The central theme of Obama's Wars, Bob Woodward's account of the Obama administration's Afghan policy debates, is the ongoing battle between Obama's military and civilian advisers. The military advisers -- Generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, along with Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs -- believe that a counterinsurgency strategy, which helped reverse the deteriorating military situation in Iraq in 2007, could do the same in Afghanistan. The civilian advisers -- Vice President Joe Biden and other White House officials -- suggest that Vietnam is a more apt analogy for Afghanistan and a quagmire a likelier outcome if counterinsurgency strategy is applied there.

By definition, any military activity that seeks to counter an insurgency is counterinsurgency, or COIN as it is often labeled for short. All of Obama's advisers agree that the Taliban is an insurgency and that the United States has a real interest in stopping its return to power. Why, then, would Obama's civilian advisers argue against organized military activity designed to counter a Taliban takeover?

This is not a new argument. For more than a century, the U.S. military has been organized, trained, and equipped for conventional combat against similarly organized foes. The United States has gotten so good at this kind of warfare that in recent decades no conventional conflict has lasted more than a few weeks, and all have ended in overwhelming American victory. By contrast, over this same period, the U.S. military has had repeated difficulty securing its conquests, stabilizing societies emerging from conflict, and helping to defend allies from internal threats.

The skills needed to master these types of unconventional challenges were slowly honed during the United States' decade-long involvement in Vietnam. Two years after the last American troops withdrew, South Vietnam fell victim not to renewed insurgency but to a conventional invasion mounted by the North Vietnamese Army. The dominant lesson drawn from this costly and ultimately futile war was to avoid similar missions in the future. As a result, counterinsurgency was eliminated from the curriculum of American staff and war colleges. When faced with a violent insurgency in Iraq three decades later, U.S. soldiers had to reacquire the basic skills to fight it. During the several years it took them to do so, the country descended into ever deeper civil war.

As American commanders relearned in Iraq, counterinsurgency demands a more discreet and controlled application of force, a more politically directed strategy, greater knowledge of the society one is operating in, and more interaction with the local civilian population than conventional combat. Perhaps the most essential distinction between the two forms of warfare is that successful counterinsurgency focuses less on killing the insurgents and more on protecting the population from insurgent violence and intimidation.

There is a legitimate debate over how deeply the U.S. military should invest in counterinsurgency capability at the expense of conventional capacity. But no one seriously argues that counterinsurgency tactics are not necessary to resist insurgencies. In Victory Has a Thousand Fathers, a study of the 30 most recently concluded civil wars, the RAND analyst Christopher Paul found a perfect correlation between good counterinsurgency practices and government victory. He found an equally perfect correlation between bad COIN practices and success for the insurgents. The good practices highlighted are generally those laid out in the U.S. military's Counterinsurgency Field Manual. The bad practices include an excessive reliance on search-and-destroy missions, the employment of punitive and repressive measures, and an insensitivity to civilian casualties.

This correlation does not mean that even the best U.S. counterinsurgency strategy will necessarily prevail in Afghanistan. Success there also requires the Afghan government to take counterinsurgency seriously and the Pakistani government to stop affording Afghan insurgents sanctuary within its territory. Neither does the study suggest that the United States should continue to do the lion's share of the fighting in Afghanistan. Indeed, one component of good counterinsurgency practice is progressively shifting the burden of combat to indigenous forces, which are better able to deal with conflicts in their own society.

What this and similar studies do suggest is that even though one can legitimately argue for reducing the United States' commitment to the Afghan war and for shifting more of the burden onto local forces, it makes no sense to denigrate the tactics and techniques best designed to counter an insurgency. 

Rather inconsistently, even as detractors of counterinsurgency have insisted that there are no terrorists of concern left in Afghanistan, they have also argued that the United States should shift from counterinsurgency to counterterrorism. This argument glosses over a recognition of the likelihood that such a decrease in U.S. military effort would probably lead to an increase in the number of terrorists operating out of Afghanistan. As the anti-counterinsurgency faction admits, present U.S. efforts have reduced the risk of an attack on the United States originating from Afghanistan to near-zero. It is reasonable to argue that the cost of sustaining these efforts at current levels is too great to bear indefinitely and to urge instead the acceptance of higher risk. This trade-off between cost and risk is ultimately what the debate between the president's civilian and military advisers has been about.

Even if Obama ultimately chooses to switch to the riskier but less costly approach labeled "counterterrorism," the sustainability of this effort would depend on someone else countering the Taliban insurgency. A complete Taliban takeover would leave the United States bereft of the bases and intelligence it would need to target terrorist leaders and facilities effectively. Those advocating a shift to counterterrorism, therefore, are gambling that Afghan President Hamid Karzai or a friendly successor can hold on to power in Kabul and much, if not all, of the country despite a sharp reduction in American support.

As Woodward's account makes clear, "counterinsurgency," much like the term "nation building," is rapidly becoming a term of opprobrium in public debate. Obama insists that the United States is doing neither in Afghanistan, despite all evidence to the contrary. His military and civilian advisers agree that the United States should continue to strengthen the government in Kabul and prevent a Taliban takeover. What, then, is the point of denigrating the very terms and techniques that are needed to succeed in these endeavors?

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  • JAMES DOBBINS is Director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation and the author of After the Taliban: Nation Building in Afghanistan. He was U.S. Special Envoy to Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002.
  • More By James Dobbins