The Insurgent’s Playbook
The weekend killing of two U.S. officers in Afghanistan is classic insurgent strategy. Even worse, it’s working.
If the insurgents demonstrate that not even American officers are safe, not even in the most secure corridors of the Afghan interior ministry, it has three effects:
First, it reinforces the theme that the government and its protectors can’t protect the Afghan people. Second, it sows distrust between the government and its protectors at a time when trust is essential. Therefore, third, it severely weakens the government, either laying the groundwork for its toppling once NATO leaves or compelling NATO to stay longer (which isn’t necessarily bad for any of the players in the region—the war has brought all of them a lot of money).
Another bit of discouraging news, this in the Feb. 24 Washington Post: Ryan Crocker, U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, reported in a top-secret cable last month that the insurgents’ safe havens in northwestern Pakistan are still teeming with activity, especially by the Haqqani network. In other words, the CIA’s incessant, and often successful, drone strikes against insurgent leaders in those areas have had little strategic effect.
From the onset of Obama’s decision to send more troops to Afghanistan nearly three years ago, top U.S. military officers have noted that little progress can be made in the war if Pakistan’s sanctuaries weren’t cleared out. This caveat also came from a section in Galula’s book about the role of geography in working for or against an insurgency:
The length of the borders, particularly if the neighboring countries are sympathetic to the insurgents, as was the case in Greece, Indochina, and Algeria, favors the insurgent.
The Afghan-Pakistan border, it should be noted, is about 1,600 miles long.
Aggravating all of these developments, of course, are the riots protesting the destruction of Qurans by American personnel. No doubt this was an accident; the people involved probably had no idea what they were destroying. But it’s a legitimate question to ask how unaware people could have been involved in destroying things in the first place. All the books on counterinsurgency stress the importance of cultural awareness: To win over the people, soldiers and other personnel at all echelons need to know what the people value. One awful mistake can overwhelm 100 good deeds. Or, as Petraeus’ field manual put it, “Lose moral legitimacy, lose the war.”
That is another reason why these kinds of wars are so risky to enter, so hard to fight, and so awkward to exit. It’s also one reason why, in his recent strategic review of defense policy, Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta ordered that the Army shall no longer size or structure its forces for “large-scale, prolonged stability operations.” In other words, no more wars like this in the future. In the meantime, we’re stuck in this one, and, as usual, all the options look bad.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.