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.