17 Jun 2009 @ 1:28 PM 

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.

 30 Oct 2008 @ 9:37 AM 

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.

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Categories: Afghanistan
Posted By: Old Blue
Last Edit: 30 Oct 2008 @ 09 37 AM

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