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July 31, 2009

Afghanistan Mission Creep Watch - The Welcome Aboard Version
Posted by Michael Cohen

Over at World Politics Review, the ever astute Judah Grunstein tries to get a handle on the various reports trickling out from McChrystal's policy review in Afghanistan and finds himself confused:

With a signfiicant increase in resources, we might achieve minimalist stabilization goals in Afghanistan that, it is hoped, will indirectly damage al-Qaida's operational capacity, which itself is located elsewhere. That is not the Afghanistan War as it was originally declared in 2001, and bears only a surface resemblance to the Obama administration's rebranding of it in March.

 . . . From top to bottom -- that is, from the strategic objectives to the tactial methods -- our approach to this war seems like a tangle of contradictions and confusion. And that's mainly because, eight years in, we still have not determined what war we're fighting. Which means we're unlikely to win the war we find ourselves in.

At Attackerman, Spencer begins to see the light:

Perhaps I'm misreading what it is the people around McChrystal are saying, but it seems fair to say that the balance of evidence favors an interpretation that Afghanistan strategy is coming unmoored from the actual objectives of the war, and the actual interests at stake, and the White House is being either deluded or outright dishonest about what's happening. "Our goal is to deal with the terrorist elements that are in that country and are making life for Afghans and potentially life for millions throughout the world more dangerous through their activities," Robert Gibbs said from the White House podium today. That is simply not what's coming from McChrystal's circle. 

But Sam Roggeveen of Lowy Interpreter (sorry I called you lowly!) wins the post as he wonders if the US and NATO would ever undertake the current mission in Afghanistan if not for the fact that we are already there:

Would we now advocate an invasion and long-term occupation of Afghanistan to stabilise the Indian Ocean region, reduce the chances of nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan, disrupt drug supplies, protect energy sources, substitute for the lack of a regional security framework and discourage Pakistani cooperation with the Taliban? More to the point, have any of these problems been reduced or made more manageable by the Western presence in Afghanistan? How?

This is a critically important point. There seems to be a mindset in Washington that now that Bush is gone from office we can do a reset in Afghanistan and finally get things right. Wrong. There is no question that Geroge Bush sqaundered the last 7 1/2 years in Afghanistan. They didn't finish the mission, they didn't devote enough resources, they didn't build up a credible Afghan Army, they had a lousy policy on drug eradication and I could go on. But, to paraphrase Don Rumsfeld, you go to war with the Afghanistan you have, not the Afghanistan you want. Right now, the Afghanistan we have is ill-suited for a robust counter-insurgency mission and the mismatch between our stretegy and our tactics is growing wider every day.

July 30, 2009

The RollerCoaster of Emotion That I Felt Reading Julian Barnes Article on Afghanistan Today
Posted by Michael Cohen

Ok, here it goes:

U.S. military leaders have concluded that their war effort in Afghanistan has been too focused on hunting Al Qaeda, and have begun to shift Predator drone aircraft to the fight against the Taliban and other militants in order to prevent the country from slipping deeper into anarchy.

AH!! It can't be, it can't be!!! Do I have send a copy of the Looming Tower to everybody in America and remind them that Al Qaeda and not the Taliban attacked us on September 11th. I not that I have gone over this issue before, but the US should be "too focused" on Al Qaeda. THEY ARE OUR ENEMY!

Ok, ok calm down, keep reading:

Senior government officials say that defeating Al Qaeda remains the overriding U.S. objective. However, they have determined that the best way to do that is by strengthening and stabilizing Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan, rather than endlessly looking for important Al Qaeda figures.

AH!! AH!!! AH!!!!! AH!!!!! (Running around living room screaming, bulldogs cowering in bedroom). Yes, this is a great idea. Let's spend lots of time, billions of dollars and the precious lives of American soldiers in the pursuit of a dubious mission intended to stabilize Afghanistan, rather than say killing the "important Al Qaeda figures" who slaughtered 3,000 Americans and may well be plotting further attacks today.

This is not to say that the latter goal will be easy or even successful, but it seems like the potential for success might be greater then the former. Also, as Peter Bergen's excellent piece in the New Republic on this issue makes clear part of the benefit from the drone war comes not just from AQ leadership, but also the psychological toll that the drones take. All this has contributed to putting Al Qaeda on the defensive.

