Colonel makes case against COIN in Afghanistan

Col. Harry D. Tunnell IV (US Army photo)

Although a fan of counterinsurgency (COIN) in certain cases, I have publicly opposed the population-centric model of COIN utilized in Afghanistan for several years. But I am safe at home and feel that we should defer to those whose lives depend on how effective our warfighting doctrine is. I came across a wonderfully written letter by a former infantry commander, who is also an officially trained military historian, to the Secretary of the Army detailing why we are failing in Afghanistan.

I understand many folks in the military still support COIN in Afghanistan, but I doubt I am the only one that thinks something is wrong when the world’s most advanced military is 11 years into a war with an illiterate enemy that has no armor, navy, or air force.

An excerpt from my latest piece at The US Report:

Where did we go wrong? [Col. Harry D. Tunnell IV] said it’s mainly because our senior leaders, who have less combat maneuver experience now than perhaps at any time in U.S. military history, are “unwilling to conduct operations that reflect sound military art and science.”

Years ago, we abandoned our counterterrorism efforts in favor of counterinsurgency (COIN), a nebulous, and primarily political strategy aimed at protecting populations and addressing grievances. Killing the enemy and breaking their will to fight becomes secondary, and success hinges on an incredibly corrupt Afghan government.

Tunnell says that COIN “consists of musings from amateurs, contractors, plagiarized journal articles, etc.” and has contributed to “needless American casualties”:

COIN has become such a restrictive dogma that it cannot be questioned; any professional discussion about its strengths and weaknesses is discouraged. It has reached such a crisis that those who employ other Army doctrinal concepts do so at their own professional peril because they will be subject to censure for not adhering to COIN. This has created a dysfunctional and toxic leadership environment throughout our Army which has resulted in poor organization, unrealistic training, and indecisive battlefield performance.

Our military exists to protect American citizens, not Afghans. And if the Afghan people have grievances, that is their business – not ours. Our business should be to kill the terrorists that seek to kill Americans and then come home. The moment we quit doing that was the moment we abandoned our own best interests:

Our potential for greater coalition casualties does not have to be inevitable, but due to our flawed approach to operations we wind up enabling our enemy. The population-centric approach which places the population as the center of gravity is applied to the point of absurdity. The enemy is entrenching himself among the civilian population as we cede to him territory and lines of communication. […]

A gross lack of concern for subordinates manifests in guidance that “zero” civilian casualties are acceptable and coalition soldiers may have to be killed rather than defend themselves against a potential threat and risk being wrong and possibly resulting in injury or death of civilians…

The Battle of Ganjgal, in which Marine Sgt. Dakota Meyer received the Medal of Honor, exemplifies Col. Tunnell’s point that COIN and restrictive rules of engagement result in needless American casualties: (more…)

Posted on October 15, 2012 at 16:06 by Chris Carter · Permalink · Leave a comment
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Who is the bigger threat: the Taliban, or our own strategy?

“We are pinned down. We are running low on ammo. We have no air. We’ve lost today,” Marine Maj. Kevin Williams told his Afghan translator as Afghan soldiers repeatedly asked for helicopter support. American military trainers and the Afghan soldiers they were working with had been pinned down by intense machine gun, rocket-propelled grenade, and mortar fire for several hours, and the artillery support they had been promised was being withheld by commanders at a nearby forward operating base.

The combined force of 60 Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers, 20 Afghan border police, and 13 U.S. trainers set out before dawn on Sept. 8, 2009 to search the rugged Afghan village of Ganjgal in eastern Kunar province for weapons and to conduct a meeting with local officials. The town had just recently rejected the Taliban’s authority in favor of the Afghan government. The village elders had requested that Afghan troops would conduct the sweep, and the embedded American trainers were present in case air or artillery support was required.

As the unit approached the village, situated in a valley encircled by craggy mountains, the town’s lights suddenly turned off – a likely sign that the mission has been compromised. Minutes later, the first shots were fired at the column, and the force was quickly enveloped with heavy machine gun and rocket-propelled grenade fire. The Americans and Afghans took cover behind rock walls, and the enemy began an attempt to flank the pinned-down unit.

