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June 03, 2009

Recognizing America's Limitations
Posted by Michael Cohen

Over at Attackerman, Spencer Ackerman responds to my concerns about Stanley McChrystal's COIN-focus with the following observation:

It's worth asking a simple question here. What's in it for the Afghan civilian to cooperate with the U.S., actively or passively, against the Taliban, if the U.S. doesn't provide for her basic needs?

In many ways this quote highlights the inherent contradiction that resides at the heart of counter-insurgency doctrine. What makes anyone actually believe that the US is either willing or able to provide for the basic needs of the Afghan people? I don't mean to pick on Spencer because I am a huge fan of his work, but to provide for the basic needs of the Afghan people would take decades and would require the commitment of billions of US dollars. Ain't going to happen.

As one of Spencer's commenters astutely points out:

You have to be able to deliver government services, economic opportunity, education, infrastructure and security to tens of thousands of widely scattered small-scale population centers throughout the county. If we were to be honest, we would recognize that would require a commitment we are unwilling to make, and therefore the entire exercise is one of political theater and misdirection.

Spencer also asks:

What incentives exist for our Afghan civilian to bandwagon with the U.S./Kabul-government side rather than the insurgent side, and how the U.S./Kabul-government side can tip those incentives in their favor.

It seems that the first and most obvious answer to this question is that not many sane Afghans are going to want to bandwagon with the Taliban after spending numerous years under their murderous and horrible rule. I've seen little evidence that the Taliban enjoys broad popular support or that they have any real chance of taking over Kabul.

But if there are Afghans that still do prefer Taliban rule - what is to make us believe that anything the Kabul government can provide will turn them against the Taliban? The COIN-danistas want us to believe that ethnicity and religious fealty is less consequential than which side can provide basic health care or build a water filtration plant. In some cases this may be the case, but it seems to be that blood is generally thicker than water.

Going back to my initial argument, the US needs to recognize that we simply lack the capability to provide for the basic needs of the Afghan people; that our efforts to turn the Afghan population against the Taliban are beyond our capabilities. And thus we need to focus on what we can accomplish in Afghanistan: ensure that the country's security services are strong enough to prevent a Taliban takeover and degrade, as much as possible, Taliban forces.

And then we need to get the hell out.


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Thanks for such a great information.I’m going to stick my neck out here and say that, in the context of a conflict of this nature, “degrading the enemy” is code for genocide. Which is not to accuse Cohen of advocating for such, but rather to indicate that he should think more carefully about what he’s actually suggesting before he puts it in writing in an eternal format.But what if Afghanistan is unwinnable? Does American counterinsurgency allow for the possibility of just declaring victory and walking away? Or is it really just tactical semiwar with a few Swarovskis pasted on it?

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Above all, however, is this fact: Stanley McChrystal is now the man in charge of winning the war in Afghanistan - or, more accurately, in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

And thus we need to focus on what we can accomplish in Afghanistan: ensure that the country's security services are strong enough to prevent a Taliban takeover and degrade, as much as possible, Taliban forces.

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