Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan

Dexter Filkins in the New York Times Book Review:

ScreenHunter_05 Feb. 27 13.50 The new religion, of course, is counterinsurgency, or in the military’s jargon, COIN. The doctrine of counterinsurgency upends the military’s most basic notion of itself, as a group of warriors whose main task is to destroy its enemies. Under COIN, victory will be achieved first and foremost by protecting the local population and thereby rendering the insurgents irrelevant. Killing is a secondary pursuit. The main business of American soldiers is now building economies and political systems. Kill if you must, but only if you must.

The showcase for COIN came in Iraq, where after years of trying to kill and capture their way to victory, the Americans finally turned the tide by befriending the locals and striking peace deals with a vast array of insurgents. In 2007 and 2008, violence dropped dramatically. The relative stability in Iraq has allowed Americans to come home. As a result, counterinsurgency has become the American military’s new creed, the antidote not just in Iraq but Afghanistan too. At the military’s urging, President Obama has become a convert, ordering thousands of extra young men and women to that country, in the hopes of saving an endeavor that was beginning to look doomed. No one in the Obama administration uses the phrase “nation-building,” but that is, of course, precisely what they are trying to do — or some lesser version of it. Protect the Afghan people, build schools and hold elections. And the insurgents will wither away.

So what’s wrong? Why hasn’t the new faith in Afghanistan delivered the success it promises? In his remarkable book, “The Wrong War,” Bing West goes a long way to answering that question. “The Wrong War” amounts to a crushing and seemingly irrefutable critique of the American plan in Afghanistan. It should be read by anyone who wants to understand why the war there is so hard.

More here.