The heavy dependence on COIN as the cure to all of Afghanistan's ills has greatly contributed to the mishmash and fluidity of mission, strategy and the allocation of resources, but perhaps most importantly, the true understanding of the U.S. commitment to the ravaged country.
"As its name implies it is appropriate for countering an insurgency, but is inappropriate for countering global terrorism, fixing failed/fragile/failing states, or improving the underlying conditions that supposedly fuel violence and instability."
Since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan took center stage in American national security and foreign policy many years ago, counterinsurgency theory and practice have been ripped up and rewritten to reflect the modern challenges and nuances on today's asymmetric battlefields. According to the revised COIN manual published by the U.S. Army in December 2006, a counterinsurgency campaign expects soldiers and marines to be "nation builders as well as warriors." And while an article last week in the Washington Post argued that the terminology has shifted from "nation-building" to "stabilization and reconstruction," which includes initiatives to "improve governance and the economy as well as security and stability," what exactly does all of this mean in terms of the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan?
In December of 2009, the Obama Administration downplayed the July 2011 target to begin withdrawing U.S. troops describing the date as the beginning of a lengthy transition, rather than a "drop-dead deadline." Indeed, Defense Secretary Robert Gates stated that next summer's transition would take between two and four years. Towing a longer line, retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey concluded that the U.S. engagement in Afghanistan may require a commitment approaching 2020. On the other hand, just one week after President Obama outlined his strategy for Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai asserted that "Afghanistan is looking forward to taking over the responsibility in terms of paying for its forces and delivering to its forces out of its own resources, but that will not be for another 15 years." Is the concept of time and commitment in Afghanistan as elastic as it seems? It sure looks that way. General David Richards, now head of the British army, warned late last summer that "the UK will be committed to Afghanistan in some manner - development, governance, and security sector reform - for the next 30 to 40 years." If that's the predicted scenario for the United Kingdom, should we assume a similar fate for the United States and simply multiply the efforts 20-fold with regard to development, governance, and security sector reform?
The uncertainty and confusion stems from the diametrically opposed forces of an all-encompassing COIN doctrine and the nature of decision-making in U.S. politics. It is generally understood that President Obama was arm twisted into sending an additional 30,000 troops to the region following a needs-assessment by the newly appointed commander of Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal. Stamping the strategy with an Obama watermark to make it his own, while increasing the number of troops, the President issued a soon-after date of drawing down U.S. forces, in hopes of both defeating the Taliban and al Qaeda while responsibly disengaging from the region. These goals, however, are devoid from the understanding of COIN, which is only one of several tools available to U.S. military planners and policymakers. It is also the tool that requires several years to measure substantive and significant progress.
The required U.S. commitment to Afghanistan is one that the American public cannot stomach, particularly in the midst of an economic crisis and a massive healthcare overhaul around the corner. Therefore, following the next assessment of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, President Obama has two choices. First, he could articulate a long-term vision and commitment to the region in time, troops and treasure, and face an extremely tough re-election. Or second, he could significantly drawdown troops, lessen the reliance on counterinsurgency doctrine as a means to achieving progress, negotiate with the Taliban, and largely disengage from the fight--for terrorists and enemies of the United States stretch far beyond Afghanistan. The former risks re-election and mounts the ever-increasing national deficit but secures a stable future for the Afghan people. The latter would increase his chances of staying put in the Oval Office and allow him to strategically redirect resources to more important issues other than Afghanistan, but will ultimately leave ordinary Afghans behind.
How committed are we to the people of Afghanistan, and how much is President Obama willing to risk to fight for the future of the Afghan people?
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