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Thursday, June 24, 2010

Afghanistan: The COIN Op War

(By American Zen's Mike Flannigan, on loan from Ari.)

Because there was no other place
to flee to,
I came back to the scene of the disordered senses,
came back last night at midnight,
arriving in the thick June night
without luggage or defenses...

- Anne Sexton, "Flee on Your Donkey."

Thanks to former Afghanistan/NATO commander Stanley McCrystal, President Barack Obama is now widely perceived to be exactly how liberals have appraised him: Weak, indecisive and with a Vietnam on his hands. Perhaps instead of studying the life and times of the 16th president, he ought to start studying that of the 36th president.

It's all too tempting to see into the resignation/ousting of Stanley McCrystal, a man who, just six years ago, was a mere brigadier general, a referendum on not just Afghanistan and our entire foreign policy but also on Mr. Obama's presidency. As Frank Rich tartly reminded us last Sunday, Obama cannot wait until after re-election in 2012 to set his agenda straight. He has many potential career-ending issues to deal with now.

By way of proof that Obama never had a clear idea of what to do about Afghanistan, he was forced to demote CENTCOM commander and Bush holdover Gen. David Petraeus, a man inexplicably credited in the MSM with the "Iraq turnaround", to cover for McCrystal. Meanwhile, another Bush holdover, career seat-warmer Robert Gates, is breathing a sigh of relief that these decisions didn't land on his desk and is vigorously endorsing Petraeus as the right man for the right job at the right time (even if only in a retroactive way).

Nothing extraordinary has happened in Afghanistan recently to delude one into believing that McCrystal's Rolling Stone interview provided the president with enough ammunition to blow McCrystal out of the water. This was a personal as well as a professional move, as much presidential damage control as foreign policy damage control. Whether by within or without, Obama almost surely was convinced that firing McCrystal served a manifold purpose: Re-establishing policy and his flagging authority by shuffling a deck chair for an older one.

McCrystal has been likened to Gen. Douglas MacArthur since the former is the first top general to be removed from his command during a major military engagement since the latter was fired by Truman, but this is a very reckless and misleading analogy. MacArthur was fired for defying President Truman's attempts at diplomacy with the Red Chinese during the Korean War, of wanting to engage Red China directly in an all-out war even to the point of using nuclear weapons. In that respect, MacArthur was following the lead of the late Gen. George S. Patton, who seriously suggested to top Pentagon brass at the end of WW II that he wanted to take on the Soviet Union while they were still war-weary.

There was nothing like that from McCrystal, a man revealed by Michael Hastings to be maddeningly contradictory. A big fan of COIN or counterintelligence, McCrystal nonetheless was savvy enough to spot the flaws in Obama's excuse for a strategy. COIN is intended to change hearts and minds of the people whose lands we invade, by rebuilding their infrastructure from the ground on up. The problem, as even its proponents will admit, is that COIN is labor-, money- and time-intensive, easily involving decades and hundreds of billions of dollars.

While McCrystal never comes out and says it, his foolhardy if accurate criticisms of the office of the President and his entire National Security team will this week and for many weeks thereafter cause many more people than last week to wonder, "Is Afghanistan worth it?"

What isn't mentioned by either Hastings or his main subject is the fact that part of COIN may or not involve bribing tribal warlords into not attacking our convoys, money that's actually winding up in the pockets of the Taliban. We've already lost nearly 200 troops in Afghanistan within the first half of this year but one has to consider how much higher the body count would be if we didn't actually have to bribe murderous criminals into not killing us.

There seem to be two strategies at work in Afghanistan: COIN, a horrid palimpsest of the strategy of Alexander the Great or winning over hearts and minds, and the stepped-up unmanned drone strikes beloved of Obama, drone strikes that kill many more civilians than insurgents and Taliban, civilian deaths that immediately undermine COIN's stated objectives.

As proof of this, Afghanistan's "first female suicide bomber" killed two US soldiers in the eastern Kunar Province near the Pakistani border. It was discovered that she'd lost two relatives during one of the same house raids such as the one last February that resulted in the deaths of two pregnant women, a teenaged girl, and a prosecutor and police chief. One of McCrystal's last orders was to assign female Marines to inspect women at checkpoints, which immediately puts even more women in the line of fire in a nation without defined battle lines.

McCrystal, not the JSOC muscle-head that many may perceive him to be, is very mindful of the more than deleterious effects of these home raids. He calls it "insurgent math" and it boils down to this brutally simple equation: One innocent victim of a home raid = Ten insurgents to deal with later.

Anti-American sentiment is understandably growing by the day in Afghanistan, a native rejection of the Ugly Americanism that's characterized this needless war almost from the start. Ranging from suspicion of American motives and goals to outright jihad, we have long since failed to win over the hearts and minds of these people who view us as just the latest in a long series of tyrants who had tried and failed to tame their desolate, impoverished country. And the more they snarl at us, the more we snarl back and even begin to hate the natives for us being kept there and away from our families stateside, an Ugly Americanism that's inevitable when wars drag on for far longer than they should. Throw in the mix an understandable paranoia in a land in which the enemy wears no uniforms, could be male or female, young or old and it further exacerbates an already volatile and untenable occupation.

Alexander the Great, the first COIN strategist, had the right idea all along by insisting on not marching into conquered territories as conquerors and imposing language, culture and customs on the subjugated but to insinuate their way into the infrastructure, to become unto them.

It ought to be noted, however, that Alexander the Great was one of the first to invade Afghanistan and one of the first to fail.

As a result of his criticism of the Oval Office and the men who surround it, McCrystal comes dangerously close to being the next military Cassandra, a man, like Eric Shinseki and Anthony Taguba, fated to be ignored or disbelieved for the rest of his life. Regardless of the rallying round David Petraeus, Obama relieving McCrystal of command in itself is an affirmation not of his decisiveness but an unwilling and unwitting admission of the foolhardiness he'd displayed in installing McCrystal as top man in Afghanistan a year ago.

COIN will not win over hearts and minds and America in general has lost faith in an endless occupation of a country that had nothing to do with 9/11. Osama bin Laden, the only half-assed excuse we had for invading Afghanistan, had fled Tora Bora long ago thanks to George W. Bush. And it's becoming increasingly clear that the only countersinsurgent strategy that works is to not needlessly invade hostile foreign lands to begin with.
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Blogger Bustednuckles said...
Nice piece JP.