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McChrystal Pushes COIN, COIN, COIN

Afghan commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal spoke Thursday in Britain at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS); it’s worth reading his prepared remarks that can be found here along with a video of the speech.

Interestingly, McChrystal engaged forcefully at the strategic level of the debate over the war by clearly enunciating U.S. national security interests in Afghanistan: first, that Afghanistan could easily return to its previous status as Al Qaeda’s home base; and second, that so goes Afghanistan, so goes its neighbors and the rest of the region.

Headlines will invariably focus on McChrystal’s warning that time is running out for the U.S. and NATO forces to turn the war around and that the Obama administration is dithering. Time is certainly of the essence, although probably more for the battle of perceptions than the balance of forces on the ground, as flowing large numbers of troops into non-existent bases will take time; what some miss in the discussion on boosting the numbers of troops in Afghanistan is that the country’s austerity places limits on how fast a buildup can be executed.

As for the sense of urgency and the ongoing debate within the Obama administration: McChrystal points out that the U.S. led war in Afghanistan is now in its eighth year and that the Afghans have been at war for the past 30 years. It’s highly unlikely Afghanistan’s thirty years war will be wrapped in the next 12 months, but McChrystal is waging a war of perceptions, in addition to the shooting war: “The perception of the villager matters in terms of which side he should support, so winning the battle of perceptions is key.” My sense is that he hopes an announcement from the administration that more troops are coming would go far to demonstrate U.S. commitment in Afghan eyes.

I found the most interesting part of McChrystal’s speech to be his discussion of “counterinsurgency mathematics,” which explains, in part, the Afghan insurgency’s growth over the past eight years:

"There is another complexity that people do not understand and which the military have to learn: I call it ‘COIN mathematics'. Intelligence will normally tell us how many insurgents are operating in an area. Let us say that there are 10 in a certain area. Following a military operation, two are killed. How many insurgents are left? Traditional mathematics would say that eight would be left, but there may only be two, because six of the living eight may have said, 'This business of insurgency is becoming dangerous so I am going to do something else.'

There are more likely to be as many as 20, because each one you killed has a brother, father, son and friends, who do not necessarily think that they were killed because they were doing something wrong. It does not matter – you killed them. Suddenly, then, there may be 20, making the calculus of military operations very different. Yet we are asking young corporals, sergeants and lieutenants to make those kinds of calculations and requiring them to understand the situation. They have to – there is no simple workaround.”

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