Knitting together an Afghan strategy.

Military analysis.
June 20 2006 6:28 PM

Knitting Together an Afghan Strategy

NATO tests the "ink-spot theory."

This is Fred Kaplan's first report from Afghanistan. For the second part, click here.

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The Afghan operation marks the first time NATO has led a major expeditionary combat force outside Europe, which is why the mission is regarded as a threshold—a test of whether alliances in general have a role in these sorts of conflicts and of whether this alliance in particular has any role in the post-Cold War world.

Problems have surfaced already. Spokesmen boast that 27 NATO nations are taking part in the operation. But, besides the United States, only four—Canada, Britain, the Netherlands, and Romania—have agreed to let their troops be stationed in Afghanistan's southern provinces, where almost all the fighting with insurgents is happening.

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When NATO made plans to relieve the United States of command over all operations in Afghanistan (a gradual transfer scheduled to be completed this October), the assumption was that the military mission would shift from "counterterrorism" to "counterinsurgency"—from "going after bad guys for the sake of going after bad guys" (as one British officer snidely put it) to securing areas for the sake of promoting economic development.

Last week, Lt. Gen. David Richards, the NATO commander in Afghanistan, continued to speak of the "ink-spot theory" as the strategy's "central" concept. He was referring to a longstanding metaphor of counterinsurgency theorists. The commanders pick an area, send in troops to clear it of insurgents, and keep it secure—at which point government representatives and foreign aid workers come in and build roads, schools, whatever's needed or wanted. The example of this success spreads to other areas, where the sequence is duplicated, until gradually the country prospers, the insurgents lose favor with the population, and the central government—which has been taking credit for these successes—gains legitimacy.

U.S. and NATO commanders have sent throughout the country 21 Provincial Reconstruction Teams—joint civil-military projects—to do precisely this sort of work.

But then, starting a couple of months ago, the Taliban gummed up the works by going on the rampage after four years of relative calm. European politicians, who thought they'd voted to let their troops join NATO peacekeeping operations, suddenly found themselves in a shooting war. And the NATO commanders' subtle distinction between counterterrorism and counterinsurgency—with its implicit jab at the bomb-happy Americans vs. the civilized road-builders of the alliance—began to blur.

Only a handful of PRTs have managed significant progress, and even their beneficiaries fear reversals if the security forces leave too early. In the PRT at Qalat, a town just north of Kandahar, the two U.S. Army companies are about to be replaced by two Romanian companies. Over the course of a 10-minute talk, the governor of Qalat told a group of foreign visitors three times, "Please don't let the Americans leave."

Even the headiest multilateralists are beginning to wonder if the transfer of authority, from the United States to NATO, might be premature. So, a division of labor is materializing. When the transfer takes place this fall, about 7,000 Americans will join the roughly 11,000 troops now under NATO command. But another 13,000 Americans based here will remain under separate U.S. command.

In other words, troops under NATO command (including those 7,000 Americans) will follow NATO rules of engagement, which allow "pro-active self-defense," a deliberately ambiguous term that permits commanders on the ground to fire when fired upon—and, at their discretion, to go after insurgents if, say, they're spotted on the other side of a hill. But these rules explicitly do not permit the initiation of offensive operations. By contrast, the U.S. rules, now and in the future, will allow offensive operations anytime, anywhere, with a special eye cast toward bombing the Taliban as they cross or gather along the Pakistani border.

NATO officers don't like to spell out this distinction. They want to convey an impression of a coherent and unified command. To a remarkable degree, they're succeeding. It's striking to see German, Dutch, British, and, yes, American officers working in the same room as if they were equals. But on a fundamental level, the Americans are still leading the pack, doing things that European politicians cannot agree among themselves to do. Quietly, many NATO officers prefer it this way. And this may be the best approach from an American standpoint as well. Better this, in any case, than having to pick up the entire burden, in cost, lives, and ill-fated stabs at legitimacy.

Let's say that this mélange coalition has a chance, that the ink-spot theory of counterinsurgency has validity, especially when reinforced by the judicious splatterings of 500-pound bombs. Two big uncertainties remain: Will we have enough "ink"—i.e., will the United States and NATO devote enough troops, money, and, if necessary, blood to the task? The ink-spot theory implies spreading success. Troops can't simply move from one area to the next. They have to stay in one area, to keep it secure—at least to some degree—while more troops join the effort in the next area.