How "Counterinsurgency" Became a Dirty Word
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?
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James Dobbins is Director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation and the author of After the Taliban: Nation Building in Afghanistan. He was U.S. Special Envoy to Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002.
This commentary appeared on ForeignAffairs.com on October 26, 2010