Against counterinsurgency in Afghanistan

By Hugh Gusterson | July 1, 2010

It says something about American politics that Gen. Stanley McChrystal was not fired because U.S. casualties in Afghanistan are running at record levels, because the much vaunted Marja initiative has failed, or because the Kandahar offensive is already in trouble during its preliminary rollout. No, he was fired because he and his team embarrassed the White House with carelessly frank talk to a journalist. “This is a change in personnel, but not a change in policy,” said President Barack Obama in announcing General McChrystal’s dismissal. Or, in the words of Rep. James McGovern, we have the “same menu, different waiter.”

But you could put Mother Teresa in charge of Afghanistan and, with flows of resources of that magnitude, she would be unable to prevent the kind of corruption we see in Afghanistan today.

However, the real story should not be the change in personnel but the continuation of a failed policy, and there is abundant evidence that the policy is failing–both in the Rolling Stone article that got General McChrystal fired and in other recent media reports. Coalition casualties are steadily rising, and this month is the deadliest yet with over 46 U.S. and 95 coalition troops killed already. Over the past year, IED attacks have doubled. The Marja campaign, intended to model the power of the new counterinsurgency strategy, is failing: The Taliban are more popular in Marja than the corrupt official government with which the U.S. is allied and, having melted away during the front-page U.S. military offensive, Taliban fighters are now back in force. General McChrystal himself referred to Marja as “a bleeding ulcer” (a much more significant quote than what his aides might have called Vice President Joe Biden). The Kandahar campaign, for which Marja was supposed to be a glorious dress rehearsal, is months behind schedule in the face of opposition from local elders and second thoughts from an ill-prepared Afghan government. So tenuous is U.S. control of the countryside that coalition forces cannot move essential supplies along major transport routes without paying warlords hundreds of dollars per truck in protection money, some of which gets passed on to the Taliban fighters sworn to kill U.S. soldiers. Most devastating of all (and the least reported in secondary media accounts), the Rolling Stone article quotes American grunts on the frontlines saying they have lost faith in the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy. And the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, has become like Robert McNamara in Vietnam, telling his government in private that counterinsurgency is not working, only to fall in line behind the policy in public. Finally, the U.S. is losing the war on the home front too, with the Christian Science Monitor reporting that only 41 percent of Americans now believe that the war in Afghanistan can be won, while 53 percent of Americans disapprove of the way Obama is managing it.

Yet the U.S. national security state has doubled down on counterinsurgency, not just in Afghanistan but more generally. The U.S. Army has heavily promoted its new Counterinsurgency Field Manual, and advocates of counterinsurgency (such as Gen. David Petraeus, one of the authors of the Manual) have been promoted to key positions in the military. Military training of new Army recruits and Marines now emphasizes counterinsurgency techniques. Africom, the U.S. military’s new Africa command, has largely organized itself around counterinsurgency doctrine. Meanwhile, think tanks like the Brookings Institution and the Center for a New American Security, both well networked to the current White House, litter their websites and the nation’s op-ed pages with homilies in favor of counterinsurgency doctrine. The U.S. military is, in other words, reorienting itself around counterinsurgency.

And yet, historically, counterinsurgency campaigns have almost always failed. This is especially so when the counterinsurgents are foreign troops fighting on the insurgents’ territory. The U.S. counterinsurgency campaign in Vietnam failed. The Soviet counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan failed (as did the British one about a century earlier). The British counterinsurgency campaigns in Northern Ireland and Kenya failed. The white Rhodesians’ counterinsurgency campaign against black guerillas failed. And the French counterinsurgency campaign in Algeria failed–although that has not stopped the U.S. military from building their current doctrine around the theories of David Galula, one of the leaders of that failed campaign. A rare example of success is the recent Sri Lankan campaign against the Tamil Tigers, but success was achieved by a government on its own territory following a military strategy of exterminist ferocity. Surely the U.S. does not want to go down that path, does it?

