Discerning the Way Forward in Afghanistan

BY Herschel Smith
7 years, 6 months ago

General Charles Krulak wrote George Will a letter in response to his invective on the current campaign.  Will wants to withdraw, and Krulak supports that idea with the exception of a few SOF troopers.  I won’t address every one of Krulak’s points, but several observations are in order.

Krulak notes that U.S. troops are being run ragged and the armed forces cannot support the real surge needed for Afghanistan – more like hundreds of thousands, not thousands.  Furthermore, there are equipment repairs and rebuilds, and this bill is likely to be large.

Krulak is of course right in his assertion that there are serious equipment issues, and it would have been wise to spend more of the “free money” Timothy Geithner has been printing to support the armed forces.  It’s not that the equipment concerns are not within the power and ability for the U.S. to bear.  It’s that the administration has chosen to do other things.  Let’s be clear – this is a political decision rather than a financial impossibility.

But we shouldn’t press this issue of the armed forces being incapable of bearing the burden too far.  There are so many Marines currently at Camp Lejeune that they are building more barracks, and that construction isn’t happening fast enough.  The Marines are no longer in Anbar (for the most part).  They are one of three places: (Camp Pendleton, Camp Lejeune, or on board amphibious assault docks as part of MEUs – with a few in Afghanistan and also a very few in Anbar).  I have never believed that the ratio of troops to population outlined in FM 3-24 obtains for every situation, and the Marines are a force multiplier.  With so many Marine infantry sitting on board ships or garrisoned in the U.S., it’s not hard to envision many more deployed to Afghanistan in support of the campaign.  This is especially true since the policy of MEUs relies on the possibility of actually using our forces in readiness, and throughout the history of this concept we have not.

But eventually in his somewhat rambling letter General Krulak hits his real problem, and it isn’t that we can’t sustain the effort.  It’s that he doesn’t see the strategic value of the effort.  Who is the enemy?  Is it al Qaeda?  Why?  Is it the Taliban?  Why?  Those questions must be posed and answered immediately, says Krulak.

He closes with an odd observation given that he just before said it wasn’t obvious that we had any enemies in Afghanistan.  He wants to deploy HK (hunter-killer) teams to kill the enemy he says doesn’t exist.  He is apparently a proponent of the small footprint high value target (HVT) model which we have implemented for the last eight years.

Next comes Paul Yingling who responds to General Krulak with an absolute affirmative that AQ and affiliates pose a threat to the West; that developing a host nation security force is a cornerstone of counterinsurgency operations; and that most of the troops that protect the population will come from indigenous forces.

We will deal first with several comments directed at Yingling, next at Krulak’s basic argument, and then finally at Yingling’s basic argument.  In my opinion, all three are flawed.  I will lead off with my good friend Gian Gentile, whose thoughts I always follow and whose demeanor and scholarship I always admire.  Responding to Yingling, Gian comments:

I find it deeply ironic that you of all people, Paul, the author of that most important article of two years ago, “A Failure of Generalship” would find fault with one of our most ablest generals and to be sure one of the first on Afghanistan to finally start talking strategy and not the mind-numbing repetitions of the catechisms of nation building. I have been tempted to have a shot at writing a sequel to your important first essay, but this one would be titled “A Failure of Generalship Version 2: What Population Centric Counterinsurgency and Nation Building has done to the American Army’s General Officer Corps and its Inability to do Strategy.”

As you know Paul, it was not failure at tactics and operations that lost the war for us in Vietnam, but a failure at strategy. So too today do we walk down that same road with dysfunctional strategy in Afghanistan. General Krulak was taking a realistic view of our policy objectives in Afghanistan, he considered alternatives based on a realistic expectation of available resources, then applied a deep knowledge of military experience, and concluded that there are other and better ways to proceed in Afghanistan that still get at our interests there. Yet for once, when we finally have a general officer talking strategy, you chose instead to pummel him for apparently falling out of your cherished “gets it” club of General Officers.

If nothing else Paul, at least you might consider embracing the argument of this great marine General for stirring an important debate ON STRATEGY that is vitally needed.

I agree with Gian that counterinsurgency is “a set of tactics rolled up into a discrete form of military operation.”  Counterinsurgency can never be a strategy.  It can only be a set of tactics and procedures.  If implemented, it must be so within the larger context of a strategy, and that’s what has been lacking for Afghanistan – or so the charge goes.  Mark O’Neill makes a few silly claims regarding Gian’s comments, and Schmedlap rather sardonically asks “It appears that Ghazni province is falling to the Taliban. Should we brace for an imminent terrorist attack upon our nation?”

