The counterinsurgency strategy the United States has relied on to win the Afghan war is producing disappointing progress at best and, at worst, is wastingf billions of dollars and prolonging the nine-year war, according to a wide range of informed critics.
Experts on Afghanistan and on counterinsurgency, among them active-duty and retired military officers, analysts and academics, are pushing to have the U.S. mission in Afghanistan significantly narrowed in scope.
Their message, in brief: Drop the hearts 'n' minds stuff. Go kill the enemy.
It's increasingly clear to the critics, at least, that the enemy is not the Taliban, the local Afghan insurgents. It is, rather, the remnants of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan who continue to plot against the United States.
Sending American soldiers and Marines headlong against Afghanistan's "inadequate governance, corruption, and abuse of power,'' as the most recent guidance of Gen. David Petraeus demands, is too broad, too costly and potentially self-defeating, many critics say.
"Most people in and around policy-making circles agree that the U.S. and NATO missions in Afghanistan should transition away from counterinsurgency and toward a strategy combining counter-terror activities with a train-and-equip mission,'' Andrew M. Exum, a former Army officer and adviser to Petraeus, wrote this week in his counterinsurgency blog.C. Christine Fair, a regional expert and Georgetown University professor, writes that "General David Petraeus' COIN doctrine simply may not apply to Afghanistan.
Whether their suggestions will have any impact is unclear. "People are so set on the current strategy that they become bothered and angry by a serious questioning,'' said a vociferous critic, Army Col. Gian P. Gentile, director of military history at West Point and a two-tour combat veteran of Iraq.
"There are alternatives'' to the current strategy, Gentile said in an interview. "But they are hard to articulate with an Army and senior leaders who've been doing this for nine years and are morally committed to it because we've shed blood and they believe they can make it work.''
With the Obama administration's war strategy being questioned, Vice President Joe Biden (who has advocated abandoning counterinsurgency and focusing only on killing al-Qaeda terrorists) flew into Kabul Monday to confer with Petraeus, commander of U.S. and allied forces, U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
"This is a pivot point in our policy,'' an unnamed senior official confided to reporters aboard Biden's plane en route to Afghanistan Monday. On Tuesday, Biden issued a statement seeming to back away from a full-fledged counterinsurgency strategy. "It is not our intention to govern or nation-build,'' he said. "This is the responsibility of the Afghan government and they are fully capable of it.''
Petraeus, co-author of the 2006 military manual on counterinsurgency, often puts a forward spin on the war, saying that the U.S.-led coalition finally has "all the inputs right,'' meaning he has enough troops (97,000 U.S. and 40,000 European and others), enough civilian advisers and trainers, and the right strategy, to win.
But he and the Obama administration, in what seemed a tacit acknowledgment of slow progress, last November agreed to extend the U.S. and NATO commitment for another four years, through the end of 2014. Previously, Obama had said flatly that in July of this year, "our troops will begin to come home.''
One disconcerting sign of the lack of progress is that tips from the Afghan public about newly emplaced IEDs -- a key indicator of how safe people feel from Taliban retribution -- have declined. According to data released by the Pentagon's Joint IED Defeat Organization, the number of IEDs turned in each month fell from 34 in January 2010 to 12 in May, while U.S. and allied casualties (killed and wounded) by IEDs rose from 174 in January to 284 in May.
Another indication of what's going wrong comes in a recent chilling series in the British newspaper The Guardian. Reporter Gaith Abdul-Ahad talked with key Taliban leaders, including an elderly mid-level Taliban administrator in the eastern city of Khost. He explained a key reason why the U.S. strategy of protecting the people against the Taliban isn't working.
"The government is besieged in its fortresses and can't come to the people, and corruption is paralyzing it,'' the elder told The Guardian. "One of the main reasons for our popularity is the failure of this government." The Taliban official explained that he supervises local governing councils set up by the Taliban in "liberated'' areas.
"I am a representative of the movement and I walk among the people and everyone knows me,'' the elderly Taliban said. "I move between the people and the commanders, watching the commanders' behavior. I listen to the people and convey the picture to the supreme leaders," he said.
