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This Week at War: America’s Last Counterinsurgent?

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Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

McChrystal report unwittingly slays counterinsurgency doctrine

This summer the U.S. government has faced a deteriorating crisis in Afghanistan. Such crises tend to force policymakers to face up to the facile assumptions they have previously made. Gen. Stanley McChrystal‘s report to his civilian masters on the faltering counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan has caused President Barack Obama and his advisers to face up to their basic assumptions about U.S. objectives and strategies for perhaps the first time. Obama and his team seem very likely to conclude from this long overdue examination of first principles that it will be impractical for the U.S. to successfully implement a counterinsurgency campaign plan in Afghanistan. McChrystal’s assessment has unwittingly tossed the U.S. military’s counterinsurgency field manual into the shredder.

McChrystal’s report is brutally honest about the troubles in Afghanistan. He describes a long list of problems in his own organization, how the United States and allied forces are failing to implement essential counterinsurgency tasks, and why the Afghan government’s corruption and ineffectiveness are so crippling. McChrystal declares the need for more resources and the need to quickly seize the initiative over the insurgents. By stating these problems, McChrystal has fulfilled his duty to his civilian masters. But he has also properly shifted responsibility for the most fundamental decisions about war policy to where they belong, namely the Oval Office.

So why will it be impractical for the U.S. to successfully implement a counterinsurgency campaign plan in Afghanistan? McChrystal’s report describes what must change in Afghanistan to increase the odds of success. However, neither the U.S. military nor the rest of the government can hope to do much about these problems before the political clock runs out in the United States. The problems McChrystal discusses include:

1. The need to elect a president Afghans (and Americans) will accept as legitimate

2. Corrupt and ineffective Afghan governance at the national and local levels

3. U.S. soldiers’ lack of facility with Afghanistan’s languages,

4. The U.S. military’s inability to gain trust and credibility with the population,

5. The difficulty expanding the size and quality of Afghanistan’s security forces,

6. The requirement to significantly disrupt Taliban and al Qaeda sanctuaries in Pakistan,

7. The requirement for U.S. and NATO countries to accept higher casualty rates over the medium term as they attempt to protect Afghanistan’s population.

McChrystal also calls for gaining military initiative over the Taliban over the next 12 months. Since the Taliban can easily go to ground without penalty during that time, the United States is unlikely to be able to visibly achieve this condition either. In theory, a sustained counterinsurgency campaign could gradually improve these problem areas. But it is very likely too late in the Washington political game to sustain the effort required. Obama and his team are thus likely to conclude that the counterinsurgency campaign McChrystal calls for in his report is impractical and should be abandoned as an option.

If his report brings matters to head in Washington, McChrystal will have done his duty. The result will be a painful period of introspection and bickering in Washington. But history will remember McChrystal’s honesty favorably. 

Abandoning a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan will mean that McChrystal’s report will have unwittingly rendered a fatal blow to Western counterinsurgency doctrine. It will be hard for anyone to seriously recommend counterinsurgency elsewhere after it was abandoned in Afghanistan. McChrystal will be America’s last counterinsurgency general for a long while. The United States will still have to endure a long era of irregular warfare. It just needs a new military doctrine for this era, and fast.

The Obama team doesn’t understand irregular warfare

As McChrystal’s report and U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine make clear, success against an insurgent movement requires convincing the indigenous population to support the legitimate government and to cut off support for the insurgency. The indigenous population will do this when it believes the legitimate government and its outside supporters (such as the U.S. military) are completely committed to the mission and will persist with the effort without hesitation until successful. If the indigenous population has any doubt about this commitment, they will not cooperate sufficiently with U.S. aims; if the locals miscalculate, they risk murder at the hands of the insurgents.

Regrettably, President Obama and his top officials have said exactly the wrong things on this score. Their remarks, designed to show a U.S. audience their pragmatism, flexibility, and open minds, are precisely what Afghans, calculating whether they should resist the Taliban, do not want to hear. And there is no way for the United States to succeed in Afghanistan without greater support from the Afghan population.

I have previously discussed the harmful effects of Defense Secretary Robert Gates‘s open doubts (see here and here). In an interview on The News Hour, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seemed proud of her flexibility and oblivious to how Afghans would receive her remarks:

[W]hat I’m very grateful for is that we’re not coming in with any ideological, you know, presuppositions. We’re not coming in wedded to the past. What we try to do in this administration is to sort out all of the different factors and come to the resolution based on the best information we have, and then as soon as we do that we keep going at it. We don’t say, "OK, fine, now we’re set for the next five years." That’s not the way the president works, that’s not the way that any of us work.

On September 20th Obama discussed his own commitment to flexibility, welcome news to a U.S. audience, but not so welcome to Afghan listeners:

"Until I’m satisfied that we’ve got the right strategy, I’m not going to be sending some young man or woman over there — beyond what we already have," Obama said on NBC’s "Meet the Press." If an expanded counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan contributes to the goal of defeating al-Qaeda, "then we’ll move forward," he said. "But, if it doesn’t, then I’m not interested in just being in Afghanistan for the sake of being in Afghanistan or saving face or . . . sending a message that America is here for the duration."

In this week’s essay I have predicted that Obama will abandon a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. I may be wrong. As my FP colleague Christian Brose explains, Obama’s long and public deliberation may actually be essential political preparation for a renewed commitment to the Afghan war.

A renewed commitment to counterinsurgency and nation-building in Afghanistan will have a (slim) chance of success only if Obama and his lieutenants can convince the Afghans themselves that they are completely committed to the mission no matter the time or costs. Of course that is not the message Obama’s Democratic supporters or much of the American public wants to hear. The worst possible choice would be a half-hearted "temporary commitment" to a 12-18 month counterinsurgency campaign. Such an oxymoronic strategy would be unconvincing to Afghans and the Taliban and its failure would expose Obama and the U.S. military to a fruitless loss of prestige.

It is not possible for Obama to commit to the Afghan population and simultaneously remain "pragmatic" with his domestic constituents. He will have to choose one way or the other.

Robert Haddick is managing editor of Small Wars Journal.