Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Airstrikes down in Afganistan

According to a report in USA Today, the number of airstrikes conducted by coalition forces in Afghanistan has dropped by close to 50 percent since GEN McChrystal took command three months ago.

NATO fixed-wing aircraft dropped 1,211 bombs and other munitions during the past three months — the peak of the fighting season — compared with 2,366 during the same period last year, according to military statistics. The nearly 50% decline in airstrikes comes with an influx of more than 20,000 U.S. troops this year and an increase in insurgent attacks.

The shift is the result of McChrystal's new directives, said Air Force Col. Mark Waite, an official at the air operations center in southwest Asia. Ground troops are less inclined to call for bombing or strafing runs, though they often have an aircraft conduct a "show of force," a flyby to scare off insurgents, or use planes for surveillance, Waite said.

The decrease in air attacks may also be the result of having more ground troops, Waite said. Air attacks are often used when ground forces aren't available to secure an area or seize an objective.

So instead of repeating platitudes about how civilian casualties are the key metric for success in a counterinsurgency war, I'll just post a relevant quote that I recently came across in Kalyvas. It's from John Paul Vann, a U.S. adviser in Vietnam and prominent participant in the CORDS program (and the source of several other quotable COIN-ish witticisms):

This is a political war and it calls for discrimination in killing. The best weapon for killing would be a knife, but I'm afraid we can't do it that way. The worst is an airplane. The next worst is artillery. Barring a knife, the best is a rifle -- you know who you're killing.
Interestingly, during his active-duty Army time, Vann was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his role in coordinating the battle of Ap Bac from a spotter plane while serving as an ARVN adviser. He would later (posthumously) be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross -- the only civilian recipient in the Vietnam War.

Oh, and I'd be remiss if I didn't note that the hard-working USA Today reporter sought out two COINtras to challenge what COL Gentile calls "the dominant narrative":

By exercising so much restraint, the U.S. military may sacrifice a key firepower advantage on the battlefield and expose ground troops to more risk, some officers and analysts say.

"There is a tradeoff," said Col. Gian Gentile, a former battalion commander in Iraq who has publicly criticized counterinsurgency doctrine. "You reduce civilian casualties, but you potentially increase your own casualties."

Doug Macgregor, a retired Army colonel and military historian, says the emphasis on having conventional forces trying to win over the population is futile.

"You surrender whatever military advantage you have by compelling the U.S. conventional soldier or Marine to fight on terms that favor the enemy, not the American soldier or Marine," Macgregor said.

Gentile's comment is entirely accurate. Though I disagree with him on a great many other things, it is absolutely true to say that executing counterinsurgency tactics in an effective manner will erode some long-established strictures that privilege force protection over other mission concerns. Doug MacGregor, on the other hand, is just lost in the sauce. But then, are we surprised?

23 comments:

  1. I disagree that the decline of air strikes could be attributed to more soldiers on the ground. That is not what happened during the Iraq "Surge" - in fact there was a significant increase. The reality is that if there are more soldiers, then they need more air support. To me, this suggests that there's just a refusal to pull the trigger or commanders are less likely to request air strikes given the new guidance. I'm pretty sure the fuel truck incident in Kunduz is not going to help it in either situation.

    I'm not saying necessarily that we should be bombing more. Just that there's no causal relationship between boots on the ground and amount of ordinance dropped. And I'm on the record of saying that I have no issue with dropping bombs. We just need to be better and smarter about it. Much better and smarter.

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  2. Correction - there is no inverse relationship to boots on the ground and bombs dropped. It is naturally causal. Sorry about that.

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  3. there is no inverse relationship to boots on the ground and bombs dropped. It is naturally causal

    Completely agree. I think this is just a lazy explanation by an AF PAO.

    I confused things further in the original post by messing up the formatting and making it look like this was my speculation rather than a quote from the article. Fixed now.

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  4. I would argue a comment by an AF PAO who knows jack about ground combat who is dutifully sticking to his talking points.

