An excellent interview in Small Wars Journal with Rajiv Chandrasekaran, author of Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan.
One gets the sense in looking back over the 2009 White House strategy review that then led to the President’s decision to largely accept McChrystal’s request for more forces that the military’s view of Afghanistan was sort of like Henry Ford and the color of your car. You can have any strategy you like as long as it’s COIN. The senior military leadership really coalesced around one option and alternative points of view, such as a narrower focus on counterterrorism as advocated by Gen Cartwright, were really cast aside by the rest of the military leadership.
While we were trying to get our head around Afghanistan, I do think it behooved the nation’s military community to really more fully understand what happened with the surge in Iraq and the application of counterinsurgency. It had its benefits, but it had its limitations. It wasn’t a panacea, and understanding the truth of itm and moving beyond the politics, is essential to understanding how this strategy can and should be applied in the future.
You opened your question with a fundamental disconnect in America’s war strategy. The goal was narrow – to go after al Qaeda – yet the approach was broad – population-centric COIN. And it did involve a civ-mil mission creep. I think both sides fed on each other. Yes, the military had a very expansive view on what to do with governance, anti-corruption, and so forth as epitomized by Gen Petraeus’s Anaconda slide, but the civilians in many cases were goading them along. Karl Eikenberry who outlined accurately the many failings of the Afghan government and the many reasons why a COIN strategy wouldn’t work as hoped for then went along with these grand efforts to try to rebuild the government, to create government in many cases where the Afghans didn’t have it–to bring in dozens and dozens of American investigators to pursue corruption cases which further frayed our relationship with Hamid Karzai. We tried to do two things that were in conflict. We wanted a war with narrow goals, but we fought it broadly. And that just doesn’t work. If really what we wanted to do was just go after al Qaeda, then that’s what we should have done. If the overall stability of Afghanistan, the defeat of the Taliban, the improvement of lives for the Afghans was something that we found to be in the American national interest, then a comprehensive COIN strategy was defensible. But if that wasn’t the overall goal, then the record shows that we should have been narrower.