The front page Washington Post headline isn’t sensational; it merely reads ” Civilian, Military Officials at Odds Over Resources Needed for Afghan Mission .” But one can hardly imagine a more damning indictment of President Obama and certain unnamed “senior administration officials” on his foreign policy team. The terms gross negligence, incompetence, and mind-boggling self-deception leap to mind.

The article reports on the President’s decision in March, after a review by his national security team, “to mount a comprehensive counterinsurgency mission to defeat the Taliban.” This decision was then set forth in an administration white paper outlining what Obama called “a comprehensive, new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.” Preventing al-Qaeda’s return to Afghanistan, the document stated, would require “executing and resourcing an integrated civilian-military counterinsurgency strategy.”

So far so good. This is precisely the way it is supposed to work: civilian leadership sets forth the strategy and the military begins planning to determine what it will cost in terms of resources to execute that strategy. But evidently, for some senior administration officials, ”new” doesn’t mean new, “comprehensive” doesn’t mean comprehensive, and “strategy” doesn’t mean strategy:

To senior military commanders, the sentence was unambiguous: U.S. and NATO forces would have to change the way they operated in Afghanistan. Instead of focusing on hunting and killing insurgents, the troops would have to concentrate on protecting the good Afghans from the bad ones.

And to carry out such a counterinsurgency effort the way its doctrine prescribes, the military would almost certainly need more boots on the ground.

To some civilians who participated in the strategic review, that conclusion was much less clear. Some took it as inevitable that more troops would be needed, but others thought the thrust of the new approach was to send over scores more diplomats and reconstruction experts. They figured a counterinsurgency mission could be accomplished with the forces already in the country, plus the 17,000 new troops Obama had authorized in February.


The mind reels. Did someone pause for just a moment to ask themselves who is going to kill off the bad guys and secure an area to allow “diplomats and reconstruction experts” to do their work (“clear”) and subsequently protect them (“hold”) so that they can “build.” If there are indeed civilian members of President Obama’s national security team who either believed this nonsense, much less advised the President, or advised his advisors, they ought to be immediately fired for gross incompetence. These are people on his national security team, for goodness sake. Take this, for example:
“It was easy to say, ‘Hey, I support COIN,’ because nobody had done the assessment of what it would really take, and nobody had thought through whether we want to do what it takes,” said one senior civilian administration official who participated in the review, using the shorthand for counterinsurgency.

Nobody had thought through whether we want to do what it takes! After eight years of war in Afghanistan, after a ubiquitous and profound debate on the decision, planning for, and execution of the counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq in 2007, after years of intellectually profound debate and discussion on the doctrine and history of COIN, most of which can easily be found online or in easily accessible books on the subject, and we yet we get “senior administration officials” in charge of national security policy and the war in Afghanistan now confessing to having “sticker shock’ when it comes to the costs associated with the COIN strategy!

But as the article makes clear, it is not true that all senior administration officials have been so grossly negligent and incompetent:

At the same time that the counterinsurgency idea was taking hold among the review team’s members, [JSC Chairman Admiral] Mullen and [Secretary of Defense] Gates were starting to question whether [General] McKiernan was the right general to lead the effort in Afghanistan. If he was serious about counterinsurgency, some in the Pentagon wondered, how could he not want more forces?

To senior military planners, counterinsurgency had a clear meaning—and a defined prescription. The military’s counterinsurgency strategy, FM 3-24, promulgated by Petraeus in 2006, calls for securing the population from insurgents, and it suggests a troop density of 20 to 25 counterinsurgents for every 1,000 residents in an area of operation. If that formula was applied to parts of southern and eastern Afghanistan where the Taliban is strongest, at least tens of thousands of additional foreign troops would be needed.

By mid-April, Mullen and Gates had decided to replace McKiernan with McChrystal. Although McChrystal has a Special Forces counterterrorism background, he impressed Mullen and Gates with his thinking about counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. Before he left for Kabul, Gates asked him to assess the mission and report back within 60 days.

To McChrystal and his senior advisers, the white paper was the strategy, and his job was to figure out how to implement it.


This is elementary stuff. Gates got it right. Admiral Mullen got it right. And sure as shootin’ McChrystal got it right. Maybe that has something to do with the fact they actually read the counterinsurgency manual (also readily available online) and were able to do, as they say, a little elementary math. That would be, I suppose, just a tad too much to ask of other civilian “senior administration officials” who have been charged with winning the war in Afghanistan and who are putting Americans in harms way.

The article concludes like this:

To the military, however, the only way to do counterinsurgency is by protecting the population.

“We were operating under the assumption that when they said COIN, that’s what they meant,” said a senior U.S. military official in Afghanistan, “and they were serious about committing the necessary resources.”


You can bet they’re reading this article in the Pentagon this morning. And their eyebrows are raised and their eyes are rolling back in their heads. And they are not happy!

Articles by Keith Pavlischek

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