Sunday, September 27, 2009

Blogwriter for Iphone sucks: Or: My experience at the COIN conference


I tried to update this blog during the COIN conference, but unfortunately, Blogwriter for Iphone sucks. I was unable to update effectively from the Counter-Insurgency Leadership in Iraq and Afghanistan Conference this past Wednesday.

Still, I have to say the conference was both great and more than a bit worrying.

The event was well organized and featured a list of experts that included Eliot Cohen, Tom Ricks, Bing West, Bob Kaplan and General Patraeus. I was impressed with all of the presentation and found the level of candor, especially from the active duty marines who were both presenting and asking questions in the audience, to be impressive. Everyone was completely upfront about the Herculean task the U.S. is involved in Afghanistan and the tremendous costs that will be associated with victory. The conference was hosted by the Marine Corp University, and the very existence of a conference like this demonstrates the Corps' commitment to being a learning organization.

The problem is that, as much as the conference demonstrated the Marine Corps as a learning organization, it also revealed the civilian bureaucracy and elected officials may not be.

The first bit of truly bad news came from Bing West, author of the outstanding The Strongest Tribe: War, Politics and the Endgame in Iraq, who had recently returned from Afghanistan. West showed pictures and short video outlining one of the major problems with operation in Afghanistan as they are currently undertaken: the coalition is not finishing any fire fights. The average engagement is taking place at ranges in the 400-600 meter range (side note: I can speak from personal experience as a civilian target shooter that this has to be pushing the 5.56mm round to its absolute effective limits) and the enemy is calling all the shots; they are deciding when to make and break contact and they are able to move a lot faster than the their American or Afghan Army counterparts. And every single soldier and marine, active or retired (about 12 or so throughout the course of the day) made the same statement about COIN - the first rule is to win the firefight. We are not winning the firefights in Afghanistan. The only way to win is to call on indirect artillery or air support, and General McChrystal has recently asked coalition forces to limit their use of air strikes to reduce collateral damage. This has puts the coalition in a position where the enemy is in control and West reinforced this point by putting up a picture of the mountains of Afghanistan and stating that every convey, whether U.S. military or Afghan government, is being watched from the mountains. I was reminded of the line from the Billy Joel song "Good Night Saigon": "We ruled the coastline, and they held the highlands."

Another issue which came up repeatedly was the need, in a COIN operation, to build trust between the U.S. and local forces. Several senior officers, active and retired, offered examples of the way in which these relationships had been crucial in aligning the coalition of forces that made the Surge in the Iraq so successful. The problem is that this sort of relationship building is not going well in Afghanistan. General Barno (Ret) reported that he is constantly asked by his counterparts both in Afghanistan and Pakistan whether or not the U.S. is going to abandon them, again (the first time being after the Soviets left). He said that we need to change our mindset from, "don't worry, we're leaving," to "don't worry, we're staying." This forces everyone who does business with us to hedge their bets, which is why the Pakistanis are reluctant to come down too hard on their own Pashtun insurgency, because they see it as their back bench to use in a future conflict with India in Kashmir. And with the U.S. bound to pull out (in their estimation) the Pakistanis figure we will be backing India in any future conflict between the two countries - it's a good bet by the way - and we should be arguing with Pakistan that if they became more like India - more economically connected to us - they would be in a better strategic position, but I digress.

That point of mistrust, not just between the Afghan and Pakistani forces and American government but also between the military brass and the civilian leadership here at home was palpable throughout the conference. One speaker after another made it clear that the civilians in D.C. simply do not understand what sort of promise is being made when they say they are willing to fight a nation-wide counter insurgency. One marine officer suggested that 30 more battalions (~30k+ troops) will be needed. And just about every speaker mentioned that the relationship between the U.S. and Afghani governments must be reexamined, that we must use the leverage we have over the Afghan government to gain the power to fire bad leaders in the, not just the Afghan government, but also the military. Also, the U.S. must be willing to embed American forces with Afghani forces and as it is not only does that not happen, but Bing West reports that he's seen units that were partnered with Afghan units pulled when the region gets too hot. A corollary to that point is that American units are currently sequestered on large bases (in the interest of "force protection") sometimes as far as 90 miles from the villages they are tasked with patrolling. This is a violation of one of the first principals General Patraeus articulated when he got to Iraq: don't commute to work. Counter insurgency cannot be conducted on a part-time basis, but currently the average area of Afghanistan that's patrolled at all is patrolled for just 30 minutes a day. This makes it impossible to control the population and difficult to learn any actionable intelligence, to say nothing of the added danger of being on the road (and therefore exposed to roadside bombs and ambushes) for more hours each day. Several officers made the point that the U.S. must shut down the big bases and send the troops out to live among the population.

In Washington today the concept of "offshore balancing" or counter-terrorism are all the rage, the suggestion being that the U.S. could get the job done in Afghanistan with just special forces and predator drones. Alternately, some suggest we should just focus on Pakistan, where the real "danger" exists because its an unstable country with nuclear weapons. All of these notions were kicked around at the conference and the consensus was not optimistic about either one. The Taliban is a Pashtun insurgency, and so only by engaging the Pashtun population can the insurgency be defeated. And the same Pushtun insurgency that fuels the Taliban fuels the Pakistani Pashtun insurgency, so the notion that Afghanistan or Pakistan is an either/or proposition is ludicrous.

The U.S. may not have any "good" options in Afghanistan right now, but perhaps the least bad option is to do with Afghanistan what President Bush did in Iraq in 2006; trust the generals and double down on a full scale COIN campaign. President Obama needs to understand that whatever short term political gains may be had by withdrawing or drastically drawing down troops would quickly be overshadowed by the instability in the region and by the incredible publicity win it would represent for Osama Bin Laden. And believe me, if he draws down, Obama will be the man who surrendered to Bin Laden in 2012 against Mitt Romney whether that's a fair assessment or not.

And not for nothing, but victory is possible in Afghanistan. As Eliot Cohen pointed out: there is a danger is hubris but their is also a danger in cliche's. It is entirely possible that the people who lived in Afghanistan 100 years ago are very different from the people that lived there today, and its important to remember that millions of Afghan civilians do want (and have) their daughters in school. One of the speakers at the COIN conference was the director of Radio Free Afghanistan, the most popular radio station in the country, who reported on receiving thousands of letters from Afghan civilians thanking RFA for being on the air and providing the Afghans with an object source of news as well as entertainment.

The good news is that the U.S. Marine Corps, and the military as a whole (though to lesser extent) is a learning organization. The skills sets and experience which are needed to beat the Taliban exist in our military at a level that would have been unheard of in 2003. From "strategic corporals" right through the chairman of CETCOM, everyone involved understands what is needed to win and the only question that remains is whether or the civilian leadership will be willing to give them the tools they need. For democrats in the House and Senate the temptation to quit will be very strong, but remember, a pull out virtually guarantees that Obama will be a one-term president. I promise the American people will not forgive a anyone who surrenders to the Taliban, whether that person serves in the House, the Senate or the White House.  The American people will, however, forgive a long and difficult slog (see: President Bush's reelection in 2004) provided we have a leader who is willing to stand before them and explain in no uncertain terms why this is a battle worth fighting. President Obama should plan such a speach, before both the American people and a joint-session of congress, as soon as possible. Because, at the end of the day, leadership in counter insurgency must come from the top.

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