McChrystal’s Myth

There is no such thing a "victory" in the kinds of wars we’re fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. The best one can hope for in these types of conflicts – counterinsurgency efforts in far-flung corners of the globe with fuzzy objectives and vague necessity – is to not be seen as having "lost." For that to happen, unfortunately, you have to stick around for so long and fade away so gradually that, by the time you leave, nobody notices you’re gone.

The neoconservative apparatus that got us into Iraq for reasons we still haven’t decided on threatens to keep us in Afghanistan indefinitely for reasons yet to be determined. Everything we’re doing in Central and Southwest Asia supposedly has something to do with eradicating al-Qaeda, yet there is no sign of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. The argument for persisting in Afghanistan says that we have to make sure al-Qaeda doesn’t go back there, yet as former CIA officer Philip Giraldi recently noted, credible assessments suggest that "Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda has likely been reduced to a core group of eight to ten terrorists who are on the run more often than not."

For the sake of keeping fewer than a dozen evildoers out of Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his legion of supporters in the Pentagon, Congress, and the media insist we need to bring increase U.S. troop levels to over 100,000, and the overall coalition force level to a half-million, the number of troops we had on the ground at one point in Vietnam.

The half-million figure comes from the counterinsurgency field manual (FM 3-24, Counterinsurgency [.pdf]), which calls for 20 to 25 counterinsurgent forces per every 1,000 locals, and Afghanistan contain a tad over 28 million locals. Your cat can do the math from there. What your cat can’t tell you is the thought process behind the conclusion that it makes sense to pit a half-million persons under arms against a force of eight or ten persons who aren’t in the vicinity of where you plan to place your half-million armed people.

That’s because your cat’s thought process isn’t as short-circuited as the cognitive quagmire going on in the minds of McChrystal and the people backing him.

The short version of this loopy logic equation goes like this: you put McChrystal in charge and he’s asking for what an official doctrine manual says he should ask for, so you have to give it to him. This skips over a trail of false assumptions that, lined up end to end, would span the Khyber Pass.

The requirement for a half-million to ten superiority ratio should have been laughed out of the discussion the moment it was mentioned. The counterinsurgency manual’s dictum that we must "convince the people of the government’s legitimacy" contains two dismal flaws in the context of Afghanistan (and Iraq as well). There is no convincing the Afghan people of the legitimacy of the Hamad Karzai government or any other government we replace it with.

The biggest flaw in the pro-McChrystal plan argument is that the counterinsurgency manual reflects tried-and-true tactics and strategy. There has never been such a thing as a triumphant counterinsurgency conflict. These types of wars have all been indecisive and draining quagmires; the sorts of conflicts that Sun Tzu warned us about over two thousand years ago when he said "No nation ever profited from a long war."

Yet it is that the military-industrial-congressional complex has adopted the "long war" concept, a gem of tank thinkery straight out of Orwell designed to keep America on a permanent wartime economy and in an endless state of fear and loathing of enemies vaguely defined and overly demonized.

Lacking a peer military adversary since the end of the Cold War, the American war mafia, headed by Bill Kristol’s Israeli-centric neoconservative cabal, casts about desperately for a "new Pearl Harbor" to justify its existence. The 9/11 attacks gave them the "catalyst" they needed to justify the invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan. It remains to be seen if we’ll be able to pull out of the flat spin they have flown us into.

The greatest fallacy in the counterinsurgency doctrine is the notion that we can partner with the host nation to establish order and security. As U.S. Army Col. Timothy Reese recently observed, our years of effort at establishing a competent and reliable government and security apparatus in Iraq have come to naught. The "ineffectiveness and corruption" of Iraq’s government, he wrote in a recent memorandum, "is the stuff of legend." Of Iraq’s security forces, he wrote, "corruption among officers is widespread."

Laziness is "endemic," Reese said, and "Lack of initiative is legion." These and other compelling reasons are why Reese recommended that it’s time to "declare victory" in Iraq and go home.

To think we can do better than this in Afghanistan is the epitome of delusion. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which we backed in a long war against Iran during the 1980s, was a real country with a real army and real institutions and infrastructure. Afghanistan has always been a fourth-world wasteland. When it comes to Afghanistan, our counterinsurgency manual amounts to little more than a ream of latrine linen.

The only reason we’re still playing political patty-cake about what to do in Afghanistan – or anywhere else in that part of the world – is to determine who gets the blame for "losing." A popular adage of war says it’s the losers who determine when they’re over. So, the logic goes, as long as we don’t quit, we can’t lose. Hence the "long war."

It’s all about seeing who gets the blame for failing to do the impossible.

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Author: Jeff Huber

Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (retired), was a naval flight officer who commanded an aircraft squadron and was operations officer of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, the carrier that fought the Kosovo War. Jeff earned a master of arts degree in post-modern imperialism at the U.S. Naval War College. His weekly satires on U.S. foreign policy high jinks are archived at his blog, Pen and Sword. Jeff's critically applauded novel Bathtub Admirals, a lampoon of America's rise to global dominance, is on sale now. Jeff lives with dogs in a house by the beach on Chesapeake Bay in Virginia, and in the summer he has a nice tan.