Senior Pentagon officials and some of the top advisers to the US military’s war effort have been warning, too, that in a vast and poor country like Afghanistan in which there seems to be little support for a strong central government after nearly a decade, America’s strategy focused on building it up may be misplaced.
The shift advocated by some senior military officials would involve moving away from counterinsurgency and toward a strategy of counterterrorism – the Pentagon’s shorthand for the more conventional approach of aggressively pursuing and killing insurgents, generally with small teams of special operations forces.
It is a plan that has long been pushed by Vice President Joe Biden – and dismissed during the first White House strategy review by some senior military officials loyal to Petraeus, commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan. The counterinsurgency strategy has only recently had the troop strength it requires to be implemented in earnest, they say, and needs more time. Counterinsurgency practice, they add, also involves killing and capturing insurgents—in other words, the two approaches are not mutually exclusive.
But one indicator that the Pentagon is thinking seriously about pursuing counterterrorism over counterinsurgency came in little-publicized remarks last week from Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and the No. 2 military officer. “When we started, we probably were more aligned with counterinsurgency. The emphasis is shifting,” he said in a speech at the National Press Club on Dec. 8. “The balance of the force that was really weighted more toward counterinsurgency is starting to shift to have an element of counterterrorism larger than we thought we were going to need when we started.”