Afghanistan by the Book — THE Book, That Is

It’s no secret that the Obama administration has struggled from the beginning to find a coherent narrative to support the Afghan war it inherited. Or to craft an even remotely coherent strategy. (Other than how to shift the blame when the whole thing implodes.)

But now that General David Petraeus is assuming command, hearts seem suddenly light. There is a sense – or at least a claim – that new leadership in the field will somehow transform an otherwise bleak and worsening situation. This sense is shared across party lines, and it appears likely that Petraeus will be unanimously confirmed in his new role by the Senate Armed Services Committee.

It seems appropriate, therefore, to reread Gen. Petraeus’ seminal work, Field Manual 3-24, to get a sense of how he might undertake this transformation. (FM 3-24 is the counterinsurgency guide for the US military. Along with FM 3-24.2, Tactics In Counterinsurgency, it details what every US soldier, from private to four-star is supposed to know about COIN.)

If Afghanistan is, in fact, a COIN engagement – and we must assume POTUS believes it is, since he has nominated a man perceived to be America’s foremost COIN expert to lead it – then he should be using the best available COIN guidelines to assess it. Presumably that would be FM 3-24, so I’ve taken the liberty of extracting key points to use as metrics. The number and italicized sections below are lifted directly from FM 3-24. The snarky (excuse me, I mean insightful) commentary is mine.

1-4. Long-term success in COIN depends on the people taking charge of their own affairs and consenting to the government’s rule.

Er . . . then actually having a functioning ‘Host Nation’ government is a necessary precondition for success?

1-10. For the reasons just mentioned, maintaining security in an unstable environment requires vast resources, whether host nation, U.S., or multinational.

You mean vast, as in hundreds of thousands of troops, similar numbers of development personnel and the cash to fund it all?

1-30. Protracted conflicts favor insurgents, and no approach makes better use of that asymmetry than the protracted popular war.

Nine years and counting. Might be a good time to ask which team has the deeper bench.

1-113. The primary objective of any COIN operation is to foster development of effective governance by a legitimate government.

Oh. Whoops.

1-116. Six possible indicators of legitimacy that can be used to analyze threats to stability include the following:

  • The ability to provide security for the populace (including protection from internal and external threats).
  • Selection of leaders at a frequency and in a manner considered just and fair by a substantial majority of the populace.
  • A high level of popular participation in or support for political processes.
  • A culturally acceptable level of corruption.
  • A culturally acceptable level and rate of political, economic, and social development.
  • A high level of regime acceptance by major social institutions.

How many points do you get for ‘none of the above’?

1-121. Unity of effort must be present at every echelon of a COIN operation.

Ah, man, even the VP, those weenies over at State and the National Security Advisor?

1-131. The cornerstone of any COIN effort is establishing security for the civilian populace.

Right. Remind me how many of those provinces were rated as ‘fully secure’ in the April 2010 review? As I recall, the exact number was, umm . . . is zero a number?

1-134. Insurgencies are protracted by nature. Thus, COIN operations always demand considerable expenditures of time and resources.

Roger that. Just so long as the pull date is before the next election.

Well, shucks. Color me cynical.

In the wildland fire biz we used a quick and dirty little algorithm called TREAT to decide whether to fight or flee. I think it might apply here, too.

  • Time
  • Resources
  • Experience
  • Attitude
  • Training

The rule was, if you had any three or more, it was a good decision to stand and fight. Any fewer, and it was time to remove your crews from danger.

Using that for AfPak, I’d give the US about 1.2. Pretty good on attitude, fair on training (for that specific environment), way short of time, resources and experience.

The US cannot commit to the 10 to 20 year time frame (starting today!) that is likely necessary to actually succeed. Nor can it come close to putting the necessary number of troops in the field. (Estimated at over 1.4 million with the classic troop density of 20 counterinsurgents per 1,000 population. Yeah, you can count the locals, but at this point, the ANA and ANP are so bad they would have to be subtracted from the total, not added.) And – key point – in terms of experience, the US has yet to win a classical counterinsurgency fight. (Sorry, Iraq doesn’t count. It wasn’t true COIN, and the US did not win. For an explanation, see Fourth Generation Warfare in a Fifth Generation Conflict.)

Bottom line? Time to run.

Excuse me. I mean ‘strategically redeploy’.