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Revisiting the Clauswitzian disconnect in Afghanistan
Posted by on December 17th, 2010

From our partners at

By Dave Anderson:

Counterinsurgency (COIN) is expensive, time consuming, and often practiced in areas of secondary or tertiary interests.  These attributes often lead to a Clauswitzian disconnect between real political constraints and the operational doctrine of COIN, as COIN demands much more than the political systemis willing to deliver while returning few real, tangible security or economic benefits.  COIN is often an impractical concept in any political system that has a public opinion feedback mechanism because it can not deliver sufficient gains for a reasonable cost. 

COIN today promises the same type of inputs — ten to twenty year wars, operational costs of one to two points of annual GDP at a time of structural deficits and domestic fiscal crisis — with the same type of outcomes — weak, client states in need of continual support in secondary or tertiary areas of interest.

And shockingly the public of democracies don't like COIN nor do they want to spend those resources for minimal real gains in security that operational and tactical successes may or may not generate. 

So if we assume that democracies are not likely to support doctrines, strategies and techniques  that produce long term ongoing costs with minimal prospects of producing desired long term political benefits, the problem in the Clauswitzian perspective is not the grand strategic level, but at the strategic and operational levels where the COIN doctrine is implemented in disregard to the grand strategic appreciation of forces and reality. 

Afghanistan has become a massive Clauswitizian disconnect as the United States committed its strategic reserve to a COIN fight and the cheerleaders for that surge have this to say about the temporary increase in forces:

in Afghanistan, the momentum achieved by the Taliban in recent years has been arrested in much of the country and reversed in some key areas, although these gains remain fragile and reversible.

And that is the most favorable intrepretation of the past year — stalemate with some local progress being made that will rely on a corrupt and ineffective Afghan political-security system to sustain.  Other government analysts and analytical products cast a very different light on Afghanistan:

Two new assessments by the U.S. intelligence community present a gloomy picture of the Afghanistan war, contradicting a more upbeat view expressed by military officials as the White House prepares to release a progress report on the 9-year-old conflict.

The classified intelligence reports contend that large swaths of Afghanistan are still at risk of falling to the Taliban, according to officials who were briefed on the National Intelligence Estimates on Afghanistan and Pakistan..

The reports… also say Pakistan's government remains unwilling to stop its covert support for members of the Afghan Taliban who mount attacks against U.S. troops from the tribal areas of the neighboring nation…..

So at best, the United States is slowly suppressing conservative Pashtuns as well as ISI backed militants who currently have next to nothing to do with Al-Quaeda.  Indeed, President Obama's sunny side up argument concedes that AQ is in Pakistan and not in Afghanistan.  However, he wants to keep most of a US Corps and several ISAF divisions in Afghanistan through 2014 to prop up a weak and corrupt government that can never afford to sustain itself in its current configuration. 

The Americn public does not think this is a great policy:

A record 60 percent of Americans say the war in Afghanistan has not been worth fighting,

The only group that has majority support for the war in Afghanistan are Republicans.  And they will not provide votes or door-knockers for President Obama or any one else in his party in 2012. 

We have a war in a tertiary interest, as admitted by the war's advocates, that promises to kill several thousand more Westerners, untold thousands of Afghanis, cost another three to five hundre billion dollars by 2014 and provide minimal security gains. And the American public does not think that this makes a whole lot of sense given that we are being told it is time for some awesome austerity for everyone but the elites. 

Time to either get out completely, or recognize minimalist realities, and begin talks with a single red-line of no support for far-enemy terrorist groups.  Everything else is a local matter where the US should be willing to facilitate and provide verification but not actively care too much. 

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