COIN Yet Again

Michael Crowley responds to my suggestion that the Obama administration wasn’t really at fault for not realizing that the Pentagon planned to ask for a major troop increase in Afghanistan:

Even if you assume that only half the country needs COIN protection — the west and north are more stable then the south and east — you’re still talking about a combined US and Afghan force of 300,000. McKiernan’s requested force level, combined with the feeble Afghan National Army and police, wasn’t even close to these levels. This would have been clear to someone like under secretary of defense for policy Michele Flournoy, a COIN expert (and former Nagl colleague) who participated in the initial review. Though I don’t believe he was part of the same review process, I have to think that David Petraeus, the ultimate Yoda of COIN, chimed in as well.

….At the same time that the counterinsurgency idea was taking hold among the review team’s members, Mullen and Gates were starting to question whether 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?

I doubt this view would have been kept secret from Obama, who had to approve the decision to sack McKiernan. It just seems a little too convenient, then, for administration officials to say they’re surprised by McChrystal’s call for many more troops.

But this gets directly to my point: counterinsurgency doctrine says we need 300,000 troops or more in Afghanistan.  Obviously nothing even close to that is going to happen.  So given that we know we’re pursuing a non-optimal strategy, does non-optimal mean 100,000 troops or 140,000 troops?  That’s not at all obvious.

Back in March, Obama had already committed to a big increase in troops in order to better pursue a COIN strategy.  If the military believed we needed another big increase, it’s inconceivable that they would have simply assumed that everyone in the White House knew this.  They would have said so directly and forcefully.  But they didn’t, and contra Michael, it seems awfully convenient for them to come back now and say they’re surprised everyone didn’t get this from the start.

I don’t want to take this argument too far.  There’s no telling precisely who said what, or whether Obama was given fair warning that another big troop request was in the offing.  But if that was the plan, surely it’s the military’s responsibility to make sure it’s crystal clear?  Or are we going to go through this again six months from now because “everyone knows” that 140,000 isn’t enough troops either?

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