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October 08, 2009

Mission Creep Explained
Posted by Michael Cohen

Today's article by Rajiv Chandrasekaran on how US Afghan policy went so far astray over the past 6 months is an absolute must read. What seems pretty clear from Rajiv's reporting is that the military and the civilians were simply not on the same page . . . but the extent to which they weren't on the same page is very difficult to comprehend:

Preventing al-Qaeda's return to Afghanistan, the document stated, would require "executing and resourcing an integrated civilian-military counterinsurgency strategy." To senior military commanders, the sentence was unambiguous: U.S. and NATO forces would have to change the way they operated in Afghanistan. Instead of focusing on hunting and killing insurgents, the troops would have to concentrate on protecting the good Afghans from the bad ones.

And to carry out such a counterinsurgency effort the way its doctrine prescribes, the military would almost certainly need more boots on the ground.

To some civilians who participated in the strategic review, that conclusion was much less clear. Some took it as inevitable that more troops would be needed, but others thought the thrust of the new approach was to send over scores more diplomats and reconstruction experts. They figured a counterinsurgency mission could be accomplished with the forces already in the country, plus the 17,000 new troops Obama had authorized in February.

"It was easy to say, 'Hey, I support COIN,' because nobody had done the assessment of what it would really take, and nobody had thought through whether we want to do what it takes," said one senior civilian administration official who participated in the review, using the shorthand for counterinsurgency.

On the surface, this is embarrassing. How could civilian officials be recommending a counter-insurgency strategy for Afghanistan and not fully understand what it would take to accomplish this goal? How could they not understand that a counter-insurgency operation would almost certainly necessitate more troops being sent to Afghanistan? Quite simply, how do you endorse a plan for counter-insurgency and then not think it through?

But before we start saying civilian policymakers screwed the pooch it sure doesn't appear that the military had determined in March that it needed more troops either:

"Typically, you defer to the field for the resource needs," said one senior official involved in the review. "In March . . . we thought we had a handle on what McKiernan thought he needed."

The military was not ready at that point to come to the president and say, 'Here's the number we think it's going to take,' " the person familiar with the conversation said. "They were satisfied that what they had put on the table at the beginning of the administration met their requirement for the moment."

Aha! That changes things a bit and suggests that the disconnect between the civilian side and the military wasn't simply that the civilians were clueless - it's that the military commanders were content with the troop levels. That was until General McKiernan was fired and replaced by General McChrystal who adopted population centric counter-insurgency with a vengeance.

At the first meeting of a team of outside experts he convened to help him with the assessment, he told them, according to two attendees, that he wanted "a COIN campaign focused on the people."

Here's where the trouble seemed to begin:

Back in Washington, some civilians involved in the review grew concerned that McChrystal's counterinsurgency plan went beyond what they believed was stated in the white paper. "Secure the population" was always a "military phrase," one senior civilian participant said. "That was the way they extrapolated from Riedel's plan," but "it's not in Riedel's plan."

To the military, however, the only way to do counterinsurgency is by protecting the population.

"We were operating under the assumption that when they said COIN, that's what they meant," said a senior U.S. military official in Afghanistan, "and they were serious about committing the necessary resources."

To some extent this is a pox on both houses. McChrystal made the determination that protecting the population was the goal in Afghanistan even though that strategy went much further than not just the white paper but the President's own words in March. Then to make matters worse he began politicking for more troops with selective leaks to the news media (and as loyal readers of the AMCW are well aware, this didn't start with a speech in London).

But the performance of civilian policymakers is almost as bad; if not worse.  There just seems to be a complete lack of planning, forethought and direct communication between civilian policymakers and the military about what a robust counter-insurgency mission would entail. What's more, if Rajiv's reporting is correct it sure seems as though core assumptions about US national interests and capabilities in Afghanistan -- with the notable exception of Tony Blinken - went basically unchallenged. I'm glad to see that the President and his advisors are having this discussion now, but it would have been nice if they had as robust a conversation in March before we got into this mess.

UPDATE: As usual, Bernard Finel takes no prisoners, but it's hard to disagree with him here:

This story is extremely depressing.  It suggests a shockingly low level of debate.  No one brought up the force-sizing requirements in 3-24?  And it makes me wonder whether they even considered what “diplomats and reconstruction experts” could actually accomplish in one of the poorest countries in the world.

This was the product of “weeks” of discussion?  A strategy signed off on with no sense of the forces required?  A strategy bolstered by a hand-wave about “reconstruction experts”?

I am just speechless.

But I have to admit, if this story is correct, my initial assessment of the process was wrong.  The policy process was not captured by a cabal of COINdinistas shutting out all skeptics…. the policy process was instead mismanaged and the participants failed to do sufficient due diligence.  Incompetence rather than conspiracy explained the outcome.

It was early on.  The process was half-staffed and all of the people were presumably new to their jobs.  And that may explain part of the problem.  But wow… this story is really, really rough.


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Well, who's got the courage to tell the US electorate that the resources required to generate any reasonable chance of success (nothing's guaranteed in this life) will consist of 300K troops and $25 billion in civil aid for 10 years. The Republicans have been lying to the public for the last eight years about how this could be done on the cheap. Now, the bills have finally come in the mail and everybody is afraid to look at them. Everyone's trying to kick that can down the road one more time.

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