Yingling the weighs in with a response, which includes this precursor to my own response:

If one rejects the premises that we are threatened by al-Qaeda and have an interest in a stable Afghanistan, then the ‘hunter-killer’ approach is unnecessary. The logical policy prescription for those who hold these views is withdrawal of our forces from Afghanistan.

There have been no attacks on the American homeland since those of 9/11 because al Qaeda and affiliates have been rather busy in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  But it’s wrong to say that foreign fighters aren’t being trained or coming to Afghanistan to train and export that violence.  The Northern Provinces are even coming back under the sway of the Taliban, and those fighters are transnational.  A police officer in the Kunduz Province said ” the Taliban in his region included fighters from Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Russia’s rebel region of Chechnya, adding they were gaining strength across the entire northern belt where Afghanistan borders ex-Soviet Central Asia.”

In fact, Afghanistan is gradually falling back under the control of the Taliban.  The International Council on Security and Development recently released this statement.

The Taliban now has a permanent presence in 80% of Afghanistan, up from 72% in November 2008, according to a new map released today by the International Council on Security and Development (ICOS). According to ICOS, another 17% of Afghanistan is seeing ‘substantial’ Taliban activity. Taken together, these figures show that the Taliban has a significant presence in virtually all of Afghanistan.

“The unrelenting and disturbing return, spread and advance of the Taliban is now without question,” said Norine MacDonald QC, President and Lead Field Researcher for ICOS.

Previous ICOS maps showed a steady increase in the Taliban’s presence throughout Afghanistan. In November 2007, ICOS assessed that the Taliban had a permanent presence in 54% of Afghanistan, and in November 2008, using the same methodology; the result was a finding of a permanent Taliban presence in 72% of the country.

The new map indicates that the Taliban insurgency has continued to expand its influence across Afghanistan. “The dramatic change in the last few months has been the deterioration of the situation in the north of Afghanistan, which was previously one of the most stable parts of Afghanistan. Provinces such as Kunduz and Balkh are now heavily affected by Taliban violence. Across the north of Afghanistan, there has been a dramatic increase in the rate of insurgent attacks against international, Afghan government, and civilian targets“, stated Mr. Alexander Jackson, Policy Analyst at ICOS.

“Eight years after the 9/11 attacks, the Taliban has returned to touch almost every corner of Afghanistan”, said Jackson.

As to what the Taliban might do if they regain control over Afghanistan, the burden of that answer must be shouldered by those who claim that it means nothing for the security of the U.S. and balance of the West.  The Hamburg cell initially intended to attack inside Germany, but upon arrival for training in Afghanistan, AQ persuaded them to attack the U.S. instead.  The Taliban either included globalists (The shura council of the Afghan Taliban, currently the Quetta shura), or those who were allied with the globalists and therefore aided them.  The globalists also included AQ, and there is no indication whatsoever that their intent has changed or their hatred been mollified.  In fact, with the time for AQ to influence the Taliban, their alignment has come into clearer focus, not diminished.  If AQ and the Taliban are not enemies of the U.S., it is incumbent upon the detractor to explain why not?  Further, it is incumbent for them to explain why the same or analogous things to 9/11 will not happen if Afghanistan is left unchecked.

Given the presupposition that something must be done about the globalists and those who harbor them, the question then reverts to strategy and eventually tactics.  As for Krulak’s counsel, I respectfully disagree with Gian.  Krulak has fallen into the same trap that Gian set for the counterinsurgency proponents.  They talk tactics as if it was strategy, and though Gian praised Krulak’s counsel, Krulak does the same thing.  HK teams are not a strategy – they are a tactic.

If the strategy of which HK teams are a part involves counterterrorism operations against HVT to hold AQ in check, then I have responded to this elsewhere (many times over).

The Hindu Kush and areas South of there (Helmand) harbors AQ and other globalists and also their enablers.  Don’t think for one minute that we can simply launch clinical raids with pristine intelligence supported by operators who have all they need when they need it, with combined arms including air support that has air controllers who have all of the logistics that they need while they target only know HVTs with verifiable accuracy.

