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.
From the time following the election, there was an increasing pace of articles, papers and interviews geared towards “informing the President’s decision” about the way forward in Afghanistan. Since the plan was announced just over a month ago, there has been a swelling cry amongst those who did not find their opinions well-represented in the new plan. These people knew, with the appointments of a number of those who champion opposite views to influential positions in the Pentagon and elsewhere, that their chosen paths were probably not going to carry a lot of weight. The reaction has been to raise a hue and cry in an attempt to catch hold of any lack of commitment or loss of enthusiasm due to difficulty.
This has resulted in some strange actions, such as calling Andrew Bacevich during Senate hearings dedicated to hearing from Afghanistan veterans. It has also made for some strange bedfellows. The website AntiWar.com recently published an interview with COL Gian Gentile, which many would find odd, in that a serving officer and department head at West Point would grant such an interview. The author of the article does rather stridently go after Gentile’s ideological opponents, presenting his opposition argument in a purposely dim light. This prompted one commenter on Abu Muqawama to point out that the author, Kelley B. Vlahos, is a correspondent for Fox News and a writer for conservative publications, labeling her among the “Paleo-Conservatives.”
Regardless of the political affiliation of the author, it is very odd that a military officer who has become a lightning rod for the traditionalists in the military establishment would find, or accept, such a warm embrace from AntiWar.com. In fairness, COL Gentile explains that he did clear the interview with the West Point PAO. I would expect nothing less, really, nor would I expect a different answer from that PAO. That does not make the interview less odd in its character.
Those who are on the side of the argument that hasn’t found favor in the administration are arguing strenuously that the administration is continuing to pursue “failed policies of the Bush administration,” which has become the ultimate political slam, the equivalent of labeling someone a racist to those who use it. Of course, those who advocate the adoption of the “new” strategy for what has come to known as “AfPak” are painted with that same brush here. COL Gentile comes out looking like the great patriot, while those who differ with him are painted as, well, not as patriotic. In fact, Gentile is painted as being the one who is sincere for simply being willing to embrace AntiWar.com, while his opponents receive a slightly different treatment.
Gentile laughed when he thought of the ribbing he might get among the COIN-set, being interviewed by a site with the name “Antiwar.” Ultimately, he doesn’t care. He is driven by a sincerity his detractors cannot touch, and a personal mission not to let current war doctrine go unchallenged. He might just have a ghost of a chance.
A sincerity his detractors cannot touch. Nice. Sincerity, for a military officer, is now defined by their willingness to interview for AntiWar.com. We’ve come a long way, baby. Note the overwhelming sincerity below that cannot be touched by the likes of Nagl:
Deny it they may, says Gentile, but today’s policymakers are promoting a similar Surge strategy for Afghanistan (See congressional testimonies by Flournoy and Chief Af-Pak envoy Holbrooke this week: clear, hold and build, with more boots on the ground, more civilian experts, more COIN). As an active duty officer, Gentile won’t question current plans outright, but he left me with this:
“As soldiers, our role is to do whatever we are told to do by our civilian masters. However, my experience is, that the idea of using military force to change entire societies — to use John Nagl’s words — at the barrel of a gun, is highly problematic and it is not as clean and as clear and as sensible as I think our own COIN doctrine makes it seem to be,” he said. “I saw what it is like changing the entire society at the barrel of a gun in Baghdad in 2006, it wasn’t as simple.”
The wording of this quote is unfortunate. Nagl has made the statement about changing societies. I cannot find any reference to this change being, “at the barrel of a gun.” There are several instances of Gentile saying this, however. It’s actually a phrase that he resorts to repeatedly. It’s part of his schtick. Now, I may be wrong, and I’d have no problem with having it pointed out, but while I have found those two elements linked together frequently in Gentile’s writing and again in quotes from him, but I have not found an instance of it said by Nagl.
It may also be cleverly worded, especially in the quote above, to appear that Nagl has said that the Army, “can change entire societies at the barrel of a gun.” Now that’s sincerity that cannot be matched. Clever = sincere.
Overall, this is an exercise in First Amendment rights, and I support it as such. No problem there. Other than that it is quite the display of odd bedfellows. It was also a great way to challenge the patriotism of his ideological opponents, and specifically Nagl, without having to say so himself. Nicely played. I can’t say that it added to COL Gentile’s stock in my book, but it was well played.
The post regarding Mr. Cohen’s articles on Democracy Arsenal on COIN and specifically John Nagl and Brian Burton’s article in the April issue of Washington Quarterly was cited on Abu Muqawama and began a lively discussion thread over there. This is good, since the COINtras are raising a point that needs to be discussed, dealt with, and moved past. It is the politics of fear.
More after the jump
Here is the lone comment that was left on this blog (there are nearly 140 over at AM) regarding the post, made by Mr. Anonymous:
You completely miss Michael Cohen’s point. Utterly.
As simply as possible: There is an upper bound on the efficiency of COIN. No matter how good you get at it, as a policy option, it’s always bloody, expensive, and comparatively undesirable.
The problem with the COIN industry is that getting better at COIN is on some level a futile endeavor. You can get better enough to perform better tactically, or operationally, at the current goals of your campaign. But you can never get enough better to make being in COIN strategically positive.
Through the power of agent theory and path dependence, by making us better at COIN, you are making us more likely to use it, thus making us actually worse off, because two competent COIN engagements are still worse for us as a country than one incompetent COIN engagement.
It would be one thing if you actually engaged this argument, but you instead quite failed to comprehend, articulate, or rebut it.
I do get Mr. Cohen’s point, actually. Mr. Cohen is afraid that if we grasp the doctrine of counterinsurgency well enough to be successful in Afghanistan, we will be, as a nation, forever seeking new venues in which to display our counterinsurgent prowess; that the civilian masters of the military will find a new and irresistible toy with which to play endlessly.
The operative word is afraid. It’s the operative word in all of the COINtra dialogues. They are afraid that by retaining the lessons learned in Iraq and the lessons being learned in Afghanistan, they will lose control of something. Some fear that the United States will lose its conventional edge. Some fear that they will lose massive budgets for very expensive new aircraft. Some fear that the stigma of Vietnam will be lost, and that the deterrent to engaging in counterinsurgency or nation-building will melt away, allowing America to be drawn endlessly into long and messy engagements in strategic backwaters.
