Right, Because the Soviets Never Tried That One

by Joshua Foust on 9/21/2009 · 11 comments

I just don’t know what to say any more:

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top military officer in Afghanistan, has told his commanders to pull forces out of sparsely populated areas where U.S. troops have fought bloody battles with the Taliban for several years and focus them on protecting major Afghan population centers…

Senior U.S. officials said the moves were driven by the realization that some remote regions of Afghanistan, particularly in the Hindu Kush mountains that range through the northeast, were not going to be brought under government control anytime soon. “Personally, I think I am being realistic about this,” said Maj. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, the commander of U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan. “I have more combat power than my predecessors did, but I won’t be as spread out. . . . This is all about freeing up some forces so I can get them out more among the people.”

The thing is, unless you’re Ann Marlowe imagining a million people into a city like Mazar-i Sharif, the “sparsely-populated countryside” actually IS where the people are. And retreating to the cities is neither how you win nor how you defeat an insurgency. Especially not the last time someone tried this, in the 1980s.

General McChrystal is a confusing beast: he’ll put good things in his review like the need to disband the big Forward Operating Bases and scale back force protection, but then he’ll retreat into comfortable Iraq-style thinking that the battle is being fought in the cities. Stodgy old Iraq thinking isn’t the way the war will be turned around, creative and bold thinking is. Andrew Exum was right to brag about adding this section to the review:

To succeed, ISAF requires a new approach – with a significant magnitude of change – in addition to a proper level of resourcing. ISAF must restore confidence in the near-term through renewed commitment, intellectual energy, and visible progress. (p. 2-1)

Where is that thinking evident in the order to withdraw to the cities? It is not—in fact, this new order is the opposite. Why the retreat into platitudes? It is… still… like we’re not even interested in winning. Just spinning our wheels until the withdraw order comes down.

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– 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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Derrick Crowe September 21, 2009 at 11:15 pm

Given how dissatisfied you are with the ridiculous meandering we’re doing through various strategies and non-strategies, Josh, which would be worse, in your opinion: continued Whiskey Tango Foxtrot mucking about, or the withdraw order? Obviously I prefer the withdraw order, even given possible bad consequences, because I cannot for the life of me see how another 12 months of this kind of garbage ending any better.

Joshua Foust September 21, 2009 at 11:19 pm

This might be the fundamental difference between us: I see bad policy and think “let’s change the policy.” You see bad policy and think, “let’s leave.”

Then again, I think we also disagree on the merits of the war itself, which obviously colors things as well.

Derrick Crowe September 21, 2009 at 11:42 pm

You’re right that we disagree on the merits of the war, and I think that makes the “I see bad policy and think, let’s leave” unfair. It’s way more complicated than that (i.e. that I’m a “quitter”). For example, I think that regardless of the merits of the war, we actually lost it some time ago, and the insurgent groups have succeeded in initiating political jiu-jitsu, wherein escalation of our military presence becomes a liability. I also think we’re pursuing strategies that sound great and serious on paper but which assume the presence of situations and resources that do not exist and are not likely to exist.

Can you throw some links in to some of your preferred outcomes? I’d be interested to read them.

Derrick Crowe September 21, 2009 at 11:16 pm

Yeah okay proofreading fail, but I trust you can decipher.

Joshua Foust September 21, 2009 at 11:18 pm


dennis September 22, 2009 at 1:00 am

well maybe some of what they are saying.have something do with some the news today, and few days ago.
1.US to shift anti-terror focus to Pakistan, and this gem.
2.CIA expanding ops in Afghanistan, operatives and SOS.ops.
one from msn.
two from danger room.

Brian September 22, 2009 at 1:10 pm

Dennis, the problem with #2 is that its well known, at least thus far, the CIA has a 0 casualty tolerance, meaning CIA operatives dont leave the security of base or military accompaniment.

This of course makes it impossible to develop assets or even get a grounds eye view of the terrain. How are these increased CIA operatives going to help, other than, potentially, continuing to support drone operations? CT sure, COIN? don’t see it…

Asquith Malone September 22, 2009 at 3:43 am


What are you implying?

That Josh is “omniputant”, stemming from the Latin “puta”?

An astringent puta? Hang onto your cojones and watch your Khyber.

Tally Ho!

BruceR September 22, 2009 at 10:16 am

I can sort of see the point. Three platoon houses is more useful than a company FOB. Saying a platoon house in a more populated area is more useful than one in a less populated area doesn’t contradict that, though.

There’s no question troops have been misallocated. Yes, “getting off the FOB” is part of it. But “closing down the platoon house that was put on a remote mountain on a Karzai whim and against all military logic” or “close down the one that is so busy manning its own walls it can’t patrol the village a mile away” is part of it, too.

BruceR September 22, 2009 at 12:55 pm

Related thoughts here.

Brian September 22, 2009 at 1:06 pm

Josh, the 1980s weren’t the most recent time that was tried, just the most recent time it was tried by an occupying power. Unless I’m mistaken Najibullahs government and then the joint militia alliances of the 90s also seemed to believe the Taliban were not a major issue and that by continuing to hold places like Herat, Mazar, and Kabul they could maintain control.

Or did I misunderstand Dorronsoro? Still getting myself up to speed on Afghan history and the vagaries of the political machinations therein. Seems to me we have no new plans and are rehashing old ones, whether its the myth that population is in the cities or the idea that somehow a loose association of miliitias can defeat the Taliban and then standup a unified Afghan government…

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