Ok, deep breaths, deep breaths:

The military has shifted about eight Predator drones assigned to special operations forces in Afghanistan to conventional forces. It is refocusing them on major insurgent strongholds rather than on scouring remote mountain ranges for suspected terrorists. The U.S. military's Central Command is planning to send about a dozen more drones to Afghanistan, representing about a 25% increase. Among them are aircraft being reassigned from Iraq, despite resistance from the U.S. command there.

The sweeping redeployment means that insurgent groups that have carried out ambushes and roadside bombings will for the first time be tracked by dozens of drones capable of remaining over a target for hours undetected, identifying key individuals, and firing missiles within a matter of seconds.

Now we're getting somewhere. This seems like a smart use of the drone aircraft in Afghanistan and a way to put the Taliban forces on the defensive. I can't say I have a huge problem with this. But isn't one of the reasons that the drone war has been more effective in Pakistan - and thus thankfully killing fewer civilians - is because we are doing better intelligence sharing with the Pakistan military? In fact, wasn't the biggest complaint about the drones in Pakistan that they kill civilians and thus send more people into the hands of the insurgents?  (And didn't the guy making that argument just get back from participating in McChrystal's policy review in Afghanistan?) How does the military square the use of drones with a counter-insurgency mission focused on protecting civilians, a point that Julian makes:

A new directive from the top commander in Afghanistan is forcing the military to be more careful about airstrikes. But with up to 20 more drones dedicated to the task, the military may have more chances to attack key Taliban leaders.

Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the new U.S. commander in Afghanistan, made it clear in a recent interview that protecting the Afghan population, not hunting suspected terrorists, was his priority.

"I don't think there is enough focus on counter-insurgency. I am not in a position to criticize counter-terrorism," he said. "But at this point in the war, in Afghanistan, it is most important to focus on almost classic counter-insurgency."

In of it itself, this probably wouldn't send me on a complete bender . . . but then I read this:

But top military officials have concluded that they need to keep Afghanistan from sliding further into chaos in order to keep Al Qaeda from rebuilding there. Doing so will require a campaign to build confidence in the government and make the population feel more secure.

"We have been overly counter-terrorism-focused and not counter-insurgency-focused," said one U.S. official.

Senior government officials said Bin Laden remained a prime target but that they needed to focus on fighting the Taliban.  "We might still be too focused on Bin Laden," the official said. "We should probably reassess our priorities."

AH!! AH!! AH!!!!!!!!!! (Breathing deeply in brown paper bag, banging head against wall repeatedly, wife hiding kitchen knives and prescription medicine).  Yes, we should reassess our priorities to fight an enemy that didn't attack us on 9/11, that has shown no interest in killing Americans who are not in Afghanistan and that even if by some remote chance was able to take power again would probably have very little incentive to set up another terrorist safe haven for Al Qaeda - which oh by the way happens to be our actual enemy (oh and safe havens are probably overrated anyway). And how about the fact that Al Qaeda hasn't had a presence in Afghanistan since 2002! 20002 I tell you.

Here's something I don't understand, why if Al Qaeda didn't rebuild a presence in Afghanistan over the past seven years -- when there weren't enough US troops on the ground to bring stability -- why would they rebuild one now when the focus of the US military is on Afghanistan, not to mention 17,000 more troops?

Obviously, I'm being melodramatic for dramatic effect, but this isn't a joke. American troops are dying every day because of this policy in Afghanistan and and we are slowly but surely venturing down a road that could lead to more deaths and more tragedy. The time has come to seriously examine what we are trying to accomplish in Afghanistan; whether the mission makes sense or is achievable and where our national interests lie.

Afghanistan Mission Creep Watch - It's Official
Posted by Michael Cohen

Barbara Starr has the goods:

The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan is expected to ask the Obama administration for additional troops and equipment, according to a senior U.S. military official familiar with Gen. Stanley McChrystal's thinking.

The request will be for troops and equipment for conducting intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, as well as more assets to deal with roadside bombs and explosives, said the official, who declined to be identified because McChrystal's request has not been formally transmitted to the Pentagon.

The request could be made in coming weeks after McChrystal completes a "troop-to-task review" to calculate whether there are enough U.S. troops in Afghanistan -- and the right mix of troops -- to carry out the military's war plan at an acceptable level of risk, the official said.