The commenter writes about a COIN industry. Aside from a few publishers (have you seen the price of Galula’s Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice lately?) I fail to see an industry. I do see a massive conventional weapons industry. I do see that the funding for the F-22 has been cut. I do see an industry to support the military that guards us from the bogeyman who can nuke us to death or supposedly invade our country and subjugate it. I don’t see a COIN industry. COIN actually pushes back against the greater defense industry in many ways. It does not play to technological strengths, heavy equipment, or present a technical challenge in overcoming enemy systems. It does not respond to advanced radars that can pick out a gnat at a hundred miles at 50,000 feet. It does not spur the development of more capable fighters or of advanced armored vehicles networked seamlessly together. It doesn’t respond to generals who can see each detail through a Predator feed and a networked map.
It responds to a man on the ground, dirty and tired and frustrated, trying to get a bunch of backwards people to feel safe enough to tell him that their neighbor likes to play with explosives at night and threaten to cut their heads off if they tell anyone.
COIN strategically positive. Now there’s an idea. COIN is not strategically positive. It never was. It may support a strategic goal, but it is never strategically positive. COIN is the end result of failed strategy or the failure to strategize. It is the end result, as are all wars, of failure to resolve problems non-violently.
Failure in an endeavor is not strategically positive, either. In fact, it is strategically disastrous. Maj.Gen. Charles Dunlap states that the loss in Vietnam didn’t cost the United States the Cold War, and it didn’t cause the nation to become a failed state, and therefore loss in Afghanistan is acceptable, perhaps desirable. Yes, it would be desirable to him. It would once again cause a version of the Powell/Weinberger Doctrine to be adopted, perhaps by law. The lesson learned from Vietnam; “Never again.”
Never again would an advanced fighter be put on hold while the military pursued an objective in which they held air superiority by default. Never again would all of his training and planning for a conventional knockdown of the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army Air Force be rendered useless. Never again would he face internal dissent from a guerrilla group of junior officers who point out that a two-engined version of the Spooky gunship could be bought by the squadron full, to include crews, for the price of a single F-22.
I don’t know where Maj.Gen. Dunlap was in the years following the humiliation of Vietnam. Of course, Vietnam had positive effects on the Air Force in many ways. The Red Flag school was begun, the F-15 and F-16 learned from the challenges faced by the F-4, and the United States fielded the best fighter in the world as the world watched America’s panicked flight from Saigon.
The disaster in Vietnam did irreparably harm the United States. We were lucky that the Soviets did not view our weakened Army as the easy prey it would have been in the mid-’70′s. The services struggled with drug addiction and the Vietnam veterans suffered from the double edged sword of fighting the wrong doctrine in an insurgency, which to me complicates PTSD, and the stigma of failure which cannot but increase their suffering. These men and women who fought as well as any in the history of the United States were failed by their leadership and training.
Laos and Cambodia fell. Millions perished. To this day, none of these countries match their liberal neighbors economically. Malaysia, which survived an insurgency only a few years before Vietnam collapsed, produces computers. Vietnam produces cheap clothing and hats.
The loss of American prestige, the aura of invincibility shattered, led to numerous confrontations abroad. The USS Pueblo, the Embassy in Tehran, and a myriad of other incidents demonstrated our loss of standing. It changed the way that America views itself and its government forever. It emboldened asymmetric threats around the world as they saw the limits of American resolve and learned that if they had more patience, we would tire and concede any fight.
It made our media and our Armed Forces mortal enemies, which they remain to this day. The relationship between the American people and their Armed Forces did not heal until the Gulf War. I know. I wore a uniform during the 80′s, often in public on American streets.
One incompetent engagement is better for those who live in fear of the future. It is not better to me, who has lost friends and allies and has sacrificed months and months of my life and family time for it. It is not better for the legions of Vietnam veterans who live daily in the aftermath of futile sacrifice. No. It is not, and it never will be. Question the motives for engagement, do reasonable work to prevent such occurrences in the future; but do not make our sacrifices mean nothing so that your fear can rule you.
The military response, following the insidious behavior of those who had resorted to lying, cheating and cover-ups to justify failures and poor behaviors, learned a lesson; “Never again.” To them, “never again” meant never again engaging in asymmetric warfare. Documents were written, studies done, to demonstrate the failures and point the fingers at everyone and everything except themselves. First the Weinberger Doctrine and later the Powell Doctrine aimed at avoiding all such engagements, keeping our military restricted to “short, sharp” engagements, which to military officers was both exculpatory and very desirable. It simplified their jobs, and, confident that they would never again be called upon to perform in an asymmetric environment, allowed them to focus strictly on AirLand Doctrine and the weapons required to prosecute it.
Meanwhile, the government failed to learn how to engage the true might of our nation, its economic might and the freedom of its people, to engage in the diplomatic and developmental activity that would prevent the failure to thrive that pushes individuals towards extremism. We set up our own enemies of the future.
As the Armed Forces recovered from the TBI of Vietnam and built into a force that the Soviets dare not challenge across the Fulda Gap, American Soldiers and Marines muddled through a series of asymmetric disasters for which they were untrained and unprepared. Having thrown out what we had learned from Vietnam, eager to distance ourselves from the memory of having our collective asses handed to us by a nation of rice farmers, hundreds of Marines were killed by what we later came to call a VBIED in Beirut. The ignominious withdrawal from Somalia and the vision of naked American dead being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu by dancing Somalians did not wake up the leadership but instead inspired the Powell Doctrine.
Yet the political masters of our Armed Forces ventured forth again, into fields where our mighty M-1 Abrams meant nothing more than a really nice roadblock.
