Obama's Afghan Gamble

If you’re looking for some context for the current shift in NATO’s thinking on Afghanistan, you can do a lot worse than to plow through the first 200 pages of Thomas Ricks’ new book, The Gamble.  It picks up where Fiasco left off, with the US staring defeat in the face in 2006. It is the story of how a small group of civilian academics and think-tank types (Eliott Cohen, Fred Kagan and a few others from the AEI) joined up with a retired general (Fred Keane) and his protege, David Petraeus, and effectively instigated an insurgency within the US military.

They key was the recognition that the fiasco at Haditha was not an aberration, but actually a logical consequence of America’s strategy of minimizing casualties, killing scumbags, and getting out as soon as possible. And so the American insurgents re-wrote the counter-insurgency manual for the military, got Petraeus installed as commander of the US forces in Iraq, and dragged the mission out of the quagmire.

I’m a complete amateur when it comes to this stuff, but three things struck me about the story (as Ricks tells it):

First, that when it comes to dealing with an insurgency, the population is the prize. The goal is not to kill the enemy but to turn it into — at worse — a political opposition. That means getting out into the population and making it clear that you aren’t going anywhere. It is amazing to realise that until Petraeus took over, the US troops were essentially “commuting to war” from their super FOBs. 

Second, that “democratization” is not only a distant goal, but as a near-term objective can be utterly counterproductive. As Ricks quotes one analyst: “Our current strategy is based on the delusion that we can have stable or modulated democratization. Few things are more destabilizing and prone to chaos than democratization. 

Third: It is hard to imagine a Canadian journalist writing a similar book about Canada’s strategy in the war. It is even harder to imagine members of a  Canadian think tank having a similar impact on the Canadian military in the middle of a war. And it is ludicrous to think that senior members of the Canadian military would be as open and on the record as the men and women Ricks has as sources. 

The Gamble is the most remarkable book I’ve read in ages.

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