Monday, August 2, 2010

Smells like COIN spirit: From the CENTCOM blog

Three Cups of Tea author and U.S. military building schools.


Since building schools and educating children is an essential part of the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan, it’s only natural that Mortenson’s and the military’s efforts would overlap. Last year, during a trip to Afghanistan, Adm. Michael Mullen, chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited one of Mortenson’s schools in the Panjshir Valley. The two have since become friends, with Mullen frequently praising Mortenson as a role model for young military officers. Mortenson, in turn describes Mullen as a great listener, pragmatist and a huge confidence-and-capacity builder in people.


Someone inform the New York Times...

Do the authors of this NYT story know what counterinsurgency is?

The New York Times authors (or editors perhaps) Helene Cooper and Mark Landler give the impression that there has been a substantial shift away from counterinsurgency, and toward counter-terror, that is, away from a multi-faceted engagement with indiginous players at various levels of Afghan society, toward a simple huntin' and a-killin' of the Taliban. But, if you are nominally familiar with counterinsurgency, and with General Petraeus, you will read this article and have a thought something like this: It looks as if Cooper and Landler have a striking thesis, but no evidence in support of it. Not only that, the evidence militates against the thesis. Sheesh. Let's take a look-see:

When President Obama announced his new war plan for Afghanistan last year, the centerpiece of the strategy — and a big part of the rationale for sending 30,000 additional troops — was to safeguard the Afghan people, provide them with a competent government and win their allegiance.

Eight months later, that counterinsurgency strategy has shown little success, as demonstrated by the flagging military and civilian operations in Marja and Kandahar and the spread of Taliban influence in other areas of the country.

Instead, what has turned out to work well is an approach American officials have talked much less about: counterterrorism, military-speak for the targeted killings of insurgents from Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Faced with that reality, and the pressure of a self-imposed deadline to begin withdrawing troops by July 2011, the Obama administration is starting to count more heavily on the strategy of hunting down insurgents. The shift could change the nature of the war and potentially, in the view of some officials, hasten a political settlement with the Taliban.


1. No one. NO ONE who has a modicum of familiarity with COIN theory, and Afghan reality believes that 8 months is enough time to gage the probability of success. If COIN is about anything, it is about patience and a focus on the longer-term.

2. A-huntin' and a-killin', and reliance on Spec Ops approaches, such as targeted killings should not be surprising given the geography of Af. As to this being a major shift from COIN, the article itself notes facts that indicate that the best reading is that reliance on these methods is but one aspect of the overall effort, and COIN is still the strategy de jour: Obama ok'd 30k troops, bringing the total to around 100k, counting allies, even more, counting NGOs and private entities with which ISAF continues to work. What are all these folks doing? Quite a lot beside a-huntin' and a-killin'. Training up Afghans in civil matters, policing skills, building infrastructure, schools, connecting with the locals,(including visible reliance on female engagement teams), rescuing flood victims, all the while great pressure is being brought to bear on Karzai to clean up his less than ethical government. And...and this is the big AND...Generals Petraeus and Mattis are the guys chosen to run the whole show. What does this tell you? Need the question be asked?

3. The admin seems to have backed away from their July 2011 deadline. It would help if they made that fact as plain as day. Once again, if you ask why they have backed off the date, the natural answer, in light of the above facts, is that they are giving COIN strategy time to gel.

4. In COIN literature there is worry that targeted killings, and, more generally, a killing-centric approach, may create resentment, and work counter to the long-term goal of turning over control to a reliable and morally acceptable local government and there is a related worry that collateral deaths be avoided. Yet, COIN also acknowledges the obvious; It is a strategy of warfare. Killing is part of warfare. Killing will have to be done. Spec-ops approaches accomplish this end with greater efficiency than any other approach, and with low levels of collateral death. Ditto with the monitoring-intensive use of remotely piloted air strikes. To acknowledge that there are conflicting goals or conflicts between means and ends within COIN strategy is not tantamount to an abandonment of the approach, as seems to be intimated in this piece.

Based on the American military experience in Iraq as well as Afghanistan, it is not clear that killing enemy fighters is sufficient by itself to cripple an insurgency. Still, commando raids over the last five months have taken more than 130 significant insurgents out of action, while interrogations of captured fighters have led to a fuller picture of the enemy, according to administration officials and diplomats.

American intelligence reporting has recently revealed growing examples of Taliban fighters who are fearful of moving into higher-level command positions because of these lethal operations, according to a senior American military officer who follows Afghanistan closely.

