For the past five years, the fight in Afghanistan has been hobbled by strategic drift, conflicting tactics, and too few troops. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, got it right when he bluntly told the U.S. Congress in 2007, "In Iraq, we do what we must." Of America's other war, he said, "In Afghanistan, we do what we can."
It is time this neglect is replaced with a more creative and aggressive strategy. U.S. Central Command, which oversees operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is now headed by Gen. David Petraeus, the architect of the U.S. military's counterinsurgency strategy widely credited with pulling Iraq from the abyss. Many believe that, under Petraeus's direction, Afghanistan can similarly pull back from the brink of failure.
Two years ago, General Petraeus oversaw the creation of a new counterinsurgency field manual for the U.S. military. Its release marked a definitive break with a losing strategy in Iraq and reflected a creeping realization in Washington: To avoid repeating the mistakes of the Vietnam War, the U.S. military would have to relearn and institutionalize that conflict's key lessons. At the time, the doctrine the manual laid out was enormously controversial, both inside and outside the Pentagon. It remains so today. Its key tenets are simple, but radical: Focus on protecting civilians over killing the enemy. Assume greater risk. Use minimum, not maximum force.
For a military built on avoiding casualties with quick, decisive victories, many believe such precepts veer far too close to nation-building and other political tasks soldiers are ill-equipped to handle. Still others attack the philosophy as cynically justifying the United States' continued presence in Iraq -- neocolonialism dressed up in PowerPoint. Either way, the manual's critics recognize a singular fact: The new counterinsurgency doctrine represents a near total rethinking of the way the United States should wage war.
But such a rethinking has never been more necessary. Technological advances and demographic shifts point to the possibility of an increasingly disorderly world -- what some military strategists are calling "an era of persistent irregular warfare." The United States' conventional military superiority has pushed its enemies inevitably toward insurgency to achieve their objectives. And in a multipolar world where small wars proliferate, there is reason to believe that this doctrine will shape not only the next phase of the fights in Afghanistan and Iraq, but the future of the U.S. military.
The surge in Iraq has been a primary consequence of the new counterinsurgency doctrine's influence, and it has clearly succeeded in improving security there. The conventional wisdom about what to do in Afghanistan is now coalescing around two courses of action that mirror steps taken during the past 18 months in Iraq: a similar surge of more troops and a willingness to negotiate with at least some of the groups that oppose the coalition's presence.
If it is true that a new plan is needed in Afghanistan, it is doubly true that Afghanistan is not Iraq. Conflating the two conflicts would be a dangerous oversimplification. The Iraq war has been mostly urban, largely sectarian, and contained within Iraq's borders. The Afghan war has been intrinsically rural, mostly confined to the Pashtun belt across the country's south and east, and inextricably linked to Pakistan. Because the natures of the conflicts are different, the strategies to fight them must be equally so. The very fact that Pakistan serves as a sanctuary for the Taliban and al Qaeda makes regional diplomacy far more necessary than it was in Iraq. Additional troops are certainly needed in Afghanistan, but a surge itself will not equal success.
Two myths persistently hamper U.S. policy in Afghanistan. First is the notion that the notorious border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan is ungovernable. The area, whose terrain resembles the front range of the U.S. Rocky Mountains along a border roughly the distance from Washington to Albuquerque, New Mexico, is home to the international headquarters of al Qaeda as well as much of the Taliban insurgency. However, the absence of a Western-style central government there should not be misconstrued as an absence of governance. The Pashtun tribes along the border have a long history of well-developed religious, social, and tribal structures, and they have developed their own governance and methods of resolving disputes. Today's instability is not the continuation of some ancient condition; it is the direct result of decades of intentional dismantling of those traditional structures, leaving extremist groups to fill the vacuum. Re-empowering local leaders can help return the border region to an acceptable level of stability.
Second, Afghans are not committed xenophobes, obsessed with driving out the coalition, as they did the British and the Soviets. Most Afghans are desperate to have the Taliban cleared from their villages, but they resent being exposed when forces are not left behind to hold what has been cleared. They also cannot understand why the coalition fails to provide the basic services they need. Afghans are not tired of the Western presence; they are frustrated with Western incompetence.
On a recent helicopter flight above the razor-sharp ridges of the Afghan southeast, a U.S. general noted to one of us that, just as the United States had failed to conduct counterinsurgency in Iraq effectively until 2007, it had similarly failed in Afghanistan by focusing too much on the enemy and not enough on providing security for the Afghan people.
It is almost too late. In the next phase of the Afghan war, the U.S. military must finally do what it has often failed to do in the past: follow some of the basic precepts of counterinsurgency, as detailed in the field manual, no matter how paradoxical they may appear.