At a summit in Lisbon last week, Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed an agreement with NATO and UN officials that would see international forces begin to hand over responsibility for control of the country to Afghan authorities in 2014. While observers are already wondering whether that timeline is realistic, the real question is whether by 2014 there will anything left of Afghanistan worth handing over.
Since the middle of 2009, the coalition’s strategy in Afghanistan has been based on the counter-insurgency (COIN) doctrine that is credited with finally extricating the U.S. from Iraq. Unlike conventional warfare, where the goal is to defeat the army militarily, the idea behind COIN is that you protect the population, provide a bubble of stability and security in which governance and the rule of law can operate. This will win “hearts and minds” and prevent the insurgency from getting any sympathetic traction amongst the people.
When Barack Obama approved the surge of 30,000 additional troops in the country last December, the ambition was to get enough troops walking around in the villages protecting the population while quickly training the Afghan security forces. Obama extracted a promise from Gen. David Petraeus that the strategy would show clear progress within a year, so that they could begin bringing American soldiers home by the middle of 2011.
In recent weeks, we finally have a sense of what constitutes progress. At the end of October, one of Petraeus’s aides gave a briefing where he boasted of the very high tempo of operations in Afghanistan, and proceeded to enumerate just how much action was going on. In one 90-day period, he noted, there had been 1,543 “kinetic” operations (that’s military lingo for fighting), with 1,322 insurgents killed and another 2,461 captured.
Last week, the Pentagon announced that it would be sending a company of M1 Abrams tanks to the south of Afghanistan, bringing what one officer described as “awe, shock and firepower” into the fight. This echoes the way Canadian military officers talk about their own Leopard tanks, which they have had in Kandahar since 2006. Ask anyone over there what the use of tanks against insurgents carrying ancient rifles is, and you get a sly grin followed by gruff talk about the “intimidation factor.”
Finally, down in Kandahar, NATO forces have been busy destroying hundreds, even thousands of homes and farm buildings that have been booby-trapped with mines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). One district governor actually told the New York Times, “We had to destroy them to make them safe,” while a senior American officer told the Washington Post (presumably with a straight face) that by making villagers travel to the local governor’s office to file a claim for damaged property, “in effect, you’re connecting the government to the people.”
Whatever this is, it isn’t counter-insurgency. When you put it all together—the escalation of firepower, the fetish for combat missions and body counts, the cross-border air raids into Pakistan, and the insane talk of destroying a village in order to save it—it sounds like the Vietnam-ification of a war that military officials have spent the past four years swearing is nothing like Vietnam. But perhaps the better analogy is more disturbing: the current American plan looks like a doubling down on the final Soviet strategy of simply pummelling the country into submission.
It isn’t clear whether the American commanders ever took counter-insurgency in Afghanistan seriously. It was certainly never going to work in the shortened time frame they were given, and even if it could, the Karzai government has none of the credibility the plan requires. And perhaps U.S. decision-makers were struck by a recent survey showing that 92 per cent of young men in Helmand and Kandahar had never heard of 9/11, and had no idea why Western soldiers were barging around their backyards. Regardless, it increasingly seems that all of the COIN language that was inserted into every document, briefing note and PowerPoint presentation last year, with its groovy, kumbaya talk of protecting civilians and winning hearts and minds, was merely designed to provide political cover while the military tried to figure out what to do.
What they seem to have settled on is the ancient strategy of killing as many enemies as possible until their leadership cries uncle and sues for peace. Is it working? Well, the coalition certainly is killing a lot of people. By one estimate, the average age of Taliban field commanders has dropped this year from 36 to 25; if they can keep this up, by 2014 NATO might find itself in the awkward position of negotiating a peace agreement with child soldiers.
The central thesis of the 2004 film Team America is that the United States is the well-meaning bull in the global china shop. As self-appointed global cop, America goes around inserting itself into the world’s trouble zones and hot spots. When things go awry—as they always do—it is not out of malicious intent but incompetence, and when U.S. forces eventually depart, they leave behind nothing more than destroyed homes, shattered lives and broken promises.
When it comes to Afghanistan, that film is looking less like a satire than a prophecy.