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June 23, 2010

The Trouble with Afghan COIN
Posted by Michael Cohen

Shadi and David have offered some further thoughts on the Rolling Stone article that shook the world - and whether McChrystal should stay or go. 

A couple of words in response. First David speculates that, "the only reason to keep McChrystal in place is if and only if removing him would be a greater disruption to the current operation and strategy than retaining him; if he's replaceable, he should be replaced."

I strenuously disagree - even if it's a disruption to the current mission McChrystal should go. The bottom line is that everyone in a uniform is replaceable. Afghanistan is important, but the sanctity of civilian-military relations in this country is more important. Just as no progressive would contemplate violations to the rule of law such as torture, illegal wiretapping etc in the name of expediency no progressive should place the mission in Afghanistan on a higher plane than the potential impact on civilian control of the military caused by this incident. Now President Obama may conclude that McChrystal's actions are not a fireable offense. While I think that would be wrong, the implications of what this incident means for civilian-military relations should be front and center for the president.

On to Shadi's point about COIN in Afghanistan:

What troubles me is when critics of the war, particularly progressives, come very close to suggesting McChrystal should let the military loose and ride up the body count. As Andrew Exum writes, "In a weird way, Hastings is making the argument to readers of Rolling Stone (Rolling Stone!) that counterinsurgency sucks because it doesn't allow our soldiers to kill enough people." Counterinsurgency might suck, but it doesn't suck because of that.

Joe Klein at Time Magazine makes a similar argument, but I think this misses the mark.  Not many progressives are arguing that the military should turn southern and eastern Afghanistan into a free fire zone - the implicit argument being made here is that there is a fundamental disconnect between the capabilities of our soldiers and the orders from their commanders. Troops trained to destroy the enemy are being asked to act like "armed social workers" and they are frustrated. 

Today's article by CJ Chivers adds more color to this point - noting that some US troops are actually putting themselves in harm's way in order to get air support when they find themselves in a firefight with the Taliban. And as a result our efforts to degrade the Taliban are suffering - and of course as a recent UN report indicates it's not as if we're making southern and eastern Afghanistan any safer for civilians. That report documents a 94% increase in roadside bombings, a 45% rise in assassinations and a doubling of suicide attacks versus the same last year. And many of the attacks are occurring in the “country's southern and southeastern regions” where the US escalation has been the greatest – suggesting that where US troops go violence and death soon follows, even if we're not the cause.

We should go out of our way to protect civilians in Afghanistan, but if in doing so it undermines the war effort there or leads to likely failure then we shouldn't take the gloves off - we should adopt a new strategy that takes into account the actual capabilities of our armed forces. The question at hand is whether US troops are properly trained, equipped, resources and supported to carry out a COIN mission in Afghanistan. If their experience over the past six months is any indication - it appears they aren't.


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One of the architects of the military’s COIN strategy in Iraq, David Kilcullen, argues that counter-insurgency in Afghanistan means a five to ten year commitment aimed at “building a resilient Afghan state and civil society” and extending “an effective, legitimate government presence into Afghanistan’s 40,020 villages.”

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One of the architects of the military’s COIN strategy in Iraq, David Kilcullen, argues that counter-insurgency in Afghanistan means a five to ten year commitment aimed at “building a resilient Afghan state and civil society” and extending “an effective, legitimate government presence into Afghanistan’s 40,020 villages.”

We should go out of our way to protect civilians in Afghanistan, but if in doing so it undermines the war effort there or leads to likely failure then we shouldn't take the gloves off - we should adopt a new strategy that takes into account the actual capabilities of our armed forces. The question at hand is whether US troops are properly trained, equipped, resources and supported to carry out a COIN mission in Afghanistan. If their experience over the past six months is any indication - it appears they aren't.
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We should go out of our way to protect civilians in Afghanistan, but if in doing so it undermines the war effort there or leads to likely failure then we shouldn't take the gloves off - we should adopt a new strategy that takes into account the actual capabilities of our armed forces.

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