Why We Fear General McChrystal's Counterinsurgency Plan May Be Doomed





Mr. Enterline is an associate professor of political science at the University of North Texas. Mr. Magagnoli is a doctoral student in political science at the university.

American Gen. Stanley McChrystal, recently appointed military commander of allied forces in Afghanistan, contends that absent a significant change in strategy, the outcome of the counterinsurgency war against the Taliban and associated groups will result in a military defeat.  The critical question before President Obama and the allied nations engaged in the war in Afghanistan is whether a failed counterinsurgency  can be corrected and military victory achieved. In addressing this question the public debate often utilizes comparisons with a few familiar cases, such as Vietnam, to argue  that the current conflict in Afghanistan is unwinnable.  By drawing on history more generally, we argue that one can gain greater insight to the question of whether the current counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan can be turned around.

Examining counterinsurgencies throughout the twentieth century reveals a pattern of pronounced failures by foreign powers, highlighted by United States involvement in Vietnam.  Yet many cases of counterinsurgency that are cited today as notable success stories, such as the British experiences in Malaya (1948-60) and Kenya (1952-60), were failing initially as well. The British struggled early in Malaya and Kenya against insurgencies that were relatively isolated and received little or no external support. 

In Malaya, the British lacked a strategic plan, as well as a clearly defined leadership or organization, and relied heavily on large conventional army sweeps to engage the insurgents. In Kenya, the British lacked a cohesive strategy, relying on repression as the primary counterinsurgency instrument, a strategy that inflamed the conflict and increased support for the insurgents. Yet, in both cases the British ultimately vanquished the insurgency. What enabled this reversal of fortune by the British while the United States failed in Vietnam?

We attribute this success to the capacity of counterinsurgents to adapt their military strategies by altering their their operational and strategic focus. Embedded in these strategic changes is a realization by counterinsurgent armies that they lack reliable intelligence about the insurgents as well a clear endgame for the conflict.  A new, and ultimately successful, strategic approach will usually center around resolving these two issues. However, the ability to resolve the deficiencies of the counterinsurgency depends on how quickly counterinsurgent armies correct these deficiencies. For example, the British changed their counterinsurgency strategy within two years of each conflict, while the United States altered course in Vietnam after nine years of war. The longer that a counterinsurgency strategy is allowed to fail, the more limited the effectiveness of its strategic replacement.

The diminishing effect of a strategy change is due to two reasons. An ineffective counterinsurgency depletes local support, turning indifferent populations into ardent enemies of the foreign power. In turn, a renewed focus on gaining  popular favor with nation-building and the provision of security, as is proposed by Gen. McChrystal for Afghanistan, is made exponentially more difficult in the absence of local support. Additionally, the longer an ineffective counterinsurgency strategy is implemented, the greater the opportunity for insurgents to increase popular support, as well as to establish external sources of political and material support.

Whether the war in Afghanistan is winnable from a military perspective is front and center in the public debate over the course of the American effort. The current conflict in Afghanistan may seem unwinnable. However, the important question to ask is whether and how the shortcomings in the counterinsurgency, such as lack of intelligence, deterioration of popular support, and the capability of local military forces, can be reversed with a different strategy. The degree to which the these factors can change are a function of timing---early is good, later is bad. The renewed focus by Gen. McChrystal on the population and the government of Afghanistan is a major step toward correcting a failed counterinsurgency program, but one that is likely too late, given pattens of counterinsurgency in the twentieth century.


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Fahrettin Tahir - 10/28/2009

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Donald Wolberg - 10/27/2009

Unfortunately, Mr. Obama declared that Afghanistan was the war to fight, and foolishly people listened to perhaps the most capability limited President since Mr. Carter. Mr. Obama really did not mean what he said after all, or perhaps when it came time to make a decision, he once again proved incapable of making a decision. Far better it seemed, and easier, to dally with attacking Fox News, or letting issue after issue run out of control, from medical reform to bailing out car companies, all failures of leadership. Mr. Obama never served, never really did much in life or politics except run very few campaigns, and neve led any organization or ran any business. Rather than trust military leaders he selected for the task in Afghanistan, he has retreated to a corner of the room and engages in political thumb-sucking waiting until he cannot help but react, rather than act. Eventual reaction appears to be the style of an administration without content. The failure would be comical, except our troops, and NATO troops, are placed in miserable situations without support. That very support was declared necessary by the very military leaders Mr. Obama selected.
One can only be troubled by the image of the American Presidency mired in indecision and amazing limitiations of ability. Mr. Obama is clearly in a series of situations he cannot control, not because of the complexities of the situations, but the shortcomings of the leader. In the end, our soldiers suffer and our nation suffers, rudderless.


Nancy REYES - 10/21/2009

Ah, but you ignore other insurgencies, such as how Magsaysay overcame the Huks. The Taliban's radical policies are not popular, but people may prefer not getting their heads cut off.

As Magsaysay showed, if you eliminate the threat of deaths from "insurgents" while helping folks to get some economic and political power to decide their own fate, the support for the insurgents dwindles.

