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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Military Strategy for Democrats: The key issue in Afghanistan isn’t the number of troops we send, it’s the mission that they’re given – and that’s why the military doctrine and strategy of “counterinsurgency” is totally inadequate as a guide

(this is the first of a two part analysis. A print (PDF) version of the entire memo is available here)
The real decision America must face in regard to Afghanistan is not the precise number of troops that should be sent but rather the mission they are given to perform.
Last January, when Obama took office, there was a broad national consensus on this subject. On the one hand, there was universal agreement that US forces should prevent Al Qaeda from ever again using Afghanistan as a base for training camps or other terrorist facilities. Quite the contrary, there was wide approval of the goal of completely dismantling and destroying Al Qaeda as an organization.
Although it was not always explicitly stated, it was quite obvious that this would require preventing the Taliban from taking control of (1) the capital city of Kabul and several other major urban areas and (2) a number of key infrastructure installations like major airports, electric power stations and national highways. The commitment to destroy Al Qaeda also clearly implied the need to establish and maintain a certain number of observation posts, forward operating bases and other “in country” forces adequate to provide intelligence about terrorist activity in various regions of the country. Most Americans were entirely in agreement with this approach.
On the other hand, there was absolutely no support for the ambitious “nation building” and cultural reprogramming of the kind the Bush-Cheney administration tried in Iraq– a vast investment of soldiers, funds and resources aimed at transforming Iraq into a pro-American, free market utopia. Most Americans were not willing to sacrifice more American lives or resources in this ideological neo-conservative crusade.
Public opinion on these issues has not changed greatly since January and behind all the complex maneuvering of the last several weeks the view described above still appears to be Obama’s view as well. There are difficult practical decisions about the proper number of troops that are needed to execute this strategy but the issue has become additionally and deeply confused in recent weeks because the influential military doctrine called “counterinsurgency” suggests a fundamentally different mission and strategy from the one described above. The current version of this doctrine is embodied in FM-3-24 – the US Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual.
The term “Counterinsurgency” – often abbreviated as COIN — has had phenomenally good press in recent years. On the one hand, it is frequently credited as being the strategy behind the success of the surge in Iraq. Yet, at the same time, it is also described in a way that makes it sound rather appealing to liberals. The most common one-sentence description of the doctrine is that it is focused on “protecting the local population rather than killing the maximum number of enemies” which makes it sound relatively cautious and even rather humane. Because it is usually presented in this appealing way, the approach has received remarkably little critical scrutiny.
(In fact, the general lack of clarity about what the doctrine actually entails was the major source of the confusion that emerged during the last few weeks. Last March, in the six-page “White Paper of the Interagency Policy Group” that defined US policy toward the Af-Pac region, there was actually only a single paragraph specifically devoted to the role of counterinsurgency in protecting the Afghan population. It read as follows: “Our counter-insurgency strategy must integrate population security with building effective local governance and economic development. We will establish the security needed to provide space and time for stabilization and reconstruction activities.”
To people unfamiliar with FM-3-24 these words sounded comfortably vague and relatively benign. But based on standard formulas for estimating the appropriate size of forces in COIN operations a literal interpretation of the paragraph above could be argued to require the deployment of as many as 600,000 troops to Afghanistan. The COIN specialists in the Interagency Policy Group all understood this potential interpretation of the paragraph when it was included in the draft and now point to these two sentences as having represented a binding presidential commitment to a vast expansion of the US forces and mission. As a recent Washington Post article has outlined, however, a number of the non-COIN participants in the drafting of the White Paper absolutely did not intend these few words to represent a binding, open-ended commitment on Obama’s part for a massive increase in US forces)
More important than this confusion, however, is the fact that Counterinsurgency doctrine has two fundamental weaknesses.


