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A Pathway to Disaster

The Huge Hole in Gen. McChrystal’s Afghan Counterinsurgency Strategy

by FRANKLIN C. SPINNEY

The centerpiece of the General Stanley McChrystal’s "new" counterinsurgency strategy of "clear, hold, build" is the accelerated training and expansion of the Afghan Army and Police Forces (ANSF), in addition to a major increase in the size of our forces (according to some reports, by as much as 45,000 troops). The strategic goal is to establish an expanding zone of security for the Afghan people that would enable a steady build up of aid and development efforts to improve their well being with jobs, new infrastructure, new education systems, new agricultural techniques, etc., than thereby win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. McChrystal is asking the President of the United State to approve a pathway to almost certain disaster. Consider please the following:

Of course, there is nothing new in General McChrystal’s strategy, it is merely a rehash of the failed oil spot (tache d’huile) strategy, first tried by French colonialist General Louis-Hubert-Gonsalve Lyautey, and then tried again under various guises, again without lasting success, by the Americans in Vietnam.

Indeed, many readers will recall that a necessary condition of our failed Vietnam strategy was the exactly same strategic determination that we could not win the hearts of minds of the indigenous population without providing the people with a competent army and a government that could protect them from the depredations of the insurgents. In Vietnam, this idea was at the center of our early involvement. Protecting the people was first tried on a small scale with some tactical success in the Combined Action Platoons (CAP) program in the Marine Corps, then on a much larger, strategically disastrous scale with the Strategic Hamlets Program, before Americanizing the war. Nevertheless, it rose again like a Phoenix when the idea mutated into into President Nixon’s Vietnamization program, but in this case was really a cynical smokescreen for withdrawing without admitting defeat (a goal that Nixon called "Peace With Honor"). In the end, the US-trained Vietnamese army, like the US-installed Vietnamese government, was a corrupt Potemkin-like sham, and once it became clear that both had lost the supporting prop of American firepower, both collapsed and surrendered unconditionally in April 1975, only two months after North Vietnamese launched a final offensive, which the North Vietnamese planners had assumed it would take two years to achieve victory.

Like his predecessors in Vietnam, Mr. Obama is now being told by the military to pin his hopes on an immediate US military escalation, coupled with a rapid build up of US-trained indigenous Afghan army and police forces, together with the development of competent national government, in what is yet another rerun of Lyautey’s dream. While there has been much debate in the United States over whether or how much we should escalate our military efforts and how many additional troops are needed, the other equally essential military leg of our not-so-new strategy — i.e., the training and expansion of the indigenous Afghan National Security Forces (the Army and Police forces) — has generally been taken as a given, and has not been subject to a serious examination or public debate.

This omission is very odd, particularly when viewed in the light our complete failure to build a non-corrupt professional national army in South Vietnam, not to mention our catastrophic failure to build a competent honest national government, together with our ultimate failure to secure the hearts and mind of the South Vietnamese people. And the omission of our previous Vietnam experiences in this regard is made doubly odd, given the growing mountain of reportage indicating the same kind of massive corruption now repeating itself in the US-installed Karzai government in Afghanistan.

And to make matters even wierder, this intellectual black hole has been compounded by the stunning absence of a critical analysis and discussion of any shortcomings of the Afghan National Security Forces in General McChrystal’s new strategy document. Yet the ANSF lays at the center of McChrystal’s strategy.

It is now clear that General McChrystal’s staff and the Pentagon are trying to maneuver Mr. Obama onto the horns of a dilemma by leaking their demands for an immediate escalation of the war, or otherwise risking defeat. Yesterday, not surprisingly, given his long time connections to the permanent Washington apparat that is now leaking like sieve, Bob Woodward obtained a redacted copy of the strategy document General McChrystal sent to the President on 30 August. This document can be downloaded in PDF scanned image format here.

A careful reading of McChrystal’s tome reveals that he proposes to increase our strategic dependence on the ANSF, while at the same time he says almost nothing of substance concerning its current deficiencies. The overwhelming majority of the statements about the widely reported instances of corruption in Afghanistan, for example, relate to the Karzai government, not the ANSF. Readers can determine the truth of by this by doing a two simple searches on the words "corruption" and "ANSF." Readers should bear in mind, there might be more substantive criticisms of the ANSF in the un-redacted report, but if such secret criticisms exist, they would be completely inconsistent with the McChrystal’s unclassified recommendations to rapidly increase the size of the ANSF and his statement that the ANSF’s problems are merely those of growing maturity, which he implies can be accomplished in the next 12 months in the following passage …

"Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months) — while Afghan security capacity matures [emphasis added] — risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible." [page 1-2, Commander's Initial Assessment, 30 Aug 2009]

In other words, it looks like General McChrystal, the senior officer in Afghanistan, is telling the President of the United States that, with the exception of what be some relatively minor maturation problems, we can double the size of and field an effective Afghan National Security Force in the short term, and together with a major escalation of US manpower in the short term, we can jointly regain the initiative (which McChrystal acknowledges has been lost) and turn around the deteriorating situation in Afghanstan in the near term.

Given the military’s clear failure to do this in Afghanistan over the last eight years, together with its catastrophic failure to do exactly this in Vietnam, I think the President of the United States and the American people deserve a little more information about just how good ANSF is.

We are lucky that Anna Jones has recently produced such a critical analysis of this question She makes an incredibly good effort to fill this disgraceful and inexcusable information vacuum. And although the promoters of the clear-hold-build strategy may not welcome the critique she has produced, it is nevertheless a very important contribution to the our understanding of the current disastrous state of play in a crucial albeit unexamined leg of General McChrystal’s not-so-new counterinsurgency strategy.

There may still be time for a course correction. Recent reports indicate Mr. Obama may be trying to buy a little time before being steamrollered by the Generals and the Republicans into approving General McChrystal’s request.

If this is indeed the case, the information in Ms. Jones’ analysis of the widespread corruption and deficiencies of the ANSF comes at a very crucial time. That is because she identifies some strategically crucial questions that must to be answered before the President or Congress approve McChrystal’s request to escalate the war.

Mr. Obama should insist on a dispassionate investigation of whether or not the issues revealed by Ms. Jones are accurately portrayed in her analysis. And if the answer to that question is in the affirmative, Obama should insist that the military leaders explain why those issues were omitted in the McChrystal report. Moreover, if there is anything to Ms. Jones’ analysis, Obama should also demand that McChrystal and company explain how, given this sorry state of affairs, they propose turn this situation around in the short time window they admit exists, and he should demand that they explain why the increased spillage in blood and treasure will work this time, if we embark on yet another reiteration what has heretofore been the fatally flawed oil spot strategy.

Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon. He currently lives on a sailboat in the Mediterranean and can be reached at chuck_spinney@mac.com