Obviously, none of this should be seen as a surprise; not only have we seen hints of it for a few weeks, but once General McChrystal announced in June at his Senate testimony that the US would be conducting a robust counter-insurgency mission in Afghanistan this move was inevitable. After all, it has been clear for quite a while that the US military does not have enough troops - or host country support - to do a counter-insurgency mission in Afghanistan.

However, the one thing that is perhaps most striking about McChrystal's coming request is how much Afghan policy has evolved over the past few months. First, you had Barack Obama campaigning for President on the argument that Iraq is the bad war, Afghanistan is the good war. (It was a point picked up and drive home by Democrats from across the political spectrum including yours truly).

Then the President came into office and ordered 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan before conducting any sort of strategic review of Afghanistan policy. (That would qualify as the first worrisome sign that politics was not going to play an insignificant role in US-Afghan policy. But then campaign promises are campaign promises).

Then the strategic review comes in March and not surprisingly it offers support for sending more troops to Afghanistan. However, that strategic review seemed to draw an important conclusion; that creating a Jeffersonian democracy in Afghanistan was not possible and so US policy should be focused on "disrupting, dismantling and defeating Al Qaeda." The words counter-insurgency were never even used in the speech when the President announced his policy in March (although in fairness they are all over the interagency white paper).

Then a couple of weeks later, Afghan commander David McKiernan was fired and replaced by Lt. General Stanley McChrystal, because he "gets" counter-insurgency and McKiernan did not.

Then McChrystal testifies in June and tells the Senate Armed Services Committee that the US is now fighting a population centric counter-insurgency mission in Afghanistan and that protecting Afghans and lowering civilian casualties is the top mission of the US military - even though this metric goes completely unmentioned in the Af/Pak white paper put out in March as well as the President's speech (And now we're told that civilian casualties is actually less important than preventing the intimidation of civilians. Oy!)

To quote McChrystal directly, in his guidance to US troops, "Success will be defined by the Afghan people's freedom to choose their future--freedom from coercion, extremists, malign foreign influence, or abusive government actions."

These words seem to directly contradict the President's assertion that "We are not in Afghanistan to control that country or to dictate its future." But never mind and never fear because according to National Security Advisor Jim Jones, the President will have a Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment if the US military has the audacity to ask for more troops:

"If there were new requests for force now, the president would quite likely have "a Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment." Everyone in the room caught the phonetic reference to WTF -- which in the military and elsewhere means "What the [expletive]?" Nicholson and his colonels -- all or nearly all veterans of Iraq -- seemed to blanch at the unambiguous message that this might be all the troops they were going to get."

Well as we've seen that guidance didn't last very long. Meanwhile, no one bothers to ask the President in his recent news conference what exactly the policy is in Afghanistan, how long US troops are going to be there and what victory might look like. Instead we have the Secretary of State channeling Lyndon Johnson and Dick Cheney in declaring that US credibility is on the line in Afghanistan:

I think the president believes that this is not only the right strategy but facing what he faced, to withdraw our presence or keep it on the low-level limited effectiveness that had been demonstrated would have sent a message to al-Qaeda and their allies that the United States and our allies were willing to leave the field to them.

Double oy! And today we have Lt. Gen McChrystal preparing to ask the President for more troops. And you wonder why I call this the Afghanistan Mission Creep Watch?

So as I see it the President has really two options. He can approve McChrystal's request, but then he has to give a nationally televised address to the nation explaining why he believes the current US mission of nation building in Afghanistan is so important and why it requires not only more troops but a tangible financial commitment of the United States to see it through to its fruition. We are getting deeper and deeper into Afghanistan; the President has a responsibility to explain exactly to the American people what that means and what it will entail.

Or, the President can as Jim Jones suggested, say "What the F**K?" and ask his civilian and military advisors what exactly is going on in Afghanistan and whether we are wading into a military and political quagmire that may not be in the national interest, that is of dubious value to the United States and may not actually work.

Either way, he has to do something because the strategic drift and mission creep that has defined the US policy in Afghanistan over the past 6 months is not going away. If anything, it's going to get worse.

Semi-Idiotic Rifle Laws
Posted by Adam Blickstein

The recent raid on a domestic terrorist group in North Carolina has been notable for a number of reasons. But Jeff Stein digs into the story deeper, discussing intriguing incongruities in his purported participation in the Afghan war against the USSR. But Stein also notes another more disconcerting fact from the case:

...Yet all the assault weapons were acquired in the last two years, evidently, for something.

