Thursday, February 26, 2009

Two Very Smart Men; Missing The Point-Counterpoint

Dr. John Nagl is always ready for a point/counterpoint type of exchange with an opposing point of view. In his latest joust, Dr. Nagl takes on Professor Andrew Bacevich in U.S. News and World Report. Dr. Nagl offers a course of action that is predicated upon the belief that Afghanistan - and Central Asia - is vitally important to the security of the United States. Prof. Bacevich dismisses even addressing this issue in what appears to be a de facto assertion of the irrelevance of Central Asia to national security, and counsels that departing Afghanistan is the only way for President Obama to truly cast his legacy. This misses the Point/Counterpoint that was advertised.

More after the jump...

Dr. Nagl, the new President of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS,) a Washington-based think tank which was co-founded by Michelle Flournoy, a very smart woman in her own right and recently sworn in asAmerican goals in Afghanistan have suffered from the most fundamental of all strategic errors: insufficient resources to accomplish maximalist goals. Building a liberal democracy in Afghanistan may be possible, but after 30 years of war, the country simply does not have the human capital and institutions that democracy requires. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, presents the opinion that success in the Afghan Campaign of the GWOT is achievable. He also presents a pretty horrendous picture of what that success will cost in terms of troops deployed, at least initially. This is tempered by a call for transition to a sustainable Afghan force, backed by advisers and force multipliers such as air power, in order to maintain security gains. In the midst of this, Dr. Nagl notes that this needs to be more than a purely military solution.

While an expanded international commitment of security and development forces can assist in the achievement of these goals in the short term, ultimately Afghans must ensure stability and security in their own country. Building a state, even if it is a flawed one, that is able to provide a modicum of security and governance to its people is the American exit strategy from Afghanistan...

...Success in counterinsurgency requires the integration of military, diplomatic, and economic assistance to a country afflicted by insurgents; Gen. David McKiernan, the American commander responsible for the International Security Assistance Forces, briefed just such a strategy to a group of scholars visiting Afghanistan in November. Unfortunately, he has not been given the resources required to accomplish his mission.

These are things that have been said before here on this page, and are proof that I do not have an original thought in my head. The point here, and stated clearly in Prof. Bacevich's response, is that there is no purely military solution to any insurgency. It requires a holistic approach that we have not been pursuing.

I tend to agree strongly with most of Dr. Nagl's points, and the one that gives me pause is the troop requirement, which I believe to be excessive. On this point I may well be wrong, but my central point remains that if we were in fact performing full-spectrum counterinsurgency we would not be suffering so in Afghanistan. A quick review of the many ideas being bandied about, and the widely divergent opinions of such smart men as Nagl and Bacevich, display our absolute national confusion as to how to resolve this situation favorably. Our own Armed Forces, particularly the Army, struggle with the embrace of such strategies and tactics to the point that the institution itself has become practically schizophrenic.

Any Soldier who has deployed will tell you that there are two Armies; the one that is deployed and fighting and the one that resides in non-combat areas. This is not a statement of standards of living, but an observation of the training and preparation for war done at home station as opposed to the actual Soldiering that is done in the Theater of War. Some active duty units do a better job than others, but Guard units are still training for WW-III or at least some more conventional war. Even at pre-deployment training there are things that are taught as gospel that bear little to no resemblance to what is actually done in-theater, especially in Afghanistan.

A case in point was that of SSG Smokey Jackalacker. SSG Jackalacker was the subject of the subject of some humor on this site, but those humorous points had a purpose; to demonstrate the failure that we have had in preparing our Soldiers for this war. SSG Jackalacker and all of his compatriots underwent their pre-deployment train-up at Fort Bragg. You would think that, on a post which hosts elite units that have spent many months in the suck of Afghanistan, the pre-deployment training would be the very best theater-focused immersion training that the Army could possibly provide.

SSG Jackalacker and his men were "immersed" in a "FOB" complete with role players who frequently demonstrated outside the gates of the "FOB." Not once in a year in Afghanistan did I see, on any of the many FOBs I visited or worked out of, a single demonstration. Not once. Yet hours and hours of training and mental bandwidth were spent preparing for the most unlikely of potentialities while critical aspects of training were completely absent.

