Kissinger: COIN Won’t Work/McCain: CT Won’t Work

Within the last couple of days both Sen. John McCain and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger have offered contrasting strategies for Afghanistan. John McCain’s plan was explained in a speech before the American Enterprise Institute and Henry Kissinger’s plan in an op-ed in the Washington Post.

There are some points on which the two men agree. Both agree that Afghanistan is too important for us just to walk away.


I am confident victory is possible in Afghanistan. I know Americans are weary of war. I’m weary of it. But we must win the war in Afghanistan. The alternative is to risk that country’s return to its previous function as a terrorist sanctuary, from which al Qaeda could train and plan attacks against America. Such an outcome would constitute an historic success for the jihadist movement, severely damage American standing and credibility in a region that already doubts our resolve, and threaten the future of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. A terrorist sanctuary in Afghanistan would encourage and enable al Qaeda and other terrorist groups to destabilize neighboring countries. Broader insecurity in Afghanistan — with the violence, refugee flows, and lawlessness it would engender — could spill beyond its borders to nuclear armed Pakistan or other states in south and central Asia, with the gravest implications for our national security.


The Obama administration faces dilemmas familiar to several of its predecessors. America cannot withdraw from Afghanistan now, but neither can it sustain the strategy that brought us to this point.

The stakes are high. Victory for the Taliban in Afghanistan would give a tremendous shot in the arm to jihadism globally — threatening Pakistan with jihadist takeover and possibly intensifying terrorism in India, which has the world’s third-largest Muslim population. Russia, China and Indonesia, which have all been targets of jihadist Islam, could also be at risk.

Both agree that what we’re doing now isn’t working.


The situation in Afghanistan is nowhere near as dire as it was in Iraq just two years ago — to cite one example, civilian fatalities at their peak in Iraq were ten times higher than civilian deaths at their peak in Afghanistan last year. But the same truth that was apparent three years ago in Iraq is apparent today in Afghanistan: when you aren’t winning in this kind of war, you are losing. And, in Afghanistan today, we are not winning. Let us not shy from the truth, but let us not be paralyzed by it either.

Nearly every indicator in Afghanistan is heading in the wrong direction. Civilian fatalities in Afghanistan have increased dramatically as security has deteriorated, particularly in the southern provinces of the country. The number of insurgent attacks was higher every single week in 2008 than during the same week in 2007. Since 2005, violence has increased over 500 percent, and despite the presence of tens of thousands of coalition troops, growing portions of the country suffer under the influence of the Taliban. The percentage of Afghans rating their security positively has declined from 77 percent in 2005 to 40 percent today. Only a third of Afghans say that U.S. or NATO forces have a strong presence in their areas, down from 57 percent just two years ago, and Afghans cite the lack of security and corruption as the foremost reasons their country is moving in the wrong direction.


Heretofore, America has pursued traditional anti-insurgency tactics: to create a central government, help it extend its authority over the entire country and, in the process, bring about a modern bureaucratic and democratic society.

That strategy cannot succeed in Afghanistan — especially not as an essentially solitary effort. The country is too large, the territory too forbidding, the ethnic composition too varied, the population too heavily armed. No foreign conqueror has ever succeeded in occupying Afghanistan. Even attempts to establish centralized Afghan control have rarely succeeded and then not for long. Afghans seem to define their country in terms of a common dedication to independence but not to unitary or centralized self-government.

However, although the two men have differing views on the way forward in Afghanistan, even their contrasting approaches have distinct similarity. Kissinger proposes what is essentially the denial of territory approach that I’ve favored over the period of the last seven years. Keys to this are a classic COIN strategy in the vicinity of Kabul:

Military strategy should concentrate on preventing the emergence of a coherent, contiguous state within the state controlled by jihadists. In practice, this would mean control of Kabul and the Pashtun area. A jihadist base area on both sides of the mountainous Afghan-Pakistani border would become a permanent threat to hopes for a moderate evolution and to all of Afghanistan’s neighbors. Gen. David Petraeus has argued that, reinforced by the number of American forces he has recommended, he should be able to control the 10 percent of Afghan territory where, in his words, 80 percent of the military threat originates. This is the region where the “clear, hold and build” strategy that had success in Iraq is particularly applicable.

a more restricted mission in the rest of the country:

In the rest of the country, our military strategy should be more fluid, aimed at forestalling the emergence of terrorist strong points. It should be based on close cooperation with local chiefs and coordination with their militias to be trained by U.S. forces — the kind of strategy that proved so successful in Anbar province, the Sunni stronghold in Iraq.

and diplomacy to gain the support of Afghanistan’s neighbors:

In Afghanistan, such an outcome is achievable only if its principal neighbors agree on a policy of restraint and opposition to terrorism. Their recent conduct argues against such prospects. Yet history should teach them that unilateral efforts at dominance are likely to fail in the face of countervailing intervention by other outside actors. To explore such a vision, the United States should propose a working group of Afghanistan’s neighbors, India and the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. Such a group should be charged with assisting in the reconstruction and reform of Afghanistan and establishing principles for the country’s international status and obligations to oppose terrorist activities. Over time, America’s unilateral military efforts can merge with the diplomatic efforts of this group.