And there's no law against acquiring such an arsenal in a short time - unless you're a convicted felon - even in these post-9/11 years of homeland security fright. Not even records are kept for the feds.

"That's correct," said Drew Wade, a spokesman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). "There's no federal statute prohibiting that."

So, what were there assault weapons?

Bushmaster M4 A3 16-inch patrolman's rifle
Rugi Mini 14-inch long gun
Mossburg ATA 100 .270 caliber rifle and Llama Commanche III .357 revolver
Century Arms AK Sporter 7.62 x 39 rifle
Ruger Mini 30 7.62 x 39 rifle
SAGA .308 rifle
Century Arms Polish Tantal 5.45 x 39 rifle
Century Arms C91 .308 rifle
Century Arms M70B1 7.62 x 34 rifle
Ruger mini 14 5.56 rifle and Smith & Wesson  M15 .223 rifle

I'm not a gun expert, but I don't think you need all those guns for hunting deer. But it seems to me that while we've restricted nearly everything in the post 9-11 world, from civil rights to bringing shampoo on airplanes while distilling the threat of an attack to a rainbow of fear, all in the name of anti-terror action, we are still enslaved by our gun culture. In fact, the Bush administration, while drumming up threats of briefcase nukes and bombs in malls, loosened, not restricted, the sale and dissemination of firearms. Seems a little incongruous to smart anti-terror policy, one which anyone can amass a small arsenal of deadly arms with little to no attention from the feds. And while President Obama has pledged to reinstate the assault weapons ban, and there is some action in Senate to do this, the NRA still dictates our anti-terror policies in this regard.  This should be a wake-up call that it is time to fill this massive hole in our approach to terrorism, domestic or otherwise, and not a moment to contemplate allowing gun owners to carry concealed weapons (or a Bushmaster M4) across state lines

July 29, 2009

Afghanistan Mission Creep Watch - The Mismatch Version
Posted by Michael Cohen

I was joking with a friend recently that if I ever wrote a book about US policy in Afghanistan it would be called "Mismatch" and for across the pond we have a good example of why.

Yesterday British Foreign Secretary David Miliband laid out a new (ish) approach for defeating the Taliban - political reconciliation:

Mr. Miliband called for “effective grass-roots initiatives to offer an alternative to fight or flight for the foot soldiers” of the Taliban. “Essentially this means a clear route for former insurgents to return to their villages and go back to farming the land, or a role for some of them within the legitimate Afghan security forces,” Mr. Miliband said. “Military pressure has an important role to play — these people must see the danger of remaining insurgents, but also believe that they will be protected from their former allies if they lay down their arms.”

To achieve that goal, Mr. Miliband said, the American-led coalition fighting the Taliban should work with the Afghan government to separate hard-line Taliban leaders from less ideological commanders.

“For higher-level commanders and their networks, we need to work with the Afghan government to separate the hard-line ideologues, who are essentially irreconcilable and violent and who must be pursued relentlessly, from those who can be drawn into domestic political processes,” Mr. Miliband said.

Now I actually think this is a very smart idea, although as Josh Foust points out, it's not exactly a new policy. Nonetheless, there almost certainly isn't a military solution to Afghanistan's problems and so a focus on political reconciliation - and separating core Taliban from occasional Taliban - is overall a good thing.

But for that process for work don't Afghan Taliban have to be convinced that it is in their interest to engage politically with the Afghan government? After all if they read the words of the President and other Administration officials, they might draw the conclusion that they are winning in Afghanistan and thus have little reason to come to the negotiating table.

The possible fly in the ointment with Miliband's strategy is that it doesn't seem to jibe with what the ISAF and US forces are doing militarily - and with what General McCrystal is saying publicly:

The U.S. and its allies must change their mission to focus on protecting the Afghan people -- even if it means temporarily allowing the Taliban to operate relatively freely in sparsely populated areas, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan said in an interview Saturday.

The general, who did not say whether he would need additional troops, said his strategy is aimed at separating insurgents from noncombatants and increasing confidence in the Afghan government. He acknowledged that U.S. and alliance forces cannot routinely enter some areas.

"Practically speaking, there are areas that are controlled by Taliban forces," he said. Over time, McChrystal said, the command will "reduce" those areas, but the first priority will to be to make sure populated areas are free of insurgent influence.

