September 24, 2009

Contrary to popular belief...

Eli Lake and others are now reporting a resource request for Afghanistan will come on Friday, while Spencer Ackerman is at the Marine Corps University's COIN Leadership Conference blogging the procedings here, here, and here. Spencer reports predictable anxiety -- and even anger -- with the president in some quarters of the small wars community. (Even the New York Times, today, admits to being nervous.) I imagine most speakers, though -- and seriously, like half of CNAS spoke at this thing -- focused on operations or institutions as opposed to the politics, and the guy I would have wanted to hear speak would have been the pride of Rome, Georgia, Col. Dale Alford. Spencer reports:

Although some progressive critics have argued that the Obama administration has moved the Afghanistan war too deeply in the direction of counterinsurgency, Marine Corps Col. Dale Alford, a former adviser to McChrystal’s predecessor as U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan — whom he called “a great soldier” — said that U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan are insufficiently positioned to conduct so-called “population-centric” counterinsurgency. “We’re completely an enemy-centric force,” Alford said, noting that most U.S. bases in Afghanistan were constructed in 2003 and 2004 to support counterterrorism objectives like raiding discrete enemies. Alford, who also fought in Iraq, called for a “significant repositioning” of U.S. forward operating bases and combat outposts in Afghanistan to provide for population security and partner closer with Afghan security forces.


“If you’re not not sleeping with them, eating with them and crapping in same bucket as them, you’re not partnered with them,” Alford said.

I know this comes as a surprise to those who think U.S. ground forces are now a "COIN Army", but my own observations line up closer to those of Col. Alford. Without question, counterinsurgency is the ascendent "way of war" within the officer corps of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps, meaning it is the prism through which officers observe and reflect upon the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the force is still a long way from being set up to wage this kind of war effectively. Again, this will strike you as incredible if you have been reading only this blog for the past two years, but there would not have been all that stuff in the McChrystal review about changing operational culture if the U.S. Army and Marine Corps were really and fully committed to population-centric counterinsurgency. In June, I had a senior -- and now departed -- officer in Afghanistan tell me, "But that's exactly how you protect the population! By going after the enemy!"

This leader, in other words, thought that he was doing population-centric counterinsurgency by essentially fighting in exactly the same way he had been taught to fight by the U.S. Army over the previous 2+ decades.

Targeting and killing the enemy is a key component to most forms of warfare, COIN included. But the question is where your central focus is. And I think Col. Alford is right that for the majority of U.S. and allied units fighting in Afghanistan, the focus remains the enemy. Which just goes to show that making promulgating one's ideas is relatively easy compared with effecting change to organizational culture.