By lex, on June 23rd, 2009
General McChrystal is concerned about the strategic effects of tactical actions:
The new American commander in Afghanistan said he would sharply restrict the use of airstrikes here, in an effort to reduce the civilian deaths that he said were undermining the American-led mission…
Even in the cases of active firefights with Taliban forces, he said, airstrikes will be limited if the combat is taking place in populated areas — the very circumstances in which most Afghan civilian deaths have occurred. The restrictions will be especially tight in attacking houses and compounds where insurgents are believed to have taken cover.
“Air power contains the seeds of our own destruction if we do not use it responsibly,” General McChrystal told a group of his senior officers during a video conference last week. “We can lose this fight.”
Air power can a tremendous force multiplier when fighting against an insurgency dispersed over broad distances, where the place, timing and tempo of operations are largely dictated by the insurgents themselves. The Talibs, like Mao’s guerrillas, are free to swim through the people like fish through the sea, firing and then either fading away to slit throats another day or else surrounding themselves with human shields, counting on our humanity to save them from the fate they so richly deserve – a fate, by they way, to which they claim to aspire. If we kill them where we find them in the most efficient way, they hope to turn their own destruction into a propaganda victory.
Ground force concentrations that finally find and fix these phantoms would greatly prefer to finish them without having to dig them out from mud-walled complexes in hand to hand combat. While it’s hard to see how doing so would save the lives of the many non-combatants unwillingly pinned between coalition fires and the Taliban, it would undoubtedly raise the butcher’s bill to an unacceptable level for our forces.
Casualty counts vary greatly between coalition forces, locals and the Afghan national government. They are probably higher than characteristically optimistic military analysts reckon, but undoubtedly less than those generated locals angling for financial compensation. The Karzai government in turn uses the moral advantage generated by non-combatant casualties for political leverage against a coalition that has grown increasingly skeptical of its leadership while simultaneously offering the government a money favoring opportunity with dispersed villagers it lacks the reach, resources or will to support more traditionally.
Given all that, the collateral damage caused in these tactical actions has a strategic impact because we concede that it does – our perception shapes our reality. In the most recent provocation in Granai, Afghan National Army forces came into contact with a strong force of Taliban and summoned US Marines to assist. When the Talibs went to ground, the Marines called in air strikes.
This new guidance will mean that rather taking the fight to enemy concentrations, the coalition – and ANA – will have to interdict them either as they move to population centers or as they try to fade away. The ANA is still too unreliable, and coalition forces are still too few, to be everywhere in sufficient numbers to clear, hold and build. It seems at least questionable that another 20,000 or so can tip the balance in the Pashtun south: Helmand and Kandahar provinces, to name only two, consist of 1.6 million people dispersed over 110k square kilometers. And while the Afghan surge is roughly the same size as those additional forces sent to Iraq in 2007, Afghanistan is almost 50% larger and its population more broadly dispersed.
These new limits on operational support to engaged tactical units will put pressure on the nine timeless principles of warfare: objective – unless the objective is to “do no harm” to anyone – offensive, mass, economy of force, security, surprise and simplicity while leaving maneuver in rough balance; we still own the air for what that’s now worth, but our heavily armored ground forces cannot scamper about easily as the sandal-clad Talibs.
But hey, we still have unity of command – at least within our own sectors – so maybe one out of nine ain’t bad.
It has been said so often as to become trite through repetition, but there is no exclusively military solution to Afghanistan. That said, there is no other kind of solution that can be implemented outside a militarily secure environment, and it seems to me that this new guidance takes an arrow from the quiver. In doing so, General McChrystal probably hopes to at least minimize the number of new enemies we make each time we kill the old ones, and guard his flanks from Afghan politics.
Seeing this through truly will require dedication to a “long war.”