It's a bad moment for counterinsurgency strategy and its adherents. The surge that U.S. President Barack Obama ordered in Afghanistan appears to have sunk into a quagmire, one that critics of the policy foresaw at the time. Indeed, the polemic underneath Rolling Stone's profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal was that the "runaway general" had hornswoggled a gullible president into signing off on a hopeless mission. The author, freelance journalist Michael Hastings, described the adversary as "Afghan kids who pose no threat to the U.S. homeland" and compared the nation-building effort there to "trying to stop the drug war in Mexico by occupying Arkansas and building Baptist churches in Little Rock." Of course, if that's so, then McChrystal probably should have been court-martialed rather than forcibly retired.
After reading the article, I compiled a document I called "COIN toss," listing the arguments for and against continuing the counterinsurgency effort. As someone who holds out some faint hope for the administration's strategy, I was dismayed to see that while I came up with 10 reasons to abandon COIN (counterinsurgency), most based on observable failures of the strategy, I could think of only five reasons to keep it, most based on hope and scant signs of progress. The list of cons included: "Karzai is too corrupt," "Karzai doesn't believe in it," "the Taliban is too strong," "Afghans hate the American presence," and "American troops won't do it" (the one argument Hastings powerfully vindicated). The pros included "social and economic indicators are rising," "Afghans hate the Taliban," and "it's too early." I don't think we can call that a tie.
Still, at the bottom of each list I had written the great equalizer: On one side, "We can afford to lose," and on the other, "We can't afford to lose." If U.S. and NATO troops really are facing kids who can't see beyond their neighborhood, or even fundamentalists who will be satisfied by stripping away all vestiges of modernity from Afghanistan, then the war is simply unnecessary for Americans. Americans lived with Taliban control of Afghanistan in 1997, and ashamed though they might feel for having raised the hopes of the Afghan people only to abandon them, Americans would probably live with it again. Perhaps they would pay no graver cost in leaving Afghanistan than they did in pulling out of Vietnam in 1975.
But I doubt it. While communism was rapidly discrediting itself as a fighting faith in the 1970s, jihadism is a vibrant cause that would experience profound validation from a forced U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. As Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies recently wrote, the Afghan Taliban is "far better linked to Al Qa'ida and other international extremist groups" than it was only a few years ago; should they gain real power, "they are likely to become such a sanctuary and a symbol of victory that will empower similar extremists all over the world." This is not to say that a monolithic jihadism will spread outward from Afghanistan in a contemporary version of the domino theory, but rather that a Taliban victory there is likely to attract and inspire Islamist radicals everywhere.
That doesn't mean the United States "can't afford to lose," but rather that the costs of accepting failure could be very high. So it is imperative to ask whether the obstacles to success, however defined, can be overcome. Right now, as my note-to-self indicated, those obstacles seem overwhelming: Even those who argue for some version of "stay the course," like the New Yorker's George Packer, view the available alternatives as even worse than the apparently doomed counterinsurgency effort. It's rapidly becoming intellectually embarrassing to profess any faith in the effort at all.