It’s not possible to end it


Matthieu Aikins on the counterinsurgency gamble in the Afghan war @ The Walrus. It was the Fourth of July, and it was forty-five degrees outside. Under the blazing noonday sun, a few dozen soldiers stood around on bare gravel. They were mostly Americans from the 10th Mountain Division, in their distinctive black cavalry hats, mixed with a handful of Canadian soldiers and a few bearded civilians in jeans. Facing their semicircle was the short, stocky figure of Brigadier General Jonathan Vance, the Canadian commander of Task Force Kandahar.

We were at the Dand District Centre, a small compound in the heart of Deh-e Bagh, a village about five kilometres southwest of Kandahar City. Next to us stood the district police station and the headquarters of 1-71 Cavalry Squadron, an American armoured unit; behind us was the squat bulk of the district governor’s office. Dand District was one of the last areas in the southern province of Kandahar where Taliban insurgency — which a 2009 American intelligence report estimated to have grown fourfold in Afghanistan over the previous four years — had yet to take root. In Vance’s opinion, this success resulted from the military’s focused application of counterinsurgency principles: bringing security to the people, separating them from the insurgency, and building up their government by supporting development.

Vance wished the assembled soldiers a happy Fourth of July, then took them through the story of how they had come to be standing there sweltering in the highlands of South Asia. As he saw it, the war could be understood in three phases: The first, he explained, began with the aftermath of September 11, when the US and its allies toppled the Taliban government and established a minimal troop presence in the country, then, in the face of a growing insurgency, stuck to its development and counterterrorism missions.

The second phase, he said, started in late 2005 with the expansion of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) around the country. This phase was marked by the growing recognition that the conflict was a hot war against a resurgent guerrilla opponent. It featured pitched battles with Taliban fighters in the south, and then, after the Taliban scattered, a drawn-out struggle against a campaign of bombings, ambushes, and assassinations. The Canadian contingent of 2,500 soldiers had barely hung on in Kandahar. “We didn’t lose, but we didn’t win either,” Vance lectured. read more