On War #309: Going Nowhere Fast

William S. Lind
29 June 2009

The advent of General Stanley McChrystal as America’s overall commander in Afghanistan appears to be good news. He seems to understand that in this kind of war, the rule must be, “First, do no harm.” Associated Press recently reported him as saying that his measure of effectiveness will be “the number of Afghans shielded from violence, not the number of militants killed.” Unusually, he seems to include American and NATO violence in his calculation, since he has ordered a drastic cutback in airstrikes. Heavy American reliance on airstrikes has probably done more than anything else to win the war for the Taliban.

But history is littered with the failures of promising new generals; “Fighting Joe” Hooker somehow comes to mind. If General McChrystal is to represent any real hope that the U.S. might get out of Afghanistan with some tailfeathers intact, he must confront a host of challenges. Let’s look at just four:

  • The Second Generation American armed forces must learn how to make war by means other than putting firepower on targets. However, that is all they know how to do. A friend who recently graduated from the U.S. Army’s Command & Staff College at Ft. Leavenworth told me that virtually the whole course is still about putting fire on targets. Nightwatch for May 17 reported that “An Indian criticism of the US effort in Afghanistan and Pakistan is that it does not lack will, it lacks skill.” That criticism is valid, and it traces directly to military education and training that remains stuck in the Second Generation.
  • The U.S. touts its “new” counter-insurgency doctrine, but there is nothing new about it. It merely represents a recovery of knowledge thrown away after the Vietnam war. However, Fourth Generation conflicts are different from the Vietnam war. While some counter-insurgency techniques carry over, the multiplicity of players and objectives in 4GW face counter-insurgents with an entirely different context. The first draft of a counter-insurgency field manual written for 4GW, a product of the Fourth Generation seminar, will become available this summer on this web site.
  • No doctrine, including the above manual, offers a magic potion for winning Fourth Generation wars. As the basic 4GW field manual FMFM-1A warns, even if an invader does everything right, he will still probably lose. Kelly Vlahos cautions in an important piece in the August issue of The American Conservative, “One-Sided COIN,” that the neo-libs are pushing counter-insurgency as patent medicine. Just get the dosage right and we can “do” counter-insurgency successfully anywhere. She quotes retired Lt. Col. John Nagl as saying, “The soldiers who will win these wars require an ability not just to dominate land operations, but to change entire societies.” That is hubristic nonsense.
  • The Obama administration has decided to continue its predecessor’s Quixotic commitment to unattainable strategic objectives, i.e., changing entire societies. Afghanistan is to be made into a liberal, democratic, secular country with “rights for women” as defined by American Feminists. That is baying for the moon, and it can have no other outcome but failure. Setting unattainable objectives makes doctrine irrelevant, because it guarantees defeat. America could have Alexander the Great as its commander in Afghanistan, with Napoleon and von Moltke as his deputies, and we would still lose.

In sum, General McChrystal faces a full plate. His most difficult challenges are internal, in the form of a flawed military instrument, inadequate doctrine, a neo-liberal Establishment drunk on COIN juju and strategic objectives no commander can attain. Internal challenges are often harder to overcome than those posed by the external opponent, because potential fixes run into the immovable object of court politics.

As an Army friend put it to me, until these and similar internal challenges can be met, our efforts in Afghanistan are like trying to get somewhere by riding faster on an exercise bicycle.

William S. Lind, expressing his own personal opinion, is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.

To interview Mr. Lind, please contact (no e-mail available):

Mr. William S. Lind
Free Congress Foundation
1423 Powhatan Street, # 2
Alexandria, Virginia 22314

Direct line: 703 837-0483

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Filed in Uncategorized | 12 responses so far

12 Responses to “On War #309: Going Nowhere Fast”

  1. GeorgiaBoy61on 30 Jun 2009 at 12:14 am 1

    “Lt. Col. John Nagl as saying, ‘The soldiers who will win these wars require an ability not just to dominate land operations, but to change entire societies.’ That is hubristic nonsense.” Indeed it is. What it is about Americans – in the military community or not – that leads them to believe they can “remake” foreign nations and cultures at will? As Lind notes, winning 4GW requires a minimalist mindset, or maximalist – the latter being willing to devastate an enemy right down to the ground, in order to attain one’s objectives. Maybe we could do that with German, but not with Afghanistan. What was Nagl thinking?

    The campaign in Afghanistan is the military eqyuivalent of a self-licking ice cream cone. The continued problems there justify ever more commitment of forces, in order to avoid letting our recent “progress” in obtaining our objectives (whatever they are) slip away.