To achieve political reconciliation you need to apply some sort of pressure on your opponent. The Dayton Peace Accords in Bosnia are perhaps a good example: we were to able to get all sides to the bargaining table but only after the facts on the ground had so dramatically changed that it was in each protagonist's interest to make a deal. And, for what it's worth, it was the use of military force that changed the political equation and made grudging reconciliation possible (well that and a lot of US peacekeepers).

But now we're relying on the good graces of the Taliban to "see the light" and a long-term strategy of placing a buffer (the US military) between the population and the Taliban. This isn't to say that McCrystal's operational strategy is wrong (although regular readers of the blog are well aware I'm not a fan) but if we're going to do it can we at least make sure everyone is on the same page - in other words can we make sure the political leaders are reading off the same page as the military leaders.

Instead, there seems to be a real mismatch between the goals lad out by the British Foreign Secretary and what the US and ISAF is doing on the ground.

Not Sure What Michael Gerson's Point Is
Posted by David Shorr

My main reaction to Michael Gerson's obituary for President Obama's efforts to engage Iran and North Korea is that Gerson offers mostly a set of well-known facts that show the difficulty of influencing would-be proliferators (newsflash), but really don't prove anything about diplomatic engagement. Yes, we're all aware that Iranian and North Korean leaders are defiant and view their nuclear programs as shows of strength. Tehran and Pyongyang are indeed pursuing policies at odds with international nonproliferation norms. No one has ever claimed that this was a misunderstanding or their failure to see the light. That's why there's a problem!

The only interesting question here is whether and how the US and others can influence their policy choices. On that issue, Gerson basically declares defeat and makes a short hop to regime-change -- essentially an argument that, 'it's not within the character of these regimes to yield' -- exactly the impulse that undercut Bush Administration efforts at engagement. If you tell a regime that you're really interested in their removal, not a mere change in their policy, do you really expect them to cooperate?

I agree with Matt Duss over at the Wonk Room that Gerson has really missed the point in arguing that the lack of immediate results from engagement backs Obama into a corner:

In other words, what Gerson identifies as “the paradox of the Obama doctrine” — that “by attempting to engage North Korea and Iran so visibly, Obama is… building the case for confrontation” — is actually one element of the strategy. By showing a genuine willingness to exhaust diplomatic options and making clear to the international community who the recalcitrant parties are in each case, the U.S. can generate greater international resolve to deal with the problematic regimes like Iran and North Korea.

Are Our Domestic and International Politics Too Small?
Posted by David Shorr

Reset: How This Crisis Can Restore Our Values and Renew AmericaThe way I look at it, the domestic and international policy agendas have the same core challenge at the heart: will political leaders really work at solving serious problems rather than ducking them, taking rigid positions, and allowing inertia to take its course? Whether the problem is America's health care system, eroding standards of living globally, or nuclear proliferation, the road we're on doesn't lead anywhere good. In all of these areas, there has been an excess of rancor and a dearth of action. If you're a pesimist by nature -- and even if you aren't -- you might wonder whether dysfunctional politics will cause us to miss the moment and let these problems get away from us. Personally, the thread of hope I'm clinging to is the idea that American dynamism has historically given the country a capacity for renewal in the face of adversity; there's something in the DNA of our political culture that actually helps us meet major challenges. To help reinforce my slim hope thread, fortunately Kurt Andersen has produced a serious book (summarized on Daily Beast yesterday) on how US political and social culture can Reset our politics in response to the current crisis. He argues that the US has periodically shown a side of its national character that awakens and responds when the stakes for the common good are highest. Here's hoping.

UPDATE: Bloggingheads has a diavlog with Andersen here

NSN Daily Update: 7/29/09
Posted by The National Security Network

For today's complete daily update, click here.

What We're Reading

Iran's hardliners warned President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that he could be deposed if he continues to defy Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Meanwhile, the government freed 140 opposition activists detained during election protests after Khamenei ordered a prison closed because of allegations of substandard conditions and abuses.

On his second day of a previously unannounced Iraq visit, Defense Secretary Robert Gates urged Iraq's ethnic Kurds and majority Arabs to resolve their entrenched disputes over oil and land. Gates also said that security conditions are improving in the war-torn country, and the U.S. may speed up the withdrawal of U.S. forces, which will soon be the only foreign troops left in Iraq. Meanwhile, Iraqi forces clashed with an Iranian opposition group in exile, which some analysts take as a sign that American influence is waning while Iranian clout rises.

