Afghanistan: Don’t go back

The real lesson from the leaked records of fighting in Afghanistan - Published on The Economist, July 29, 2010.

SOME people, including the group that supplied them, thought more than 75,000 secret military records released on July 25th contained devastating revelations about the war the West has been fighting in Afghanistan for the past nine years. Many more saw nothing new, but nonetheless feared that page after page of ugly detail would bring home to the public just how badly the Afghan campaign has turned out. In fact, the most voluminous leak in the history of warfare holds an altogether different message—that, for the moment, the West is tackling Afghanistan with what is probably the right strategy … //

… Not the Pentagon Papers: 

The diary has been widely compared to the Pentagon Papers, a leaked official history showing how Lyndon Johnson’s administration had lied about its strategy in Vietnam. But President Barack Obama has been telling the truth. And none of the big claims is new. Even America’s generals have said that there can be no clear victory in Afghanistan. If ordinary people already know that their soldiers are dying in Afghanistan and that the fight is hard, why should a blizzard of details lead to a sudden shift in public opinion?

Yet despite its absence of startling revelations, the diary is useful. It serves to remind its readers why America changed its strategy in Afghanistan, and why the administration would be wrong to bow to pressure to change it back again.

Debate in Washington about what to do in Afghanistan centres around two military strategies. One is counterterrorism (CT), championed by the vice-president, Joe Biden, which would give up trying to build a state and concentrate on killing enemies. Under CT, troops stick mostly to safeish areas, using airpower to hit terrorist havens. The other is counter-insurgency (COIN), championed first in Afghanistan by the sacked General Stanley McChrystal and now by General David Petraeus, the new commander there. This seeks to win over the population by assuring their security, creating the conditions for stability and isolating militants.

Until 2009 the strategy was pretty close to CT. Then, after Mr Obama ordered a review, COIN came out top. Now its cost has begun to shift opinion against it among America’s politicians. Progress is hard to spot and soldiers are dying; COIN is expensive and the government of Hamid Karzai commands little affection and less respect. But the diary, which describes Afghanistan before the COIN doctrine was favoured, shows that you cannot rely on CT alone for long. Poor intelligence and extravagant firepower kill civilians. This feeds the insurgency and undermines a Western presence of any sort. In the longer run, you may destabilise Pakistan; and you do nothing to hollow out Islamic terrorism—which cannot be contained for ever.

Just now, Afghanistan needs foreign troops to undertake COIN. In a few years newly trained Afghan forces may be able to take over the job. Meanwhile, development and diplomacy are needed to reform the frustratingly poor Afghan government. It is not pretty and there is no guarantee that it can be done before voters lose patience, if ever. But it looks less ugly and less dangerous than the Afghanistan found in WikiLeaks’ War Diary. (full text).

Link: Watch a video interview with Julian Assange, July 27, 2010.

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