Friday, July 2, 2010

Insubordination is contagious

It is now the turn of a French general to be in the hot seat for speaking a little too freely about the strategy in Afghanistan and its civilian instigators. General Vincent Desportes, who commands the prestigious French Joint Defense College (Collège interarmées de défense) gave an interview to Le Monde (July 2) on the war in Afghanistan and what he considers the failure of the COIN strategy:

“The traditional COIN doctrine as engaged by McChrystal over the past year, with limited use of fire […] to reduce collateral damage, does not seem to function. […]”

“Among the troops, a movement that puts into question the “winning hearts and minds” mode of action has become increasingly influential. This reinforces the gap between the troops and the general strategy. But it is not possible to wage a war against the soldiers’ morale.”

(The article is accessible to subscribers only, but extracts can be found here and there—I take all responsibility for the crude translation)

Michael Hastings would be proud: the worsening gap between senior officers attempting to implement a COIN strategy and increasingly doubtful troops was the true subject of his article, obscured by the McChrystal and staff locker room comments. Le Monde is definitely not as rock n’roll as Rolling Stone, but it is both more prominent (in France, that is) and influential. There is no confusion here as to whether Desportes really meant for his thoughts to be printed on paper—and for the widest possible audience.

Desportes also has a lot to say about US decision makers. He criticizes Obama’s call to fire McChrystal as “revealing a weakness.” Coming back on the “surge” decision, he adds that “It looks as if the president was not too sure of his choices.” According to the general, 30,000 additional soldiers was a useless middle ground: “Everybody knew it had to be zero or 100,000 more. We don’t wage half-wars”.

Here I have to stop and wonder where we would have found 100,000 more troops… Probably not in France, since Desportes concludes that Afghanistan is “an American war”, adding that “when you have only 1% of the shares, you don’t have the right to speak”. Does this imply that coalitions are viable only when partners contribute more or less equally? Or only as long as there is a consensus on the strategy?

General Vincent Desportes does not have as much to lose in terms of career: he is retiring in a few weeks. And, as Jean-Dominique Merchet at Secret Defense reminds us, Desportes is not a first-time offender: suspicions that he was a member of the anonymous group who strongly criticized the French White Book on Defense published in 2008 cost him a fourth star.

French Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Edouard Guillaud called Desportes’ opinion “unwelcome” and “irresponsible”. The case of General Desportes is now in the hands of Defense Minister Hervé Morin, who has to decide what sanctions to take. Desportes obviously does not have the clout of a McChrystal, but such statements are certainly not going to help win the case for a war that remains increasingly unpopular in France.


  1. In response, McChrystal's staff termed the French general's comments "gay."

    They then retired to chug Bud Limes and lose the war.


  2. Contrary to Gen. McChrystal, Gen. Desportes already took the decision to put an end to his career: he will soon be retiring from active duty - in less than three weeks, I think. So he must have felt he didn't have much to lose.

    On the issue of the "1% of the shares" - yes, I guess the basic idea is that one can't seriously believe than he would have an influence on the overall strategy in Afghanistan with such a small contribution. He's not talking about how to wage a coalition war, just explaining why the basic choices of strategy are made by the US, with only limited influence from other allies.

  3. True, Desportes does not make any point about how to wage a coalition war--but I think this is one the big issues that his "1% of the shares" indirectly raises. Put it differently, it begs the question of how the concept of "ownership" applies to coalitions, and how it affects how they function. It is widely assumed that having a light degree of intervention is a less risky course of action than investing heavily in men and resources. However, it may also be a self-defeating strategy if as a result not just the population, but also top officers, distance themselves from the intervention because they feel that it is not their war. Of course, it is also a vicious circle, since with declining support for the war, France is less likely to send more troops, which decreases its share of the overall war effort, which leads to increased feelings that this is not a French war, which leads to further declining support for the war, etc.

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  5. Alma, I think you're quite right. Having a light degree of intervention, as you put it, is also the best way to be unable to exert some influence on how the war is waged by allies, making it easier to put the blame for poor results on others, or to show how futile or counterproducive the whole thing happens to be.
    Even though I don't believe the French hold only 1% of the shares, it is clear that nobody in France seems to be willing to publicly endorse the same level of French involvement in Afghanistan as we're getting closer to the 2012 general elections.

  6. This post is a good complement to today's post at Kings of War.

    I also find it entertaining to see how often Bible quotes are being thrown about in negative critiques of our strategic planning (or lack thereof) in Afghanistan (see opening paragraph of the KoW link). Whether it is Corinthians (faith versus sight), Matthew (blind leading blind), Ecclesiastes (time to kill), or allusions to false prophets and false religion, this pop-COIN thing is really falling from grace (pun intended) as it is exposed to the light of truth. Jesus wins again.

  7. @Schmedlap: And for the positive side of our planning (or lack thereof) in Afghanistan, we have King David...

  8. I've been polishing up on Solomon, fools, and wisdom.

    "But better than both
    Is he who has not yet been,
    Who has not seen the evil
    That is done under the sun

    And I saw that all labor and all achievement
    spring from man’s envy of his neighbor.
    This too is meaningless,
    a chasing after the wind."

    Ecclesiastes 4:1-4