Punting Blame, More Strategic Incoherence

by Joshua Foust on 9/19/2009 · 2 comments

Back in July, Rajiv Chandrasekaran reported that this summer’s offensive into Helmand Province was “the first large-scale test of the U.S. military’s new counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan.” While the operation very obviously required months of planning, when the Marines saw a wave of initial success—as they almost always do—the McChrystal team was happy to elevate it as proof of their “new” counterinsurgency strategy.

Thing is, the Helmand offensive started less than two weeks after McChrystal assumed command of ISAF. Herschel Smith passes along a Joe Klein story that indicates that now things are going badly, it seems the McChrystal team wants nothing to do with it.

The U.S. military does not move in mysterious ways. It plods, it plans, it plots out every logistical detail before launching an initiative. Things take time. For example: not all of the 21,000 additional forces that President Obama authorized for Afghanistan last winter have even arrived in the country yet. For another example: the battle plan those troops were asked to execute was devised primarily by General David McKiernan, who was replaced about the time the troops started arriving. McKiernan’s plan reflected his experience in conventional warfare: he chose to deploy the troops where the bad guys were — largely in Helmand province on the Pakistani border, home of nearly 60% of the world’s opium crop, a place that was firmly in Taliban control. But pursuing conventional warfare in Afghanistan is about as effective as using a football in a tennis match. The Army’s new counterinsurgency doctrine says you go where the people are concentrated and protect them, then gradually move into the sectors the bad guys control. That is not what we’re doing in Afghanistan. In addition to all the other problems we’re facing — the corruption of the Karzai government, the election chaos, the porous Pakistani border — it has become apparent that we’re pursuing the wrong military strategy in this frustrating war.

Wait, so now that it’s all McKiernan’s fault things aren’t going perfectly, now the offensive is evidence of conventional thinking? I feel a great deal of sympathy for McKiernan—the man cannot get a break. After having his glory and planning accolades stolen by the McChrystal team, now that things didn’t work out he’s having the whole thing hung around his neck.

There’s more to that Klein dispatch, which reflects the same old bad assumptions about Afghanistan I’ve almost given up trying to correct—no one is interested in hearing them, so why bother? But now the meme is we should have gone into Kandahar first, because it matters, and not worried so much about Helmand, and it’s all that other guy’s fault anyway. But whatever—you’ve all heard that stuff on here before.

But shame on McChrystal, for stealing another man’s thunder, then playing a victim of circumstance when things didn’t break his way. That’s pathetic.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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dennis September 19, 2009 at 8:03 pm

i think it boils down on, who to sell it to. to the folks back home. the ground forces, or them selves. if it works it me,if it don’t, then it him. is that not how congress works.

Schmedlap September 19, 2009 at 8:33 pm

Shame on McChrystal? I didn’t see him quoted anywhere in that article. Did he hint at being a victim of circumstance somewhere else?

I do agree that it appears some people are trying to assemble a narrative to that effect – that it’s McKiernan’s fault and McChrystal is playing the hand that he was dealt (kind of similar to the administration’s continual reminder that “we inherited these problems”). But is McChrystal a culprit in this?

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