The politicization of the analysis of American generalship is one of the worst consequences of the partisan excesses of the past several years. Whether it was Gen. David Petraeus in 2007 or Gen. Stanley McChrystal today, far too many commentators on both sides of the aisle have become comfortable saying that commanders who offer recommendations the critics don’t like are doing so because they have become captive of some ideology. Petraeus was charged with carrying water for the Bush administration’s supposed crusade to spread democracy throughout the world. Now McChrystal is accused of committing the soldiers under his command to needless death and maiming out of a misplaced sense of political correctness inspired by Barack Obama.
The reality is that America’s commanders over the last eight years have consistently given their best professional military advice, making the recommendations they thought would achieve the goals set for them by their political masters. That includes all of our commanders: Tommy Franks, Ricardo Sanchez, John Abizaid, George Casey, David Barno, Karl Eikenberry, Dan McNeill, David McKiernan, David Petraeus, Ray Odierno, and now Stan McChrystal. Some of them were right, some were tragically wrong. But not a single one of them made a recommendation to his superiors or gave an order to his soldiers that he did not think would lead to the success of his mission. American commanders simply do not do such things, and it is time to stop trying to avoid serious discussions of strategy by claiming that they do.
General McChrystal and the team that drafted his assessment and policy recommendations (full disclosure: I was a member of that team in June and July) may be wrong, of course. War is extremely complex, and no one is infallible. But before consigning the McChrystal assessment to the dust-bin of history, we owe it to such a commander to consider carefully the possibility that the sophistication in the document is not simply pseudo-intellectual code for political correctness. It may in fact represent an attempt to grapple with the real complexities of the situation on the ground as seen by officers who have spent years of their lives operating in Afghanistan against our enemies — something that none of their defenders or critics among the chattering classes (myself included) can say.
Andy McCarthy’s attack on McChrystal in this regard is particularly odd. McChrystal should be Andy’s hero: As commander of U.S. special-forces efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan for more than four straight years, McChrystal is responsible for killing and capturing thousands of Islamist terrorists. As the recent 60 Minutes interview revealed, McChrystal has personally accompanied his soldiers on some of those raids. He’s met the enemy fighters Andy so rightly wants to target — met some of them rather personally. This war has not been a clinical or theoretical exercise for McChrystal, nor has it been the stuff of Foreign Affairs essays. It has been as dirty and bloody as anything Andy McCarthy or Ralph Peters could desire. One thing no one can say about McChrystal is that he has a problem killing the enemy.
A number of things have drawn the ire of otherwise staunch supporters of our military and their leaders in recent weeks: McChrystal’s insistence on the pursuit of counterinsurgency operations rather than kill-and-capture operations; the changes to both force-protection and escalation-of-force procedures that McChrystal has implemented or recommended in Afghanistan; and the rising belief among some that, since President Obama does not seem prepared to do everything they would like to see in the fight against Islamist militancy, we should not support him at all.
Why can’t we just kill bad guys? First, because it doesn’t work. As McChrystal himself discovered in Iraq, simply killing bad guys does not destroy terrorist networks. On the contrary, after American troops had killed many hundreds, al-Qaeda in Iraq was more effective than it had been before we started. We’ve been killing bad guys in Afghanistan and Pakistan since 9/11. Periodically we kill bad guys in Somalia and elsewhere. In none of these areas, however, have we been able to kill bad guys faster than they can replenish their ranks. Targeted strikes create opportunities for upward mobility in terrorist groups, to be sure, but there is not yet any example of such strikes destroying a terrorist group — despite unthinkable numbers of staff-hours, smart bombs, flight hours, intelligence assets, and so on devoted to the effort.
Some opponents of the counterinsurgency approach (including, apparently, Vice President Biden) advocate doing more killing and less nation-building. But how? The limiting factor on targeted strikes is intelligence, primarily. It takes time to develop usable target packets on canny adversaries such as senior terrorist leaders. We have devoted an enormous proportion of our national-intelligence assets to generating such target packets over the years. No doubt we could devote even more. But here’s the rub: There are only two sources for such intelligence — human intelligence and technical intelligence. The terrorists we care about mostly are bright enough to avoid using cell phones, computers, and other technical tools that can give their locations away. They are also bright enough to use those things as decoys to lure us into hitting innocents. The problem with that is not simply that killing innocent people is morally bad, and bad for America’s image and so on, but that it eats up resources that would otherwise be devoted to tracking actual bad guys.
Human intelligence is much preferable. But to get human intelligence, you have to be among the humans, giving them a reason to risk their lives to help you. That means having forces on the ground — and not just commandos rappelling onto rooftops. The fewer forces we have among the human population, the more we must rely on technical intelligence, and the less accurate our targeting will be — and the harder it will be even to maintain the current level of effective strikes, let alone increase it.
Andy McCarthy writes: “Our troops are in Afghanistan because we, not the Afghans, are in a war to destroy al-Qaeda and its enablers – the Taliban, Hekmatyar, and the Haqqani network.” True enough, although the Hekmatyar group poses relatively little threat right now and should not be a priority. The Quetta Shura Taliban and the Haqqani network certainly are threats in the sense that they have enabled al-Qaeda in the past and will do so again. They all share a common Islamist ideology based on — pace Andy McCarthy — a heretical interpretation of the Koran and hadith that permits them to declare other Muslims apostates and kill them. And the interpretation is, indeed, heretical — it is virtually identical in its bases with the Kharijite movement of the early days of Islam, a movement overwhelmingly seen in the Muslim world as a heresy. Yes, Muslim tradition allows (with a fair amount of complexity, to be sure) killing “infidels.” It is generally quite strict, however, about killing other Muslims. And this matters to us infidels a great deal, because neither terrorists nor insurgent groups such as al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or the Haqqani network could function without killing other Muslims. And that is why, again pace Andy, it is reasonable to imagine splitting these extremist heretics away from the main body of orthodox Muslims.