At home, the strategy debate rumbling across Washington hinges on a critical but unresolved question: When fighting a guerrilla force entrenched within the population, do you win by defeating the bad guys militarily -- killing or capturing their leaders, cutting their supply lines and offering the survivors a safe return to society? Or do you push them away from the population and, by providing security, good government services, education and economic progress, win the population over to the government's side?
Since the U.S. attacked and overthrew the Taliban government in Afghanistan in late 2001, its strategy has wandered back and forth. Lt. Gen. David Barno, who led U.S. forces there from 2003 to 2005, quickly discovered that sending troops out into the countryside on raids wasn't working. "It was putting your fist into a bucket of water and taking it back out again, with very little to no impact on the enemy,'' Barno said in an interview.
Instead, he sent his battalions out to live in critical areas, seeking out and working with local leaders and enabling the first national elections to take place in 2004. (In another depressing sign, more people took part in that election six years ago than in any since.) Barno tripled the number of Provincial Reconstruction Teams, from four to 12, to spur economic development and local government.
But that effort to win over the local population didn't continue after Barno left, especially after NATO took over in 2007.
He acknowledged, however, that the promise of "hearts and minds'' counterinsurgency -- that the Americans can bring to local people a dramatically better way of life -- has turned out to be misleading. For many Afghans, life has improved since 2001: More children are in school and security in many areas has tightened. But it is also true that the expectations of most Afghans were "grossly inflated'' when American troops arrived, Barno said. Over the nine years that have followed, the reality of what the United States has delivered "has fallen short,'' he said.
That's the chief problem with the U.S. strategy, according to Amitai Etzione, professor at George Washington University in Washington. By pursuing "in effect a do-over of the social, economic, cultural and political foundations'' of Afghanistan, "one invited failure by setting goals that cannot be reached and by raising expectations that are bound to be disappointed,'' he wrote this month in Joint Forces Quarterly, a professional journal published by the National Defense University.
Among the inherent promises of counterinsurgency that are unrealistic or counterproductive, in the view of Etzione and others: building a strong, secular, democratic and effective central government, cleaning up official corruption, establishing women's rights, creating a Western-style Afghan army, and holding democratic elections as a panacea to Afghanistan's problems.
Building schools for girls, for example, reflects American values -- but alienates large sections of Afghanistan's Pashtun population from which the Taliban insurgency springs.
Expanding, training and equipping the Afghan army make sense, Etzione writes. But requiring Afghan soldiers to carry the American M-16 rifle makes no sense: the Russian-designed Kalashnikov is superior in the local heat and dust, and is familiar and simple enough for new soldiers to use.
Elections, a key part of the U.S. effort, have been divisive occasions, seeming to unite Afghans only in their belief that the process was deeply corrupt. Straining to produce a strong, secular central government makes little sense in a land of strong belief that Islam should govern daily life, and that the best government is local government.
Counterinsurgency is called for in Afghanistan, Etzione concludes. "But if COIN is to work, it must be profoundly recast.'' For a start, he writes, "We should leave the local people to work out what they will tolerate and what they will balk at.''
Two recent studies suggest a different way forward. The Center for a New American Security, a centrist Washington think tank, recommends shifting decisively away from the current large-scale counterinsurgency campaign to focus the military effort on al-Qaeda. Fighting the Taliban should be increasingly a job for the Afghan army and police. U.S. and allied forces could be cut substantially to between 25,000 and 35,000, the CNAS report said.
And the United States should refocus its efforts on helping build local government -- not the central government.
A similar study published this week jointly by the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for the Study of War also calls for a refocus on local, not national, government and security forces. The report, co-authored by Fred and Kimberly Kagan, acknowledges that achieving a better balance of power between Kabul and local towns and districts is critical. But that "will be very difficult and it may prove impossible,'' they conclude.
The CNAS report, written by Barno and Exum, also ends on a grim note: "After nine years of inconclusive fighting,'' they write, "all outcomes are likely to be suboptimal for the United States, its allies and the Afghan people.''