Is the US Military Presence Driving the Afghan Insurgency?

Spencer Ackerman on the key issue raised by Matthew Hoh:

The concern about the U.S. presence fueling the insurgency — not for what the U.S. does, but merely for the fact of its existence — was raised by Defense Secretary Robert Gates in January, but it has not yet seemed to penetrate most discourse about the war. Gates himself backed away from the critique in September, saying that Gen. Stanley McChrystal convinced him that the U.S. military could mitigate the danger by actively providing for the Afghan people’s well-being. And indeed, McChrystal has tacitly paid respect to the critique, saying in his much-derided London address that jobs programs could do much to deprive the Taliban of foot soldiers who fight because their lack of economic alternatives accelerate their antipathy to the U.S. presence. That approach won the support yesterday of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in his uneasy embrace of a modified version of McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy. But if Hoh is right, then it’s simply too late for that strategy, as the mere presence of the U.S. military will have reached the “tipping point” that Gates warned about in January.

I think the beginning of wisdom on this is just to flat-out acknowledge that of course our presence fuels the insurgency. If a bunch of Chinese troops showed up in Detroit, decided they were going to bring security and good government to Detroit, installed a new Detroit political leadership, and went about very earnestly trying to solve Detroit’s problems there would be a lot of resistance to their effort. The question is whether their security, stabilization, and reconstruction efforts could be successful enough to on balance improve things.

For our case in Afghanistan I think that the key point is that there needs to be some kind of horizon on our presence. There’s always going to be distrust of a foreign army roaming through your country. In part you can dispel that distrust through good works. But in part you can dispel that through showing people what a post-American Afghanistan would be like and how we’re going to get there. I don’t know if that means a chronologically-boud timetable or a political checklist or what, but it’s got to be something. What you don’t want is to get in the situation of saying, basically, that we can’t leave Afghanistan until first we kill everyone who wants us to leave Afghanistan. For a while our Iraq policy was stuck in that loop, and I worry that our Afghanistan policy may veer in that direction.