Contreras had his own worries. The Marines had chosen a school as their base, and British forces in the area had warned against occupying schools. "The Marines are trained to go off a ship, hit the ground, and fucking charge," he told me later. They might not be suited for counterinsurgency.
Counterinsurgency, or COIN, has been in vogue at the Pentagon since the success of the Iraq surge, and its dominance was cemented when President Barack Obama chose General Stanley McChrystal, former head of special operations forces and a recent convert to counterinsurgency, as his commander in Afghanistan. Shortly afterward, Obama promulgated his new strategy "to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan." The primary tool would be COIN.
Counterinsurgency theorists obsessively study "small wars," such as the British war in Malaya, the French war in Algeria, and the wars in Vietnam. The emphasis is on using the least amount of violence against the enemy, familiarity with the local culture, and painstakingly removing popular support for the insurgents. This involves using proxy forces to kill those who cannot be "reconciled," and searching for political solutions that tempt the civilian population away from the insurgents.
In some ways, COIN and the related "stability operations" doctrine are a rejection of the neoconservative focus on military might as the key tool of foreign policy. Just as the neocons ruled the Pentagon under George W. Bush, so it seems that the proponents of "population-centric" fighting now have a preponderance of influence in the Obama administration.
To liberals, these COINdinistas, as they are dubbed, might seem kindred spirits. They emphasize nonlethal means, humanitarian aid, development work, and protecting the civilian population. They recognize that military force alone cannot solve conflicts, and that in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US military did not know how to operate in a war where "the terrain is the people." But the end result is still a foreign military occupation — which is not America's stated goal in Afghanistan.
Contreras and I drove to Sakhi's office at the ANCOP headquarters (the acronym stands for Afghan National Civil Order Police). There was a marijuana plant in the garden, and inside a picture of President Hamid Karzai was flanked by some plastic flowers and a map of Helmand. Sakhi was wearing an ornate shalwar kameez, cream with shiny embroidery, and watching a Bollywood movie. He had thick eyebrows and a short, well-groomed beard. He brought out a pile of kebab and bread and bantered with his guests through Bariyal, a thickly muscled translator known as Shotgun. He was the 2002 weight-lifting champion in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, and like most translators who spend enough time with the Americans, he had adopted their argot. "ANCOP are fucking bad-ass people," he told me. Colonel Sakhi and Team Ironhorse shared the same warrior culture, and the language divide proved easily surmountable.