    Whatever point we intended to make there has been made; it is time to bring our forces home, and leave Pakistan and Afghanistan to the Indians, who are betters suited to this job in any case. Besides, last I checked we were broke and in no financial condition to wage this war.

  2. EmeryNelsonon 30 Jun 2009 at 12:06 pm 2

    It’s impossible for US ground forces not to use air when they feel endangered. It’s a cultural imperative that will only be overcome when we are so broke that precise air strikes in the wrong place are a physical impossibility because the aircraft can’t fly.

  3. jaylemeuxon 30 Jun 2009 at 3:36 pm 3

    I saw the A.C. article Lind quotes, but only skimmed it. Does anybody have the original quote from Nagl? More context is needed to discern what he was really saying-he could have been explaining why he thinks CI victories are and will continue to be rare.

  4. TBon 30 Jun 2009 at 11:13 pm 4

    Jaylemeux:

    Nagl himself responded to someone else using that quote in a letter to the editor:

    “…Colonel Gentile selected the quoted material out of context from my review essay, published by the Journal of the Royal United
    Services Institute in April 2008, on Brian Macallister Linn’s excellent book The Echo of Battle. In that review, I argue that: victory in the Long War requires the strengthening of literally dozens of governments afflicted by insurgents who are radicalized by hatred and inspired by fear. The soldiers who win these wars require not just an ability to dominate land operations, but to change entire societies—and not all of those soldiers will wear uniforms, or work for the Department of the Army. The most important warriors of the current century may work for the US Information Agency rather than the Department of Defense…”

    Here is where I found the letter to the editor:
    http://www.ndu.edu/inss/Press/jfq_pages/editions/i53/lte.pdf

    His original quote was in the journal essay described above.

  5. Maxon 01 Jul 2009 at 5:41 am 5

    “Does anybody have the original quote from Nagl? ”

    http://amconmag.com/article/2009/aug/01/00038/

    “At the top is retired Lt. Col. John A. Nagl, who served in the Gulf War and Iraq before working directly for Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon. As co-author of the Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual in 2006 (aka the Petraeus Doctrine), he has, since February, indulged his role as president and chief COIN pusher at CNAS with almost religious zeal. ”

    “Gentle profiles describe him as a “guru” and a “scholar.” Others say Nagl is self-promoting and ambitious, leaving the military in 2008 because he felt he could ride into a lofty position in a Democratic administration.”

    ” Above all, he is an Oxford-educated blunt instrument, hammering away about the glories of COIN. He writes extensively about extremist nonstate threats and the U.S. obligation to fight them. His vision of irregular warfare goes well beyond the traditional American perception of national defense, but it jibes with current conventional wisdom. ”

    ““The soldiers who will win these wars require an ability not just to dominate land operations, but to change entire societies,” he wrote in 2006. “Decisive results in the twenty-first century will come not when we wipe a piece of land clean of enemy forces, but when we protect its people and allow them to control their territory in a manner consistent with the norms of the civilized world. Thus victory in Iraq and Afghanistan will come when those nations enjoy governments that meet the basic needs and garner the support of all of their peoples.” “

  6. jaylemeuxon 02 Jul 2009 at 1:59 pm 6

    I appreciate the argument against dogma and single-mindedness, but I find it awfully hard to believe that most of the “COINdinista” haters have no financial or emotional stake in the Cold War military. This doctrine has been decades in coming.

    [CR: “COINdinista” haters?? You don’t have to own Lockheed Martin stock to question our current COIN doctrine. Although it doesn’t seem difficult for a government to eliminate insurgency in its own country, whether through accommodation or brutality, there are few examples since the end of WW II of a successful occupation.]

  7. Maxon 02 Jul 2009 at 9:04 pm 7

    GB says,

    ’ That is hubristic nonsense.”

    “What it is about Americans – in the military community or not – that leads them to believe they can “remake” foreign nations and cultures at will? ”

    I agree as most here might also whole heartedly.

    Your question is largely retorical, but I have given it some serious thought myself in pondering exactly the same.

    We have discussed it, but for your benefit off the top of my head, I can name a few of factors. Others can give you more.

    Including how the MICC, the culture and vocation of war, and the virtual worship of it’s implements are packaged and sold at breadth and depth as such that Eisenhower mentioned and warned of “even spirtial implications.”

    Then, I like to point out the mythologised packaged and popularly sold to the point of a variation of self hypnosis, that is the version of America’s own independence revolution.

