This piece originally appeared at TomDispatch.
President Obama’s Afghanistan strategy isn’t working. So said a parade of Afghanistan watchers during the flap over war commander General Stanley McChrystal’s firing. But what does that phrase, so often in the media these days, really mean? And if the strategy really isn’t working, just how can you tell?
The answers to these questions raise even more important ones, including: Why, when President Obama fires an insubordinate and failing general, does he cling to his failing war policy? And if our strategy isn’t working, what about the enemy’s? And if nothing much is working, why does it still go on nonstop this way? Let’s take these one at a time.
1. What do you mean by "it’s not working"?
"It" is counterinsurgency or COIN, which, in fact, is really less of a strategy than a set of tactics in pursuit of a strategy. Counterinsurgency doctrine, originally designed by empires intending to squat on their colonies forever, calls for elevating the principle of "protecting the population" above pursuing the bad guys at all cost. Implementing such a strategy quickly becomes a tricky, even schizophrenic, balancing act, as I recently was reminded.
I just spent some time embedded with the US Army at a forward operating base near the Pakistan border where, despite daily "sig acts"—significant activity of a hostile nature—virtually every "lethal" American soldier is matched by a "nonlethal" counterpart whose job it is, in one way or another, to soften up those civilians for "protection."
General McChrystal himself played both roles. As the US commander, he was responsible for killing what he termed, at one point, "an amazing number of people" who were not threats, but he also regularly showed up at Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s palace to say, "Sorry." Karzai praised him publicly for his frequent apologies (each, of course, reflecting an American act or acts that killed civilians), though angry Afghans were less impressed.
The part of the lethal activity that often goes awry is supposed to be counterbalanced by the "sorry" part, which may be as simple as dispatching US officers to drink humble tea with local "key leaders." Often enough, though, it comes in the form of large, unsustainable gifts. The formula, which is basic COIN, goes something like this: kill some civilians in the hunt for the bad guys and you have to make up for it by building a road. This trade-off explains why, as you travel parts of the country, interminable (and often empty) strips of black asphalt now traverse Afghanistan’s vast expanses of sand and rock, but it doesn’t explain why Afghans, thus compensated, are angrier than ever.