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The Hearts and Minds of the Western Publics

Losing the War

by BRIAN M. DOWNING

The US and NATO have begun an ambitious counterinsurgency program in Afghanistan that places great importance on winning the support of the Afghan people. But there is a rarely-considered corollary in the counterinsurgency effort: Afghanistan must win the support of western publics. Thus far, Afghan politicians and officials and other power holders have been steadily losing western hearts and minds. The Afghans may soon face the withdrawal of western forces.

Support for the war has sagged badly in the United States, where military ventures are more admired than they are in Europe. Since last May, support for the war has fallen from fifty percent to thirty-nine percent; opposition has risen from forty-eight percent to fifty-eight percent. Eight percent of recent respondents thought the war was showing progress; twenty-six percent thought it was getting worse. Twenty-nine percent support sending more US troops; twenty-seven percent thought troop levels should remain the same and thirty-two percent favored decreasing troop levels.

Many in the public are reluctant to respect the oft-heard admonishment that present wars must not be compared to a previous one, yet comparisons are inevitable. The public sees a self-aggrandizing mandarin atop a corrupt and feckless government, a spineless military leaving the fighting to others, and a largely indifferent if not hostile population. Why, Americans are asking, should more of their soldiers be sent half way around the world to do a job that Afghans should be doing?

The administration’s statements on the war are strangely bereft of the confident and hortatory tones that any policy matter, foreign or domestic, usually enjoys. Congress shows little support for sending in more troops. General Petraeus, who pressed for his surge policy in public hearings and whose prestige rose with the turn of events in Iraq, is silent on the war to the east, even though he now oversees it.

Reversal of these trends is unlikely to come from other western political leaders, none of whom is especially supportive. Nor is it likely to come from events in the field. Counterinsurgencies are painfully slow. They often last ten or more years and do not have pivotal battles that bolster public opinion. Counterinsurgencies have only thousands of parleys, engineering projects, skirmishes, and roadside bombs – the Afghan insurgents’ weapon of choice today. The petty pace will wear on public support, and the higher casualties from the recent order to rein in air strikes will wear harder.

The revival of support in the West can only come from political events inside Afghanistan. The Afghan president must find a way to build an effective government, one capable of dealing with disparate peoples, especially in the Pashtun regions, and also capable of providing an attractive alternative to the insurgents. The Afghan army must become an effective organization that can work along with local populations and detach them from supporting the insurgents. The Afghan people themselves must build, in conjunction with counterinsurgency forces, intelligence networks and village militias to identify and wear down the insurgents.

Failing that, European countries will shake their heads at the war’s cost and begin to withdraw their troops within a year. The American public might be unlikely to support fighting and dying there much longer than that. Thus far, many Afghan political figures have behaved like black marketeers and con men in a devastated postwar country – grabbing as much as they can while they can. It is they who are losing the war.

BRIAN M. DOWNING is the author of several works of political and military history, including The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at: brianmdowning@gmail.com