Gen. McChrystal's Assessment Ignores COIN Doctrine, Reality

Note: Derrick Crowe is the Afghanistan blog fellow for Brave New Foundation / The Seminal. You can learn more about the dangers posed to U.S. national security by the war in Afghanistan by watching Rethink Afghanistan (Part Six): Security, or by visiting

General McChrystal's "new strategy" has been leaked to press in what looks to me like a continued effort to box in the President on troop increases. Here's the core of the document:

The New Strategy: Focus on the Population

...To accomplish the mission and defeat the insurgency we also require a properly resourced strategy built on four main pillars:

  1. Improve effectiveness through greater partnering with ANSF. We will increase the size and accelerate the growth of the ANSF, with a radically improved partnership at every level, to improve effectiveness and prepare them to take the lead in security operations.
  2. Prioritize responsive and accountable governance. We must assist in improving governance at all levels through both formal and traditional mechanisms.
  3. Gain the initiative. Our first imperative, in a series of operational stages, is to gain the initiative and reverse the insurgency's momentum.
  4. Focus resources. We will prioritize available resources to those critical areas where vulnerable populations are most threatened.

The first two pillars seem to have been written while someone was smoking hashish. Let's take them one at a time. First:

1. Improve effectiveness through greater partnering with ANSF. We will increase the size and accelerate the growth of the ANSF, with a radically improved partnership at every level, to improve effectiveness and prepare them to take the lead in security operations.

While this pillar may look like it's following the guidance of the COIN manual, when we consider the Afghans' inability to sustain such a force, it clearly ignores many of the manual's warnings.Here's a sample:

Make only commitments that can be fulfilled in the foreseeable future. (p. 172) Establishing activities that the HN government is unable to sustain may be counterproductive. (p. 170)...[Host nation] security forces should...[b]e sustainable by the host nation after U.S. and multinational forces depart. (p. 208)

As has been pointed out many times, even the current ANSF force levels cannot be sustained by the Afghan economy. From a January 2009 CRS report (p. 71):

Senior Afghan and international officials estimate that it will cost approximately $3.5 billion per year to increase ANSF force structure, and then $2.2 billion per year to sustain it. ...GIRoA, which contributed $320 million to the ANSF in 2008, is not a realistic source of ANSF funding in the near term.

In addition to the warnings about sustainability, the COIN manual also warns against trying to recreate the ANSF in our own image:

Avoid mirror-imaging (trying to make the host-nation forces look like the U.S. military). That solution fits few cultures or situations. (p. 168)

Once again, the counterinsurgency we have in Afghanistan throws out the doctrine's manual.

If we left Afghanistan tomorrow, lock stock and barrel...the ANA and ANP would completely evaporate as functioning institutions in much of the country, probably in a matter of days if not hours. They are still very much artificial constructs that we've imposed on the country, and wholly dependent on our technology for their survival so long as they continue to use the tactics we've taught them....

We've taught them to fight the way we do. They're not as good at it as we are, of course, in part because of issues like illiteracy. We've suppressed any way of fighting we cannot support and participate in fully, because to do so could, frankly, end up with more dead Afghan soldiers due to friendly fire and deconfliction problems than dead enemy. And so here we are. What wouldn't seem to be a profitable strategy right now, in that light, is accelerating the expansion of the ANA even further, which some are advocating.

Ann Jones wrote a great article detailing our mirror-imaging over at TomDispatch:

Their American trainers spoke of "upper body strength deficiency" and prescribed pushups because their [ANSF] trainees buckle under the backpacks filled with 50 pounds of equipment and ammo they are expected to carry. All this material must seem absurd to men whose fathers and brothers, wearing only the old cotton shirts and baggy pants of everyday life and carrying battered Russian Kalashnikov rifles, defeated the Red Army two decades ago. American trainers marvel that, freed from heavy equipment and uniforms, Afghan soldiers can run through the mountains all day -- as the Taliban guerrillas in fact do with great effect -- but the U.S. military is determined to train them for another style of war.

In other words, we're training them to be like us, COIN manual guidelines be damned.

Conformity to the COIN manual should not be conflated with good policy, but when a commander justifies the investment of blood and resources because of the supposed absolute necessity of implementing a given strategy, his failure to conform to the guidelines of that strategy should be a warning that we wander in the wilderness. We're being asked to invest heavily for the foreseeable future in a program that will not deliver a self-sufficient, effective ANSF. Why should we be expected to do so when the official rationale--counterinsurgency doctrine--warns us against taking this path?


2. Prioritize responsive and accountable governance. We must assist in improving governance at all levels through both formal and traditional mechanisms.

On which planet is the good general living? I've never seen a person whose allegedly been in charge of assassination squads play Pollyanna. His own document does a pretty good job illustrating how unrealistic his second pillar is:

The second threat, of a very different kind, is the crisis of popular confidence that springs from the weakness of GIRoA institutions, the unpunished abuse of power by corrupt officials and power-brokers, a widespread sense of political disenfranchisement and a longstanding lack of economic opportunity.

...There are no clear lines separating insurgent groups, criminal networds (including the narcotics networks), and corrupt GIRoA officials. Malign actors within GIRoA support insurgent groups directly, support criminal networks that are linked to insurgents, and support corruption that helps feed the insurgency.

These GoIRA qualities are bad enough, but the above doesn't even touch on the potentially explosive political dynamic set up by Karzai's massive and transparent attempt to steal the election, nor the vows of Abdullah followers to take to the streets "with Kalashnikovs" (you know, the one's they've apparently been stockpiling for a while now) should Karzai declare victory. Afghanistan ranks 176th out of 180 countries on the Corruption Perception Index. How exactly does McChrystal, as someone outside of the Afghan government and without authority to excise corrupt cadres from the GoIRA, expect to adequately take this off the table as a strategic factor within the 12-month window he's established in which major progress must be made?

I could go on and on about the internal contradictions of this document (for example, how does Stan the Man plan to "decentralize" and "Improve Unity of Effort and Command?"), but the simple fact is that you don't have to go past pillars 1 and 2 to realize that this isn't a credible strategy. It's a wish list of desired pre-existing conditions and a proposed action plan whose success is predicated on those desired pre-existing conditions. That makes it even more distasteful that the military would attempt to use this junk "strategy" to bully the president into sending more troops. For example:

But Obama's deliberative pace -- he has held only one meeting of his top national security advisers to discuss McChrystal's report so far -- is a source of growing consternation within the military. "Either accept the assessment or correct it, or let's have a discussion," one Pentagon official said. "Will you read it and tell us what you think?" Within the military, this official said, "there is a frustration. A significant frustration. A serious frustration."

Add to that anonymous posturing, the leak of a conveniently redacted and declassified version of McChrystal's memo and Mullen"s remarks to Congress, and you've got the rough outline of an information op being directed at the American people with the purpose of forcing the President's hand.

If the president was looking for a signal that the situation had progressed to a stage in which the military could not offer a credible plan to deal with it, this is it.