Here’s the thing, though: The Quetta Shura Taliban and the Haqqani network are not terrorist groups. They are insurgents. Their aim is to take control of Afghanistan by intimidating the people, disintegrating the armed forces and the government, and insinuating their own shadow government structures into the vacuum. Their ability to enable al-Qaeda is dependent on their ability to succeed as insurgents in taking effective control over areas of Afghanistan. Defeating them — and thereby preventing them from enabling al-Qaeda — thus requires a counterinsurgency strategy. That’s what General McChrystal has laid out: a counterinsurgency strategy designed to achieve counterterrorist goals.
He did not develop such a strategy because he prefers counterinsurgency — he was, after all, the mastermind of counterterrorism. He certainly was not pushed into it by the Obama administration, which is at least as leery of nation-building and the democracy agenda as is Andy McCarthy. He developed it because he came to the conclusion that it was the only way to defeat our terrorist enemies. He — and those of us who agree with him — may be wrong. But the critics owe us all a detailed answer to this question: How can we defeat the Haqqani network, the Quetta Shura Taliban — the insurgent enablers of al-Qaeda in South Asia — using some strategy other than counterinsurgency?
The charge made increasingly on the right that McChrystal is fighting to change force-protection measures and escalation-of-force procedures out of some slavish belief in political correctness, without regard for casualties among American soldiers, is despicable. No American commander is oblivious to the casualties among his troops. Period. You don’t get to be a four-star general in the U.S. Army if you don’t worship your soldiers and worry about the lives you hold in your hand every day.
If McChrystal is advocating exposing his soldiers to greater danger in some circumstances, it is because he believes two things: that doing so will help ensure the success of the mission and that it will reduce casualties in the long run. Critics of the surge in Iraq made exactly the same arguments against Petraeus’s determination to disperse U.S. forces in small outposts and make them live among the people. Such tactics did expose our troops to greater danger in the short term. In fact, American casualties rose sharply in the spring of 2007 as the surge forces were moving into place, reaching an all-time high in early summer. But Petraeus’s protect-the-population counterinsurgency strategy also very quickly began to generate confidence in the Iraqis among whom the troops were living, which led to more tips, which led to more IEDs found and cleared, which saved American lives. It also led to the success of the mission in which previous tactics, focusing on protecting our soldiers, had led to failure.
The same is true in Afghanistan today. Inadequate numbers of forces on the ground and faulty tactics have led to escalation-of-force incidents that go straight from rifles to the big bombs. Dropping houses indiscriminately in Afghanistan generates much more resentment than similar destruction did in Iraq for cultural reasons — Afghans, unlike Iraqis, do not fight in population centers when they can help it. Resentment drives young men into the insurgency, vengeance being an even more powerful motivator in Afghanistan than it was in Iraq, and that leads to more IEDs and more U.S. casualties. The calculus General McChrystal is making is that it may be necessary to accept greater risk in some particular situations in order to reduce the threat to U.S. forces overall. It is the same calculus General Petraeus made in Iraq. It may not work in Afghanistan, but it does not deserve the calumny being heaped upon it.
I can personally testify on the issue of force protection in Afghanistan. Per previous ISAF guidelines, NATO forces (including U.S. forces) move around as if in armored isolation suits. During six weeks I spent in Afghanistan this year on battlefield circulations and assessments, I was taken outside the wire to meet local Afghans only once. By contrast, on each of the seven trips I have made to Iraq since April 2007, I have been taken on market walks or to meetings with Iraqis many times. The irony is that the threat in Afghanistan was lower than that in Iraq throughout the entire period of my travels. The result of this kind of isolation is the reduction of any ability to interact with the local population, to develop the trust relationships so essential to getting the kind of human intelligence so necessary to accomplish the counterterrorism mission Andy McCarthy is calling for.
The real reason, I suspect, for the resistance on the right to supporting counterinsurgency in Afghanistan comes from the belief that President Obama is not serious about this effort and is not serious about pursuing the fight against Islamism as some would like it to be pursued. The question of Obama’s commitment to Afghanistan remains open at this date. I would suggest that we wait to see what he actually decides before making a judgment. The question of his willingness to pursue the fight against Islamism in the manner that some on the right prefer is not open to question — Obama clearly will not do so.
There is often something attractive in the purity of saying, “Since the president will not do the right thing all the way, I will not support him at all.” But does it really advance the cause of combating Islamism? Withdrawing from Afghanistan now will heave that country, and possibly Pakistan, into chaotic, region-shaking civil war. It will dramatically increase the freedom of both the Taliban and al-Qaeda to operate. It will strengthen the hands of those in Pakistan who want to continue to support the Taliban and weaken those who have been fighting Pakistan’s own Islamist enemies. And it will increase the prospects of yet another catastrophic terrorist attack on our homeland, as happened the last time we abandoned Afghanistan to the fates, and the Taliban took power there. How does any of that advance the cause of defeating Islamism?
— Frederick W. Kagan is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.