I see the fear in every argument made by the COINtras. Fear for their particular rice bowls, fear of losing a glorious image, fear of success driving future endeavors. I am a Soldier. This does not mean that I do not feel fear; far from it. It does mean that I am not bound to a course of action or inaction because of it. Cohen’s fear is that by adopting the doctrine that is necessary for success in the current war, and by being realistic enough to look at our past and maintaining the knowledge, skills and abilities to succeed again, we will ensure the advent of future instances of involvement in foreign insurgencies. We, however, realize that civilians will, for whatever reason, throw me and my brothers in arms into a similar situation, regardless of their fluffy expressions of goodwill and world brotherhood.
When they do, after we have taken their well-intentioned advice and planning for a raging conventional holocaust and the righteous, clear-cut conventional victory Americans crave, we will once again make mistakes that cost young men their lives.
The right lesson that we should have derived from earlier failures in such situations was indeed, “Never again.” Never again will we send young men out to “chase ghosts” untrained in the doctrine and tactics that will keep more of them alive, end your adventures more quickly, and avoid failures that invite such events as the Tehran Embassy due to our loss of prestige. Never again will we have officers who attempt to fail at their tasks with cries of, “We don’t do windows.” Never again will we, through willful negligence and wishful thinking, endanger the lives of our Soldiers and the accomplishment of whatever mission our nation calls upon us to perform.
I see the COINtras fear, and I see Cohen’s. It’s okay to be scared. It’s not okay to let it rule your life or your decisions, and it’s not okay to allow it to rule the advice you give to others. It is particularly not okay for it to rule the minds of military officers, and especially not for reasons of individual or service-related selfishness, parochialism, or their boyhood visions of glory.
I get Cohen’s point all too well. His point was arrived at before his readings and his writings and that, to me, is intellectually dishonest. That’s why I wrote about it.
If anyone wants to avoid such future entanglements, then learn your own, “Never again.” Learn that by establishing an excellent Phase 0 capability, you position yourself better to never have to consider Phase IV COIN in a kinetic environment. Influence your government to deal with the development of radicalized elements by addressing them at their birthplace, before they plan attacks on our home soil for whatever crazy reason that their minds grow into. Start addressing the next Taliban or al Qaeda now before they kill Americans.
COIN is awful business. It boggles the best minds. It can never be done perfectly, only adequately, but it can be done. I hope that Afghanistan is the last time this nation ever engages in foreign COIN or FID, but I don’t for one second believe that it will be, especially in a world where the only way to really interfere with American interests or strategies is asymmetric. I am here to tell Michael Cohen, Maj.Gen. Dunlap, or anyone else that never again will I listen to someone who tells me to be willfully negligent in my duties to my Soldiers and my nation, and to help them prove their points by purposely failing in Afghanistan; or that it would be alright to do so. Never again will I heed leadership that tries to guide me away from having the knowledge, skills and abilities to perform in whatever role my nation tells me I need to function in. That is my never again.
No, not John Nagl. Not in this lifetime. No, we’re talking about Democracy Arsenal’s Michael Cohen who, for a fellow at a think tank and a former speechwriter for the United States Representative to the United Nations is pretty thick on a subject into which he has been putting a lot of study. He’s been taking on the COINdinistas and being a bit condescending about it at that, which is ironic. In a May 1st post on Nagl and Burton’s article in the April edition of The Washington Quarterly, Cohen writes some pretty silly stuff.
More after the jump.
The COIN-danistas deterministic notion of future military conflict is particularly hard to reconcile with Nagl’s later point that “U.S. conventional military capabilities still qualitatively outstrip those of potential adversaries to a significant degree. Such capabilities are too costly and infrastructure-intensive for most countries to develop, purchase, or field. Instead of playing the U.S. game, current and potential enemies have turned to asymmetric approaches designed to neutralize our strengths and exploit our relative weaknesses.”
Well wait a minute here – if no country can qualitatively match the United States and if our enemies only approach for confronting the United States is through asymmetric approaches then wouldn’t this suggest that the United States has a rather fulsome capability to decide when, where and how to fight wars?
Ummm… no. It gives us a fulsome capability to decide when, where and how to react to being attacked by non-state actors. It gives our nation a fulsome inability to have someone against whom to declare war because we don’t have an institutional memory of declaring hostilities against a non-state. It gives current and potential enemies a fulsome and demonstrated ability to confuse us, play against our demonstrated weaknesses and strike against not only our homeland but those of other nations with whom we share good relations.
Simply, it puts us in the position not of actor but of reactor. Our conventional primacy in the world precludes any nation-state from having a direct conventional assault on our interests or allies. As Nagl points out, likely scenarios for traditional state-state war are pretty scarce. This forces those who would see the United States taken down a peg to resort to the unconventional, asymmetric insurgent type behaviors that we have a demonstrated difficulty in dealing with.
It does allow us to determine how, when and where to react. Cohen points out that in the days following 9/11 we had choices in how to pursue al Qaeda. This is true. While he points out an obvious truth, even divining the method of our reaction, there is an essential failure in his logic; that our conventional primacy completely failed us; we had been attacked. We had been attacked not on the fields of Europe, not by a nuclear strike by a conventional power, but on our own soil by a non-state actor. We did not choose the fight. We did choose, in the aftermath, to fight. In the end, citing a favorite childhood movie, Cohen advocates choosing not to fight.
Take it on the chin, America, and just say no.
This is simplistic at best. Simplistic answers in a complicated world are absolutely worthless.
In another post, made the same day, Cohen tries to tackle Nagl again, this time on the subject of failed states.
Note to Cohen: Dude, you are so totally out of your league. You thoroughly miss the point, and for someone with your credentials, this is absolutely frightening. Truly sad.
Nagl is not an advocate of COIN for the sake of COIN. Nagl is an advocate of being able to prevail in the conflicts at hand, and for never again being such utter failures at having the ability to achieve what this nation’s civilian leadership decides is in the nation’s interests. We are not out of the woods yet; not by a far sight. The Army has a long way to go, and will likely never really commit culturally to accepting the abilities to overcome an insurgency. There are points of light, though, and they are increasing in both number and influence.
Nagl is an advocate of being capable of facing the threats that face us in the modern world, where the new phenomenon of globalization has given non-state actors the ability to strike within the shores of the United States on a scale that has never been done by any state actor since the War of 1812.
