October 27, 2009

The Generals Trap

Memeorandum is abuzz over this article in the Washington Post. It seems that a former Marine Captain with combat experience in Iraq who had joined the State Department in the Zabul province of Afghanistan resigned in September becuase of waht he viewed as a pointless war.

The official, Matthew Hoh, wrote in his letter of resignation:

"I have lost understanding of and confidence in the strategic purposes of the United States' presence in Afghanistan,"' he wrote Sept. 10 in a four-page letter to the department's head of personnel. "I have doubts and reservations about our current strategy and planned future strategy, but my resignation is based not upon how we are pursuing this war, but why and to what end."

Mr. Hoh is far from being the only American with questions about how we are executing strategy in Afghanistan, and for that matter, in Pakistan. As Michael Yon has been warning for over a year, things in Afghanistan are not going as well as they have in Iraq. We're not winning. We may be losing. All that seems certain is that whatever we are doing now isn't working.

There are more opinions that I can cite on what people want us to do in Afghanistan.

There are know-nothing defeatists on the left that desire an American defeat as a mark against President Bush's legacy. Such a view is perverse, but not unexpected from those that became enslaved to a singular hatred over eight years that have turned them into little more than Gollum, trapped in what one fevered progressive blogger described as "one long, sustained scream."

Opposing them are those with more rational reasons for advocating for policies of withdrawal or various strategies that refocus on continuing the effort.

U.S. General Stanley McCrystal wants to commit a much larger American force of 40,000 to attack the Taliban in what some are referring to as the Afghan Surge, likening it to the military operation in Iraq that did much to bring the country to a relative level of stability and enabled U.S. forces to mostly withdraw to supporting roles.

Others such as Vice President Joe Biden, want to reduce the U.S. footprint within Afghanistan and snipe at Taliban and al Qaeda terrorists with Hellfire missiles fired from the ever-present Predator UAVs circling overhead in some area.

And of course, all of our engagement strategies hinge on collaborating with an Afghan government that means almost nothing outside of Kabul.

But there is no guarantee that either increasing our conventional ground forces nor reeling them back in and remotely targeted suspect foes will affect any sort of meaningful change in the remote regions of Afghanistan. The tribes have defeated and outlasted armies that have fought with much greater ferocity and less regard for human life for longer periods of time. The enemy knows that they do not have to defeat us in battle. They can simply afford to watch us burn ourselves out.

That is not to say that the war is unwinnable. We just need to take a fresh look at how the human terrain is different in Afghanistan, and rededicate ourselves to fighting the current war, and not fall into the ever-present generals trap of fighting the last war.

For all intents and purposes, the American war in Iraq is over, and we won. We deposed a dictator, foundered in a bloody insurgency and near civil war over a number of years, before alighting on a strategy that fit the war. Once those tactics were discovered and put into widespread use, the bulk of the insurgency collapsed or was coerced into giving up, leading us to a current state where American forces spend their time on base or in training roles, and the Iraqi government has become a more or less functional state. Terrorist attacks like the double vehicle bombings of several days ago still spread terror and mayhem, but no overtly longer threaten the stability of the state. There is now hope from politicians and generals of using the lessons learned in Iraq to fight the Afghan war.

But the commanders and politicians have learned the wrong lessons.

They focus on the strategy and tactics of military conflict and diplomacy between governments because that is how they are comfortable thinking. They seek to apply what they think they learned in Iraq, while forgetting how they learned.

They learned from "boots on the ground" who found out what worked by living with the population and learning that mastering the human terrain is far more important than building firebases.

One man who seems to understand the human terrain in Afghanistan better than most is U.S. Army Special Forces operator Major Jim Gant, who was deeply and personally embedded with his team in Mangwel, Konar Province.

Based upon his experiences in Afghanistan, Major Gant wrote about the concept of winning the war through tribal engagement in One Tribe at a Time (PDF).

Regular readers of Confederate Yankee know that I commented frequently about the conflict in Iraq during it's most trying times, but that I've been almost silent on Afghanistan. The reason is simple: I had few contacts there, and little understanding of the nature of the people or the conflict. I wasn't going to opine on a war that I simply don't understand in the slightest.

Thanks to One Tribe at a Time I have a far greater understanding of at least Major Gant's view of how to conduct the war. While I'm open to hear other opinions, his experience and the course he advocates sounds like an approach at least worth studying.

I have a suspicion that if we continue to listen to just the politicians and generals, we may once again stagger on with the wrong strategy, creating a war that we cannot win because our greatest adversary is ourselves.

(h/t Instapundit)

Posted by Confederate Yankee at October 27, 2009 02:06 PM

Iraq abd Afghanistan are as opposite as you can possibly get. Iraq has had a centralized national government off and on since the days of Babylon.
Afghanistan on the other hand has had a loose confederation of tribes from the beginning of recorded history. Every invader from Alexander,
Genghis Khan, Tammerlane, the British, and most recently the Russians, have easily conquered the country and taken it's capitol. They then spend years stamping out little local brushfires until they become frustrated and exhausted with their lack of progress and leave.
If the U.S. wants to establish a centralized democratic society in this country, all the above factors must be taken into account.
Militarily defeating the forces on the ground will not, in the long run work.
I recall a similar situation as recently as WW II in Yugoslavia where it took the Germans 3 divisions of troops to conquer the country and 18 divisions to occupy it.
Utilizing the concept of working with the tribes and assisting in creating a confederation of tribes is probably the only solution which would eliminate the democratic one man one vote concept.
After a generation or two of this type of governing body it may be possible for the tribes and people of Afghanistan to move toward a more democratic society.
The U.S. dictating the requirement for these people to have an immediate democracy is foolish and doomed to fail. We must remember these people have never had any other form of government than a King or Chieftan for all of recorded history. Give them time.
Paul in Texas

Posted by: Paul at October 27, 2009 08:17 PM

Great post.

Posted by: Steve at October 27, 2009 09:35 PM

Well written. Plain defeat is unacceptable but we should still think about changing strategy.

Posted by: Hack at October 27, 2009 09:45 PM

Suicidal Rules of Engagement, broken supply lines, air and artillery support hours away from the battlfield, other worldly terrain, a dithering CIC who will not speak of victory, a Congress mumbling about dollars and defeat, a media bathed in surrender and submission, a populace for whom patriotism is a fool's fable. Except for God, their family, and fellow warriors, who is there to sustain our military?

Posted by: twolaneflash at October 27, 2009 11:30 PM

Great post but very unrealistic. Afghanistan is the "graveyard of empires" and we have no business being there fighting an enemy who did nothing to us. The Taliban never attacked us, the Al Qaeda did and they've been gone for the last 7 and 1/2 years. We're now being seen as an empire propping up a corrupt government that steals elections and the President's brother is leader of one of Afghanistan's largest drug cartels producing poppies at pre-9/11 levels.

If you go back to some of Bin Laden's predictions of what we would do then and where we would be now, it would send chills down your spine.

Posted by: Lipiwitz at October 28, 2009 03:04 AM

And now we have this revelation out today:

We need to pull the plug on this disaster before it's too late. Concentrate all our intelligence and special operations to the Pakistan border and continue relying on the predators that with all due respect to our troops, have been by far more effective.

Posted by: Lipiwitz at October 28, 2009 03:26 AM