A Case for Humility in Afghanistan?

Stephen Coll, president of the New America Foundation, has an article in Foreign Policy making the case for more humble objectives in Afghanistan. In the article he criticizes both the counter-insurgency strategy advocated by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U. S. forces in Afghanistan:

To succeed, counterinsurgency approaches require deep, supple, and adaptive understanding of local conditions. And yet, as General McChrystal pointed out in his assessment, since 2001, international forces operating in Afghanistan have “not sufficiently studied Afghanistan’s peoples, whose needs, identities and grievances vary from province to province and from valley to valley.” To succeed, the United States must “redouble efforts to understand the social and political dynamics of…all regions of the country and take action that meets the needs of the people, and insist that [Afghan government] officials do the same.”

and the counter-terrorism strategy advocated recently by Vice President Joe Biden:

There are narrower objections that should be registered about the “counterterrorism-only” or “counterterrorism-mainly” argument. It is probably impractical over a long period of time to wage an intelligence-derived counterterrorism campaign along the Pakistan-Afghan border if a cooperating Afghan government does not have access to the local population; if American forces are not present; and if the Pakistani state has no incentive to cooperate. This is exactly the narrative that unfolded during the 1990s and led to failure on Sept. 11 for the United States.

The article is chock-full of intriguing observations about the situation in Afghanistan and is well worth your attention. I certainly agree with him that we should focus our energies in Afghanistan on objectives we can actually accomplish and that further real American interests. In the light of this I wonder if the bar has not been set too low for Gen. McChrystal? I read Gen. McChrystal’s report as a recommendation for averting defeat. Are they the same as the requirements for achieving success? Or will that require significantly more resources? Gen. McChrystal does say that both more resources and a definite change in strategy are necessary for success:

Success is achievable, but it will not be attained simply by trying harder or “doubling down” on the previous strategy. Additional resources are required, but focusing on force or resource requirements misses the point entirely. The key take away from this assessment is the urgent need for a significant change to our strategy and the way that we think and operate.


Resources will not win this war, but under-resourcing could lose it. Resourcing communicates commitment, but we must also balance force levels to enable effective ANSF partnering and provide population security, while avoiding perceptions of coalition dominance. Ideally, the ANSF must lead this fight, but they will not have enough capability in the near-term given the insurgency’s growth rate. In the interim, coalition forces must provide a bridge capability to protect critical segments of the population. The status quo will lead to failure if we wait for the ANSF to grow.

However, I don’t see a commitment in the report that if the general receives what he’s requested that it will achieve the desired outcome. Am I being too critical? Or, as Stephen Coll proposes, should we be seeking more humble objectives in Afghanistan?

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, Terrorism, Uncategorized, , , , , , ,
Dave Schuler
About Dave Schuler
Over the years Dave Schuler has worked as a martial arts instructor, a handyman, a musician, a cook, and a translator. He's owned his own company for the last thirty years and has a post-graduate degree in his field. He comes from a family of politicians, teachers, and vaudeville entertainers. All-in-all a pretty good preparation for blogging. He has contributed to OTB since November 2006 but mostly writes at his own blog, The Glittering Eye, which he started in March 2004.


  1. Mike says:

    I would settle for them to not be the largest poppy producing country in the world at this point. Not being a safe-haven for terrorists would be nice as well. Unfortunately, I have little belief that either will occur. We will exit as soon as it looks like we can while saving face – just my prediction.

  2. Wayne says:

    I agree that throwing resources alone is not the answer. NATO has many resources in the area but they have little effect because of their ROE. Change of Strategy is not a bad idea but usually come with a price during the transaction stage and constant tweaking should always be going on.

    From what I seen which is limited to mostly the news right now, is that the Taliban are following the typical insurgency model. They started with small operations that help trains, build confidence, gain prestige, and help recruiting of their units. Now they are conducting larger and larger operations. If they are allowed to continue along this line, they will win.

    Many of our forces especially the NATO ones are setting in their bases and doing little in accomplishing objectives. They set there in attempt to not offend anyone or make a mistake. Yes we should try to minimize mistakes but the only way to make none is to set on the bench.. If we want to win we will have to get more aggressive and take it to the enemy.

  3. Highlander says:

    Give every Afghan political leader/crook(theirs as well as our own) a nice fat bribe with rapidly depreciating US dollars of course.

    Then have a great big parade in Kabul or some such local garden spot(Joe Biden could be the Grand Marshall,he likes that sort of thing)

    Obama can declare a teleprompter inspired victory for freedom and liberty.(maybe he would get his second Nobel prize)

    Give the barbarians back their keys. Load our precious young people on C-130s, and get the Hell out of Afghanistan while the getting is good!