The study by the commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, of the situation in that country is an admission of defeat. According to published reports today, the full report clearly indicates that the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan of separating the Taliban from the civilian population is failing. As a consequence, General McChrystal is reported to have recommended further increases in U.S. force levels (beyond the 21,000 already approved by President Obama) and for nearly doubling the size of the Afghan security forces.
The real problem is not with the troop levels in Afghanistan but with U.S. counterinsurgency theory. A strategy based on separating the population from the insurgents only works when there are obvious advantages or disadvantages to associating with one side or the other. In Iraq, large segments of the population, once hostile to the Coalition and the new Iraqi government, almost spontaneously changed sides in response to the excesses of both Al Qaeda and Shia extremists. This is not the situation in Afghanistan. Indeed, in many instances, however violent they may be, the Taliban seems to be preferable to the Afghan government in Kabul. This is particularly the case in southern Afghanistan where the Coalition is pursuing an extremely unpopular campaign against opium production that is the mainstay of the local economy without offering adequate alternatives.
The hole at the heart of U.S. counterinsurgency theory is that we can defeat the insurgents but we cannot create the minimally credible and responsive governments to which the civilian population desires to associate itself. Where basic governance does not exist, it is very difficult to create. It may be easier to defeat the insurgency militarily than to build a functioning, reasonable fair government in a place like Afghanistan. As Senator Russ Feingold, a Democrat recently observed in the Wall Street Journal, “Even if we invest billions more dollars annually for the next 10 years and sacrifice hundreds more American lives, we are unlikely to get a credible government, capable of governing all Afghan territory.”
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