The problem with counterinsurgency

It was only after President Obama announced the firing of General Stanley McChrystal as commander in Afghanistan that I got around to reading the Rolling Stone article that provoked all the furor.

The article by Michael Hastings was an excellent portrait of General McChrystal as an eccentric but highly capable and dedicated professional who, in the writer’s opinion, is attempting the impossible and not succeeding.

If I hadn’t known anything about the controversy, I would not have regarded the snarky comments by McChrystal aides about McChrystal’s bureaucratic rivals and critics as particularly important. The most disturbing thing about the article was Hastings report on the unpopularity of the Petraeus-McChrystal counterinsurgency strategy among the troops.

The advantage of guerrilla fighters such as the Taliban and Viet Cong is that they don’t wear uniforms and can blend in with the civilian population.  Foreign occupiers cannot tell friend from foe, and wind up killing more civilians than enemy fighters – which makes the civilians more supportive of the enemy fights and more inclined to become enemy fighters themselves.

The Petraeus-McChrystal counterinsurgency strategy attempts to counter this by making transforming the military into a kind of armed Peace Corps. They are supposed to simultaneously fight the enemy and win the hearts and minds of the people. The key to this is what McChrystal in the article called “courageous restraint” – the willingness to suffer casualties and let the enemy escape rather than risk the lives of innocent civilians.

This is asking a lot of American and allied soldiers – maybe more than is possible for the vast majority of human beings. You not only ask people in jeopardy of being killed, you ask them to refrain from defending themselves and their comrades except when circumstances are right. And with an enemy as well-entrenched as the Taliban, you might not be able to root out the enemy anyway. You are damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

And whether or not the policy is feasible, Hastings’ reporting indicates that it is not understood and not being implemented as Generals Petraeus and McChrystal wish it to be.

Click on this for the complete Rolling Stone article by Michael Hastings.

Click on this for Michael Hastings’ followup to his article.

P.S. (6/30/10)

Click on this for an excellent analysis of the U.S. dilemma by Sean Scallon of The American Conservative.

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