Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan: Is It Working?

PHOTO: Afghan National Army soldiers in training
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Counterinsurgency may not be the buzzword it was in 2009, when President Obama was deliberating strategy for the war in Afghanistan -- but it is still the Army's prevailing strategy in the war that passed the 10-year mark this weekend, a military official said.

So how are we doing with our latest strategy?

It's not so easy to tell, according to the official, Lt. Col. John Paganini, the director of the U.S. Army Counterinsurgency Center, because there's no easy way to measure its success and no specific end date on the books, though officials are aware U.S. war resources may be limited.

Part of the problem with measuring success, Paganini said, is that a central point of the strategy is to be nimble and willing to change methods as needs change.

"Every day is a challenge to be adaptive," Paganini said. "So we can't say, 'Well, today we're doing really well,' because everything is adaptive."

The goal of the counterinsurgency strategy is to defeat Taliban and affiliated insurgents by helping to bolster the Afghan government and its security forces, winning the hearts and minds of Afghans, reintegrating and reconciling former insurgents into society and helping to kick-start a functioning national economy.

President Obama ordered a surge of U.S. military forces and government officials into Afghanistan 2009 to accomplish the strategy's early objectives.

Paganini said that the strategy has changed since the beginning of the war. In the last three or four years, the Army has shifted from focusing on the enemy to building sustainable, long-lasting programs run by Afghans at every government level.

"We are becoming adaptive to overcome the insurgency," Paganini said, "not just those who are out to kill us or apply military force against us, or the protectors of the society of the host nation, but it really also gets after, 'Why does the insurgency exist? What are the conditions that allow the population to either passively or actively support an external entity that wants to degrade the ability of the host nation government's security force?'"

For example, he said, the biggest thing the Army eliminated was "the idea in the minds of the Afghan citizenry and the Afghan leaders that this is an external problem with external solutions.

"Reinforce the notion that they already have that this is their problem, and their solutions are going to fix this problem," he said. "And I think what you've seen -- from the initial stages of an awareness of [the idea that Afghans hold the key to their fate], to an acceptance of that, to a practice of it -- that's where you've seen significant gains.

"It's not anything that you can put a number on the wall and say, 'Here's the metric we're going to measure that against. Here I can stand in front of the nation and say, 'We're winning the war because of this,'" Paganini said.

Paganini said changing the minds of Afghans could take generations.

"Is victory inevitable?" he asked. "No, because there are so many conditions that are out there. But we are clearly on the path for it. ... It could take generations. It could take, you know, the people of Afghanistan one or two iterations with some semblance of an election and feedback mechanisms that let them see that this is good."

Tactics used by the Taliban to intimidate Afghans from cooperating with the Western-backed Afghan government -- such as threatening letters left at Afghan homes during the night -- should not prevail, he said.

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