    At the risk of diverging from any type of doctrine, air power is not used when ground forces are not available to secure an area or seize an objective. That makes it sound like the air power in and of itself could do that. Which is ludicrous. Air power can be used to relate to the enemy (destroy it, deny it terrain, deter it, etc), but cannot be used with relation to the control of ground beyond shaping operations. In no way is it a substitute.

    So yes, this is lazy thinking and/or speaking. Although MG Dunlap may completely disagree with me!

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  5. Completely agree with all of this, and completely agree that pretty much everyone in a blue suit is going to disagree!

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  6. Terrible bind indeed... According to David Galula, whom I just discovered today on RUE89, a French online newsmagazine (he's also being discovered in his own country in a French translation of his book on counterinsurgency with a preface penned by General David Petraeus), there is no unifying theory or recipe of counterinsurgency to be applied to all locales... It is a long and arduous less-traveled road of tough love--not just bombing places into oblivion ; but carrying out nation-building activities as well: providing access to electricity, potable water, improving economic prospects, and so on ... Maybe the blue suits have stumbled upon something that would ultimately prove to be positive.

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  7. Maybe the blue suits have stumbled upon something that would ultimately prove to be positive.

    Not sure I understand your point here, unless you're saying that terrain denial and/or shaping through air operations could be a suitable substitute in counterinsurgency for holding territory.

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  8. In spite of the US's obsession with Galula's theories on counterinsurgency, we still don't even abide by his most important work. We rely too heavily on the crap he was spouting the '62 RAND symposium. All the hearts and mind stuff. Don't get me wrong, that's all very important, but not to the detriment of military necessity.

    Read Ch. 7 (The Operations). The first stage according to him is to destroy or expel the insurgent force. This leads to the second stage of garrisoning the static unit. Which allow all that nation-building to occur. Well, it strikes me that we're trying to skip those steps here and go straight to nation-building. And why our friends in the blue suits can help shape the destruction and expulsion of the insurgents, they cannot do it on there own.

    Some days I don't know whether to love Galula or love to hate him. But I'm glad the French are finally getting their due dose of his writing. He's been a pox and blessing on the US forces alone for too long.

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  9. Ok, that sentance should read:

    "And while our friends in the blue suits can help shape the destruction and expulsion of the insurgents, they cannot do it on their own."

    I didn't get much sleep last night.

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  10. The DFC isn't the AF equivalent of the Navy Cross and the DSC. That's the Air Force Cross. The DFC is a medal given to members of all services (I think) that is junior to the Bronze Star but senior to the Air Medal.

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  11. The DFC isn't the AF equivalent of the Navy Cross and the DSC. That's the Air Force Cross. The DFC is a medal given to members of all services (I think) that is junior to the Bronze Star but senior to the Air Medal.

    You're right about this. Not sure what I was thinking. Editing.

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  12. Gunslinger, I took the liberty of translating into French your comment on Galula and to post it in the comments to the article mentioned above on RUE89 (with your name and permalink to your comment here, of course)...

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  13. I am curious about the slam on MacGregor... I mean, he's obviously overstated the case, but he does have a point that we're fighting in a way almost calculated to minimize our military superiority, no?

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  14. I am curious about the slam on MacGregor... I mean, he's obviously overstated the case, but he does have a point that we're fighting in a way almost calculated to minimize our military superiority, no?

    "Military superiority" is a meaningless concept. Our joint force is intended to attain and execute certain capabilities, which can then be employed in the service of specific missions (and in a broader sense, policy goals).

    The military treats attack, defense, and stability operations as equally important (essential, even) functions.

    To say that a method of operation is "minimiz[ing] our military superiority" is nonsensical if that method of operation is what is most appropriate to the accomplishment of a particular mission. If you go around looking to maximize military superiority, everything starts to look like a nail, as they say.

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  15. Reading back on that, I'm being sort of obtuse.

