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McChrystal Plots Counteroffensive

It is worth reading Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s strategic review, which was put up on the Washington Post web site Sunday night, in full. While it doesn’t say anything terribly new for those who have been closely following the Afghanistan debate, it is a fascinating treatise on the challenges facing modern armies in counterinsurgency war and is a wake up call for those who think the U.S. military, even after eight years spent fighting two counterinsurgency wars, has mastered its complexities.

The insurgent threat in Afghanistan has been allowed to grow for too long, “unchecked by commensurate counter-action,” McChrystal says, “the insurgents currently have the initiative.” The fate of the Afghan war now depends on the success or failure of a counteroffensive to wrest that initiative away. “The short term fight will be decisive,” McChrystal says. “Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months) – while Afghan security capacity matures – risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible.”

Avoiding the “surge” word, McChrystal calls for “a discrete jump,” in troops and resources to carry out the counteroffensive and “definitively check the insurgency.” He identifies where the counteroffensive must take place: Kandahar city and its surrounding environs and Khowst Province.

Both areas are the most seriously threatened, populated areas and McChrystals say they are the “key” geographical objectives of the insurgent groups. “The [Quetta Shura Taliban] has been working to control Kandahar and its approaches for several years and there are indications that their influence over the city and neighboring districts is significant and growing.”

McChrystal’s bold strategy is similar to that laid out by former Afghan commander Gen. David Barno (ret.) earlier this year. Barno said 2009 would largely see a holding action while the needed counteroffensive would come in 2010, after a further buildup in U.S. troops levels. Another five years or so would be required to consolidate and build the Afghan security forces.

McChrystal calls for reorienting available forces away from empty mountains and desert to the population centers where the Afghan people are most threatened. I’m pretty sure McChrystal wishes he could have had a say where the Marines were sent and I don’t think he would have sent them to Helmand. Problem is in counterinsurgency, once you’ve moved troops into an area, you can’t just pull them out, otherwise the populace is left open to reprisal attacks. From what I’ve been told, former Afghan commander David McKiernan’s decision to send the MEB to Helmand, instead of to a more threatened area such as Kandahar, was one of the reasons he lost his job.

Any offensive will require a concentration of forces. At the moment, U.S. maneuver units are scattered across Afghanistan. What should have been McChrystal’s most powerful offensive force, the MEB, is tied down in Helmand. A concentration of force will have to come from new combat brigades that can be sent directly to Kandahar and Khowst. McChrystal will also need a battalion or two of highly mobile troops to serve as a “fire brigade” that he can shift about the country, exploit tactical successes and keep the insurgents off balance. What we are likely to see is a request from McChrystal for a short term “jump” of additional troops, on the order of 30,000 to 40,000, to carry out the counteroffensive.

If he is given the troops he needs, McChrystal will be able to wrest the initiative from the Taliban. As he points out in his assessment, the insurgents have numerous vulnerabilities that can be exploited. One of those is freedom of movement, the ability to shift mobile fighting units around the country. Taking away that freedom of movement will go a long way to breaking insurgent momentum.

The longer term war will be the bigger challenge. That war will be waged mostly in the shadows in local villages and between competing sets of governments: the insurgent shadow government versus the U.S. backed Afghan regime. “The insurgents wage a “silent war” of fear, intimidation, and persuasion throughout the year – not just during the warmer weather “fighting season” – to gain control over the population,” McChrystal says.

Whoever wins the support of the people in that silent war will win Afghanistan. As McChrystal spells out in candid terms, the insurgents are currently winning that war.

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