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October 1, 2009
Back to basicsBy Greyhawk
There seems to be much confusion swirling around the Afghanistan strategy debate - which probably isn't helped by the fact that the arguments were well advanced long before the average person noticed there was one. Because of that, much of what's discussed is probably deep in the details and confusing, because of that what follows is an effort to return to the very basics. There are complexities layered above the simple foundation described below, and this is not to be seen as any claim that all that complexity is pointless (though some is). But even though no decision should be based on the simplest points, no argument of the complexities should be resolved without full awareness of them.
Gates Doubts U.S.'s Afghan Strategy . Proof: "...a senior defense official said that Defense Secretary Robert Gates now worries that counterinsurgency might no longer be a viable approach for countering the Taliban violence roiling once-stable parts of north and west Afghanistan." Proof that someone at the Wall Street Journal knows how to write an eye-catching headline, that is.
New York Times headline from London: McChrystal Rejects Lower Afghan Aims.
"General McChrystal has been reported to be seeking as many as 40,000 additional American troops for the war..." we are reminded. London is probably about as close to D.C. as the General can safely be at this time - here's why.
Elsewhere in the New York Times, this helpful headline: Several Afghan Strategies, None a Clear Choice.
And like all good headlines that's partly true. We get to "choose" strategies to a point. Obviously, should some nation launch its nuclear stockpile at us we won't be considering counterinsurgency as response during flight time. Should North Korea send a few divisions of conventional forces south of the 38th parallel we'll meet that with infantry, armor, and airpower.
That said, in Afghanistan we are confronted with an insurgency (among other things) - or something close enough to it that arguments to the contrary amount to academic and semantic points. (There are people who delight in that.) We didn't go to Afghanistan to fight an insurgency, but if we stay there we will continue to be confronted with one. We can decide to leave, but if we stay there and fight that insurgency we will be conducting counterinsurgency - regardless of what we choose to call it. We don't get to vote on that - the insurgency does, and like ICBMs in the air or southbound tanks in the DMZ they are hard to ignore. Military doctrine can be established by the DoD (or component), decisions on what campaign (or operational-level) strategy and military tactics we use are best left to the appropriate combat commander*. Any of those will require adjustments to changing circumstances in order to be effective, but to a degree the overall "strategy" is what it is in as much as it's the enemy's choice.
But insurgencies require military and civilian efforts to counter. Proportions of their contributions are variable with place and time - you won't find men in business suits going door to door in the middle of a gunfight explaining plans for scheduled trash pickup to the neighbors. But someone, somewhere needs to be planning and prioritizing for that and a host of other problems somewhere else while that gunfight is ongoing. It would be nice if that someone had some experience at that sort of thing, but among other problems we face in places where we've overthrown oppressive dictatorships lately is that the start-up governments that replace them are start-ups. This is where outside civilian involvement can help, but generally we seem to fall short in that. The one thing we do seem to have no shortage of is people available to identify problems and expose corruption (look at all this trash in the street! No wonder they're shooting! Didn't we pay someone for this...?), but the Department of Prevention and Correction is woefully ever understaffed**.
But there's another consideration that "complicates" the strategy issue in the current discussions. Afghanistan is one part of what we used to call the Global War on Terror, which - regardless of what we call it - is a counterterror operation. Like counterinsurgency this requires a concerted civ/mil effort - with international law enforcement, financial, intel, and other components working to one common goal. In fact, the desired military contribution is smaller percentage-wise than in counterinsurgency, and consists primarily of shared intel, quick Special Ops-type missions, and air strikes. In Afghanistan in 2001 we went a step beyond that and brought a much bigger hammer down. Eight years on, the debate over whether that (or our subsequent decision to stick around) furthered our overall efforts or not remains unresolved - but counterterror operations (based there and elsewhere) are ongoing. There is no significant debate on whether or not to continue those efforts.
But we are eight years on. And there is debate on Afghanistan. And the first and foremost question asked must be do we stay in Afghanistan or not. But the question must be asked as "is it in the national interest of the United States to stay in Afghanistan?"
If the answer is yes the discussion of strategy used there is moot.
* "...tactics we use are best left to the appropriate combat commander..." - who also determines resource requirements to execute that strategy - but those requirements are filled or not based on availability and the decisions of others. They can respond with no or yes (or "worth it" or not - but it's never that simple, of course) for a wide variety of reasons - but they can't correctly say he's got the wrong strategy.