    The point that I'm trying to make is that the nation shouldn't be deciding when and where to use its military based on what the military is capable of. On the contrary, the military should be (and is) building capabilities to meet requirements, which is to say institutionalizing the competencies required to accomplish the missions that the nation's political leadership assigns.

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  16. "Well, it strikes me that we're trying to skip those steps here and go straight to nation-building. "

    Gunslinger, I've wondered about that (all the caveats that I know nothing of these topics, of course). As my area is medicine, I've been trying to read up, a bit, on the development of health systems in Afghanistan. What I find sort of confusing is that the online documents I've reviewed state that there have been many successes in providing health care (well, the polio campaign, certainly) and this will help lead to security. But everything that has been done, noble as it is, is fragile, and to an outsider, doesn't seem sustainable. So how does it lead to stability?

    Confusing.

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  17. What I find sort of confusing is that the online documents I've reviewed state that there have been many successes in providing health care (well, the polio campaign, certainly) and this will help lead to security. But everything that has been done, noble as it is, is fragile, and to an outsider, doesn't seem sustainable. So how does it lead to stability?

    Madhu -- This is all tied up with the (in my mind, mistaken) idea that insecurity fundamentally springs from deprivation or grievance. While this may be true in certain cases, and while it's likely true that areas that are within the reach and under the sway of government- or coalition-provided health services are more prone to consolidation under government control, it's simply a bridge too far to suggest that there's a causal relationship between the (occasional) provision of services like health care and loyalty to the government (which in this formulation is assumed to be the foundation for security in an area).

    The fact of the matter is that it does little good to stick a few kids with polio vaccine once every few months if you cannot exert any more sustained control over (or even presence in) an area. Check out the chopping-off of various vaccinated African arms by various warring African factions (see MK/SNLII here) for evidence.

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  18. >>The point that I'm trying to make is that the nation shouldn't be deciding when and where to use its military based on what the military is capable of.<<

    No, that's not right on two levels. First, an assessment of the likelihood of success is imperative before undertaking any military mission. And as a result, the extant capabilities of your force should indeed affect (at the margins true) when and where you fight.

    Second, regardless of the "when and where" issue is the "how." And here again, it is just a basic maxim of strategy -- whether in sports, business, or war -- that you ought to try to maximize your ability to use your strengths.

    In short, we have always have some choice about all three elements -- when, where, and how -- and to the extent that it is possible, it makes sense to try to wage wars in ways that maximize your relative military effectiveness.

    Now you don't always have a choice. But MacGregor's point would be... why fight with rifles, when in the grand scheme of things, an opponent with a rifle is not a threat to the United States. I think his piece in AFJ about "refusing battle" is insightful -- though flawed -- on this issue.

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  19. First, an assessment of the likelihood of success is imperative before undertaking any military mission. And as a result, the extant capabilities of your force should indeed affect (at the margins true) when and where you fight.

    Of course your first sentence is true, and there's a bit of chicken and egg here. I'm not suggesting that the president should be committing military forces willy-nilly to accomplish whatever objectives he sees fit, and with scant attention to their ability to accomplish them. Force structure and acquisitions ought to be tied to strategic planning too, obviously.

    Second, regardless of the "when and where" issue is the "how." And here again, it is just a basic maxim of strategy -- whether in sports, business, or war -- that you ought to try to maximize your ability to use your strengths.

    The "how" is the purview of the military, really. Of course when you're talking about a complex modern battlefield, interagency and multinational concerns are going to be involved a lot of the time. Optimally, the military strategy is appropriately nested into a broader national strategy. But at root, the way this works is that the civilian leadership says "get me this endstate" and the military figures out how to do it.

    In short, we have always have some choice about all three elements -- when, where, and how -- and to the extent that it is possible, it makes sense to try to wage wars in ways that maximize your relative military effectiveness.

    I think this is focusing too much on process. War is about accomplishing policy objectives. It's about endstates. Of course things like force protection, attritional concerns, expense, timeline, and so on are factors, not just in the domestic political conversation (sustaining public support and so on) but because of impacts on combat effectiveness and the capabilities required to accomplish the mission.

