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Should Obama Escalate the War in Afghanistan?

by CHUCK SPINNEY

In a recent essay, entitled “Obama’s Politics of Change: Afghanistan & Gore’s Transformative Vision,” I noted in respect to the early phase of our war against the Taliban that —

“In the fall of 2001, intel reports said there were between 40-60,000 Taliban, but when we quickly “defeated” them, the intel folks could only account for 6-8000 captured, wounded or killed. Nevertheless, the Pentagon brass and Bush quickly declared victory, even though it was clear at the time that the Taliban headed for the hills in classical guerrilla/Sun Tzu fashion — when faced with superior force, disperse! That’s a no-brainer in some circles but not those inside the Beltway. Now we are saying the Taliban are “regrouping” when is not clear they ever degrouped.”

Some people objected to my characterization of of the Afghan Was as being a loser, saying the Afghan war is a morally good that must be prosecuted to a victorious end. While tautological reasoning may be comforting, particularly when it is other people’s blood that is being spilt, it is important to ask oneself how a victory might be achieved. Is this merely a question of throwing more troops and bombs at at the problem, or is there more to it than that?

This article references two documents which may help the committed escalator determine whether it is a good idea to ramp up our efforts in Afghanistan with more troops, more military force, more “precision” bombing, which means more collateral damage, including more innocent civilian deaths, and is likely to breed more resentment, and more radicalization. Or whether the inept Mr. Bush and his neocon henchmen have created the conditions for another classical guerrilla war in Afghanistan, not unlike that created by the Soviets in the early 1980s which created misery for them in the late 1980s.

In this regard, readers would do well to remember that (1) Soviets had an easy ride for the first few years, while the Afghan guerrillas leaned how to fight them through a process of trial and error; and (2), that the Soviets reached a point where it became clear that pouring in more Soviet troops and increasing the firepower created more problems than it solved. Which begs the question: Is escalating the war in Afghanistan becoming a yawning trap, into which Mr. Obama and the Democrats seem eager to plunge?

At the heart of this question is the nature of the conflict in Afghanistan, specifically the question of whether or not it has mutated into something that is more akin to a classical guerrilla war as opposed to being part of a Fourth Generation War against al Quaeda. The two attachments below may help the reader to appreciate the different dimensions of this consideration.

A recent report in Newseek entitled “The Taliban’s Baghdad Strategy,” offerss a well-informed description of the Taliban’s approach to the conflict in Afghanistan. It describes how the Taliban are pursuing a strategy to systematically undermine the authority of the government of Mr Karsai, a man who, it should be remembered, the West, particularly the United States, put into place as the President of Afghanistan, and who, according to some reports, might be receiving financial support from Pakistan’s rival India. Is this Taliban strategy something new and peculiar to the so-called Global War on Terror — a war that Mr. Bush, the Pentagon, and now apparently many of Obama’s defense advisors, seem to think they can prosecute successfully by relying on more boots on the ground coupled to more “precision firepower?”

Or is the Afghan War more in the nature of a modern guerrilla war, wherein a government established and propped up by unwanted outsiders with their own agendas usually becomes a critical losing vulnerability?

I have also attached below portions of a briefing that may help some of us to understand these latter questions. It contains three slides #91, #92, & #108 from the late Colonel John R. Boyd’s legendary briefing of the philosophy and conduct of war, Patterns of Conflict, which was written well before the Taliban even existed. Boyd’s aim in Patterns of Conflict was to synthesize a unified understanding of the fundamental nature conflict by examining the history regular and irregular war. Boyd was not a warmonger, but he recognized war is often unavoidable, and his aim was to understand it in a way that it could be prosecuted successfully at the lowest possible cost to society and in a way that reduced the possibility of future conflict. The three slides of his 193-slide briefing describe part of his understanding of the nature of modern guerrilla warfare (i.e., #91 & #92) as well as the nature of a successful counter guerrilla operations (i.e., #108). I picked them because they are the most pertinent to the simple exercise described below.