**Training the host nation to take over so we can leave (or draw down) is indeed another aspect of our Afghan strategy. If we don't withdraw we're very likely to see that function merged even more than it currently is with our counterinsurgency operations. The result - on the military side - can actually be given a name other than "counterinsurgency" - but that's a topic for a future post.
Previously: A beginner's guide to time (and other news)
General McChrystal's Commander's Initial Assessment
The Obama administration's White Paper on U.S. Policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan
Posted by Greyhawk / October 1, 2009 4:10 PM | Permalink
November 26, 2010
I think anyone who's ever pondered the "comment" option - once only available on blogs and bulletin boards, now ubiquitous on almost any web site - will appreciate this:
The so-called faculty of writing is not so much a faculty of writing as it is a faculty of thinking. When a man says, "I have an idea but I can't express it"; that man hasn't an idea but merely a vague feeling. If a man has a feeling of that kind, and will sit down for a half an hour and persistently try to put into writing what he feels, the probabilities are at least 90 percent that he will either be able to record it, or else realize that he has no idea at all. In either case, he will do himself a benefit.
That's wisdom from the past, captured for posterity at the US Naval Institute, shared via the web on the institute's 137th anniversary.
From their about page:
"The Naval Institute has three core activities," among them, History and Preservation:
The Naval Institute also has recently introduced Americans at War, a living history of Americans at war in their own words and from their own experiences. These 90-second vignettes convey powerful stories of inspiration, pride, and patriotism.
Take a look at the collection, and you'll see it's not limited to accounts from those who served on ships at sea, members of the other branches are well-represented.
I'm fortunate to have met USNI's Mary Ripley, she's responsible for the institute's oral history program (and she's the daughter of the late John Ripley, whose story is told here). She also deserves much credit for their blog. ("We're not the Navy nor any government agency. Blog and comment freely.") We met at a milblog conference - Mary knew (and I would come to realize) that milbloggers are the 21st-century version of exactly what the US Naval Institute is all about. Once that light bulb came on in my head, I mentioned a vague idea for a project to her - milblogs as the 21st century oral history that they are.
"Put that in writing," she said (of course - see first paragraph above!) - and here's part of the result.
Shortly after the first tent was pitched by the American military in Iraq a wire was connected to a computer therein, and the internet was available to a generation of Americans at war - many of whom had grown up online. From that point on, at any given moment, somewhere in Iraq a Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Marine was at a keyboard sharing the events of his or her day with the folks back home. While most would simply fire off an email, others took advantage of the (then) relatively new online blogging platforms to post their thoughts and experiences for the entire world to see. The milblog was born - and from that moment to this stories detailing everything from the most mundane aspects of camp life to intense combat action (often described within hours of the event) have been available on the web...
And et cetera - but since you're reading this on a milblog, you probably knew that. And you know that milblogs aren't just blogs written by troops at war, that many friends, family members, and supporters likewise documented their story of America at war online in near-real time, as those stories developed.
The diversity in membership of that group is broad, the one thing we all have in common is the impulse to make sense of the seemingly senseless, and communicate the tale - for each of us that impulse was strong enough to overcome whatever barriers prevent the vast majority of people from doing the same. Everyone at some point has some vague idea they believe should be shared - we were the people who, from some combination of internal and external urging, found and spent those many half hours persistently trying to write it down.
But where will all that be in another 137 years? Or five or ten, for that matter. That's something I've asked myself since at least 2004 - when I wrote this:
Membership in the ghost battalion has grown in the years since, and an ever growing majority of those abandoned-but-still-standing sites are vanishing. Have you checked out Lt Smash's site lately? How about Sgt Hook's? If you're a long-time milblog reader you know the first widely-read milblog from Operation Iraq Freedom and the first widely-read milblog from Afghanistan are both gone from the web. If you're a relative newcomer to this world you may never even have heard of them - or the dozens upon dozens of others who carried forth the standard they set down.
If you have a vague notion that something should be done about that, (a notion I've heard expressed more than once...) then you and I and the good folks at the US Naval Institute are in agreement. Preserving the history documented by the milbloggers is just one of the goals of the milblog project, the once-vague idea that we're now making real.
And it's a big idea, if I say so myself - too big to explain in one simple blog post, so stand by for more. Likewise, it's too big a task to be accomplished by just one person. So if you're a milblogger (and exactly what is a milblogger? is a topic for much further discussion on its own) I'm asking for your help. All I'll really need is just a little bit (maybe just one or two of those half hours...) of your time, and your willingness to tell the tale.
We've already made history, it's time to save it.
(More to follow...)
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