This is simply a myth – a strategic daydream.  The small footprint model has led us to where we are in Afghanistan, and claiming that we should do more of the same will continue the diminution of the campaign.  We can withdraw or we can go big, but what we cannot do is hope that more of the same saves us.

With a small footprint of only SOF located in Afghanistan, logistics would be the first to go, and our troops wouldn’t have supplies for more than a couple of months.  Every person who has ever driven a fuel supply truck for us will have been beheaded.  The Afghan National Police will be killed by the population within a few months as retribution for the corruption, and the Afghan National Army will last a little longer – maybe three months.  Rescues will be attempted as a means of egress for the American HK teams lest they die.

The small footprint model has indeed led us to this point in the campaign.  I have not previously advocated specifically counterinsurgency model outlined in FM 3-24 which involves some large degree of national building (so much as I have advocated killing the enemy just as does Gentile).  Whatever strategy one does advocate, HK teams would be the ones killed for lack of logistics, and prior to that their efforts would fail because of lack of intelligence.  This model simply won’t work.

Destroying the existing powers that threaten America, leaving and do it again when the threat returns is an appropriate and acceptable strategy.  It may not be the best approach, but it’s workable.  It doesn’t have to be nation building or counterinsurgency viz. FM 3-24.  The problem with this model is that we have almost returned to that very state in Afghanistan today.  In order to dissuade me from advocating involvement in Afghanistan,Krulak has got to do much better than HK teams whose starvation or beheadings would make for awful Television news in the states.  He needs to talk strategy rather than tactics, as Gian has so aptly pointed out of the counterinsurgency advocates.  But if Krulak needs to talk strategy, Yingling needs to avoid myth-telling.  A quick survey of our coverage of the Afghan National Army yields the conclusion that they cannot be relied upon any time soon for security.

As a concluding thought, we should all be savvy to the condition of the infrastructure in America.  Without much effort I could easily put together a plan that, if successfully implemented, would decimate the economy of the country.  Using ordnance with enough power to take out both small and large step-up / step-down electrical transformers, terrorists could attack the power distribution system of the country.  These transformers are not in stock in the quantity needed to respond to such an attack, and without electricity the industry to fabricate them would be absent.  The U.S. without electrical power for four or five months would mean that hospitals wouldn’t even function and food would not be distributed.  The stock market would be the last concern for most Americans.  And this plan doesn’t even involve other sensitive infrastructure such as potable water supplies.  U.S. infrastructure hasn’t been hardened.  First responder training has occurred, but we are still as vulnerable as we were prior to 9/11, except for the fact that the fight with the globalists is occurring everywhere except home soil.

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13 Comments on "Discerning the Way Forward in Afghanistan"

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Excellent wide view lens on this, Captain. America’s Achilles’ heel: naivete. We simply do not respond to grave dangers until we have been smacked in the mouth and bled a bit. Anyone with a lick of sense could have seen the growing threat posed by Imperial Japan and the Nazis in the 1930’s but America failed to allocate resources to be ready to meet the threat. It should be similarly obvious that Al Qaeda and the Iranians (to say nothing of the North Koreans and the Chinese) pose a grave threat to national security and yet we fail to allocate the resources that would fully equip and expand our military. The attacks of 9-11 were America’s wake up call and our initial response was good. But we have dozed off again. Captain, you have pointed out the kind of danger we face from attacks to the electrical grid and God help us if that happens. Al Qaeda was foolish to have attacked in such a limited (symbolic) way on 9-11. Our enemies will not make that mistake again. If we have not been attacked since 9-11, it is partly due to our aggressive stance under Bush, but it may be… Read more »

Yes indeed. I recently tried starting up a tallow rendering room in my spare bedroom for candle making, soap base, and hide curing. The city cited me for 122 code violations, shut me down, and suggested I look elsewhere for my sustainable life-style.

James Harris

Thank you all for this dark and dismal truth. Now that my/our morale is totally shattered because there is no evidence that anyone will do the right thing …

Fortunately, even though the truth sucks, God has taken care of fools and the USA before; so maybe he will again!!


I was conversing with a friend a few days ago – briefly – about the “softness” of the U.S.’s infrastructure. This former specops soldier had some interesting things to say about small insurgencies, as stated above (200 fighters). He also made some good points in drawing a comparison with Che Guevara’s guerilla tactics and the U.S.’s particular weakness to the same.

His statement was something like “give me 150 fit, well-trained, intelligent men and I could …” fill in the blank.

Seems to be a consensus.

