In his analysis of the shortcomings of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, Bing West offers a compelling assessment that, as he writes, "counterinsurgency as nation building became a Sisyphean mission" ("Groundhog War," September/October 2011). But the real problem is not with counterinsurgency doctrine itself but rather with how it is being applied. U.S. military planners and officers should not entirely abandon counterinsurgency, as West predicts they will; instead, they should return to counterinsurgency's guiding principles and make sure they are properly implemented on the ground.
For starters, West argues that Western handouts have led to a culture of entitlement in Afghanistan, which, in turn, has bred opportunism rather than patriotism or a desire for self-improvement. This is a real concern: in 2010, foreign aid was equivalent to approximately 90 percent of Afghanistan's total GDP. To show the granular extent of such a culture of largess, West quotes a Danish soldier in the movie Armadillo encouraging his fellow soldiers to "give [food] to the children as a sign of goodwill." These handouts generate a sense of entitlement, and as West observes, the soldiers are soon "inundated with entreaties for money day after day."
But such actions do not comport with the underlying tenets of counterinsurgency doctrine. For example, engaging children is contrary to the advice given by David Kilcullen in "Twenty-eight Articles," the influential 2006 essay that established many of the fundamental principles of counterinsurgency. Kilcullen writes that to win over local families, foreign military forces should "engage the women, beware the children," because "children are sharp-eyed, lacking in empathy, and willing to commit atrocities their elders would shrink from."