Why the Obama Administration Is All Over the Map on Afghanistan

Hey Rajiv Chandrasekaran, what the heck happened back in March when Obama decided to send 17,000 more troops into Afghanistan and started telling everyone we needed a more expansive approach there?

Everyone, save Vice President Biden’s national security adviser, agreed that the United States needed to mount a comprehensive counterinsurgency mission to defeat the Taliban…

[…]

To senior military commanders, the [implications were] unambiguous: U.S. and NATO forces would have to change the way they operated in Afghanistan. Instead of focusing on hunting and killing insurgents, the troops would have to concentrate on protecting the good Afghans from the bad ones.

And to carry out such a counterinsurgency effort the way its doctrine prescribes, the military would almost certainly need more boots on the ground.

To some civilians who participated in the strategic review, that conclusion was much less clear. Some took it as inevitable that more troops would be needed, but others thought the thrust of the new approach was to send over scores more diplomats and reconstruction experts. They figured a counterinsurgency mission could be accomplished with the forces already in the country, plus the 17,000 new troops Obama had authorized in February.

“It was easy to say, ‘Hey, I support COIN,’ because nobody had done the assessment of what it would really take, and nobody had thought through whether we want to do what it takes,” said one senior civilian administration official who participated in the review, using the shorthand for counterinsurgency. (emphasis mine)

This sort of thing is almost enough to make you feel for the COIN clique. Barack Obama fancies himself a foreign-policy thinker, and his national-security staff no doubt think highly of their strategic vision and would like to advance the idea that Democratic administrations make better foreign-policy decisions than Republican administrations. But when Obama and his administration come out in March and say “yes, we’d like a counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan,” and then send McChrystal over to do an assessment of what a COIN mission would need in terms of resources, it’s just absurd for them flutter six months later that “well, we didn’t know what we were getting into!  They didn’t tell us it was going to be long and hard and costly!”

We’ve been having a discussion on counterinsurgency – indeed we’ve been doing counterinsurgency – for the last few years.  There are lots of us who think that COIN in Afghanistan is a fool’s errand. My view is that COIN more generally is an intellectually insular doctrine purveyed by a cadre of scholar-practitioners who’ve either situated the doctrine in an absurd strategic context [.pdf] or else failed even to attempt to situate the approach inside any larger strategy.

But to be fair to them, they’ve been pretty candid about how hard counterinsurgency is. It’s just ridiculous for the administration to protest that they didn’t know it was going to be so expensive. The policy outcome the Obama administration produced was simply to throw more resources at the problem without bothering to think carefully about the connections between strategy, doctrine, and resources. Not encouraging.