You also ignore that the Taliban are Pushtun, but only 40 percent of Afghanistan is Pushtun.

Finally, you ignore the large outside money donations that keep the "insurgents" going. Giving gifts to reinforce friendship of clan leaders is an ancient custom that can be played by both sides.


Arnold Shcherban - 10/21/2009

that they remain lies whatever rationale the lairs forward in supporting them.
To begin with, we are told that the only and simplest way to protect the lives of our troops is to add more troops, i.e. - essentially - more potential victims?!
Of course, such a terribly more complicated and expensive way as to withdrawing all the troops is out of the question...
Oh, "we" know: the latter would be a declaration of "defeat"... or would it? It can't be military defeat, since the US and its NATO allies have already defeated the Taliban regime with its armed units and mythical Al-Qaeda years ago, in military sense, as completely as they defeated Saddam's Army and its regime in Iraq later.
What they are fighting now against in both occupied countries is
anti-aggression and anti-occupation
insurgency, i.e. a guerrilla war (the same guerrillas, only that time being fully aided by the US, the Soviets were fighting against back in 1980s.)
But we are told the "terrorist" acts and Taliban presence in some Afghan and Pakistan regions continue and, perhaps, even on the rise.
Wasn't what "we" are called Taliban always present in Afghanistan?
In fact, Taliban is nothing more or less than social and religious norms of daily life that constitute the mixture of historical and religious national traditions, not only for the most Afghan tribes, but also for many ethnic groups in such officially allied with the US countries as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, today's Iraq, Indonesia, Philippine, and others.

Why not to use one most successful and traditional tool of the US foreign policy as bribery, which always worked, and especially well in the Third World countries, and in Middle-East. The last time I checked
the so-called surge in Iraq gave significantly positive results exactly in its financial application, i.e. monetary bribing Shiite and Sunni militant leaders in exchange for relative peace, not in its quantitative military increase (in sharp contradiction to the official
version of the pertaining events there.)
Neither Vietnam nor Europe in their respective eras present even remote cultural, economic, and social analogies and therefore can hardly be employed for comparative analysis.
The best US can do is to fully get out of the Afghanistan and Iraq, before they destabilize the situation
in the entire Middle-East region completely, the potentiality they continuously used as the excuse for not withdrawing from these countries.
(The US and NATO has already performed "wonderful" job in this regard; it's enough just to compare quite peaceful situation in the region before the Western aggression and today's one... with its many hundreds of thousands killed and millions lives ruined, not already mentioning the economic and social disasters)
If "we" won't get out, read my lips: it is going to be transformation of the "war on terror"
into a WAR between several regional nations with the NATO participation and additional millions of victims.
They "we", as usually, will blame
Iran, Taliban, Russia, and other self-created enemies, but ourselves.


Jonathan Dresner - 10/21/2009

Important though women's rights are there is no example in history where a foreign army has succeeded in protecting them.

Japan, 1945-1952, especially the 1947 Constitution.


Fahrettin Tahir - 10/21/2009

Actually I did not use the word leave. That would give the wrong signals. I was criticizing an article which avoided important aspects. Understanding the issues would help formulate constructive policies. Cowboys who shoot faster than their shadows are a disaster.

Important though women's rights are there is no example in history where a foreign army has succeeded in protecting them. Unfortunately, it is always (always) women who have to fight for them. Neither does the poppy trade presently seem to be suffering.

For me it is not Mr Obama but the American people who have to learn how to deal with Moslems. He can not be expected to be better than his nation.


Oscar Chamberlain - 10/21/2009

I don't know what Obama will decide, but if he expands our presence he should ask Congress for a resolution that supports it. And he should seek other options if Congress doesn't.

Why?

1. It's closer to the intent of the Constitution's war provisions.

2. A long involvement is not going to be popular. But if Congress votes to support, a larger percentage of the population will take that commitment seriously.

3. And if Obama can't get a Congressional majority to support his action, it's bad policy becuae he doesn't have the political support to make it work.


Donald Wolberg - 10/20/2009

Mr. Tahir has committed that quagmire of oversimplification: the use of "always." Always covers lots of territory and lots of people and lots of politics. Of course, Ahghanistan has had a time of stability, a time or times of acceptance of new ideas and peoples, and a history that is a history of cultures and peoples, diverse and interesting, satable and unstable, and functioning or not functioning government or parts of governments. As Americans, however, there are real evils to be done if we leave in a cold and calculating way: women will agin be denied education, any rights and lots of stonings; children will never know anything of the 21st century of substance; the poppy trade will reach us in it much purified form; and the terrorist killers will provide safe places for mor mayhem. In the end, the overiding interest of Americans and the American government is to protect Americans. Unfortunately Mr. Obama is as poor a leader as his CV indicated he would be; insecure in leadership, and unable to formulate a policy for the war he campaigned on as being the necessary war. Equally unfortunate, Mr. Obama's learning curve is as shallow as most else in his administration.


