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Afghanistan – It Is Fish Or Cut Bait Time

As someone who just said goodbye to his son this weekend as he deploys to Afghanistan, I’m much more interested in that war than I might usually be. As it happens, General Stanley McChrystal’s assessment has been excerpted by Bob Woodward in the Washington Post. It is a rather blunt assessment – he needs more forces or we risk “mission failure”.

Let me begin this by saying I don’t care if you are for or against our being in Afghanistan – we’re there. Staying or leaving are obviously the two options we have at this point. The present political leadership told everyone who would listen as they were campaigning for the job that Afghanistan was the “good war” and the “necessary war” and we needed to prosecute it with an eye on eliminating the threat al Qaeda posed and removing the country as a safe-haven. Given the circumstances and situation there that is a very difficult mission fraught with not only danger but obviously requiring a real commitment in blood and treasure.

Faced with a growing and more adept insurgent foe, a corrupt and incompetent host nation government, and a neighboring state under both duress and threat from the same enemy, the situation that confronts both the military and civilian leadership is an extremely difficult one. But, as McChrystal notes, “While the situation is serious, success if still achievable”.

Note that the word used is “success”, not “victory”. I’m not one to quibble about those words. Victory is used in a military sense. Victory is success. But we all know that while the military is an integral part of any success we might have there, ultimately it can’t “win” the day by itself. Success will be defined as leaving a sovereign nation capable of governing and defending itself when we eventually leave. We may not like that definition, we may not like the fact that we’re again engaged in nation building and we may not like the fact that such an endeavor is going to take years, possibly decades to achieve – but that is the situation we now find ourselves in. If we were to abandon Afghanistan now, we’d see it quickly revert to the state it was in 2001 – ruled by Islamic fundamentalists and a safe-haven for our most avowed enemies.

We have to decide now whether or not we’re going to commit to the “long war” to achieve the success I’ve outlined or whether we, like many nations before us, will leave Afghanistan to its fate and suffer the consequences such an abandonment may bring in the future.

It Is “Fish Or Cut Bait” Time

Our national leadership must now make that hard decision. This is no time for equivocation. It is no time for years worth of study and debate. General McChrystal makes that very clear in his assessment:

“Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months) — while Afghan security capacity matures — risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible.”

And he makes clear another very important point, one that the civilian leadership needs to understand.

“Further, a perception that our resolve is uncertain makes Afghans reluctant to align with us against the insurgents.”

Prior to the surge in Iraq, the same sort of perception existed within the Iraqi population. Until we made a firm commitment to stay and protect them, Iraq did not begin to improve. Gen. McChrystal is simply noting the same dynamic understandably exists in Afghanistan. He’s also tactfully saying that we must quickly prove to the population of Afghanistan that we are committed to protecting them while they do what is necessary to empower themselves, their government and their military to a level that they can protect themselves.

Step one in that process is to quickly ensure that the commitment to do that is clear and the forces necessary to do it are forthcoming. That has got to come from national leadership and it has to be said in precise and unequivocal language. Unfortunately, given this weekend’s performance, our national leadership has claimed to be “skeptical” about the need for more troops in the country.  The time for debate is rapidly coming to a close.  A decision must be made, and in relative terms, it must be made quickly.  Whatever it ends up being it should be aimed at one of the two options I’ve outlined – successs or abandonment of the effort.

What Has To Change

Obviously that is all dependent upon the decision reached by the national leadership, however General McChrystal recognizes some rather daunting problems in the situation within the country and how we’re fighting the war.

He notes:

The weakness of state institutions, malign actions of power-brokers, widespread corruption and abuse of power by various officials, and ISAF’s own errors, have given Afghans little reason to support their government.”

All of those things, then, must change for the positive. As our experience in Iraq tells us, that’s a very difficult and time consuming job, especially when we talk about changing the culture of governance, stopping corruption and abuse of power and connecting the government to the people. As you might imagine, that’s not a job for the military, but, instead the State Department and various of our other government agencies. So the question isn’t just are we willing to commit the soldiers necessary to effectively conduct COIN, but are we willing to commit the civilians necessary to properly establish a functioning government in a nation which has never had one?

Without that sort of commitment, we can send all the soldiers we have for as long as we want too but we’ll never achieve the success necessary to leave Afghanistan.

McChrystal further notes:

“Afghan social, political, economic, and cultural affairs are complex and poorly understood. ISAF does not sufficiently appreciate the dynamics in local communities, nor how the insurgency, corruption, incompetent officials, power-brokers, and criminality all combine to affect the Afghan population.”

Our civilians must understand that too because it all combines to result in a “crisis of confidence among the Afghans” per McChrystal. Until that perception is changed, the crisis of confidence will remain the most difficult roadblock and continue to make Afghans “reluctant to align with us against the insurgents”.

McChrystal also addresses the Afghan prison system which he claims has become a breeding ground for terrorists:

In a four-page annex on detainee operations, McChrystal warns that the Afghan prison system has become “a sanctuary and base to conduct lethal operations” against the government and coalition forces. He cites as examples an apparent prison connection to the 2008 bombing of the Serena Hotel in Kabul and other attacks. “Unchecked, Taliban/Al Qaeda leaders patiently coordinate and plan, unconcerned with interference from prison personnel or the military.”

The assessment says that Taliban and al-Qaeda insurgents “represent more than 2,500 of the 14,500 inmates in the increasingly overcrowded Afghan Corrections System,” in which “[h]ardened, committed Islamists are indiscriminately mixed with petty criminals and sex offenders, and they are using the opportunity to radicalize and indoctrinate them.”

Noting that the United States “came to Afghanistan vowing to deny these same enemies safe haven in 2001,” he says they now operate with relative impunity in the prisons. “There are more insurgents per square foot in corrections facilities than anywhere else in Afghanistan,” his assessment says.

Obviously segregation of terrorists and/or terrorist suspects is the short term solution, but the fact the situation exists simply underscores how poorly run the civilian government of Afghanistan is at the moment.

The Military Plan

Gen. McChrystal bases his plan on this premise:

“Pre-occupied with protection of our own forces, we have operated in a manner that distances us — physically and psychologically — from the people we seek to protect. . . . The insurgents cannot defeat us militarily; but we can defeat ourselves.”

That has then put the ISAF in the situation that it is “not adequately executing the basics” of counterinsurgency by putting the Afghan people first. … ISAF personnel must be seen as guests of the Afghan people and their government, not an occupying army” … “Key personnel in ISAF must receive training in local languages.”

He believes that the military operational culture must change:

He also says that coalition forces will change their operational culture, in part by spending “as little time as possible in armored vehicles or behind the walls of forward operating bases.” Strengthening Afghans’ sense of security will require troops to take greater risks, but the coalition “cannot succeed if it is unwilling to share risk, at least equally, with the people.”

McChrystal warns that in the short run, it “is realistic to expect that Afghan and coalition casualties will increase.”

It is here, however, where we bump up against what is a key political point. Is the current leadership willing to accept that increase in casualties to do the necessary job? The word is there is little support for increasing the troop strength in Afghanistan within the Congressional leadership. That will only make the job harder and more dangerous for those who are there. If the operational culture is changed and we see what troops are in country outside the wire and more exposed, the casualty counts may increase anyway, with or without the additional troops.

The last and equally as important a task as protecting the population is expanding and standing up a competent Afghan army and police force:

He proposes speeding the growth of Afghan security forces. The existing goal is to expand the army from 92,000 to 134,000 by December 2011. McChrystal seeks to move that deadline to October 2010.

Overall, McChrystal wants the Afghan army to grow to 240,000 and the police to 160,000 for a total security force of 400,000, but he does not specify when those numbers could be reached.

He also calls for “radically more integrated and partnered” work with Afghan units.

As we learned in Iraq, this is an exceptionally difficult job that requires extraordinary effort on the part of our trainers.

The Broader War

McChrystal also gives a very detailed assessment of the insurgency. A couple of interesting points:

Overall, McChrystal provides this conclusion about the enemy: “The insurgents control or contest a significant portion of the country, although it is difficult to assess precisely how much due to a lack of ISAF presence. . . . ”

The insurgents make money from the production and sale of opium and other narcotics, but the assessment says that “eliminating insurgent access to narco-profits — even if possible, and while disruptive — would not destroy their ability to operate so long as other funding sources remained intact.”

Or, let’s not get sidetracked with a war on opium when all it will do is further alienate the population and make no difference at all to the war effort.


