A False Promise of 'Counterinsurgency'


Dec 1, 2009

This commentary originally appeared on NYTimes.com on December 1, 2009.

If the additional troops President Obama has ordered sent to Afghanistan are intended to pursue a "population-centric counterinsurgency" campaign, as described in news reports about General McChrystal's thinking, then this decision is regrettable.

The solution to Afghanistan is not and never has been a military one.

Such an effort has but the faintest direct link to fundamental U.S. interests—preventing an attack on the American people and homeland—yet promises to be both exorbitantly expensive and fiendishly difficult, if not impossible.

"Counterinsurgency," as described by most adherents of this approach in Afghanistan, amounts to nothing less than using U.S. military forces to build a nation from scratch. This is meant to occur in a deeply foreign culture, with poor literacy, precious little infrastructure or natural resources, a weak and corrupt central government, an economy dominated by the illicit drug trade, long-standing ethnic and tribal disputes, and a notorious suspicion of outsiders. Some rhetorical attempts are being made to describe these activities as something other than nation building, but the distinction is hard to make out.

Despite the heroic, honorable and remarkable efforts of U.S. military forces over the last eight years, the solution to Afghanistan is not and never has been a military one. A critical component of this new strategy must include initiating a discussion among the major regional powers—India, China, Russia, and others—to fashion a sustainable political agreement on the future of Afghanistan. In the long term, this is the only real way out for the United States.

An effort to conduct "counterinsurgency" in Afghanistan is not just a costly business for still-unspecified strategic returns. It is likely to also prolong the U.S. defense establishment's preoccupation with military-led nation-building in unfamiliar cultures and perpetuate the deeply problematic assumption that chronic societal failure and social pathologies around the world are a form of warfare. This notion is built in part on what seems to be an oversimplified and glamorized—and thus dangerously misleading—pop history about the 'surge' in Iraq and the role it played in the still-unfolding outcomes there.

The opportunity for the new strategy in Afghanistan was to form the beginning of a new era of American restraint in its foreign policy—one based on confidence in America's own values, protection of its borders, strong intelligence capabilities, and selective engagement of a strong, credible U.S. military capable of applying overwhelming force.

It will be unfortunate if President Obama instead persists in the false promise of "counterinsurgency" theory, which merely courts permanent national insolvency and hastening American decline, expending vast quantities of national blood and treasure to protect nothing but America's own illusions.

Celeste Ward Gventer is a Senior Defense Analyst at the RAND Corporation and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense. She served two tours in Iraq, including a year as a senior adviser to General Peter Chiarelli, the operational commander in Iraq in 2006.

This op-ed was part of a NYTimes.com Room for Debate post on "Obama's Surge Strategy in Afghanistan."

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