John McCain, on the other hand, favors a reemphasis on counter-insurgency in Afghanistan:

As it was in Iraq, security is the precondition for political and economic progress in Afghanistan. And the way to provide enduring security is by applying the same basic principles of counterinsurgency tailored for the unique circumstances of Afghanistan, backed with robust intelligence resources and a sufficient number of troops to carry it out.

This strategy should be operationalized through a nationwide civil-military campaign plan. There is today a campaign plan for Regional Command-East, one in the works for Regional Command-South, and a patchwork of other operations throughout the country. There is no comprehensive, nationwide plan for the war that spells out what level of combat troops and resources will be required, where, and to do what. The fact that we are engaged in this fight without such a plan more than seven years after our initial invasion explains much of the failure of our efforts thus far.

encouraging the Afghans to increase the size of their military:

The Afghan army is already a great success story: a multiethnic, battle-tested fighting force. The problem is that it is too small — it currently stands at 68,000 – and, even with the increase in projected end strength to 134,000, it will remain too small. For years, the Afghans have been telling us they need a bigger army, and they are right. After all, their country is more populous and significantly larger than Iraq. At a minimum, we need to more than double the current size of the Afghan army to 160,000 troops, and consider enlarging it to 200,000. The costs of this increase, however, should not be borne by American taxpayers alone. Insecurity in Afghanistan is the world’s problem, and the world should share the costs. I believe we should work with our allies to establish an international trust fund to provide long-term financing for the Afghan army. At the same time, we need to increase the number of trainers and mentors assisting the Afghan police, who have suffered neglect and mismanagement for too long.

and using diplomacy to gain the support of Afghanistan’s neighbors:

A special focus of our regional strategy must be Pakistan. For too long we have viewed Pakistan as important because of our goals in Afghanistan. Yet Pakistan is not simply important because of Afghanistan; Pakistan is important because of Pakistan. We cannot simply subordinate our Pakistan strategy to our Afghanistan policy.

We should start by empowering the new civilian government in Islamabad to defeat radicalism with greater support for development, health, and education. Today, development assistance constitutes just one percent of all U.S. funding directed toward programs in the tribal and border areas. This must change. We should also strengthen local tribes in these areas who are willing to fight terrorists — the strategy used successfully in Anbar and elsewhere in Iraq — while recognizing that such an approach will not be nearly as quick or far reaching as it was in Iraq.

Interestingly, both McCain and Kissinger make a similar point about the NATO allies. They should be encouraged to give the support they’re most likely to offer, i.e. development support rather than additional military assistance.


Symbolically, the participation of NATO partners is significant. But save for some notable exceptions, public support for military operations is negligible in almost all NATO countries. It is possible, of course, that Obama’s popularity in Europe can modify these attitudes — but probably to only a limited extent. The president would have to decide how far he will carry the inevitable differences and face the reality that disagreements concern fundamental questions of NATO’s future and reach. Improved consultation would ease this process. It is likely to turn out, however, that the differences are not procedural. We may then conclude that an enhanced NATO contribution to Afghanistan’s reconstruction is more useful than a marginal military effort constrained by caveats. But if NATO turns into an alliance a la carte in this manner, a precedent that can cut both ways would be set. Those who tempt a U.S. withdrawal by their indifference or irresolution evade the prospect that it would be the prelude to a long series of accelerating and escalating crises.


While I believe the United States should continue to encourage European troop contributions and press for the reduction of caveats on their use, I also believe we should move away from stressing what Washington wants Europe to give, and more toward encouraging what Europe is prepared to contribute. Many of our NATO allies — and other allies and partners outside NATO, including countries in Asia and the Gulf — are fully capable of contributing many badly needed resources. In many areas, non-combat related contributions — from police training to a trust fund for the Afghan National Army — will be as critical to long-term success as more European troops on the ground.

I’m skeptical that Afghanistan will be able to muster a substantially larger force in the absence of a functional central government less corrupt than the one in Kabul now and I believe that creating such a government in Kabul remains beyond our grasp. As I understand the Obama Administration’s current policy with respect to Afghanistan, it rejects the nation-building aspects of the Bush Administration’s approach while retaining most of the military objectives of its predecessor’s strategy, which it will secure by increasing the American troop level in Afghanistan while hoping for increased military support from our NATO allies.

To his credit John McCain emphasizes the importance of explaining the importance of Afghanistan to the American people. That will be important since even under the best of circumstances we’re not going to see success in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future.

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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.