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.
Say what you will about the Obama administration’s domestic policies, which this blog is not about, nor will it ever be. Somehow or other, they have managed to put together the dream team on Afghanistan and Pakistan. They have listened to them in forming the new “AfPak Policy,” and when you see such men as David Kilcullen testifying before the House Armed Services Committee and hear the things that they are saying… and being taken mui seriously… there is room for hope.
Even though the “new policy” appears to back away from nation-building, it holds more hope for success in and for AfPak than what we’ve been doing in the past. The “surge” may or may not be a wonderful thing in Afghanistan. It depends on whether the troops are used properly, but if GEN Petraeus pushes his authority and begins to be ruthless with commanders about enforcing a standard of counterinsurgent achievement, it will much more helpful than harmful. I’d like to quote an email from my friend and fellow blogger Vampire 6 here regarding the counterinsurgent behaviors versus words he finds in field grade officers in Afghanistan, but I didn’t ask for permission. Suffice it to say that there is a significant variance. Of course, that is only the military side of the question.
What is even more encouraging is the recognition of the importance of the civilian/economic aspects to stabilizing the societies of both Afghanistan and Northwest Pakistan. This war is about society and its conditions in both areas, really. The insurgency will never be resolved through killing bad guys exclusively. While we should never shy away from killing bad guys, an exclusive quest for kinetic engagements is a great way to fail at COIN. While this causes many military listeners to shut down completely (a symptom of the problem we have in successfully implementing COIN doctrine tactically,) the more military leaders can hear that message and understand the linkage, the more success we will find. Each one who “gets it” is then capable of making a difference in their discrete area of operations. All politics is local, and as these discrete areas come under the influence of leaders who are making a difference, the balance will start to swing.
It starts at the top. While today’s hearings are only one day’s hearings, the momentum towards an effective application of national abilities in the pursuit of sane and rational foreign policy objectives is mounting. I see wicked smart people being listened to at the highest levels, and this is extremely encouraging. Nobody is perfect, and just like a sports team on game day, we play with the team we have. President Bush went to war with a team that had never anticipated or trained for, and had a policy of stringent avoidance of, irregular warfare. He had a Secretary of Defense who was more interested in showing off the conventional primacy of the our nation by beating Iraq’s military with one hand tied behind our backs, totally missing the larger picture. He had officers who had never seriously contemplated the challenges of counterinsurgency and an Army and Marine Corps without a relevant doctrine. It took the Bush administration’s Army and Marine Corps over five years after the start of hostilities to publish the relevant doctrine, and there are still traditionalist dinosaurs who resist the promulgation of the only doctrine that has a hope of succeeding against an insurgency, which is not AirLand Battle Doctrine, but Counterinsurgency Doctrine.
These are our cavemen. If GEICO were to make doctrine commercials, the slogan would have to be, “COIN; So difficult a caveman can’t do it.”
There is a saying that one good way to discredit a good idea is to execute it poorly, and as has been pointed out in two recent posts, we have an Officer Corps rife with those who wish to refuse the mission. These leaders will use all the right buzzwords and then proclaim the failure of a doctrine which is not really applied, but instead merely parroted. If the mounting momentum towards an actual integrated policy such as the one being developed by the Obama administration continues, we may yet see the ruthless weeding out of such officers from the ranks and the furtherance of a corps of leaders who have the mental and professional flexibility to actually practice what is being preached.
Hell, they may even start teaching COIN Doctrine to NCO’s in their professional education, bringing the Backbone of the Army into play. Training your troops to execute the doctrine you need to win? What a concept.
Domestic policy will never be the subject of this blog. But it would be a kick in the head if President Obama, who was expected to be a domestic policy wonk and never a foreign policy success, actually brings success not only in Afghanistan but the region. The team he has assembled has advocated a plan to do this through the proper and synergistic use of the military and civilian power of the United States to achieve excellent results. The team he has assembled are, without a doubt, world class. There is room for optimism.