This is highly misleading. The experience of the US military in Somalia was a disaster and conveniently ignored is the fact that this intervention — where we sent ground troops and tried nascent nation-building — was stunningly unsuccessful. As for the Balkans, the United States did not intervene with ground troops (peacekeepers) in Bosnia or Kosovo until only after a peace agreement/cease fire had been reached in both locales – and it was not our military that did nation building in either country, it was the United Nations and other civilian agencies. And while Nagl is right that the demands to intervene militarily in places like Darfur and Rwanda have grown, doesn’t it tell us something that such demands have gone unmet? It is hardly accidental that the United States did not send ground troops into kinetic environments as nation builders in each of these situations.
Failed and weak states represent areas of potential threat to the US, but Nagl’s response – counter-insurgency and nation-building — is not only political realistic it makes little sense from either a strategic or tactical perspective. Above all, it is a disproportionate response to what are, for the most part, not vital threats to the United States.
What horrible analysis. Somalia was nothing like Afghanistan or Iraq, nor were the goals. There was no “nascent nation-building” in Somalia. It was a humanitarian intervention and, while terribly ill-conceived, had nothing to do with any real or perceived threat to our national security. The Balkans was, again, a response to a humanitarian disaster. In both cases, it was a military response to a humanitarian crisis. They are great examples of why Nagl is right, but horrible examples of why he may be wrong.
Nagl does not advocate counterinsurgency as a driver of national policy. What he does is point out that because of our conventional primacy, we are unlikely to face a conventional threat. He also points out that most military activity in the past 60 years, that which our nation has asked us to do, has been unconventional, asymmetric and often insurgency-related. He points out that the real threats to our country are now and are more likely (than conventional) to be asymmetric. He also points out that the civilian capacity to avoid using military force to assist in stabilization is woefully lacking.
Why people like Cohen find John Nagl to be threatening and feel a need to argue with him or discredit his ideas is beyond me. There have been military thinkers over the years who have examined the failures of Vietnam. Most got it wrong. Much of the military analysis has been flawed in the favor of blaming the civilian government for the failures of the Army to figure it out. They have ascribed abilities to supposed counterinsurgency in Vietnam that wasn’t there. Even in the wake of asymmetric failures such as Somalia retrospective analysis failed to do more than reflect a desire to force the Powell Doctrine (a military solution to counterinsurgency that amounted to the Cohen Doctrine of “just say no” on the civilian leadership) to the level of law. Nagl never would have written his book Learning to eat soup with a knife had such efforts been successful.
Oh snap; Cohen calls for the Powell Doctrine, too.
COINdinistas, who Cohen treats with derision, are not advocates of looking for more opportunities to do COIN. John Nagl doesn’t advocate COIN as national strategy. Nagl advocates COIN as the proper doctrine for achieving the goals of our civilian leadership in cases where failed states harbor asymmetric threats to our national security. Use a hammer to drive a nail, use a shovel to dig a hole. As our experience in Iraq has shown, when you put down the shovel and pick up the hammer, suddenly it’s easier to drive the nail.
COL Gian Gentile makes much more cogent arguments, fundamentally flawed but intellectually honest, than Cohen. Cohen’s arguments are driven by a conclusion already arrived at. Cohen has been studying COIN not to see what it offers but to see how to discredit it. He has done a terrible job.
When I first arrived home from Afghanistan, many of my observations about the conduct of operations in Afghanistan were not entirely rosy. I was encouraged to write about them, perhaps in an Op-Ed piece, by a journalist friend. She stated that these observations needed to be heard, to contribute to the larger discussion. I felt it imprudent, though.
I am not a recognized expert, theorist, or even a man of significant rank. I am merely a moderately articulate NCO; a pawn in the larger game; of relatively light experience compared to those who have served multiple tours. I have no experience in Iraq, and am only an observer of those events. I was a participant in what was at the time the most violent year in Afghanistan, and I was present through the first quarter of what has now become the most violent year there. I do not possess any significant education upon which to build a pulpit. The most significant unit I have ever led in combat was not even my own command. I advised a company-sized element of Afghans as part of a larger operation.
Speaking out on much greater issues in a huge public forum would have been imprudent indeed, not to mention potentially insubordinate. Yes, many of my observations were not complimentary; some would be regarded as harsh. It is not unusual for men who operate at my level to be disillusioned with numerous aspects of the organizations which I functioned in during my tenure as a combat advisor. If you read Afghanistan Shrugged, you will see that many of those problems have still not been ironed out.
Now there is an existing debate which stirs in me the courage of my convictions. Over at SWJ they are tracking the debate between two accomplished men, COL Gian Gentile, veteran of two tours in Iraq as an S-3 and squadron (battalion level) commander, and Dr. John Nagl, retired Lieutenant Colonel, co-author of FM-3-24, author of Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Viet Nam, and widely recognized counterinsurgency theorist/proponent.
Both are accomplished officers and both are, no doubt, most sincerely interested in what is best for the nation and the service’s ability to do the job for this nation. It is an honest debate, and other than a few sharp words, a gentlemanly debate. It is also a microcosm of two schools of thought within the Army itself. These two men are on the same team. So am I.
Robert Haddick at SWJ writes that Nagl and Gentile are both right. There is a hole in the basic premise of COL Gentile’s argument, however, that makes it untenable in its present state. While correct in his assertion that the Army’s job is win its nation’s wars; all of its nation’s wars, his assumption that we have in fact become a culture of counterinsurgents is incorrect. This is my personal observation as a graduate of the Combat Advisor Training Course at Ft Riley, as a veteran combat advisor, and having functioned in, around, under, and beside various units in the hinterlands of Afghanistan. So I must respectfully disagree.
We, as an organization, have not “gotten it.” Our practical application of COIN principles, strategies, and tactics is hit-and-miss at best. While you see successful COIN operations in one area, in another they are lacking to abysmal. The application of the current doctrine for the war in which we are actively engaged is so spotty that within the same area you will have units who are attempting to accomplish appropriate goals while other units within the same battlespace are seemingly doing all they can to disable those same efforts.
