A few days ago on Twitter, Marc Lynch sarcastically noted that the Washington Post had managed to publish a strategic debate on Afghanistan in which all of the people participating basically agreed with each other.
What I found most interesting though, is that every one of them was focused on a different aspect of counterinsurgency strategy. Jane Harmon argued that the U.S. needed to "focus on better governance as the way to persuade Afghans to side with NATO forces against the Taliban." Kurt Volcker said that "the whole notion of "killing terrorists" without supporting a responsible society in their place is fallacy." Gilles Dorronsoro focused on the importance of institution building. John Nagl emphasized the importance of a shift in strategy that placed an emphasis on protecting the Afghan population rather than just killing the enemy. Carl Levin also focused on institution-building, particularly the Afghan army and police. You get the idea.
So everyone agreed COIN was the way to go, which isn't much of a "debate," but their emphasis on different aspects of COIN inadvertently shows how difficult it will be for this strategy to work. There are so many difficult objectives that need to be achieved, and the whole COIN strategy falls apart if the U.S. fails to achieve any one of them. With no legitimate government, there's nothing for COIN to strengthen. With no strong civil society, the Afghan government will collapse. If the U.S. can't persuade the Afghan population to see American soldiers as being on their side, there's no way for a U.S. backed government to gain the trust of the Afghan people. Without functioning police and army, there's no one for the U.S. to hand over the job of protecting the Afghans over to. And so on and so forth.
Rather than convincing people that COIN will work, this "debate" really just showed how small the bull's-eye actually is.
-- A. Serwer