March 04, 2009

But where are the people?

Doug Ollivant once had this bright idea (.pdf) that in order to win in Iraq, U.S. troops had to abandon their big, Burger King-supported forward operating bases and get out there to be with the people. Doug would probably be among the first to tell you that he basically just stole his ideas from stuff he had read in Galula and Trinquier. Or, more accurately, that he took classical COIN doctrine and applied it to the contemporary operating environment in Iraq. David Petraeus read Doug's article and asked him to apply his ideas to Baghdad in 2007, where Brainy Smurf Doug was the chief planner for the 1st Cavalry Division. You know what happened next.

Now, though, we are trying to apply this idea of patrol bases to a different operating environment, in Afghanistan. As Yochi Dreazen (C '99) reports in today's Wall Street Journal, we're going to run into difficulties trying to do in rural Afghanistan what we did in urban Iraq. Instead of living where the people live, we are out in the sticks trying to run interdiction missions.

David Kilcullen, a counterinsurgency expert who has long advised Gen. Petraeus on Iraq and Afghanistan, supported the outpost strategy in Iraq. But he says the U.S. is making a mistake by deploying so many troops to remote bases in Afghanistan.

Mr. Kilcullen, a retired Australian military officer, notes that 80% of the population of southern Afghanistan lives in two cities, Kandahar and Lashkar Gah. The U.S. doesn't have many troops in either one of them.

"The population in major towns and villages is vulnerable because we are off elsewhere chasing the enemy," he said.

As many of you know, I am relucant to say much about the environment in Afghanistan. I have fought there twice, it's true, but in neither shortened tour did I really get a feel for the people or the culture. Also, unlike with Iraq, I don't speak any of the relevant languages. That said, I like to imagine that in two years running this blog I have learned a thing or two about population-centric counterinsurgency, and it occurs to me that if you are going to do population-centric counterinsurgency, then do population-centric counterinsurgency.

"We've got to protect the population, but we also have to have a capability to interdict the movement of insurgents across the border," Gen. David McKiernan, the top American commander in Afghanistan, told reporters in Washington recently.

Again, I am hesitant to play armchair general, but I am not sure why what Gen. McKiernan says is actually the case. Afghanistan is a really big country -- bigger than Iraq -- and we are trying to protect more terrain with fewer troops. The old maxim that he who defends everything defends nothing seems to apply here. Are we, by putting troops in little far-flung outposts, setting them up for more Wanats? Should we instead be camped out in the big cities of Kabul, Kandahar and Lashkar Gah as Kilcullen suggests? Should not our first priority be to secure the Afghan people in order to reduce violence in the country and facilitate the upcoming national elections?

I don't think this is a question that can be answered by battalion and brigade commanders -- even those as smart and talented as the great Chris Cavoli, who is quoted extensively in this article. This is going to have to be a question that's answered in Bagram and at CENTCOM. Since they're not speaking to us, though, let's first see what you guys think. Sound off in the comments...

Update: Charlie, here. If you're looking for a point-by-point on how one might design a pop-centric COIN campaign in Afghanistan, start here. Two of my favorite Marines, Col Dale Alford and Cpt Scott Cuomo have some thoughts on ISAF operational design in Afghanistan.

Update II: Joshua Foust vehemently disagrees (in a post worth reading). In my defense, I will say that if I were establishing immediate no-**** priorities for Afghanistan, the first two on my list would be:

1. Secure as much of the population as possible as quickly as possible.
2. Set the security conditions for the upcoming elections.

You obviously cannot do the latter without doing the former. Once you've done those two things in the immediate near term, at that point you start spreading out. So while I agree that the main problems aren't in Kandahar proper (give me a little credit), the oil-spottist in me says start there and start extending security and the reach of the government outward. You don't start where you are weak. You start where you are strong.