As Dr. Nagl points out, there is no consistent education in COIN doctrine. The level of expertise of any leader in basic COIN principles is left entirely to the individual in most cases. Before arriving at Ft Riley, a package of books arrived in the mail. Among them was David Galula’s book, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice. It was an eye-opener. A thin book, it is a primer on counterinsurgency. Abu Mukawama has this to say about it:
This slim volume has probably had more effect on the way in which Abu Muqawama views counterinsurgency warfare than any other book or article. FM 3-24 is great doctrine, but Galula gives his reader a feel for counterinsurgency warfare in a way the field manual does not. It is also very short, and to-the-point. Which is why, over the past few years, Abu Muqawama has taken to mailing photocopies of this book to friends in the field. One friend, an infantry company commander outside of Baghdad, read the book a little over a year ago while deployed to Iraq and had this to say:
Just finished reading Galula’s book. What a great read! It’s so common sense, so right, so easy to understand, it begs the questions: Why haven’t I heard of it before, and Why aren’t they teaching this stuff at the Advanced Course?
He’s referring to the Advanced Officer’s Courses. My question is, why isn’t this being taught at the NCO academies? Why isn’t it being taught at the soldier level?
The book was my first exposure to counterinsurgency theory, and I became a believer. I thought that I was among the very few who had not been exposed to this theory, attributing the failure to the fact that, as a National Guardsman, we were once again missing the point. I was to find out that much of the Army is missing the point. FM 3-24 was published just prior to my heading off to Ft Riley, again surprising me. “What?” I thought, “How can we be five years into a war and just now be publishing doctrine on how to fight it?”
COL Gentile, in his essay, Let’s Build an Army to Win All Wars asserts that the Army did in fact smoothly shift gears from conventional operations to counterinsurgency operations after defeating Iraq’s military in the first three weeks of Operation Iraqi Freedom. I find this assertion to be lacking in substance. Now, while recognizing that I was not there, what I saw was a tremendous conventional thrust which decapitated a nation, immediately followed by a complete breakdown in law and order. The Iraqi Army, Police, and all governmental officials were summarily fired and a vacuum ensued.
This was not a smooth transition from conventional to stability operations. There was no transition other than the transition to generalized lawlessness. I remember watching the statue of Saddam fall, immediately (and I mean immediately) followed by looting on a grand scale.
This was unplanned for. There is no other explanation for the mayhem. The Army can execute any kind of operation that it plans for. This was not planned. The generals and our nation’s civilian military leadership honestly thought that we would decapitate a country and a new, smiling, friendly head would immediately sprout in its place. Obviously, this did not occur.
Nature and politics abhor a vacuum, and by sheer suction a hydra of forces large and small emerged to fill the vacuum. None of these forces were friendly towards Americans and were just as brutal to their civilian opposition. What began as a general sense relief on the part of the people degenerated into angry terror. We had plunged them from rigid dictatorship to unpredictable, violent chaos.
No, Sir. I don’t see the smooth transition. I don’t see unity of effort. I don’t see properly planned stability operations, and I don’t see well thought-out and executed COIN operations in the following three years; except in local cases. Again, the hit-or-miss approach to this war.
My experience in Afghanistan would demonstrate the same hit-or-miss application of the only doctrine that has a chance of success in this war; AirLand is certainly not the doctrine that will win this one. Which brings me into agreement with Dr. Nagl on his first paragraph:
A stunning if predictable development in the military community over the past 2 years has been the backlash against the promulgation of counterinsurgency learning in the midst of the ongoing campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. ~Dr. John Nagl
I do disagree with him on one point; it’s not a backlash, it’s resistance. A backlash would come from people who studied, became expert practitioners, and then revolted against the doctrine due to some negative experience. This is resistance to learn, practice, or even submit to the doctrine.
These two well-educated men are indeed engaged in a debate over how our Army should proceed in the coming years. While Dr. Nagl proposes the establishment of an “Advisor Corps” as a solution and points out his opposition, COL Gentile offers no solution to the problem he perceives and stridently decries Dr. Nagl with phrases like “deeply troubling,” “crusader,” “cocksure,” “fabricates,” and “breathtaking statement.” These are not reasonable, analytical words to my ears. They are strident, oppositional, and emotional.
What emotion would drive such an instinctive opposition to a doctrine which, given the failure of AirLand Doctrine to effectively suppress insurgency, offers the best chance of success in an insurgent environment?
The kinetic warriors of the Army, COL Gentile being the spokesman, reject the war that they don’t want. It’s not a war of maneuver and tank-on-tank. It’s not a war of clearly defined objectives, massed artillery in support of brigade maneuver, assaulting through the objective and planting the flag of victory. The elite warriors, the killers, don’t want nation-building; and they’ve been dragged, sulking, into it.
The authors of the Army’s 1986 AirLand Battle doctrine premised their manual on fighting as the essence of war. Fighting gave the 1986 manual a coherence that reflected the true nature of war. The Army’s new COIN manual’s tragic flaw is that the essence of war fighting is missing from its pages. ~COL Gian Gentile, Eating soup with a spoon
This is a war where the enemy nearly always gets to pick the fight. It’s a war of IED’s and civic leader engagement. It’s a war of Information Operations. The enemy doesn’t wear uniforms. It’s not a chess game; it’s a multiplayer Rubik’s Cube.
But today, with the new doctrine, that singular focus is gone and replaced by a fuzzy notion of combining different types of operations. If a rifle company commander sits down and reads the Army’s high-profile doctrinal manuals, he learns to be an occupier, a policeman, and an administrator—but not a fighter. In the Army’s current operational field manual, there are no maps, no arrows, and no symbols representing friend and foe, only a loose collection of blocks, squares, and figures representing fuzzy conceptual notions of different types of operations and suggestions of how to combine them. This observation may seem simplistic and trivial to some, but it does point to the larger problem of the Army’s shift away from fighting as its organizing principle. The key assumption that underpins the Petraeus Doctrine is that the threat most likely to face American ground forces will be little more robust and capable than a lightly armed insurgent on the model seen in Iraq. ~COL Gian Gentile
It’s not sexy. It’s tiring, frustrating, ponderously slow, impossible to accurately judge the progress of, and fought at impossibly small local levels. It has nothing to do with any Audie Murphy, John Wayne, or even Stephen Spielberg war movies other than the wearing of helmets, carrying of weapons, and violent, bloody death.
