Ollivant calls this “a realist version of COIN”: Practice counterinsurgency in places where it might work and leave the other places (for example, the unruly Pech Valley, from which Campbell simply withdrew) alone. If these regions become nests for Taliban, “then you do the Biden plan there” and launch missions, he says. “What Campbell tried to focus on was a more limited approach that tries to get the low-hanging fruit,” Ollivant says. “It connects the cities that want to be part of the solution.” COIN-istas like to compare their approach to the spread of ink spots on a paper towel; the secured (ink-spotted) area bleeds out to connect with other ink spots until important corridors of stability appear throughout the country. But the new skeptics, such as Ollivant, say that so many areas are irremediable that a few stray ink spots may never spread far enough—which is partly why a similar strategy failed in Vietnam.
Can such a partial solution, amounting to a kind of land-based island-hopping, ever work? Retired Marine Col. Thomas X. Hammes says it can’t, and he is in a position to know. Hammes, now a fellow at the National Defense University’s Center for Strategic Research, is a onetime COIN supporter who helped devise the current strategy. Outside pockets of success like Helmand province, “what Petraeus is doing is killing Taliban,” Hammes says, and that’s about it. Because of Karzai’s failures and Pakistan’s open door, a huge “strategic disconnect” exists between the COIN concept and the reality on the ground, he contends. “The counterinsurgency discussion led by John Nagl and his team” doesn’t acknowledge that.
Afghanistan is far more primitive than Iraq, where most of the COIN proponents cut their teeth. “Social and economic conditions are not the same as in Iraq, or Malaya in 1950,” Hammes says. Counterinsurgency requires at least “an 18th-century concept of representative government and a 19th-century concept of government providing services.” In Afghanistan, he says, “we think we’re going to leap from somewhere in the 7th-to-14th century into the 19th century—and do it in four years.” And although insurgents crossed from Syria and Saudi Arabia into Iraq, there was nothing like Afghanistan’s porous border and the sanctuary next door. Afghanistan “is a helluva lot larger,” Hammes says. “Pakistan can’t control the border as Syria or Saudi [Arabia] could.” And it doesn’t even want to. Campbell uses the word “biblical” to describe Afghanistan: “Iraq had water, infrastructure, oil, educated people. Afghanistan has none of that.” Beyond that, Campbell says, there is almost no one who can replace Karzai, meaning there may be no credible government to hand things off to. “The bench is not deep at all,” he says. “This is where it’s completely different from Iraq.”
All of these doubts about COIN add up to what retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert Scales calls “the slow gravitation of Afghanistan from a counterinsurgency-centered strategy to one tied more to direct action”—killing enough Taliban quickly enough to drive the leaders to the peace table, then getting out just as quickly. Ollivant, for one, says that because Allen will lose most of the 30,000 surge troops by 2012, “he needs a new strategy.” A White House spokesman, Tommy Vietor, told National Journal that none is planned. “We are not fundamentally re-litigating where we ended up,” he said. Nonetheless, administration officials increasingly talk of COIN as a one-off success in Iraq, and they emphasize that Obama always intended it for only parts of Afghanistan.
COIN strategy is complex and ambitious. On paper, it is impressive. It calls for a kind of nation-building: fostering reconstruction and economic progress; building up local governance, police, and security—all in an effort to engender popular faith in the government and to “reintegrate” former insurgents and their supporters into society.
But more and more, former counterinsurgency stars are realizing that their moment of favor may be brief—perhaps almost as brief as the flash of self-celebration that the neocons enjoyed nearly a decade ago between the moment Baghdad fell and Iraq went sour. And the argument is bigger than Afghanistan. “It’s not so much a doctrinal debate as a struggle over the soul of the Army,” says retired Army Col. Peter Mansoor, Petraeus’s former executive officer in Iraq and a key member of his brain trust. “It’s about whether the Army is primarily a force that fights and wins conventional wars or whether counterinsurgency is part and parcel of what the Army has to do.… As we pull out of Afghanistan, there will be a shift back to training for conventional wars,” he says. “Counterinsurgency is going to slowly die out, just as it died out after Vietnam.”
Even if the war in Afghanistan ends more successfully than the Vietnam War did, Mansoor says, “there’s not going to be any stomach in the United States for this kind of thing going forward…. We’re going to shy away from regime change or these really large-scale counterinsurgency conflicts. That’s why you see, in Libya, the reluctance of the Obama administration to do more than what they’re doing.”