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Counterinsurgents Grapple With Next Afghanistan Moves


Gen. David Petraeus (WDCpix)

As President Obama reconsiders some of the assumptions of the counterinsurgency strategy he announced in March for Afghanistan and Pakistan, a conference featuring many of the luminaries of the counterinsurgency community discussed both the challenges inherent in counterinsurgency, including some lessons yet to be applied in Afghanistan.

U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of all U.S. forces in the Middle East and South Asia, told conference attendees that he would not discuss “pre-decisional” aspects of the Afghanistan strategy and resource debate, but did provide something of a defense of Obama’s review. “We said we expected some form of assessment that we thought would take place in the fall,” said Petraeus, the U.S. military’s foremost theorist-practitioner of counterinsurgency. While the Afghan election remains unfinished, the election “looks like it may not produce a government with greater legitimacy in the eyes of the people,” an event that might prompt a reconsideration of strategic assumptions. Petraeus said he expected Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, to provide his request for additional resources to the administration in “a few days” and anticipated “several multi-hour meetings” over the “next two weeks” where senior leadership will consider the fundamental questions of the war.

Instead of the Afghanistan debate, Petraeus emphasized several core counterinsurgency principles: the need to provide security for civilians beleaguered by both insurgencies and poor governance; getting what he termed a “whole-of-governments” approach to counterinsurgency, incorporating civilian, military and foreign partners for a united effort; and pushing the “big concept” within the Army that warfare can rapidly transition from offensive operations to stability operations. “I think we have developed leaders as well who are capable of full-spectrum operations,” Petraeus said.

Similarly, the conference, sponsored by the Marine Corps University, largely avoided direct discussion of the ongoing strategy debates within the Obama administration and this week’s leak of the review conducted for McChrystal of the overall situation in Afghanistan. But several speakers made points that spoke to the heart of the debate over whether a more restricted mission in Afghanistan would more adequately address U.S. interests against al-Qaeda or lead to a further deterioration of the war’s fortunes.

“Many of the people here today think that to do serious COIN, you need the kind of troop increases that are being contemplated,” said Mark Moyar, a professor at the Marine Corps University who set up the conference, using a ubiquitous shorthand for counterinsurgency.

Moyar, the author of a new book, “A Question of Command: Counterinsurgency from the Civil War to Iraq,” said that it would be preferable for the administration either pick an “offshore approach,” where a smaller number of troops focus on hunting terrorists and insurgents along with air and unmanned drone strikes, or continue with a counterinsurgency approach that privileges protecting the Afghan population from harm and delivering material economic and governmental benefits, rather than search for some “middle” option that “continues what’s been going on.”

While not speaking about the current Afghanistan debate directly, several speakers at the conference with deep experience with counterinsurgency pointed to problems with alternative strategies to the population-protection approach favored by McChystal. Army Brig. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who pacified the northern Iraqi city of Tall Afar in 2005 and 2006 by focusing on protecting the populace in close partnership with Iraqi security forces, said that he rejected a “raiding approach” to counterinsurgency, which he claimed had its intellectual “roots in strategic bombing,” an air war doctrine that holds victory can be achieved by inflicting intolerable damage on key enemy targets without the use of ground troops. The thinking had been “grafted to some degree on the problems of terrorism and insurgency,” McMaster said, criticizing it for not “address[ing] the fundamental causes” of such security problems.

McMaster later clarified in an interview that he found a raid-heavy approach reflected an urge to find “antiseptic” solutions to complex security problems. He declined to address Afghanistan while the strategy debate was ongoing.

Although some progressive critics have argued that the Obama administration has moved the Afghanistan war too deeply in the direction of counterinsurgency, Marine Corps Col. Dale Alford, a former adviser to McChrystal’s predecessor as U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan — whom he called “a great soldier” — said that U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan are insufficiently positioned to conduct so-called “population-centric” counterinsurgency. “We’re completely an enemy-centric force,” Alford said, noting that most U.S. bases in Afghanistan were constructed in 2003 and 2004 to support counterterrorism objectives like raiding discrete enemies. Alford, who also fought in Iraq, called for a “significant repositioning” of U.S. forward operating bases and combat outposts in Afghanistan to provide for population security and partner closer with Afghan security forces.

“If you’re not not sleeping with them, eating with them and crapping in same bucket as them, you’re not partnered with them,” Alford said.

In May, Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates fired McKiernan, believing him to be too slow to adapt to the counterinsurgency approach that Obama is now reportedly reconsidering. Alford said in an interview today that McKiernan had a “good plan” in place for Afghanistan to transition to a greater counterinsurgency emphasis over two years, but was not given enough time to implement it. Alford praised McChrystal’s review, which he called a “very similar plan,” and said what would be important would be “implementing it, at all levels.” He added that he believed McChrystal’s call for protecting the population and partnering with Afghan security forces would result in restructuring the U.S. base posture across Afghanistan.

Much of the conference addressed structural issues about the military and counterinsurgency, such as how to partner with foreign security forces and adapt institutional military education and promotion incentives to better inculcate counterinsurgency leadership concepts like flexibility and small-unit autonomy into the next generation of officers. “I think we’ve learned and adapted,” McMaster said.

Asked what counterinsurgency lesson he would provide to the Obama administration, Moyar did not recommend any increase in U.S. forces, but instead articulated a consensus position among those who advocate another U.S. troop increase for Afghanistan and those who consider such an increase to be a mistake. “Focus on fixing the leadership of the Afghan security forces,” he said.

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