I. Counterinsurgency doctrine sets implausibly ambitious objectives.
FM -3-24 defines counterinsurgency operations as nothing less than “armed social work” and bluntly asserts that such campaigns cannot win unless they succeed in protecting the civilian population and rebuilding the economy. The manual specifically lists four major objectives (1) Security from intimidation, coercion, violence and crime; (2) Provision of basic economic needs, (3) Provision of essential services such as water, electricity, sanitation and medical care; (4) Sustainment of key social and cultural institutions
Just within the category of “essential services”, the detailed list of the objectives needed for success is startling –
• criminals detained
• timely response to property fires
• water treatments plants functioning
• electrical plants open
• power lines intact
• all schools open, staffed, supplied
• roadways and bridges open
• hospitals and clinics open and staffed
• trash collected regularly
• sewage system operating
There are similarly detailed lists for security, governance and economic development. The manual energetically argues that nothing less than extensive “armed social work” of this kind can defeat an insurgency. As it dramatically states: “The decisive battle is for the people’s minds…lasting victory comes from a vibrant economy, political participation and restored hope”
The extraordinarily expansive role envisioned for us troops by FM-3-24 is underlined by the rather startling fact is that this role is indistinguishable from that which British military personnel played in India and many other British colonies in the 19th and 20th centuries. As the list above demonstrates, the soldiers in a COIN campaign are not just “helping” the civilian population or passively protecting them. They are directly in charge of managing the entire physical, social and economic infrastructure of the area and region in which they are deployed.
II. In Counterinsurgency doctrine the only recognized objective of a campaign is to completely crush the insurgents –the doctrine has no conceptual framework for analyzing objectives like truces, treaties, cease-fires or negotiated settlements.
FM-3-24 frequently tends to suggest the mental image of a basically peaceful village or urban area beset by a small but disciplined cadre of subversives infiltrating from outside. One of the most prominent charts in the book, for example, asserts the following:“In any situation, whatever the cause, there will be (1) An active minority for the cause (2) A neutral or passive majority and (3)An active minority against the cause.
The manual offers five basic examples of the major categories of insurgency (1) Lenin and the Bolsheviks (2) Che Guevara and rural guerilla bands, (3) the People’s War of Mao Tse Tung and Ho Chi Minh (4) the IRA and (5) religious or ethnic guerilla movements.
This typology very strongly reinforces the image of “insurgents” as a small subversive minority infiltrating a passive population. The image is powerfully reinforced by a dramatic table that lists the specific tactics these “insurgents” employ:

“Ambushes, Assassination, Arson, Bombing and High Explosives, Chemical, Biological, Radiological or Nuclear weapons, Demonstrations, Denial and Deception, Hijacking and Skyjacking, Hoaxes, Hostage Taking, Indirect fire, Infiltration and Subversion, Kidnapping, Propaganda, Raids or Attacks on Facilities, Sabotage, Seizures.”

This quite vividly underlines the image of insurgents as a fringe group of violent subversives who victimize innocent people. With only one or two exceptions, in fact, the list above makes the conceptual category “insurgents” indistinguishable from that of “terrorists”
What follows from this is a basic vision of “insurgents” as a small and irremediably evil group who must always be crushed rather than negotiated with.
This results in a fundamental intellectual weakness in current counterinsurgency theory –the doctrine has absolutely no concept of civil war. This is quite literally true. In the glossary of military terms in FM-3-24 the term “civil war” simply does not appear. The local government (no matter how weak, corrupt or venal) is always defined as the “Host Nation” that must prevail. “Insurgents”, on the other hand, are always defined as subversives who must be crushed. The result is that situations that have all the characteristics that most Americans would define as a civil war are described instead using terms that are far more appropriate for describing infiltration by small subversive minority.
The profound conceptual problem this creates for counterinsurgency theory is dramatically illustrated by the case of Iraq. On the one hand, General Petraeus’ “counterinsurgency” strategy is regularly credited with the success of the surge, but, in fact, FM-3-24 has absolutely no language or conceptual framework with which to analyze the role of the cease-fires that were arranged between the US and the Sunni Awakening Councils and the Sadrists. Yet these deals were central to the temporary reduction of violence that is considered the major accomplishment of the “surge”. The common sense description of what Petraeus did in those negotiations was to arrange two truces that temporarily calmed a bitter inter-ethnic civil war. But Petraeus’ objectives and strategy in those negotiations cannot even be coherently expressed — much less systematically analyzed — within the conceptual framework of current counterinsurgency theory which reduces all conflicts to clashes between a “host government” which must be defended and “insurgents” who must be crushed.
These two basic weaknesses of counterinsurgency theory – the doctrines’ wildly ambitious social objectives and its myopically narrow conception of “victory” — are directly reflected in General Stanley McChrystal’s August “Commander’s Assessment” of the situation in Afghanistan.
(Part two of this memo will appear tomorrow)

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