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The shaky logic of Afghan minimalism

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10 August 2010 09:27

Major Gen (Retd) Jim Molan is author of Running the War in Iraq.

Sam's reaction to the Frühling & Schreer post reflected my own astonishment, but I would take the criticism even further.

If the situation in Afghanistan is as bad as Frühling & Schreer imply, what is the logic of an even smaller Australian presence' We tried small, inadequate forces for most of the previous years of this war, our force is widely considered inadequate, and our major ally is just about to complete a force increase. So Australian strategists now argue for making the Australian force even smaller'

Several years ago I might have agreed that we should remove some caveats from the Special Forces. But for at least the last year and definitely for the last few months they have indeed roamed far and wide and performed at the absolute peak of combat capability.

In any case, removing caveats from a force that is too small now, and then making it even smaller, does not solve the problem. The problem is that we have not aligned the overall Afghan strategy with our tactics, we are not in Oruzgan to 'win', and our Government has not put in enough forces of all kinds to have a decisive effect within a reasonable time.

Frühling & Schreer say that 'the Brits will begin to draw down troops from 2011'. From my reading of the Guardian article offered, this is not what PM Cameron says. He states quite clearly that British actions will be based 'on conditions on the ground'. That is also what Obama said.

Frühling & Schreer say that 'General Petraeus has scrapped the planned offensive in Kandahar', quoting The Telegraph. The headline of the article indeed says that, as does the teaser, but the rest of the article contradicts it. Petraeus may have scrapped the Kandahar operation for all I know, but the reference that Frühling & Schreer rely on does not support such a proposition; in fact it quotes others who deny it.

Frühling & Schreer tell us that incoming CENTCOM commander Mattis was asked whether the US should not 'begin moving toward a more limited strategy of hunting down insurgents without trying to rebuild Afghanistan' in 2011. Frühling & Schreer take Mattis' rather vague response ('I think that is the approach') to 'signal the end of the current, population-centric COIN approach, which required NATO forces to directly pacify the country'. I suggest it does nothing of the kind. Mattis' answer may merely reflect the US military's view that they are not trying to 'directly pacify' the country, a view that Will Clegg addressed so well here.

Frühling & Schreer say that 'the US will now have to rely on local strongmen and village defence forces to keep the Taliban at bay', implying some total change in the strategy from population-centric to local militias. The premise (the demise of the population-centric approach) has not yet been proven and it is wrong to say that the US will have to now 'rely' on their village militias. I cannot think of a counter insurgency that did not use such local forces, and Petraeus used them to great effect in Iraq.

Frühling & Schreer then try to bring the argument home to Australia. They suggest a scenario in which the precipitous withdrawal of Australian troops (which no one seems to be proposing) has an impact on the alliance and problems on the Korean Peninsula.

To avoid this strange scenario, Frühling & Schreer advocate that the Australian Government do three even stranger things: (1) reduce (not withdraw) our forces in Afghanistan while making them 'more meaningful', apparently to support a new strategy that has yet to emerge and in contravention of the laws of military physics; (2) more Government honesty about the current situation to justify, apparently, reducing our forces from the current ineffective level that created that situation, to an even more impotent level; and (3) send a ship or some fighters to the Gulf in order, once again apparently, to play an ineffective role in a not-yet defined US strategy.

I fear that I detect in this post an inability to differentiate between what is difficult in military operations and what represents defeat, an inability to learn from previous wars, an inability to understand even the basics of military operations and how tactics are linked to strategy, and a frightening continuation of the extreme minimalist approach to the use of military force that has served us so badly in Iraq and in Afghanistan.

Photo by Flickr user isafmedia, used under a Creative Commons license.

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