Wednesday, June 15, 2011
You know what depresses me? That after all of these years, chock full of debate and writing on counterinsurgency, that a guy with operational experience and as a media adviser to ISAF's Counterinsurgency Advisory & Assistance Team can be as wrong on counterinsurgency as this. Wow. It is a cheer-leading piece with poor understanding of counterinsurgency, the use of output metrics, and just really bad argumentation. McLaughlin is hardly the first to write such a post or make such statements, but he has me wondering why ISAF personnel and supporters keep doing this? How can they be so distant from reality and logic?
This topic relates to a post I had written a while ago on why senior military leaders have a propensity to infringe on civilian leaderships' roles and responsibilities. That is: a can-do attitude. But looking at the past as the author of the above-linked post did requires more than a can-do attitude. It requires an odd analysis of what has happened and what is happening to look at that data and say "hell yeah, we're going to be just fine." The only way I can explain it (and of course I may not be at all, but I'm sure as hell going to try) is that ISAF has adopted positive psychology in lieu of a strategy.
For those of you who aren't familiar with this relatively new field of psychology (and I'm only tangentially aware of it, not being a psychologist and all), it focuses on an individual's strengths and virtues to increase resiliency and functioning. The Army has embraced this theory in its counter-PTSD programs, so it isn't that much of a stretch to think that it has pervaded other aspects of the war effort. Begun at the University of Pennsylvania by Marty Seligman, positive psychology has patients just look at the good things (according to the website above, positive emotions, traits, and institutions) but makes no mention of any negative emotions, traits or institutions.
McLaughlin's piece is a great big positive psychology stream of consciousness. Look at all of the great stuff we've done! We've killed lots of bad guys! We've trained lots of Afghan security forces! They get together in front of an American's camera and talk about how much they want to change Afghanistan for better! Kabul is rebuilding itself! Canals! Progress! The future! Indeed, the Sun itself is rising on Afghanistan. This might work very well for soldiers to combat PTSD symptoms, but it's a shit way for a theater command headquarters to think about anything.
Military history is replete with stories of commanders and forces that did not understand their own weaknesses, when it is as important to understand weaknesses as much as strengths. I understand that it's hard for ISAF to look at its own weaknesses; especially as its greatest weakness - the inability to bring about a political solution to the war - is essentially out of its hands. Let's face it, without significant changes to the underpinning conditions (economic, political, geo-political, etc), ISAF can't stabilize Afghanistan on its own, if stability in the Western sense is possible at all.
If you think that last statement is correct - and I would guess that most serious analysts do think it's correct - then one can understand why ISAF has a positive psychological view of what it's doing. And I don't mean approve of this view, just understand. One hundred thousand troops are sent to a war they can't win (or at least have a marginally thin chance of it) - how do you keep the morale up? How do commanders substantiate the futility of what they're doing (futility in a strategic sense - not in the small actually positive things that do occur in Afghanistan)? The accentuate the positive. They look at the great things they've done, what is great about their organization and their values. The U.S. military did this in Iraq, too, in the dark days. It was hard to stomach, but one had to focus on something to substantiate why one was putting his or her life on the line for dubious and nearly impossible to reach objectives. So yeah, I get it - I understand why this is positive psychological worldview is pervasive at ISAF.
The biggest problem is that this positive outlook compounds the problems on the ground. It's one thing to accentuate the positive and it's another to ignore your problems. If you're in a nearly-to-totally hopeless situation (again, at the strategic level) on the ground, ignoring your problems leads to more problems. For example, it leads to horrible planning assumptions that we've seen and dissected at great length. It leads to counterproductive operations - such as razing villages or building roads for their own sake. It leads to plans and operations that focus on positive tactical gains that can be listed as successes at the cost of long-term, strategic success (this was the topic of a paper I wrote a few months ago that I'm waiting to be published soon.).
So ISAF - I get you're doing some great things - that may or may not be great in the bigger picture. But until you start telling me how things are going badly and what that means and how you're addressing it, your positive view of the war isn't helping anyone and is most likely hurting and killing more people than it's helping. Get a better sense of your problems, of your organization, and what you're doing and start talking about that. Dump this positive psychology stuff in conducting wars and embrace reality instead.