    That pepole of any creed, religion, location and circumstance
    will be guaranteed to behave exactly as American’s “mythologised” account of their own revolution and throw off any oppression (by the same embellished, exagerated, mythologised reasoning) at any cost, and will behave exactly so.

    And thus embrace and emulate the United States, and our way of life.

    Even IF the popularised and sanitised accounts of the war of independence were true, it’s still an unrealistic goal.

    Andrew Bachevich characterises siad “nation building” by verbal inflection, as the quintessintial “fools errand.”

    Re-enforcing this at tragic conciquence is some measure of reality and success in the case of post ww-2 Germany and Japan.

    To some extent also S. Korea.

    Of course in the case of Germany and Japan, after having been
    tottaly destroyed they had no other place to go, so to speak.

    Everywhere else, it’s failed misrably, and at exorbident cost
    to legitimate US interests and aspirations.

    M

    [CR: Plus in Germany and Japan, we helped in the reconstruction of advanced economies, which is somewhat different than trying to build economies from the ground up. And there was the threat of the Soviet Union and communist revolution.]

  8. Maxon 02 Jul 2009 at 9:15 pm 8

    Dr. CR wrote;

    “whether through ‘accommodation'”

    This is how Canada dealt with it’s internal 4GW problem.
    In a particular region with the landmass of continental Europe.

    M

    [CR: For those interested in more discussion, van Creveld covers it in some detail in The Culture of War.]

  9. loggie20on 03 Jul 2009 at 6:03 am 9

    Nagl is basically right that it requires a stable society to get results from COIN.

    He is dead wrong “we” cannot do it for them.

    The most challenging statement from the early objections to the Vietnam strategy and truthful is “American boys should not die in the place of Vietnamese boys”.

    As bright as Nagl is he seems to miss the point that we cannot do it.

    Malay is a good example: the “successful” Commonwealth support was for the most populous ethnic groups against minority insurgents.

    He gets a bit of the strategy but misses the basic tactics entirely. Sun Tzu is a hard teacher.

    [CR: Isn’t he? Requires you to think, not just memorize.

    Regarding the nature of insurgency, I don’t know why this is such a hard point. I’ll make it simple: Governments can defeat insurgency in their midst; occupiers cannot.

    There are exceptions, but they are just that. Lots of data, as I lay out in If We Can Keep It, to support this conclusion. And again, there’s always van Creveld.

    By the way, Nagl was just appointed to the Defense Policy Board.]

  10. Maxon 04 Jul 2009 at 6:07 am 10

    Emery Nelson on 30 Jun 2009 at 12:06 pm 2

    “It’s impossible for US ground forces not to use air when they feel endangered.”

    http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20090704/ap_on_re_as/as_afghanistan

    By FISNIK ABRASHI and RAHIM FAIEZ, Associated Press Writers Fisnik Abrashi And Rahim Faiez, Associated Press Writers – 15 mins ago

    KABUL – Militants attacked a U.S. coalition base in eastern Afghanistan on Saturday, exploding a truck outside the gates, sparking a two-hour gunbattle and killing two American troops, officials said.

    U.S. forces called in airstrikes to end the clash, killing more than 30 insurgents in Zerok district of Paktika province, said Hamidullah Zawak, the provincial governor spokesman. Seven U.S. and two Afghan troops were wounded, a U.S. military spokesman said.

  11. jaylemeuxon 09 Jul 2009 at 9:30 pm 11

    “”COINdinista” haters?? You don’t have to own Lockheed Martin stock to question our current COIN doctrine. Although it doesn’t seem difficult for a government to eliminate insurgency in its own country, whether through accommodation or brutality, there are few examples since the end of WW II of a successful occupation.”

    I don’t question the latter point, I just see the military’s internal doctrine and U.S. foreign policy as separate entities. If we take as a given that it’s far more likely they’ll be ordered to occupy somebody than fight another military (unfortunate? maybe, but whattayagonnado?), they can either pretend to fight the Soviet Union or they can probably fail without killing hundreds of thousands of civilians. At least now they’re TRYING to win.

  12. Maxon 26 Jul 2009 at 8:46 pm 12

    Dr. CR wrote;

    “whether through ‘accommodation’”

    [CR: For those interested in more discussion, van Creveld covers it in some detail in The Culture of War.]

    “Accomodation” is a very lovely young lady and one that most of us
    would fall for, and might marry in a flash, under appropriate circumstances, just be aware of her very ugly attached live in inlaws, “appeasement, ” “blackmail,” and “extortion.”

    M