New Four Star General Stanley McChrystal recently ordered the fifth strategic review in five months of the Afghanistan war, presumably because the previous four were lacking in some way. Needless to say, I remain unimpressed with what’s come of that—right down to he and his commanders’ seeming ignorance of his predecessors who ran the war, and the blood lust trickling through the O5s eager to get their Bagram combat patches.
“We are going to look at those parts of the country that are most important — and those typically, in an insurgency, are the population centers,” McChrystal said in an interview shortly after pinning on his fourth star. . . .
McChrystal’s comments suggested that he wanted to pull forces out of some of the more remote, mountainous areas of Afghanistan where few people live and where insurgent fighters may be seeking refuge. In recent months these isolated pockets have been the scene of some of the most intense fighting between U.S. troops and insurgents.
Grunstein is appropriately skeptical of this plan, and notes that this is quickly resembling lipstick on a pig of a war (obviously not his phrasing). Let me do him one better: this is how you guarantee a humiliating defeat in Afghanistan. The main reason? The last army to do an “ink stain” approach to Afghanistan were the Soviets, who felt that the population was in the cities, so if they just controlled the cities the countryside would fall into line. Now, while they did things we would never do to make that easier—like mining, bombing, and salting vast tracts of the countryside so people would flee to the cities for shelter—I would think it basic knowledge that thinking all you need are a few cities and—voila!—Afghanistan is yours.
Quick review: where is the insurgency most strongly concentrated?
e) Mazar-i Shaif
The correct answer is NONE OF THE ABOVE. The Taliban are not strongest in the cities, but outside of them: you’ll find the insurgency grinding in the hills above Lashkar Gah, the countryside to the west and north of Kandahar, the plains of Zabul, the Khost bowl, the mountains of Paktya and Paktika, and the narrow valleys from Kapisa to Kunar and Nuristan. None of them are urban, or even sort of urban.
Unfortunately, this has CNAS written all over it. It would be surprising if some of their people weren’t involved in the new review in some way—I really hope they’ve learned by now that Afghanistan is not urban, that the insurgency—and the people—are scattered into small rural communities throughout the country. Securing the cities has never been the Coalition’s weakness.
Rather, our primary weakness has been staging ridiculous displays of force with zero plan for follow-up. (What’s with bragging about seizing 1.3 tonnes of bagel topping, or calling Babaji the last Taliban stronghold? Do they think no one else notices they’ve barely held Gereshk and have no control in Musa Qala, Nadi Ali, or Sangin, to say nothing of Panjwai next door?)
Missing in all the hype about the biggest air assault evar is any plan to secure the population—now that they’ve chased away the Taliban (which they really haven’t, as locals have already complained that they’re back), who replaces the so-called “shadow government” of micro-finance institutions, police, judges, and so on? You can’t do that from Camp Bastion, nor can you do it from the firebases at Kajakai. Where is the plan to move things forward?
Indeed, this story has been told in Kapisa, in Khost, in Kunar, and in Kunduz. Everywhere you look, we demonstrate tremendous military prowess and what can only be called an anti-competence at everything that must happen after the fighting. You see it in the multitude of plans to abandon and eventually “retake” entire districts—an idea hatched with little regard for what it does to the people who live there and must face the militants after everyone goes home to their local Box. You see it everywhere—right down to the frustrations of ETTs being held on their base because they can’t get permission to go assist their Afghan brethren in a firefight (which also happens with depressing regularity).
In fact, and this is on the verge of being a rant on a topic too big to cover in one post, so far each new decision coming out of the Pentagon about how to “fix” Afghanistan has left me more and more pessimistic. The latest plan—to concentrate on cities and big FOBs—flies in the face of reason and even a basic understanding of the ground-level conditions. I am holding out hope that this 60-day review McChrystal has ordered will point out its folly… but I remain as unhopeful about it as ever before. The military just demonstrates zero desire for learning from its own recent history.
Attacks in Khost Highlight Need for New Strategy
Kapisa Province: A Case Study in Counterinsurgency
Provinces Like Khost Need More Than Just Troops
Dispatches from FOBistan: the Garrison Problem
Afghanistan’s Police in Action
The Failure of Good Intentions
…and much, much, much more…