Since the publication of my last article for THE HOYA, (“Long-Term Forecast for Afghanistan Looks Grim,” Oct. 26, 2010, www.thehoya.com), I’ve been asked several times how the United States could win in Afghanistan, if in fact the current situation on the ground is so grim. I’ve been told that it’s wrong to say that I don’t believe the war, in its current form, is winnable. I’ve even been called anti-American.
This is all a gross inaccuracy. I simply believe that to “win” in Afghanistan means to build a state where none exists, among a broadly diverse ethnic population that, throughout history, has stopped fighting one another only long enough to repel foreign invaders. This is not a ripe climate for fighting a counterinsurgency campaign, but that does not mean it can’t be done. It just means it must be done properly.
A well-run counterinsurgency campaign is defined by paradoxical rules, according to the counterinsurgency component of the U.S. Army Field Manuals, More force, for example, is generally less effective. Tactical success can be irrelevant in the long term; tactics that work today might not work tomorrow. Unfortunately, the war in Afghanistan is proving itself an ever more difficult environment in which to apply them.
Counterinsurgency operations are, more than any other form of combat, highly political. Killing insurgents, as the Army’s field manual denotes, will not win a counterinsurgency. In fact, it’s more likely that killing one insurgent will only drive more civilians to the insurgent cause. To succeed, the counterinsurgent forces must establish a legitimate government that proves to be a better alternative than fighting alongside the enemy.
Winning the “hearts and minds” of the indigenous population in Afghanistan should not have been as difficult as it has been. Quite frankly, a government does not need to provide much to the Afghan people to improve their quality of life. Basic infrastructure, primary education and minimal economic assistance should be all that is required for a government to prove its legitimacy to the local population. Unfortunately, the Afghan government has for years violated many of the commonly accepted prerequisites for legitimacy; Karzai’s administration has not been effective, trustworthy or cooperative. Instead the man that the White House installed in Kabul has proven himself incompetent and unstable. The Americans bet the farm on Karzai, and unfortunately they are losing the game fast.
An insurgency campaign – with the intent to overthrow an established government – will eventually succeed if the government it is fighting is forced out of power, whether by its own merits or simply because the government is too weak to continue the fight. Even though the Taliban are gaining ground in Afghanistan, their gains are not so great that a strong Afghan government with American support could not turn the tide.
The United States is still the greatest military power in the world. But the Karzai government is divided and not even recognized in some parts of the country. The political front of the war in Afghanistan is broken. Americans and their allies aren’t losing the war because of bullets. They’re losing because strategists have failed to see that we need a new focus for our attack. This is not a counterterrorist campaign, as it was originally meant to be. It has become a counterinsurgency and, despite the fact that we acknowledge this shift, we are not willing to change our tactics to prove it.
Afghanistan is not unwinnable. Winning simply requires a more extensive commitment than Washington is willing to extend. Domestic political concerns are impeding the effort, leaving the prospects for a well-fought war in Afghanistan at a distant second place. The withdrawal date proposed by the Obama administration is arbitrary on the ground, but it is key in the United States. President Obama’s prime concern is withdrawing troops by the end of his first term, so that he can claim some form of success in Afghanistan. This will not be a success as any third party might describe it. It will instead be a victory for the insurgents, who have proven once again that only a dedicated power can win a counterinsurgency campaign.
The United States is no longer dedicated to the war in Afghanistan. Domestic support is flagging, and, slowly but surely, the Taliban are winning. It’s time to cut to the chase and withdraw, not for the sake of the Afghan people, because they’re sure to be losers in this conflict either way, but for the sake of American troops and their families. I stated earlier that the war could be won if it were fought properly. It isn’t being fought properly, and it’s time that Washington realizes this.
Andrew Mullikin is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service. He can be reached at mullikinthehoya.com. Behind the Wire appears every other Tuesday.