GEN McChrystal has taken command in Afghanistan, and one of the first things he began to do is look at the way that troops are currently disposed and the planned dispositions of incoming “surge” troops around the country. Under the former commander, existing FOBs were being expanded to make room for the influx of new troops. This often had unintended but not completely unforeseen consequences. This was a continuation of the Big Box FOB behavior which has proven unsuccessful in the past. When you look at it, it looked almost like the French “Hedgehog” strategy which led to Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam. While the Taliban are incapable of the type of offensive tactics used to reduce the French hedgehog at Dien Bien Phu to the point of surrender, the hedgehog strategy was another failed counterinsurgency behavior. It would prove no less so in Afghanistan.
As the truism states, “The proof is in the pudding.”
Amid a nearly slanderous outcry from opponents of his appointment, some of which makes him sound like a former concentration camp commandant, GEN McChrystal headed back downrange and assumed his new command. He stated that his objective was population-centric, or pop-centric counterinsurgency.
McChrystal cited additional NATO troops who will deploy this year to key regions of Afghanistan, providing the manpower required to conduct “population-centric counterinsurgency operations.” These forces will partner closely with the increasingly capable Afghan security forces. (via Defenselink)
One of the first things he began to talk about appears to be a move away from the hedgehogs to a more distributed and comprehensive, yet focused, approach to the counterinsurgency fight in Afghanistan. This from the Washington Post:
“We are going to look at those parts of the country that are most important — and those typically, in an insurgency, are the population centers,” McChrystal said in an interview shortly after pinning on his fourth star.
Many people will assume that McChrystal seems intent on focusing on the cities, but that’s not evident. As GEN Petraeus noted in his recent remarks at CNAS,
“Two-thirds of all the attacks in Afghanistan are concentrated in about 10 percent of the country’s districts, areas where more than 20,000 new U.S. soldiers and Marines are flowing in to pursue insurgents and provide greater security for Afghans.”
It has been pointed out before that in order to provide the accepted optimal level of counterinsurgents to population, hundreds of thousands more troops would be needed in Afghanistan. What this fails to consider is that large portions of the country are not under significant pressure from the Taliban. This doesn’t mean that there should be no efforts in those areas to improve governance and work with the ANP, but the same ratio of troops/population would not necessarily be needed in those areas. Improvements in governance, the professionalism of the ANP and economic development and construction would go far in such areas to separate the Taliban, or criminal elements who borrow the name of the Taliban for credibility or fear’s sake, from the population. GEN McChrystal’s commitment to nationwide mentoring and development of the ANP remains to be seen.
However, by separating the insurgents from the population in the most violence-prone areas, progress will begin to be seen. With McChrystal reevaluating the planned dispositions of troops, it appears that troops will be expected to remain closer to the populace. GEN Petraeus, quoted in Australia.to News said,
“A comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy is what is required to keep Afghanistan from becoming once again a sanctuary for transnational extremism, as it was prior to 9/11.”
Petraeus said the principles underlying the counterinsurgency in Iraq having troops protect and live among the civilian population, for instance — can apply to Afghanistan.
GEN McChrystal also notes the effects of an effort that is too diluted.
“We’ve got to ruthlessly prioritize, because we don’t have enough forces to do everything, everywhere,” McChrystal said. He added that he would be especially reluctant to commit his forces to rugged areas where it would be difficult to extend the reach of the Afghan government or spur economic development. “If you are not prepared to come in with a reasonable level of governance and a reasonable level of development, then just going in to hold [the ground] doesn’t have a strong rationale.”(via Washington Post)
Clear, hold, and build. This is a strategy that both GEN Petraeus and GEN McChrystal have been talking about. The insurgents will respond by going elsewhere, of course. It’s what insurgents do. In the meantime, establishing the local security apparatus and providing governmental and developmental improvements will help to prevent re-infiltration as the military effort eventually responds to the migration of the insurgency. However, the migratory opportunities for the insurgents are not unlimited. Migrating into a Hazara-dominated area, for instance, would be suicidal for Taliban unless done in significant strength. The Taliban insurgency would not do well attempting to migrate into the Panjshir Valley, either. The disposition of troops will eventually need to change, but in the meantime, having a General with the juice to say how things are to be done speaking of pushing out of the Big Box Hedgehogs is very significant.
GEN McChrystal also notes that some areas may not be worth messing around with right now. The Korengal, for instance, is an area that has produced more American casualties than any other similarly-sized area in Afghanistan. GEN McChrystal is reevaluating the current operations in the Korengal. It has been stated before on this blog that what is being done in the Korengal is more a counter-guerrilla campaign than a counterinsurgency. The Korengal does not appear to be amenable to counterinsurgent influence. If there is no hope of establishing Afghan governmental control over that valley, then what value is there to tying up resources and losing lives in a valiant but currently futile effort. Is the purpose merely containment?
“The question in the Korengal is: How many of those fighters, if left alone, would ever come out of there to fight?” McChrystal said. “I can’t answer it. But I do sense that you create a lot of opposition through operations” by the military. “So you have got to decide where you are going to operate.”(Washington Post)
GEN McChrystal appears to be willing to challenge assumptions and question accepted patterns of behavior. Moving out of the hedgehogs and out into the villages and valleys to be close to the population would produce significantly different results than have been seen to this point. Logistics are going to become complicated, and Green Beans Coffee is going to lose some business… but that’s the price of counterinsurgency. Perhaps Pizza Hut will form a partnership with Jingle Air to deliver pizzas to the smaller outposts by helicopter.
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.