Afghanistan: The Limits of Counterinsurgency

Counterinsurgency, or COIN, is viewed by its practitioners in the military as the methods of warfare used to divide a civilian population's political and sentimental allegiance away from a guerrilla force. It can also be viewed as a method to suppress national liberation movements.

The wars in Iraq and have Afghanistan have created a COIN community in the US defense establishment made up of serious intellectuals who are also veterans of these wars. They urge their military and government to embrace COIN to fight the global war on terror, or GWOT, and to view it as the war of the future. The so called "Surge," in Iraq and its alleged success in reducing violence has led to the ascendancy of this young cadre, represented most visibly by General David Petraeus. Petraeus is credited with authoring that plan, and along with several other officers, of authoring the Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, a seminal text for the COIN community known as FM 3-24. But there is a debate within the defense establishment, and it concerns the lessons of the war in Iraq. Those who oppose the COIN-centered intellectuals warn that the US military is neglecting its conventional war fighting ability and ignoring the limits of US military might.

Nir Rosen embedded with American troops in Afghanistan to observe the COIN strategy first-hand, and to explore how, and if, it is in fact working.

Misperceptions and Left-Out Anecdotes

In response to my article on Afghanistan in the Boston Review, several members of the Illinois State National Guard with whom I traveled in Helmand last summer expressed disappointment and even a sense of betrayal. I was surprised because I tried to be as sympathetic as possible, and show their decency and humanity, as I do with all people I write about. Perhaps they mistook a criticism of their mission or the strategy with a criticism of them personally.

Nir Rosen responds to critics

In his piece, "Something from Nothing: U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan," Rosen argues that counterinsurgency doesn't make sense. It asks soldiers, concerned primarily with survival, to be Wyatt Earp and Mother Theresa. This forum, unveiled over several days, showcases critical reviews of the piece and Rosen's response. Among the six participating critics are Helena Cobban, asserting that Rosen's analysis neglects to account for U.S. domestic politics, and Andrew Exum, arguing that the Central Asian conflict likely marks the end of an era of counterinsurgency as a form of warfare.

Something from Nothing: US Strategy in Afghanistan

On July 4, 2009 Team Prowler, American soldiers from the Illinois National Guard, set off to patrol Highway 601, a key road in Afghanistan's Helmand province. All trade entering the province passed through 601. It was the land supply route for British, American, and Afghan forces, and the "skuff" hall in the British-run base was getting low on food. The Taliban controlled villages along the road. "Nothing out there but the Taliban," one soldier said. Civilian vehicles avoided 601 because of the roadside bombs, called IEDs.

Pulitzer Center journalists cover Afghanistan

Tatum Taylor, Pulitzer Center

As the post-election drama continues and publicity over the US military's counterinsurgency strategies grows, journalists are increasingly turning their attention towards Afghanistan. Pulitzer Center journalists have been consistently reporting from Afghanistan in order to inform the conversation, and we wanted to share with you the range of their work.