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The Bull, the Cape and Counter-Insurgency

As I read General McChrystal's recently released "ISAF Commander's Counterinsurgency Guidance," one metaphor stuck in my head as particularly relevant on how the US and our allies should fight the war in Afghanistan:

PLAYING INTO THEIR HANDS. A military force, culturally programmed to respond conventionally (and predictably) to insurgent attacks, is akin to the bull that repeatedly charges a matador's cape -- only to tire and eventually be defeated by a much weaker opponent. This is predictable -- the bull does what comes naturally. While a conventional approach is instinctive, that behavior is self-defeating.

I love analogies like this one. It perfectly captures the paradox of counter-insurgency in a few short words. The US military wins every battle it fights; but in insurgency winning battles can lose the war. We truly are the bull rushing through the cape. Here are a few examples of the US slowly losing the war.

1. Killing the enemy. "What?" you ask "isn't that how you win in a war?" Yes, it is how you win in a conventional war fought between conventional armies. Killing insurgents merely makes recruiting easier for Al Qaida and the Taliban. The death of a loved one makes it easier for more of the population in question to assist the insurgents in intelligence, logistics or even direct action operations.

Our method of killing the enemy exacerbates our problems. By using artillery, aircraft and UAVs, we rely on faulty intelligence and frequently kill the wrong people. We also risk killing civilians. By using firepower to kill the enemy, and not maneuver, we never truly positively identify targets.

Solution: Our forces should not try to kill the enemy but convince them to surrender or switch sides. In Iraq, the Sunni Awakening is an example of this process in work. Instead of killing our way out, as we tried before the surge, we convinced tribes and groups to switch sides. By taking converts we both add to our security forces, and take away from the insurgency. The math is much better than attrition math where killing the enemy only creates a larger insurgency.

2. Demanding retribution. Vengeance doesn't exist in well-run counter-insurgencies. Offering amnesty to former insurgents is the easiest way to break the will of a fragile group. The British offered this way out in Malaya and the result was that entire bands were rushing to surrender so as not to be the last one left out. In current operations, though, if you get labeled as an insurgent in Afghanistan you can never erase that label; your name will remain stuck in our intelligence databases for years. The result is that former insurgents see no reason to support the government and will remain active.

More importantly, US commanders and soldiers abhor the idea of reconciliation in general. The majority of the military are fighters, type A personalities who don't like losing. They take the loss of their comrades seriously. I don't begrudge them this. I do know, however, that following World War II, the US exacted no vengeance on the Germans or Japanese. In fact, we rebuilt their countries for them through the Marshall Plan. This created peace with those nations for the next sixty years and counting. Just saying.

Solution: We develop amnesty programs. We send our own night letters to Taliban and HiG commanders and offer them jobs in the government. We talk to our troops who don't want to ally with former insurgents and explain that political war often creates strange bedfellows.

3. Changing from the top. As a military, we still believe that change comes from the top. The structure of conventional forces collects assets, manpower and resources at the top. Thus, ISAF controls the best intelligence resources, brigades run staffs of dozens of experienced field grade officers and higher headquarters live on super FOBs in relative luxury. Meanwhile, companies and platoon fight to analyze intelligence, get resources and build outposts and patrol bases in extreme conditions. Because resources and power accrue gather at the top, change can only come from the top. In counter-insurgency, though, the best ideas come from the bottom.

Solution: We need to push resources down to the lowest level. While the simplest idea I present here, it will be the hardest to execute. Our military loves the customs of rank at the highest level. Convincing colonels and generals to get rid of their staffs will not happen until the majors and captains--who fought in the trenches of our two political wars--become battalion and brigade commanders.

The sad fact is that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could be fought with smaller division and corps staffs. If General Lee and General Grant could direct battles involving hundreds of thousands of men with only a handful of staff officers, then we can.

One comment

Connecting this to Friday’s post, we need to change our value system in a positive way. We need to go from vengeance to forgiveness, which is a Christian value.