While announcing his new strategy on Afghanistan and Pakistan on March 27, 2009, President Obama had said that, "going forward, we will not blindly stay the course. Instead, we will set clear metrics to measure the progress and hold ourselves accountable." These measures were to be framed in pursuance of the administration’s stated objective of “disrupting, dismantling and defeating the al-Qaida” in the AfPak region. The draft metrics comprising some 50-odd measures of performance have since been framed and made public. Incidentally, the issue of draft metrics also coincided with General Stanley McCrystal’s review of counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan. The assessment calls for a major shift in the US’ war fighting strategy, necessitating the deployment of 40,000 additional troops in Afghanistan.
The strategy debate has since intensified. Several officials from within the US administration are seen rooting for options ranging from a minimalist to a maximalist approach. While Republicans believe that the war effort is grossly under resourced, there are others and in particular President Obama’s own colleagues who are visibly uneasy with General McCrystal’s recent assessment. McCrystal has stressed the need for a troop-intensive strategy to support the nation-building efforts in Afghanistan. He argues that diluting the strategic goal at this stage would be short-sighted. He has also consistently opposed the so-called `Biden’ plan and the much talked about tactic of `off shoring’ the military campaign which was also recently advocated by the influential columnist George Will.
McCrystal’s recent presentation at the International Institute of Security Studies (IISS) seems to have exacerbated the debate by bringing into focus the issue of civilian control over the military. Eugene Robinson hit the issue in his Washington Post column, saying that, “the men with stars on their shoulders — and I say this with enormous respect for their patriotism and service — need to shut up and salute.” But there are many others who feel that rendering professional advise on military matters is what Generals are meant for, and that what McCrystal has done is absolutely right. McCrystal clearly has a feel for ground realities and says that while he cannot assure military success with an additional 40,000 troops, the accretion would still be needed to achieve some semblance of security in Afghanistan.
Several analysts are proposing an even less ambitious goal in the AfPak region – simply disrupting al-Qaeda and no more. This in turn would imply a limited military mission. Defeating or dismantling al-Qaeda needs a broader effort, and in the absence of a long term commitment of resources the stated objectives may be difficult to achieve. The current deployment in excess of 60,000 US troops is considered grossly inadequate to run an effective counterinsurgency campaign. To arrest the raging insurgency, the combined minimum requirement of force levels has been pegged at around 400,000 troops. This includes the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) as well. And if the ANSF cannot be fielded in time and NATO allies continue to drag their feet, there is no option for the United States but to increase its operational footprint in Afghanistan. The inadequacy of deployable resources is surely leading to a crisis of credibility in Afghanistan.
Interestingly, the debate on resourcing the campaign highlights a very peculiar aspect of the policy formulation process in the United States. The US has a fascination for shaping military doctrines and strategies, and an equal lack of patience in pursuing them to their logical military ends. In the recent past, there have been several attempts to re-conceptualize the `long’ war, but then the US armed forces are still groping for the right solution. The much quoted field manual (FM 3-24) on counterinsurgency operations issued in December 2006 fills the doctrinal gap in the corps-specific manual framed for the Marine Corps. Since then there have been several other official and non-official interpretations of counterinsurgency. FM 3-24 is an exhaustive manual covering a wide range of doctrinal issues to include military strategies ranging from designing and planning to executing large scale counterinsurgency operations. Another field manual titled FM 3-07 issued in 2007 conceptualized the conduct of stability operations along several lines of effort in the context of a fragile or weak nation. These multiple doctrinal postulations have seen wide application in Iraq and Afghanistan. Paradoxically, the tactical framework and operational lessons from the war in Iraq (the so-called wrong war) are now being applied to the `war of necessity’ or the right war in Afghanistan. However, the limited success achieved in Iraq consequent to the famous Anbar awakening now seems to be eluding the allied forces in Afghanistan.
Notwithstanding the above, there has been a serious attempt in recent months to forge the right military strategy under the leadership of General McCrystal. The transition from surgical strikes to clear-hold-build operations, and now the growing focus on people centric operations, is well known. While the senior leadership was busy inventing counterinsurgency strategies, the commanders in the field must have had a tough time adjusting to this conceptual blitzkrieg. Shifting strategies and concepts can have a debilitating effect on performance of troops at the tactical level. In fact, troops need time to absorb new strategies before these can be operationally proved. Any change in strategy implies a corresponding change in operating procedures at the tactical level. And it takes time to hone new battle drills. The worst affected as a result of all this is the local populace, since each new battle drill creates its own new dynamics and apprehensions in their minds. This cycle of a new strategy each time and then a new set of battle drills can sometimes lead to an added crisis of credibility among the local population.
There is perhaps a case to re-examine the pattern of counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan. General McCrystal’s strategy of `clear-hold-build’ is premised on the principle that allied forces are capable of securing vulnerable sections of the local population. This explains why the strategy is focused on putting US troops as close as possible if not amongst the population centres. In simple terms, the strategy is geared towards fighting through population centres, holding them against possible Taliban counter attacks and in the long term forging a strong alliance with the locals. What has possibly gone wrong with General McCrystal’s clear-hold-build approach to necessitate a shift in focus towards people centric operations? The concept is flawed for three simple reasons.
The current concept needs to be refined in order to arrest the turbulence caused by a technology intensive `clear’ action. The `clear’ action clearly does not let both the `hold’ and `build’ actions to succeed. The local populace and particularly tribes surely do not like this `knock out the bad boys - squat and hold - teach a few habitability lessons’ kind of an approach. Instead there is a need for a more nuanced approach to secure the affected population. What then would work best when there are no easy solutions. The following approach may be worth considering.
George Friedman of STRATFOR writes that there is an urgent need for a `seismic shift’ in the war fighting doctrine in the AfPak region. He asserts that high calibre weapon platforms and aerial assets need to be replaced with more boots on the ground to enable people-friendly operations. And General McCrystal’s assertion of additional troops is perhaps the only way of restoring the worsening situation in Afghanistan. With the Pakistan army also pushed into a counter offensive in South Waziristan, a beginning seems to have been made in cracking down on insurgents in the areas of Makeen, Ladhha and Sararogha. It now needs to be seen whether President Obama accepts the proposed accretion of troops in Afghanistan. Additional boots on the ground are surely going to give General McCrystal the means to implement the right military strategy and conclusively pursue the performance metrics defined by the US administration.