I usually don’t do this, but I have to take my friend Spencer Ackerman out for a ride. (In my defense, brother, just keep in mind that I’m taking you out for a ride for a blog post in which you took your friend out for a ride. Just sayin’.) And, I want to say at the outset that on a critical point he’s the victim of some really bad timing, and that on that point he’s made a concession, but the episode is illustrative of a larger problem within the ranks of the left-leaning national security crowd and the way they’ve handled counterinsurgency doctrine in the public debate.

Also, pardon my French. Some things merit swearing.

Spencer wrote a strongly worded critique of Matthew Yglesias’ article on civilian casualties and counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. Specifically, Spencer said Yglesias "didn’t deal with the relevant body of data on civilian casualties in the counterinsurgency era in Afghanistan," pointing to UNAMA data that showed a 28-percent drop in civilian deaths attributed to U.S. and allied forces for 2009 compared to the previous year. He says (emphasis mine):

I don’t know how you can neglect the reduced proportion of U.S.-caused deaths when evaluating the success of a strategy that seeks to get that civilian-casualty-causation figure down. No one I have ever encountered who has waged, studied or advocated for counterinsurgency has made the case that counterinsurgency is a kinder or gentler method of warfare…

…Everything McChrystal has said in command has indicated that he embrace the perspective that U.S.-caused civilian casualties needs to drop if his mission is to succeed on his own terms, and his actions and that of his predecessor– so far at least, and clearly not sufficiently — have gotten results in that regard.

Unfortunately for Spencer, within a few hours of his post, USA TODAY reported new data from NATO that shows that the downward trend in the civilian death rate has reversed itself with a vengeance:

KABUL — Deaths of Afghan civilians by NATO troops have more than doubled [so far] this year, NATO statistics show, jeopardizing a U.S. campaign to win over the local population by protecting them against insurgent attacks.

NATO troops accidentally killed 72 civilians in the first three months of 2010, up from 29 in the same period in 2009, according to figures the International Security Assistance Force gave USA TODAY.

Ouch. To his credit, Spencer addressed this new information in an update to his post and in a new post today. And if the basic premise of the main argument in this blog post were the only problem, I’d probably let this go with a snarky tweet and some good-natured ribbing about bad timing. However, this piece has other problems besides inconvenient expiration of facts, and they illustrate the way counterinsurgency doctrine is misused and abused by its supposed backers to give themselves cover to back an ongoing brutal exercise in Afghanistan. We shouldn’t let those issues go unaddressed.

Warm and Fuzzy War

Spencer also wrote:

No one I have ever encountered who has waged, studied or advocated for counterinsurgency has made the case that counterinsurgency is a kinder or gentler method of warfare, or that it’s no more than development work with an M4.

No one ever called counterinsurgency a kinder, gentler kind of war in the same way that President Bush never explicitly said Saddam Hussein was directly involved in the 9/11 attacks, but, gee, I wonder how so many Americans got that idea. I mean, it’s almost like someone wrote this in the introduction to the COIN manual on pages xxx – xxxi:

"Equally important, success in COIN relies upon nonkinetic activities like providing electricity, jobs, and a functioning judicial system…

…If these other instruments of national power don’t show up, can’t stay or aren’t effective, the buck then passes back to military forces…[T]he manual ultimately recognizes military responsibility for those tasks, particularly when an insurgency is violent…Recognizing the need to ensure the population’s well-being, the manual directs military forces to be able to conduct political, social, information, and economic programs ‘as necessary.’"

I can’t tell you how many House Armed Services terrorism subcommittee hearings I’ve sat through in which someone related  the story about how during one particular special forces operation, their most important weapon was a dentist. Or, you know, when Air Force spokespeople comically assert that the purpose of air power in counterinsurgency is "to bring goodness, and not death" (skip to 2:30 here). Yeah, I don’t know where we got that kinder, gentler idea.

However, I’m glad to see Spencer own the brutality of counterinsurgency. To give you a sense of that brutality, consider that the field manual for this doctrine refers to our involvement in the Salvadoran civil war as a success story. Yes, the El Salvador adventure that saw us training and funding the forces that were running around raping and killing nuns and murdering Archbishop Oscar Romero during mass and shooting up his funeral and had U.S. military advisers supervising the torture of prisoners. More than 70,000 dead to protect a political arrangement that’s overturned in a few decades by the people who were victims of our "help"– that’s what "success" looks like in counterinsurgency. One wonders how a manual on a doctrine from which McChrystal can derive his continued homages to civilian protection can refer to El Salvador as a success story…that is, unless it’s a slick-sounding snake-oil cookbook full of hypocritical bullshit.

