Counterinsurgency Consensus Misguided
John McCain and Joe Lieberman have an op-ed in the Washington Post telling President Obama to...do exactly what he's already doing in Afghanistan.
McCain and Lieberman, the former the designated point man for neocon pressure to keep the Afghan occupation long and strong, have found themselves arguing against previous Obama administration rhetoric designed to keep the general public from realizing that the administration are already intending to go long and strong (and expensive). As realist COINdinista Spencer Ackerman and neocon COINdinista Max Boot both point out, even as McCain and his friends are arguing against "a 'minimalist' approach toward Afghanistan", in Spencer's words:
No one who pays the slightest bit of attention to the Afghanistan debate can possibly think that McCain and Lieberman are arguing against a contention the Obama administration considers viable. Look at the elements of the strategy that have emerged so far. There’s already been a U.S. troop increase. There’s going to be a complementary increase in U.S. diplomats and development workers, and they’re going to go to places like the south, where the insurgency is out-governing the U.S.-backed Kabul government. And now there’s also going to be a huge and expensive increase of undetermined duration in the Afghan National Army. (There may as well be a push into Pakistan, risky as that is.)
It’s true that Obama has defined the goal in Afghanistan as a counterterrorism goal — the eradication of jihadist safehavens — but that’s a recognition, and an overdue one, of what McCain and Lieberman recognize is the “vital national interest” justifying the war in the first place. What the Obama administration is about to unveil is a counterinsurgency strategy for a counterterrorism objective. Or, to use McCain and Lieberman’s phrase, a “comprehensive civil-military counterinsurgency approach backed by greatly increased resources and an unambiguous U.S. political commitment to success in Afghanistan over the long haul.” This is Obama’s approach, translated into Conservative. Welcome to consensus.
Boot writes that the Obama administration is "headed in the right direction" - which is away from "the danger of a 'minimalist approach'". It's a consensus alright. One between rightwing idealists, Clintonesque realist hawks and leftwing foreign policy experts who have been the subjects of a very successful "heart and minds" conjob by the US military's COIN community ever since those thinktankers and journalists began looking for what might be salvaged from Bush's Iraq misadventure rather than just complaining that it shouldn't have happened in the first place.
Yet it's a consensus founded on some basic dishonesties - or perhaps "economies with the truth" would be a better phrasing.
The realization that the American public is in no mood to accept a further 10 to 15 years of counter-insurgency war in Afghanistan has led to hiding that timescale behind talk about a simple counterterrorism effort. The bill for that COIN war - which will be thousands of (mostly civilian Afghan) lives and between $600 billion and $1.3 trillion isn't being talked about much at all. Yet it's the equivalent of the entire ten year budget for healthcare reform and then some. You can see why it isn't being talked about in these times of economic hardship.
Don't expect to see a reduction in the military's overblown budget either. Preparations to fight future COIN colonial wars will swallow up any savings from axing big-ticket shiny toys. The effect on the balance of budgetary and bureaucratic power inside the U.S. government isn't being talked about at all. The military will own every practical tool of foreign policy unless there's thousands more to follow Obama's hundreds strong "surge" of civilian COIN nation-builders. State will be an also-ran who holds the door while the DoD does its thing. COIN doctrine has given the military-industrial complex a new excuse for being and the foreign policy establishment a new method of imposing a double standard of American exceptionalism.
Yet not one tenth of the effort has been put into developing a containment strategy that simply and truly concentrates on denying extremists their safe havens and preventing those extremists from exporting their violence to America - the COINdinista's say it wouldn't work (they would) and everyone takes their word for it. That means that before the occupation in Afghanistan has run its entire two decade course there will be interventions elsewhere using the same logic. Yemen, Somalia, possibly Pakistan, even Mexico - if Afghanistan won't answer to a containment strategy then nowhere will.
The Obama administration, heavily influenced by COIN advocates and by think-tankers themselves mesmerized by a COIN campaign, might not think containment is a viable option - but in the current economic and geopolitical climate it deserves a far harder look. If as much energy had been put into containment as COIN colonialism, we'd have found a way to make it maybe work - and maybe work is all we're assured of from the COINdinistas strategy in any case.