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What is the strategy in Afghanistan anyway?

October 21, 2010

I’ve been sounding off for a little over two months now that Gen. Petraeus has been shifting focus in parts of Afghanistan from Counterinsurgency (COIN) to a more heavily Counter Terror (CT) strategy. Recently, the media has picked up on this.

These three pieces argue the increased reliance on air strikes and Special Operations Force (SOF) (hunt and kill squads) mean Petraeus has shifted strategic focus.

A New Plan for Afghanistan, by Fred Kaplan, Slate

Petraeus rewrites the playbook in Afghanistan, by David Ignatius, WaPo

Afghanistan: A New Balance, Joe Klein, Time Magazine

Most speculate the shift is intended to beat the Taliban into reconciliation talks. Indeed, talks are taking place, but skeptics are not silent. It seems, to me, the real reason is the failiure of COIN to produce results. To be sure, CT is a subset of COIN, but the heavier reliance on CT in an increasing number of places means CT maybe taking the strategic lead.

Conversely, Thomas Ricks (who we all surely remember for his book Fiasco) has written that COIN is still in full swing and CT strategy has only escalated as a subset thereof.

Ignatius, Kaplan, and Klein just don’t get it: Petraeus is changing the Afghan war’s intensity, not its overall strategy, by Thomas Ricks, FP Magazine.

He goes on to argue-somewhat cogently-that the intensity, operational tempo if you will, of the war has picked up within all COIN subsets, not just CT. I remain unconvinced, however, that Ricks is analysis means COIN isn’t being left behind—especially since the U.S. has dropped some 2,100 bombs and missiles on Afghanistan in the last four months. Moreover, CT is no more likely to deliver a peaceful Afghanistan than COIN has been over the last nine years–yes, nine long years.

CT is not only taking over the strategy in Afghanistan, it is also spreading to other places in the region. Note the increased cross boarder attacks into Norther Pakistan, a known Taliban and al Qaeda safe haven, as an acknowledgement that US engagement in Afghanistan is increasingly destabilizing Pakistan. The Pakistanis also seem to be an obstacle to reconciliation talks between the Karazi government and Tali`ban fighters who have sought refuge in Pakistan.

It seems to me that COIN is taking a backseat to CT in Pakistan as well. Therefore, we must ask, what exactly is the plan in Afghanistan; how is the US going to get out of this mess?


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