McChrystal and Jomini

The discussion about General McChrystal continues, Mr. Herschel Smith from Captain’s Journal responds to my original post. He went into some detail, so I think it fair to respond to his arguments point by point.

This writer has done a good job of regurgitating the FM 3-24 talking points and theory (at least some of it), but it’s a sign of cult-like behavior to be able to stand in the face of evidence and deny its existence. My arguments weren’t about theory. Go back and read them again.

I wonder if Mr. Smith applies the “cult-like behavior” standard to himself, or is that reserved merely for people that disagree with him?

While it may seem that I am “regurgitating” from FM 3-24, how does that invalidate the argument? Is FM 3-24 so far off base that it cannot be used as a serious reference? I think not.

I stated that the best teachers are examples and stories. Theory is only good insofar as it benefits us. Where it fails to match reality it must be revisited, modified and/or jettisoned entirely. If our critic would have continued our comprehensive coverage of the Marines in Helmand, he would have learned not only that they killed 400 Taliban fighters in Garmser, but that following this assault the town elders implored the Marines for protection and security.

Mr. Smith seems to agree with me here that security of the people comes first. He also agrees that operations must be structured with that as one (of many) goals. He also agrees with me that this is a means to an end—a pragmatic approach to war—rather than some sort of ill-begotten humanitarian mission.

As far as theory versus anecdotal evidence is concerned, let me explain. FM 3-24 was written based upon actual experience in warfare going back to Napoleon’s fiasco in Spain. It was also written by a group of experienced field-grade staff officers. These same officers have Ranger and Special Forces tabs and hold post-graduate degrees (some of these officers were even Marines)—and the vast majority of them had actual combat experience (to include COIN) themselves with which to draw upon. In addition, civilians were brought in to help author it as well, in order to avoid incestuous groupthink. It is a solid document, and one which Mr. Smith has referenced himself on occasion.

Just how our critic supposes that the Marines could have protected the population of Garmser, while several hundred Taliban fighters were dug in and waiting for the Marines, he doesn’t say. But he makes the mistake of conflating phases of the campaign, and also of failing to understand that the campaign will require various lines of operation or lines of effort.

I could lecture chapter and verse on Jomini and his lines of operation (LOO)—-both physical and logical. Considering that the readers of Just Barking Mad largely are not graduates of the Command and General Staff College, I felt it wise to speak in layman’s terms (as much as possible). I also felt that a 10,000-word dissertation on Jomini’s philosophy concerning the operational art of war—and the U.S. military’s adoption of its core principles—might be a distraction from the subject at hand… but I digress.

Considering the fact that I wasn’t physically in Garmser, and I have yet to read a detailed after action report on the operation, it would be silly for me critique the Helmand operations in any meaningful way. Still, Mr. Smith fails to provide the reader with any evidence that McChrystal’s proposed policy would have affected the inevitable outcome there. Were human shields used systematically in Helmand Province to prevent the Marines from accomplishing their mission? We are left only assuming that it must have occurred—maybe.

Finally, he conflates the discussion topic – rules of engagement – with counterinsurgency theory. This is a mistake made in the Small Wars Council discussion thread on the same topic. Many participants in the discussion thread throw out the same meme. It’s better to back away or find another tactic than it is to flatten domiciles with women and children in them.

I don’t see how this is a mistake at all. The ROE is nested within the construct of the overarching plan (going back to LOOs and LOEs). It is part of the foundation of everything we are attempting to build there (metaphorically speaking). In this way the ROE is interwoven into everything. It is particularly important when one considers the impact of the “strategic corporal” and his/her actions on the ground.
How nice. Let’s declare up front that no one wants to flatten homes with women and children in them. In fact, we can state it more forcefully. Yea verily we say unto thee, The Captain’s Journal doesn’t want to flatten homes full of women and children. No one we know wants to flatten homes full of women and children.

I would argue that these very public statements are meant more to buttress the IO campaign—which has up until now been an uncategorical disaster for our side—rather than communicate some sea-change in tactical procedures on the ground.
Now that this exigency has been properly dealt with, may we advance the conversation forward, please? The conversation isn’t about best practices in counterinsurgency. The conversation is about rules of engagement, violation of which can lead from sanction to punishment by imprisonment.

This is a fair. Mr. Smith wishes to focus on a potential adjustment to the ROE rather that COIN doctrine and its wider application. Since it appears he and I agree on most of the doctrinal fundamentals it makes sense to narrow the scope of the discussion.
Seldom is the situation so clear as known homes full of women and children. The problem usually presents itself in a different form, e.g., situations in which the fight moves from one venue to another where the insurgents may now be mixed with noncombatants, with close air support (CAS) necessary in order to prevent significant U.S. casualties attempting to take a building by room clearing tactics.