As a force of about 100-150 enemy fighters maneuvered to flank the unit, the American commander called for the helicopter and artillery support that had been assured before the men set out. Although the unit was informed that helicopter support would arrive within five minutes, a reporter who had embedded with the unit stated that helicopters didn’t arrive for 80 minutes after the call – the helicopters were fighting another battle in the nearby Shuryak Valley, and two pilots had reportedly been shot.

The unit was taking heavy casualties, surrounded on three sides, their radio only working intermittently, when they learned that the artillery support they had been promised earlier was not coming. Despite assurances that the requested targets were not near the village, officers at the nearby forward operating base came back on the radio and informed the Americans that new rules of engagement prevented them from allowing any artillery near the village in order to prevent civilian casualties. When the team requested smoke rounds be fired to hide their retreat, the fire base did send white phosphorous rounds – 50 minutes later. Reports also state that commanders did not comply with repeated requests for reinforcements via the on-call quick reaction force.

(more…)

Posted on November 11, 2010 at 13:39 by Chris Carter · Permalink · 5 Comments
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Reading on the Battle of Ganjgal

On Sept. 8, 2009, three U.S. Marines, their Navy corpsman, and a soldier were killed as U.S. commanders withheld artillery support. As I write an article on the matter, I wanted to post my sources so others may read about this battle. If there can be a bright spot from this, the military is reportedly going through the process of determining whether former Cpl. Dakota Meyer of Kentucky is to receive the Medal of Honor. If confirmed, Meyer would be the second recipient of the nation’s highest award for valor since the Vietnam War.

Rep. wants answers on Ganjgal ambush probe
Heroism in ambush may yield top valor awards
Ambush survivor up for Medal of Honor
Report: Army denied aid to team under fire
Deadly Afghan ambush shows perils of ill-supplied deployment
‘We’re pinned down:’ 4 U.S. Marines die in Afghan ambush

Posted on November 10, 2010 at 14:19 by Chris Carter · Permalink · Leave a comment
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The best article on counterinsurgency

I just came across an incredible article on not only counterinsurgency, but one that also addresses the ideology of our enemies (something our government and military will not do) – jihad. Sergeant Major Jim Sauer (USMC, ret.) makes more sense than anyone I have come across yet. A must read for anyone who seeks to understand counterinsurgency or the situation in Afghanistan.

Read the article.

Posted on July 1, 2010 at 17:47 by Chris Carter · Permalink · Leave a comment
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Time to reevaluate counterinsurgency

West Point professor Col. Gian P. Gentile writes that it is “time for the deconstruction” of the Army’s Counterinsurgency manual. I agree.

Col. Gentile writes (emphasis mine):

Concepts such as population security, nationbuilding, and living among the people to win their hearts and minds were first injected into the Army with the publication of the vaunted Field Manual (FM) 3–24, Counterinsurgency, in December 2006. Unfortunately, the Army was so busy fighting two wars that the new doctrine was written and implemented and came to dominate how the Army thinks about war without a serious professional and public debate over its efficacy, practicality, and utility.

[…]

It is time for the Army to debate FM 3–24 critically, in a wide and open forum. The notion that it was debated sufficiently during the months leading up to its publication is a chimera. Unfortunately, the dialogue within defense circles about counterinsurgency and the Army’s new way of war is stale and reflects thinking that is well over 40 years old. In short, our Army has been steamrollered by a counterinsurgency doctrine that was developed by Western military officers to deal with insurgencies and national wars of independence from the mountains of northern Algeria in the 1950s to the swamps of Indochina in the 1960s. The simple truth is that we have bought into a doctrine for countering insurgencies that did not work in the past, as proven by history, and whose efficacy and utility remain highly problematic today. Yet prominent members of the Army and the defense expert community seem to be mired in this out-of-date doctrine.

Col. Gentile has more in “Freeing the Army from the Counterinsurgency Straightjacket.”

