Gen. McChrystal’s Assessment Ignores COIN Doctrine, Reality

Posted: September 22, 2009 in Uncategorized
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Note: Derrick Crowe is the Afghanistan blog fellow for Brave New Foundation / The Seminal. You can learn more about the dangers posed to U.S. national security by the war in Afghanistan by watching Rethink Afghanistan (Part Six): Security, or by visiting

General McChrystal’s “new strategy” has been leaked to press in what looks to me like a continued effort to box in the President on troop increases. Here’s the core of the document:

The New Strategy: Focus on the Population

…To accomplish the mission and defeat the insurgency we also require a properly resourced strategy built on four main pillars:

  1. Improve effectiveness through greater partnering with ANSF.  We will increase the size and accelerate the growth of the ANSF, with a radically improved partnership at every level, to improve effectiveness and prepare them to take the lead in security operations.
  2. Prioritize responsive and accountable governance. We must assist in improving governance at all levels through both formal and traditional mechanisms.
  3. Gain the initiative. Our first imperative, in a series of operational stages, is to gain the initiative and reverse the insurgency’s momentum.
  4. Focus resources. We will prioritize available resources to those critical areas where vulnerable populations are most threatened.

The first two pillars seem to have been written while someone was smoking hashish. Let’s take them one at a time. First:

1. Improve effectiveness through greater partnering with ANSF. We will increase the size and accelerate the growth of the ANSF, with a radically improved partnership at every level, to improve effectiveness and prepare them to take the lead in security operations.

While this pillar may look like it’s following the guidance of the COIN manual, when we consider the Afghans’ inability to sustain such a force, it clearly ignores many of the manual’s warnings.Here’s a sample:

Make only commitments that can be fulfilled in the foreseeable future. (p. 172) Establishing activities that the HN government is unable to sustain may be counterproductive. (p. 170)…[Host nation] security forces should…[b]e sustainable by the host nation after U.S. and multinational forces depart. (p. 208)

As has been pointed out many times, even the current ANSF force levels cannot be sustained by the Afghan economy. From a January 2009 CRS report (p. 71):

Senior Afghan and international officials estimate that it will cost approximately $3.5 billion per year to increase ANSF force structure, and then $2.2 billion per year to sustain it. …GIRoA, which contributed $320 million to the ANSF in 2008, is not a realistic source of ANSF funding in the near term.

In addition to the warnings about sustainability, the COIN manual also warns against trying to recreate the ANSF in our own image:

Avoid mirror-imaging (trying to make the host-nation forces look like the U.S. military). That solution fits few cultures or situations. (p. 168)

Once again, the counterinsurgency we have in Afghanistan throws out the doctrine’s manual.

If we left Afghanistan tomorrow, lock stock and barrel…the ANA and ANP would completely evaporate as functioning institutions in much of the country, probably in a matter of days if not hours. They are still very much artificial constructs that we’ve imposed on the country, and wholly dependent on our technology for their survival so long as they continue to use the tactics we’ve taught them….

We’ve taught them to fight the way we do. They’re not as good at it as we are, of course, in part because of issues like illiteracy. We’ve suppressed any way of fighting we cannot support and participate in fully, because to do so could, frankly, end up with more dead Afghan soldiers due to friendly fire and deconfliction problems than dead enemy. And so here we are. What wouldn’t seem to be a profitable strategy right now, in that light, is accelerating the expansion of the ANA even further, which some are advocating.

Ann Jones wrote a great article detailing our mirror-imaging over at TomDispatch:

Their American trainers spoke of “upper body strength deficiency” and prescribed pushups because their [ANSF] trainees buckle under the backpacks filled with 50 pounds of equipment and ammo they are expected to carry. All this material must seem absurd to men whose fathers and brothers, wearing only the old cotton shirts and baggy pants of everyday life and carrying battered Russian Kalashnikov rifles, defeated the Red Army two decades ago. American trainers marvel that, freed from heavy equipment and uniforms, Afghan soldiers can run through the mountains all day — as the Taliban guerrillas in fact do with great effect — but the U.S. military is determined to train them for another style of war.

