Petraeus and the Death of Counter-Insurgency

Anecdotal evidence in recent weeks from Afghanistan suggests that the U.S. military has moved away from some of the central tenants of Counter-Insurgency (COIN)—protecting populations, winning the “hearts and minds”, and establishing governance.  First there was the sensational blog by Paula Broadwell from the Argandab Valley depicting the complete destruction of a small town—not exactly population protection, or winning the hearts and minds.

Next there was a disturbing BBC production entitled the “battle for bomb alley”, which depicted the clearing of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) from one of the most dangerous roads in Afghanistan.  In order to eliminate the threats of these bombs, the Marines were forced to destroy homes, buildings and even a mosque.  As the commander acknowledged, the troops are “trying to build a country up by destroying it.”  Last came Rolling Stone’s notorious Michael Hastings with a depiction of the new war strategy under Petraeus, which relies on arming criminal warlords and their militias—governance be damned:

“The problem is that the militia program undercuts what is supposed to be a central tenet of counterinsurgency — which, according to a memo issued by Petreaus in August, requires drawing the local population away from the enemy by providing them with “accountable governance.””

What’s going on here?  Either, Petreaus, who literally wrote the book on counter-insurgency, has forgotten the central tenents of his own strategy, or, more likely, military officials have concluded that the conditions in Afghanistan are not suited to the types of nation-building that COIN entails.  If the brass has essentially thrown in the towel on winning the hearts and minds, policy makers must answer some awkward questions.

Why are we fighting in Afghanistan?  Even if the U.S. were leaving behind a stable, functioning society, the Afghan War might not be worth it—the U.S. does not have vital strategic interests at stake.  If the U.S. is leaving behind nothing but rubble and an angry anti-U.S. population, the current strategy is worse than pointless, it’s harmful.

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