The premise of counterinsurgency—or COIN, as it is known to aficionados—is that insurgencies are political movements that can be defeated only by a political response. “Military action,” the manual states, “can address the symptoms of a loss of legitimacy”—by suppressing the insurgency fostered by the illegitimate state. But COIN requires war-making, diplomacy, economic development, and political reform. And “without the host-nation government achieving legitimacy, COIN cannot succeed.” One of the reasons for the vogue COIN has enjoyed is that the doctrine joins the imagery of smart, nimble warfare that hawks appreciate to the kind of social engineering that has been central to the liberal idea of warfare from the time of Wilson. But COIN also responds directly to the world we now live in, a world not of powerful and belligerent adversaries but rather of weak and failing states within which insurgencies flourish. COIN theorists recognize that you can’t defeat insurgencies without addressing their root causes.
The news reports of the epic White House debate provoked by the McChrystal memo focused almost exclusively on numbers, but the real heart of the disagreement was over the twin premises of the McChrystal memo: We had to win, and we couldn’t win without COIN. Woodward cites an exchange in which Vice-President Joe Biden insists that the real fight is in Pakistan, where Al Qaeda was hiding, and questions the idea that Al Qaeda would ride back into Afghanistan with a triumphant Taliban. Biden thus argues for a modest counterterrorism effort. Defense Secretary Robert Gates accepts that Biden might be right but rejoins that a Taliban success would be “framed as the defeat of a second superpower,” after Russia, and would both encourage extremists and dishearten allies. American prestige was on the line, as it had been in the Cold War. And if we can’t afford to lose in Afghanistan, we need the more ambitious effort McChrystal advocates.
Obama seems to waver between these two views. What you sense most acutely in reading Obama’s Wars is a president faced with a situation in which all options are bad and in which he could not start afresh, because the American people were running out of patience and because seven years of drift and poor policy had alienated the Afghan people and strengthened the position of the Taliban. If the U.S. couldn’t afford to lose, did it have to fight the COIN strategy Petraeus and McChrystal were so single-mindedly pushing? Could it even do so?
During the debate, a senior White House official said to me, “Where’s the civilian counterpart to McChrystal? He can do what he says he will do militarily. But they say it will not work if we don’t also have this? Where’s this? What is it, 240 people?” That was practically the total American civilian presence in Afghanistan at the time. America simply didn’t have the civilian force to fight the war McChrystal was advocating. There has been talk for years in American policy circles about creating an “operational” State Department or some other agency that could deploy specialists to fragile states or post-conflict areas just as the military could rapidly deploy special-operations forces. But it was just talk. Indeed, the memo itself was very vague about what this massive civilian effort would be, as if McChrystal hadn’t mastered the fine points of the religion to which he had converted. The debate in the White House thus took place in a strange vacuum.
Though naturally sympathetic to a “root cause” approach, Obama appeared to become increasingly skeptical that a COIN strategy could ever be made to work, at least in the required time. Few places in the world seemed as poorly suited to a counterinsurgency strategy as Afghanistan, where the national government had little reach, tribal identification was profound, and the insurgents could always seek sanctuary across the border, in Pakistan. And, as one leading COIN advocate says, “if you’ve squandered your initial goodwill, it’s too late to do COIN.” Yet Petraeus and McChrystal insisted that the more limited counterterror strategy Biden and others advocated would just reproduce the existing pattern of short-term military gains followed by Taliban resurgence. The frightening implication was that neither COIN nor counterterror strategy would work.
And Obama recognized that his military options were limited by the national mood. The president’s highly controversial decision to set July 2011 as the beginning of troop withdrawals constituted an acknowledgment that the American people lacked the patience and commitment for the long-term struggle that counterinsurgency strategy envisions. Obama also lowered the country’s sights by saying the goal was not defeating the Taliban but “disrupting, dismantling, and defeating Al Qaeda and its extremist allies.” The 30,000 additional troops he authorized would flush the insurgents from their strongholds; Afghan civilians, working with NATO and U.N. partners, would establish local governance; and the troops would ultimately hand off control to the additional Afghan security forces Obama had agreed to train. The Obama plan wasn’t the nationwide counterinsurgency strategy McChrystal had sought, but it wasn’t a narrower counterterrorism strategy either. The plan depended on finally winning over hearts and minds in the most dangerous areas of Afghanistan.