While the insurgency is predominantly Afghan, McChrystal writes that it “is clearly supported from Pakistan. Senior leaders of the major Afghan insurgent groups are based in Pakistan, are linked with al Qaeda and other violent extremist groups, and are reportedly aided by some elements of Pakistan’s ISI,” which is its intelligence service. Al-Qaeda and other extremist movements “based in Pakistan channel foreign fighters, suicide bombers, and technical assistance into Afghanistan, and offer ideological motivation, training, and financial support.”

Or, Pakistan is a critical key to any success in Afghanistan and should be worked just as hard as any effort in Afghanistan.

But the most important point to be taken from the McChrystal assessment is one that is found throughout the document:

“Failure to provide adequate resources also risks a longer conflict, greater casualties, higher overall costs, and ultimately, a critical loss of political support. Any of these risks, in turn, are likely to result in mission failure.”

The ball is now in the civilian leadership’s court and the future of our effort in Afghanistan must be decided very soon if we’re going to commit to “success”.



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28 Responses to Afghanistan – It Is Fish Or Cut Bait Time

  • Some months ago I wrote in my blog that in Afghanistan it was time either go big or get out. I’m now of the opinion that getting out is in the national interest. Due to our economic condition, the lack of public support for an on going conflict, the need for political results Afghan culture is unlikely to provide or maintain, and the unclear gains we’d get for such a massive investment of people and money, the country is better off if we leave Afghanistan. It’s been known as the ‘killer of Empires’ for centuries, let’s not be added to its list. In a simple cost-benefit analysis, devoid of the emotionalism of worrying about perceptions of victory or defeat, it simply is not within our national interest to maintain the commitment there.

    But if we do stay, it has to be a major change in policy with a far greater commitment. It really is go big or get out.

  • I am certain the President will give McChrystal’s assesment the careful study it deserves just as soon as he can find the time between speeches, personal appearances, etc. As part of the President’s goal of a transparent government I am sure he and Jay Leno will have an in-depth discussion of the Afghanistan situation.

    • As President Reagan argued, a President should not get bogged down in details as Carter had. Rather, the President has to rely on top advisors to explain the details and the various differences of opinion, and crystallize it for the President. Reagan went too far, as did Nixon, though arguably reliance on good advisors historically is more successful than the President trying to personally analyze and carefully study details. That’s what you pay your staff to do, they give the options, most important pluses and minuses, and differences of perspective. Then the President decides. Any President is only as good as his advisors — though a President can be worse than his advisors if he uses them poorly.

      • Oh dear. I stand corrected. Allow me to rephrase;

        I am certain the President will give *his staff’s* assesment the careful study it deserves just as soon as he can find the time between speeches, personal appearances, etc. As part of the President’s goal of a transparent government I am sure he and Jay Leno will have an in-depth discussion of the Afghanistan situation.

  • God’s Speed to your son, Bruce…

  • Good luck and God bless to your son and his comrades. I pray for their victory and a safe return.


    Fair or not, I couldn’t help thinking of Westmoreland and his endless calls for more troops when I read that McCrystal wants more. I DEEPLY hope that McChrystal is a better general for his war than Westy was for Vietnam. That being said, this is undeniably true:

    “Further, a perception that our resolve is uncertain makes Afghans reluctant to align with us against the insurgents.”

    If I may employ a parallel familiar to anybody who’s watched various police dramas on TV, why shouldn’t the people of a crime-ridden neighborhood (A-stan) play ball with the crooks (Taliban / AQ / heroin lords) when the cops (us) refuse to even try to make the neighborhood safe? McChrystal seems to understand this problem very well and is borrowing a play from the Marines in Vietnam:

    He also says that coalition forces will change their operational culture, in part by spending “as little time as possible in armored vehicles or behind the walls of forward operating bases.” Strengthening Afghans’ sense of security will require troops to take greater risks, but the coalition “cannot succeed if it is unwilling to share risk, at least equally, with the people.”

    The Marines in Vietnam called these “Combined Action Platoons” (CAP’s): a Marine squad would quarter itself along with local SVN troops in a village or hamlet. This directly mixed the firepower, discipline, and fighting spirit of the Marines with the SVN troops, giving them better combat capabilities against the VC. It also made it clear to EVERYBODY that the Marines were there to protect the populace and not just wander around the boonies looking for VC to kill. It was a powerful and apparently effective program. I hope McChrystal can make it work in A-stan. I have to wonder what efforts DoD has made to training Afghan linguists in the past several years. My guess: not many.