Rolling Stone quotes Maj. Gen. Bill Mayville, General McChrystal’s chief of operations, as saying of the endgame in Afghanistan, “It’s not going to look like a win, smell like a win or taste like a win.” In the inevitable postmortem in future years that will follow the defeat or stalemating of the U.S. in Afghanistan, the loudest voices will belong to the apostles of counterinsurgency who, rather than admit that counterinsurgency is an inherently flawed project, will start to point the finger of blame elsewhere. Notwithstanding the dismal track record of counterinsurgency campaigns in general, they will tell us the war in Afghanistan could have been won if Obama had agreed to more troops. Or if he had put General Petraeus in charge earlier. Or if he had not declared the July 2011 date for beginning withdrawal. Or if the U.S. had found a more popular ally than President Hamid Karzai.

This will matter greatly because Afghanistan is at the beginning, not the end, of the counterinsurgency road on the U.S. military horizon. In what was until recently called the “Global War on Terror,” counterinsurgency plays the sort of framing and orienting role that containment and deterrence played in the Cold War. The U.S. military is already thinking about future counterinsurgency campaigns in Yemen, Somalia, and the Philippines.

Given the Pentagon’s fantasies of future counterinsurgencies, it is vital to make the argument that counterinsurgency has failed in Afghanistan not because of flaws in its execution but because, as I have argued before, counterinsurgency campaigns almost inevitably contain within themselves the seeds of their own failure. Counterinsurgency forces stand little chance of defeating the insurgents without large numbers of troops, but the presence of foreign troops inevitably excites nationalist hostility from the local population; the more foreign troops there are, the more hostility there will be. Also, the more troops there are, the more military casualties there will be, and this undermines support for counterinsurgency at home–as we are now seeing in the UK and the U.S. Counterinsurgency campaigns also benefit from being allied to a strong and popular local government. We hear a lot these days about Karzai’s inadequacy in this regard, but it may not be all his fault: Almost by definition, a leader who relies on external occupying troops for his power will be seen as a foreign puppet and will be compromised in the eyes of his people.

Finally, there is the issue of development, about which the U.S. media and military leaders have shown an extraordinary inability to think clearly in Afghanistan. U.S. military leaders are surely right to think that they are more likely to win the hearts and minds of local populations if they bring them not just roadblocks, nighttime raids, and detentions, but also power plants, irrigation projects, schools, and so on. But the problem is that, when you pour huge amounts of money into a poor country, you inevitably produce corruption and all sorts of other social distortions. Leaving aside the military contracting money pouring into Afghanistan, the U.S. is allocating almost $4 billion a year for development projects in Afghanistan, the fifth poorest country in the world (with a GDP estimated at $13-23 billion and a per capita GDP of $1,000). And it is complaining that Karzai’s inability to control corruption in Afghanistan is alienating the population. But you could put Mother Teresa in charge of Afghanistan and, with flows of resources of that magnitude, she would be unable to prevent the kind of corruption we see in Afghanistan today. It is not Karzai, but the U.S. strategy of counterinsurgency itself, that is ultimately responsible for the corruption.

It seemed that the U.S. learned these lessons after the failure of counterinsurgency in Vietnam. For 20 years after Vietnam, the U.S. eschewed the occupation of other countries and learned to intervene either with short, sharp land invasions that led to the installation of a new client regime and rapid removal of U.S. forces (Grenada, Panama), or by deploying U.S. airpower in support of other people’s ground forces (Bosnia, Kosovo). But, after the end of the Cold War, boasting that it was the world’s sole remaining superpower, the U.S. became drunk on fantasies of its own power and, after 9/11, enraged enough to lash out. It believed that it would succeed where others had failed, simply because it was the United States of America.

The Obama administration will be defined by three disasters. The first, the economic meltdown, it inherited. The second, the BP oil spill, it did nothing to avert. The third, the failed war in Afghanistan, it made worse. All three disasters were caused by a carefree lack of precaution. In the financial world, the U.S. dismantled regulatory structures and trusted the banks to police themselves. Something similar happened with regard to offshore drilling, with the U.S. government outsourcing its responsibilities to oil companies and placing blind faith in technology to keep the environment safe. In Afghanistan, civilian leaders have failed to exercise their responsibility to restrain the military and have fallen prey to lone superpower hubris. Do we have to make the same mistakes in still more countries, wrecking them as we go, to learn our lesson?

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