5 years ago
General McChrystal recently released counterinsurgency guidance for the ISAF.
From the very first executive summary statement, the mission(s) of protecting the people and destroying the enemy are set in juxtaposition with each other, as if contradictory or somehow mutually exclusive. We have dealt with this before in Center of Gravity Versus Lines of Effort in COIN, so this issue will not be reiterated except to say that no one – no one, not the so-called COIN experts at CNAS, not military historians, no one – has demonstrated that for success in counterinsurgency we must focus away from killing the enemy. Iraq was done the opposite way, with heavy kinetics and intelligence driven raids a huge part of the campaign from 2006 through 2008.
There is much with which to agree in the document, including what the Marines are doing in the Helmand Province to exemplify the guidance contained in this document – heavy interaction with the population. Furthermore, it is obviously necessary to protect the population from killers and get the population involved in the fight against the insurgency. But there are so many things with which to disagree it’s difficult to know where to begin.
Page 2: ” … an insurgency cannot be defeated by attrition; its supply of fighters, and even leadership, is effectively endless.” Well, this simply isn’t true. Turning to the most recent counterinsurgency campaign in our history, Operation Iraqi Freedom, I know something about how the Marines approached the campaign in the Anbar Province. To claim that the U.S. Marines bifurcated and set in opposition the notions of protecting the population and killing the enemy is worse than just dense. It’s dishonest. Tens of thousands of insurgents were killed, Anbar was pacified before the balance of Iraq, and the supply of insurgents wasn’t endless. I just don’t know how to be clearer. This claim is simply false.
Next is this jaw unhinging claim on page 3: “We must think of offensive operations not simply as those that target militants, but ones that earn the trust and support of the people while denying influence and access to the insurgent. Holding routine jirgas with community leaders that build trust and solve problems is an offensive operation. So is using projects and work programs to bring communities together and meet their needs. Missions primarily designed to disrupt militants are not.”
Now just to make sure that we are clear on this, jirgas are good. Community projects are good. But this statement goes so far down the path of the Western-trained PhD sociology student that it’s unclear why we aren’t reading that “flowers are beautiful, butterflies are too, and I love you!” (Colonel Gian Gentile also warns against the notion of “weaponizing” cultural knowledge because it is an illusion).
Now. Note the claim. After outlining various things that could be considered offensive operations, it is stated that missions designed to disrupt militants is not offensive. This is so gobsmackingly outlandish and juvenile that it really casts serious doubt as to whether we can grant any legitimacy whatsoever to this document.
After having to perform squad rushes against Taliban positions in Helmand recently, it’s doubtful that the Marines will have any use for this guidance. This document seems to be the kind of thing that staff officers discuss with field grade officers who discretely roll their eyes, while the junior officers wouldn’t be caught telling their reports that their recent squad rush directly into Taliban fire wasn’t really an offensive operation.
The guidance has highly poignant and intelligent moments such as on page 4 when it recognizes that the insurgents will sometimes set themselves off from the population (such as with Now Zad where we have been begging for more Marines), and in such circumstances it is wise to engage in high intensity kinetics because of the opportunity presented to us. But then the guidance devolves to the almost absurd, such as on page 5 where it is stated of the Afghan National Army that we should “Put them in the lead and support them, even before they think they are ready. Coach them to excellence, and they will amaze you with how quickly they take charge.”
This sounds more like a football coach pep talk than a General advising his troops. It will likely have little traction with U.S. forces who have watched the ANA engage in drug abuse, smoke hashish before patrols, collude with Taliban fighters to kill U.S. troops, themselves claim that they cannot hold Helmand without Marines and fear being killed if they even go out into the streets, be relatively ineffective against Taliban fighters, sleep on their watch, and claim to be on vacation in the Helmand Province.
The incoherence of the document and perhaps mildly or moderately insulting and preachy manner will limit its usefulness in the field and even in the classroom. Fortunately, while this document is being sent to leaders in Afghanistan, General McChrystal is quietly preparing to give the administration options, all of which include more troops (although not as many as we had recommended).
The general is leaning toward three major options — the “high risk strategy” is to add only 15,000 troops to the 68,000 that will be on the ground by the end of this year — as in, the highest risk of failure. The “medium risk strategy” is to add 25,000 troops, and the “low risk strategy” is 45,000, according to a senior defense adviser helping craft the plan.
Also fortunately, the enlisted Marines in Helmand won’t be reading this document. They don’t have time, as they will be doing what the author of this document has not discussed. They will be engaging in full orbed, comprehensive counterinsurgency in their area of operation, from jirgas to squad rushes. Let’s hope that the balance of the forces will be doing the same thing in spite of the guidance.