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Dropping COIN

McChrystal Returns to His Roots

by FRANKLIN C. SPINNEY

For the past several years Americans have been inundated by reams of journalistic puff pieces extolling the virtues of the new US Counterinsurgency (COIN) Strategy documented by General Petraeus in his much ballyhooed COIN manual — which for the most part was a merely regurgitation of the failed thinking of French Marshal Lyautey’s ink spot strategy (that counterinsurgent forces should aim to secure an ever expanding geographic zone of security with each new area secured providing a basis for further spreading, and so on.) 

It is becoming clear, however, the showpiece of this new strategy, the Marjah operation, has failed to deliver on the promised security improvements to the people, and in the words of the theater commander, General Stanley McChrystal, has become a "bleeding ulcer."  

Coupled with the deadlines imposed by President President Obama, when he approved McChrystal’s ill-thought out plan last Fall, notwithstanding the cogent misgivings expressed by Ambassador Eikenberry, it is now clear that McChrystal is under mounting pressure to deliver some progress by the end of the year.  

Indeed, hair may be on fire at McChrystal’s Bagram headquarters.  Rumors are circulating in military circles of backbiting and finger pointing, as well as complaints that MacChrystal is being set up as a fall guy, while his boss, General Petraeus, skates to a Republican presidential nomination in 2012.

The stressed out psychological atmosphere appears to have induced General McChrystal to return to his special operations roots for a quick fix, by focusing even more on targeted assassinations in order to reverse the course of events, a sense of desperation smacking of the infamous, Vietnam-era Phoenix Campaign.

Gareth Porter, certainly one of the most able observers of the Afghan Mess, just wrote an eye-opening account of McCrystal’s shift here on the CounterPunch site.  Gone is the cosmetic COIN strategy purporting to win hearts and minds.  The name of the game is morphing into a hackneyed strategy with an unblemished record of failure in America’s wars of empire: Make deals with the devil to get the intelligence information needed to decapitate the insurgency by assassinating the insurgent leaders.  

The strategy of decapitation reflects a tautological doctrinal mindset that goes back to the mechanical theory of strategic bombing that emerged from the Air Corps Tactical School in the 1930s: identify the enemy system’s critical nodes, use precision strikes to destroy these nodes, and because the nodes are vital to the enemy system’s survival, he will collapse, by definition.  It doesn’t matter whether these critical nodes are German ball bearing plants in WWII or guerrilla leaders in the Hindu Kush, the result is tautologically inevitable.  Moreover, the subtle art of war is reduced to a straight-forward engineering problem, where the object of war — the adversary — acts and reacts predictably. QED.  

The problem with this kind of tautological thinking is, as Porter shows so clearly, is that the devil has his own agenda.

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

WORDS THAT STICK