After McChrystal, What's Next for Afghanistan?

Two Sides of the Same COIN: Petraeus (left) and McChrystal both champion a counterinsurgency plan that may not work in Afghanistan. Chris Hondros / Getty Images (left); Paula Bronstein / Getty Images

By replacing a general who was universally criticized with a general who almost can't be criticized, President Obama pulled a political masterstroke on Wednesday. But the abrupt dismissal of Gen. Stanley McChrystal for making inappropriate remarks and the simultaneous announcement that he would be succeeded by his superior, CentCom Commander David Petraeus, papered over Obama's real problem: the counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy that McChrystal championed and Petraeus virtually invented may be fatally flawed, at least as it's practiced in Afghanistan.

In his remarks in the Rose Garden on Wednesday, the president said that he didn't decide to make the move "based on any difference in policy with General McChrystal," and that the appointment of the widely admired Petraeus would "allow us to maintain the momentum and leadership we need to succeed." Obama's bigger problem right now is a rising tide of doubt, not only within McChrystal's obviously stressed-out team but throughout the military and national-security apparatus, that there is any real momentum or that the policy in Afghanistan is working. COIN is based on the idea of winning hearts and minds in the local population and getting their help in rooting out the guerrillas or terrorists (in this case, the Taliban). But a number of well-informed critics say that in Afghanistan, several prerequisites for success are missing—in particular a central government with credibility, a large-enough force for the size of the country, and a local force (the Afghan Army and police) to hand things off to. "This briefs well in D.C. but you can't operationalize it in Afghanistan," says one critic of COIN, a military scholar who is engaged in the debate inside the Pentagon but would talk about it only on condition of anonymity so as to avoid the fate of McChrystal.

The outcome, these critics say, could be the worst of all possible worlds: no prospect of "winning" at all in an endlessly prolonged and bloody conflict in which we deceive ourselves for years that we are winning. Something like Vietnam, in other words. "It's kind of sad and ironic that the fall of McChrystal will result in the reaffirmation of a highly problematic strategy," says John Arquilla of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. As one general who served in Afghanistan told me back in 2006, for a NEWSWEEK piece called "The Rise of Jihadistan": "This standoff could go on for 40 or 50 years. It's not going to be a takeover by the Taliban as long as NATO is there. Instead this is going to be like the triborder region of South America, or like Kashmir—a long, drawn-out stalemate where everyone carves out spheres of influence."

The comments of McChrystal and his staff in Rolling Stone magazine insulting Vice President Joseph Biden, envoy Richard Holbrooke, Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, and others made his position all but untenable, even if he were seen as winning in Afghanistan. But Obama's decision to fire him was no doubt made easier by the fact that McChrystal hasn't been delivering, by most accounts. The offensive in Marja quickly bogged down, and McChrystal had to postpone a follow-on offensive that he had, with some degree of hubris, advertised ahead of time. Now diplomatic sources suggest that if the administration does go ahead with a Kandahar operation, it will be almost entirely of the civilian nation-building variety, which is not likely to be effective in dislodging the Taliban entrenched there. Some NATO allies are also beginning to suggest that the administration needs to drop its opposition to negotiating with the Taliban, even if they don't give up fighting as a precondition. "We could sink in billions more dollars for another 10 to 20 years, and if we're lucky, we'll get Haiti," says the expert engaged in the Pentagon debate, before adding that even in Iraq "people are starting to reassess the surge. Was the surge the real reason [for Iraq's relative stabilization]? Maybe the Sunni-Shia war had just ended with a Shia victory. May be it was that Al Qaeda had overplayed its hand."

Obama made a point of saying in the Rose Garden that "Americans don't flinch in the face of difficult truths." But he may be flinching now. If COIN is failing in Afghanistan, the only real alternative is bleak: large-scale withdrawal and therefore the failure to stabilize the one country that was most linked to 9/11 nearly a decade later; and along with that—irony of ironies—a return to Biden's (Vice President "Bite Me" to McChrystal's antic crew) focus on narrow counterterror ops.

This grim new reality in Afghanistan in turn has given new life to a kind of insurgency-against-counterinsurgency thinking inside the military. Critics say COIN has gone too far in supplanting traditional war fighting in U.S. military doctrine (this is something of an irony since it wasn't that long ago that the COIN types were saying that they were being ignored). These dissidents lament the "atrophying" of traditional fighting skills, and they say the COIN virus has infected the Israeli military as well because it has done little but that in years of conducting ops against the Palestinians. The critics are targeting Petraeus and leading COIN thinkers like John Nagl, the president of the Center for a New American Security, which the journalist Tara McKelvey has called "counterinsurgency central in Washington." One of these critics, Gian Gentile, was virtually ostracized inside the military after he published a paper in January 2009 in Joint Forces Quarterly criticizing the growing preeminence of COIN. "Fighting as a core competency has been eclipsed in importance and primacy by the function of nationbuilding," Gentile wrote. "Not only has the [military] Service's intellectual climate become rigid, but also its operational capability to conduct high-intensity fighting operations other than counterinsurgency has atrophied over the past 6 years."

Indeed, COIN thinking has become almost a cult, stunting fresh ways of thinking, some experts say. As McKelvey wrote in one early critique in 2008, counterinsurgency may have been too quickly anointed as a panacea, the "thinking man's warfare." "Counterinsurgency has a special allure for liberal writers and thinkers because it offers a holistic approach, emphasizing efforts to win the hearts and minds of local people, and attempts to transform formerly autocratic governments into ones that respect human rights, women's education, and the rule of law," she said. But "skeptics say that despite a sophisticated veneer, counterinsurgency is warfare of the nastiest, most brutal kind, and it lasts for years and years."

Perhaps there is a silver lining. McChrystal's very public ouster and Obama's dramatic decision to hand things over to Petraeus, who enjoys near-hero status among both political parties in Washington for his performance in Iraq, could well move this vital debate forward. Petraeus, after all, is the general who oversaw the writing of the military's counterinsurgency manual, so he is perhaps the best man to assess whether it needs revision in the Afghanistan theater.