IDSA COMMENT

Re-strategizing the AfPak Campaign

October 22, 2009

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.

  • One, the employment of high calibre weapons such as artillery guns, stand off missiles and aerial platforms have been a cause of immense unpopularity amongst the local population. Even a simple military task such as the routing of combat logistic patrols between two destinations looks too offensive in nature. This approach has perhaps created more militants than those actually neutralized during military action.
  • Two, the pattern of operations (largely shock and awe) greatly contributes to the difficulty in carrying out holding operations. A populated area cleared through brute force is bound to turn hostile and less likely to cooperate in the long term. Affected segments can thus cause enough trouble in the form of suicide attacks and bombings during the ‘hold’ phase of the operation. This affects the ability of ground forces to expand their area of influence as more and more troops are needed to ensure the security of military bases. The inability to push out troops to further expand operational control can become a major reason for failure of the counterinsurgency campaign.
  • And thirdly, this fundamental weakness at the operational level (i.e, inability to hold and expand) can affect building in the long term. Lack of security affects several aspects of local governance and in turn the developmental activities and reconstruction programmes being undertaken.

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.

  • Firstly the US administration should stop looking at tight deadlines. There is also a need to evolve desired end states and means to achieve them over the long term. The time factor could be anybody’s guess but surely not less than two to three years.
  • Secondly, dismantling or defeating the al-Qaeda is an unrealistic military objective. All that one can achieve militarily is mere disruption of the insurgent network spread over hostile terrain. And if this alone can be sustained over a period of time, it would surely contribute to the weakening of the Taliban and al-Qaeda structures. Roger Cohen rightly states in the New York Times that, “Numbers matter less than endurance, details less than overall design” The course correction therefore needs to begin with re-definition of military objectives in the AfPak region.
  • Thirdly, the disruption of al-Qaeda does not mean degrading the al-Qaeda alone. It needs to include all of its lesser protégées as well – the Afghan, Pakistani and Punjabi Taliban. And in order to tackle them convincingly, allied forces need to re-focus their operations by direct and indirect attacks on militant strongholds in the FATA and the NWFP. Currently the military campaign against the al-Qaeda seems to be fought from outside these areas; and several militant groups in the FATA, the fountainhead of international terrorism as Imtiaz Gul writes in his recent book The Al-Qaida Connection, remain unaddressed.
  • Fourthly, al-Qaeda strongholds need to be countered through pure kinetic means while cutting deals with the Taliban alliance could be the other prong of action. Moreover, striking too hard at these disparate insurgent groups is also fraught with danger. Over-hyped military action could prompt the flight of militant cadres to other parts of the world. This may lead to a much worse situation globally. However, at the moment cracking the egg called Waziristan seems to be more important than caring for the flight of militant cadres.
  • Fifthly, US forces need to rethink the `clear-hold-build’ concept and make it more people friendly and less action oriented. The `clear’ action needs to be toned down with visible decrease in employment of high calibre weapons and aerial assets. Ill- planned aerial action such as the one at Konduz can setback the good work of troops by several weeks if not months. Ground operations will have to be increasingly based on Special Forces and infantry units. And here comes General McCrystal’s argument into play – the need for more boots on the ground.
  • Sixthly, the new strategy perhaps needs to be based on the concept of `connect–hold–build’, and where the ground troops surely and silently `connect’ with the local population. Winning hearts and minds is passé as this is too `self-oriented’ a concept to be successfully implemented by militaries on the ground. There is a need to connect with people by establishing a silent toehold and then gradually expanding the advantage into a more favourable operating environment. This in turn can help ease the `hold’ action i.e., control over important communication centres, lines of communications, vital areas and points and military bases. But then the concept can only work in populated areas. The Pashtun hinterland which provides shelter to hordes of insurgent cadres may require a totally different strategy and one which is highly kinetic driven. The region actually needs a dual strategy – a soft approach based on `connect-hold-build’ to stabilize populated areas - and a technology based kinetic approach for tackling insurgent strongholds in the hinterland.

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.