It is fighting without, sometimes, fighting. I’m not saying anything he doesn’t know. He just doesn’t like it.
The eminent scholar and strategic thinker Eliot Cohen noted that counterinsurgency war is still war, and war in its essence is fighting. ~COL Gian Gentile, Eating soup with a spoon
Pride. Warrior pride and the dilution of the warrior way of fighting. Now, add to this a bit of insult:
They tell us that we failed in Iraq from 2003 until 2007 (but were rescued by the surge in 2007) because we did not learn the lessons of the past that provide clear templates for victory in counterinsurgencies and irregular war. In a recent interview on National Public Radio, General Caldwell told the story of the Army conducting military occupations over many years and failing to learn and retain lessons each time. His implicit point was that if the Army had paid attention to these lessons learned and formalized them into doctrine, the first 3 years of the war in Iraq might have turned out differently. ~COL Gian Gentile
“They tell us that we failed.” No wonder that he’s not happy.
There is another quote from his writings; a piece in World Affairs Journal:
The counterargument—that American forces had settled so comfortably on forward operating bases that they all but quit the country around them—is flatly and directly contradicted by the operational record. My squadron, 8-10 Cavalry, Fourth Infantry Division, conducted close to 3,500 combat patrols and operations during our year in west Baghdad. ~COL Gian Gentile
This again looks like a man who is saying, “Hey, I was doing it right, too!” There are officers whose efforts are particularly lauded; COL McMaster and COL MacFarland are examples. They are credited with amazing successes pre-surge and peri-surge. COL Gentile and his unit were not so recognized; and by that omission lumped into the “failure” group. That never sits well with a commander who is rightly proud of his troops. He as a commander knows that his troops were not failures.
I read COL Gentile’s “Eating soup with a spoon” in Armed Forces Journal while I was in Afghanistan. With no idea of who he was, I found it to be an oddity to the extent that it still resides on my desktop where it was saved. To read that and to read the articles that have come after it are to witness a significant ratcheting-up of the rhetoric from then to now. COL Gentile has gone from objecting to the lack of fighting being stressed in FM 3-24 to the entire thing now being a threat to the future of the Army’s ability to serve the nation. He has become downright belligerent in his language towards Dr. Nagl.
To me, tactical success could guarantee a lot. The high points for my squadron in 2006 were when we achieved tactical success by conducting a small ambush team operation that resulted in killing either Shiite militia or Sunni insurgents who demonstrated hostile acts or intent. Those times were few, but they meant a lot and they guaranteed, at least for a time, the regaining of the initiative and increased morale among my soldiers. There are other forms of tactical success: raids that captured Sunni insurgents or Shiite militia; cordon-and-search operations that seized large caches of weapons; even operations that removed garbage from the streets could be all seen as tactical successes in COIN. But if the fundamental element of war is fighting, then the tactical success that means the most to the combat soldier is when he can engage and potentially kill the enemy. And the COIN manual’s paragraph that defines the meaning of the term “tactical success” as part of the paradox implies that “tactical success” revolves around “military actions” that involve fighting the enemy. ~COL Gian Gentile, “Eating soup with a spoon”
A couple of months after reading this, I was to be reminded of it again in my conversations with SSG Smokey Jackalacker, who was insistent that he came to Afghanistan to kill bad guys and that he was already tired of hearing of COIN. COIN interfered with his whole vision of war. It just wasn’t kinetic enough. He talked of assaulting through the objective, killing the enemy and double-tapping anyone he saw there. I can empathize.
He goes on:
The natural instinct for a combat soldier when attacked is to protect himself and his buddies. Yet the paradox that “the more you protect yourself, the less secure you are” becomes counterintuitive to the soldier. It does not make sense because he experiences the essence of war fighting almost every day. So the paradox creates cognitive dissonance in the mind of a combat soldier in Iraq because it essentially tells him to do something that is unnatural to him and his environment — to not fight.
I am not arguing that a counterinsurgent force should hunker down on large bases and focus solely on force protection. But the “surge” plan for securing Baghdad tries to replicate as a tactical method what the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment under Col. H.R. McMaster did successfully in Tal Afar, Iraq, in 2005 without the requisite number of combat soldiers to do it. And in trying to replicate Tal Afar in Baghdad, without adequate forces, we have produced supreme tactical vulnerability to the combat soldiers in these combat outposts. In these outposts, they now experience viscerally the opposite of the paradox that “the more you protect yourself, the less secure you are.” They see things now as “the more I protect myself in these combat outposts, in terms of tactical security, the more secure in them I actually become.” ~ COL Gian Gentile, “Eating soup with a spoon”
Nothing in the doctrine advocates not protecting yourself tactically. What it does advocate is getting close to the people in order to provide security for them locally. This does appear to put troops closer to being in harm’s way, but what it really does mean is not staying in the large, centralized FOB’s. Force protection measures at the COP’s (Combat Outposts) are certainly not meant to be ignored. Here COL Gentile begins to touch on security for the people (which he argues in later are not the center of gravity in counterinsurgency warfare, arguing instead the the enemy is truly the center of gravity.)
The thing is that providing for the security of the population is not the end state; it is the beginning state for a successful counterinsurgency. It is where all the other stuff begins; the infrastructure, the economic development, the good governance, even effective information operations. All of that flows from providing local security, and in turn local security becomes better because of all of those things.
He goes on to discuss non-kinetic operations:
When I was in Tikrit as a Brigade Combat Team Executive Officer in mid-2003, my unit was already executing counterinsurgency operations, rebuilding the area’s economic infrastructure, restoring essential services, and establishing governance projects. ~COL Gian Gentile, “A (Slightly) Better War: A Narrative and Its Defects”
Okay, now we’ve gotten to where COL Gentile has a point that I don’t feel that he states clearly, but that I’ve been touching on for awhile; the Army is not suited for all of the aspects of counterinsurgency. The Colonel is correct in respect to what the Army is good at; killing people and breaking things. What is the Army not well-suited to?
