As the chopper swung around to land, the Taliban opened up, sending journalists scrambling for cover and Marines into full combat mode. According to Matthew Green of the Financial Times, â€œThe crackle of gunfire lasted about 20 minutes and continued in the background as a state department official gave a presentation to Mr. Holbrooke about U.S. and U.K [United Kingdom] efforts to boost local government and promote agriculture in the town.â€The U.S. officials were then bundled into armored cars and whisked back to the helicopter. As the chopper took off an enormous explosion shook the townâ€™s bazaar.
When it was launched in March, the Marjah operation was billed as a â€œturning pointâ€ in the Afghan War, an acid test for the doctrine of counterinsurgency, or â€œCOIN,â€ a carefully designed strategy to wrest a strategic area from the Taliban and win the â€œhearts and mindsâ€ of the local people. And in a sense Marjah has indeed defined COIN, just not quite in the way its advocates had hoped for.
In his bible for counterinsurgency, Field Manuel 3-24, General David Petraeus argues, â€œThe cornerstone of any COIN effort is establishing security for the civilian population.â€ As one village elder who attended the Holbrooke meetingâ€”incognito for fear of being recognized by the Talibanâ€”told Green, â€œThere is no security in Marjah.â€
Nor in much of the rest of the country. The latest U.S. assessment found five out of 116 areas â€œsecure,â€ and in 89 of the areas the government was â€œnon-existent, dysfunctional or unproductive.â€
That the war in Afghanistan is a failure will hardly come as news to most people. Our NATO allies are preparing to abandon the endeavorâ€”the Dutch, Canadians and Poles have announced they are bailingâ€”and the British, who have the second largest contingent in Afghanistan, are clamoring for peace talks. Opposition to the war in Britain is at 72 percent.
But there is a tendency to blame the growing debacle on conditions peculiar to Afghanistan. There are certainly things about that country that have stymied foreign invaders: it is landlocked, filled with daunting terrain, and populated by people who donâ€™t cotton to outsiders. But it would be a serious error to attribute the current crisis to Afghanistanâ€™s well-earned reputation as the â€œgraveyard of empires.â€
The problem is not Afghanistan, but the entire concept of COIN, and the debate around it is hardly academic. Counterinsurgency has seized the high ground in the Pentagon and the halls of Washington, and there are other places in the world where it is being deployed, from the jungles of Columbia to the dry lands that border the Sahara. If the COIN doctrine is not challenged, Americans may well find themselves debating its merits in places like Somalia, Yemen, or Mauritania.
â€œCounterinsurgency aims at reshaping a nation and its society over the long haul,â€ says military historian Frank Chadwick, emphasizing â€œinfrastructure improvements, ground-level security, and building a bond between the local population and the security forces.â€
In theory COIN sounds reasonable. In practice it almost always fails. Where it has succeededâ€”the Philippines, Malaya, Bolivia, Sri Lanka, and the Boer Warâ€”the conditions were very special: island nations cut off from outside support (the Philippines and Sri Lanka), insurgencies that failed to develop a following (Bolivia), or were based in a minority ethnic community (Malaya, the Boer War).
COIN is always presented as politically neutral, a series of tactics aimed at winning hearts and minds. But in fact, COIN has always been part of a strategy of domination by a nation(s) and/or socio/economic class.
The threat of â€œCommunismâ€ and its companion, the â€œdomino theory,â€ sent soldiers to countries from Grenada to Lebanon, and turned the Vietnamese civil war into a Cold War battleground. If we didnâ€™t stop the communists in Vietnam, went the argument, eventually the Reds would storm the beaches at San Diego.
Replace communism with â€œterrorismâ€ and todayâ€™s rationales sound much the same. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates describes Afghanistan as â€œthe fountainhead of terrorismâ€ and, when asked to explain why Germany was sending troops to Afghanistan, then German Defense Minister Peter Strock argued that Berlinâ€™s security would be â€œ defended in the Hindu Kush.â€ British prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown routinely said that confronting â€œterrorismâ€ in Afghanistan would protect the home front.
But as counterterrorism expert Richard Barrett points out, the Afghan Taliban have never been a threat to the West, and the idea that fighting the Taliban would reduce the threat of terrorism is â€œcomplete rubbish.â€ In any case, the al-Qaeda operatives who pulled off the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon got their training in Hamburg and south Florida, not Tora Bora.
The U.S. has strategic interests in Central Asia and the Middle East, and â€œterrorismâ€ is a handy excuse to inject military power into these two energy-rich regions of the world. Whoever holds the energy high ground in the coming decades will exert enormous influence on world politics.
No, it is not all about oil and gas, but a lot of it is.
Winning â€œhearts and mindsâ€ is just a tactic aimed at insuring our paramount interests, and/or the interests of the â€œfriendlyâ€ governments that we fight for. Be nice to the locals unless the locals decide that they donâ€™t much like long-term occupation, donâ€™t trust their government, and might have some ideas about how they should run their own affairs.
Then â€œhearts and mindsâ€ turns nasty. U.S. Special Operations Forces carry out as many as five â€œkill and captureâ€ raids a day in Afghanistan and have assassinated or jailed more than 500 Afghans in the past few months Thousands of others languish in prisons.
