Nir Rosen holds forth from Afghanistan’s recently-escalated Helmand Province in his latest for Mother Jones. Along with Rosen’s characteristically illuminating anecdotes from the front lines (like encountering a group of doped-up Afghan National Police), we also get some sobering analysis. It turns out that counterinsurgency — supposedly at the center of this latest “surge” — in Afghanistan is likely not all it’s cracked up to be.
“The Marines are trained to go off a ship, hit the ground, and f*cking charge,” Maj. Jim Contreras of the Illinois National Guard tells Rosen, leading the latter to suggest Marines might not be “suited for counterinsurgency.”
Counterinsurgency, or COIN, has been in vogue at the Pentagon since the success of the Iraq surge, and its dominance was cemented when President Obama chose General Stanley McChrystal, former head of special operations forces and a recent convert to counterinsurgency, as his commander in Afghanistan. Shortly afterward, Obama promulgated his new strategy “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan.” The primary tool would be COIN.
[…] The emphasis is on using the least amount of violence against the enemy, familiarity with the local culture, and painstakingly removing popular support for the insurgents. This involves using proxy forces to kill those who cannot be “reconciled,” and searching for political solutions that tempt the civilian population away from the insurgents.
In some ways, COIN and the related “stability operations” doctrine are a rejection of the neoconservative focus on military might as the key tool of foreign policy. Just as the neocons ruled the Pentagon under George W. Bush, so it seems that the proponents of “population-centric” fighting now have a preponderance of influence in the Obama administration.
To liberals, these COINdinistas, as they are dubbed, might seem kindred spirits. They emphasize nonlethal means, humanitarian aid, development work, and protecting the civilian population. They recognize that military force alone cannot solve conflicts, and that in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US military did not know how to operate in a war where “the terrain is the people.” But the end result is still a foreign military occupation—which is not America’s stated goal in Afghanistan.
To say that you need to kill those you can’t “reconcile” means you need to reconcile a whole heck of a lot of people. “Reintegration,” as it’s sometimes called, can be tricky. Nick McDonnell captured one such agreement during the winter.
In the New York Review of Books, Ahmed Rashid discusses, among many other topics, the Pakistani army and intelligence apparatus’s new willingness to help negotiations between the U.S., Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the Taliban.
But judging from Rosen’s piece, the “surge” may not actually be big enough to establish the kind of “control” needed to bring around the ‘reconcilable’ masses — no matter what the Pakistanis offer. (Rashid cites Pres. Obama’s special representative to “Af-Pak” Richard Holbrooke’s 70 percent as the portion of the Taliban that are buy-able.) Rosen offers expert opinion on the sort of numbers that would be needed for “control”:
Control is essential to a successful counterinsurgency campaign. According to Stathis Kalyvas, the Yale political scientist and civil war expert whose book The Logic of Violence in Civil War is very influential among counterinsurgency theorists, “The higher the level of control exercised by the actor, the higher the rate of collaboration with this actor—and, inversely, the lower the rate of defection.” But by that logic, the Americans will never have enough troops in Afghanistan to achieve control. A generally accepted ratio for a successful counterinsurgency is roughly 1 cop or soldier per 50 civilians. That would mean 600,000 troops are needed to secure Afghanistan—fewer if part of the country is assumed to be secure already. […] Obama has raised the US total in Afghanistan from 47,000 to 68,000. McChrystal’s much-debated request is for an additional 40,000, but even that would bring the US troop total in Afghanistan to about 68 percent of the number in Iraq, a smaller country, at the peak of the surge.
This “surge” not even equal to that “surge.” The U.S. is getting into a Soviet-level occupation against a Mujaheddin insurgency — a bad precedent if there ever was one — of a country it ostensibly don’t even want to be occupying.