Paul Pillar

Who's Supposed to be Winning the Hearts and Minds?

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is unhappy about how the United States is fighting the war in his country--the war intended to shore up his regime.  He has complained with increasing frequency about the deleterious tactical effects of U.S. and NATO military operations and specifically about collateral civilian casualties.  Now he is questioning not just tactics but the U.S. strategy, which he says is not working and requires a "rethink."

In a separate interview, Karzai's chief of staff, Mohammad Umer Daudzai, elaborated on the same message.  He said the U.S.-led coalition should distance their soldiers from "the daily life of the people."  Daudzai said he had told General David Petraeus last week that "winning the hearts and minds of the Afghans is not the job of a soldier.  That's the job of an Afghan." 

Karzai and his chief of staff probably are speaking partly to a domestic audience, before whom they must appear both disgruntled about the pain military operations have inflicted on Afghans and independent of the United States and NATO.  But Daudzai's comments in particular are difficult to dismiss as just posturing.  They really do seem to be expressing a fundamental disagreement with the U.S. military command's approach toward the war.  

So the client on behalf of whom this counterinsurgency is being fought is calling into question bedrock tenets of counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine, or more specifically COIN doctrine as developed and executed by Petraeus and the American COINists he leads and represents.  Getting close to "the daily life of the people" is a major part of what COIN is all about.  It is a large part of what distinguished Petraeus's approach in Iraq from what was tried there before.  COIN tells us to embrace the locals as a necessary part of protecting them and winning their confidence, but now the locals don't want the embrace.  

Maybe the COINists are right and Karzai and others in his government are simply wrong--although what that says about a war that ultimately depends on that government's cooperation, sagacity and assumption of the main burden of fighting the war is disturbing to think about.  Or maybe the Afghans know more about this than we do, at least in the sense that although we may be the experts about COIN, they are the experts about their own country.

The grumbling of Karzai and his aides does not mean they want NATO forces out.  To the contrary: they say they want those forces to remain at their current level for at least two more years, well beyond the July 2011 date for beginning a U.S. withdrawal.  As for what those forces will be doing if they are not doing close-to-the-people COIN, the Afghans don't say.  "Search and destroy," anyone?

The biggest questions about this war still concern what winning a counterinsurgency against the Afghan Taliban does or does not have to do with keeping Americans safe from terrorism, and whether whatever is being gained, if anything, in Afghanistan is worth the cost.  But as the war grinds on, additional questions arise about whether the counterinsurgency, even if it were accepted as a worthwhile objective in its own right, is beset by self-contradiction.