October 02, 2009

Deciding or dithering

I tend to agree that one should know what was going to do with extra troops before one sends them. I therefore don't have a problem in theory with the Obama administration taking its time on a troop-increase decision at this point.

(Aside: It doesn't bother me, much, either, that McChrystal doesn't talk much one-on-one with Obama. That's the way it should be... as a sub-theatre commander, it's the equivalent of Bradley expecting to talk much with FDR, or in the Canadian context, Simonds with Mackenzie King. Not necessary if the chain of command is functioning as it should.)

That said, it's not always that simple. It's all well and good to say take time for the "new tactics a chance to work ", as Marc Lynch does in the first link above, but as Tim Lynch (no relation, one presumes) documents from the field, that's not happening, or likely to happen any time soon.

There is no doubt that drastic changes are needed. I still think the current American commander and his civilian leadership have a lot of the right ideas about those changes. I guess the question that keeps me puzzled is, is it more likely those changes will occur now in the context of a troop increase, or something more like a troop freeze? Would having more give the military leadership more freedom to execute a sounder plan, or knowing we have less (and conceding in that that controlling the whole country is out of our reach) force us to embrace innovation?

Finally, I don't think there can be any doubt that Bernard Finel gets the better of this exchange (the disturbing corollary being that Spencer Ackerman, of all people, is in the tank for the military leadership); there is clearly an ongoing attempt by senior American military leaders abroad to influence the political debate back home. As Michael Cohen and Pat Lang have rightly observed, the standard is for military commanders to present their bosses with a choice of courses of action, even if some of them are "throwaway COAs", but on Afghanistan the Obama administration has, in public at least, been presented with only the one. In the United States there has been a quiet but clear attempt to circumscribe the national debate, to define only one acceptable outcome. (In Canada, by contrast, there has been a quiet but clear attempt, and not by the military, to avoid any debate whatsoever.) There may still be quite a gap between Sir Rupert Smith's need to prosecute (and advocate) "war amongst the people," and Gen. Ripper's "war is too important to leave to the politicians," but the current American military leadership is not adhering to historical norms on the issue... unless MacArthur or McClellan are your norms, which I suppose in the American context they kind of are.

UPDATE: The big problem with the "ISAF troop freeze, more ANSF" line of attack on this is that we haven't up to this point really done much to create an Afghan army that could stand on its own. Instead, we've created an indigenous adjunct force organized to help out a large in-place western force, but without any real capability in their absence. Saying we now wanted to have a large, effective ANA and limit ourselves to enabler support, training and mentoring... well it's like the old guy offering directions to the lost honeymooners on the backcountry road, "first off, I wouldn't start from here." (Or as Gen. McChrystal put it yesterday, "you have to navigate from where you are, not where you wish to be.") As I showed a couple days ago, right now the casualty trend for Western forces is rising precipitously. You've still got to turn that trend around before you can do any serious Afghan army restructure/retraining, I suspect, and it's going to be hard to do that without more troops. Again, there is no "fighting season" we can take for granted anymore... if we want a strategic pause to sort ourselves out in Afghanistan, we'd first have to win one on the battlefield. Which I guess, means I too am worried that the American strategic decision process, however admirable, could be taking too long. See also Michael Yon.

Posted by BruceR at 01:35 PM