Both the field and the institutional Army have gained much experience over these past 4 years in actually fighting two major COIN campaigns. Should we not consider that experience and integrate it into a revised doctrine for counterinsurgency? The German army in World War I went through major doctrinal introspection and then change after only 2 years of combat on the Western Front. It drew on a vast amount of combat experience (often from the lower ranks of the army), codified that experience into an operational doctrine, trained on it, and then put it into practice against the enemy.

Why is our military still carrying on as if there isn’t anything wrong? If counterinsurgency is as great as its proponents portray, it should be able to withstand the debate that Gentile calls for. Either way, our nation must do whatever it takes to win. We have the best troops and equipment in the world. We just need a strategy that will work, and after four years, it seems obvious to this author that counterinsurgency does not.

Posted on June 27, 2010 at 21:58 by Chris Carter · Permalink · 2 Comments
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What did McChrystal say?

Diana West wrote months ago that Gen. Stan McChrystal had several serious flaws (seven by her count), worthy of dismissing the general only weeks after taking command of all troops in Afghanistan. To me, this one was the worst:

“Preoccupied with protection of our own forces, we have operated in a manner that distances us – physically and psychologically – from the
people we seek to protect,” McChrystal wrote in a 2009 memo.

First, there is nothing that we can do to win the hearts and minds of the “people we seek to protect” whom it just so happens are religiously commanded to either kill, convert, or subjugate non-Muslims. And how on earth is putting the protection of our own forces first a negative in the eyes of a military officer? West writes:

That a general could write so disparagingly of the means to preserve his soldiers at least to fight another day is despicable. But this is what zealots do. They serve theories, not men; they see visions, not reality. And that theory, that vision is akin to the familiar Marxist notion, likely imbibed during PC school days, that denies that identity, religion, and culture matter. In the resulting tunnel vision, the so-called hearts and minds strategy looks like a winner.

This is the underlying basis of the counterinsurgency warfare now in vogue. “Hearts and minds” is not only the flawed rationale behind “nation building,” it also inspires the restrictive rules of engagement finally causing unease at home. This strategy – now framed as “the battle for the support of the [Afghan] people” — must be junked if our military is ever to be used effectively and appropriately.

McChrystal did say one thing in the memo that I agreed with: “The insurgents cannot defeat us militarily; but we can defeat ourselves.”

That is exactly what is happening. But with a new commander in Afghanistan, we can push for Congressional hearings on the Rules of Engagement. Untying the hands of our troops will go a long way towards defeating the Taliban and al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist groups. But that will not happen unless Americans unite behind our troops, and press Congress to investigate the ROE.

Posted on June 27, 2010 at 18:02 by Chris Carter · Permalink · Leave a comment
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Statistics don’t look good for COIN

Things are going from bad to worse in Afghanistan. How is it possible to conduct a successful counterinsurgency campaign in a country that 1.) doesn’t support it’s own government; 2.) despises foreigners – especially non-Muslims; and 3.) in many cases, prefers the Taliban?

From a post by Juan Cole highlighting the recent Pentagon study on the war in Afghanistan:

NATO is operating in about 100 districts of the country (the vague equivalent of counties).

Number of Afghans in 92 districts (assessed for their relationship to the Federal government) that actively support the government of Hamid Karzai: 0

Number of districts out of 92 that are neutral toward the government: 44

Number of districts sympathetic to the insurgency in March 2010: 48

Number of districts that had been sympathetic to the insurgency in June, 2009: 33

Increase in violent incidents from Feb. 2009 to March 2010: 87 percent.

I support our military – which means I want our troops to have the best equipment, training, leaders, and strategy possible. When we have been fighting in Afghanistan for nearly nine years, and as we see above, our “won-loss record” (regarding the districts referenced above) is 0-48-44, it is past time to consider changing game plans. And by changing plans, I do NOT mean leaving Afghanistan. We have no choice but to fight.

This would never fly in sports, and it sure as hell shouldn’t be the case when lives are being lost.

Posted on May 1, 2010 at 21:11 by Chris Carter · Permalink · Leave a comment
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Why COIN won’t work in Afghanistan

Why do I not believe that our current strategy in Afghanistan is going to work? Check out this extraordinarily complex slide showing the military’s strategy for Afghanistan:

"Afghanistan Stability/COIN Dynamics – Security" slide from a military Power Point presentation (Source: Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff)

According to one of his advisers, General Stanley McChrystal said “When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war.”

