The rhetoric of counterinsurgency (COIN) has grown increasingly tired of late, and within the circle of military intellectuals more and more people are lending credence to the COIN skepticism articulated by experts like Col. Gian Gentile, Ph.D., of West Point. Now is the right time to consider more radical points of view — including the most radical I know, that we ought to withdraw from Afghanistan precisely in order to enable the Afghans to defeat the Taliban.
This position used to be a fringe belief. It runs directly counter to the dogma of COIN that the more troops you put among the people, the more secure the people feel, and the more they will reject the insurgents. But it answers a doubt that has grown in my mind over the course of six embeds with American troops. I’ve observed that the more activity we undertake, the more SIGACTS (violent incidents) occur in a province or district. This in turn makes the locals doubtful about the benefits of an American presence.
Commanders tell me, “We’re taking the fight to the enemy” or “We have a presence in areas that never had any government at all.” I get it. Ungoverned spaces do attract terrorists and drug gangs. But the logical extension of this argument is that we could bring a coalition soldier for each Afghan and violence would continue to increase.
I have the feeling that more and more officers in our military are coming to the same conclusion. The other day, a retired American officer repeated to me a conversation he had with an officer currently commanding in one of the rougher areas of Afghanistan: “I asked the commander when his men were getting hit by the enemy and he said, ‘When we go out on a patrol.’ And I said, ‘Well, if you stop patrolling, you won’t get hit.’ And he said, ‘But my job is to patrol, to show American presence, to find the bad guys, to interact with the locals.’ And I said, ‘No, that’s not your job. Your job is to increase security in Afghanistan. If your sending your men on patrol increases violence, you’re not doing your job.’”
This was a surprising story coming from an American officer, even a retired one. And he wasn’t willing to take it to the next logical step, that we ought to leave an area if patrolling increases insecurity. But it jibed perfectly with what a French retired officer friend of mine has been saying for a long time: the way to defeat the Taliban and bring peace to Afghanistan is in fact for foreign troops to leave. Now.
My French friend says that foreign troops are the irritant that is causing violence (and since those who inflict this violence are indiscriminate, much of what is meant for us falls on Afghan civilians, further inflaming the situation); that the Afghans can and will defeat the Taliban once their primary rallying point, the presence of foreign troops, disappears.
“NATO troops,” he says, “are not ambushed because of what they do, but because of what they are.” Neither former officer, obviously, believes in the best-practice counterinsurgency theory that has gained ascendancy in the Afghan war. Dispersing your men in small outposts and increasing their op-tempo so that they are doing a couple of patrols a day may be just the wrong thing to do. It’s precisely the “presence patrols” that are the problem. Even increasing the op-tempo of the Afghan National Police may be a poor idea — as my French friend argues, there shouldn’t be any police in homogenous tribal areas. These areas administered their own justice for centuries and do a better job at it than the central government or the Taliban shadow courts.
Of course, this argument has to address a few inconvenient facts. One, the ungoverned spaces issue. Two, Pakistan. With a country six times its population bent on destabilizing it, can Afghanistan survive? (My French friend thinks that if Afghanistan were really and truly neutral — which does not mean pro-American — then Pakistan would no longer be threatened and no longer support the insurgency.) And finally, there’s the political maturity of the Afghans. Can they set their own house in order? Few people in Mazar-i-Sharif, the thriving Tajik-Uzbek city that is the de facto capital of the north, actually fought the Taliban when they took the city in 1997. How many would fight now?
The view that we should leave is COIN heresy. But confronting a little heresy may be just what we need to sharpen our thinking.