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  20. "Trying to wage wars in such a way as to maximize military effectiveness," as I've said before, is nonsensical. This construction reveals a focus on (as Tom Barnett would say) war in its own context rather than war in the context of everything else. To what end are we maximizing military effectiveness? In an effort to win wars! And why do we want to win wars? Well, not for their own sake, but because it gets us something that we want or need!

    So the decision to employ force is always going to involve a conversation about the balance between the resources required, the capabilities that are necessary, the objectives that must be accomplished to achieve desired endstates, and the relationship of those endstates to American interests (and, I should say, the relative weight of the contribution required. Meaning that a campaign that requires us to fight in an uncomfortable way, to commit massive resources, and to accomplish a number of difficult objectives ought to be related to vital national interests, and trend towards the "survival" and "maintenance of our way of life" end of the spectrum).

    Now you don't always have a choice. But MacGregor's point would be... why fight with rifles, when in the grand scheme of things, an opponent with a rifle is not a threat to the United States. I think his piece in AFJ about "refusing battle" is insightful -- though flawed -- on this issue.

    My point is that MacGregor's argument ignores the fact that in some (maybe many) instances, fighting the guy with the rifle is going to be justified. This is a question of worldview, and of grand strategy. He abstracts a complex debate about America's role in the world into a simplistic mantra by asserting that a lot of the wars we fight just really aren't that important, anyway. And it's been a while since I read that piece, but if I remember correctly he adopts the Cohen-ian approach, which is to make it impossible to fight such wars by building a force that is essentially incapable of fighting them. I find that inexcusable, ignorant of the Constitution and the proper function of our governmet, and an abdication of the responsibility of both military and civilian defense planners and amateur strategists to provide options to our political leaders.

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  21. >>I find that inexcusable, ignorant of the Constitution and the proper function of our governmet, and an abdication of the responsibility of both military and civilian defense planners and amateur strategists to provide options to our political leaders.<<

    All those folks have a dual responsibility. One is indeed to provide options. The second, however, is to serve as the repositories of expert knowledge that shape choices.

    It is perfectly legitimate for the CJCS -- for instance -- to say in response to a request for options, "Mr. President, I believe that using force in this situation would be a mistake, but I will provide a list of the least bad options available to you if you choose to proceed."

    Instead, your response makes it seem that the key responsibility is simply to be responsive to policy maker goals, rather than helping policy makers become more informed in choosing and shaping goals.

    In short, strategic planning is an iterative process, not a linear one.

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  22. It is perfectly legitimate for the CJCS -- for instance -- to say in response to a request for options, "Mr. President, I believe that using force in this situation would be a mistake, but I will provide a list of the least bad options available to you if you choose to proceed."

    Instead, your response makes it seem that the key responsibility is simply to be responsive to policy maker goals, rather than helping policy makers become more informed in choosing and shaping goals.


    I agree. What is not legitimate is for a service chief to say to the SECDEF or the CJCS "sorry sir, but we don't do windows." And when you argue against the institutionalization of COIN capabilities, for example, because you don't think we should fight COIN wars, that's what you're doing.

    All of which comes back to my original point, which is that we've got to figure out how to fight the wars that we decide we need to fight, not decide which wars to fight based on what we can already do.

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  23. I think we're talking past each other. I am not saying that anyone should say, "we don't do windows."

    I am saying that if you have a multiple ways to clean the window, you try to do so in the way that maximizes your strength.

    So, if faced with a threat from an extremist regime, you can either eliminate it through regime change, leave, and return if it happens to reestablish itself OR you can do regime change and then stay 10 years to try to prevent it from ever coming back... well, I'd go for the former.

    The reason I don't want to institutionalize COIN is that I think there is virtually no instance where securing American interests requires you to wage a COIN campaign because if you are creative about using U.S. military strengths, you can accomplish equivalent outcomes in other, less-costly and more-efficient ways.

    And pointing out those ways is the responsibility of military leader, defense analysts, etc.

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