No civilian in the development world really likes to talk about military issues. At best people will mention the development/security nexus, or the need to disarm violent militias that don’t respect human rights and good governance. Most NGO workers, UN personnel, and other peace-building experts didn’t go to Afghanistan to solve military issues anyway. That’s what the army is for, and frankly, no one really wants to hear about what they do. Coalition forces might be in Afghanistan to fight the Global War on Terror, but the rest of the well-intentioned international community is there to build a strong democratic state. In this world, magic words include good governance, local ownership, and capacity-building, not COIN and kinetic actions.
Yet, it is hard to ignore the fact that the Afghan government and its allies have been conducting a counterinsurgency campaign for years now. That’s the paradox of post-conflict Afghanistan: it is NOT post-conflict. The international community is trying to build a state in a country that it is pretty much at war. Free and fair elections, freedom of speech, and a strong independent civil society are highly desirable goals, but none of these things will be achieved without a strong national army that is able to defend the country from internal and external threats. Building a national army is part of building a state. Given that the Afghan state will soon have to take care of its own security (for the most part), building a strong Afghan National Army (ANA) might be the only way to preserve what has been achieved since 2001/2002.
The question remains as to whether COIN is the way to go. Improving law and order, governance, and the government’s legitimacy sounds all good on paper. In practice, it has proved rather difficult to implement (not only in Afghanistan). It is even harder when foreign forces are the ones in charge of doing it. Many an observer believes that it might actually fuel the conflict. Even if it were to be proven that American-led counterinsurgency might actually work in Afghanistan, anyone knows that COIN requires a long term commitment that neither the U.S. nor any other NATO state is able to provide. COIN is too expensive, both financially and politically, for the leader of a democratic state to be 100% sure that his/her country’s armed forces will be able to fight in a remote country like Afghanistan (at least from a Western point of view) for the next 20 years or so. ANA soldiers (along with local militias) will now be the ones in charge of doing counterinsurgency. It remains to be seen whether the ANA will be strong enough to keep the Taliban at bay.