SSG Jackalacker had heard the word, "counterinsurgency," but really was utterly and completely clueless as to what it meant. Heavy on the "utterly" and the "clueless." SSG Jackalacker's mind was stuck on thirteen years of training for narrow-spectrum Infantry operations and all of the inapplicable training that he had been subjected to in a three month train-up at Ft Bragg. After a quick review of what his training, I had to sing to SSG Jackalacker the same song so many have heard upon arrival in the theater; "Forget everything they taught you except your weapons, your combat lifesaver, and your communications. We will show you how it is done for real."

Many of the active duty units that do a good job, due to repeated rotations, of training theater-specifically in counter-guerrilla tasks. Note that counter-guerrilla tasks are not the full spectrum of counterinsurgency tasks. While the survival and small unit combat skills are necessary, junior leaders, particularly NCO's, are woefully untrained in COIN. Commanders are not judged by how secure the populations are relative to the arrival and departure of their units. Success as a commander is measured by how many missions were executed, how much humanitarian aid was delivered, and their casualties relative to any apparent damage done to the enemy, among other things. Nowhere in the appraisal process is an attempt made to measure the opinion of the local populace, the center of influence in any counterinsurgency campaign.

Dr. Nagl points to a lack of resources made available to the highest military authority in Afghanistan to do what he knows to be the right thing. GEN Petraeus, who pushed down counterinsurgency behavior to the small unit level in Iraq, knows these things, too. The Armed Forces can only do so much in the counterinsurgency. Iraq has had more of the non-military resources devoted to it, and has a lot more of the basic material (such as the basis of an economy) than Afghanistan has. Iraq has an institutional memory of how to govern itself and provide basic services to its constituents. Dr. Nagl points out that Afghanistan lacks this.

Building a liberal democracy in Afghanistan may be possible, but after 30 years of war, the country simply does not have the human capital and institutions that democracy requires.

Dr. Nagl then presents a solution; but it is a solution predicated upon our Armed Forces conducting proper counterinsurgency and our civilian government making just as big a commitment to supporting the non-military organs of the Afghan government. This writer does not see these as foregone conclusions.

Additional troops will be successful only if they are employed correctly. Relearning the classic "clear, hold, and build" counterinsurgency model took several years in Iraq, but to date there are insufficient international or Afghan forces to hold areas that American troops have cleared of insurgents. As a result, the troops have had to clear the same areas repeatedly—paying a price for each operation in both American lives and in Afghan public support, which suffers from Taliban reprisals whenever we "clear and leave."

The alternative requires not just more troops but a different strategy. After an area is cleared of insurgents, it must be held by Afghan troops supported by American advisers and combat multipliers, including artillery and air support. Inside this bubble of security, the Afghan government can re-establish control and build a better and more prosperous community with the help of a surge of American civilian advisers.

Andrew Bacevich, also a very smart while very pessimistic man, weighs in from his angle and, perhaps unwittingly, points to the very deficiency in our current strategy that makes Afghanistan appear, to those who will not clearly see the solution, as an imponderably sodden mass of confusion.

Attention is now shifting back to Afghanistan, with President Obama seemingly intent on redeeming an ill-advised campaign pledge to increase the U.S. troop commitment to that theater of operations. Yet as the conflict continues, the correlation between American actions and America's interests is becoming increasingly difficult to discern. The fundamental incoherence of U.S. strategy becomes ever more apparent. Worst of all, there is no end in sight.

Bacevich then launches into a flawed and overly simplistic three-phase analysis of the war. His analysis is hamstrung by a traditional military analytical approach, and a total dismissal of any effects at all from the application of rudimentary counterinsurgency doctrine down to the unit level.

What Bacevich's analysis appeared to do, surprisingly, is bring to light the very inability of traditional military thought to accurately decipher the events that have occurred as the conflict changed from conventional warfare into irregular warfare. His analysis of the early phases of the war hint at a foreboding that simply defeating the armed defenses of Iraq and the Taliban regime would not be sufficient to bring relief from the threat, but as the analysis goes on Bacevich is only able to discern the failures without seeming to understand why they occurred. His attributions of the military and civilian failures on the local level are to the overarching political decision-making rather than on the inability of the United States to effectively shift gears with the changing needs of the situation. Bacevich appears to be stumped.

Yet efforts to achieve a military solution yielded not decision but escalating levels of violence. Confident chatter of ending tyranny and liberalizing the Islamic world ceased. The strategic focus narrowed further: In common parlance, "the war" no longer meant the larger struggle against terrorism; it meant Iraq. There, U.S. commanders had willy-nilly adopted a strategy of attrition, which produced frustration on the battlefield and backlash on the home front.