The threat goes beyond AQ but to more of a jihadist clearing house where these groups regardless of affiliation ally at times where they have mutual goals. It is not AQ as an organization so much as it is the idea of jihad that is resonating with the Muslim world. Keep in mind that that the Spainish bombers did not have any outside help and were influenced by what they read on the internet. While Afghanistan and Iraq have killed thousands of foot soldiers and hundreds of leaders these are being replaced by the survivors of encounters with US and allied troops. To the point of Afghanistan as I have mentioned here and other places, nothing can be accomplished as long as the FATA looms over the border. It has been made very evident that the Pak military is not pushing into North and South Waziristan. Nor is the Pakistan government doing anything to go after the Taliban leadership in Quetta. We can and do kill the Taliban in droves there has to be a decision made on whether to devote the resources to actually give the Afghan government a bubble of security to get their act together. This in… Read more »
James Harris

I should hasten to add that, a couple of years ago, it looked at least this dismal in Iraq too. Now, even though the Iraq issue is by no means “won,” things are definitely and endurably more hopeful than they were. They may revert again, but there is a hope of a “positive enough” outcome.

This could happen in A-stan also. Not a mirror of what happened in Iraq. But maybe the same types of strategies could be considered. For example, if the tribes still count for so much more there, maybe a divided (but un-tallibanized) A-Stan would work.

I’m not saying do this. I’m saying that since what we’d prefer is not probable, maybe something obtainable and endurable is.

Well — a little thinking, valid or not, does raise moral a little! ;-)

Yes, James, there is hope. There is ‘hope’ that the Iranian thugocracy will miscalculate and either (a) fall to the very real aspiration of the Iranian people to be free and truly democratic, or (b) provoke Israel –which appears to own the only national set of scrotum on the planet among Western democracies– into taking out the Iranian nukes at which point Iran over-reacts and forces the U.S. hand into action against Iran. There is ‘hope’ that nothing irreversible will happen until 2010 at which point the American people rise up and throw out the bums of both parties and vote in enough senators and congressmen who will demand that the U.S. military get the kind of resources and increase in size to match a war that is truly global. (Truthfully, when you think about WWII, we were only fighting in two, main theaters: Europe and East Asia. Today the Islamofascists are active in Europe, the Middle East, the Near East, the Far East, Africa and even Latin America– to say nothing of their infiltration into North America. Now THAT’s a global war). There is ‘hope’ that the Islamofascists will miscalculate yet again and attack us in a way that… Read more »
I filed this over at Strategypage.com “A message from Afganastan” reply. So here is just some simple ideas that maybe we aught to look into. 1) The Taliban and Al Qaida is whipping our butts in the media battle. Anything the Allied Forces do that just might cause a death or injury of a civilian is promply brought out and displayed with bright spotlights and glittering lettering. And without knowing just who is Taliban and who is Joe Chit the Ragman Civilian…we’ll always be losing this battle. We need to get a handle of the “propaganda” war. 2) All the Afghans ever see of the Allies is Warriors (oh, our troops are doing a great job don’t get me wrong, I have nothing but the highest respect for our service personel over there, but, their troops, combat- armed to the teeth ready to kick azz and take names troops)…even the small amount of Civilians sent over there look like some sort of soldier. How are you going to get the mindset changed to “trust us” if all they have ever seen is foreign combat troops trying to secure safe areas on your home turf. Imagine if you can, that in… Read more »

I think protecting infrastructure is a good idea, but it has to be balanced with liberty and common sense. No argument on transformers and the like. But shopping malls? If they ended up being guarded by something akin to the inept disaster that is the TSA, I’ll take my chances; convenience outweighs the risk in my mind. As long as I’m on the topic, the TSA is the Maginot Line of airline security: they might have come in handy on 9/11, but now they’re an edifice designed for the last war. They are pointless and should be dismantled. No terrorist in his right mind would try to hijack a plane at this point.

On blkfoot_04’s 4th point, buying produce from the locals is a great idea, but we’d get mired in military bureaucracy because all those local producers and vendors would be subject to food sanitation inspection by military veterinarians. It would die before it got off the ground because it would be filed in the “too hard” category, which is unfortunate. Sometimes it’s worth doing what is harder.


You are currently reading "Discerning the Way Forward in Afghanistan", entry #3803 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Counterinsurgency,Featured and was published September 13th, 2009 by Herschel Smith.

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