    Ultimately, two groups have to be convinced that A-stan MUST be made safe from the Taliban and the other forces that seek to return it to a savage, terrorist-sponsoring state: the people of the United States and the people of A-stan itself. We all stand to gain if A-stan can be converted into something resembling a stable, modern state. But how to convince people of this? How to convince Americans to sacrifice blood and treasure for a lousy pest-hole of a country on the other side of the world, populated with people who seem DETERMINED to live like 9th century savages? How to convince Afghanis to try to move beyond tribalism and a primitive, violent strain of religion?

    McChrystal, even if he’s the greatest general in American history, can’t do this on his own. Both countries need leaders who are willing to make the case for victory and keep fighting even if their people aren’t especially eager to follow them. I’m afraid that neither country has it, but is instead saddled with corrupt, self-serving leaders interested only in paying back old personal and political scores while lining their own pockets.


    • While you can certainly relate the strategy to Vietnam to some extent, the more recent example of what McChrystal is talking about is Iraq. And it worked there. It’s a pretty basic human need that we’re addressing – security. You can’t provide it holed up on bases. If you recall, Gen Odierno said the turnaround in Iraq came when we decided we weren’t going to commute to work. Same thing is being said about A’stan. But that, just like Iraq, is a much more labor intensive strategy – thus the surge there and the requested surge in A’stan.

      • I suggest that there are some basic concepts and methods that can be applied to COIN, whether in A-stan, Iraq, Vietnam, Malaya, or even the southern American colonies ca. 1780. As you point out, the name of the game is population security and control. Without those things, all other activities and efforts become pointless.

        And I also agree that this will be (in the short term, anyway) a very “labor-intensive” operation: we’ve got to have enough guys to have a presence in many Afghani villages and towns AND enough to provide a striking force to attack and destroy concentrations of Taliban and AQ when they come out hiding.

        • You’re absolutely right – one of the fundamental principles of COIN is security for the population. You then use that to stand up the security forces of the host nation and plug them in where your guys are. But they have to be competent, loyal and trusted by the people. At the moment, that national force doesn’t exist and until it does, we’re it. That’s not to say, like we did in Iraq, that an interim force of local militia types can’t be used to augment the effort and later integrated into the national force. None of that exists to any extent right now and that’s why McChrystal wants to build up our forces. Until you have a secure population doing the rest is a waste of time.

          The problem, of course, is it is much more difficult to secure the population in A’stan than it was in Iraq.

          • The tempting shortcut is to cut deals with the local drug / tribal chiefs to get them to do “security” for their areas. That is to say, we give them a free hand in exchange for a nominal promise not to cause us too much trouble. The obvious problems are that alliances are not exactly held sacred in that part of the world (if, indeed, they are held sacred ANYWHERE; we clearly have no problems knifing other nations in the back), and that we become de facto responsible for any outrages perpetrated by our allies. This sort of thing bedeviled us in Vietnam and, to a lesser extent, Iraq.

  • I’m not an American adventurist, meaning I don’t think that just because there’s trouble somewhere in the world that the U.S. military ought to be there.

    I do think, on the other hand, that the U.S., because of its moral and economic standing, inherited a key role in world affairs after WWII. That role was to forestall the spread of the Soviet disease (inclusive of its spread to the Chinese Communists) while it hopefully withered and died.

    After the Cold War the U.S. became the status quo superpower and the guarantor of strategic peace.

    There was no need, under that role, for a U.S. intervention in Afghanistan per se. The U.S. went to Afghanistan because of 9/11.

    McChrystal calls the situation “complex.” I call the situation complicated. Complexity is intelligible in a structural way, in the way that one apprehends the systems of a large building, for instance. You can diagram them, pinpoint connections, get to the problem if something malfunctions.

    “Complicated,” on the other hand, is like a building that has collapsed into rubble. The building systems are meaningless. There’s no way to pinpoint a problem because the whole thing is a problem.

    That’s Afghanistan, in my opinion.

    Take the American “Old West” and imagine a separate 19th Century country that was called Western America, that began at the Rockies and was bounded by the Pacific, Mexico, and Canada. Imagine that its capital was Carson City and that there were only a few other cities, no significant civil infrastructure, lots of bands of native tribes, acquisitive frontiersmen, and no serious law. Then inject into that some kind of radical dogma that was taken up by some wild nutty group that basically wanted everyone to obey them or be killed. Then multipy it by ten times and you have Afghanistan.

