A FRONTLINE investigative report set to air on PBS, October 13, gives a rough sketch of the Pentagon’s new thinking on counterinsurgency. In so doing, it manages to dramatize a window’s view of how this approach is being enforced in Afghanistan.
While U.S. strategy has been marketed as people-centric, it appears in practice to be somewhat different. What the report reveals is an abstract, top-down, military-centric approach aimed at controlling the behavior of a population. The tactics that are used fail to flow naturally out of the day-to-day decisions made by a community of indigenous people. They are imposed. Thus they are guaranteed to lack legitimacy.
If this report is true, America’s new approach to counterinsurgency is thoroughly wrong-headed. It makes success contingent upon the ability of the the U.S. military to implement a policy of control over the behavior of the Afghan people. It transforms U.S. counterinsurgency operations into a contest of wills with the very people we are trying to help.
Yet tactical control over the Afghan people and their tribal traditions cannot be realistically anticipated. It is an impossible task. It places far too much reliance on the practical ability of the American military to exercise control over the hearts and minds of a population. It gives only faint recognition to the imperatives of Afghan history and traditions. The lynchpin of success rests too heavily on an ability to control the people’s behavior. Such hubris is almost certain to be the Achille’s Heel of the new American strategy.
It is imperative that American tactics be freed from efforts to exercise control over the Afghan people. Otherwise, the struggle in Afghanistan will degenerate into Obama’s War. Should that happen, the U.S. will be caught amidst a myriad of opposing forces, unable to extricate itself. As in Iraq, Gulliver will have been made impotent relative to the task at hand.
The Afghans are a frustrated people. It is as though they have become little more than grist for the ideological mill. They are unsure how to satisfy the Americans. They feel compelled to placate the Taliban. No matter how they turn, their future is contingent on changing circumstances, contradictory intentions, and the unknown fortunes of war. Eventually, they will have to fend for themselves.
The Americans will be in Afghanistan for a period. But they will be gone before long. The Afghans know this to be true. They also know the Taliban will remain in the area indefinitely. The question is this: Can U.S. military forces guard against the eventuality of a growing Taliban presence? Is it reasonable to expect they can? Or is there need for a new strategic arrangement?