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McChrystal’s Counterinsurgency Guidance Is the COINiest Thing Ever

Before Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s June confirmation hearing to become commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, there was a question about whether a veteran Special Operator had too enemy-centric view of the conflict. Then he showed up as a thorough counterinsurgency advocate, calling the support of the Afghan people for the United States and its allies “strategically decisive,” and the doubters receded. Now he faces criticism in some quarters for being way too COIN-centric. McChrystal’s counterinsurgency guidance for his troops, published yesterday by Andrew Exum (an adviser to McChrystal’s recent strategy review), will definitely fuel those critics.

Counterinsurgency principles here are taken very, very far. McChrystal’s overarching message — that the loyalties of the population are the entire mission — are cashed out in ways that would make McChrystal look like a dirty hippie if he didn’t have four stars on either shoulder. He demands that his troops think about how they’d feel if a foreign army operated in their hometowns. A section called “playing into their hands” compares a unit that lumbers toward an engagement with an insurgent group to a bull chasing a matador’s cape. Civilian casualties “sow the seeds of our own demise.” Parables offered as sidebars urge commanders to respond to rocket attacks with school supplies. McChrystal compares counterinsurgency to “an argument”:

It is a contest to influence the real and very practical calculations on the part of the people about which side to support. Every action, reaction and failure to act, and all that is said and done become part of the debate. The people in the audience watch, listen, and make rational choices about who can better protect them, provide for their needs, respect their dignity and their community, and offer opportunities for the future. Ideology can influence the outcome, but it is usually subordinate to the more practical considerations of survival and everyday life.

He goes on to say that the insurgents are a distraction from the business of attending to the needs of the population and that only five percent of military efforts ought to be directed at them. You can smell the patchouli.

There are some striking omissions, given McChrystal’s conceptualization of military operations in Afghanistan as — to put it as neutrally as I can — significantly nontraditional. Partnering with Afghan security forces at all operational levels is one thing, but there’s no effort at emphasizing partnership with civilian officials, either U.S. or Afghan, and instead places U.S. (and, by implication, Afghan) forces in traditionally civilian roles of outreach to the population. (The exception is an invocation to confront corrupt Afghan civilian officials.) Perhaps that’s a recognition that U.S. forces don’t have the luxury of waiting for the so-called “civilian uplift” to engage Afghan material needs, but it’s still a conspicuous absence.

There are also some larger strategic questions raised in a document that isn’t supposed to address national strategy. The judgment that the insurgent population is “effectively endless” barring some exogenous development is something that provokes additional consideration. If the Afghan population really is that willing to bandwagon with the insurgency, then Afghan strategy is far less viable then assumed. It’s possible that McChrystal’s guidance is deliberately overstated in order to serve as a counterweight for a military that has to fight a lot of institutional muscle-memory to embrace it. But that should still give pause to people at and above the general’s pay grade.

If it should be the case that McChrystal can’t make progress on security, though, the Army will very likely find a new generation of critics who fault McChrystal for being insufficiently martial in his focus. And that’s a deep irony for a Joint Special Operations Command veteran.

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