New U.S. representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan is critic of Biden on war

May 3, 2013
A 2001 photo (it's the only one we have) shows U.S. diplomat James Dobbins in New Delhi. (PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images)
A 2001 photo (it's the only one we have) shows U.S. diplomat James Dobbins in New Delhi. (Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty Images)

The White House has named James Dobbins, a veteran diplomat, as its new special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In late 2010, as debate raged within and without the Obama administration on what strategy the U.S. should pursue in the war in Afghanistan, James Dobbins wrote an article for Foreign Affairs that, as the journal's Twitter account put it, "lambasted critics of COIN in Afghanistan." COIN is military lingo for counterinsurgency, the strategy that Gens. Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus both pursued there. Dobbins, in his article, singled out administration officials who opposed the strategy, including Vice President Biden, whom he referred to as a "civilian adviser."

The article reads as an attempt to enter, and perhaps call, the administration's internal debate over Afghanistan, largely by criticizing and sometimes mocking the positions he attributes to "Vice President Joe Biden and other White House officials."

Here's the start of the article; see in particular the incredulous second paragraph (my emphasis added):

The central theme of Obama's Wars, Bob Woodward's account of the Obama administration's Afghan policy debates, is the ongoing battle between Obama's military and civilian advisers. The military advisers — Generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, along with Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs — believe that a counterinsurgency strategy, which helped reverse the deteriorating military situation in Iraq in 2007, could do the same in Afghanistan. The civilian advisers — Vice President Joe Biden and other White House officials — suggest that Vietnam is a more apt analogy for Afghanistan and a quagmire a likelier outcome if counterinsurgency strategy is applied there.

By definition, any military activity that seeks to counter an insurgency is counterinsurgency, or COIN as it is often labeled for short. All of Obama's advisers agree that the Taliban is an insurgency and that the United States has a real interest in stopping its return to power. Why, then, would Obama's civilian advisers argue against organized military activity designed to counter a Taliban takeover?

He also wrote, "There is a legitimate debate over how deeply the U.S. military should invest in counterinsurgency capability at the expense of conventional capacity. But no one seriously argues that counterinsurgency tactics are not necessary to resist insurgencies."

The Afghanistan strategy advocated internally by Biden and other officials was, at the time, sometimes summarized as "counterterrorism." Dobbins criticized the logic behind that view, writing, "Rather inconsistently, even as detractors of counterinsurgency have insisted that there are no terrorists of concern left in Afghanistan, they have also argued that the United States should shift from counterinsurgency to counterterrorism."

Ironically, Dobbins's selection as U.S. special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan comes after the Obama administration seems to have moved away from the Petraeus-style counterinsurgency strategy that Dobbins championed and, as it prepares to reduce troop presence substantially, toward the light-footprint counterterrorism advocated by Biden. Maybe the administration is hoping to bring internal dissent to a foreign policy team increasingly staffed by realists such as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, but it's an otherwise surprising move.

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Max Fisher | May 3, 2013