Fred Kaplan and the New York Times say that the decision to replace General David McKiernan with Lt. General Stan McChrystal as the principle US commander in Afghanistan is another step in the COINification of the Pentagon under Robert Gates. They say we’ve replaced a conventional warfare guy with an unconventional warfare guy.
That’s too simple. McChrystal is known for his mastery of the sharp or kinetic end of the counterinsurgency mission. The command he headed from 2003 to 2008 – Joint Special Operations Command – is essentially the operational component of Special Operations Command, which has really become a fifth service. JSOC organizes special operations missions in war zones. According to many officers, JSOC has also become enraptured with direct action. That means using intelligence from various sources to plan raids, often kicking down doors in the dead of night, interrogating people to generate more intelligence, doing it again immediately, and eventually capturing or killing insurgent leaders with the intelligence gleaned.
Bob Woodward’s latest book argues that JSOC’s role in employing these tactics in Iraq was crucial to the supposed success of the surge. But some informed observers beg to differ, arguing that standard counterinsurgency tactics and the contributions of Iraqis themselves mattered far more. Some complain that JSOC’s aggressive tactics and limited coordination with those in the regular chain of command undermined pacification efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In the (recently released!) book on the post Cold War evolution of the US military that I co-edited, Colin Jackson and Austin Long have a chapter discussing the politics of special operations command. They argue that the direct action theory of victory in counterinsurgency is a close relative to the air force’s theory of decapitation, which says you can defeat a nation by attacking its leaders from the air. They explain that direct action has long been the favored tactic of secret or “black” SOF organizations like Delta Force, but that the wars made it the dominant mission in SOCOM as a whole, crowding traditional “white” counterinsurgency missions like population protection, force training, and civil affairs. To them, that is a problem, because the direct action theory of victory is badly flawed. You can’t kill your way to victory in these sorts of wars, they argue. That’s particularly true in Afghanistan, I’d add, where distance and poor roads make the exploitation of intelligence far more time-consuming.
I don’t know to what extent McChrystal shares the black SOF worldview. He would probably say that direct action is just part of the toolkit. It is possible, however, that his appointment reflects a decision to downplay nation-building in Afghanistan and focus more on killing raids and training Afghan soldiers.
It is also interesting to speculate about what Michael Vickers (the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations, Low Intensity Conflict and Interdependent Capabilities) had to say about this. Vickers – a key advisor to Gates and a carry-over from the Bush administration – is said to be skeptical about troop surges in counterinsurgency, preferring to train local forces.
According to Greg Grant of DoD Buzz:
In a speech before a defense industry gathering last month, Vickers said he foresees a shift over time from the manpower intensive counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan to more “distributed operations across the world,” relying on close to 100 small teams of special operations forces to hunt down terrorist networks, part of a “global radical Islamist insurgency.”
I don’t like the across the world part, but if this appointment means more limited objectives in Afghanistan, it’s good news.
A final note on McChrystal: he reportedly runs many miles a day, sleeps only a few hours, and avoids eating until evening to avoid sluggishness. Apparently the iron-man thing goes over well with Rangers, but I think commanders, whose job is mostly thinking, should get a good night’s sleep and three square.