," says Col. Gian Gentile, head of the military history program at the US Military Academy at West Point.

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.

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."

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.

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."

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."

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.

"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."

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.

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