Yeah… it’s times like these that I ask myself: “what would Patton do?”

Given the technology, I doubt Patton would EVER give a power point presentation. But if he did, it would likely have only one slide, which would say: “Use the means at hand to inflict the maximum amount of wound, death, and destruction on the enemy in the minimum amount of time.” Which do you think would be more successful?

Perhaps Gens. Petraeus, McChrystal, and their superiors should refer to Rule #7 of Richard Marcinko’s Ten Commandments of SpecWar: “Thou shalt Keep it Simple, Stupid.”

Posted on April 28, 2010 at 15:04 by Chris Carter · Permalink · One Comment
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COIN: Know when to say when

To conduct an effective counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign, it is my understanding that one must also have a legitimate government that has the support of the people.

But Afghan president Hamid Karzai recently told members of parliament that he would join the Taliban if outside governments continued to pressure him.

Regardless of whether or not Karzai was serious, his remark effectively legitimized the Taliban. Has Karzai forgotten that tens of thousands of foreign troops are currently fighting the very terrorists he threatened to join? And the billions of dollars being spent to improve his country while the Taliban is busy destroying said improvements?

At this point, I don’t see how a COIN campaign can possibly achieve victory in Afghanistan. But then again, perhaps it never was since our leaders refuse to even use the word victory.

Maybe it is time to ask ourselves what George S. Patton would do. Old Blood and Guts was unceremoniously dumped by a military that was far less PC than what we have today (I doubt Patton would be promoted past Corporal in today’s Army). But he knew how to fight. And isn’t that the point of our armed forces anyways?

Given the chance, Patton would have today’s military run through Afghanistan like s–t through a goose (and don’t tell me our troops couldn’t do it if they had the support). The Taliban would learn the hard way that hiding behind women and children and fighting from mosques isn’t such a good idea. Real quick-like, the Taliban’s supporters – tacit or otherwise – would either change their minds or die in battle. Knowing that certain death awaits those who care to join the jihad would have a chilling effect on recruitment as well.

Then the Afghan people might realize that it’s the Taliban – not the U.S. – that’s making life bad for them. Rather than complain of – or fabricate – collateral damage from coalition air strikes, Afghans would turn on their Taliban for the IEDs that just so happen to kill or maim far more Afghans than they do foreign troops, or for any of the group’s innumerable atrocities committed against their own people.

There is no perfect solution, as fighting the Taliban without nation building would result in an environment where the Taliban can keep popping back up – although they would be significantly weakened each time. In that case, effective use of intelligence and special operations would strike them as soon as they threatened the U.S. again. In war, the most dedicated wins. And when we fight to the best of our ability, no terrorist group can outlast us.

If there was a compromise that could have been reached without resorting to war, we would have done so. But the Taliban will not compromise. Therefore, war is unavoidable – it’s basic human nature. And this war was declared on us. That being said, it would behoove us to begin fighting. Cutting the Taliban a $500 million stimulus check will not change their minds. Announcing to our enemies where we will attack next, or encouraging them to further exploit the rules of war by emasculating our rules of engagement will not change their minds. Neither will building schools, roads, or painting their picket fences. We can’t change their minds. And since we can’t compromise on our security, then war is the only choice.

We have been in Afghanistan for nearly ten years. I am not even sure why our troops are there now to be quite honest. After 9/11, I was under the impression that we sent troops in order to deny al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other terrorist groups the ability to operate training camps to conduct further terrorist attacks against the U.S. or our interests.

When Karzai legitimizes the very terrorists we are fighting, it’s high time to let the military be the military, and stop using them like public works employees and politicians.

Posted on April 6, 2010 at 14:36 by Chris Carter · Permalink · Leave a comment
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Marine Corps counterinsurgency quote

“The insurgent leader is a stallion standing on his hind legs. You don’t win his heart and mind. You kill him.”

– Maj. Stan Leach, 1976

Posted on March 14, 2010 at 12:26 by Chris Carter · Permalink · Leave a comment
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