I just finished In Afghanistan by David Loyn which is an overview of Western (British, Russian and American) military intervention in the country with the majority of the book concerned with British involvement during the 19th century. The book is rather slim (less than 250 pages) given the scope of the subject matter and the author prefers to hit several reoccurring themes rather than recount every battle, raid and ambush. The consistent and repetitive overconfidence of the invaders would be humorous if we weren’t engaged in a war there right now, with every subsequent foray led by someone convinced that factors had changed since the last attempt and this time it’d be different. Along with that was an equally consistent underestimation of the Afghans and their tenacity.
It was quite an engaging read, even if a bit depressing as I’m one of the few who still thinks our mission there can provide some sort of success. I found it quite difficult to argue that this time it really would be different.
So…in the hopes of feeling a bit more optimistic I read the newly released COMISAF Assessment (H/T Washington Post) which was an document for both the SecDef and the Secretary General of NATO about the status of Afghanistan as well as Gen. McChrystal’s recommendations.
Well, apart from the assertion that the war isn’t lost, there isn’t a whole lot to get thrilled about here either. The report is pretty straightforward about the numerous shortfalls our strategy up to now has come up short and I found myself reading the recommendations and being disappointed that we were only addressing these issues eight years into this thing. Were we really that naive eight years ago to think we didn’t need to address these issues?
Some things that made me break out my highlighter:
…we face both a short and long-term fight. The long-term fight will require patience and commitment, but I believe the short-term fight will be decisive. Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months) – while Afghan security capacity matures – risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible.
This sentence makes the 18 month ‘withdrawal’ the president announced make some more sense. If the momentum can’t be changed in 12-18 months then more troops and time ain’t gonna help. If they do regain the initiative then extra troops shouldn’t be needed since local forces should be able to take on more of the burden. I don’t know if I believe that but I’ll defer for now.
We must do things dramatically differently – even uncomfortably differently – to change how we operate, and also how we think.
I’ve been wondering if such a systemic change is possible in the short time period allotted. I keep thinking about that senior enlisted soldier I spoke with who was convinced that a path to victory in Afghanistan was all about ‘sticking more bayonets into more people’. The soldiers under his command aren’t going to get much chance to be exposed to COIN and what they are exposed to is likely to be discredited by their leadership. It’s times like these that Thomas Barnett’s ‘SysAdmin’ force begins to make sense.
Tour lengths should be long enough to build continuity and ownership of success.
I’m not sure what the optimal length of tours should be but 10 months was certainly too short. By OEF IV in mid-2003, Afghan commanders had already learned that if they weren’t getting the answers/kickbacks/special consideration they wanted from a particular commander they only had to wait a few months and they could try again with his replacement. Besides that, it easily took 4 months or more to learn who the players in the immediate vicinity were and the last month (at least) were spent getting ready to ship out.
Definitely worth reading.
And if you’d like some more evidence that we aren’t really living in an unprecedented time of human history I re-recommend listening to The Tiber and the Potomac. I’m still not through it but it keeps getting better the further you go. What I originally feared was going to be a superficial “Hey! We’re the new Rome” is, in fact, much better and Madden present some interesting ideas worth deeper consideration.