In other words, we’re training them to be like us, COIN manual guidelines be damned.

Conformity to the COIN manual should not be conflated with good policy, but when a commander justifies the investment of blood and resources because of the supposed absolute necessity of implementing a given strategy, his failure to conform to the guidelines of that strategy should be a warning that we wander in the wilderness. We’re being asked to invest heavily for the foreseeable future in a program that will not deliver a self-sufficient, effective ANSF. Why should we be expected to do so when the official rationale–counterinsurgency doctrine–warns us against taking this path?


2. Prioritize responsive and accountable governance. We must assist in improving governance at all levels through both formal and traditional mechanisms.

On which planet is the good general living? I’ve never seen a person whose allegedly been in charge of assassination squads play Pollyanna. His own document does a pretty good job illustrating how unrealistic his second pillar is:

The second threat, of a very different kind, is the crisis of popular confidence that springs from the weakness of GIRoA institutions, the unpunished abuse of power by corrupt officials and power-brokers, a widespread sense of political disenfranchisement and a longstanding lack of economic opportunity.

…There are no clear lines separating insurgent groups, criminal networds (including the narcotics networks), and corrupt GIRoA officials. Malign actors within GIRoA support insurgent groups directly, support criminal networks that are linked to insurgents, and support corruption that helps feed the insurgency.

These GoIRA qualities are bad enough, but the above doesn’t even touch on the potentially explosive political dynamic set up by Karzai’s massive and transparent attempt to steal the election, nor the vows of Abdullah followers to take to the streets “with Kalashnikovs” (you know, the one’s they’ve apparently been stockpiling for a while now) should Karzai declare victory. Afghanistan ranks 176th out of 180 countries on the Corruption Perception Index. How exactly does McChrystal, as someone outside of the Afghan government and without authority to excise corrupt cadres from the GoIRA, expect to adequately take this off the table as a strategic factor within the 12-month window he’s established in which major progress must be made?

I could go on and on about the internal contradictions of this document (for example, how does Stan the Man plan to “decentralize” and “Improve Unity of Effort and Command?”), but the simple fact is that you don’t have to go past pillars 1 and 2 to realize that this isn’t a credible strategy. It’s a wish list of desired pre-existing conditions and a proposed action plan whose success is predicated on those desired pre-existing conditions. That makes it even more distasteful that the military would attempt to use this junk “strategy” to bully the president into sending more troops. For example:

But Obama’s deliberative pace — he has held only one meeting of his top national security advisers to discuss McChrystal’s report so far — is a source of growing consternation within the military. “Either accept the assessment or correct it, or let’s have a discussion,” one Pentagon official said. “Will you read it and tell us what you think?” Within the military, this official said, “there is a frustration. A significant frustration. A serious frustration.”

Add to that anonymous posturing, the leak of a conveniently redacted and declassified version of McChrystal’s memo and Mullen’s remarks to Congress, and you’ve got the rough outline of an information op being directed at the American people with the purpose of forcing the President’s hand.

If the president was looking for a signal that the situation had progressed to a stage in which the military could not offer a credible plan to deal with it, this is it.

  1. […] could never afford American style logistics or heavy equipment in its wildest dreams either. Once again, the counter-insurgency we have in Afghanistan throws out the manual. U.S. training of Afghan forces mainly suits those Afghans to be cannon-fodder for U.S. operations […]

  2. […] Gen. McChrystal’s Assessment Ignores COIN Doctrine, Reality posted on September 22nd, 2009 at Return Good for Evil […]

  3. sporkmaster says:

    I will post a reply but right now I am tired and moody.

    Not sure of you saw this one.

  4. sporkmaster says:

    Ok going into reason one about Afghan army and how they cannot afford expansion. I can understand that Afghanistan may/does not have the funds compared to Iraq. But one solution is to have village militias that will provide the basic defense. It is a area where weapons and arms are not in short supply. But what we should do is have them networked to work with the active army. So instead of having to have a army everywhere you would supplement any militia with unformed troops as needed.

