McChrystal Gone – Now What?

June 24th, 2010 in Current Events by Frank Chadwick

I had originally intended to write a column about the imminent departure of General McChrystal, but what I had to say was pretty much the same thing an ocean of writers from all points on the political compass agreed on: time for McChrystal to hang up the uniform, take his multi-million dollar publisher’s advance, and write his book. He has either forgotten how to function within the chain of command or he deliberately staged his own departure. Why would he engineer his own relief? Better to depart now, some have suggested, for openly criticizing policy than be remembered as the failed general who supervised the evacuation under fire of Kandahar — or Kabul. People won’t be as anxious to read that book.

Ungenerous and pessimistic assessment? Perhaps. We’ll see.

But whatever the genesis of his departure, much more important are the strategic stress fracture lines which the indiscipline and immaturity of his staff exposed by their unguarded comments.

On the purely mechanical level, the scorn heaped by his staff on others in the administration reflects a divide – always present and always fractious – between the advocates of counterinsurgency versus the proponents of counterterrorism.

Counterinsurgency aims at reshaping a nation and its society over the long haul, emphasizes infrastructure improvements, ground-level security, and building a bond between the local population and the security forces. Its purpose is to reduce the ability of terrorists not only to operate in an area, but to draw recruits and non-military support from it. “Hearts and minds” may be an over-used term, but it gets used so much because it hits the nail on the head. Counterinsurgency is about winning hearts and minds.

Counterterrorism is about killing bad guys and . . . well, no, that’s pretty much it.

Are these two approaches necessarily in conflict? Can’t we carry out a counter-insurgency while also prosecuting a vigorous anti-terrorism campaign? It’s tough, and the controversy over drone aircraft strikes is a window into that difficulty.

The CIA has been one of the advocates for drone aircraft strikes against “high value” targets in the tribal areas of Pakistan. The prosecution of these strikes is counter-terrorism at its most primal level. The Predators fly out and destroy a target believed to hold important terrorist leaders. The counter-terrorist folks like this because it kills bad guys without putting our own personnel at risk. The counter-insurgency people don’t like them because they enrage everyone living around the strikes and so generate many times more potential insurgents than the terrorist leaders they eliminate.

The counter-terrorism guys say that doesn’t matter, because these strikes have the potential to decapitate the terrorist leadership. The counter-insurgency guys point out in response that the Predators rely on good human intelligence on the ground, and the more we piss off the people on the ground the less good HumInt we get and the less effective the Predator strikes become.

There is now a group of analysts within the CIA itself who are increasingly disillusioned with the long-term efficacy of their own UAV strike program. (Here is a link to an article on that.) As the strikes go on and on without producing the expected collapse of these “decapitated” organizations, the strike criteria has become broader and broader, and some charge that the strikes continue in part because they are seen as a way of showing the public that we are “doing something,” even if it isn’t producing much of anything but bodies, rage, and more Taliban recruits.

Counter-insurgency, on the other hand, has its own problems, and nowhere are they more evident than in Afghanistan. First and foremost, a counterinsurgency campaign requires the civilian government it is being waged in support of to be worth more than a bucket of warm spit. We, however, have no real control over the value of the indigenous government. We can say we support democracy, but if the government is a corrupt election-stealing organized crime family, there’s not much we can do to fix that. We can overthrow the government, of course, and replace it with one of our own choosing. We even have a word for that sort of government: “Quisling.”

The real problem with the debate between the counterinsurgency and counterterrorism camps is simply this: we do not have a sufficiently clear strategic vision to decide the issue. We do not have a clear vision of the peace we wish to attain, and so we have no clear idea of the sort of war we should wage to attain it. We are arguing about means, and it is a sterile, meaningless argument without hope of resolution until someone musters the courage and wisdom to tackle the real issue — objective.

What is the peace we seek? What is the shape of the post-war world in which we wish to live? That is the first question that must be answered in order to craft a coherent strategy. Until we do that, we will continue to flounder.

About the Author: The major landmarks in Frank's historical interests range from ancient Persia through the Crimean War, World War II, and the modern U.S. Armed Forces, with a lot of stops in between. Frank is fascinated by the unusual, the overlooked, and the surprising. He is the New York Times number one best-selling author of the Desert Shield Fact Book (1991) and he is currently writing an historical novel on Alexander's conquest of Persia – from the Persian point of view.

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3 Responses to “McChrystal Gone – Now What?”

  1. Jack Radey said:

    Good, Frank. I think McChrystal was begging to be sent home. He is not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but belatedly had figured out this was a loser start to finish, and he didn’t want to be the one to ride it into the ground. Obama is trying to be cute, since Petreaus (known around the five sided puzzle palace as “King David”) is running for the GOP presidential spot in the next election, he figured he would send him in to clean up this latrine, figuring he is unlikely to emerge smelling like a rose. But having gotten Petreaus agreement that if the strategy didn’t work in 18 months the departure deadline would be met anyway, Petreaus has already doubled back and is insisting that the deadline… shmedline, we’ll stay till the job is done… whatever the job is.
    Where you err, I believe, is in suggesting that Karzai is anything but ours. We put him in, we sustain him, we finance everything he does (some of the money ends up in Switzerland), we arm, train, and lead his forces. Holder today praised his fight against corruption. Oh yeah. What a joke. We sustain him, but of course we can’t control him, since we have no alternative, so he is currently alternately checking his airline reservations and trying on the black turban in front of a mirror. He does not intend to be Najibullahed.
    Bottom line. There IS no answer, technique, tactic or strategy that is going to establish a pro-US government in Afghanistan that can stand without us holding it up. Petreaus put it well – building up an indigenous armed forces,[which we have been doing for what, 9 years?] during an insurgency, is like trying to build a high performance aircraft, while it is in flight, and being shot at. Translating from the technical language, this means IT CAN’T BE DONE! So… there is only one answer. Get the hell out, now.

  2. Jack, thanks for joining the discussion. Is there a way to make all this work somehow? I am less and less optomistic that there is a “right” way to do it which will produce the results we want. But as I mentioned above, I am even more concerned with a lack of srategic thinking on the subject.
    For example, you say there is no way to insure a pro-US government in Afghanistan. Even assuming that is true, is that a disaster or a non-event? In other words, is a pro-US government in Afghanistan even necessary to the “better peace” we seek? Or can we get that better peace without micro-engineering the government in Kabul?
    In my opinion we are simply pursuing objectives out of habit, not because they are essential to our post-war vision of the world. We have let the inertia of the war capture us, and now we just keep grinding and grinding in the hopes that somehow things will get better.

  3. I think that Counter-Insurgency would be much more beneficial, although the way Counter-Insurgency is being used is still incorrect. The proper way to conduct this type of warfare is to not only “Win the Hearts and Minds”, but to be the hearts and mind. We must be cognizant of the wants of the Afghan people. They are a proud people and come from a long history of being able to repel foreign invaders. I believe that if we fulfill all the wants of the Afghan people, than America’s needs and wants from them will also be met. This is vindicated by history, as it is the principle of all successful guerrilla campaigns. The hearts and minds have to be more than won over to our side, we must be so close to the Afghan people that the hearts and minds of the military commanders and the people are the same.

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