Scratched Coin

by Justin

Even the sudden evidence that journalists can wield great power and exert great influence can’t change that I associate the word coin exclusively with Two Face. And that association lands somewhere between Arkham Asylum and Tommy Lee Jones.

I’m a little late in addressing the remarkable piece Michael Hastings wrote for Rolling Stone that achieved no less than the resignation/sacking of the chief director of the war in Afghanistan. President Obama appointed McChrystal barely a year ago to lead a calculated escape from the Afghanistan imbroglio – the revelation of insubordination and the firing of a four-star general should have placed Obama squarely in GOP cross-hairs.

But the man who literally wrote the book on counter-insurgency tactics (this is the COIN we hear so much about) stepped into more than fill McChrystal’s shoes. Upgrade time, really. And it may be that the firm move by Obama to remind the general of the relationship between civilian government and its military arm ends up showing some needed steel. Who knows, this debacle may change things for the better. That’s just politically, mind you, and just for Obama’s reputation in the immediate future. The Rolling Stone profile of General McChrystal resulted in not only a changing of the guard but a sudden, piercing spotlight on the entire counter-insurgency strategy.

That’s the exciting bit, really. I’m personally thrilled that an article flipped a nine year war effort on its head, but more curious about what the revelation of dissent in the Afghanistan effort means. Cynics are throwing out accusations that McChrystal consciously crammed his foot down his throat so that the weight of an unavoidable failure in Iraq doesn’t rest on his shoulders. It’s a cowardly way out for a four star general with a background in special ops missions, but maybe military conduct doesn’t allow for candid challenging of presidential policy – the Truman/MacArthur dance didn’t end well. Regardless of his endgame, the trash talk suggests a lack of confidence, and the essential ingredient in any campaign is a belief in its eventual success.

The war’s about to enter its tenth year, surpassing Vietnam as our longest engagement. June was the deadliest month to date for the United States, reinforcing the agenda of our allies to abandon the quicksand. What I don’t understand is how COIN breaks down – how it plans to succeed and why its earning more criticism than praise these days. This from the New Yorker’s George Packer:

American goals in Afghanistan remain vague, the means inadequate, the timetable foreshortened. We are nation-building without admitting it, and conducting counterinsurgency on our own clock, not the Afghans’.

There seems to be some consensus that the July, 2011 to force a withdrawal is a more or less arbitrary deadline. The WSJ story about the extent of corruption festering inside Karzai’s government (his particular brand of insane incompetence deserves an independent reckoning) reveals that $3 billion was airlifted out of a country with a GDP of only $13.5 billion. The story is fascinating – that particular stat only covers the above-board suspicious trafficking. Insane and terrible days – importantly it points to problems that run deep and challenge our eventual trust in a native administration. As far as I understand, counter-insurgency revolves around protecting citizens and rallying them to the side of their liberators/protectors/occupiers. Work to build a bedrock of trust around which locals will rally and effectively sap the steam of the insurgent Taliban. Civilian education and empowerment is the name of the game. But criticism is mounting. This from NPR:

“Gen. Petraeus is deeply invested in this doctrine of counterinsurgency. My own view is that the counterinsurgency strategy … isn’t working and that what we really need isn’t just a change of command but a radical change of approach,” he says.

Bacevich questions why the U.S. continues to pour enormous amounts of troops and money into Afghanistan. Like other analysts, he favors a smaller American presence there.

Bacevich says an equally effective counterinsurgency strategy would involve two components. One would be a comprehensive intelligence collection and analysis network.

The second, Bacevich says, would be a strike capacity, one that has the ability to attack jihadists if they were engaged in something the U.S. thought was unacceptable. Bacevich says that strike capacity could consist of “aerial platforms” or “small contingents of special operations forces.”

I’m 100% into that plan. In large part because it lends itself more to precise, cinematic black ops initiatives. We could use that new and terrifying Prompt Global Strike and be a less targetable presence. The issue, of course, is that we’re approaching 100,000 troops in Afghanistan and we live in a political climate where reversals in opinion are viewed as a weakness. Obama probably feels like he’s in too deep. No great lesson was learned from the perilous policy under George W. Bush of staying the course no matter what evidence piled up.

I don’t mean to criticize Petraeus – he may not know Afghanistan as well as he know Iraq but the man is about as slayerly as they come and better suited to this course than was McChrystal. More than anything I’ve illustrated how poorly acquainted I am with the challenges in Afghanistan, both with our current COIN strategy and any alternatives. That seems irresponsible, given that more than 1000 soldiers have dies in the pursuit of some precarious peace over there. Like so many things I dance around on this blog, I’ll go deeper. I’m grateful to Michael Hastings for this media storm and the questions it’s raised – it’s a rare and great moment for journalism.