    But in order for that to work you would need;

    1. Trust and corporation of villages and towns with the government. Not mention the other villages.
    2. That they are not alone so that f they do decide to fight against the Taliban that they are not left isolated.
    3. That by establishing this may work towards the idea that the people and government do not have to rely on the Warlords for protection.

    The second about how we fight. In the quotes it talks about illiteracy being one of the reasons that they cannot fight the way we do. But I disagree that it is the problem. Here is a link that talks about this in detail.

    Also in the past posts talks about how they fight against ours. But I would like to put out that if the acts of the Warlords and those under them are going to be changed it needed to be taught to the Afghan army. Also the body armor does protect. So this is a age old debate of protections vs. speed. We have equipped the Iraqi army with up armored Humvvs and older MRAPs Also you cannot always outrun bullets or bombs.

    Afghan government; Ok this is the big one. I know that it sounds like that the Afghan government (Warlords) are some how better then the Taliban. The reason I am worried about the Taliban more is that the Warlords are the lesser of the two evils. I know we have talked about this to some length but we cannot fight to remove the Taliban AND the Warlords at the same time and expect to win. Heaven forbid they put aside their difference and fight us united.

    Now about the General, this is he part that I wanted to wait to reply on. Because a good part misses not being able to directly help and be involved. So when they talk about needed additional soldiers the first thought is to jump up. So it is frustrating just waiting on the sidelines arguing the same arguments that took place two years ago about Iraq.

    Though it would be far more politically palatable to many members of Obama’s own party, it would likely alienate a military that increasingly believes doing the Afghanistan mission right means deploying enough troops to mount a proper counterinsurgency.

    Long story short, if the goal of getting ride of the Taliban in Afghanistan fails by COIN methods, then what then? I really do not trust the international body to do anything about it. The American/European community attention span is not long enough to pay attention to what happens after we leave. The groups that want to help (Journey to Smiles), but I am (VERY) worried about their safety between the all the violence.

    “Make no mistake: This cannot be solely be America’s endeavor. Those who used to chastise America for acting alone in the world cannot now stand by and wait for America to solve the world’s problems alone,” Obama said.

    Also to add insult to injury considering that the planned meeting on the 25th, the play it safe, Code Pink walk the dangerous streets of Austin morning the lives loss regardless of who or who killed them. So which group do you think will make a bigger difference. (Still think that JTS groups is crazy).

    Oh this is not on this post but, if there is talk about the elections being rigged fixed, then how can one be sure that those polls did not take a hit? Not to mention that certain media outlets have no problem video taping the Taliban torment and kidnap people that voted on camera for a hot story play into this too?

    I think I covered everything.

    • dcrowe says:

      Hey sporkmaster:

      Again, I’m sorry your comments sometimes get stuck in the spam filter…I’m not sure why that keeps happening, but if I figure out how to fix it, I will.

      The problem I see with the local militia model is that it could easily turn into a pre-Taliban-type mess. After all, what are warlords but people running a local/private militia? But imagine how much worse it would have been if all those militias had been funded, trained and equipped by U.S. dollars!

      I just keep coming back to the legitimacy of the government. It’s the holy grail in this strategy, and we don’t have it. I mean seriously–the election meltdown, the corruption, etc. etc. …as long as that’s the government, we’ll not be able to stop the insurgency with military force.

      Speaking of CodePink, et. al., here’s an article you might be interested in:

      I think this article makes a common mistake: looking for the modern peace movement in the big carnival atmosphere marches/university occupations of the 1960s. (This will circle back to your point in a minute) That’s not where the peace movement is anymore, and there’s good reason for that. Think back to the launch of the Iraq war, when more than a million people marched against that war. What was the effect? We went to war. That’s not to say that public gatherings, marches, etc. are not important, but that’s not where the game is anymore. The point of one of these events is to show public support, but there are way more effective ways to get people together and show support now thanks to the Internet, etc. The most effective operators are organizing people online and translating that into online and offline action, like voting, spreading the word via social media and blogs, etc.

