I've just finished a remarkable book called The Good Soldiers, by David Finkel. It is the best grunt's-eye view of the war in Iraq that I've read; certainly, it's the best written. But it also raises, implicitly, the mystery of our qualified success there. Finkel follows an Army battalion through the 2007 surge, as it attempts to secure a particularly nasty and neglected area of Baghdad. This was the first attempt to implement the Army's new counterinsurgency doctrine, and the troops have their doubts about the new tactics. Major Brent Cummings, the second-in-command, reads the doctrine and is perplexed by sentences like "Sometimes, the more force is used, the less effective it is." Cummings is an infantryman. He has been trained to "close with and destroy the enemy." This new form of warfare is not only weird, but dangerous: instead of living on one of the big, heavily guarded bases outside town, the battalion is based in New Baghdad, the area where it fights. Part of the job is partnering with the local Iraqi security forces; part of the job is providing social services, figuring out sewage problems.
It is difficult, from the ground up, to tell if any of these new tactics have an impact. The partnership with the Iraqis is tentative at best. The social services don't pan out. The troops continue to patrol in humvees, as before; they are blown up by IEDs, as before. The counterinsurgency manual gathers dust on the battalion commander's desk, then disappears. But somehow ... it works. A year later, the neighborhood is markedly quieter but it's hard to say why.
After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, I decided to make an intense effort to get to know the U.S. military. My education was turbocharged by General David Petraeus, who invited me to spend some time learning counterinsurgency at Fort Leavenworth, Kans., while he was leading the team that wrote the new doctrine. The intellectual rigor of Petraeus' team, their willingness no, their joy when it came to chewing over even the most unlikely questions were flat-out exciting. It was certainly at odds with the hidebound image of the military I'd grown up with. I became an auxiliary member of the counterinsurgency cult in theory. When it came time to apply it in Iraq, I had my doubts. It seemed too little, too late. But I was wrong, and the surge's relative success was attributable in no small part to the general's creative flexibility.
Now another President is faced with another decision about counterinsurgency doctrine, this time in Afghanistan. "They have a track record," a member of Obama's decision-making team recently said of Generals Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal. "I tend to give them the benefit of the doubt." True enough, but the mystery at the heart of The Good Soldiers remains: By what magic process did Iraq turn around, especially since the counterinsurgency tactics were so unevenly applied? Was it merely the doctrine or did the ethnic cleansing of Baghdad neighborhoods and the sheer exhaustion after five years of astonishing fraternal brutality have something to do with it?
These questions matter, which is why the President's strategy review is so important. Afghanistan, Petraeus has noted, is different from Iraq. It is much poorer, vastly illiterate, governmentally incoherent and spectacularly corrupt and its President, Hamid Karzai, shows no signs of the growth in office that Iraq's Nouri al-Maliki achieved (another mystery). In addition, the U.S. military has made some serious strategic mistakes in Afghanistan this year. "Why are the Marines in Helmand?" General McChrystal asked at one of his first strategy briefings, I'm told. Helmand province is where the opium crop and a lot of the bad guys are. According to counterinsurgency doctrine, the troops should have been sent to secure the Pashtun population center Kandahar city, which is now in the process of slipping into Taliban control. The military has been shockingly slow when it comes to matching U.S. training companies with Afghan battalions. No such joint units currently exist. The press has been led to a model town in Helmand, where counterinsurgency seems to be working but it's an all-American operation. There are no Afghans to take over when we leave, which means the effort is a mirage. And the idea that illiterate and tribal Afghans can be trained into soldiers and police officers remains more a hope than a fact.
Most of the attention the past few weeks has gone to numbers: How many more troops will the President send to Afghanistan? But there is a more important question: How long will he send them for? The military planners assume a five-to-10-year commitment. A more reasonable strategy would be to focus on the next year and see if there's any progress. Can the Afghan troops be trained? Will the Karzai government buckrake, or cooperate? Who are the Taliban, anyway? I'd send more trainers, and more troops to Kandahar, immediately, to give the effort its best chance to succeed. But the President should be as rigorous in evaluating the progress of counterinsurgency as the military was in formulating it.