Nation-building. At least, not all aspects of nation-building.
The Army is well-equipped, but not well-organized for advising and mentoring a variety of indigenous personnel. The Army and Police come to mind. Dr. Nagl attempts to offer a solution for that failure in organization. His idea of an Advisor Corps is not well-received within the Army (my perception.) I don’t really see his Combat Advisor Tab ever coming to fruition, either. The lack of support that the combat advisor mission receives is a story all its own. It is a mission that many avoid. There is no professional benefit, and until recently it was actually a career-slower if not a career-killer. That’s what really demonstrates the importance of the mission to Big Army.
Say it’s a priority, but then make it so that it’s unappealing. On top of that, provide no clear guidance to commanders on the ground what the mission really is or how to deal with Combat Advisors who are working in their battlespace. Provide no support. It’s a backwater, under-resourced mission. If you are an advisor, you will likely be on your own a lot. You will be an unwanted guest on a FOB, constantly questioned as to why you are doing certain things with your people, and sometimes even told that you cannot move because you don’t have enough assets.
Local commanders will see you and the indigenous forces which you advise as their assets. If you are not doing what they want for you to do, they will exert great pressure upon you to do so. You will not be answerable to your owning command, you will be answerable to the local battlespace commander, to whom you will also report, and who will pay more attention to your reports than the advisor command. This can be beneficial when you have a battlespace commander who “gets it.” It is the worst imaginable case if he doesn’t.
Dr. Nagl’s recommendations will not be adopted by the Army. However, Big Army has no better plan. Things will continue to go as they have; there hasn’t been enough pain to make it otherwise. That’s part of why I say that Big Army isn’t under the thrall of counterinsurgency doctrine, as COL Gentile fears. He describes it as “Svengali-like.” Trust me, having been there at the ground floor, it’s not. Having worked with line units, some of whom were totally lousy at working with indigenous forces, it isn’t. Much more of the Army is in his camp than in Dr. Nagl’s.
The point is that the Army should be good at those aspects of counterinsurgency that it is well-suited to. It’s hit-or-miss with those aspects, with no consistency of the quality of the effort. However, as far as the aspects of nation-building that the Army is not suited to, something needs to be done. There are NGO’s out there that can do a lot of good things. True economic development is not the realm of the Army. Not the United States Army, anyway. The People’s Army is a very enterprising Army; it owns a lot of businesses (NORINCO, which makes weapons that are sold in the United States, is owned by the People’s Army.)
The NGO’s usually provide human services of various types. Most of them are not economically oriented, unless they are trying to assist farmers. Where is the great industrial might of the United States? Well, they aren’t allowed to play. Witness Free Range International’s post. The whole story isn’t about economic development, but when he says that the State Department says that Americans aren’t supposed to travel in Afghanistan, and that they won’t help you if you get into trouble, that’s a pretty good indication of why there isn’t a lot of economic development being done in Afghanistan.
It’s left up to the Army. No wonder we’re struggling. That and the corruption that Tim describes in his post. It’s crippling.
To Sum It Up
Dr. Nagl wins this round. He is correct that this is the war that we are fighting, and that COIN is the doctrine that will bring success. He’s also accurate in his assertion that the Army is not doing a very good job of evangelizing the doctrine.
COL Gentile’s has a great point in that nation-building in all its manifestations are not best left to the Army alone. He also loses his point in opposing COIN doctrine due to its treatment of kinetics. In his writings he frequently mentions fighting or the lack of emphasis on fighting. Those days are not likely gone forever, but that is not the present. We are not doing a good enough job of living in the present. When we truly are expert counterinsurgents, then we can probably spend more time thinking about how we need to be prepared for the future.
In the meantime, don’t sell the tanks or the howitzers. What I’d like to see is COL Gentile offering a solution that allows us to pursue this war to a successful completion while maintaining the core competencies of AirLand Doctrine. Dr. Nagl offered a plan, but it has died for lack of enthusiasm. Lamenting the problem while offering no viable solution other than decrying COIN doctrine as a danger to our national interests is no help.
After watching the latest Frontline report on Afghanistan and reading their “Presidential Briefings,” I am left with the impression that things are grim indeed.
I’m also under the impression that this impression is exactly what was intended.
While a number of experts on national security and counterinsurgency were consulted, the two who were quoted at the outset, eerie central Asian music in the background, setting the tone for the program, were the most negative of the experts. When you read the “What the next President will face” portion (under “Briefing,”) you will see that Mr. Nasr and Mr. Scheuer are the most negative. Mr. Scheuer has written articles for Antiwar.com. You can draw your own conclusions about his objectivity as a commenter on Afghanistan from there.
Mr. Scheuer’s grim prediction that the next president will find that his “dreams of straightening things out with two brigades are exactly that; they’re dreams,” sounds dire indeed. It actually sounds like it comes from someone that objectively analyzes information and has come to a profound conclusion. This is not true.
From a review of Michael Scheuer’s book, “Marching Toward Hell: America and Islam After Iraq,;”
Scheuer holds that the U.S. was safer with Saddam Hussein in power, that America’s defeat in both Iraq and Afghanistan is a foregone conclusion, that federal support for democracy abroad is a terrible policy, that America’s alliances are a hindrance, that “freedom fighter” is often a more apt term than “terrorist,” that the theory of the Democratic Peace is “silly,” that the U.S. should have little concern for civilian casualties in its war against terrorism and that Israel’s continued existence isn’t worth a single American dollar.
Most compellingly, Scheuer argues that we should take Osama bin Laden at his word: Al-Qaeda is attacking American foreign policies — support for “Arab tyrannies” and Israel and U.S. boots on the ground in the Middle East — not America’s liberty and way of life.
Scheuer has a penchant for dubious statements, some of which include:
» “There’s a clear necessity to have religion in order to have morality.”
» After 9-11 we should have “firebombed Kabul and Khandahar, demolished whatever ruins were left, and sown salt over the length and width of both sides.”
» Woodrow Wilson was “a human scourge who is not often enough ranked with the twentieth century’s top bloodletters.”