    Trouble starts right at the point when you start talking about Afghanistan as a country. It’s more a geographical location sandwiched between countries, much like my theoretical Western America.

    What good is it? And how do you pretend to organize it into something resembling a coherent civil society?

    Well, the latter will take way more time than it took in Iraq, which is at the core of Arab civilization and had all the wires and inputs needed to start a civil society back up.

    That’s not Afghanistan, but the U.S. went into Afghanistan because of something that grew in Afghanistan because of its exact conditions.

    That’s a dilemma. So let’s define winning: winning in Afghanistan is killing jihadis. Killing them one at a time. Killing them in bunches. Killing them in the mountains. Killing them in the cities, towns, and in the poppy fields.

    That requires a sophisticated approach to recognizing and making sure that when a non-jihadi Afghani sees a jihadi drop right next to him that the non-jihadi understands why that jihadi was dropped.

    Then, as that work proceeds, if the elements of civil society begin to cohere, all the better. But our mission in Afghanistan is primarily to kill jihadis. And it’s a good mission.

  • Hey man…..god bless for your son.

    Hope the CINC doesn’t let him down…

  • “…leave Afghanistan to its fate and suffer the consequences such an abandonment may bring in the future.”

    Scare mongering.
    Leave those people alone, clean up your own yard.

  • I’m ready to leave. Obama isn’t a leader to be trusted, either in intelligence, honor or stones.

  • Heading over there soon myself for the second time. Give your son my email if he wants to meet up.
    If it is any consolation, last time I was there the Taliban slowed down for the winter so your son and his unit will have plenty of time to get up to speed.

    • That’s exactly what I told him Brian – he’s actually getting in country at a good time as far as op tempo goes – it’s going to be winter soon and that’s the slow period. He should be up to speed when things heat up in the spring.

  • I don’t know, can he say no to General McChrystal? If he needs to say no, I hope he does, but if he says yes, I hope he does what he needs to for the continued protection of our country and the USA.

  • “As you might imagine, that’s not a job for the military, but, instead the State Department and various of our other government agencies.”

    So, you’re calling for Tom Barnett’s Department of Everything Else. Not that this is a bad thing.

    • I’m familiar with Barnett’s work, but putting a government together isn’t a military job (and it wasn’t one in Iraq either – the SD, other agencies and NGOs did it).

      • Putting a government together can be a military job, and I would certainly trust the American military at it more than I would trust the State Department or NGOs.

        But it’s probably not a job for the American military in Afghanistan.

        In Iraq you had blurry lines between good guys and bad guys. Who was who. Solution: counterinsurgency that creates a good side (civil society) and mitigates and kills the bad side (car bombers and friends).

        What emerges is a place that starts to settle in after a lot of turmoil as everyday life takes hold.

        In Afghanistan it’s not clear to me that you have blurry lines. You have tribal interests and far ranging cities, towns, etc. and this gang of lunatics that come down and try to force their will on it all. It’s an old-fashioned style war band with some ideological conceits. Oddly, they have much more of an agenda than the insurgents in Iraq had: they want to impose a strict Muslim regime and kill people who resist them.

        Normally, the U.S. could give a damn about how this sort of thing goes down, but there are complications. We left it alone in the 90s and it became a fever swamp for terrorism. It came out of the swamp and after America on 9/11.

        That’s why I’m of the opinion that these people need killin’, and that we’re a long way from the surge counterinsurgency strategy that worked in Iraq. Remember that we had a few years there in Iraq where we did a lot of search and destroy. Some say that was a failure, but what’s probably true is that it laid the ground for the creation of good guys and bad guys.

        Afghanistan is a good place to kill jihadis, and a good place for jihadis to make their cause celebre. Even Pakistan can benefit from that by encouraging their lunatics to “go win one for the ‘gipper’ in Afghanistan” and getting them out of Pakistan. It’s just a simple fact that there’s a lot of people out there who need to be dead, who will never be won over to the side of the good guys (everyday civil society) in Afghanistan, or Pakistan.

        I pity the poor Afghani people who will suffer the consequences, but that place seems to be the open range of central and south Asia.