U.S. and Chinese officials ended two days of talks in Washington, but failed to make substantial progress on climate change. China said that industrialized nations must agree to make substantial cuts in greenhouse gas emissions if a deal is to be struck at the U.N.-led talks in December.

The U.S. urged the E.U. to send more aid to Pakistani refugees.

Saudi Arabia rebuffed U.S. calls for diplomatic overtures to Israel, faulting the Jewish state's continued settlement expansion.

Ireland has agreed to accept two Guantanamo detainees. Meanwhile, President Obama is facing a court battle over the fate of an Afghani man held in Guantanamo since 2002.

Commentary of the Day

Former Assistant Secretary of Defense Bing West urges congressional support for General Petraeus's efforts in Afghanistan.

The LA Times asks what, if anything, Iraq owes Kuwait.

Helen Winternitz considers what Obama can do to help improve the situation in Congo.

Robert Scheer reports on the Chinese visit to Washington

July 28, 2009

Stubbing David's Toe
Posted by Michael Cohen

David Shorr has offered an interesting critique below of my argument regarding the Powell Doctrine and its efficacy versus counter-insurgency doctrine. He makes the point that:

Interveners aren't the only ones who overplay their hand. Insurgencies can be brittle too -- operating as criminal gangs rather than genuine political movements or sowing the seeds of their own destruction with brutality against the local population.

Sure, this is absolutely true, insurgencies fail all the time. In fact, they probably fail more often then they succeed. But that isn't the issue. The question at hand is whether the US should fight them in the first place and whether we have the political will to see them through. I'm hard pressed to think of any that the US has fought over the past century that would be considered a strategic victory for the United States. One could argue that the US was successful in defeating an insurgency in the Philippines. It also took many, many years, involved the deaths of as many as a million people (estimates vary) and was defined by terrible acts of torture by the United States. In short, it's not exactly a model we can or should replicate.

As for other counter-insurgencies fought by the US they are a trail of woe - in Somalia and Lebanon, we packed up after getting our nose bloodied and left both places in even worse condition than we found them. In Vietnam, we had some limited success at turning the tide against the insurgency but of course we lost the war and at a terrible cost. In Iraq, we had some limited success, although it's still an open question as to whether we are actually fighting a counter-insurgent campaign or a pacification campaign. But that hardly matters; I can't imagine David or anyone else would argue it was a good idea for us to get involved in a guerrilla fighting campaign in Iraq. It was a point brought home to me last night when I saw the excellent and harrowing "The Hurt Locker."

Ironically, I would make the argument that the only successful counter-insurgency the United States ever fought or at least the one that brought the most obvious strategic victory was the Civil War - and we weren't exactly using modern COIN tactics then.

David argues, "[T]he political will to see such conflicts to the end was in short supply on the U.S. side -- and in great supply among its enemies . . . except when it isn't."  And David is right that factors vary from one situation to the next in general, but not really when the US intervenes in counter-insurgency conflicts. They almost always end badly or they force the US to pay far too great a price that is not commensurate with our national interests.

Now maybe our experience in Iraq has taught us the lessons of how to fight counter-insurgencies effectively. Maybe FM 3-24 is the holy grail that will ensure we are more successful at COIN in the future.

Color me skeptical.

Dipping a Toe Into the COIN Debate
Posted by David Shorr

I have just read Michael Cohen's excellent World Politics Review piece on the Powell Doctrine versus counterinsurgency doctrine. Michael gives a very effective rundown of all the qualms that should be weighed when considering the aims (and advisability) of US intervention. That said, one of his key points is for me both important and at the same time the barrier that keeps me from joining the chorus of the COIN-skeptical.

The issue is the disparity between the relatively low stakes for the outside intervener and the steely determination of its local adversaries, and the relevant passage is the following:

Rarely considered in all these conflicts, was the political will, devotion and even fanaticism of potential rivals, as well as their patience for armed conflict... [T]he political will to see such conflicts to the end was in short supply on the U.S. side -- and in great supply among its enemies.

To which I would merely add "...except when it isn't." I'm sure Michael recognizes that these factors will vary from one situation to the next, and for my part, I agree that this balance of stakes and determination should always be weighed. But interveners aren't the only ones who overplay their hand. Insurgencies can be brittle too -- operating as criminal gangs rather than genuine political movements or sowing the seeds of their own destruction with brutality against the local population. I don't think we can deny COIN's insight into these dynamics, nor what US power might have to offer. 

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