Meanwhile the Taliban are seamlessly embedded within communities, a British security expert in Helmand told me. They are the locals. They do not need Kalashnikovs; a simple knock on the door can be just as effective. At night the Taliban controls the villages, undoing whatever the Americans tried to accomplish during the day. It does not matter if here and there the Americans are effective. "Emptying out the Titanic with a teacup has an effect," the Brit told me, "but it doesn't stop the ship from sinking."
COIN is a massive endeavor, I was told by retired Colonel Patrick Lang, who has done counterinsurgency in Vietnam, Latin America, and the Middle East. There are insufficient resources committed to doing it in Afghanistan, he says, and if the Americans don't plan on owning the country, why waste time on it? "It is only worth the expenditure of resources if you were the local government seeking to establish authority, or an imperialist power that wanted to hang around for a while." There are 28 million people in Afghanistan, and they are widely dispersed in small towns. "You have to provide security for the whole country," Lang told me, "because if you move around they just move in behind you and undo what you did. So you need to have effective security and a massive multifaceted development organization that covers the whole place. COIN advisers have to stay in place all the time. If you're going to do COIN, it really amounts to nation building, and troops are there to provide protection for the nation builders."
His point was that the Americans will bail on Afghanistan no matter what. It will be tragic when that happens, whether it's six months from now or two years from now. Andrew Wilder, a long-time aid worker who has spent years working in Afghanistan and set up its first think tank, the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, told me there is no way to "fix" Afghanistan. "It may be more realistic to look for ways to slow down the descent into anarchy." Another way to look at it came from a retired American military officer working in security in Afghanistan. "Every time our boys face them, we win," he told me grimly. "We're winning every day. Are we going to keep winning for 20 years?"
This story was originally published in Mother Jones magazine.
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