I want readers to perform a little thought experiment by comparing the information in Newsweek article to that in Boyd’s Boyd’s generic observations about the conduct of a guerrilla campaign in Slides #91 and #92. If you agree that the information in the Newsweek report mesh at least enough with the ideas in these slides to warrant further thinking, then ask yourself if Mr. Obama and the Democrats, together with their Afghan and Nato allies and the American public are willing and capable of undertaking the kind of counter-guerrilla campaign that meets ALL of the conditions of Boyd’s Slide #108?

And if the answer is NO in either of these two steps, maybe it is time for the US to leave. BUT if you still want to escalate the war and the hemorrhage of blood and treasure in Afghanistan, then you owe it to yourself to come up with some more realistic ideas than those in Slide #108 about how to successfully escalate this war. Simply saying it is a GOOD war may be comforting but it is not enough. Simply saying it is a question of WILL may work as a substitute for thought, but it is no strategy. If staying the course is your choice, then what is needed is a strategy that will work in the real world.

There is one point in this simple exercise that serious readers ought to bear in mind: While these three slides give the essential gist of Boyd’s understanding of the guerrilla warfare, he would be the first to warn that one must be very careful not to think of them as an isolated modules or checklists — they exist in a larger strategic and grand strategic fabric, but I think they are sufficient to get this thought experiment going, at least as a first cut. The venturesome, particularly those who answered NO to the comparisons of this thought experiment, can download Patterns of Conflict in its entirety here.

Franklin “Chuck” Spinney (born 1945, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio) is an American former military analyst for the Pentagon who became famous in the early 1980s for what became known as the “Spinney Report”, criticizing what he described as the reckless pursuit of costly complex weapon systems by the Pentagon, with disregard to budgetary consequences. Despite attempts by the his superiors to bury the controversial report, it eventually was exposed during a United States Senate Budget Committee on Defense hearing, which though scheduled to go unnoticed, made the cover of Time Magazine March 7, 1983. CHUCK SPINNEY retired from the Pentagon after 33 years and currently lives on a sailboat in the Mediterranean.

Slides 90, 91, and #108 of John Boyd’s Patterns of Conflict]———

Slide 90: MODERN GUERRILLIA CAMPAIGN

Action

· Capitalize on discontent and mistrust generated by corruption (real or imagined), exploitation, oppression, incompetence, and unwanted presence of existing regime to evolve a common cause or unifying theme as basis to organize and maintain mass popular support through a militant political program.

· Set-up administrative and military organization, sanctuary, and communications network under the control of the guerrilla political leadership without arousing regime’s intelligence and security apparatus. Build-up a shadow government, with “parallel hierarchies”, in localities and regions that can be made ripe for insurrection/revolution by infiltrating cadres (vanguards) who can not only subvert existing authority but also convert leaders and people to guerrilla cause and organizational way.

· Exploit subversion of government and conversion of people to guerrilla cause to create an alien atmosphere of security and intelligence in order to “blind” regime to guerrilla plans, operations, and organization yet make “visible” regime’s strengths, weaknesses, moves, and intentions.

· Shape propaganda, foment civil disorders (such as rallies, demonstrations, strikes, and riots), use selected terrorism, perform sabotage, and exploit resulting misinformation to expand mistrust and sow discord thereby magnify the appearance of corruption, incompetence, etc., and the inability of regime to govern.

· Employ tiny cohesive bands for surprise hit-and-run raids against lines of communications to gain arms and supplies as well as disrupt government communication, coordination, and movement. Retreat and melt into environment when faced by superior police and armed forces.

· Disperse or scatter tiny guerrilla bands to arouse the people (and gain recruits) as well as harass, wear-out, and spread-out government forces while larger bands, or mobile formations, concentrate to wipe-out his dispersed, isolated, and relatively weak fractions by sudden ambush or sneak attack.

· Play upon the grievances and obsessions of people (via propaganda, re-education, and selected successes) as well as encourage government to indiscriminately take harsh reprisal measures against them in order to connect the government with expanding climate of mistrust, discord, and moral disintegration. Simultaneously, show (by contrast) that guerrillas exhibit moral authority, offer competence, and provide desired benefits in order to further erode government influence, gain more recruits, multiply base areas, and increase political infrastructure hence expand guerrilla influence/control over population and countryside.

