Gen. McChrystal and Adm. Olson Actually on the Same Page


Afghan commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s counterinsurgency guidance has taken what many considered to be a very, very soft approach to combating insurgents as laid down in the COIN manual, and softened it even more.

Protecting the population, respecting their culture and sitting and drinking lots of tea with local leaders to gain their trust basically by doing no wrong is the basis of what has been labeled the “population centric counterinsurgency” approach in Afghanistan. The Economist called it “the least violence-oriented military document you're ever likely to see.”

“We will not win by simply killing insurgents,” McChrystal wrote; the supply of willing insurgent foot soldiers in that part of the world is infinity. He then explained his version of COIN arithmetic which turns the conventional mindset of wearing down the enemy through attrition on its head.

“From a conventional standpoint, the killing of two insurgents in a group of ten leaves eight remaining: 10-2=8. From the insurgent standpoint, those two killed were likely related to many others who will want vengeance… Therefore, the death of two creates more willing recruits: 10 minus 2 equals 20 (or more) rather than 8.”

According to some reports, the highest ranking Navy SEAL and the commander of Special Operations Command, Adm. Eric Olson, believes this whole counterinsurgency thing is getting out of hand. He called the prevailing COIN doctrine an “imperfect template,” crafted as an Iraq specific doctrine, that should be discarded. "Counterinsurgency should involve countering the insurgents," he said.

At an appearance at CSIS last month, Olson actually laid out a very detailed narrative of how his forces counter insurgents and terrorist networks; a campaign strategy contained in the highly classified Concept Plan 7500 (he said it was 750 pages long). His description of that “guiding plan” calls for a “balanced” strategy combining both “direct” and “indirect” approaches.

The direct approach is capturing, killing and destroying terrorists, their organizations, networks and facilities. “It’s urgent; it’s necessary; it’s chaotic; it’s kinetic and the effects are almost always near-term and short-lived,” he said. It is “a holding action that buys time and space for the indirect approach to achieve its long-term results.”

Decisive results, he said, comes from the indirect approach, small teams of special ops advisors partnering with foreign militaries to boost their effectiveness. It also involves addressing the underlying causes of insurgency such as economic depression and religious extremism: “it is the concept of draining the swamp rather than attempting to capture or kill all the alligators.”

While the military, and specifically special operators, form the core of direct action, they have somewhat reluctantly been forced to assume ever bigger chunks of the indirect approach because: “the mass and the money reside within the DOD.”

“While the ability to conduct high-end, direct-action activities will always remain urgent and necessary… We acknowledge that it is the indirect actions that will have the most decisive and enduring the effects. The balance and intertwining of direct and indirect are key.”

It doesn’t sound like there’s a huge gulf between the two on countering insurgents. I think what Olson is doing is trying to restore a bit of balance to thinking on irregular warfare.

That is, shift the prevalent COIN thinking away from this idea of sending large constabulary forces to occupy foreign territory and pursue grass roots economic development and capacity building, which is definitely not a military specialty, and more to the original SF mission that uses small highly trained units to train and advise foreign militaries to defeat internal enemies.

-- Greg Grant

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