June 23rd, 2010
07:05 PM ET

Security Brief: What are roots of Afghan strategy clash?

Beneath the insults that Gen. Stanley McChrystal hurled at practically everyone on President Obama's national security team lies an inherent tension in the counterinsurgency strategy he was trying to implement. McChrystal resigned today in the fallout of his comments.

COIN, the military term expressing the integration of civilian and military activities, follows the basic tenant that combat operations, no matter how crushing, won't be enough to defeat an insurgency. Even the military's counterinsurgency manual is entitled "Unity of Effort."

"Each depends on the other," the manual states. If one fails, the mission fails."

Certainly McChrystal wasn't adhering to COIN's golden rule when he publicly criticized Karl Eikenberry, U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, and Richard Holbrooke, special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, his two top civilian counterparts. His feud with Eikenberry is well-known, with both sides claiming that each others' aides spend a large part of their time on the ground launching propaganda wars against the other.

Officials on the civilian side say Eikenberry , a retired general, was right to question, in his famous leaked cables, whether Afghan President Hamid Karzai was a strategic partner. They feel that for McChrystal to label Eikenberry as "one that covers his flank for the history books" is unfair.

By the same token, was it wrong for McChyrstal to make the case that while he is commander, he needs to construct a working relationship with Karzai? In this case, Eikenberry was analytical about the Karzai problem, and McChrystal took a more pragmatic approach .

Creative tension could be beneficial to the mission. After all, isn't that type of debate President Obama had in mind when he appointed a "team of rivals" to his Cabinet?

Here, however, was a fundamental policy difference. And as President Obama said in announcing McChrystal's ouster, debate within an administration is OK, division is not.

Indeed whether you sit on the military or the civilian side, the strategic goals are the same: a stable Afghanistan that doesn't harbor terrorists and provides for its people.

But the lines start to blur in the execution of a joint strategy viewed from two different lenses, most commonly boiled down to the fact that the military is paid to look at the world in one way and diplomat another. Militaries, by definition, break things. Civilians, by definition, build things.

Even here, it isn't so simple. COIN is designed to win the "hearts and minds" of the population with rules of engagement that protect civilian populations and minimize causalities.

Yet militaries operate largely with the dual goals of stabilizing an area force protection, something inherently in tension with protecting civilian centers. As one senior civilian official put it, ""We are expecting a 19-year-old soldier to interpret events at a flash. We are asking them to be diplomats, and they are not always trained to do that. They are trained to shoot first and ask questions later. That could be a good military response, but that could also have implications which affect the strategy." Under this theory, military action has civilian consequences that civilian officials on the ground will be confronted with.

The COIN strategy is to deploy the military force strategically for a limited period. It is easy for the military to overstay its welcome and the strategic implications of a military presence have their costs, including radicalizing a population. Al Qaeda in Iraq used the U.S. military presence as a key recruiting tool. And earlier this week, Faisal Shahzad, the 30-year-old Pakistani-American suspect in the failed Times Square bombing case, blamed U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, and drone strikes in Somalia, Pakistan and Yemen, as the reason for his rampage

But the ability of the military to hand over to its civilian counterparts also depends on how much the civilian side can rebuild, and how fast, with a full complement of troops on the ground. The civilian efforts must be able to sustain themselves after the military takes its foot off the pedal in order for the strategy to work. This is exactly what the U.S. is facing as it withdraws troops from Iraq.

And in Afghanistan, this is where McChrystal's close relationship with Karzai creates tension with the U.S. civilian rank and file. McChrystal believes he needs Karzai to fulfill his mandate to "clear and hold."  But a strong, credible government is critical in order to "build," which is Eikenberry's mission. McChrystal's defense of Karzai, despite his government’s poor performance, complicated the State Department's efforts to strengthen the Afghan government.

At the heart of this tension is not just an imbalance of roles, but an inevitable imbalance of resources that can't been avoided. With close to 100,000 troops to about 1,200 diplomats in Afghanistan, the military is used to calling the shots and getting its way. One only has to read the quotes by McChrystal in the Rolling Stone article to see that this culture of indispensability permeates through the top military echelon on the ground.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates are going to great pains to realign a relationship between the military and the State Department that officials say has been out of whack for more than 20 years. Clinton wants State to take back more responsibility for development, which has fallen to the military, because of a lack of civilian resources. Gates, with a military stretched beyond capacity, wants to give that responsibility back to her.

Both have demonstrated a shared perspective of the challenges around the world and the goodwill to move their respective bureaucracies to view the world through a wider lens, something that is clearly not easy and was sorely lacking during the war in Iraq.

So in the end, maybe it wasn’t really about whether McChrystal likes Eikenberry or Holbrooke. Maybe in part it is was a debate over how much military and how much civilian presence is the right balance. With each side seeing the situation on a ground from a different angle, that balance is open to interpretation.

But personalities and judgment do matter. No officials or analysts we talked to said they could imagine his replacement, Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of the U.S. Central Command who successfully implanted a similar COIN strategy in Iraq, making those comments.

Petraeus is viewed as someone who has not only the military prowess, but the political skills of a diplomat. In accepting  McChrystal's resignation, President Obama decided “unity of effort” also means respect. But he also is emphasizing that the strategy stays. It is Petraeus who helped implement COIN in Iraq and wrote the military manual on it.

soundoff (2 Responses)
  1. Dean

    Well written.

    June 23, 2010 at 7:27 pm | Report abuse |
  2. kayani

    hats off great great i havent red such a composed and accurate article ever .

    July 7, 2010 at 7:21 pm | Report abuse |