There is a tremendous conversation going on now that the firing of GEN McKiernan fits right into. There are many voices, with standard bearers on each side. It is a conversation that contributes directly to whether or not we actually succeed in the current conflict. Many of the posts on this blog have been outliers to this central conversation.
Central players in the conversation like David Kilcullen, John Nagl, COL Gian Gentile and Andrew Bacevich have been going ’round and ’round for quite some time now. I have sparred a bit with Gentile, and more recently with Michael Cohen, a relative late-comer to the conversation.
I’ve heard the arguments. I even hear the others, who are not “spokesmen” for one side or the other. For quite some time now, I’ve said that a lot of this is diversionary. Recently, a comment string had me about to tear my hair out as the conversation turned to such things as whether or not COIN was done in Somalia, which is pretty inane, really. (It came from my assertion, in refuting Cohen, that there had been no nascent nation-building in Somalia.) Some men who consider that they have a grasp of counterinsurgency, at least strong enough to intimate that my understanding is not quite up to their standards, wrote authoritatively about Afghanistan, though they had not been there. In putting forward my opinion, I was running into quibbling over such things as terrain denial and purely kinetic operations being possibly the direction that we need to head in Afghanistan. I’ve also run into some kind of derision about population-centric COIN, which is interesting in that it doesn’t seem to make any sense.
Strangely, if you call it something else, they will often agree that the action would be a good idea. They suggest things that are part of pop-centric COIN as if they weren’t, and that’s fine with them, too. There’s some kind of knee-jerk negativity, but it seems to be emotional, which I find strange.
There’s something that I would like to point out; there is very consistent feedback coming out of the veterans of Afghanistan. There are a number of us now, and there are a number of us who write, and we all say very similar things. Whether or not we are fans of Galula or of FM 3-24 or whatever. We differ on small points, but our feedback is remarkably similar.
Discussion can be a lot of fun. It can be stimulating. It can be maddening, especially when those of us who have been there, particularly those of us who have been there as advisors, keep saying the same thing over and over and those who have their opinions about COIN or the war or both just brush past it dismissively. I can point to a number of bloggers who say similar things, who have provided similar feedback, and this has not changed in several rotations.
I can still say that I’m encouraged. Prof. Bacevich may not like it, as his viewpoint is clearly marginalized in the new administration, but I’m encouraged. We may not be doing a great job here in the States preparing our NCO’s for leadership in COIN environments, and that’s more than a shame; it’s dangerous. I’m still encouraged. I was encouraged when the strategic plan for “AfPak” was released, and I’m even more encouraged now. Sec. Gates, ADM Mullen and GEN Petraeus have shown that they are career-ending serious about what we are doing. That’s the kind of message that has been a long time coming.
The message that the advisor veterans of Afghanistan have been bringing back for years may not be clicking with all of those who enjoy the various discussions; but it seems to have caught on with those who are calling the shots now. Don’t get me wrong; I have no illusions that this is being read by those leaders. GEN Petraeus was the driving force behind the manual which lays out the doctrine.
The point is not lost on me, though, that advisor veterans say very similar things and we have pointed out a number of things consistently… and when the leaders who proposed the doctrine for counterinsurgency get their time in the barrel, they appear to be moving in a direction that addresses those concerns.
Many argue, as COL Gentile does, that other factors were more responsible for the improvements in conditions in Iraq than was GEN Petraeus and “the surge.” They claim that Iraqi just happened to get tired of the violence right at that point. They argue that the “Sunni Awakening” occurred independently of American actions or any change in behavior on the part of our leadership. They speak convincingly, and they have an audience. It is their argument against a narrative which would tend to disprove their assertions. Basically, they argue fortuitous circumstances that magically made it appear as if the surge in Iraq worked. While to me their narrative seems a bit self-serving, here comes Act Two.
If this team is able to begin to reverse our recent fortunes in Afghanistan, it will still be argued that other factors beyond our control were responsible. It’s going to ring a little more false, though.
In my opinion, the self-serving narratives of the COINtras, though persuasive, are diversionary. Counterinsurgency is the most complex environment that can be imagined for a military leader. With so many factors, there will always be plausible alternate explanations. Here’s what I know; if you do the right things, a lot of different moving parts will begin moving in the directions that you need for them to. This is not a science, it’s an art with a lot of science involved. COL Gentile says that COIN requires a lot of leaps of faith. I can see where he would get that. I would say that it’s just my observation, but it’s more than just me, who has seen both good and bad done and seen the results.
Following a series of moves over the past few months, particularly the past seven weeks, I have found room for optimism. Not all of my fellow advisor veterans share my optimism. They have come to distrust the system, or the administration, to too great a degree and have gone into “show me” mode. Again, understandable. I have a lot more faith in this team from the Secretary down, and they have shown that they have teeth that they are willing to use.
In an email exchange today with a few veterans, we all acknowledged having seen horrible leaders who were just breezing through disastrous combat tours and still getting promoted. I don’t think that this team is going to completely eradicate that type of behavior; but I do think that they’ve sent a strong signal.
I’m more encouraged than I was after reading the strategy review.
Now, a real telling point will be what the civilian governmental agencies such as State and USAID do to handle their responsibilities in the new strategy. All of the military changes in the world are not going to amount to much if Afghanistan’s government is left with such corruption, and if there is no economic development the outcome will remain very much in doubt.
