Colonel Gian Gentle, a confirmed counterinsurgency [COIN] skeptic, raises questions for Col. Paul Yingling about the role of generals as COIN seems to be falling short in Afghanistan. Yingling made much noise in 2007 by attacking American generals for poor leadership in 2007, as the US was losing in Iraq at the time. Gentle is essentially pushing Yingling either to call Petraeus a bad general now (since Afghanistan is not such a happy place) or retract his earlier criticisms.
While this is an argument between two Colonels, I am stepping in because I received a similar question last week at a presentation in Los Angeles (at USC) on the current book project: did our work on caveats and other means by which countries influence how their troops are used in alliance operations explain mission failure on Afghanistan?
The answer to my question is also partly an answer to Gentle's question. That is, (a) not so clear the mission has failed; (b) failure is over-determined. First, there are lots of indicators that seem to suggest that the Taliban momentum of 2008-09 has been broken, even as violence continues. NATO and the US may not be clearly winning (whatever that means, see below) but we are not so clearly losing as we were a few years ago.
Second, COIN and good generalship can only do so much. Likewise, caveats and other overly blunt means to control troops in a multilateral damage can have an impact, but other stuff matters as well. What matters? I have long talked about the three Ps of Afghanistan: poppies, Pakistan, President Karzai. Each one makes COIN very, very hard. Poppies give the insurgents access to cash and facilitates corruption of police, courts, army, etc, which need to be the backbone of the COIN effort. Pakistan serves as a sanctuary (although not from drones), making "defeat" of the Taliban very hard since they can rest, recover and re-arm there. Plus Pakistan may just be doing more than providing space for these guys. Karzai presents the third challenge to the NATO/US effort, as the military side of COIN is aimed at providing a safer environment so that the government can provide services and gain the confidence of the people. Karzai has been focused on maintaining his grip on power, at the expense of building institutions and putting competent people into power. Generals McChrystal, Petraeus, and Allen had/have finite ability to get Afghanistan to do what is necessary to make progress.
The key difference between these generals running the Afghanistan war and the ones who ran the Iraq war before 2007 is that the current folks have proven adaptable to the circumstances. While the newer folks may have tried to apply an Iraq template to Afghanistan and that may not be the best fit, they at least have a better grasp of the multi-dimensionality of the conflict. The American generals in the first four years of the Iraq war had very little clue about how to prepare for the conflict, where to focus the efforts, and how to move from conventional war to counter-insurgency. Franks was one of the worst generals in recent memory, Abizaid recognized the realities (I think) but could not get those under him to adjust, and Casey was mostly focused on preserving the Army rather than adapting to the realities on the ground.
Military experts can draw greater distinctions between the past and present crews (Yingling, I am sure, could roast Gentile's assertions pretty quickly). But the conditions in Iraq with the AQ types overplaying their hands, the Sunnis realizing that the US was their best protection against Shiites and Sunni extremists, and somewhat more compliant local leadership enabled COIN. In Afghanistan, these conditions have not really existed. So, there is more going on here than generals. Clearly so, as Gentile is really attacking counter-insurgency doctrine more than individual generals. War is politics by other means, and COIN especially so. Winning a COIN battle means getting the politics right, and that is largely although not entirely out of the hands of the military. All the COIN stuff can do is enable the politicians, not work miracles despite the hype surrounding Petraeus.
Gentile's attack is actually a different war, one for the soul of the military. What will be the future of the American army? A smaller one for sure, hopefully avoiding these kinds of conflicts. The reality is that politicians will continue to use force in ways that are inconvenient to conventional thinkers in the military. There will be few conventional wars to fight as long as the opponents realize that the US can beat them at that game. That is not going change even as these Colonels fight over the lessons to draw from the wars of the Aughts.
Indeed, this whole discussion reminds me of the most basic lesson of Vietnam--people will learn the lessons they want to learn, as these conflicts are complicated. There is never one single set of lessons to learn, and so the fight afterwards is over which lessons do people want to learn.