Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Mullah von Clausewitz

First, read Marine Captain Jonathan Rue’s recent piece for the Guardian looking at how we’re doing in Afghanistan.

It’s tough to argue with his conclusions, especially with regards to the advisory effort. Developing effective Afghan security is, for all intents and purposes, developing an indigenous Afghan counterinsurgency capability to combat a threat that only time will kill. It is the last, best hope for Afghanistan after our departure, whether that occurs in 2014 or 2024. The idea that we can exterminate the Taliban is, of course, an infantile fantasy. We either build enough capacity to stave off the Taliban without significant US troops, or we allow their return.

That’s why the numbers cited in the Guardian piece are so troubling. This is not to knock our advisors. I’ve been an advisor myself, in Iraq, and fully understand what a difficult job it is. I can’t speak to the quality of the advisory and partnering effort in Afghanistan but the majority of advisors I worked with in Iraq were definitely value-added to the Iraqi Army. Partnering efforts were spotty but fully supported by US combat units in theater. From what I’ve heard from maneuver commanders with Afghanistan experience, partnering is something they fully believe in. The US military has admirably developed a robust advisory and partnering capability on the fly.

Eventually. It certainly did not start out that way. The book The Snake Eaters by Marine Major Owen West details the difficulties the US military had in creating this capacity from scratch. While we’ve succeeded in creating an ability to advise and partner with host nation forces, we have done so at a strictly tactical level. At the Kabul Cable, Nathan Finney detailed our problems translating that tactical capability into strategic effects. Caitlin Fitz Gerald at Gunpowder and Lead also delved into our effort from a strategic standpoint:
The new version of victory would be to stand up the Afghan military and police forces, to act as advisors to build their capacity. It’s not that advisory missions can’t be effective – Finney’s piece touches on some of the ways in which they can - but forgive me if in this case it looked to me like another way to redefine victory, a grasping at one last straw that might let us tell ourselves that no we weren’t leaving because we’d lost, no it wasn’t all for nothing, all the damage and death and ugliness, that we achieved this thing, and that’s why we’re leaving, because we’re done and Afghanistan is better off….… This is why the advisory mission is a shambles too, with so-called ‘green on blue’ attacks – a pretty term for an ugly thing, that always evokes in my mind high grassy hills and wide summer skies, swirls of cool soothing color, not the heat and betrayal and blood it’s really meant to mean – occurring with alarming frequency, and I can’t help but think that it’s because all it ever was was a cover for our exit, a half-assed attempt to save face on our way out the door, and that deep down, we know it, and so do the Afghans.
Translated to Marine speak- the advisory effort is an expediency. Something we have to do in order to get out of the country. Or, even worse, a placebo placed on an open wound just to calm the patient. While this may not the case, it’s easy to see why it seems that way. Before 9/11, the US military only had a paltry capability to advise, train, and build host nation forces. Foreign Internal Defense was considered a special forces mission and the rest of the military was happy to foist the responsibility on a special forces community too small shoulder the entire burden. I’m sure the analogy has been used before, but our creation of advisory and partnering tactics, techniques, and procedures was akin to building an airplane while it’s in flight. The US simply did not see the need before it was upon us. Captain Rue alluded to the fact that the US made this same mistake in Vietnam. That’s true, but we also made this mistake in Korea and El Salvador. The US military, caught flat-footed by the need for advisors in Korea, Vietnam, El Salvador, Iraq, AND Afghanistan, has had serious issues when forced to create an advisory capability from scratch. Achieving productive strategic effects from an advisory effort may be a little bit easier if we did not have to reinvent the tactical wheels every single time we need it. This is another result of the “casual arrogance” with which we approached Iraq and Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, the race to both develop our own skills as advisors and partners and then to put those skills into action with our Afghan partners may have been begun too late to overcome an enemy that recognizes our vulnerability. While it is unclear just how many of the green on blue attacks are directly due to Taliban efforts, that number is irrelevant. The Taliban can exploit the trend to drive a wedge between ISAF and Afghan security forces. They do this because they recognize that relationship for what it is: our center of gravity. They’re in good company.
One must keep the dominant characteristics of both belligerents in mind. Out of these characteristics a certain center of gravity develops, the hub of all power and movement, on which everything depends…. (emphasis mine)… For Alexander, Gustavus Adoplhus, Charles the XII, and Frederick the Great, the center of gravity was their army… In countries subject to domestic strife, the center of gravity is generally the capital. In small countries that rely on large ones, it is usually the army of their protector. Among alliances, it lies in the community of interest… (emphasis mine).- Carl Von Clausewitz, On War (Page 596 in the Howard/Paret translation)
Whatever the cause, green on blue attacks are steadily eroding the bonds between the community of interest formed between ISAF forces and the Afghans who choose to fight alongside them. While the casualties that result from these attacks are few and the advisory effort is only a portion of the ISAF strategy in Afghanistan, they effects of these incidents can have far larger strategic consequences. 

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