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It’s Not Just Resources: McChrystal’s Message to Obama, and to the Military

Yes, Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s strategy review says that the Afghanistan war needs to be properly resourced. But there are so, so, so many elements within it that place that statement within a subordinate context. For instance: “Additional resources are required, but focusing on force or resource requirements misses the point entirely.” And: “Resourcing communicates commitment, but we must also balance force levels to enable effective [Afghan force] partnering and provide population security, while avoiding perceptions of coalition dominance.” And: “We cannot succeed simply by trying harder; ISAF must now adopt a fundamentally new approach… in addition to a proper level of resourcing.”

That approach is familiar to anyone who read McChrystal’s counterinsurgency guidance or the “metrics” he set out with Ambassador Karl Eikenberry. Protect the population. Give the population material *reasons *to support the Afghan government and NATO. “Prioritize responsive and accountable governance,” which appears like a pipe dream now that Hamid Karzai looks to have stolen an election. Reorganize the NATO command to better fit these missions. Reverse the Taliban’s momentum in the next year — or, he doesn’t say explicitly, mitigate failure. It’s also, as Josh Foust has observed, more of a quantitative change from McChrystal’s predecessor than a qualitative one.

For those who worry about mission creep, this document cites two foundational texts for it. First is the ISAF mission statement: “ISAF, in support of the [Afghan government], conducts operations in Afghanistan to reduce the capability and will of the insurgency, support the growth in capacity and capabilities of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), and facilitate improvement in governance and socio-economic development, in order to provide a secure environment for sustainable security that is observable to the population.” Notice that there is nothing in there about al-Qaeda. McChrystal has to operate within the boundaries of what the political leadership in the various NATO capitols has set, and which the United Nations has blessed, as the proper functions of NATO forces in Afghanistan — and a lot of this is the vestige of Donald Rumsfeld’s belief that U.S. forces should hunt al-Qaeda and do nothing else.

The second text is Obama’s March 27 speech, which he says provides “a clear path of what we must do.” What Obama is doing now is determining whether McChrystal’s take indeed matches that speech. But notice that McChrystal is saying that these two texts provide a foundation for the mission in Afghanistan, and from there he argues that considering the deteriorating situation on the ground, a counterinsurgency approach is the way to best achieve those goals. If Obama doesn’t ultimately agree, this straight-line progression sketched by McChrystal will raise the question — a question that Obama anticipated — of whether Obama has backed away from that earlier speech.

Then there’s McChrystal’s other audience: the rest of the military. The strategy review is a serious case in point for what Col. Gian Gentile calls “the matrix” of counterinsurgency within the U.S. Army. Since coming to Afghanistan, McChrystal has restricted the use of airstrikes and also placed serious operational restrictions on the ability of troops to return fire when insurgents retreat into populated areas. Avoiding civilian casualties can be called an obsession in this document, as is optimizing NATO forces not to cause them. McChrystal basically tells the military that it makes needless adversaries, and has for years:

Many describe the war in Afghanistan as a war of ideas, which I believe to be true. However, this is a ‘deeds-based’ information environment where perceptions derive from actions, such as how we interact with the population and how quickly things improve.

In other words: the enemy is often an enemy we cause to be an enemy, so step one of triaging the situation has to focus on how many enemies we can stop causing to be enemies. Any U.S. or NATO action — like, say, raiding a hospital — has to be viewed through that prism. It’s not a lesson that many in the Army, even after Iraq, will easily embrace.

One more thing about McChrystal’s focus on self-induced errors. By extension, that includes the “crisis of confidence” in the Afghan government due to corruption, which is another of McChrystal’s obsessions. Without that changing, his assessment seems to say, neither will the Afghanistan war. And that’s the biggest obstacle his strategy faces.

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