"Strategy without tactics is the slow road to victory," wrote Sun Tzu in The Art of War, "but tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat." Stanley McChrystal, the top US military commander in Afghanistan, would do well to heed the words of the ancient Chinese general.
McChrystal is a lead member of the counter-insurgency (or "Coin") brigade that now dominates the US national security establishment. Coin theory emphasises a "population-centric" over an "enemy-centric" approach. It disinters the language of "clear, hold and build", resonant of the Vietnam era, and describes soldiers and marines as "nation-builders as well as warriors" (to borrow a phrase from the US army's much-lauded 2006 counter-insurgency field manual, co-authored by the celebrated General David Petraeus). Coin is predicated on the idea that it is possible to win supporters for an insurgency by providing security and basic services, and ensuring the presence of a strong, legitimate government.
Or, as McChrystal put it, in a memo to President Barack Obama leaked in September: "This new strategy must ... be properly resourced and executed through an integrated civilian-military counter-insurgency campaign that earns the support of the Afghan people and provides them with a secure environment." Without extra troops, said McChrystal, the mission "will likely result in failure".
Critics of the new focus on counter-insurgency theory claim it is a tactical gimmick that enables policymakers to avoid thinking long and hard about what the endgame in Afghanistan will actually look like. It is not a recipe for winning the war in the long run, they say; it is only for avoiding defeat in the short run.
"Coin doctrine is, at best, a collection of tactics that may or may not apply to a given situation," says Celeste Ward, a former deputy …