A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The COIN Lobby Takes Afghanistan: More Thoughts on McChrystal and McKiernan

I can't resist, when blogging about Afghanistan and asymmetric warfare, posting Lady Butler's once-famous Victorian era painting of Dr. William Brydon riding alone into Jalalabad, entitled Remnants of an Army. It is a reminder that we aren't the first to try to solve the puzzle of winning a war in Afghanistan. (That was during the First Afghan War in 1842. If you don't know the story, a column of some 16,000 people — mostly camp followers, but about 4,500 military, mostly Indian Army but also British Army — left Kabul for Jalalabad. Doctor Brydon arrived alone. Here's Wikipedia on the First Afghan War. It's happened other times as well: you could ask the Soviet Union, if it still existed.) And, while I know I've quoted Kipling already this month and will start to look like some sort of nostalgic imperialist if I'm not careful, his lines from The Young British Soldier are hard not to quote:
When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An' go to your Gawd like a soldier.
Go, go, go like a soldier,
Go, go, go like a soldier,
Go, go, go like a soldier,
So-oldier of the Queen!
I certainly don't mean to imply that this (or Doctor Brydon's) will be our fate in Afghanistan, but it's increasingly clear that yesterday's virtual firing of General McKiernan amounts to an attempt to innovate and avoid conventional warfare.

Instead of updating the two previous posts (yesterday afternoon and last night) I'm going to offer a new one. As the military blogging community and other analysts have weighed in, it seems I'm not the only one to see this virtual firing of General McKiernan as highly unusual and also as a sign that General Petraeus is going to put his mark on Afghanistan through General McChrystal. My two earlier postings introduce the basic biographies of McKiernan and McChrystal. On the assumption that not everyone in the Middle East analysis community follows the military debates on counterinsurgency, let me share some links and some opinions.

First off, the blog Abu Muqawama is always a good resource for the COIN (counterinsurgency) field; among other comments they link to is this one on McChrystal's "dark side;" this one on his "scary smart" side (though I note that unlike Petraeus, who has a PhD. from Princeton, McChrystal has two masters' degrees in different fields). They also link to the post by Fred Kaplan at Slate, also worth a read.

I've been wracking my brain for the last time that a general was essentially fired in the middle of a war. Lincoln did it constantly in the Civil War, but has it happened since Truman fired MacArthur? Not that McKiernan was fired so summarily or that he was so senior, but I can't recall any major replacements of a theater commander in the midst of a campaign. Ricardo Sanchez stepped aside at the height of the Abu Ghraib controversy in Iraq, but continued as Commander of V Corps in Germany. George Casey succeeded him in Iraq, but served a full tour, and then was made Army Chief of Staff. (Which was also William Westmoreland's reward after Vietnam.)

Gen. David Rodriguez will be the new Deputy Commander in Afghanistan. He and McChrystal both are apparently West Point Class of '76 (Petraeus is Class of '74). Do those dates ring any bells among those of us who are old enough to remember those days? Those are the West Point classes that just missed Vietnam and witnessed, as junior officers or underclassmen, the lost war. The young officers who actually fought in Vietnam — Colin Powell, Norman Schwartzkopf — took one lesson to heart: don't go to war unless you have popular support, and then commit overwhelming force (the so-called Powell Doctrine). The generation that missed Vietnam took counterinsurgency theory more seriously.

The more I look at this the more I see a real coup on the part of the counterinsurgency wing of the Army. McChrystal is a Special Operator, who as head of Joint Special Operations Command went after Saddam Hussein and Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi. Petraeus is cashing in the political and military capital he gained in the surge, and applying it to Afghanistan. General McKiernan, by all accounts a solid conventional warrior — tanker, Seventh Army commander in Europe, ground forces commander in Iraq in the initial invasion — is the loser; the COIN community is in the ascendant for now. Whether that is a harbinger of success or disaster will, of course, be proven on the battlefield, not on blogs. If it works, Petraeus will be Chief of Staff of the Army and maybe Chairman of the JCS. It's a big if, however. Afghanistan is not Iraq.

There are aspects of Afghanistan — a history of weak central governments and fierce warrior cultures typical of mountain redoubts like the Caucasus, Afghanistan and Kurdistan; the Pushtun code of hospitality in which tribal loyalties transcend much else, of isolated mountain valleys which are ideal for defense and hard to subdue, and so on — that may prove hard to reconcile with classic COIN theory. But it is an alternative to Dr. Brydon riding alone into Jalalabad.

One of the oddities of Vietnam was that the Kennedy Administration started out as a very pro-counterinsurgency-theory adminstration: Maxwell Taylor, the Chairman of JCS was, of course, an old paratrooper; the Green Berets were a favorite project of JFK, and so on. But when Vietnam came along, despite some intriguing initial counterinsurgency efforts on the part of the Green Berets and Marines, ultimately the old conventional warriors (of whom William Westmoreland was the classic model) took over and fought a conventional war, mostly. And, of course, lost it.

Of course, we have always had a counterinsurgency lobby in the US military: it's just that it was called the Marine Corps. They wrote the book (the Small Wars Manual of 1940) that was pretty much the book on counterinsurgency until General Petraeus' Army Field Manual of 2006. But there were always prophets among the Marine Corps. At the very end of last year, at the age of 95, retired Marine Corps General Victor H. Krulak died. Would that he had lived to see this day when the COIN folks seem triumphant. Krulak argued for a counterinsurgency approach in Vietnam, and lost. As a result, he never became Commandant of the Corps despite being one of the most innovative Marines of his generation. He did, however, live to see his son, Gen. Charles Krulak, become Commandant. Now the Army is preaching the Marine Corps doctrines of small wars and counterinsurgency (Petraeus co-wrote the Counterinsurgency Field Manual with a Marine general; it's a joint field manual, and the Bible of the COIN folks in the Army today. But it's something new in the Army, old hat to the Marines.)

I have no idea how things will play out in Afghanistan, or the increasingly linked issue of Pakistan. But I am certain that Gates — and President Obama, who clearly signed on to this — just changed the game in Afghanistan by changing the doctrine. I'm not the first person to say it, but Afghanistan just became Obama's war, since he's now committed to a dramatically changed strategy, and fired a general to do it.

No comments: