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Strategy v. Tactics

12:26 PM, Aug 19, 2009 • By JOHN NOONAN
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One of the most contentious issues among military planners is how, exactly, we should be fighting the counter-insurgency in Afghanistan. CENTCOM boss General Petraeus figured Iraq out quickly, but cracking the Hindu Kush's human terrain remains -- as it has for centuries -- the bane of empires and great powers. "Is the military mission to engage, push back and dismantle the Taliban networks," asks Bing West, "with population protection being a tactic to gain tips and local militia, or is the military mission to build a nation by US soldiers protecting the widespread population, with engagements against the Taliban as a byproduct?"

West figures it's the latter, for two reasons. First, non-kinetic operations are more palatable to the American public, the lifeblood of any war effort. That's why you see Navy recruiting commercials emphasizing foreign tsunami and disaster relief just as frequently as their standard warheads-on-foreheads fare. Second, denying insurgents use of the local population is prime-directive number one in any low-intensity fight. There's two ways to accomplish that mission: brutalize the population until they're broken like a well-trained horse (a favorite insurgent tactic) or -- because the first option is proscribed by our Western values -- feed, shelter, and protect them until you can bring your superior firepower to bear on the now-isolated enemy.

That soft power, it seems, is the new hotness in Afghanistan. But is it costing us our ability to inflict severe casualties on the Taliban? Controlling the population is only the first step in a successful COIN fight, the second is decimating the opposition to a point where they can no longer function as a combat entity. West lays this out succinctly:

...our ground forces are not inflicting heavy losses on the enemy. However, the annual bill for the US military in Afghanistan exceeds $70 billion, with another four to six billion for development. We've already spent $38 billion on Afghan reconstruction. Congress may eventually balk at spending such sums year after year. The problem is we're liable to be gradually pulled out while the Taliban is intact. Nation-building alone is not sufficient; the Taliban must be disrupted.

My colleague Bill Roggio has made similar points here on the blog -- you'll never be able to fully reconstruct Afghanistan as long as there's a big chunk of the indigenous population eager to tear the place back down. History's failed counterinsurgency fights have been marked by efficient armies obsessed with kill ratios instead of the human terrain. The point West is making, and I think it's a sound one, is that we've moved so far in the opposite direction, we may be forgetting that the enemy still needs to be crushed -- however delicately.