Could the gradual drawdown in Afghanistan signal an end to the military’s flirtation with counter-insurgency? I’m skeptical. COIN basically took over at the highest levels of the military over the past several years, and the officer corps, the next generation of leaders, has been engaged in COIN tactics in Iraq and Afghanistan. For the next 20 years, practically every commander in the military will have a rich amount of experience with COIN.

But in order to employ COIN, you have to have a country in which to employ it. And the fallout from two never-ending wars on the civilian side seems to be that we should never put ourselves in such a position again. Michael Hirsh and Jamie Tarabay write for the National Journal that even John Nagl, one of the leading acolytes for counter-insurgency doctrine, has become depressed:

Brilliant and brash as ever at the advanced age of 45, Nagl delivers a sober endorsement of the military’s current COIN strategy in Afghanistan, which, because it was adapted from Iraq, is partly his brainchild. It is a strategy that many experts believe is not working—and the skeptics may now include President Obama himself. “I think any sane person would be disillusioned,” Nagl says over a lunch of mussels and mozzarella salad at Finemondo, a lushly decorated restaurant around the corner from his office. Even some of those around Petraeus (who is retiring from the military to run the CIA) are losing heart. But Nagl says that the Janus-faced core of COIN strategy—winning over the Afghan population with kindness, aid, and a multibillion-dollar policy to “clear, hold, and build” towns and villages while ruthlessly killing off insurgents—is just starting to succeed. He laments that the debate in Washington is dominated by critics who complain that the war is almost 10 years long and already more hopeless than Vietnam […]

Yet a surprising number of military experts seem sure that COIN is failing; that it is not even a real strategy; and that guys like John Nagl, who are perhaps a little too smart for their own good, have been snowing us all along. The newly vocal doubters include some of those who helped develop counterinsurgency in the first place. They run the spectrum from those who think COIN is pretty much a crock to those who still believe in the idea but doubt Washington’s ability to implement it. Among the latter is Lt. Gen. John Campbell, who just handed off command of Afghanistan Regional Command East, the most recalcitrant part of the country but the one Nagl has hopes for. Campbell notes that COIN typically takes a decade or more to work. “I think it’s the way to go, but I don’t think we have time,” he told National Journal in a June 14 interview. “If we don’t show progress, we’re not going to have the money.”

Counter-insurgency is like a make-work program for military contractors. They sold the military on a theory of war that necessarily takes over a decade to work. This is perfect! The contractors get paid for years and years, and the military is insulated from the agonizing pace of progress, as that’s a feature and not a bug. It also requires one soldier for every 50 civilians in a country, ensuring ever bigger deployments and expense of resources. COIN was probably drawn up in some boardroom at Lockheed or Halliburton.

But while it gives a perfect alibi to those who believe political will alone can win wars (“just give it time,” they keep saying), America has lost patience and lost sight of the mission. Yes, I suppose it’s possible, in theory (the practice really hasn’t panned out anywhere it’s been tried), to completely transform a society over a generation with a massive amount of forces and an infinite time horizon. The question is why you would want to, or why anyone would think you need to. Counter-insurgency is a solution nobody really wants to a problem that never really existed.

But don’t cry for the contractors. They’ve hit on a better idea, one without the drawbacks of those meddling Congressional overseers: shadow war. Off-the-books war. A drone, a covert ops team and a paycheck. That’s the future, not this “sit in a country for 25 years and force it to change” strategy.

David Dayen

David Dayen