Eliot A. Cohen -- What's Obama's counterinsurgency strategy for Afghanistan?

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By Eliot A. Cohen
Sunday, December 6, 2009

It is impolite, but probably true, to say that when President Obama announced in March that he had a "comprehensive, new strategy" for victory in Afghanistan, he had no precise idea what he was talking about. In Washington parlance, the word "strategy" usually means "to-do list" or at best "action plan." As for "comprehensive" and "new," they usually mean merely "better than whatever my predecessors did."

So now, even after his speech Tuesday night at West Point, does the president really have a strategy for the Afghan war? What is a strategy anyway, in a war without fronts, one that might drag on for decades and that shades off into banditry at one end and terrorism at another?

Strategy is the art of choice that binds means with objectives. It is the highest level of thinking about war, and it involves priorities (we will devote resources here, even if that means starving operations there), sequencing (we will do this first, then that) and a theory of victory (we will succeed for the following reasons). That is the job of wartime presidents; it's why they have the title commander in chief.

Obama set out his objectives for Afghanistan, focused on thwarting al-Qaeda, and enumerated some of the means, chiefly a 30,000-troop, 18-month surge. But what about the hard part: setting priorities, establishing a sequencing and laying out a theory of victory?

By supporting Gen. Stanley McChrystal's recommendation to knock the Taliban back and protect the population, by devoting additional resources to development, and by surging civilians as well as soldiers, Obama has made his choice: counterinsurgency warfare, or COIN, as insiders like to call it. And counterinsurgency warfare has a theory of strategy, as preached and practiced by a relatively small group of soldiers, historians and social scientists.

The COIN sect has its heroes -- from British guerrilla adventurer T.E. Lawrence to legendary Vietnam adviser John Paul Vann to Gen. David Petraeus. It also has its canon, written by British veterans of Malaya such as Robert Thompson, French participants in the Algerian war such as David Galula and more recently American veterans of Vietnam such as Bing West. It exhibits, at least in the Western world, a remarkable consensus about strategy.

Counterinsurgency experts agree with McChrystal: Start with security for the population. Without security, neither governance nor development can move forward. The counterinsurgent must keep the sequencing tight; after the "clear" phase must come "hold" and "build," often in the same operation. In counterinsurgency, the dominant force wins all the firefights but loses if it does not stay to administer effectively.

The theory of victory lies in a competition for effective rule and legitimacy -- local political outcomes that are enabled by, yet distressingly independent of, military success. If you fight on behalf of a local ally, the key to success is building up your host's forces and capacity for governance, not your own.

A straightforward enough strategic language, one might think. Indeed, anyone can (and in Washington pretty much now does) learn enough to speak pidgin COIN, as it were. In the 1960s, the U.S. military studied the problem carefully, and the resulting manuals and surveys retain remarkable value. After Vietnam, however, counterinsurgency dropped from the curricula of war colleges and all but niche specialties within the armed services, such as U.S. Army Special Forces. In the latest Iraq war, some commanders -- H.R. McMaster, Petraeus and James Mattis to name just three -- applied the old ideas, adjusting for new technology and local circumstances. Now McChrystal's concept for Afghanistan reflects the knowledge relearned in Iraq.

However, a senior official slinging COIN argot ("oil spot tactics," "combined action platoons" and the like) at meetings far from the fight is one thing. An infantry captain plunked down in the mountains of Nurestan, figuring out how to control rugged terrain with a few American platoons, a larger force of questionable Afghan soldiers and police, and a mistrustful, war-weary population is something very different. With counterinsurgency, as with all military matters, implementing doctrine proves much more difficult than discussing it.

Perhaps in response to the strategy's newfound salience, several new books seek to study or further explain counterinsurgency, with varying degrees of success. James Arnold's "Jungle of Snakes" is useful to learn the fundamentals, competently summarizing past counterinsurgency campaigns in the Philippines, Algeria, Malaya and Vietnam, but offering few striking insights. Read it if you want to learn the basics of the American CORDS (Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support) program in Vietnam, for example, or learn who tortured whom in the Battle of Algiers.

Meanwhile, the Rand Corp. has recently released its own COIN study, "Reconstruction Under Fire." Rand has long provided much of the government's semiofficial thinking about counterinsurgency, and during the 1950s and 1960s it published some remarkable works. But this new book typifies much of the contemporary Rand product: brief, lots of bullets and diagrams, thumbnail sketches of conflicts, and a conclusion pleading for further research.


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