Counterinsurgency Field Manual: Afghanistan Edition

Counterinsurgency Field Manual: Afghanistan Edition by Nathaniel Fick and John Nagl in the January / February 2009 issue of Foreign Policy.

For the past five years, the fight in Afghanistan has been hobbled by strategic drift, conflicting tactics, and too few troops. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, got it right when he bluntly told the U.S. Congress in 2007, "In Iraq, we do what we must." Of America's other war, he said, "In Afghanistan, we do what we can."

It is time this neglect is replaced with a more creative and aggressive strategy. U.S. Central Command, which oversees operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is now headed by Gen. David Petraeus, the architect of the U.S. military's counterinsurgency strategy widely credited with pulling Iraq from the abyss. Many believe that, under Petraeus's direction, Afghanistan can similarly pull back from the brink of failure...

Much more at Foreign Policy to include a conversation with John Nagl and Nathaniel Fick and an exclusive interview with General David Petraeus on how Afghanistan is not Iraq, it's harder.

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My only quibble with the piece is this:

"The Pashtun tribes along the border have a long history of well-developed religious, social, and tribal structures, and they have developed their own governance and methods of resolving disputes. Todays instability is not the continuation of some ancient condition; it is the direct result of decades of intentional dismantling of those traditional structures, leaving extremist groups to fill the vacuum. Re-empowering local leaders can help return the border region to an acceptable level of stability."

I'm not sure it's crippling to their argument, but this does not seem quite true to me. After all, the example of the Pakistani FATA shows the opposite: the tribal structure has been left largely intact and unmolested, and the insurgency has thrived. One could make the argument that the irreconcilable elements in the FATA are imported and thus not a product of the Pakistani government's attitude or conduct toward the region, I suppose, but Nagl and Fick don't get this nuanced.

Update from the world's worst proofreader -- make that Viet Nam border about 2,400 km...

Sigh.

Counterinsurgency Field Manual: Afghanistan Edition

Excellent article, both authors have a great deal of credibility and I find much to agree with in their well written recommendation. I also have a few questions

"Most Afghans are desperate to have the Taliban cleared from their villages, but they resent being exposed when forces are not left behind to hold what has been cleared. They also cannot understand why the coalition fails to provide the basic services they need. Afghans are not tired of the Western presence; they are frustrated with Western incompetence."

While their impatience and frustration are to an extent understandable, the authors apparent agreement that this is a failure on the part of the West is less understandable. Im sure that in interface with Afghans, each did and does his best to explain the reality of inadequate funds, infrastructure and people to do what seems to be expected.

Im frankly a bit surprised at that attitude on the part of the local people. While I havent been in that part of the world for many years, I know they are quite polite, very tolerant and are not stupid. In my experience most well understood and accepted reality -- most would also voice a complaint that they thought one might want to hear...

"Afghans greatest concerns, according to polling by the Asia Foundation, are access to electricity, jobs, water, and education. ."

Im sure thats correct. Im unsure how to rush the provision of all those things to a country that, as the authors describe, is an economic disaster and that has suffered from a far longer and more devastating war than Iraq by a significant margin.

"The U.S. military, designed to inflict overwhelming and disproportionate losses on the enemy, tends to equate victory with very few body bags. So does the American public."

My one disagreement with the article. I do not believe that most in the Armed Forces adhere to the belief ascribed nor do I think most Americans are nearly as concerned about body bags as many think. There is some truth in the statements of belief but my perception is that the numbers are very much below a majority in both cases. Thus, I think the statement is a bit of hyperbolic fire for effect.

"Persistent presence--living among the population in small groups, staying in villages overnight for months at a time--is dangerous, and it will mean more casualties, but its the only way to protect the population effectively. And it will make U.S. troops more secure in the long run."

I totally agree with the thought and would espouse any effort to lessen our tendency to micromanage and to not delegate authority to the lowest possible level. The prescription is totally valid. I do not doubt that we and NATO can provide troops well enough trained to do just that.

However, I do wonder where the number of well trained troops to do whats recommended will be obtained. We dont have enough; NATO could possibly scrape together and deploy another three to five Brigades, of our soon to be 48 on a one-in-three rotation and allowing for other contingencies, we could possibly provide a total of 10 to 12; thus with the British and other NATO and coalition Forces in Afghanistan right now, say three Brigades, one could have a theoretical total of 16 to 20 Brigades plus the ANA of say 10 Brigades for a gross of roughly 30 Brigades at about 3,000 men each; 90-100,000 nominal combat troops.

So a coalition strength of about 100 to 200 (or even 250) thousand is about the best we can expect and is likely a quite optimistic number. South Viet Nam in 1967-69 had over 1 Million Allied troops in a nation of about 16M people in an area of around 115,000 square kilometers and with about 14,000km of porous border.

Comparison with Afghanistan: Say 180K troops in a nation of about 32M people in an area of around 647,000 square kilometers and about 5,500km of even more porous border. Something is wrong with that picture...

"Currently, the U.S. teams advising the Afghan Army are staffed at just half their authorized strength; the police mentor teams are manned at barely a third of the necessary staff. The low priority assigned to this keystone of any successful counterinsurgency strategy is an unacceptable flaw of U.S. policy to date ."

Id only point out that getting personnel for both efforts is problematic on several counts. Thats particularly true of the police mentor teams - as I suspect both authors realize.

In short, I agree that the prescription is good - I only wonder where the medicine can be found...

As an addendum to their article, from the Petreaus Interview:

"FP: You said [that] even in 2005 when you were in Afghanistan, you reported to Secretary Rumsfeld that this could be the longest part of the long war.

DP: I didnt say it could be. I said it would be. My assessment was that Afghanistan was going to be the longest campaign of the long war. And I think that assessment has been confirmed by events in Afghanistan in recent months.

FP: Just how long did you have in mind?

DP: Those are predictions one doesnt hazard."

Just so. Given the current situation, it seems to me that adhering to operational techniques currently being employed, to General Petreaus open ended long effort which may or may not be supported by Congress -- or following the authors prescription that seems to expect rather more from Pakistan than they are likely to be able to provide and more troops than we and NATO can possibly furnish (barring no rotations from theater until its over, a very unlikely eventuality)all are methods with problems. We should probably realistically evaluate what can be done and what can be expected of the Afghans. Im not at all sure that has been done...