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Debating Counterinsurgency

During his change of command ceremony, General David Petraeus reiterated continued emphasis on counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. He said:

...my assumption of command represents a change in personnel, not a change in policy or strategy. To be sure, I will, as any new commander should, together with ISAF, Afghan, and diplomatic partners, examine our civil-military effort to determine where refinements might be needed. But our military objectives will remain the same. Together with our Afghan partners, we must secure and serve the people of Afghanistan. We must help Afghan leaders develop their security forces and governance capacity so that they can, over time, take on the tasks of securing their country and see to the needs of their people. And, in performing these tasks, we clearly must pursue the insurgents relentlessly.


This was not unexpected; Petraeus is one of the architects of U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine, practiced counterinsurgency in Iraq, and supported General McChrystal's counterinsurgency strategy for Afghanistan. At least until the December strategy review, counterinsurgency with a dose of counterterrorism is conventional wisdom in Afghanistan.


Not everyone agrees.


The current issue of Joint Force Quarterly offers two perspectives on counterinsurgency. Representing the COINdinistas is John Nagl, who is now the President of the Center for New American Security. A retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, Nagl is one of the champions of counterinsurgency strategy and a key advisor on the subject. In JFQ, he wrote


The doctrinal manual was built around two big ideas: first, that protecting the population was the key to success in any counterinsurgency campaign, and second, that to succeed in counterinsurgency, an army has to be able to learn and adapt more rapidly than its enemies. Neither of these ideas was especially new, but both were fundamental changes for an American Army that had traditionally relied on firepower to win its wars.


By now, we are familiar with this construction. Protect the population, build institutions, and limit civilian casualties in order to deprive the insurgents of the support they need. But, according to Harlan Ullman, this isn't working and he offers nine reasons why the U.S. is losing in Afghanistan.


Representing the traditional military is U.S. Army Colonel Gian Gentile. Gentile is a professor at West Point and is a prominent critic of counterinsurgency theory. He wrote in JFQ,


FM 3-24 [COIN doctrine manual] today...is incomplete, and the dysfunction of its underlying theory becomes clearer every day. The Army needs a better and more complete operational doctrine for counterinsurgency, one that is less ideological, less driven by think tanks and experts, less influenced by a few clever books and doctoral dissertations on COIN, and less shaped by an artificial history of counterinsurgency.

Further, Gentile sees that the U.S. Army must be freed from the counterinsurgency straitjacket.


The dogma of counterinsurgency has seduced folks inside and outside the American defense establishment into thinking that instead of war and the application of military force being used as a last resort and with restraint, it should be used at the start and that it can change "entire societies" for the better.


Yet, Nagl and others like him, see a new security landscape where overwhelming military power is irrelevant to achieving objectives. For Nagl, COIN doctrine:


frees the military from a misguided belief that there is a single U.S. way of war that is essentially "about death and destruction." Instead, it teaches that the Army, and the Nation, must be able to fight and win along the entire spectrum of conflict, from conventional war against a conventional enemy to training and equipping the security forces of our friends and partners around the globe before an insurgency reaches a degree of virulence that demands a substantial U.S. troop deployment to subdue. This doctrinal revolution requires that all officers of all branches of the U.S. Government shed the intellectual straitjacket of a single American way of war and understand the complex reality of a world wherein we must apply all the tools of national power in many different ways to achieve the goals of our policy. The process of freeing ourselves from a limited understanding of the nature of war will be uncomfortable for some, but this discomfort is a necessary sacrifice if America's Armed Forces are to uphold their solemn obligation to preserve the security of the American people.


The ongoing debate is certainly essential to a military that prides itself on learning from its operations, but for General Petraeus and the 150,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan, the stakes are high. As we enter the tenth year of operations this fall, the clock is certainly ticking. But as attention is now focused on General Petraeus and COIN doctrine, let's not forget it's the Afghans' war and not the Afghan War. External actors can have marginal effect.


A version of this first appeared at acus.org.

Comments (2)

A very helpful insight in your article. Do the political parties in Afghanistan, namely the US Backed Government in Kabul, the Taliban actors and the Nortern Alliance and Drug lords in the provinces want peace? Is there a civil war looming like in Iraq after 2004? Having so many troops there and a timeline including a 'draw down' of July 2011 to work with what are we hoping for in Afghanistan?
It would be ideal if the Afghani people who fled afghanistan, the educated and middle class people could go back there now and rebuild it themselves. Give them the Aid Money directly as a parth to citizenship for their families here? They hold the key perhaps to a stable trading partner and the stated objective of denying staging areas for Al Qadea to train their recruits and attack us again

Derek Reveron Author Profile Page:

Duncan asks many important questions that need answers as we enter the tenth year of military operations in Afghanistan in the fall. From my own perspective, Afghans seem war weary and are attempting to build a functioning society. Certainly not easy,but we cannot forget that is an Afghan war supported by the United States and 50+ countries.

General Dave Barno shared some good ideas in the Financial Times on July 6 at http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/4b4bc144-8930-11df-8ecd-00144feab49a.html. Of these ideas, he said, "convince President Hamid Karzai and the Afghan people to take greater ownership of the war. Abdullah Abdullah, the former Afghan presidential candidate, recently insisted that 30,000 Taliban will not dictate the future for 30m Afghans."

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