· Demonstrate disintegration of regime by striking Cheng/Ch’i fashion, with small fluid bands and ever larger mobile formations, to split-up, envelop, and annihilate fractions of major enemy forces.
Idea

· Defeat existing regime politically by showing they have neither the moral right nor demonstrated ability to govern and militarily by continuously using stealth/fast-tempo/fluidity-of-action and cohesion of small bands and larger units in cooperation with political “agitprop” (agitation/propaganda) teams as basis to harass, confuse and ultimately destroy the will or capacity to resist.

Slide 91: MODERN GUERRILLA CAMPAIGN

Essence

· Capitalize on corruption, injustice, incompetence, etc., (or their appearances) as basis to generate atmosphere of mistrust and discord in order to sever moral bonds that bind people to existing regime.
Simultaneously,

· Share existing burdens with people and work with them to root out and punish corruption, remove injustice, eliminate grievances, etc., as basis to form moral bonds between people and guerrillas in order to bind people to guerrilla philosophy and ideals.
Intent

· Shape and exploit crises environment that permits guerrilla vanguards or cadres to pure-up guerrilla resolve, attract the uncommitted, and drain-away adversary resolve as foundation to replace existing regime with guerrilla regime.
Implication

· Guerrillas, by being able to penetrate the very essence of their adversary’s moral-mental-physical being, generate many moral-mental-physical non-cooperative (or isolated) centers of gravity, as well as subvert or seize those centers of gravity that adversary regime must depend upon, in order to magnify friction, produce paralysis, and bring about collapse.
Yet,

· Guerrillas shape or influence moral-mental-physical atmosphere so that potential adversaries, as well as the uncommitted, are drawn toward guerrilla philosophy and are empathetic toward guerrilla success.

Slide #108: COUNTER-GUERRILLA CAMPAIGN

Action

· Undermine guerrilla cause and destroy their cohesion by demonstrating integrity and competence of government to represent and serve needs of people–rather than exploit and impoverish them for the benefit of a greedy elite. *

· Take political initiative to root out and visibly punish corruption. Select new leaders with recognized competence as well as popular appeal. Ensure that they deliver justice, eliminate grievances and connect government with grass roots. *

· Infiltrate guerrilla movement as well as employ population for intelligence about guerrilla plans, operations, and organization.

· Seal-off guerrilla regions from outside world by diplomatic, psychological, and various other activities that strip-away potential allies as well as by disrupting or straddling communications that connect these regions with outside world.

· Deploy administrative talent, police, and counter-guerrilla teams into affected localities and regions to: inhibit guerrilla communication, coordination and movement; minimize guerrilla contact with local inhabitants; isolate their ruling cadres; and destroy their infrastructure.

· Exploit presence of above teams to build-up local government as well as recruit militia for local and regional security in order to protect people from the persuasion and coercion efforts of the guerrilla cadres and their fighting units.

· Use special teams in a complementary effort to penetrate guerrilla controlled regions. Employ (guerrillas’ own) tactics of reconnaissance, infiltration, surprise hit-and-run, and sudden ambush to: keep roving bands off-balance, make base areas untenable, and disrupt communication with outside world.

· Expand these complementary security/penetration efforts into affected region after affected region in order to undermine, collapse, and replace guerrilla influence with government influence and control.

· Visibly link these efforts with local political/economic/social reform in order to connect central government with hopes and needs of people, thereby gain their support and confirm government legitimacy.
Idea

· Break guerrillas’ moral-mental-physical hold over the population, destroy their cohesion, and bring about their collapse via political initiative that demonstrates moral legitimacy and vitality of government and by relentless military operations that emphasize stealth/fast-tempo/fluidity-of-action and cohesion of overall effort.
____________

· * If you cannot realize such a political program, you might consider changing sides!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He be reached at chuck_spinney@mac.com

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