      As an outside observer, and as a recent Capitol Hill staffer, my critique of CodePink is that I think they often err on the side of an older model of protest, etc., but let me tell you, as a former employee of the federal policymaking machine, “The Man” is *very* good at absorbing and neutralizing that kind of dissent. In D.C., the cops will even play along and “arrest” you and release you without charges when you engage in civil disobedience, indulging your desire to protest but avoiding the resource sink of incarcerating you, processing you, and being saddled with your expenses after a trial. Often protests and the arrest are pre-negotiated between protesters and the police…what kind of civil disobedience is that?

      True civil disobedience intentionally violates an unjust law or disrupts an unjust process, accepting the consequences. A lot of the protest I see just indulges a fantasy of fighting “the man,” getting arrested for things that do not cost their opponents a thing or disrupt their activities at all. As much as I admire CodePink’s willingness to take risks, they often fall into this category.

      • sporkmaster says:

        I think the reason for that has to do with the multiple links. I noticed that if I send more then two links it comes up “waiting for approval”.

        Well when I am thinking of militia is more of in the terms of people in each village can fight in defense if needed, not a private army trying to control a entire country. I understand your concerns about the corruptions of the government and Warlords. (I have been looking at the screen for while trying to find a reply that I liked but feel like I am coming up short.) The one thing that I feel very certain of is that the Insurgents groups will be there regardless if the government is corrupt or not. It is this reason that our mission is still valid there.

        To me the reason that the warlords have such appeal in the eyes of the Afghan government is that it can be pointed out that use staying there is in doubt. That we cannot be trusted to support Afghanistan long term. Because I think that many people see ending the operations in Afghanistan as a way to open up funding for projects in their districts, like funding for healthcare. If that does happened and we leave completely, I expect Afghanistan to be forgotten just as quickly as Somalia. That is why I find it painful to look at “Journey to Smiles” website. He records Afghan children talking about the woes of the world in simpler terms. But if it where as simple to apply them as it is to talk about them, we would not be here to began with. I see them as walking dead. It is frustrating beyond all measure. That some how that the groups that are attacking people with IEDs and such are going to not out right slaughter them if the so the slightest resistance.

        I know you talked bout how non-violence worked and used the cases in Denmark and Norway as examples. But the thing that your not considering is that even though there was resistance in non-violent form, the population was considered equal to the “Master” race so they could get away with a lot more. If the kind of resistance had been done in Eastern Europe or Western Russia? Places where the people where considered sub-human? What then?

        Also in your newer post that talks about the UN report on Civilian deaths there. But with the use of non-violence we talked about being killed was a part of the risk of doing that path just as going to war. But how is the view that saying there will be civilian deaths any different if it was a COIN operation or from a Non-violent operation? I fear that at this point I am just venting my own personal frustrations now. I mean the feelings of helping out in Iraq still fresh it frustrating on the point of anger to hear that sending additional troops will not help after seeing the immediate results first hand. More so when the reasons against seem to be more political fighting then out of any real concern for the population.

        Also that reminds be, have we had any word on the group that went on the 25th to Afghanistan? Because I am very interested in how it turned out and to make sure that they are all ok.

  5. TheFlyingFitzman says:

    This article does touch on it, but doesn’t stress enough the question of how reliable are the assumptions that underlie U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan. The main assumption that needs to be addressed is not whether the Taliban are better than the Warlords on some kind of relevant scale, rather it is to assess whether there is any serious threat at all regardless of who governs Afghanistan. We originally invaded to deny Al Qaeda a base of operations and training ground. Well, Al Qaeda left the country and has found safe haven elsewhere. Regardless of some alrmist rhetoric on the part of a few Taliban blow-hards, the Taliban have never shown any real capacity or desire to reach outside of their borders and strike the U.S..

    So, and I really hate to agree with VP Biden on something, but it does appear that keeping al Qaeda from exploiting Afghanistan in the future will not require a complete transformation of the country. if we keep an intel network, some strike capacity, and we continue to supply tribal allies that can keep the Taliban busy, that is really all that’s necessary. Let’s not forget that most of the terror attacks carried in the last decade were actually planned by small cells hiding in plain sight in Western countries.

    So if the assumptions the strategy is based on are flawed or at least highly doubtful, it can surprise no one that the strategy is flawed and no degree of operational and tactical acumen can recover it.

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