In with the new
By Daniel M. Ryan
The Obama Administration's choice to replace General Stanley McChrystal, allowing General David Petraeus to go back to his current position, is already being visited with controversy. General James Mattis, a Marine, has attracted criticism for his outspokenness. Not often noted is the he's the right kind of general to head up the counter-insurgency initiative because of that outspokenness.
If there's any analog to the proverbial inside-straight draw, it would have to be counter-insurgency. As a strategy, it's a mug's game and often a thankless burden. Two facts put together show how difficult COIN is: the U.S. military never lost a major battle in the Vietnam War; two years after the U.S. pulled out, North Vietnam took over South Vietnam. Saying flatly that the U.S. lost might be arguable, but the U.S. certainly didn't win – despite having won the battles.
What makes counterinsurgency so difficult is the insurgents blend in with the civilian population, making it difficult to distinguish the two. What distinguishes insurgents from regular combatants is that fact that insurgents go out of their way to not identify themselves as combatants. The civilian population is used as camouflage.
From a value-neutral perspective, this strategy is cynical and underhanded. Consequently, every insurgency presents itself as the domestic populace's champion. Since the counter-insurgency forces are outsiders, the insurgents have a powerful lever in their hands at the outset: the counter-insurgents are "invaders," and the insurgents want the "invaders" gone. Simple unconscious patriotism does work in the insurgents' favor, as does natural suspicion of outsiders.
Given this tilt, the philosophy behind the U.S. and allies' counter-insurgency is common-sensical. Being a counter-insurgent is a lot like being successfully smeared, something that conservatives are not unfamiliar with. Once in that bind, and unable to get out of it by successfully dismissing the smear job out of hand, there are two logical responses: fight back or live it down. Cunning malignments make the aggrieved look bad when fighting back. "See? I told you he was anti-social." In the case of whisper campaigns, fighting back is complicated by the fact that it's hard to tell the truly guilty from those who were just taken in. There's no better way to be successfully portrayed as a vicious bully than by confronting someone with no ill will who's been duped.
When in those binds, the only practicable strategy is to go out of one's way to behave the opposite of the smear's portrayal. It sometimes takes a long time, especially if the only quick way out is to betray. For example, someone pegged as a vicious bully would avoid the appearance through physical self-control and soft-spokenness. If done fairly rigorously, enough doubt will be spread around to render the smear harmless. In some cases, if done skillfully, this process turns the tables.
Based upon the execution of the counter-insurgency strategy, it seems that the U.S. and allied forces have been portrayed as trigger-happy, bloodthirsty and cruel – and as cowardly, as people who shoot children and the unarmed because they're afraid of brave armed men. We know this smearing is flagrantly false, but more than many Afghanis didn't know it at the time the Taliban regime was toppled. When the chief credible source of information is the grapevine, locals tend to be trusted and outsiders aren't. The tribal nature of Afghani society added to that information gap, and still does to some extent.
As indicated above, an outside force has a huge disadvantage at the outset. Prima facie, a foreign military in one's own country is an invasion force unless the two nations are friends and allies beforehand. We take for granted the idea of outside liberation from a domestic tyrant, but it's a lot harder a concept for people outside our culture to grasp. Some cultures would consider the concept of "foreign liberators" as effectively meaningless or nonsensical. Suffice to say that it's a lot easier to peg foreign liberators as tyrants and conquerors, and categorize any such mission as a plain invasion. The devil civilians know, they know; it's not hard for known devils to peg unknown quantities as the devil unknown – as the foreign devil. "They don't know we're liberating them" might as well be the famous last words of the typical counter-insurgency effort. The low success rate of counter-insurgencies mutely shows how difficult it is to get the idea across.
That's the reason behind the restrictive rules of engagement, which are already being complained about in the field. In addition to exposing soldiers to heightened risk of injury or death, and possibly post-traumatic stress disorder, there's another downside to civilian-centric ROEs: they make the allied forces look weak. Note how this impression gibes with the 'coward' smear.
Given the second burden, what better way to dampen it than to put a man like General Mattis in charge? His outspokenness is likely to win him respect in Afghanistan. He's a fighting man who likes to fight. To a culture of fighters, this shows strength. Strength shows that the ROEs are more akin to gentleness than weakness.
Those restrictive ROEs do make things tougher for soldiers on the ground, and seem to make little sense to civilians on this side of the world. They do add risks to the mission that seem unnecessary. They've likely added to the pressure for the U.S. to adhere to the June 2011 withdrawal deadline. "Soldiers who can't shoot back" does add to the impression of Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) as an unwinnable war.
However, it's the fate of the U.S. and allied forces to have to live under a cloud that's hard to dispel. All counterinsurgents have to. The best outcome for the allies, and the mission, would be for the troops to be widely seen as gentle giants – or the closest analog to which the typical Afghani civilian can relate.
The outspoken General McChrystal was stuck up for publicly by President Karzai, who urged President Obama not to relieve him of his now-former command. The outspoken General Mattis is likely the type of man Afghani civilians look up to. His kind of outspokenness should be tolerated for the sake of the war effort.
Daniel M. Ryan is currently watching The Gold Bubble.