I disagree strongly with Michael Scheuer this very basic point; we are part of the world. Focusing on ourselves and our own interests only is the type of narcissistic self-fascination that we are famous for. Our foreign policy has been clearly flawed in many areas that have been dissected by far smarter people than myself. I don’t have all of those answers; but I believe, because I have seen, that what happens in little valleys on the other side of the world sends tiny ripples across the face of the globe that reach into our neighborhoods here. It’s like ecology.
If you pour a can of motor oil into a tiny stream up in the mountains, it will poison the lake miles and miles away. It will affect the river that flows from that lake, and it will pass through hundreds of not thousands of miles of countryside on its way to the ocean.
Butterfly in the Amazon; whatever. We are part of a big world, and we not only affect it, we are affected by it. It shouldn’t take thousand-foot towers crashing to the ground in New York to see that. The world has become polarized, and Mr. Scheuer says that we should not take sides. While egalitarian of him, I agree with the statement that “all that is required for evil to succeed is for good men to do nothing.” He wants to be the fat kid who sits rocking in the corner counting his own candy and muttering to himself self-righteously, but who wants everyone to like him.
This fails to recognize that we are one of the poles. That’s the way that it is. We have a job to do. One thing that I know of our allies, from having served with them, is that they expect us to lead and to support them. While they don’t appreciate it when we are demanding and arrogant, what really pisses them off is when we don’t lead. Leading is by example.
Mr. Scheuer has a relationship with PBS, having been a source for them before. That’s the only reason that I can see why he is included in this panel of experts who are quoted throughout the report. Granted, Mr. Scheuer’s bona fides should stand him in good stead; 22 years in the CIA and at one point the head of CIA’s “bin Laden unit,” he has also been complimented by bin Laden. He teaches at Georgetown. Well, Bill Ayers teaches at UIC, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a nutcase.
All I can say is that there is a chip on that man’s shoulder.
He makes some good points; like when he says that we are fighting in Afghanistan “on the cheap.” No doubt. I’ve said that. I’m still surprised, with his bent, that PBS included him on a panel with men such as LTC(R) John Nagl. I wonder if Dr. Nagl knew that Mr. Scheuer was also included. Mr. Scheuer is quoted more pointedly than Dr. Nagl, who is an expert on counterinsurgency and a strong critic of Big Army’s failure to develop into a truly effective counterinsurgent organizational culture.
While Vali Nasr makes strongly worded statements, he is very strategic and, while critical, does not appear to be defeatist or isolationist. Mr. Nasr has been a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School and is currently a professor at Tufts University.
One of Frontline’s basic errors is in concentrating on the most isolationist and violent little valley in Afghanistan. Focusing your study of counterinsurgency on the Korengalis is like focusing a study of the economic picture of America on Cincinnati’s Over the Rhine neighborhood.
The most egregious errors in Frontline’s examination of counterinsurgency is in focusing on Americans doing forays into Afghan villages without ANSF (Afghan National Security Forces.) Americans can keep the hard-core Korengalis bottled up in the Korengal so that the Pech is not infected further, but the failure to look at what can and is happening in areas where the ANSF are actually able to do their job is a tremendous failure indeed.
The Korengal is not Afghanistan. It is in Afghanistan. It is a trouble spot like no other, but it is not representative of all of Afghanistan. It makes for compelling television, but it is a keyhole shot of Afghanistan; the worst part of Afghanistan.
Nuristan is likely to be just as tough a nut to crack. The Korengalis are originally from Nuristan. Look at the reddened beards; that’s a Nuristani thing.
In any case, Frontline has chosen the most dire of situations on which to focus, with no mention given to areas where the ANSF are doing well, where the IRoA holds sway or is at least contending strongly. Those areas would paint a more accurate picture of the challenges of counterinsurgency than a snapshot of vicious battles in the Wahhabist Korengal.
Most of Afghanistan is not Wahhabist. Does that matter? Yes.
The report fails to explore the issues that are concerns for Afghan men-on-the-street. Frontline fails to look at the tendencies in the Afghan government that are losing support for Kabul. It fails to examine and make recommendations on how to clean up the Afghan MoJ (Ministry of Justice) and MoI (Minstry of Interior.) These two ministries could have more impact on security in the huge area of Afghanistan that is not the Korengal than the Korengal has on them.
Frontline’s examination of the state of the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Area) of Pakistan is timely. In the later parts of the program, Frontline examines how the Taliban have taken a strong role in Northwest Pakistan and are attempting to threaten the Pakistani government itself. It also discussed the failures by the Pakistani military and government to effectively control their own territory. One of the key roles of the Korengal is in its facilitation of movement across the Pakistani border; but that is not the only route (rat line) by far.
While Frontline’s examination of the situation in Pakistan gives insight into the situation across the border and the challenges facing the Pakistanis in governing their own country, this program is fundamentally flawed in its examination of the state of affairs in Afghanistan as a whole. An excellent study of the Korengal, it totally ignores the development of the ANSF except for in a few comments by Dr. Nagl, a champion of advising and mentoring indigenous people to handle their own governance.
This failure to carry the only message that will bring success in Afghanistan or any other developing country casts this documentary into the “interesting view of the worst valley in Afghanistan” category. Frontline has showed us the freaks of Afghanistan; even the Afghans view the Korengalis as crazy.
Successful counterinsurgency in Afghanistan cannot be performed by Americans. We can add combat power in the hot spots, we can add mentoring, advising, logistical support and expertise to the ANSF, and we can demand good governance. We can treat corrupt officials as the great threat to security in Afghanistan that they are. We can push for economic development, opening markets to Afghan goods and Afghanistan to development of their own (tremendous) natural resources; but we cannot, must not attempt to govern Afghanistan.
Frontline’s documentary is a great story of the Korengal, a poor study of Afghanistan on the whole, and an interesting primer on the Pakistani Taliban. As a briefing for a new president, it falls far short. As a briefing for Americans (its true audience,) it is deceptive. I don’t know whether the deception was intentional, theatrically dramatic, or journalistically and intellectually lazy, but it is deceptive all the same. You never see 98% of the picture.