In frustration Bacevich dismisses any American change of doctrinal behavior by utterly ignoring it and instead launches upon a political analysis of the presidential campaign and the war's effect upon it. While this appears to be diversionary, it is not.

Petraeus launched what was in effect a salvage operation. The emphasis shifted from chasing insurgents to protecting the Iraqi people. Under what was styled as the Sunni Awakening, the United States offered money and arms to militants who promised to cease attacking coalition forces. Thanks to this "surge," the level of violence in Iraq diminished appreciably. Although Petraeus by no means solved the Iraqi conundrum, he pulled that country back from the precipice of disintegration.

This limited success did not suffice to redeem the presidential hopes of Sen. John McCain, who made his support for the surge the centerpiece of his campaign. Barack Obama, a consistent critic of the war, beat McCain handily.

Bacevich then lends more credence to what has become a common meme; that the conflict in Afghanistan suddenly and nearly inexplicably degenerated in 2008 and that the safe zones in Pakistan were somehow a new problem.

In 2008, the Taliban returned to the offensive. Allied casualties increased. Fighting spilled across the border into Pakistan, which became the Long War's de facto third front.

Any veteran of Afghanistan who spent much time "outside the wire" in the past several years could tell you that the Taliban had been getting bolder and bolder with each passing year. Until 2008, 2007 had been by far the most violent year in Afghanistan, and there was plenty of cross-border activity that year including air strikes on Taliban and al Qaeda targets in the FATA. While Musharraf's government was much more amenable to such cross-border activity, they are by no means new. Bacevich's depiction of the apparently sudden resurgence of the Taliban demonstrates that his awareness of Afghanistan, like that of the American public's, is lost in a fog prior to this year. Until this year Afghanistan was "the forgotten war," and everyone who slogged around in the dust of the Hindu Kush knew it. Even the Army forgot that it existed. In our preparations for deployment as embedded advisers, it became a running joke that our briefings would start off on the wrong foot.

"When you arrive in Iraq..."

"Uh, Sir?"


"We're going to Afghanistan."


While Bacevich is not alone in his misunderstanding of Afghanistan, the entire tone of his piece is a political viewpoint. This is not a point/counterpoint, as the two men are discussing two completely different topics. Nagl's advice for how to bring about success is an appeal to both military leadership and political leadership to take a well-rounded counterinsurgent approach, while Bacevich's ultimate appeal is not to military decision-makers but to one man; President Obama.

The time to address these questions is now. Obama's freedom of action will never be greater than it is today. Should he dodge these issues and plunge more deeply into Afghanistan, the Long War will very soon become Obama's War. And he will richly deserve the obloquy to be heaped on his head as a consequence.

The real difference between these two men begin with their respective appraisals of the national security implications of Central Asia and Afghanistan's role in it. If you feel that Afghanistan is in any way significant as a key to national security in the future, listen to Dr. Nagl very carefully. If you are convinced that retreat from that theater will not bring adverse consequences for our security, then cite Professor Bacevich liberally.


  1. Dear Lord, when are people going to realize that we did not start this war? I have never walked away from a fight in my life, and I'm not about to start now. Especially when my nephew may have to go to war for us. (He's almost 7 years old.) *sigh*

  2. The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 02/27/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

  3. Thanks for this Blue. You wrote: "Commanders are not judged by how secure the populations are relative to the arrival and departure of their units. Success as a commander is measured by how many missions were executed, how much humanitarian aid was delivered, and their casualties relative to any apparent damage done to the enemy, among other things. Nowhere in the appraisal process is an attempt made to measure the opinion of the local populace, the center of influence in any counterinsurgency campaign."

    That statement seems to confrim much of what I've been culling from various sources on the blogosphere. From blogs of currently deployed and recently returned Soldiers based at FOB Phoenix, for example, this is the source of intense frustration and disillusion with the command structure. In this case the base commander is seen as the source of the problem in the eyes of the Grunts. If I'm reading you correctly the problem is much more wide spread. As you point out the current situation regarding the implemaention has become "practiclly schizophrenic."

    My question to you is: In light of GEN Petraeus' recent remarks in Munich regarding 'Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan', can you identify for us the roadblocks in the implementation of GEN Petraeus' plan?

    Many thanks in advance for any light you can shed.


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