Obama’s West Point speech had less in it of the soaring Wilson than it did of the hard-nosed Truman, who insisted at the dawn of the Cold War that America’s national security required the U.S. to come to the aid of embattled Turkey and Greece. But Obama’s audience wasn’t prepared for either Wilson or Truman. The collapse of the economy crowded out all other threats. And eight years after 9/11, many Americans had trouble seeing what Afghanistan had to do with national security. A Gallup poll showed that 35 percent approved of the president’s Afghanistan policy and 55 percent opposed it. Liberals were especially disaffected. Senator Russ Feingold said he and other Democrats would try to block funding for the additional troops. Frank Rich wrote in the New York Times that the speech was a failure, since Obama hadn’t explained why 30,000 troops were needed to fight a handful of Al Qaeda terrorists, hadn’t provided the resources needed for a full-bore counterinsurgency program, hadn’t fully reckoned with the irredeemability of the Afghan government. Rich’s claim that COIN theory would require “a minimal force of 568,000” American troops was a canard, but the cynicism it expressed about American capacities to do good in the world was widespread.
The war Obama has chosen to fight in Afghanistan involves a great deal of targeted, concentrated violence. Every night, teams of special-operations fighters conduct raids designed to capture or kill mid-level Taliban figures. Unmanned drones fire missiles at Taliban hideouts across the Pakistani border. But American and NATO soldiers are also deeply engaged in trying to win the battle for hearts and minds. This has often been a very clumsy exercise. McChrystal himself, a former special-ops soldier with a genuine gift for killing bad guys, talked about setting up “governments in a box,” as if legitimacy were something you could unwrap and hand out like military rations.
The first installment of this experiment, when the Marines brought in Afghan civilians after fighting a bitter, weeks-long battle in Marja, in Helmand province, in early 2010, fared poorly; remaining insurgents succeeded in terrorizing Afghans who sought to cooperate with the local government. The situation in Marja has since stabilized, but Kandahar, the new focus of battle, remains extremely volatile. The city government has been able to fill only a third of its 120 jobs—in general, the most menial of them—thanks to both low pay and fear. Virtually everything is done by Americans. “Right now, the government capacity is so anemic that we have to do it,” an American official told the Washington Post. “We are acting as donor and government. That’s not sustainable.”
But counterinsurgency, if no magic bullet, is also not a mirage. I spent a week earlier this year watching the strategy unfold in Arghandab, a community of pomegranate and grape orchards barely ten miles north of Kandahar. Arghandab is one of 100 key districts, mostly in the embattled south and east, where soldiers were to clear out insurgents and then American and Afghan civilians were to set up the rudiments of local government. A battalion sent there in the summer of 2009 had fought a series of bloody battles that had largely driven insurgents from the district. A three-man “district support team” had arrived in the fall to help stand up a local government, to administer development projects, and to work with farmers.
By the time I arrived, Arghandab had become safe enough for the district governor, Hajji Abdul Jabbar, to report to work every day at the district center inside the base. Abdul Jabbar was just about the whole of government in the district, since the few officials sent from ministries in Kabul tended either not to show up or not to work when they did. Every morning, Abdul Jabbar held an audience for petitioners, listening to their grievances and stamping their tattered papers. Once a week, he met with the district shura, a group of village elders and farmers. The meeting I attended featured a lot of shouting and accusation, much of it by Abdul Jabbar. It seemed pretty formless, but Kevin Melton, a very tall and very young official from USAID, leaned over to me and said, “They’re talking about security. Normally it’s ISAF doing the talking. They’re pointing fingers at each other; that’s progress.”
I felt like I was watching a political-science experiment: forging a social contract in a state of nature. Melton believed that what mattered was not so much building roads or schools as overcoming the legacy of distrust, the habit of seeking violent solutions to all problems. He saw his job as helping give local citizens a voice in decisions, so that ultimately they could take responsibility for themselves rather than simply accepting assistance. And he felt that his efforts were working. Thanks to small-team units living out in the district and to constant patrolling among the villages—a crucial element of COIN strategy—the Taliban presence had dropped significantly. “If things continue as they have for the last four months,” Melton quoted Hajji Mohammad, the shura leader, as saying, “this next year could reverse the last seven.”