David Fitzgerald, a specialist on American counter-insurgency campaigns past and present, writes his first article for EA:
Bob Woodward’s latest chronicle of the post-9/11 White House’s deliberations, Obama's Wars, has enriched our understanding of the present administration’s process of decision-making on Afghanistan. However, as much as the book reveals, in typical fashion, the inner workings of the national security bureaucracy, it also is just as significant in shedding light on the counterinsurgency community’s thoughts on the war in Afghanistan. The reactions of members of that community to Obama’s Wars says much about the contradictions and tensions inherent in counterinsurgency.
Inevitably, neoconservative counterinsurgency advocates (and close of General David Petraeus, the US commander in Afghanistan) such as and have fulminated against Obama’s "chaotic" decision-making process, and decried the President’s weakness and indecisiveness. Cohen "quotes" an imaginary Army Brigadier General to the effect that what the President needs to do is make more speeches on Afghanistan and give people some "fire in their bellies". So far, nothing new.
Far more interesting is the reaction of those on the more liberal end of the counterinsurgency spectrum. Commentators such as , , and all celebrate precisely the same process that the neocons criticise. To them, the administration’s loud discussion and long deliberations about escalation are signs of a healthy decision-making process, and a welcome change from the Bush administration’s almost debate-free drift to war with Iraq.
All agree that the military comes off poorly in the book, and they criticise the way in which the Pentagon attempted to box the President in by offering a severely limited set of options. And all (with the exception of Barno, who worries about the lack of a vision of the endgame) praise Obama for his insistence on an exit strategy.
Does this hint at a change of heart on the part of some in the counterinsurgency community?
To be sure, the likes of are still talking of the need to "stay the course", and is doing his level best to minimise talk of a drawdown beginning in July 2011, but Exum in particular has been more vocal lately about the limits of American power. Exum has always argued against assuming that there is any simple solution to America’s problem in Afghanistan, and he has described his role as “”. He has even argued, agreeing with none other than Andrew Bacevich, a fervent critic of the interventions, that the US should have “.” Recently Exum has become more and more about the prospects for any US-led effort to root out corruption, and acknowledged that the US has in Afghanistan.
Could it be that the difficulties which the NATO counterinsurgency campaign has encountered, in places such as Marjah in Helmand Province in early 2010, are leading to a re-evaluation of the utility of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan on the part of Exum and others?
In many ways, the answer will be not only about Afghanistan but about US power beyond that country. If the end-result of hand-wringing over limited American interests in Afghanistan and the difficulties in working with the Karzai regime in Kabul is a reluctant endorsement of the endless escalation of the war, then counterinsurgency --- as it is currently constructed --- is bankrupt as a concept. For counterinsurgency is supposed to prevent, not support, the continuous ratcheting-up of troop levels, costs, and deaths with no endpoint in sight.
Conversely, if this growing scepticism on the part of some theorists has any resonance in the headquarters of the US military and the International Security Assistance Force, then perhaps Petraeus will ultimately –-- and ironically, given his repeated victories over Obama in escalating the US intervention –-- end up pursuing a far less expansive strategy than the one described by Bob Woodward.
Petraeus is nothing if not an expert communicator. Perhaps his signal accomplishment in Iraq was to redefine success in such a way that simply lowering the level of violence and creating space for a US withdrawal was upheld as a "victory". So the escalating air strikes in Afghanistan and the increased tempo of Special Forces operations have to be put alongside the by-now ubiquitous recognition of the need for a negotiated settlement. Is this Petraeus' answer to all the theorists --- that, for all the discussion of US power --- a conclusive victory in Afghanistan is as unattainable as was in Iraq?