Tossing the Afghan COIN
Achieving these goals demands an enormous political will and outlay of resources. Even by the measure of the military's counterinsurgency doctrine, at approximately 130,000 US and NATO troops and a US outlay of an estimated $100 billion a year, the current effort is underresourced. Achieving these goals would require not only tens (perhaps hundreds) of thousands of more troops; it would require a stated commitment to maintain the fight for years to come. After nine years of war, these are elements that seem increasingly in short supply.
To be sure, many of these arguments have been made for some time by COIN skeptics. But what is most revelatory is that the US military seems to be finally getting the message. In the media uproar over the Rolling Stone article that sank the career of General McChrystal, often overlooked was the recounting of his conversation with US soldiers in southern Afghanistan who complained that restrictive rules of engagement made it nearly impossible for them to do the job they were trained for—killing the enemy. With no sense of irony, McChrystal complained, "This is the philosophical part that works with think tanks...but it doesn't get the same reception from infantry companies."
McChrystal's replacement, Gen. David Petraeus, has adopted a far different approach to the war. While efforts at nation-building continue hesitantly, the biggest change has been in the use of direct military action against the insurgents. Air power, which for a while was minimized because of the risk of civilian casualties, has increased dramatically. According to the blog Danger Room, "The U.S. and its allies have unleashed a massive air campaign in Afghanistan, launching missiles and bombs from the sky at a rate rarely seen since the war's earliest days. In November alone, NATO aircraft launched 850 missions—three and a half times more than the same period in November 2009. Petraeus is also using more Special Operations forces in targeting Taliban commanders; and night raids, which have particularly inflamed the Karzai government, have recently tripled. In the three-month period ending October 21, Special Forces units conducted more than 1,500 operations, killing or capturing 339 insurgent leaders and more than 3,400 foot soldiers. NATO officials now hand out daily updates boasting about the number of insurgents killed or captured.
News reports leaked by military officials to reporters today do not speak of shuras convened, schools opened or corruption battled but instead boast of insurgents eliminated. The shift in tactical approach was perhaps an effort to show "progress" before the White House's planned December review of Afghan policy. But it should also be seen as something else: a more accurate reflection of how counterinsurgency conflicts—even modern ones—are waged. As a COIN theorist and military official said to me, "COIN is a form of warfare and thus involves violence. Don't be fooled by the fact that Petraeus found some useful idiots to make it sound more palatable and humanitarian."
The best evidence of this comes, ironically, from the US experience in Iraq. What led to the decrease in violence there was not an enhanced focus on protecting civilians; it was a confluence of factors: the extraordinary bloodletting in and around Baghdad that led to the forced separation of Sunnis and Shiites into ethnic enclaves; the flight of, by some estimates, 5 million Iraqis who have been internally and externally displaced; the paying off of, and support for, Sunni tribes who took on Al Qaeda in Iraq. And it wasn't just Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence—the number of civilians killed by US troops rose dramatically after the surge and the adoption of supposedly civilian-friendly measures. Four times as many Iraqis were killed by US airstrikes, which rose sevenfold after Petraeus took command in Iraq. While certainly there were US efforts to capture Iraqi hearts and minds, no one can reasonably argue that those measures were decisive.
According to Jeff Michaels, a COIN expert and research associate at King's College in London, "Killing lots of people was a key element of the Iraq surge, and so this [war in Afghanistan] is not too dissimilar. Indeed, too much emphasis has been placed on FM 3-24 rather than the real script they are operating from, which is to say that the Iraq case illustrated a considerable divergence from the theory."
What is happening in Afghanistan is an embrace of the aggressive approach to counterinsurgency once publicly dismissed by FM 3-24 advocates. This is not to suggest that US and NATO forces in Afghanistan have given up on trying to reach hearts and minds. But their embrace of techniques they once argued against is an implicit acknowledgment that the population-centric tactics of FM 3-24 have only marginal effectiveness in a nonpermissive environment like that of Afghanistan today. Like so many counterinsurgents before them, US generals are finding that the carrot is far less effective than the stick.
Their actual approach bears startling resemblance to the smaller-military-footprint counterterrorism strategy outlined by Vice President Biden during last year's strategic review debates. Put aside for now are dreams of state-building in the Hindu Kush or the belief that only by turning the people away from the insurgents can America secure its interests. Instead, military planners have shifted their focus to an end-game strategy of using lethal force to drive the Taliban to the negotiating table.
The shift in emphasis toward a more traditional conflict is compelling evidence of the disconnect between the theory of population-centric COIN and actual US capabilities—and an unstated recognition that FM 3-24 has so far not succeeded. This hasn't stopped COIN advocates from arguing that the shift in military emphasis is all part of the larger COIN effort; after all, they claim, direct military action is a crucial element of counterinsurgency. But these are self-serving and deceptive arguments, intended in part to mask the failure of the military to capture Afghan hearts and minds.
All of this matters for the future of US national security strategy. Much of the rationale for escalation in Afghanistan was based on the story of "success" in Iraq, and in particular on the supposed effectiveness of more population-sensitive counterinsurgency strategies executed there. But what should really be taken away from the US military's experience over the past ten years is not that the United States understands how to fight and win population-centric counterinsurgencies but that counterinsurgencies are as violent and inconclusive as any other conflicts, and that the United States should avoid such wars at all costs.