Selective Interpretation

COIN doctrine as interpreted by Ackerman with the aid of the stats he used asserts something like this: McChrystal and friends reduce by 28 percent the number of civilians they kill, while the Taliban increase the number they kill. The local population’s animosity builds toward the Taliban, triggering a shift in political support to the U.S. and allies, a withdrawal of support for the Taliban and an influx of intelligence to the counter-insurgents. This interpretation, however, is a very academic exercise with major blind spots as to the actual dynamic in Afghanistan and the actual COIN doctrine described in the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual:

"Progress in building support for the [host nation] government requires protecting the local populace. People who do now believe they are secure from insurgent intimidation, coercion, and reprisals will not risk overtly supporting COIN efforts. The populace decides when it feels secure enough to support COIN efforts. (p. 179)"

"During any period of instability, people’s primary interest is physical security for themselves and their families. When [host nation] forces fail to provide security or threaten the security of civilians, the population is likely to seek security guarantees from insurgents, militias, or other armed groups. This situation can feed support for an insurgency. (p 98)"

"Counterinsurgents should not expect people to willingly provide information if insurgents have the ability to violently intimidate sources. (p. 120)"

Here’s Stanley McChrystal explicitly stating that COIN doctrine requires you to protect the population from the insurgents.

Note that all of these statements deal with the importance not just of the protection of civilians from killings by counterinsurgents, but the protection of the people in general. Counterinsurgency doctrine says that people aren’t going to switch to your side if they think they’ll get killed for it, no matter how low you drop the rate at which you cause civilian deaths. In other words, a drop in casualties caused by U.S. and allied groups is not sufficient for the hoped-for dynamic to take hold, according to COIN doctrine. It must be paired with an increase in security from insurgent violence as well. And that’s a problem for Spencer’s interpretation of counterinsurgency doctrine and his assessments of progress in Afghanistan, especially since the data he cites shows that in 2009:

"The escalation and spread of armed conflict resulted in the highest number of civilian casualties recorded since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001 and in the further erosion of humanitarian space."

So, even if we just went with the information that was available early yesterday, which said that McChrystal and Co. were killing fewer civilians, they still hadn’t managed to increase security for civilians in Afghanistan as measured by the total civilian deaths caused by the parties to the conflict. The Afghans, especially those in Kandahar, know it. The elders who live in the area targeted for the next big offensive told Karzai and McChrystal they didn’t want an operation in their area and specifically cited the increased risk to the civilian population from insurgent IEDs. Even if McChrystal proved he could drive down civilian casualties when he puts his mind to it, he’s also managed to prove over the last year that he can’t protect the population.

People who claim to actually believe in the efficacy of and the necessity for actual counterinsurgency in Afghanistan need to start screaming, right now, about what’s going on in Afghanistan under General McChrystal because their credibility is now unambiguously on the line. To his credit, Spencer notes in today’s post that, "By McChrystal’s own reckoning…the system is blinking red and new measures have to be put in place…" The problem is, though, that in an honest reading of counterinsurgency doctrine should have indicated that the system was already blinking red in 2009, but for whatever reason people continued to sing the praises of Saint Stanley McChrystal and took up gross distortions of COIN doctrine to do so. Numerous prerequisites for success as articulated by COIN doctrine remained absent and/or further degraded over 2009, including host nation government legitimacy and security for the local population, yet many writers focused on one particular statistic (casualties caused by pro-government forces) because it let them tell the story they wanted to tell.

The facts are these: Not only are we not protecting the population generally, but we’re demolishing progress made on decreasing civilian deaths attributed to us and our allies. We’ve doubled the number of special forces in the country, forces responsible for some of the most outrageous, alienating incidents of the war. We don’t have a legitimate local partner or a legitimate host nation government. And after paying lip-service to getting local buy-in for a Kandahar operation, McChrystal’s people now inform us that we plan to go ahead whether the people of Kandahar like it or not. McChrystal is letting the COIN pretensions fall away as the reality of the Afghanistan war reveals them as the hypocritical bullshit they always were. What’s left is the uncompromising and ugly truth: we are fighting a brutal war in Afghanistan, it’s going badly and we don’t have a credible prospect for a turnaround.

Spencer is right, the system is blinking red. It’s been blinking for years.

Cross-posted at Return Good for Evil.