Fahrettin Tahir - 10/20/2009

That is one of the things I would have expected the article to say, which it is not. I have no idea if the population supports the taliban or Mr Karsai.

Most populations resist foreign occupation and this seems to me to be what is happening in the Pashtun parts of Afghanistan. I would be surprised if the Pashtuns were so ideological to make a choice like no to democracy - yes to Taliban. They are doing what they always do when foreigners come to their country. Tyr to force them out.


J R Willis - 10/20/2009

If you have such information, please share. I am quite curious whether the Taliban are welcomed by the majority of Afghans, for example.


Arnold Shcherban - 10/19/2009

that they remain lies whatever rationale the lairs forward in supporting them.
To begin with, we are told that the only ans simplest way to protect the lives of our troops is to add more troops, i.e. - essentially - more potential victims?!
Of course, such a terribly more complicated and expensive way as to withdrawing all the troops is out of the question...
Oh, "we" know: the latter will be a declaration of "defeat"... or will it? It can't be military defeat, since the US and its NATO allies has already defeated the Taliban regime with its armed units and mythical Al-Qaeda years ago, in military sense as completely as they defeated Saddam's Army and its regime in Iraq later.
But we are told the terrorist acts and Taliban presence in some Afgani and Pakistani regions continue and, perhaps, even on the rise.
Wasn't what "we" are called Taliban always present in Afghanistan.
In fact, Taliban is nothing more or less than social and religious norms of daily life that constitute historical national tradition, not only for the most Afghan tribes, but also for many ethnic groups in such officially allied with the US countries as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, today's Iraq, Indonesia, Philippine, and others.
Why not to use one most successful and traditional tool of the US foreign policy as bribery, which always worked, and especially well in the Third World countries, and in Middle-East. The last time I checked
the so-called surge in Iraq gave significantly positive results exactly in its financial application, i.e. monetary bribing Shiite and Sunni militant leaders in exchange for relative peace, not in its quantitative military increase (in sharp contradiction to the official
version of the pertaining events there.)
Neither Vietnam nor Europe in their respective eras present even remote cultural, economic, and social analogies and therefore can hardly be employed for comparative analysis.
The best US can do is to fully get out of the Afghanistan and Iraq, before they destabilize the situation
in the entire Middle-East region completely, the potentiality they continuously used as the excuse for not withdrawing from these countries.
(The US and NATO has already performed "wonderful" job in this regard; it's enough just to compare quite peaceful situation in the region before the Western aggression and today's one... with its many hundreds of thousands killed and millions lives ruined, not already mentioning the economic and social disasters)
If "we" won't get out, read my lips: it is going to be transformation of the "war on terror"
into a WAR between several regional nations with the NATO participation and additional millions of victims.
They "we"... as usually will blame
Iran, Taliban, Russia, and other "enemies", but ourselves.
























Fahrettin Tahir - 10/19/2009

This is an article like old cowboy films. You don't read a word about why the injuns are fightin'. Only about whether the cavalry is gonna get 'em!

Great historiography guys! Keep it up.


Mike A Mainello - 10/19/2009

Mr. Wolberg, very well stated.

The difference the US is trying to make is not only to defeat an enemy, but to help stand up a government and put in place the foundations for a functioning society. The military learned from the Vietnam failures and 50 years of living in Europe after WW2.

This president is woefully inexperienced and has a history of not making decisions. If the media had done there job and disseminated his lack of experience, then the US would have probably had a different leader - Hillary or McCain - and one that at least had a background in decision making.

The world is going to suffer from this experiment and hopefully our president will grow quickly.


Donald Wolberg - 10/19/2009

The review by Mr. Magagnoli and Mr. Enterline although interesting as history is less than significant as policy. The temptation for arm-chairing struggles by those not involved in command positions of substance, or combat positions as daily reality has always been great, and almost always useless. Much of the nuance of today from the administration is confusing and directionless simply because non-policy originates in a President with no experience seeming to waft from advice from the last self-appointed "expert" be it "general" Pelosi or or a Vice President suffering from "legend in his own mind" notions and not much real knowledge. Mr. Biden's bluster and self-indulgence in the cloak of "authority" is not only silly but harmful to real soldiers on the ground. Harsh as this seems, the inability to act by a rudderless administration does endanger allied soldiers. The expertise of General Petraeus and McChrystal are undisputed but seemingly of less significance to an administration befuddled by a left swinging troika of Obama, Pelosi and Biden.

The struggle in Ahghanistan has nothing to do with Malasia, Kenya, or the Phillipines. It is defined by the theater circumstances in Afghanistan. Generals Petraeus and McChrystal understand the terraine, political and geographic, and are the only sources of real expertise. They can and will "win" (whatever a "win" means in an Afghanistan context, but I suggest, more importantly, they will less the burden on allied soldiers. Mr. Obama seems to believe he can please every interest within his own party, but unfortunately this position increases the danger to allied troops.Real leadership would secure that latter interest first and sacrifice the political expediency.

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