Going Nowhere Fast in Afghanistan

by , June 30, 2009

The advent of Gen. Stanley McChrystal as America’s overall commander in Afghanistan appears to be good news. He seems to understand that in this kind of war, the rule must be "First, do no harm." Associated Press recently reported him as saying that his measure of effectiveness will be "the number of Afghans shielded from violence, not the number of militants killed." Unusually, he seems to include American and NATO violence in his calculation, since he has ordered a drastic cutback in air strikes. Heavy American reliance on air strikes has probably done more than anything else to win the war for the Taliban.

But history is littered with the failures of promising new generals; "Fighting Joe" Hooker somehow comes to mind. If Gen. McChrystal is to represent any real hope that the U.S. might get out of Afghanistan with some tailfeathers intact, he must confront a host of challenges. Let’s look at just four:

  • The Second Generation American armed forces must learn how to make war by means other than putting firepower on targets. However, that is all they know how to do. A friend who recently graduated from the U.S. Army’s Command & Staff College at Ft. Leavenworth told me that virtually the whole course is still about putting fire on targets. Nightwatch for May 17 reported that "An Indian criticism of the U.S. effort in Afghanistan and Pakistan is that it does not lack will, it lacks skill." That criticism is valid, and it traces directly to military education and training that remains stuck in the Second Generation.

  • The U.S. touts its "new" counter-insurgency doctrine, but there is nothing new about it. It merely represents a recovery of knowledge thrown away after the Vietnam War. However, Fourth Generation conflicts are different from the Vietnam War. While some counter-insurgency techniques carry over, the multiplicity of players and objectives in 4GW face counter-insurgents with an entirely different context. The first draft of a counter-insurgency field manual written for 4GW, a product of the Fourth Generation seminar, will become available this summer on the DNI Web site.

  • No doctrine, including the above manual, offers a magic potion for winning Fourth Generation wars. As the basic 4GW field manual FMFM-1A warns, even if an invader does everything right, he will still probably lose. Kelley Vlahos cautions in an important piece in the August issue of The American Conservative, "One-Sided COIN," that the neo-libs are pushing counter-insurgency as patent medicine. Just get the dosage right and we can "do" counter-insurgency successfully anywhere. She quotes retired Lt. Col. John Nagl as saying, "The soldiers who will win these wars require an ability not just to dominate land operations, but to change entire societies." That is hubristic nonsense.

  • The Obama administration has decided to continue its predecessor’s Quixotic commitment to unattainable strategic objectives, i.e., changing entire societies. Afghanistan is to be made into a liberal, democratic, secular country with rights for women as defined by American feminists. That is baying for the moon, and it can have no other outcome but failure. Setting unattainable objectives makes doctrine irrelevant, because it guarantees defeat. America could have Alexander the Great as its commander in Afghanistan, with Napoleon and von Moltke as his deputies, and we would still lose.

In sum, Gen. McChrystal faces a full plate. His most difficult challenges are internal, in the form of a flawed military instrument, inadequate doctrine, a neo-liberal establishment drunk on COIN juju, and strategic objectives no commander can attain. Internal challenges are often harder to overcome than those posed by the external opponent, because potential fixes run into the immovable object of court politics.

As an Army friend put it to me, until these and similar internal challenges can be met, our efforts in Afghanistan are like trying to get somewhere by riding faster on an exercise bicycle.

Read more by William S. Lind