Recently General Stanley McChrystal, the new ISAF commander in Afghanistan, announced that under certain circumstances units that are under fire will break contact with the enemy in order to minimize civilian casualties. This statement immediately generated quite a bit of controversy amongst many supporters of the war effort. Most of those negative reactions stemmed from a feeling that there was an element of political correctness at play, and that the meek-sounding guidance might ultimately cost the lives of American servicemembers serving in theater. The initial negative reactions to this policy are quite understandable, but they come from a lack of understanding concerning counterinsurgency doctrine and counterinsurgency in general.
Dr. Anthony Cordesman from the Center for Strategic and International Studies has been a very critical and vocal critic of our tactics both in Iraq and Afghanistan. In March, 2009 he wrote an article explaining how our use of military overmatch—specifically air power—is alienating the Afghan people and steadily turning them against us. His article exposed some frightening trends illustrating how we are systematically turning Afghanistan into a fertile training ground for anti-coalition fighters. He points out that after our initial invasion of Afghanistan in 2002, and for a few years after that, we enjoyed a great deal of popularity but that has dropped off precipitously. In short, he argues that commanders on the ground are using Cold War organizations, doctrine, and technologies to fight the wrong kind of war. And he’s right.
The United States Army offers practically no formal counterinsurgency training to those outside of the special operations community. This is also largely true for the Marine Corps as well. Officers are raised within the ranks to employ units organized for conventional conflicts. These units are then sent into the fight without those same leaders receiving any formalized schooling on counterinsurgency (COIN). Even at the Command and General Staff College at Ft Leavenworth, the core curriculum ignores COIN—it is only offered as an elective to those few officers that choose to study it. With the exception of some thin familiarization training at the Combat Training Centers, officers by and large take their units to combat with little or no training for the environment they are thrust into.
Up until very recently, the U.S. military had no formalized counterinsurgency doctrine. This all changed when General David Petraeus staffed and published FM 3-24 (Counterinsurgency) during his tenure as Commanding General of the Combined Arms Center at Ft Leavenworth from 2005-2007. After this, General Petraeus went back to Iraq to apply this doctrine during the tremendously successful “Surge.”
The document—and ultimately the doctrine—itself was written by a diverse staff of military officers and civilians drawing from different areas of expertise. It is heavily grounded in historical writings on other insurgencies throughout modern history—both successful and otherwise. In all, FM 3-24 does an excellent job capturing the salient points from past conflicts and applying them to modern battlefields.
The important take-away from this is that General McChrystal is applying this doctrine in Afghanistan in order to turn the tide. He and his staff understand that the center of gravity for this conflict is the popular support of the Afghan people. In order to achieve this ISAF and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) must gain legitimacy and confidence in the eyes of the people. That cannot and will not be done if the people of Afghanistan believe that they are simply pawns in this game, and that no effort is being made to protect them. The people are the key to any counterinsurgency.
Many of McChrystal’s critics point out that we are ceding sanctuary to the enemy. This is not true at all. General McChrystal’s guidance centers around utilizing appropriate levels of force to defeat the enemy in populated areas. If you read The Times article from June 3rd of this year, you will see that McChrystal’s primary focus for this new policy concerns the use of air strikes. His purpose behind all of this is to limit the use of excessive force that results in the preventable loss of civilian life. His critics point out that this puts American servicemembers in jeopardy—these same critics make no mention of the Afghan people that are lost, or simply shrug their shoulders and say “shit happens in war.” I would point out to those critics that those same civilians are our allies and if the fighting were happening on our own soil, we would be reluctant to bring so much firepower to bear with the resultant loss of innocent life and property. Saving Afghan civilians is much more than a bleeding-heart concept, it is a pragmatic method to gaining popular support and winning the war.
Some critics of McChrystal’s policy claim that this will deter commanders on the ground from taking proactive or offensive actions against the enemy. This critic claims that Marine operations in Helmand Province which resulted in the deaths of 400 Taliban fighters invalidates McChrystal’s metrics of success that use “civilians protected” rather than “enemies killed” as a measure of success. On the surface this appears like a rock solid argument, but in fact it is founded upon faulty assumptions. The most important assumption is that killing lots of bad guys will wear the enemy down and lead to victory. This cannot be further from the truth. Killing the enemy in and of itself accomplishes very little in COIN. Successful insurgents throughout time recognized that losing on the battlefield had very little to do with the ultimate outcome of the war. In our own American Revolution we lost more battles than we won and we still prevailed. Killing the enemy for the sake of killing the enemy means nothing… protecting the people from the enemy means everything.
In short, I think General McChrystal recognizes that we have lost a lot of legitimacy in the eyes of the Afghan people through our excessive application of firepower. In an effort to turn that around, he is initiating a policy to use graduated levels of force in populated areas to achieve success in order to limit civilian losses. He has in no way told commanders that they cannot utilize all the tools available to protect the lives of their men and women when necessary—merely to scale it down if they have the option.
Critics will continue to lambast the policy—but I would ask those very same critics this question:
“Clearly the past policies governing the Rules of Engagement have not been successful. General McChrystal has a plan for turning the tide and regaining the confidence of the Afghan people. If you don’t like his new policies then tell me… what would you do in his place?”