As War On Terror News pointed out in comments, and I have said in the past, not all of the Obama initiatives regarding Afghanistan are worthy of praise. Undermining President Karzai is not, in my opinion, what a loyal ally does, regardless of how irritating he can be. The Afghan government must not be, regardless of folk lore or propaganda, a puppet. It must be an Afghan government. It must be the legitimate government of Afghanistan, chosen by its people. They have elections; they have the vote. We must respect it as we respect our own if anything we say is to be taken seriously.
So, putting together a dream team must be accompanied by practicing what we preach. Given the President’s “initiative” to unilateral introduce a new office to “balance” Karzai, that remains to be seen. So, good point WOTN, and one we would all do well to bear in mind.
It was interesting to note that on the same day that the House Armed Services Committee was receiving testimony from three wise men, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was having hearings of its own. Titled “Voices of Veterans of the Afghan War,” Committee Chair Sen. John Kerry that the purpose of the hearing was to get the perspective of the Afghan veteran, the soldiers who had experienced the challenges of Afghanistan.
They promptly called forth Vietnam veteran Andrew Bacevich.
More after the jump
The upshot is that with the eighth anniversary of the Long War now approaching, fundamental questions about this enterprise continue to be ignored. My purpose today is to suggest that the members of this committee have a profound duty to take those questions on. In his testimony before this committee, the young John Kerry famously – or infamously, in the eyes of some – asked: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”
So it’s not worth dying for…
The mystical war against communism finds its counterpart in the mystical war on terrorism. As in the 1960s so too today: mystification breeds misunderstanding and misjudgment. It prevents us from seeing things as they are. As a direct result, it leads us to exaggerate the importance of places like Afghanistan and indeed to exaggerate the jihadist threat, which falls well short of being existential. It induces flights of fancy, so that, for example, otherwise sensible people conjure up visions of providing clean water, functioning schools, and good governance to Afghanistan’s 40,000 villages, with expectations of thereby winning Afghan hearts and minds. It causes people to ignore considerations of cost. With the Long War already this nation’s second most expensive conflict, trailing only World War II, and with the federal government projecting trillion dollar deficits for years to come, how much can we afford and where is the money coming from?
It’s not a real threat, and it’s too costly. That, of course, is Bacevich in a nutshell. Always.
There is a simple question that just screams to be asked: What in the hell does Andrew Bacevich have to do with Afghan Veterans? This man is beyond unhelpful in the national conversation regarding Afghanistan, other than to be some sort of straw man. Having him testify with the other four was akin to introducing a blind owl in the middle of the lion tamer routine at the circus.
Performer: “Now I will have Simba jump atop this pedestal and roar!” *CRACK*
Performer: “Look at this rare blind owl. Isn’t he odd?”
Performer: “Simba, roar!” *CRACK*
That wouldn’t even make sense at the circus.
One problem; this is not the circus. It is the United States Senate. This was the day for the lions, not to trot out the embittered owl blinded by loss. This was the day that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee set aside to listen to the voices of veterans of the Afghan War, and 20% of those who testified were not Afghan veterans or even veterans of Iraq, but instead of Vietnam. One out of five. That is a waste of limited bandwidth; a failure of your declared mission that day. Are there so few Afghan Vets that they couldn’t fill five out of five with the real deal?
Bacevich, a professor and no doubt an educated man, served in Vietnam and lost a son in Iraq. He is an outspoken critic of “The Long War,” basically counseling that we should quit and go home, that there is no real “existential” threat here, and he completely separates the Taliban and AQ, as if they have nothing whatsoever to do with each other. When looking for coherent insight into this war, Bacevich should not be on the recommended reading list, because we only have so much bandwidth available. Other than being a strong critic of the war, and being a professor, Mr. Bacevich brings no specific knowledge to the table other than a skewed understanding of the specific situation in Afghanistan. His very presence was such an anomaly to the stated purpose that there had to be some underlying reason for it, relevance being lacking.
Two of these veterans, SSG Chase and SSG(R) McGurk are IAVA members. It is unclear if CPT Moore or CPL Reyes have any group affiliations, but for two of the four to be affiliated with IAVA bespeaks their influence in getting before Congress.
The testimonies of SSG Chase, SSG(R) McGurk, and CPT(R) Moore were interesting reads, and completely contradictory to Mr. Bacevich’s testimony. Each of them, without specifically stating it in such language, asked for a balanced counterinsurgency campaign and a dedication to the mission. I found myself in agreement with much of what they said.
Former Corporal Reyes’ testimony was a case study in a young warrior who idealistically went into a war being very well trained in kinetic operations; and completely untrained in counterinsurgency. His story is the perfect illustration of what I have been telling these officers for months about how we don’t train our young warriors in COIN, and it causes problems not only in their performance but in their heads. This man is completely disillusioned, and that’s what happens when your leadership fails you on the level that he was failed.
I will say this again; when your young warriors talk of, “chasing ghosts,” you are not doing the right things, and your young warriors are not properly trained. This is a leadership failure. If you are a leader, this is the foot stomp. This will be on the exam.
An interesting read is Senator Kerry’s statement about Afghanistan. I’ve kept this link until last, because reading the testimonies of those who spoke without knowing beforehand what Sen. Kerry’s frame of mind at the outset made them more dramatic. It brought the immediacy of the influence that words carry home.
Quite a contrast with the activities of the House on the same day and not so far away.