This Week at War, No. 22

What the four-stars are reading -- a weekly column from Small Wars Journal.

Will protecting part of Afghanistan's population mean losing the rest?

Will protecting part of Afghanistan’s population mean losing the rest?

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the new NATO commander in Afghanistan, has issued orders restricting the use of deadly force. According to the New York Times, airstrikes during firefights will now, for the most part, only be allowed to prevent U.S. and coalition troops from being overrun.

Although errant aerial bombardment has attracted the most attention, McChrystal also extended his restrictions to ground combat. When U.S. and coalition forces are receiving fire from Afghan houses and civilian compounds, these forces are now directed to withdraw if possible, rather than risk harming Afghan civilians along with the Taliban gunmen. According to McChrystal, "If it is just to defeat the enemy, then we are not going to do it, even if it means we are going to step away from that firefight and fight another time."

McChrystal’s new rules of engagement fit in with his overall objective, protecting the Afghan population. Rather than finding and destroying Taliban formations, the new strategy is to provide day-to-day security for as much of the Afghan population as the coalition’s limited manpower can manage.

Although the new approach applies well-accepted counterinsurgency doctrine, it is not without its critics. Small Wars Journal‘s discussion board is featuring a vigorous debate among combat veterans representing all sides of the argument. Some of the commenters agreed that the U.S. military’s previous use of firepower was in many cases unnecessary and counterproductive. Others worried that the Taliban would now adapt to the new rules by moving into populated areas with the aim of breaking down trust between the Afghan population and coalition forces. Some also worried that U.S. commanders will become too risk-averse.

McChrystal is undoubtedly aware that the Taliban will be able to "game" the new rules to its advantage. His decision rests on the assumptions  that Afghan noncombatant support for the coalition is deteriorating and that civilian casualties are a more serious problem in the long run than the Taliban’s military strength.

McChrystal must also realize that he doesn’t have enough troops to provide good day-to-day security for all of Afghanistan’s population. Coalition and Afghan security forces are a fraction of those in Iraq. Yet they patrol a larger, more rugged country with a higher population and fight against an enemy who has a sanctuary across the Pakistan frontier. Some portion of the population will not receive coalition security under the new population-centric doctrine.

And under the new rules of engagement, Taliban forces who move into houses and civilian compounds in the unprotected areas will in many cases be immune from coalition raids. It seems reasonable to wonder whether this course will result in as many or more Afghans turning away from the coalition as errant airstrikes.

One final observation. By effectively grounding the coalition’s attack aircraft, the Taliban’s information operations have revealed themselves to be perhaps the most effective anti-aircraft weapon in history.

Hezbollah captures the Pentagon’s war-planning process

Israel’s brief, violent, and ultimately inconclusive war against Hezbollah in 2006 is the new prototype guiding the Pentagon’s war-planning process. "Hybrid warfare" — a non-state actor’s sophisticated employment of terrorism, conventional military action, propaganda, cyberwarfare, and high-technology weapons — is now the focus of attention inside the Pentagon’s policy office. Hezbollah employed this model against Israel three years ago, flummoxing the typically dominant Israel Defense Force.

Pentagon planners want U.S. forces to be prepared for this type of multidimensional challenge. But will the Pentagon’s process for addressing the hybrid warfare challenge end up creating more confusion for military planners?

The Pentagon’s 2006 QDR (see page 19) described four types of national security challenges: traditional (conventional warfare); irregular (insurgencies); catastrophic (mass-destruction terror attacks); and disruptive (technological surprises, such as cyber or anti-satellites attacks). The 2006 QDR displayed these challenges in a four-quadrant grid and explained how the United States would need to restructure its military forces to adapt to them.

Thom Shanker of the New York Times described how Michèle Flournoy, under secretary ofdDefense for Policy and leader of the 2010 QDR effort, is fashioning her own approach:

"The ‘quad chart’ was useful in its time," said Michele A. Flournoy, the under secretary of defense for policy, who is leading the strategy review for [Defense Secretary Robert] Gates.

"But we aren’t using it as a point of reference or departure," she said in an interview. "I think hybrid will be the defining character. The traditional, neat categories — those are types that really don’t match reality any more."

Gates agrees as he made clear at a recent Pentagon press conference:

So the notion that we are not taking seriously the range of potential future conflicts, I think, frankly is just a misunderstanding of what we’re trying to do.  It derives from my view that the old way, of looking at irregular warfare as being one kind of conflict and conventional warfare as a discreet kind of warfare, is an outdated concept.   

It is hard to argue with Gates’s and Flournoy’s descriptions of the challenge. The question for U.S. defense planners is whether smudging out the categories that organized thinking about these types of the threats will actually help U.S. planners and military forces prepare for hybrid warfare.

Gates and Flournoy imply, and the Israeli experience with Hezbollah showed, that U.S. military forces will have to be ready for a much longer list of possible enemy actions. But what specific tasks should U.S. forces now prepare for? It is not possible for all forces to prepare for all tasks  — soldiers and units need to specialize. So which forces should prepare for which tasks? Will the 2010 QDR or subsequent planning documents result in the assignment of clear responsibilities to commanders preparing their units for deployment? The organizational concepts behind the "quad chart" dismissed by Flournoy may still contain useful guidance for commanders responsible for preparing for hybrid warfare.

The hybrid warfare challenge is complicated. The 2010 QDR will be helpful only if it provides clear guidance in response. Planning documents that leave leaders unclear about what they are responsible for will result in confusion, not clarity.

Robert Haddick is managing editor of Small Wars Journal.

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