Fine. Provide guidance unique to that circumstance and have additional briefings for deploying units. But don’t change the rules of engagement. Again, I can point to a highly successful U.S. Marine Corps Operation that wouldn’t have been conducted under such draconian rules (the operation in Garmser, Helmand Province), because certainty would not have existed regarding noncombatant presence.

Mr. Smith makes an interesting point here where he discusses the fluid nature of the battlefield where it may ebb and flow between inhabited and uninhabited areas. He talks about CAS (I assume he is referring to the Marine Corps definition of CAS) being necessary to keep U.S. casualties to a minimum. I would argue that during the analysis portion of planning, if the possibility of operating in built-up areas exists, then planners must include contingency plans (branches and sequels) to bring about successful outcomes without having to “bull-through” and risk killing innocents.

A highly successful technique being used by the Army right now is the utilization of the Afghan police and the Afghan National Army to clear inhabited areas. U.S. military forces focus on areas where there are no population centers, and the Afghans are called forward to deal with problems in the villages and towns.  They understand the language, the culture, and are largely sympathetic to the population while being infinitely resourceful. They use the minimal force necessary and get results. Since the Afghans come from a warrior culture, they have no inhibition about clearing buildings with rifles and taking casualties. It is their way of war, and the population considers them the most legitimate organ of government.

Finally, Andrew Exum says:

“We are not in Afghanistan to make sure that fewer Americans die,” said Andrew Exum of the Center for a New American Security, a Washington research organization.

“We are in Afghanistan to make sure fewer Afghan civilians die.”

No, Andrew, we are not in Afghanistan to make sure that fewer Afghan civilians die (notice the exclusive reduction of counterinsurgency to a single focus, while we have claimed that in counterinsurgency there should be focii). Making sure that fewer Afghan citizens die is a means to an end, just as is killing anti-Afghan forces, hard core Taliban and other takfiri organizations. These things are all lines of effort and lines of operation.

On this point Mr. Smith and I agree. Reducing civilian loss is a means to an end—not an empty humanitarian gesture.
I have been told that this change probably won’t affect behavior below the O3 level during a fire fight. Perhaps so … we’ll wait to see for ourselves. In any case, changing the formal rules by which Soldiers and Marines are held accountable is still ill advised in our opinion. And this meme from CNAS is getting old and worn.

I believe that Mr. Smith is reading far too much into this. McChrystal’s central message has been the reduction of the use of air power in population centers. I do not believe that this will hinder our efforts in any meaningful way—particularly if we are working in conjunction with the Afghan Army. If we continue to operate without the support of Afghan forces we will do so at our own peril.

Moreover I think he has latched on to the idea that there will be some sort of rigid modification to the ROE. There has been up until now no indication of this. The word coming out of ISAF is that new “guidance” will be issued—and guidance is flexible. I do not believe that we will see any ROE that states “If there are civilians in the line of fire then we will disengage.” I don’t believe that we will ever hamstring ourselves to that degree. At the same time tactical planners will have to take these issues into consideration during the planning phase and consider alternative approaches to clearing populated areas.

If Mr. Smith has seen a draft copy of the new policy that condradicts my opinion, then I would be curious to see it—and perhaps I might even consider snapping out of my “cult-like” mindset.

In closing, I have contacted several officers currently serving in Afghanistan (all of them “at the tip of the spear” in different commands) and none of them have heard of any sweeping changes to the ROE. That is not to say that it won’t happen, but to date there is no indication that our forces are being restricted at the tactical level or being hindered in their ability to fight or defend themselves. While our method of prosecuting military operations on the ground may adjust in the future, it does not seem as though it will compromise our capability to fight and win.

References (besides FM 3-24) on counterinsurgency:


Marcus (that’s me!)

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2 Responses to McChrystal and Jomini

  1. Pingback: The Captain’s Journal » Concluding Thoughts on Afghanistan ROE Modifications

  2. quilly says:

    Jomeni….and brilliant minds from Emory Upton to Russel Weigley to Geoffrey Perrett (an interesting exercise to compare and contrast the last two authors take on “The American Way of War) have shown how by not being bound by Jomeni, and instead using his works as a base, the American Military has adapted and overcome every obstacle and enemy.

    Question: Explain how Stillwell and Merrill flexed LOO to accomplish the mission. See Edwin P Hoyt and Barbara Tuchman’s work.

    Question: List the devotee’s of Jomeni in both the Union and Confederate forces and speak about their successes and failures. See John Shy, T. Harry Williams and, again, Geoffrey Perret.

    I particularly like Shy’s warning that Jomeni would sometimes say a particular battle derived from strict adherence to the rules he elucidates, yet at others he praises the genius of the commander. I disagree with shy that this is in any way disingenuous but rather that you have to know when to adhere to the rules and when a masterful commander should bend the rules to strike for victory. The lack of which Williams points out was of great frustration to Lincoln…his officers never seemed to know when to abandon capturing key terrain features (territorial lines) and go after and destroy the enemy( manuever lines).

    But then, I’m not a fucking savant like people on other blogs seem to be.

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