The core of COIN is coercion, whether it is carried out with a gun or truckloads of money. If the majority of people accept coercionâ€”and the COIN supported government doesnâ€™t highjack the trucksâ€”then it may work
And then maybe not. Tufts University recently researched the impact of COIN aid and found little evidence that such projects win locals over. According to Tufts professor, Andrew Wilder, â€œMany of the Afghans interviewed for our study identified their corrupt and predatory government as the most important cause of insecurity, and perceived international aid security contracts as enriching a kleptocratic elite.â€
This should hardly come as a surprise. Most regimes the U.S. ends up supporting against insurgents are composed of narrow elites who rule through military power and political monopoly. Our backing of the El Salvador and Guatemalan governments during the 1980s come to mind. Both were essentially death squads with national anthems.
The U.S. doesnâ€™t care if a government is corrupt or democraticâ€”if it did, would countries like Egypt and Honduras be recipients of U.S. aid, and would we be cuddling up with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait? The only thing the U.S. cares about is whether the local elites will serve Washingtonâ€™s interests by giving it bases, resources, or commercial access.
Afghanistan is no different. The government of Hamid Karzi is a kleptocracy with little support or presence outside Kabul.
In many ways COIN is the most destructive and self-defeating strategy a country can employ, and its toxicity is long-term. Take what didnâ€™t get reported in the recent firing of former Afghan War commander General Stanley McChrystal.
McChrystal cut his COIN teeth running Special Operations death squads in Iraq, similar to the Vietnam Warâ€™s â€œOperation Phoenixâ€ that killed upwards of 60,000 â€œViet Cong cadreâ€ and eventually led to the Mai Lai massacre. The success of Phoenix is best summed up by photos of desperate South Vietnamese soldiers clinging to U.S. helicopter skids as the Americans scrambled to get out before Saigon fell.
But COIN advocates read history selectively and the loss in Vietnam was soon blamed on backstabbing journalists and pot-smoking hippies. The lessons were re-written, the memories expunged, and the disasters re-interpreted.
So COIN is back. And it is working no better than it did in the 1960s. Take the counterterrorism portion of the doctrine.
Over the past several years, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency has been carrying out a sort of long-distance Phoenix program, using armed drones to assassinate insurgent leaders in Pakistan. The program has purportedly snuffed out about 150 such â€œleaders.â€ But it has also killed more than 1,000 civilians and inflamed not only the relatives of those killed or wounded in the attacks, but Pakistanis in general. According to an International Republican Institute poll, 80 percent of Pakistanis are now anti-American, and the killer drones are a major reason.
â€œHearts and mindsâ€ soldiers like Petraeus donâ€™t much like the drone attacks because they alienate Pakistan and dry up intelligence sources in that country.
But McChrystalâ€™s Phoenix program of killing Taliban â€œleadersâ€ in Afghanistan is no better. As author and reporter Anne Jones notes, â€œAssassinating the ideological leaders, the true believers and organizersâ€”those we call the â€˜bad Talibanâ€™â€”actually leaves behind leaderless, undisciplined gangs of armed rent-a-guns who are more interested in living off the population weâ€™re supposed to protect than being peeled off into abject Afghan poverty.â€
The â€œhearts and mindsâ€ crew have their own problems. McChrystal and Petraeus have long stressed the counterproductive effect of using airpower and artillery against insurgents, because it inevitably produces civilian casualties. But this means that the war is now between two groups of infantry, one of which knows the terrain, speaks the local language, and can turn from a fighter to a farmer in a few minutes.
As the recent Rolling Stone article found, McChrystal was unpopular because his troops felt he put them in harmâ€™s way. Firefights that used to be ended quickly by air strikes go on for hours, and the Taliban are demonstrating that, given a level playing field, they are skilled fighters.
In his recent testimony before Congress, Petraeus said he would â€œemploy all assetsâ€ to insure the safety of the troops and â€œre-examineâ€ his ban on air power. But if he does, civilian casualties will rise, increasing local anger and recruits for the Taliban.
The war in Afghanistan is first about U.S. interests in Central Asia. It is also about honing a military for future irregular wars and projecting NATO as a worldwide alliance. And once the U.S. endorsed Karzaiâ€™s recent fraudulent election, the Afghans know it isnâ€™t about democracy.
One of the key ingredients in COIN is a reliable local army, but U.S. soldiers no longer trust the ANA because they correctly suspect it is a conduit to the Taliban. â€œAmerican soldiers in Kandahar report that, for their own security, they donâ€™t tell their ANA colleagues when and where they are going on patrol,â€ says Jones. Somebody told those insurgents that Holbrook and Eikenberry were coming to Marjah.
Afghanistan is ethnically divided, desperately poor, and finishing its fourth decade of war. Morale among U.S. troops is plummeting. A U.S. officer told the Washington Times, â€œWe are a battle-hardened force but eight years in Afghanistan has worn us down.â€ As one Sergeant told Rolling Stone, â€œWeâ€™re losing this f—ing thing!â€
The sergeant is right, though the Afghans are the big losers. But as bad as Afghanistan is, things will be considerably worse if the U.S. draws the conclusion that â€œspecial circumstancesâ€ in Afghanistan are to blame for failure, not the nature of COIN itself.
There was a time when the old imperial powers and the U.S. could wage war without having to bank their home fires. No longer. The U.S. has spent over $300 billion on the Afghan War, and is currently shelling out about $7 billion a month. In the meantime, 32 states are sliding toward insolvency, and 15 million people have lost their jobs. As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told the Huffington Post, â€œIt just canâ€™t be that we have a domestic agenda that is half the size of the defense budget.â€
Empires can choose to step back with a certain grace, as the Dutch did in Southeast Asia. Or they can stubbornly hang on, casting about for the right military formula that will keep them on top. That fall is considerably harder.
The choice is ours.
Conn Hallinan can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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