Judging that they have gained some leverage over the Taliban, American officials are now debating when to try to bring them to the negotiating table to end the fighting. Rattling the Taliban, officials said, may open the door to reconciling with them more quickly, even if the officials caution that the outreach is still deeply uncertain.

American military officials and President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan have begun a robust discussion about “to what degree these people are going to be allowed to have a seat at the table,” one military official said. “The only real solution to Afghanistan has got to be political.”



5. Is any of this counter to standard COIN doctrine? Did the authors read their Kilcullen, or FM 3-24? It has always been a goal to peel off mid level Taliban, segregate the reconcilables from the irreconcilables, gainfully employ the former, and assist the latter off this mortal coil. Here's another bit of this puzzling reporting:

A long-awaited campaign to convert lower-level and midlevel Taliban fighters has finally begun in earnest, with Mr. Karzai signing a decree authorizing the reintegration program. With $200 million from Japan and other allies, and an additional $100 million in Pentagon money, American military officers will soon be handing out money to lure people away from the insurgency.

“We’re not ready to make the qualitative judgment that the cumulative effects of what we are doing are enough to change their calculus yet,” the White House official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. But, reflecting the administration’s hope that the killings are making a difference, he added, “If I were the Taliban, I’d be worried.”
..That divergence could lead to a replay of last year’s policy debate, in which Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. pushed for a focus on capturing and killing terrorist leaders, while the Pentagon, including the current commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David H. Petraeus, pushed for a broader strategy that also included a strong focus on securing Afghan population centers with more troops.

Still, in an interview Thursday with “Today” on NBC, Mr. Biden appeared to reiterate his earlier stance.

“We are in Afghanistan for one express purpose: Al Qaeda,” he said. “Al Qaeda exists in those mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan. We are not there to nation-build. We’re not out there deciding we’re going to turn this into a Jeffersonian democracy and build that country.”

The administration’s shift in thinking is gradual but has been perceptible in the public remarks of various officials. The incoming commander of the military’s Central Command, Gen. James N. Mattis, was asked last week by Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island, whether the administration’s July 2011 date for starting to withdraw American troops implied a shift in emphasis from counterinsurgency to a strategy concentrating on killing terrorists.

“I think that is the approach, Senator,” he replied.

The emerging American model can best be described as “counterterrorism, with some counterinsurgency strategy that forces the hands of insurgent leaders,” said a diplomat with knowledge of the planning. It melds elements of both strategies in a policy that continues to evolve, as conditions change.


6. It looks like the writers are setting up a classic false dilemma here. There are two, and only two options, one relying only on huntin' and a-killin', the other building a Virginia commonwealth, capital city Kabul. Gee. No middle ground there fellas? The piece gives the impression that a middle ground is being found, when in fact that middle ground has always been occupied, and it is decidedly more toward the COIN side of this alleged spectrum. What is more, concerted efforts are being made to understand motivations of insurgents, including what is most likely, levels of the Taliban not including the highest irreconcilable lot, in hopes of exploiting those motivations in ways that peel them off from the barbarians. Once again, standard COIN, being reported as if it is a major departure:

Some of the feelers to the Taliban are being put out by the Karzai government and some by the Pakistanis. Some, eventually, will be handled by General Petraeus and other military officials. Contacts are being kept under wraps, several officials said, because any evidence that insurgent leaders are talking to American or Afghan officials could be used against them by rival insurgents.

Another factor that has spurred talk of reconciliation is a classified military report, called “State of the Taliban,” prepared by Task Force 373, a Special Operations team composed of the army’s Delta Force and Navy Seals, which has captured insurgents and taken them to Bagram Air Base for interrogation.

While the report does not offer a silver bullet for how to deal with the Taliban, one official said that for the first time, it gives Americans and their allies “a rich vein of understanding of why the Taliban was fighting and what it would take them to stop.” The report depicts the Taliban as spearheading a fractured insurgency, but one in which conservative Pashtun nationalism and respect for Afghan culture are both at play, this official said.


7. I would think that the diplomat quoted in the first paragraph here has things exactly reversed. Instead of describing the strategy as “counterterrorism, with some counterinsurgency strategy that forces the hands of insurgent leaders,” it seems more accurate to say that it is counterinsurgency strategy with some counter-terrorism seasoning, if the terminology and distinctions here are in the end indeed useful to make. That appears to be the overall gist of the facts being reported here. Hardly a tectonic shift in strategy.