Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan.

A NATO air strike in Afghanistan this morning killed at least 80 people, and demonstrates the pitfalls of the American strategy in that country. Theoretically, the U.S. is protecting civilians in an enlightened counterinsurgency campaign: As Spencer Ackerman writes in The Washington Independent, “At a Pentagon press conference, Defense Secretary Bob Gates said that he took ‘seriously’ the idea that the ‘behavior’ of U.S. troops in Afghanistan was to some degree more important than the simple size of the troop component.” Nevertheless, U.S. troops continue to kill large numbers of civilians, particularly through air strikes, and they are alienating people throughout the region and are also causing more people to take up arms and fight the U.S. troops.

Meanwhile, Americans back home are getting worried about the possibility of sending more troops to Afghanistan and wondering if it is possible to succeed in such an ambitious undertaking. Ann Scott Tyson writes in The Washington Post that General Stanley A. McChrystal will soon request “several thousand more U.S. troops and other resources needed to implement a full-fledged counterinsurgency strategy.” Critics of the U.S. military’s counterinsurgency doctrine have long wondered whether or not it is possible to carry out a “full-fledged” counterinsurgency in Afghanistan.

Partly, it depends upon how much "blood and treasure" you put into it, as Edward Luttwak of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told me a year ago while I was researching my November 2008 article, “The Cult of Counterinsurgency.” Luttwak, who is the author of Coup d'État: A Practical Handbook, told me back then that U.S. troops should pull out of Afghanistan. “What the fuck are we doing there?” he asked. “Much better to abandon it and do occasional punitive expeditions as opposed to counterinsurgency and its enormous costs. I've been to Afghanistan. Basically, you'd have to kill every single Afghan and take all the children and put them in boarding school, preferably in England.”

He believed that the U.S. doctrine of counterinsurgency was doomed, largely because nearly all counterinsurgency campaigns end in disaster, and, by the way, the Brits have an especially long history of it. Americans have gotten extraordinarily good at the rhetoric of a new-and-improved counterinsurgency, with its emphasis on protecting the population, but recent events in Afghanistan show that there is a different reality on the ground in that country.

--Tara McKelvey