A Substitute for Victory

Adopting a New Counterinsurgency Strategy in Afghanistan

Courtesy Reuters

This past summer, as the Obama administration considered escalating the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, proponents of a surge argued that more troops were required to defeat the insurgency and prevent the Taliban's return to power. They justified their position by arguing that more troops -- and more time -- were necessary to implement the tenets of "population-centric counterinsurgency."

This form of counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine is a novel concept born out of a peculiar interpretation of the U.S. experience in Iraq and grounded in nearly forgotten 50-year-old theories. Population-centric COIN holds that insurgencies are generally a secondary concern and that the key challenge in countries such as Afghanistan is establishing state legitimacy by providing concrete goods and services. In other words, effective governments may be able to outcompete insurgents in providing benefits to win over the loyalty of the population. But competent governance is often lacking -- in part because of gaps in security -- which causes a crisis of legitimacy that spawns insurgent challenges. Following this logic, the challenge of COIN is to create sufficient security conditions in which a responsive government can thrive. Population-centric COIN, in short, uses military force to foster the conditions for long-term economic development and good government. According to many prominent proponents of the Afghan surge  including John Nagl of the Center for a New American Security and Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution this approach represented the best opportunity to "fix" Afghanistan once and for all.

Critics of this approach cite three flaws. First, blaming bad governance for Afghanistan's problems, they say, ignores the importance of other factors driving the insurgency, including ethnic antagonisms, ideological disputes, and old-fashioned power struggles. Second, a theory of conflict focused almost exclusively on underlying factors, such as a lack of government goods and services, rather than enemy action seems at odds with the history of warfare, which suggests that the real challenge comes from the actions and decisions of the adversary. Third, critics point out, population-centric

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