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Yes We Can … Win in Afghanistan

Andrew Exum has posted a short reply to my critique of his hand-wringing article on Afghanistan. He begins on a nice note: “I respect the heck out of Max Boot and consider him among the smartest of the thinkers often lumped under the label ‘neoconservative’.” (I especially like the way he distances himself from the cliched neocon label.) He then goes on to concede, “Boot is right, to a degree, about political will.” (I had written that, although political will is now lacking in the United States, it could easily be manufactured, if only President Obama were to be slightly more resolute.) But Andrew writes:

I think Boot, like many other neoconservatives, overestimates the importance of U.S. actions and downplays the agency of others. So Afghanistan will definitely be a success if we will it? Sorry, but that’s not how third-party counterinsurgency campaigns work. The actions of others matter as much or more than our own.

For my part, I respect the heck out of Andrew Exum and believe his arguments are worthy of a more detailed examination.

Will Afghanistan definitely be a success if we will it? Nothing is definite, especially not in the confusing realm of warfare. But I think the odds are good — certainly better than 50% — that a reasonable commitment of time and resources can make Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy (which Andrew helped formulate) to succeed. Population-centric counterinsurgency has worked in countries as diverse as Iraq, Malaya, the Philippines, Northern Ireland, Oman, and Colombia. Historically speaking (and I say this based on research I’m currently doing for a book on the history of guerrilla warfare and terrorism), it is the most successful counterinsurgency strategy there is. Does that mean it will work in every instance? Of course not. But it works more often than not, and I have yet to see any evidence that Afghanistan is uniquely resistant to such an approach.

There are difficulties, to be sure, principally having to do with weak and corrupt government; but those problems were well known a year ago, when the McChrystal strategy was formulated with Andrew’s input and support. What has changed in the past year to make McChrystal’s approach invalid? Nothing that I can see.

Indeed, the biggest cause for optimism remains intact — namely the unpopularity of the Taliban. Public opinion polls show that only 6% of the Afghan people would like to see them return to power. The percentage is slightly higher in the South but still well short of a majority. The Taliban suffer from a major disadvantage that did not afflict successful insurgencies in countries such as China, Vietnam, and Cuba: they have actually been in power before and people remember how awful they were. Some 90% of Afghans favor the current government for all of its myriad imperfections.

The Taliban are able to make gains only because of the security and governance vacuum that has existed in much of the countryside. Filling that vacuum is certainly difficult and will take a long time. But is it impossible? I think not, because our objectives are fundamentally in alignment with the views of most Afghans. The key, as I stress once again, is whether the U.S. will have the patience and the will to see this war through to an acceptable conclusion — something that Andrew concedes is “probably” a vital interest of ours.

I don’t mean to suggest that the U.S. is capable of doing anything; I don’t think we could transform the moon into Swiss cheese simply by willing it. Can we, working in cooperation with international and local partners, defeat a ragtag guerrilla army of perhaps 20,000 to 30,000 fighters who are widely despised by the population they seek to rule? Yes, we can.



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