McChrystal and the COINhatas

McChrystal and the COINhatas

Amid all the chatter about whether Stan McChrystal should keep his job, one storyline in the Rolling Stone article is getting lost: the doubts many U.S. soldiers have about counterinsurgency doctrine:

[H]owever strategic they may be, McChrystal’s new marching orders have caused an intense backlash among his own troops. Being told to hold their fire, soldiers complain, puts them in greater danger. "Bottom line?" says a former Special Forces operator who has spent years in Iraq and Afghanistan. "I would love to kick McChrystal in the nuts. His rules of engagement put soldiers’ lives in even greater danger. Every real soldier will tell you the same thing." 

Michael Hastings, the author, is clearly a skeptic — a COINhata, if you will. He does little to present McChrystal’s side of the argument, or any evidence that his strategy could be working. Admittedly, there isn’t much evidence at this point. CFR’s Stephen Biddle made a smart comment about this last week:

We’re at one of those moments where it’s very hard to tell whether things are going well or badly. Counterinsurgency always has this "darkest before the dawn" quality.  When you start with a tough situation, you introduce reinforcements and you begin to contest insurgent control of population areas they now control, violence then rises. Enemy causalities go up, causalities to your own forces rise, casualties to civilians increase, general mayhem rises. If you succeed, you gain political control of these populations and violence eventually comes down. From an early increase in violence, you can’t deduce that you’re winning or that you’re losing because you would see exactly the same thing either way at this point in the war.

That was true enough in Iraq; the surge looked to many like it wasn’t working well into the summer of 2007. But I wonder if Afghanistan is really a comparable situation. It’s a much more fragmented country, where trends in one area don’t necessarily spill over into other places. Tribal leaders don’t have the same ability to bring their communities along, especially as years of war and Taliban rule have undermined the authority of tribal elders. So it’s hard to imagine the same kind of "awakening" spreading rapidly across the country. This is going to be a slog, valley by valley, village by village.

The thing is, though, it’s not as if there is a viable alternative strategy out there. For years, the U.S. more or less tried Vice President Joe Biden’s preferred approach of keeping a light footprint and limiting U.S. military operations to going after bad guys, while de-emphasizing nation building. That didn’t work either. So I think it’s worth giving COIN more time to succeed, whether or not McChrystal is the man implementing it.

Which raises another question about the general’s leadership in Afghanistan. As any COIN expert will tell you, theory is one thing; implementation is quite another. What made General Petraeus so effective in Iraq was that he was brilliant at operationalizing COIN concepts and ensuring that everyone down the chain of command was carrying them out properly. Is McChrystal doing that effectively? I have my doubts. He certainly isn’t following the COIN dictum that "unity of effort" is paramount — he and Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, can’t seem to get along; nor can Eikenberry get along with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. If winning a counterinsurgency war is mainly a political effort, what does it tell you if the politics guy isn’t even in the game?