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 COIN requires building responsive governmental structures, promoting economic growth, and eliminating endemic corruption -- objectives that have almost never been successfully accomplished in the long, doleful history of international development.

President Barack Obama ultimately decided on escalation in Afghanistan but at the same time declared that within 18 months he would begin withdrawing troops. Proponents of population-centric COIN won half a loaf: they got their "surge" but not the time to make it work.

Given additional resources but a shortened time frame, General Stanley McChrystal seems to have adapted. Instead of focusing on providing security to the population in the hopes that a "civilian surge" might follow, he has decided to attack and destroy enemy strongholds. The recent offensive in Marja -- a relatively sparsely populated area with little economic potential -- was an unlikely target for a population-centric campaign. But given insurgent strength in the area, it made an ideal target for an enemy-centric approach. Likewise, the announced follow-up operation in the area of Kandahar -- another insurgent stronghold -- is also an enemy-centric program.

Although many COIN experts see enemy-centric campaigns as the second-best option, the truth is that such efforts are both more likely to succeed and to showcase the U.S. Army's strengths. Successful counterinsurgency campaigns are usually explicitly enemy-centric, focused on seeking out and destroying insurgent organizations. These campaigns can work in one of two ways. A counterinsurgent force can gradually steamroll an insurgency if it can also significantly restrict population movements. This is precisely how the Sri Lankan government recently wiped out the Tamil Tigers. These sorts of campaigns require a willingness to treat the population harshly, however. For both ethical and practical reasons, the United States is unwilling to pursue this course of action. Attempting to influence the decision-making calculus of insurgent leaders is more promising. By systematically attacking insurgents' strongholds, an army can erode insurgent combat power, overturn the narrative that the insurgency is winning, and ultimately compel the insurgents to compromise. Military force in this case becomes instrumental.

This approach is appropriate for Afghanistan because the conflict there is much messier than a typical two-sided battle. The Afghan government itself is loosely cobbled together, and the insurgency is composed of three major groups and perhaps a dozen minor factions. But even more fundamentally, the insurgent-counterinsurgent divide is itself mapped onto hundreds of purely local and historical conflicts among villages, local elites, families, and tribes. In the final analysis, regardless of who "wins," the resulting government will be composed of individuals and groups from both sides of the current divide. This is truly an Afghan civil war, and the goal of the United States should be to encourage reconciliation among Afghans while excluding foreigners, be they al Qaeda terrorists or government officials from India, Iran, Pakistan, or the United States.

The Obama-mandated timeline -- combined with the inherent difficulties of promoting economic development and good governance in one of the poorest and most war-torn countries on the planet -- makes a U.S. "victory" along the lines envisaged by population-centric COIN advocates essentially impossible. On the other hand, a robust enemy-centric COIN campaign to eliminate insurgent strongholds and reduce their combat power would make an insurgent victory unlikely. Once both the insurgents and NATO forces acknowledge this reality, they will be left to haggle over the details of what comes next. From the U.S. perspective, the requirements are minimal: a commitment to banishing al Qaeda from the country and a willingness to accept minimal Saudi Arabian-style human rights standards.

Using military force to encourage a negotiated solution is consistent with the vast majority of conflicts in history. The reality is that a substitute for victory exists. Indeed, in most wars, the outcome resides in the zone between outright victory and defeat. Such talk-and-fight conflicts can be frustrating. But when victory for either side is impossible -- or simply too costly to achieve -- the key impediment to peace is precisely the refusal of either or both sides to accept that the only possible peace is a compromised one.

Fortunately, the United States holds the high cards in Afghanistan. To convince senior insurgent leaders to compromise, Washington will have to keep consistent pressure on insurgent strongholds. This may seem reminiscent of the search-and-destroy missions of the Vietnam era, but there is a fundamental difference: In search-and-destroy missions a counterinsurgent force hoping to hold territory deliberately tries to tempt the insurgents to attack. (It is akin to using a decoy in a high-crime area to draw out muggers.) The logic of an enemy-centric COIN campaign is not to hold territory but to demonstrate that the insurgents cannot hold territory either.

There is now a clear path to ending the war in Afghanistan; the question is whether political leaders can take advantage of McChrystal's battlefield success. If Washington can turn the changing balance of power on the battlefield into a negotiating strategy that acknowledges the need to offer insurgent leaders more than just the opportunity to lay down their arms, the United States could succeed in Afghanistan in a way that neither proponents nor opponents of the Afghan surge imagined last fall. For the first time since the United States intervened in Afghanistan in 2001, it is possible to outline a coherent political-military plan that would yield, if not a clear-cut victory, at least an outcome that enhances U.S. security.

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  • BERNARD FINEL is a Senior Fellow and Director of Research at the American Security Project.
  • More By Bernard Finel